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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Immigration Issues at Center of Sierra Club Flap

Air Date: Week of

PART 1: In the first of three segments looking at the issues of population growth, immigration, and the environment, we hear how immigration reformers are trying to get the nation's oldest environmental group, the Sierra Club, to endorse limits on immigration. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports.

PART 2: Host Steve Curwood talks with Pilar Marrero, political editor for La Opinion, the largest Spanish newspaper in the U.S., about overpopulation through the lens of the Hispanic community.

PART 3: Professor Paul Ehrlich joins the discussion from Palo Alto, California. He has written numerous books on overpopulation, including “The Population Bomb,” and talks about the intersection between issues of population and immigration, and the environment.

PART 4: We continue our discussion on population, immigration and the environment with Paul Ehrlich, professor of population studies at Stanford University, and author of books such as “The Population Bomb” and “Human Natures.”


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. For the second time in six years, the Sierra Club faces a takeover effort by some board members who think one of the country’s most pressing environmental problems is that there are too many immigrants. Board members who disagree with that notion fear that the nation’s oldest conservation group will face a membership exodus – and disrepute – if the club is perceived as anti-immigrant. We begin our coverage of this issue with a report from Los Angeles, from Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet.

LOBET: In a few days, 750 thousand Sierra Club members will be sent ballots for the group’s upcoming board election. Board member Paul Watson hopes the Sierra Club will soon be steered by people who agree it needs to concentrate on overpopulation, not just internationally, but domestically, too. And he says that means changing immigration policy.

WATSON: We have restrictions on immigration in the United States right now. All that we’re asking for is to lower those restrictions to achieve stabilization. We must stabilize the population. Because if we don’t, what we’re doing is passing the buck to future generations. Where do we make this decision? When the population is 500 million? 700 million? Or a billion? Someone has got to have the courage to address this issue.

LOBET: Watson helped found the group Greenpeace but its reputation for direct action wasn’t direct enough for him. So he founded the Sea Shepherd Society, a kind of eco-vigilante group that has rammed, disabled or sunk 10 whaling and fishing vessels in efforts to halt illegal whaling and fishing. Watson says at the heart of his belief in reduced immigration is the idea of less consumption and more animal habitat.

WATSON: I have a vegan diet, which is a low impact diet. I think everyone should have a vegan diet. If we removed meat from our diets, that would go a long way towards lowering consumption in United States.

LOBET: But statements like these alarm other Sierra Club leaders.

DOWNING: The club has a reputation of not being some fringe group of wackos.

LOBET: Larry Downing is a former Sierra Club president, one of many club leaders and former leaders who see themselves as stewards of a 112 year old institution founded by the Scottish immigrant John Muir. Downing fears that carefully-built coalitions will be dismantled if an immigration reform/animal rights agenda prevails at the Sierra Club.

DOWNING: It will split the club because we have a substantial number of hunters and fishermen. We agree on habitat issues and we have worked in common cause. Those people will immediately be alienated.

LOBET: And the Sierra Club, like other traditionally white environment groups, has also been weaving alliances with urban environmental justice groups. Downing says the Club's diverse Southern California chapter is appalled at the possible shift in policy.

DOWNING: If we adopted an anti-immigration posture we would immediately alienate this substantial segment of our membership. We would no longer be taken seriously as a broad environmental organization, we would be deemed a fringe organization on issues that really have not been the Sierra Club’s main agenda.

LOBET: The Sierra club, Downing stresses, has worked on population issues, such as birth control, internationally for years. But he and his allies at the Club don't really think this is a dispute over how to address population growth. Instead, they see a sinister effort to seize control of the Club’s 95 million dollar annual budget.

And what’s most disturbing, they say, is that some of the immigration reformers are getting internet support from nativist pro-white groups. But the reformers, on their website, repudiate that support. They say they reject any group that would reduce immigration on racial grounds.

Votes in this highly-contested election will be counted April 21st. If the immigration reformers win three of the five open board seats, they'll have a majority. For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet

CURWOOD: Joining me now to discuss the Sierra Club debate on overpopulation and immigration is Pilar Marrero. She’s the political editor for La Opinion, the largest Spanish language newspaper in the United States and it’s based in Los Angeles. Hi, Pilar.

MARRERO: Hi Steve, how are you doing?

CURWOOD: Good, thanks. Now Pilar, tell me, when the Sierra Club has a debate about whether to limit immigration to deal with population and consumption issues, generally how does that play in the Latino community?

MARRERO: I think, unfortunately, the Latino community has been used to – been scapegoated in the issue of immigration on different levels. Not only on the environmental side but on the economic side. And even though it’s a legitimate debate, the only concern that people will have is that, one, that it doesn’t turn into a racist, anti-immigrant debate, and two, that other issues of environmental concern to minority communities don’t get addressed.

I’ve been talking to some of my environmental Latino friends who are in organizations locally, and their concern is the Sierra Club sometimes looks a little removed from some of the issues of environmental justice that people in the Latino community care for. And they’re a victim of environmental injustice just by the mere fact of being poor, and the environmental policy being skewed against them. So it is a very touchy subject and, at the same time, they’re not sure it’s going to really address the problem.

CURWOOD: You know, it occurs to me that the Sierra Club may well feel that it should be tip-toeing around the issues of race. But, of course, Latino and black groups are quite comfortable with this kind of discussion. I’m wondering, in your own newspaper, or perhaps among your readers, what kind of discussion do you hear about the issue of population and consumption there?

MARRERO: Not much. I mean, people that we serve in our newspaper are very concerned about making a living, and sending money back to their families, or bringing up their families and giving them a good education. They go where the jobs are. They go where the economy attracts them and where they can find a place to progress. This is what they’re concerned about.

I guess there’s a sense that obviously, the environment, it’s important. And there’s many issues, as I said, of environmental justice in communities, of toxic waste and other things that are of importance. But I think there’s a view of a certain level of environmentalist as people who are very comfortable economically, who are white, and who are at a level that they can just sit down and worry about endangered species--and not enough about the toxics coming out from the local school.

Which is not to say, you know, endangered species is not something we should be concerned about, but these people are concerned about bread and butter issues of everyday life. And this is what their main concern is.

CURWOOD: Endangered people rather than endangered species.

MARRERO: Yeah, exactly.

CURWOOD: Now, I’m wondering how based in reality that the conversations in organizations like the Sierra Club and in the political arena are about questions of overpopulation and limiting immigration. I mean, how well do you think America is prepared to deal with the economic ramifications of reducing immigration, for example?

MARRERO: Well, I think – and I always say this – I think the discussion of immigration in the United States – and not just in the United States, it’s happening in Europe and it happens in other places – it’s kind of hypocritical. Because on the one hand, there is a real need, economic need of the labor of the immigrant. And there’s also an attitude from the corporations that the cheaper the labor is, the better for them. So they create an additional need for this kind of labor. And people benefit. You know, the consumer benefits from low prices, and from the agricultural products to services.

The immigration issue has become a political hot button and it’s used by politicians to excite people’s prejudices and get them to their side. But they don’t really discuss the real solution to the problem. So that is my beef with the whole immigration discussion. It’s used by politicians, it’s used by people with certain interests, but there’s no real desire to really have a sincere and open and honest discussion about what it means.

CURWOOD: Pilar Marrero is political editor for the Los Angeles newspaper La Opinion. Thanks so much for talking with me today.

MARRERO: You’re welcome.

CURWOOD: Joining me now from the campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, is Professor Paul Ehrlich, author of the groundbreaking book “The Population Bomb.” He’s also co-authored, with his wife Anne Ehrlich, “The Population Explosion” and “Human Natures.”

Paul, how helpful is it for the people of the United States to discuss the questions of population and immigration? Is it a valuable debate or is it destructive to an organization like the Sierra Club, since it’s an issue with no easy solutions?

EHRLICH: Well, I think it would be excellent if the United States as a whole had a reasoned debate over immigration. But that would mean that you would have to have people who are actually knowledgeable about the issue introducing it to people in general. Whereas within one single organization, I think it tends to be destructive to the organization because, among other things, it’s a know-nothing debate.

There is no organization that I know in the United States at the moment that has looked broadly and carefully at the immigration issue – at all of its dimensions, at its environmental dimensions, at its consumption dimensions, at its ethical dimensions, at how it interacts with family size and so on – and drawn sensible conclusions. And that includes the United States Congress.

So, until we can organize that kind of debate, I think having a know-nothing debate, basically by people who are trying to disrupt an important organization, I think that’s a very bad idea.

CURWOOD: Now, how do you talk about stabilizing the population here in the U.S. without appearing to have some racial attitudes here? Or at least being, you know, bedfellows with racist groups that in fact are quite pointed in their interest of keeping immigrants of color out of the U.S.?

EHRLICH: Well, one of the problems we have with any social movement trying to reform the direction our nation is going is simply that we have a lot of racists still. And the racial issue tends to pop up virtually everywhere now. My skin is a dull gray, and I have had one child and had a vasectomy, so I am not interested in outbreeding people of other colors. In fact, I rather like other colors and I think the diversity that we have is terrific.

On the other hand, there are other issues like how much diversity can we stand before the country comes apart? And I mean cultural, not necessarily skin color diversity -- I don’t think that makes the slightest difference. But, unfortunately, you’re going to find racists. I found many racists in bed with me on the issue of are there too many people on the planet. My answer is yes; they say, well then, shouldn’t we get rid of all the ones with darker than light gray skin? I say no.

And I have explicitly, with my colleagues, attacked the nonsense about race. Among other things, as you know, skin color is one of the most changeable of human characteristics in evolution. We were all Africans 50,000 years ago, we all had dark skins. We’ve now moved all over the planet and, actually, the skin colors of most people listening to this program have probably changed more than one time in those last 50,000 years. That is, they’re very susceptible to how much solar radiation we get, it has to do with our vitamin D synthesis, it has to do with protection of folate.

And right now, we can see human groups that have the wrong skin colors for where they’re living. The light-skinned people in Queensland, Australia are one example, the Pakistanis in Scotland are another example, in different directions. The Pakistanis’ skin colors are too dark for Scotland, the Queenslanders’ skin colors are too light for Queensland. And that’s going to change, that’s going to affect how the colors evolve in those places.

CURWOOD: I’m talking with Paul Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University, and author of the ground-breaking book “The Population Bomb.” Professor Ehrlich is co-author with his wife Anne Ehrlich of numerous other books including “The Population Explosion,” “Human Natures,” and the soon-to-be-released “One With Nineveh: Politics, Consumption, and the Human Future.”

We’ll be back in a minute – stay tuned. I’m Steve Curwood and you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: The Dust Brothers “Homework” FIGHT CLUB SNDTRK (Restless Records - 1999)]

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. And my guest is Paul Ehrlich. He’s the Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University, and the author of many books charting the intersection of overpopulation and its effects on our planet’s living systems. And, Paul Ehrlich, how has the political and social climate towards the question of population changed since you’ve been writing about these issues?

EHRLICH: Well, I think the social situation has changed the fact that now virtually everybody in the world who is alertable now understands there is a population problem. That doesn’t mean they know what to do about it. It doesn’t mean they know how serious it is. It doesn’t mean that in the United States, at least, it still isn’t a politically charged issue.

But I think, actually, at the moment, much more serious in terms of people’s understanding is the consumption problem than the population problem. In other words, we know there are many, too many people in the world, the scientific community has spoken out unambiguously on this, and repeatedly. There are too many people in the world, there are too many people in the United States, in the United States people consume too much.

And we know how to solve the population problem and, in fact, it’s on its way, gradually, and probably much too slowly, to being solved in many parts of the world. The U.S. is really an exception in that respect. We haven’t shown – we have had no leadership, of course, by any political party in Washington on this. We have a Congress that’s insane enough to debate immigration policy without debating population policy. It’s like arguing over how many people a minute you want to design an aircraft to load without asking how many people it’s going to fly with.

So, the situation has changed. But on consumption, we don’t even know how to judge overconsumption accurately, and what to do about it. We know what to do, if we have the political will, about the population issue.

CURWOOD: Let’s imagine for a moment that the phone rings. It’s the President of the United States…


CURWOOD: Professor Ehrlich, you know everything about population. What should we do in the United States to address this problem? You say there are too many people in the United States…

EHRLICH: I would say, Mr. President, the first thing to do is to go on the national television and radio and say, “people, we have a serious problem. There are too many of us. If we want to have a maximum number of Americans live over all time, we’ve got to get our population size down to a number that’s sustainable over a long time. “

CURWOOD: What’s that number?

EHRLICH: Oh, you know, it depends in part upon our consumption patterns but let’s put it this way: no one has ever come up with even a semi-sane reason for having more than 140 million people in the United States. And we now have 300.

“So, ladies and gentlemen, I say to you, every patriotic American who already doesn’t have more children should stop at one. That ought to be our motto. I certainly am not going to have more than one child. Nobody who wants to be considered a patriot should have more than one child.

And we now have to start a national discussion of how many children the average woman should have relative to the number of immigrants we want to let into the country so we can have a balance that will lead us to a slowly declining population size -- till we get down to a size where our children and grandchildren can enjoy the kind of amenities that we enjoyed when we were younger, but are now quickly disappearing. “

CURWOOD: And what do we say, Mr. President, or Mr. President’s advisor, about immigration, then?

EHRLICH: What we say about immigration is that it’s a social issue, whether we want to have fewer children and more immigrants, or fewer immigrants and more children. My own personal view as president -- but it’s only my view, and society should decide as a whole -- is that we want to have enough immigrants to keep our culture diverse, rich, and getting input from other cultures.

But we also don’t want to have unlimited immigration. What we want to do is develop a foreign policy that reduces the need of other people to come here. We should not, for example, be accepting people, training them as doctors and keeping them at home, when we could accept people temporarily, train them as doctors, and send them back to where they’re really needed in their countries.

We’re going to change our agricultural policy so that farmers in poor countries, instead of having to send their children to the United States to get money, would be able to thrive on their own. But, right now, our trade policies, which are free trade for the rich and high tariffs for the poor, are just hurting the poor people of the world and forcing them to try and come and make a living in our country.

We are one of the stingiest countries in the world in terms of foreign aid. And that, in fact, in western Europe, where our good buddies live, are our allies in the trade wars – while some three billion people on this planet have to exist on two dollars a day or less. European cows – that is cows, moo cows – are subsidized to the tune of two and a half dollars a day. That tells you why poor farmers in the rest of the world aren’t fond of us and are forced often to send their children or even come themselves to try and make a living in the United States.

CURWOOD: Some people would say, hey, the U.S. has nothing to worry about here, about population. Our population density is much less than that of, say, the Netherlands.

EHRLICH: That is no reason not to worry. The point is, we – actually, that statement is often called “the Netherlands fallacy”. The idea that since you can have a huge number of people per square mile in the Netherlands you can have a huge number of people per square mile everywhere is simply nonsensical. Because the people in the Netherlands don’t live on the Netherlands. They import much of what they need. Just like you couldn’t have the population density of New York over the entire United States and continue to feed ourselves.

The issue is not population density in small places, it’s not even population density itself. It’s numbers of people relative to the resources they need or demand. And looking at places that are very dense doesn’t tell you anything about what the entire planet can support, any more than looking at the moon and saying, boy, it’s empty, we ought to just go live there tells you how many people can live on the moon. It’s nice to have air, for instance.

CURWOOD: Now, Paul Ehrlich, tell me, how does a city like New York or Los Angeles become more environmentally sustainable? I mean, what big cities in this country or, for that matter, in the world, are managing this well?

EHRLICH: Well, first of all, few cities are managing well, and one of the reasons is the plague of the automobile. I would point out to you that the fact that Los Angeles is a mess is not just a coincidence or happenstance. It traces, in no small part, to the decisions made in the late 1930s by the oil industry, the automobile industry, and the tire industry to get rid of mass transit in Los Angeles and design the city around the automobile.

And in 50 or 60 years they’ve been enormously successful. You can now choke on the smog as you drive to work and be shot at by people on the freeways. So what we obviously have to do is take the next 60 years and turn it around. Cars are very valuable things, for certain things. They’re certainly great for taking the family for a vacation out in the countryside, sometimes for carrying heavy loads if you have to go somewhere and you don’t have immediate access to transit, although cars can be shared. And, of course, they’re terrific for teenagers to make love in. But outside of that, for commuting, they’re absolute nonsense.

CURWOOD: Okay. Now let’s look back in history a little bit, Professor. At the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. saw a huge influx of immigrants, mostly from Europe. How well did we deal with immigration then, and its impacts, and what’s different now?

EHRLICH: Well, first of all, our previous immigration came in a rather different form. People thought there wasn’t – to a degree there were, of course, in the old days – wide open spaces to be occupied. Things were overpopulated and crowded in Europe. And we got waves of immigrants in the middle of the 19th century from Ireland because of the horrendous potato famine there, and the miserable behavior of the British Empire towards the Irish at that time. And we got people from Eastern Europe a lot around the turn of the last century.

And they came in mobs and they generally integrated pretty well into the society eventually, although we still have the signs of it. But they did add diversity. They, for example, introduced decent food into the United States, eventually, and people came from diverse cultures. We get all kinds of benefits from immigration, and we have gotten them, and we still continue to get some.

What we have to have is a social discussion of what benefits we want, and compare them with the benefits of having larger families. And as a society – a scientist can’t tell you whether you ought to have more births or more immigrants, although they can tell you what the consequences are. For example, whether we have births or immigrants, with the current situation the more people we have in the United States, the more we’re likely to wreck the life support systems of everybody. We, for instance, are the big contributors to the potentially horrendous problem of rapid climate change.

And whether we add to that by somebody in Bel Aire having a kid that’s eventually going to grow up and own three Humvees, or you bring in an immigrant from Thailand or Mexico who comes in as a poor farmer or fisherman and then becomes extremely successful and buys three Humvees doesn’t make much difference from the point of view of the world.

So, we have complex issues of when people come in what their reproduction habits are going to be, what their consumption habits are going to be. And it doesn’t matter much whether they come in as immigrants or as offspring of people already here. The impacts on the environment tend to be much the same.

CURWOOD: Now, you teach at Stanford University. I’m just wondering what you tell your students when they come into class about population and consumption – that very first lecture that you give them.

EHRLICH: Well, what I tell them – of course, many of them are already informed. Actually, what we teach mostly is how you try and deal with these issues. But the very first thing you tell them is that the most extraordinary thing that has happened on this planet in the last 65 million years is the rise to dominance of a single species, homo sapiens. A tale of enormous success, in some sense.

If you’ve looked at a picture of the Earth at night from the moon or from a satellite, you see the whole planet glows with our activities. That’s something that you would not have seen just a few hundred years ago, in matter of fact, not even a hundred years ago at the level you see it today. We control the planet. We are changing the atmosphere. We are mobilizing minerals at faster rates than normal wind and water erosion. We are killing off the only living companions we have in the entire universe, organisms that are deeply involved in running our life support systems. And we’re wrecking those systems.

We are the dominant animal on the Earth, and we have in just the last 70 years, 70 to 80 years, we have more than tripled the number of people on the planet. When Anne and I were born, around 1932, there were only two billion people on the planet, now there’s well over six billion. That’s an extraordinary expansion. But, at the same time, we’ve also expanded our per capita consumption so that the human impact on the planet in my lifetime has multiplied roughly 20 fold.

And that’s what scares the wits out of the scientific community. And I usually read them for the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, that was signed by 1,500 of the world’s top scientists, including more than half of the Nobel laureates in science. Or I read them from the statement of the 58 Academies of Science, all the world’s major Academies of Science, all saying the same thing. If we don’t do something about population and consumption, we’re screwed.

And I read them that stuff and then we start a discussion about what we ought to do about it and how you measure these things, and what are the ethics of these various issues, and we usually get very deeply into that.

CURWOOD: Now some people would say, look, yeah, we’ve gone from two billion to six billion people, but we still have plenty of food. If anyone’s going hungry, it just happens to be a distribution problem.

EHRLICH: Well, in a sense, that’s true. That is, if we were all willing to become much more vegetarian and so on, we could give the six billion people we have now, each one, a living diet. We don’t do that. Roughly a billion people go to bed in one degree or another hungry, 600 million at least very, very hungry. And about 10 million or so a year die of hunger or hunger-related disease. Not a very good record.

But, of course, there are two points to that: a) are we willing to distribute equally? And no human society has ever managed to do that. I mean, unequal distribution has been incredibly persistent in all human cultures I know about. It was better when we were hunter gatherers, but far from perfect. So, that’s number one.

Number two, an ecologist always has to ask for how long? In other words, the things that we are doing to produce that food are basically using up our capital. We are like the profligate child that has inherited a vast fortune from daddy, and every year writes a bigger check on the bank account but never asks what’s happening to the balance.

And, right now, in our efforts to feed the huge population that we have, we’re getting rid of our most essential capital. That is our fossil ground waters – you know, everywhere around the world the aquifers are being pumped out at much faster rates than they’re being recharged. We’re ruining the recharge areas, we’re ruining many of the aquifers. So we’re losing our fresh water, that’s one thing.

Secondly, the soils, which are absolutely essential to agriculture and growing food for people, are being eroded virtually everywhere at rates more rapid – with some rare exceptions – at rates much more rapid than they’re being restored. And, of course, the biodiversity, the protozoans and bacteria and plants and animals that are the working parts of our life support system, that supply us with absolutely indispensable ecosystem services, are being driven to extinction.

So, we’re losing our basic capital. We’re not able to live on our income, we’re living on our capital, and idiotic politicians think we can do it forever. Whenever you hear a politician say something like “now is the time to concentrate on the economy” rather than, God help us, the ecology – which is a terrible phrase – you just know you’ve got a moron. Because the economy is a wholly-owned subset of the environmental systems of the planet. If those systems don’t function properly, we won’t have any economy at all.

CURWOOD: Now, some would say that that kind of analysis, that the environmental analysis, actually comes from people who tend to favor nature over people. And that, hey, wait a second, in terms of trying to limit population growth we might limit some genius being born some place that could help us solve our problems.

EHRLICH: Well, yes, again, there are idiots everywhere. If you want to have geniuses, then what you ought to do is give the breaks to the people on the planet who don’t get a break now to show their genius. Just think, what is a starving kid in Africa, what is his or her chance of showing genius?

In most societies -- in fact, including ours too much -- what are the chances of a woman really getting the opportunity to show her genius? What are the chances of a person with very dark skin in the United States of getting to show their genius? All much lower than that of all of us with the silly gray skin who get lots of opportunities.

So, the idea that you somehow have to have more people born to produce more geniuses is just fundamentally idiotic. But the other side of the coin is, if you let the environmental systems run down, it doesn’t matter what kind of genius you have. There’s not going to be anything significant you’re going to be able to do about it.

We have had promise after promise –- when we wrote “The Population Bomb”, when there were three and a half billion people in the country, everyone said “oh, don’t worry, wonderful scientific breakthroughs are going to make it possible to give everyone, four or five billion people will all have excellent diets, excellent education, and Humvees.“

And here we are at 6.3, and we still are not able to take care of a billion of them. And another two billion, the same number of people as there were alive total when I was born, are not living lives that anyone listening to this program would trade for.



- Sierra Club

- Groundswell Sierra

- Support U.S. Population Stabilization website

- Sea Shepherd Conservation Society


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