Most Americans hold two images of our country.
For those whose forebears arrived here voluntarily, one image is
of a beacon of liberty and a haven to the oppressed peoples of
the world. The other image is that of America the beautiful (and
the sustainable): a land of great natural beauty teeming with
wildlife and offering a healthful environment to its denizens,
especially its children who by ready contact with nature learn to
respect and protect it. This image appears in the works of such
cherished writers as Thoreau and Laura Ingalls Wilder and in
public responses to every 20th-century opinion poll.
At the close of this century only one of these self-images can
prevail. Denial of this reality underlies current immigration
policy clashes. Understandably, groups of recent immigrants want
a continuation of the world's most generous immigration policy.
A newly-formed Asian-American association has announced a
campaign against legislation that would drastically reduce the
levels of legal immigration. In this they resemble
representatives of Mexican nationals, Soviet Jews, Cuban and
Southeast Asian refugee groups and other nationalities who have
arrived in the wave unleashed by the 1965 Immigration Act.
They are either unaware of or reject the findings in 1972 of the
Commission on Population and the American Future, which was
commissioned by Congress. But some birthright Americans also
reject the commission's conclusion. It said that immigration
policy has to respect the fact that continued population growth
would not advance the goals Americans seek in their daily lives.
The late Barbara Jordan, chairperson of the bipartisan U.S.
Commission on Immigration Reform, had written: "(the) United
States has been and should continue to be a nation of immigrants."
Organizers of the first Earth Day in 1970 tried to educate
Americans to the fact that our then-population had already
surpassed our long-term carrying capacity, the level
that our resource endowment could sustain indefinitely without
environmental damage and depletion.
Yet apparently neither Jordan nor the pro-immigration groups see
any problems associated with the growth of the U.S. population
from 200 million in 1970 to 260 million today, or its further
growth to perhaps 500 million by the year 2050 and 800 million by
2080, the Dennis Ahlburg - James Vaupel projections.
A just-issued report by the Nature Conservancy on the state of
American flora and fauna announced that about one-third of the
20,000 native American species studied are rare or imperiled, "a
larger fraction than some scientists had expected." The fragile
Sonora Desert is being degraded by and encroached upon by
population growth not just in Phoenix and Tucson but in small
towns swollen by Americans seeking "a rural existence."
Our irreplaceable coastal wetlands are vanishing.
The Ogalla Aquifer, underlying several Midwestern states, is
being drained dry. Our best farmland has already been paved
over. By mid-21st century a city of 5 million will seem medium-
small, as the cities preferred by immigrants grow to 20
and 25 million.
To decide that one sacred value is more basic than another--and
requires its sacrifice--is psychologically painful. Even a
knowledgeable person may attempt a reconciliation whose
feasibility an observer may question. For three decades Paul
Ehrlich has tried to alert Americans to the dangers of population
growth. Ehrlich believes the United States needs to reduce its
population, not just stabilize its current level. Population
reduction requires that the sum of births plus in-migrants
(population additions) be less than the sum of deaths plus out-
migrants (population subtractions).
"I find it improbable that Americans will forego childbearing to
Since he cannot accept the closing of the immigration era,
Ehrlich has espoused sharply below-replacement fertility by
American residents (well below one child per couple) so that we
can absorb large numbers of immigrants even while our total
I find it improbable that Americans will forego childbearing to
absorb newcomers. Americans already find it difficult to forego
something today in order to benefit their own descendants. It is
also improbable that a nation will voluntarily import a next
generation from a variety of cultural backgrounds in preference
to its own culture.
The demographic future of the United States is being shaped by
the daily decisions of our citizens, other residents, and our
politicians. We are further from population stabilization today
than in 1970 because of political decisions in the intervening
It is simply easier for politicians, especially those untutored
in population dynamics, to cater to the immediate demands of
special interest groups (business or social action) than to vote
for long-term goals requiring renunciation today.
Only a national population and environmental policy will shelter
politicians from the attacks by frustrated groups even as such a
policy holds politicians accountable to the entire electorate for
protecting our legacy to posterity. But neither major party
platform is likely to offer anything resembling a coherent policy
covering immigration, reproductive rights, and environmental
protection. That awaits the decision of a political party brave
enough to call for abandoning a cherished American image outdated
by demographic change and inimical to our long-term survival.
Dr. Burke, an economist and demographer, is researching the
post-1970 immigration on California fertility.
March 4, 1996, All rights reserved.