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Population, Immigration, and Environment 20 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Environment.

I’m posting this partly to be provocative, to explore an idea which may feel offensive. But I sincerely have this question and I do think it needs to be discussed openly and seriously.

Over the weekend, I watched an interview with Laura Dunn, documentarian, on PBS’s “Now“. The interview has been haunting me for the past few days. I’m teaching a course this summer about the relationship between human culture and their ecologies (i.e., their physical environments), so some issues have been front and center the past few weeks. Dunn’s most recent documentary, The Unforeseen, covers the massive upsurge in development around Austin Texas, especially the degradation of the watershed, vital to the ecology of the region. Dunn has a gift of treating all sides with respect and compassion, and although it’s clear what the environmental (and ultimately social) outcome of uncontroled growth is, there is a brilliant even-handedness in her presentation.

But it was precisely the massive impact that such a huge population growth is having on the Austin area that stuck with me. Populations have differential effects on their enviroments, depending on their “footprints”, which is their patterns of consuming resources. But in America we are left with a culture that values space, which is paradoxically reflected in our tendency toward sprawl and away from density. And yet, as Dunn points out, our desires for space are actually consuming the space we desire.

Population increases, especially given the way that Americans consume, are changing our landscape, indeed, destroying it. Native-born Americans only reproduce slightly more than enough to replace the population; and yet the population of the United States has doubled since I was born. The wild spaces I used to go to as a child no longer exist. Our suburban sprawl has more than doubled since I was born.

Regular readers know that I’m not politically opposed to immigration and think most immigration hysteria is absurd. Yet you also know that as a sociologist, I believe we must face honestly the social costs of immigration. Immigration does indeed impact the social structures and economies and cultures of the nation. It does no good to pretend otherwise.

But I have never seen anyone talking about the environmental impact of immigration or, by extension, the massive population increase of the U.S. over the past 40 years. In California, we just keep talking about how the state will have 50 million residents by the middle of the century. Why aren’t we talking about the impact 20 million more people will have on our land? Why aren’t we talking about how to curb that population growth? Loss of land, degradation of air and water, loss of wilderness, loss of space, lass of species will ultimately harm everyone. And uncontrolled population growth must be considered as a major culprit. And given where most of the American population growth comes from, we have to be talking about immigration when we talk about sprawl, environment, and population.



1. Joe Bish - 25 June 2007


I encourage your readers who are interested in learning more about the issues you have raised to visit the New England Coalition for Sustainable Population website.

We are working to make the connection between population and environment that most people are missing for one reason or another.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

2. Todd - 25 June 2007

Thanks Joe,
The article you recommend was great too. I hope you don’t mind if I post the cite (in APA, which I’m not used to):
Speidel J.J., et al. 2007. Family Planning and Reproductive Health: The Link to Environmental Preservation. San Francisco, CA: University of California, San Francisco, Bixby Center for Reproductive Health Research & Policy. (An abridged version of this paper is forthcoming in Population and Environment.)

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