Leadership, Not Scapegoats

"America's Leadership Team" blames immigrants and population growth for environmental woes while ignoring the complex truth about these connections.

This March 12, 2013, photo shows the air traffic control tower at Chicago's Midway International Airport. (AP/M. Spencer Green)
This March 12, 2013, photo shows the air traffic control tower at Chicago's Midway International Airport. (AP/M. Spencer Green)

If you’ve picked up a copy of The New York Times or The Nation in the last few weeks, you may have seen the ads. A nightmarish traffic jam. A bulldozer tearing through pristine forest. Below, the fine print explains the cause of our environmental woes, from greenhouse gas emissions to suburban sprawl: immigrants.

Now, scapegoating immigrants for environmental destruction is not new. For years, anti-immigrant groups have waved the green flag to push a xenophobic agenda. And some environmentalists even support them; an anti-immigration faction nearly won control of the Sierra Club’s board of directors in 2004.

Now the usual suspects are at it again. The Times and Nation ads were paid for by “America’s Leadership Team for Long Range Population-Immigration-Resource Planning,” a front group for five anti-immigration organizations, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform—better known as FAIR—the American Immigration Control Foundation, and the Social Contract Press—which are all listed as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

These groups have the population-immigration-environment connection all wrong. It’s true that immigration contributes to U.S. population growth, as it has throughout our history. And while there is a relationship between population growth and environmental destruction, it is a complex one. Environmental impact is determined not just by our numbers, but by how we use resources—our systems of production and consumption and the policies that shape them.

It’s laughable to blame immigrants and population growth for traffic, as the ads do, without mentioning, say, our chronic neglect of public transportation. Cities from Amsterdam to Curitiba, Brazil, have used smart urban planning to create livable cities with far less environmental impact than the average American megalopolis. They’ve proved that population density does not lead inexorably to sprawl and environmental destruction.

More broadly, these anti-immigrant groups misrepresent the nature of the environmental challenges we face today. They imply that we are in a lifeboat with limited resources, and if too many people get in, we’ll all sink. But there’s a flaw in that thinking: We may be in a lifeboat, but it’s not the United States. It’s our planet, and we’re all in it together.

Climate change and other environmental problems do not respect national borders. That’s a big problem for our neighbors in the global South, who emit far less in greenhouse gases than we do, but suffer disproportionately from the effects of increasing emissions. One consequence of global warming will be increased drought in some areas, like the one that has already driven many poor Mexican farmers off their land. In this case the anti-immigration crowd would simply have us turn away refugees from the problem we have created.

Of course, most immigrants are economic, not environmental, refugees. But here, too, we have a role in creating the problem. For example, NAFTA flooded Mexico with cheap, subsidized corn from Iowa, putting many farmers out of business and sending a wave of immigrants northward. As oil tops $140 a barrel, perhaps it’s time to rethink the economics—and the morality—of a global trade system that ships commodities around the globe in search of higher profits, with little regard for environmental and social costs.

The complex connection between population growth and the environment is of great importance to our common future. But progressives have remained largely silent about this issue. Progressive publications and organizations could contribute a nuanced understanding of the problem and promote real solutions—like universal access to reproductive health services, equal rights for women and girls, and a just and sustainable global economic system. At the same time, it’s crucial to reduce consumption in the affluent countries by, for example, investing in mass transit and “green” urban planning that can reduce the environmental impact (and greenhouse gas emissions) of large, growing cities.

Let’s not cede this issue to the anti-immigration zealots, who have little to offer, aside from draconian immigration policies and the police state needed to enforce them. If these groups are truly “America’s Leadership Team,” we are in big trouble.

    Laurie Ann Mazur is editor of the forthcoming Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge. Priscilla Huang, J.D. is Policy and Program Director at the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum.

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