Planning for a Livable Future: A Clash of Sacred Values

B. Meredith Burke

As published in the San Francisco Examiner

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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.

"I find it improbable that Americans will forego childbearing to absorb newcomers."

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).
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 population declines.
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 years.
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 effects of
      post-1970 immigration on California fertility.

      March 4, 1996, All rights reserved.


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