The 1998 Sierra Club Ballot Initiative and Humanitarian Concerns

by Ben Zuckerman


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The question of mass immigration levels into the U.S. can be regarded both as a "people" question and as an "environmental " question. Although the Sierra Club teaches that people are part of the environment and thus cannot be separated from it, many of those who would oppose the Ballot Initiative feel that it would be somehow "anti-immigrant," run counter to "environmental justice," or is "racist" or "elitist" to reduce U.S. mass immigration levels. We believe, for reasons given below, that even if destruction of the environment by endless U.S. population growth were not at all a consideration, still, a very good case can be made for lower immigration levels based solely on "people" considerations.

John Muir, the founder of the Sierra club, was accused of having racist associates in the Los Angeles Times

John Muir


Americans of Color Most Affected

Consider first the implications of massive immigration on people already in the United States. Strong support for reduced levels of mass immigration comes from poor Americans, from African-Americans, and from Hispanic-Americans. Indeed, numerous nationwide polls show majorities of all major ethnic groups support lower levels of mass immigration. 1  Do people of color and poor people want less immigration because they are "racist" or "elitist"? Together with the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (chaired by Barbara Jordan), we believe that it is neither racist nor improper to consider the opinions of Americans of color.
Why do so many poor Americans and persons of color oppose high levels of mass immigration? Because they realize that their lives are impacted adversely by large numbers of newcomers. These impacts occur in many ways, such as the downward pressure on wages caused by increased competition for jobs, the dislocation of residents from traditional neighborhoods, the burdens on schools from masses of non-English speaking children, the competition for other government-supplied services by increasing numbers of newcomers, and so on.
By its de facto support of present high levels of mass immigration the Sierra Club has chosen to ignore disadvantaged Americans in favor of immigrants, many of whom are not disadvantaged at all.

U.S. Impacts on People around the World

The preceding paragraphs concern the relationship between mass immigration and people already in the United States. What about people impacted elsewhere? At a June 1997 talk at UCLA, John Young of the World Watch Institute remarked, "Our [the U.S.] destruction of the world is not visible here." This destruction is visited on poor and indigenous people of color all over the world. And the larger the U.S. population, the more havoc we cause. We are the only major industrialized nation on Earth whose population still is growing rapidly, and we already contribute much more to global environmental impacts than any other nation.
One excellent summary source of information that we recommend to all is "Rainforest Destruction" (1990) by the World Rainforest Movement. 2 More than 30 groups from various countries signed on to this little booklet. These include U.S. groups such as Rainforest Action Network, which is concerned both with the rainforest environment and its peoples, and Cultural Survival, which primarily is concerned with the well-being of indigenous peoples worldwide. The bottom line, expressed repeatedly in "Rainforest Destruction," is that the primary cause of destruction of the environment and of the lives of people who live in sensitive places abroad is not population growth in the developing world. Rather it is the rape and pillaging of the developing world by the developed world through multinational corporations and governments.
This contention by the World Rainforest Movement contradicts the claim of Initiative opponents that population growth should be addressed only in a global context. Population growth in the United States must be addressed because it strengthens the very multinational economic forces that lead to environmental destruction abroad. Club population activists work very hard just to maintain international family planning assistance against repeated attacks in Congress. Nevertheless, the good that accrues from these efforts is outweighed when U.S. population growth is ignored by harm caused elsewhere to satisfy America's already huge and steadily increasing material needs. As we pave over our own most productive farmland to accommodate a rapidly growing population, food required for domestic consumption will come increasingly from plantations and cattle ranches abroad which expropriate lands belonging to indigenous peoples. Your frozen orange juice container is now just as likely to say "Made in Brazil" as "Made in Florida."


Food Production and Disaster Assistance

Conversion of U.S. farmland to accommodate an expanding population, occurring now at a very rapid rate in places like California's Central Valley, can impact poor and desperate people elsewhere in other, indirect ways. The United States is one of only 8 countries that export substantial quantities of cereal grains. In the foreseeable future, the combined effect of decreasing arable land and many more mouths to feed here may mean that the U.S. will be unable to export food to the world's hungry in normal times. Indeed, the U.S. could have so little surplus production after satisfying its own needs that even humanitarian relief may be difficult to provide when disaster strikes abroad. In the drought year of 1988, for example, the U.S. produced only enough would-be agricultural exports to satisfy domestic needs.
In summary, the environmental ramifications of continued rapid U.S. population growth are clearly destructive, while social considerations can be interpreted in various ways by people of good will. The Sierra Club therefore should follow the clear environmental path, the one based on reason, not emotion. We should follow the policy recommended by the Sierra Club itself prior to February 1996, that of population stabilization "first of the United States and then of the world."
1 Roper Poll (1996): 83% of all Americans surveyed favor lower levels of immigration; 73% of Black Americans and 52% of Hispanic Americans favor reducing mass immigration levels to 300,000 or less annually. Latino National Political Survey (1993) found 7 out of 10 Latino Americans believe immigration is too high. Hispanic USA Research Group poll (1993) found 3/4 of Hispanics believe fewer immigrants should be admitted. Other poll results are available on request.
2 ISBN:967-99987-2-X Published by World Rainforest Movement, 87 Cantonment Road, 10250 Penang, Malaysia


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