Forty-six years ago today, America held it’s very first Earth Day, an event credited with the birth of the modern environmental movement. The annual observance was intended by the day’s founder, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, as a time to contemplate our natural world and to encourage efforts to conserve and protect it. Compared to today’s environmental establishment groups, however, Nelson had a more mature understanding of what environmental sustainability really is.
Central to the theme of Earth Day, the late senator once wrote, was “the understanding that U.S. population growth was a joint partner in the degradation of our nation’s environmental resources.”Like many early environmental advocates, Nelson appreciated that population growth and environmental stability were intrinsically intertwined. With America’s immigration intake representing 80 percent of its population growth-rate, groups like the Sierra Club had actually once been the biggest advocates for tighter immigration controls. But forty-six years on, those groups are now silent.
Ten years ago when the U.S. population hit 300 million (it was only 200 million on the first Earth Day), the Center for Environment and Population warned, “The nation’s relatively high rate of population growth, natural resource consumption and pollution combine to create the largest environmental impact, felt both within the nation and around the world.” On our consumption-levels and its global effects, today’s environmental groups are always quick to remind that despite having only 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. uses 20 percent of its energy, 30 percent of its paper and aluminum, 40 percent of its cars, etc. If the Third World were to adopt a middle-class American lifestyle, they lecture, we’d need many more planets.
But where are today’s establishment groups on that other impact-factor: population growth? America takes in a new migrant every 28 seconds, according to the Census Bureau. This means new houses, new roads and new strip malls and this equals increased energy consumption, water consumption and air pollution. Between 1982 and 2001, for instance, urban-sprawl due to population growth developed over 34 million acres of forest, cropland and pasture, an area equivalent to the state of Illinois. And the worst sprawl-centers, the migrant-havens of Los Angeles and southern Florida, contain the largest number of species now on the endangered list.
Raise this argument with a contemporary eco-justice warrior and you’ll hear that it isn’t population growth that’s the problem but wasteful and excessive use of natural resources. ‘We need more smartgrowth urban planning,’ they’ll say. But as biologists Paul Ehrlich, author of the landmark Population Bomb, and John Holdren (now Obama’s chief science advisor) tried to show in the early days of the movement, focusing only on technology and avoiding the population-factor is incomplete environmentalism. The two scientists popularized a shorthand formula for man’s impact on the environment, I = P x A x T. ‘Impact,’ in other words, being a function of ‘P,’ population growth, ‘A,’ affluence (or per capita consumption), and ‘T,’ technology. Although technology, such as renewables, can mitigate variables P and A, and thereby decrease I, it is no savior. No matter how many 600-page regulations the EPA pushes through or how many billions in subsidies we spend on renewables, if you let the P-factor massively increase, you end up running very hard environmentally just to stand still.
When George H. W. Bush became president in 1988, 18 major environmental organizations representing 7 million members presented him with their “Blueprint for the Environment,” imploring him to appreciate the environmental impact of U.S. population growth. Regarding population pressures, the letter said, “[a]pplication of technology can help greatly, but it is not a panacea.” That’s now been forgotten.
Groups like the Sierra Club still push for population stabilization through family planning initiatives, but they’ve completely changed their position on immigration. In the early eighties, in testimony before the blue-ribbon Hesburgh Commission on immigration, representatives of the Sierra Club stated that “immigration to the U.S. should be no greater than that which will permit achievement of population stabilization in the U.S.” Fast-forward to 2013, however, and you have the group endorsing the Schumer-Rubio amnesty bill on the hopelessly naive ground that illegal aliens ‘can’t advocate for clean energy while under the threat of deportation.’
Former disgruntled Sierra Club-members that I know say everything changed in 1996. Apparently showing just how “green” the modern environmental movement’s become, Sierra Club leaders were offered a donation of 100 million dollars from Wall Street hedge-fund managerDavid Gelbaum on the condition that they totally abandon the immigration issue. They dutifully complied. And being a major movement-bellwether, other groups soon followed suit.
Environmentalists are supposed to appreciate that there are limits to growth. In a haze of hubris and politics, however, the eco-establishment’s abandoned this understanding. But surely there’s a sizeable core within its membership that knows without confronting runaway immigration, their goals are doomed. On this 46th anniversary of Earth Day, we must reinvigorate the environmental movement with the natural conservative principles it was founded on. In other words, we must drag it back to earth.