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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2004
Table of Contents
Wild & Whitewashed
Interview: Restaurateur Alice Waters
Who Grows Your Food? (And Why It Matters)
A Tale of Two Immigrants
Let's Talk
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Good Going
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Sierra Magazine
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Tale of Two Immigrants
One wants to build bridges, the other walls.
What's the best way to deal with a growing world population?

by Marilyn Berlin Snell

(page 2 of 3)

Yeh Ling-Ling is a leading spokesperson for environmentalists concerned about immigration to the United States.
MORALES AND YEH REPRESENT opposite ends of the debate on population and immigration within the environmental movement. Everyone agrees that curbing population growth is part of protecting the planet. The question is how to address this challenge.

At 2.1 births per woman, the United States has the highest birthrate in the industrialized world. One way to help stabilize population is to focus on making family planning safe, affordable, and accessible. For example, even with present levels of immigration, if the number of U.S. births was brought down to levels typical of the industrialized world, U.S. population stabilization could be reached.

It's also the case that the United States has the highest rate of consumption in the world. We could concentrate on limiting waste and consumption so that increased population would translate into less environmental overload. Or, we could focus on policies designed to cut the number of new arrivals by clamping down on the border.

Some environmentalists say, "All of the above, and quickly." But the sources of environmental and quality-of-life degradation are manifold, and some of the proposed solutions may do more harm than good. For example, immigration moratoriums (or "time outs," as Yeh calls them) set the stage for xenophobes and racists, and risk tarring the environmental movement. If the goal is to protect the world's natural beauty and bounty, what is the most expeditious and ethical route? The choices we make will determine not only future population levels, but who we are and who we'll be: Gazing out over the rest of humanity, is the American environmental movement prepared to build walls or bridges?

NO NATION IS AN ISLAND, and the notion that walls and restrictions will protect the United States seems less convincing when viewed from a global perspective. Today, world population is 6.2 billion and growing by 77 million a year. Though the rate of growth is slowing-women now have about half as many children as their mothers did-there will still be substantial growth over the next half-century, especially in the world's poorest countries.

Research shows that wherever women are given educational opportunities and are able to determine when and whether they will have children, fertility rates fall. Worldwide, however, 350 million women lack access to contraception-a number that can be expected to grow as populations increase. "And an estimated 125 million women do not want to be pregnant but are not using any type of contraception," warns the World Watch Institute in its 2003 State of the World report.

Alberto Palloni, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, studies deforestation in Brazil. He sees population growth as a factor in environmental destruction, "but the relations are very complex. They are not direct, and are mediated by institutions." For example, he says, Amazon deforestation is driven more by the cattle industry and its cheap hamburger for fast-food customers worldwide than by population pressure. Further, the Brazilian government's policy of giving small-scale farmers pieces of land to which they have no legal entitlement has promoted a slash-and-burn mentality. Farmers exhaust the fertility of a plot and merely move on to the next one.

Government institutions could be setting high standards for sustainable farming and forestry or, for that matter, fuel efficiency and public transportation. In the United States, where consumption is a big part of the environmental problem, government could also help influence consumer choices. Instead, says Palloni, "we encourage people to do what they want, regardless of the consequences for the collective good. We protect individual liberties while essentially curtailing the liberties of future generations."

Contributing to global population and consumer pressures are political decisions made here at home. For instance, one of George W. Bush's first acts as president in 2000 was to restrict U.S. aid to overseas family-planning agencies. Under what opponents call "the Global Gag Rule," funds are now denied to any foreign agency that opts to counsel patients on the full range of reproductive health options, including abortion.

On the home front, we have the highest teen-pregnancy rate of any industrialized nation, accounting for more than 10 percent of all U.S. births. There is a direct correlation between increased education for females and decreased childbearing, but when it comes to sex ed, more than 33 percent of U.S. school-district funds go to programs that teach abstinence as the only appropriate method of birth control. "Among school districts in the South-where birthrates are significantly higher than the national average-that proportion is 55 percent," the Alan Guttmacher Institute reports.

Those hoping to further restrict immigration rarely cite this dismal record of teen pregnancy, emphasizing instead immigration-based population growth that is fueled mostly by Hispanic immigration and birthrate, which is 3.2 births per woman in the United States. They also cite census projections that if the U.S. population continues to grow at its present rate, it will exceed 500 million by 2050 and 1 billion by 2100.

But demographer Phillip Longman of the New America Foundation questions those frightening numbers. "What's really driving those projections is an implicit assumption that Hispanics enjoy no social progress; that they come to the United States and still behave like peasants in their fertility. That's just not happening. California has 500,000 extra spaces in its school system right now because of the decline in fertility among Hispanics in California in the 1990s. Hispanic birthrates dropped by about 10 percent in the 1990s in the United States, due mostly to education and upward mobility."

Though fertility rates in Mexico are declining as well, migration has risen dramatically, particularly in rural areas. The peso crisis, combined with the U.S. economic boom in the 1990s, contributed to the higher numbers. The 1994 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the Sierra Club opposed, also played a role. Despite NAFTA's aim to boost economies and create new employment, Mexico's agricultural sector has lost 1.3 million jobs since 1994. Real wages for most Mexicans today are lower than they were when NAFTA took effect.

While trade policies can drive emigration, some developing nations have policies that reduce it-and are now reaping the benefits. Longman cites Puerto Rico as an example of how declining birthrates in one place have affected immigration rates. "Puerto Rico has a lower standard of living than the United States and has an open border with the mainland, and yet people are staying put," says Longman. He speculates that with birthrates well below replacement levels, Puerto Rico is creating enough jobs to accommodate the rising generation. "Life circumstances aren't pushing them out the door."

In his provocative new book, The Empty Cradle (Perseus), Longman looks at global fertility declines and attendant global aging and argues that the major economic challenge for nations like the United States will be paying for pensions and healthcare for the elderly, not providing resources for immigrants.

True, momentum from the high fertility of the past suggests that even as global fertility decreases, world population could go from 6 billion today to 9 billion before it falls, Longman says. But, like Palloni, he's not convinced that there is a direct correlation between population growth and environmental degradation. Japan, for example, has ten times the population density of the United States but uses half the amount of energy per person, he says. Also, the World Resources Institute points out that despite having 24 percent fewer people than the European Union in 2000, the United States consumed 70.9 percent more fossil fuel and produced 74.2 percent more greenhouse gas.

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Photo by Lori Eanes.

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