Immigration and the Sierra Club: Did the Fuss Matter?

By Ben Zuckerman on August 1, 1998

pp. 1, 11-13 in Immigration Review no. 33, Fall 1998

Politically, U.S. population growth has been a non-issue. As America encounters social and environmental limits, however, eventually this must change. Traffic gridlock, loss of farmland, and exhaustion of ground water supplies are but a few of many concerns arising, while "growth" and "sprawl" already are major political issues in numerous western states. Unfortunately, these words are euphemisms for too many people.

Because human beings are able to tolerate enormously high population densities and because powerful economic and political forces profit from unending population increases, social and environmental limits to growth are very soft. As just one example, to compensate for water shortages in the U.S. southwest, river systems in the Canadian west may soon suffer gigantic water diversions. Most people are unaware of growth's impact, and therefore not concerned about the environmental havoc high population densities cause — as long as the damage is out of sight and out of mind.

For this reason, it is essential that environmentalists understand clearly the implications of endless U.S. growth for environments here and abroad — because if environmentalists don't, surely no one else will. Such understanding was tested in a vote earlier this year of the members of the Sierra Club, the only conservation organization with a structure that enables rank-and-file members to vote their opinions.

For decades, the Club's position had been population stabilization ASAP, "first in the United States and then in the rest of the world." Then, in February 1996, the Club's national board of directors voted to take no position on the level of immigration into the United States. Since immigration accounts for a continually increasing percentage of U.S. population growth, this decision represented a major policy reversal for the Club which now, de facto, acquiesces to current rapid U.S. population growth.

In late 1996 and early 1997, rank-and-file members gathered petitions with sufficient signatures to enable a vote of the entire membership on the 1998 national ballot. The issue was: Should the Sierra Club adopt a comprehensive population policy for the United States that advocates reductions in both natural increase and net immigration?

Historically the media have ignored connections between population and the environment (see T. M. Maher: "How and Why Journalists Avoid the Population-Environment Connection" in Population and Environment, Vol. 18, No. 4, March 1997, 339-372). Hence, leaders of the petition drive, including myself, were surprised by the extensive national coverage that the vote garnered during the six months between November 1997 and April 1998, including articles in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and the Washington Post. The media must love a good fight; the management of the Club pulled out all the stops, legitimate and otherwise, to defeat the ballot petition.

Ostensibly, the battle was between two different ways of protecting the environment. The petitioners argued that the causes of U.S. population growth — more births than deaths and more immigration than emigration — must be tackled directly. The board argued rather that the immigration component is just a symptom of the larger problem of global population growth and that the Club should focus its population efforts globally. Because America's impact on the biosphere is so enormous — we 270 million Americans inflict as much environmental damage as billions of people in the developing world — it is important to choose the better of these two paths.

There is not space here to do justice to this complex debate, which encompasses fertility, consumption, immigration, politics, racism, and the health of the Sierra Club. The essence of the petitioners' position was that we must make hard choices to break the endless downward spiral of America's assault on the biosphere. Two of these hard choices are stabilizing U.S. population growth and reducing per capita U.S. consumption. The Club is not helping America to accomplish either.

The board and the executive director countered by arguing that only total global numbers count, not where people live. (But if it doesn't matter where people live, then why bother, for instance, fighting the conversion of undeveloped land and wilderness into shopping malls and housing developments?)

The board also argued against the ballot petition on pragmatic grounds, claiming, for example, that the Club would lose members, environmental allies of color, and funding support should the ballot petition win. Countering such claims is not difficult, but because the board established ground rules that minimized debate within the club, it was not possible for the petitioners to do so.

As just one example, consider the claim by supporters of the board that Hispanics are special friends of the environment. Not only is this claim not verified, but in so far as statistics are available, it is wrong. For example, Hispanic members of Congress scored, on average, only 59 percent on 1997 voting charts of the League of Conservation Voters, well below the average Democratic member's score of 69 percent.

A more fundamental question is: Should an environmental organization base critical policy decisions on what it perceives to be the position of politicians (whose actions, after all, often are driven by short-term considerations)? Or has the Sierra Club become part of the power structure and thus part of the problem?

Club leaders and their allies played the race card and portrayed those who supported the ballot petition as the tools or allies of racists such as David Duke. The typical liberal Club member feels very uncomfortable dealing with immigration for reasons related to race, unfortunately not realizing that studies by the Rand Corporation, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Center for Immigration Studies all arrive at the same conclusion: Mass immigration reduces the wages of the poorest among us, including disproportionate numbers of people of color. Thus, poll after poll shows that most U.S. citizens of color want substantially reduced levels of immigration. The typical Club member won't pay the price of our overly generous immigration laws; that burden will fall on the less fortunate.

The board of directors also structured the ballot in a way that violated club bylaws — but because only minimal debate was allowed in club publications, this could not be made clear to rank-and-file members.

When the ballots were counted, only 14 percent of Club members had voted. Of those, 60 percent voted with the board.

If this vote is representative of the U.S. environmental community, then endless immigration-driven U.S. population growth is virtually assured. Politically, excessive immigration is very difficult to deal with because, in states with large immigrant populations, politicians are afraid to appear anti-immigrant and, in states with few immigrants, the national level of immigration is not yet a political issue.

Most premiere environmentalists understand this conundrum and many of them openly endorsed the ballot petition. By contrast, inspection of the list of endorsers of the board's position reveals mainly Club bureaucrats (past and present) and minor politicians. How might we interpret the outcome of the vote in this light? Is the average Sierra Club member so little acquainted with the environmental movement that he or she does not recognize or care about the different stature of the two lists of endorsers? Again, note that only 14 percent of Club members voted on what is arguably the single most important environmental issue in the United States — rapid population growth.

More generally, do Club members who voted against the petitioners' ballot understand that they are thus allied with the large corporations who want lots of cheap labor to make their products and lots of consumers to buy them? These are the very same corporations that Club members love to criticize.

Whereas some might choose to see the three-to-two vote as a repudiation of the idea that the Sierra Club should confront U.S. population growth directly, others interpret it as a respectable initial showing by grassroots members up against virtually the entire club bureaucracy. In addition, leaders of the petition drive, myself included, believe that the 1998 vote was "rigged" by the board and have resolved to keep coming back until they get a fair hearing.

Most leading U.S. environmentalists believe that immigration levels must be reduced, although these opinions are surely not well known in Congress. So, why does the Sierra Club matter? It is large and well known but, mainly, it is the only environmental organization where rank-and-file opinions have a chance to be heard. A vote in favor of U.S. population stabilization by the club membership would provide an additional voice encouraging Congress to address this critical environmental issue.

The next few years will determine the population future of the United States. If environmentalists fail to argue strongly for population stabilization then, just as U.S. population quadrupled during the 20th century, so we will witness a future doubling and then another doubling to over a billion people. Prof. Garrett Hardin's Law that "It takes five years for a person's mind to change" will sorely test the resolve of those who pray that such an environmental disaster will not come to pass.