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Commentary | COLUMN LEFT / RICHARD B. ANDERSON

America Is Eating the World's Lunch

The Sierra Club votes on whether to curb immigration, but that's not the problem.

April 23, 1998|RICHARD B. ANDERSON | Richard B. Anderson is a lecturer in environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara and a member of the Sierra Club. E-mail: gconserve@aol.com

The Sierra Club, the nation's most venerable environmental organization, is becoming bitterly divided in a controversy over limiting U.S. population growth by controlling immigration.

In a plebiscite by mail, members are deciding whether to adopt a U.S. population growth policy that includes, besides the conventional call for reduced fecundity, a new initiative urging curbs on the inflow of migrants. Results are scheduled to be announced at the end of this week.

This might seem surprising in such a liberal organization, yet it grows out of fundamental flaws in the logic of modern environmentalism. Backers and opponents of the club's advisory measure have been talking past one another, because the most important environmental question isn't even on the agenda for discussion.

There are two great engines driving environmental destruction: population growth and consumption. Proponents of the Sierra Club initiative are blaming everything on population growth, seemingly ignoring the fact that for Americans in particular, consumption is the problem. Population growth in America accounts for only a small proportion of the increasing impact of the American way of life on the natural world. Our environmental problem derives from our appetite for things and sensations, pride and power.

In fact, America is eating up the world. In order to have the vast array of redundant goods in the outlet malls, in order to keep in motion a society based on growth and greed, we are laying waste to the natural environment. Evidence is everywhere that our material appetites are creating a world for our children that will be degraded from its present state, a world poorer, harder and less beautiful. We are destroying habitat, depleting fisheries, polluting the land, water, sea and atmosphere and cutting down the forests, all to support a single lifetime's worth of insatiable consumption. In the U.S., our greatest environmental problem is not immigrants but the fact that we have organized our way of life around false assumptions--that the goods of the world belong to us alone and that they will last forever.

Environmental groups seem to find this point impossible to see, much less approach in a constructive manner. The best evidence for this is the Sierra Club initiative itself and the arguments of its supporters. The nature of the modern world is assumed to be unchangeable and the tacit assumption of materialism is unquestioned. Supporters of the initiative argue that the problem with immigration is that more people will adopt our own destructive way of life.

Ben Zuckerman, one of the initiators of the immigration vote, warned that "many millions of immigrants, eager to embrace the highly consumptive American lifestyle, [will] impact the environment both here and abroad." This argument neatly finesses the need to question our own fundamental values. It's environmental double-think: "I will continue to waste and squander, that's inevitable, but it's threatening that people from other places will come to join me."

It's not hard to see why environmental groups might shy away from the difficult problem of a society flawed by material self-indulgence. Many members are invested in the world view of a culture based on materialism. Among environmentalists, the nature of the consumer economy is one of those problems that we just don't talk about, because it's too threatening, too engulfing. It's easier to focus on immigrants who don't buy and don't vote.

Concern about immigration is entirely misplaced. The U.S. has the fastest-growing population in the industrialized world, largely due to immigration, and true sustainability will ultimately require population stability. But environmentalists who accept for themselves a way of life based on endless material excess simply do not have the standing to pin environmental blame on poor people slipping across the border. An environmental movement dedicated to material self-discipline, on the other hand, might have the moral authority to address the issue of immigration.

I give the Sierra Club credit for bringing into the middle of the public debate one of the most difficult issues of our time. Perhaps it's not surprising that, with such a foreboding issue, the backers of the initiative chose the emphasis least threatening to themselves. Still, the Sierra Club immigration vote is an exercise in psychological denial and projection, blaming others for our own faults. As such, it is blindness, and members of the club should defeat it on that account alone.

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