Thursday, March 03, 2011

Overpopulation, Wilderness, and the Assumptions of Too Many Environmentalists

I am pretty outraged by this Howie Wolke blog post at Wilderness Watch connecting overpopulation to the destruction of wilderness. In part:

Many on the political left view jobs and social issues as more important than the environment; they miss the numerous connections to overpopulation. And they oppose the tough immigration policies that could halt continued growth (in the U.S. today, population growth is mostly a function of immigration) in the United States. Meanwhile, the political right worships at big industry’s altar of growth at all cost. In addition, religious fundamentalists of nearly every ilk believe that it is their duty to overwhelm all others with their progeny.
And the environmental movement, at least here in the U.S., remains oddly silent on overpopulation.

The solutions to overpopulation are no secret. Economic policies based upon stability, not perpetual growth, are essential. Better health care and education plus political and economic empowerment of women – especially in poorer countries – are equally important. Family planning services must be integral, safe, and available to all, everywhere. Also, men must assume greater responsibility for their obvious role in population growth. In the United States, immigration must be brought under control. We also need to create tax and other economic incentives for smaller families. But none of this will happen if overpopulation continues to elude the discussion.

Until overpopulation is recognized, the United States and many other nations will continue to fail to develop and implement population policies, and humans will continue to obliterate not just wilderness, but most remaining natural ecosystems on Earth. Oh well, it’s obvious that humans can endure in horribly over-crowded, polluted, denuded and impoverished squalor. That’s proven each day in many corners of the world. The flip side of that problem is that so many other forms of life cannot.

I'm just going to reproduce my comment to the original post (which has not yet made it through moderation):

This article is wrong-headed for many reasons. And the idea that immigration is a major environmental problem is offensive.

1. This idea that immigration is a threat to our environment assumes that somehow environmental issues stop at international borders and if we keep people out of our nation, our environment will be protected. Meanwhile, climate change imperils our wilderness areas whether people remain in Guatemala or try to improve their lives in the United States.

2. Even if the above assumption is strictly true when it comes to technical boundaries of wilderness, it assumes that environmental issues in the U.S. are somehow more important than environmental issues in other countries.

3. The entire argument that overpopulation is the major threat to the environment shifts the blame for environmental problems from rich people who consume a vast majority of the world’s resources and onto poor people. Immigrants, because they are poor, are going to have a much smaller environmental footprint than a person with a house in the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico who commutes into Albuquerque for instance. Who is really to blame for climate change in that scenario–the person with the 3000 square foot mansion in the Sandias or 100 immigrants with their combined environmental footprint?

4. The focus on wilderness and the potential threats to it is emblematic of the white elitist form of environmentalism that has dominated the movement since the late 1970s. Rather than focus on the environmental problems of people and the ecosystems around them, Wolke worries about lands that most Americans will never visit. And while those lands have great value, this kind of argument does zilch to build the kind of bipartisan and electorally popular environmental movement of the 1960s that focused as much as the environment of the backyard as that of the alpine wilderness.

This isn’t to say that overpopulation is a non-issue. But it certainly isn’t the most important problem we have to face as environmentalists. And to reinforce the environmental movement as white and privileged, of which this article is guilty, does absolutely nothing to further a sustainable world.
This pretty much sums up my view on the matter, but I will say this is precisely the kind of environmental thought that is most damaging and unsupportable. It was this kind of person who tried to take over the Sierra Club several years ago on a nativist platform. And it's this kind of environmentalism that I will never, ever support.