Sierra Club Population Report, Spring 1989

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Sierra Club, U.S. Population Growth, and Immigration

-- Dr. Judy Kunofsky, Chair of the Population Committee

The Sierra Club has long supported the idea that an end to population growth in the U.S. and each country around the world is essential to environmental protection. In particular, Club policy calls for "development by the federal government of a population policy for the United States" and for the U.S. "to end (its) population growth as soon as feasible."
The U.S. population continues to increase by about two and a half million people a year, the result of an excess of births plus in- migrants over deaths plus out-migrants. While population growth rates in less-developed countries are larger, America's numbers and growth have a disproportionate impact on the environment, on natural resources, on global warming, on air and water pollution.
Since 1981 the Club has supported and testified in favor of bills in the House and Senate that would declare population stabilization to be the goal of the country, and that would call for the preparation of an explicit population policy that leads to the achievement of population stabilization. The motto, "Stop At Two," (children) was easily achieved in the 1970s, as average family size in the U.S. dropped below 2 children per woman. Yet this proved insufficient to achieve stabilization due to substantial immigration. The Club never clarified its policy to indicate what specific family size and immigration levels would achieve this goal. This lack of clarity placed the Club in an awkward position, calling for a policy but unable to explain what that policy should be!
The Club's Population Committee began discussing this issue at its April 1988 meeting, taking advantage of the then-newly-released set of Census Bureau population projections that, for the first time, examined the effect of alternative combinations of both fertility and migration. The result of the committee's discussions was an interpretation of Club policy to cover immigration, the first time the Club has dealt with this issue in a quantitative way: Immigration to the U.S. should be no greater than that which will permit achievement of population stabilization in the U.S. This interpretation was confirmed by the Club's Conservation Coordinating Committee this past July.
Today, immigration accounts for almost 30% of this country's annual population increase. According to the most recent Census Bureau projections, issued January 1989, the number of legal immigrants and refugees to the U.S. can be as high as 507,000 per year, but no greater, for the U.S. to achieve population stabilization. This is somewhat less than the 1986 and 1987 levels of 662,000 and 599,000, respectively, but still a generous level of immigration in comparison to most other countries around the world.

How Many Americans?

With current fertility levels, and immigration of 507,000 per year, the U.S. population would reach its peak of 302 million in the year 2038, and then experience a very slow decrease. This is a very large number of Americans, given our disproportionate impact on the environment. For example, Americans comprise about 5% of the world's population, yet according to the World Watch Institute, generate 23% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, a major contributor to the global warming problem. In fact, even the current level of 245 million Americans is disproportionately detrimental to environmental quality. For the U.S. to achieve population stabilization sooner, or at a lower number of Americans, would require fertility and annual immigration levels to be lower than 1.8 children per woman and 507,000, respectively.

What Is the Club Planning to Do on the Immigration Issue?

The clarification of Club policy mentioned above in no way affects existing Club policy to further reduce U.S. fertility and fertility in other countries. The Club will continue its efforts to support those domestic and international U.S. programs that assist in a reduction of fertility levels, specifically our efforts to reverse the Reagan Administration's "Mexico City Policy," and to support the Foreign Aid Authorization bill which would earmark a minimum percentage of funds for international family planning programs administered by the Agency for International Development.
The Sierra Club will lend its voice to the congressional debate on legal immigration issues when appropriate, and then only on the issue of the number of immigrants... not where they come from or their category (family members, refugees, skilled workers, unskilled workers, investors, etc.), since it is the fact of increasing numbers that affects population growth and ultimately, the quality of the environment. Already during this session of Congress, several bills relating to the issue of legal immigration have been introduced.
Sierra Club statements on immigration will always make the connection between immigration, population increase in the U.S., and the environmental consequences thereof. The Club will also point out (to quote from the May 1978 Board of Director's statement) that "all regions of the world must reach a balance between their populations and resources. Developing countries need to enlarge opportunities for their own residents, thus increasing well-being, eventually lessening population growth rates, and reducing pressures to emigrate." According to the Board, "Developed nations must work toward greater conservation of resources as well as population stabilization in order to reduce impact on the depletion of non-renewable resources, creation of pollution, and damage to ecosystems. This combination would remove the root causes of international migration by providing more equitable opportunities for people throughout the world."


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