Will the Ecological Society of America bite the population bullet?

[This letter was prompted by the ESA Action Alert of May 11, 2007 that encouraged our members to urge Congress to provide good funding for science and education in the 2008 federal budget.]

Dear Nadine and Members of the ESA Governing Board,

These types of alerts always provoke the same reaction from me. It is reasonable for us to look after our own self interest as ecological researchers always needing a generous flow of dollars to support our projects, students, travel, and so on.

But we also have an obligation, both as individuals and an organization, to look beyond our narrow self-interests and, when necessary, take stands and undertake initiatives for the broader benefit of society when there may be no direct benefit to ourselves. We should be especially willing to do this when controversial matters are at stake about which few other organizations are likely to have the political courage to speak out.

It was about 15 years ago that I first suggested to the ESA leadership, via Gordon Orians, that it commission a white paper on U.S. population growth, its causes, and its likely environmental consequences. This was a time when rates of immigration into the U.S. already had increased several fold as a consequence of “liberalized” immigration laws passed by the U.S. Congress in 1965 and a large amnesty program passed in 1986.

The ESA leadership was not interested. The Sustainable Biosphere Initiative – another request for funds for ourselves – was fine, but the ESA did not wish to interfere with politicians trying to increase the population growth rate of the U.S.!

In May 2006, the U.S. Senate passed S.2611. This would have tripled immigration rates and and increased the overall rate of U.S. population growth from about 0.9% per year (current) to an estimated 1.9% per year, leading to an estimated U.S. population of ca. 500,200,000 by mid century.

This would have been the most environmentally disastrous legislation since the 1965 immigration legislation that opened the floodgates. 90% of the Democratic senators and 42% of the Republican senators voted for S.2611. It would now be law of the land had there not been been strong Republican opposition in the House of Representatives. (You must take our friends where you find them!).

During the entire debate over this horrendous bill there was not a single peep from mainline environmental NGOs or from any professional society of environmental scientists. Their directorates had all headed for the hills with their tails between their legs, the Sierra Club national board leading the way.

Now the Senate is considering this bill again (renumbered as S.1348). It may vote on it as soon as this week or next. Once again its demographic and environmental consequences are not even being discussed by the Senate or the House of Representatives. And once again the reason is that the main putative defenders of the environment – ESA, Sierra Club, etc. – have been timid and silent.

So, this letter is to repeat my suggestion of 15 years ago and to see whether the ESA Public Affairs office and current Governing Board are willing to take action.

Does the new generation have more ‘moxie’ than the old?! Or is everybody still content for ESA to remain ‘poltically correct’, silent, and thus a de facto supporter of those powerful factions in Congress intent on doubling our rate of population growth?

Are we willing to be politically active only in our own financial self interest? If so, how do we differ from the building contractors associations, chambers of commerce, lumber companies, oil companies and others we sometimes smugly demonize?

Ecologist, heal thyself!

There is plenty of intellectual and ethical back-up for taking a firm stand against any immigration legislation that will increase the rate of U.S. population growth and for taking firm stands in favor of legislation and policies that will lead to U.S. population stabilization as soon as feasible.

ESA would be taking the side of many of the greats of the past.

The late Sen. Gaylord Nelson, Founder of Earth Day, said in 2001, “In this country, it’s phony for anyone to say they are for the environment but not for limiting immigration.”

The late Prof. Garrett Hardin, early and courageous writer on population issues, wrote in 1989 that: “We are not faced with a single global population problem but, rather, with about 180 separate national population problems. All population controls must be applied locally; local governments are the agents best prepared to choose local means. Means must fit local traditions. For one nation to attempt to impose its ethical principles on another is to violate national sovereignty and endanger international peace. The only legitimate demand that nations can make on one another is this: “Don’t try to solve your population problem by exporting your excess people to us.” All nations should take this position, and most do. Unfortunately, many Americans seem to believe that our nation can solve everyone else’s population problems.”

Additional reading? A short piece along these same lines – The Globalist Copout, published in 2000, contained my first public challenge to ESA on this issue (at http://www.thesocialcontract.com/cgi-bin/showarticle.pl?articleID=672&terms=). A recent analysis titled Environmental Voting Records of Members of the U.S. Congress, 2006 will shed further surprising light on who is working with us and who against us (at http://www.sci.sdsu.edu/salton/CEV2006.pdf). And for historical understanding, nothing beats The Environmental Movement’s Retreat from Advocating U.S. Population Stabilization (1970-1998) (at http://www.numbersusa.com/about/bk_retreat.html). Estimates of population growth to 2050 under different immigration legislation options are given in Projecting the U.S. Population to 2050: Four Immigration Scenarios (at http://www.fairus.org/site/DocServer/pop_projections.pdf?docID=901)

Contributed by Stuart H. Hurlbert, San Diego State University

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  1. Stuart Hurlbert makes some cogent observations, that when properly understood, do not imply xenophobia, as suggested by Marcelino Fuentes. Marcelino, apparently, has the view that the world can comfortably support many more people than it has today, because the standard of living of today is better than it was in the past.

    Clearly our assumptions determine our conclusions. If we assume the humanistic perspective that when things get bad enough we will fix them, then perhaps Marcelo is correct (but see David Ehrenfeld’s insightful book “The Arrogance of Humanism” – and others) to see why those assumptions are incorrect.

    If we as ecologists recognize that the earth cannot even indefinitely maintain the current standard of living due to population pressures, then we must also recognize that the solution to the population problem is not just letting people move from where they live to another, favored country. Rather we need to move to control populations everywhere.

    At the same time, we need to recognize where population does the most damage. Garret Hardin had a simple equation that basically said impact = population size X affluence X time. So, the major environmental impacts come from countries with the greatest population densities and affluence – The USA, Western Europe, and now China and India.

    Immigration might be a small part of the population problem, and so perhaps Marcelo has a point to be considered. However, reduction of population is absolutely necessary to maintain a quality of life that includes nature, AND that guarantees the future of humanity. I would recommend a two-tiered approach – the countries with the highest density and affluence first cut back on their consumption, thereby setting an example to the world, and second, those same countries help (education, health) the less affluent countries so that they can then take better care of themselves.

    Immigration can be seen as people trying to get to the promised land, or as people trying to escape bad conditions. If conditions were good in their home countries, fewer people would be emmigrating. Perhaps the rich countries would be better off helping the poor countries to become promised lands, rather than use them as cheap sources of labor and entertainment.

    I think that would be much more effective than laws that will inevitably be broken.

    I have spoken with many Latin Americans who think it quite ironic that the United States pushes them to control their own populations when it was through uncontrolled population growth that the United States became what it is today – and when today, the population density in the USA is much greater than that in most Latin American countries. Brazil, for example, has the same area as the 48 contiguous states, but also has 100 million FEWER people than the 48 states!



  2. “I despise the anti-immigrant and xenophobic policies of Spain and the European Union.” That is what I wrote in my blog. I didn’t use the word xenophobic to describe Hurlbert’s position. (I am, of course, a citizen of Spain.)

    Jim, this is my position regarding some of the points you raise:

    – Yes, the world can comfortably support many more people than it has today.

    – People in poor countries suffer a worse environment than those in rich ones.

    – People have the means (social, technological, etc.) to improve the environment. “Improvement = population size X means X time” is a plausible equation.

    – Generally speaking, consumption equals “getting what one wants.” Except in very specific cases, I see no compelling reason to tell, or coerce, people to get less of what they want and pay for. I believe the same applies to the number of children people prefer to have.

    – I think that the best thing rich countries can do for poor ones is to set a good example. But I admit that few people agree with me as to what constitutes a good example. Too bad for me 😉

    Thank you for the opportunity to debate these matters.

  3. Marcelo,

    You “believe” that the world can support many more people than it does today, yet more and more we are seeing that supporting the number we have today causes environmental degradation and disasters. I, and many others, feel that the quality of life is part and parcel with the quality of nature. That is, conserving wildlife, natural areas, the oceans and so on are all fundamental for having quality living conditions. So, from my perspective, we already have too many people!

    Also, “getting what one wants” means that we will drive the environment into worse and worse scenarios. Take Spain for example. I was told once by a Spaniard that in the days of Caesar, a monkey could go from Gibraltar to the Pyrenees without setting foot on the ground. Today, Spain has many environmental problems, driven by population pressure (I would suggest). The Spaniard was suggesting to me that life was good for Spaniards, even with complete deforestation. I would say that Spain would be much more interesting for all, if it had more nature.

    And, you are wrong that people in poor countries suffer worse environment than rich. Here in Brazil, and in most Latin American countries, the environment is in much MUCH better condition than it is in Spain and the rest of Europe, and it is better here than in the United States. More nature, more clean water, more clean air, more wildlife and so on. The rich countries are the ones that have already degraded their environments!

    Are you a biologist? You seem to have the perspective of Julian Simon that the only thing that matters are people. He also says the world could support many more people, but he would say that the environment is of little importance in comparison. I would suggest that without a good environment, life is less interesting, and the quality of life is directly related to the diversity of life – not just human. Usually biologists understand that, and non-biologists don’t.




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