AS problems involving shortages of water, food, shelter, and fuel grow around the world, a subtle and increasingly troublesome cycle emerges: Environmental degradation creates ``environmental refugees,'' leading to increases in immigration, causing population pressures, adding to more environmental degradation.
There are exacerbating factors - war, sick economies, corrupt and inefficient governments. But the immigration link with environmental problems is one of the most complicated and toughest issues to be faced at the upcoming United Nations population summit. Although it hasn't gotten as much attention, this could be even more difficult than the resistance of the Vatican and its allies to family planning and population control.
In recent months, California, Texas, and Florida have initiated lawsuits and ballot measures to battle floods of immigration. But the issue needs to be seen as more than regional.
The US population, which was 260,173,847 as of May 1, is growing by nearly 3 million a year. Of those 3 million, about two-thirds are born here and one-third are immigrants. But of those births, many are to immigrants. According to the research organization Population-Environment Balance, ``legal and illegal immigration, and children born to immigrants after their arrival in the United States, already contribute at least half of our yearly population increase.''
``In addition,'' the analysis says, ``the newcomers will account for most of the continuing rapid rise in the fertility rate because it appears that recent immigrants (many of whom come from countries where large families are common) perceive the US as a place where even larger families are affordable.''
Projections of US population growth make the picture more serious. If Congress doesn't change the liberalized levels allowed under immigration laws passed in 1986 and 1990, according to a report by the US Census Bureau and demographer Leon Bouvier, ``immigration will account for 90 percent of all US population growth between 1993 and 2050.''
Not all immigrants are ``environmental refugees,'' but in many cases resource depletion and pollution back home are motivating factors. And one could argue that liberal immigration laws in this country act as a relief valve for environmental problems in other countries by relieving population pressures there.
Then there is the high consumption level that Americans enjoy and most new arrivees are eager to adopt. Or as demographer David Simcox has put it: ``Arriving here from less developed countries, grain and legume eaters become meat eaters, walkers or bus riders become car drivers, and users of one gallon of water daily consume 50 here.''
Ecologist Garrett Hardin, warns that ``immigration must sharply decline now.'' Writing in the quarterly journal of the Center for Immigration Studies, he asserts that ``policies dealing with immigration, population, and environment are tied together like Siamese triplets.'' Dr. Hardin, best known for his 1968 essay ``The Tragedy of the Commons,'' sees a direct link between too much immigration and environmental degradation.
This is a tough issue for environmentalists, typically thought of as liberal in outlook and therefore compassionate toward the less-fortunate. But as Hardin writes, ``a dedicated environmentalist who carries on about the deterioration of the environment while resolutely refusing to discuss population growth is guilty of over-emphasizing effects and neglecting causes.'' He adds, ``once an environmentalist faces the issue of population growth, he finds he cannot avoid the immigration problem.''
The old saw about ``teaching someone to fish is better than giving them a fish'' holds here. Particularly if they stay home, take advantage of increasingly available family-planning assistance, and sustain their own fisheries. It's about the only way that the cycle of environmental degradation, immigration, population pressures, and more environmental degradation can be broken.