Sierra Club Schism: The Limits of Sharing

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Some say the fiercest wars occur within a family or nation. The Sierra Club is the United States' largest environmental activist organization - and it's like some raucous families as ugly epithets are hurled in the current in-house controversy. It is ironic that the worst labels are being used by those standing alongside a renegade board against members who are adhering to a stance rooted in the first Earth Day.

In 1971 the Sierra Club led in helping Americans accept that a once-frontier country had finite land and resources. Moreover, environmental justice patently required that we rein in our gargantuan resource use so the globe's poorer people could enjoy a rising standard of living. A year later President Nixon's broadly-based Commission on Population Growth and the American Future called for stabilizing population with alacrity.

Significantly, it based its recommendations not just on quantitative measures and looming environmental depredation but on qualitative lifestyle values endorsed by most Americans and models like Henry Thoreau. These values included a love of small communities, of uncrowded wilderness and solitude, of low-density housing.

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Operating in a low-immigration era, the commission mentioned only parenthetically that immigration policy would have to honor population policy. When in 1978 the Sierra Club called upon Congress to review immigration for its demographic and environmental effects, it was merely echoing the commission. In 1988 it renewed this call for immigration levels consistent with stabilizing population.

An unchanged message has encountered a changing demographic dynamic. US population growth is no longer due to above-replacement-level births to native-born women; the "baby boom echo" was small and short-lived among boomers who embraced late childbearing and below-replacement fertility. Today, nearly 75 percent of our growth derives from immigration and, more importantly, births to immigrants, which swells the numbers of parents in the next generation. Many environmental and human rights groups now try to convince Americans that it was moral to advocate population stabilization in the earlier instance but immoral in the latter.

In February, 1996, a Sierra Club board attuned more to political correctness than to physical reality voted to refrain from taking a position on US population and immigration levels and policies. Today, board backers deride the qualitative concerns of the president's commission for preserving the physical environment cherished by Americans, terming these "elitist" and "nativist." They also wrongly suggest that one must choose between macro and micro environmental issues. They accuse stabilization advocates of wanting to hog their toys and resources.

The board and its supporters have renounced that most basic tenet, the systemic nature of environment. They also deny that at some point, quantitative change becomes qualitative change. High consumption levels multiply the effects of any given population. But, how does continuing population growth ease the problems of urban sprawl and congestion, crowded classrooms, farmland loss, and endangered species? The same industrial emissions that threaten urban populations - poor and rich - scarcely nurture deciduous forests or marine life.

Massive populations frustrate the hopes of the poor, raise the cost of housing, and estrange urban residents from the natural settings eco-psychologists believe essential for nurturing the spirit. Why is it immoral to resist the 21st-century cities of 20 million, 30 million and 40 million that immigration supporters are foisting upon us?

I now tell fellow population policy advocates to dispense with numbers for two reasons. First, the numerate are already with us. Those less numerate are numbed by hearing that the US won World War II with a population half the present day's, or that both the country and its largest state burst past ecologically sustainable population around 1950. Second, there are so many ways to lie with data.

Instead, we should demand from those who assert "numbers don't count" proof that Americans share the belief that life in a large, dense city is identical to and as acceptable as life in a small city with clear urban-rural boundaries. We should ask why it is morally suspect to want to leave posterity with a country living well within its ecological limits, with the same lifestyle options previous generations had. We should ask how America can serve as an example to the world if it is unwilling to accept the demographic and ecological constraints it urges upon others.

The 1970s mantra, "Think globally, act locally," is even more relevant today in a yet more-crowded world. "Local" action requires accepting that protecting America's habitat requires the end of the immigration era. "Global" thinking requires that we assist other nations in attaining demographic and environmental equilibrium. Living beyond our demographic means will impoverish the entire world.

* B. Meredith Burke is a demographer and a senior fellow of Negative Population Growth, a Washington-based policy organization.

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