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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Is It "Green" to be Anti-Immigration?

The first section of Wednesday’s New York Times included a half-page advertisement, sponsored by America’s Leadership Team for Long Range Population-Immigration-Resource Planning (and also supported by the American Immigration Control Foundation, Californians for Population Stabilization, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, NumbersUSA, and the Social Contract Press), arguing for stricter immigration controls in order to prevent “further degradation of American’s natural treasures.” The advert shows a picture of a bulldozer with the caption “One of America’s Best Selling Vehicles.” A paragraph then follows connecting immigration to environmental plunder:

Bulldozer sales in American have been booming. Road builders need them to level rolling hills into concrete interchanges and bypasses. Developers need them to turn farmland into housing developments and shopping malls. You can find big earthmoving equipment throughout America, turning our most picturesque land into suburban sprawl, while adding to some of the worst traffic problems in the world. But traffic is just one of the problems facing America as a result of poulation [sic] growth wildly out of control. Schools and emergency rooms are bursting at the seams, and the public infrastructure is under great stress. Property taxes are on the rise. Yet the bulldozers keep on coming, ripping up some of the most beautiful farms and forests in the world and turning them into concrete and asphalt suburbs. But with U.S. census projections indicating our population will explode from 300 million today to 400 million in thirty years and 600 million before 2100, bulldozer sales should keep on booming. Unless we take action today. The Pew Hispanic Research Center projects 82% of the country’s massive population increase, between 2005 and 2050, will result from immigration. And with every new U.S. resident, whether from births or immigration, comes further degradation of America’s natural treasures. There’s not much we can do to reclaim the hundreds of millions of acres already destroyed. But we can do something about what’s left. Visit our websites to find out how you can help.

My first reaction was that this was obvious and spurious political greenwashing. A little Internet snooping, however, revealed that questions about the impact of immigration on the environment have generated some relatively serious debate, as evidenced by an internal struggle in the Sierra Club over whether to adopt immigration reform as a platform (Wikipedia’s Sierra Club entry has a concise summary under “Immigration controversy”).

Recognizing that there are many claims relating to immigration and the environment (changes in consumption, availability of water resources, etc.), I’d like to focus on the advert’s contention that immigration is to blame for loss of land to development. With numerous caveats (I’m not an expert in land use (although I welcome more considered reactions from my colleagues who are) and I have not researched this issue beyond a bit of Internet and Westlaw surfing), I’ll offer two very preliminary reactions.

First, it seems to me that there are many more likely culprits than immigrant-fueled population growth with respect to loss of land to development, most obviously dysfunction in our environmental and land use policies. Eduardo Penalver has recently posted about how decentralization of land use authority encourages sprawl. Another source of dysfunction is the artificial division drawn between (primarily federal) environmental policy and (primarily local) land use control. Although it is widely recognized that land use decisions affect everything from species survival to air and water quality, with a few exceptions (the Coastal Zone Management Act, wetlands regulation under the Clean Water Act, some iterations of Sections 7 and 9 of the Endangered Species Act, etc.) the major federal environmental statutes do not directly regulate land use. More localities are becoming sophisticated about incorporating environmental considerations into land use decisions (supported in particular by the work of John Nolon at Pace University) and localities can sometimes use (federal, state or local) environmental impact review processes as roadblocks to damaging development. However, local land use planning to protect the environment in many cases remains limited by restrictive delegations of authority from state governments, a paucity of local resources, countervailing (non-environmental) values, and other factors.

Second, it may well be that there are lengthy and considered examinations of the claim that immigration is a significant contributor to land loss in the U.S. that my admittedly cursory and limited search missed. If so, that’s great (and please share them). If not, then I would encourage land-use scholars not to let political ticklishness dissuade them from addressing this claim head on. Undergirded as it is by the common sense notion that, all other things being equal, more people equals greater impact (indeed, population control – as distinct from immigration – is a frequently espoused environmental principle), this is precisely the kind of claim that could take hold even if ultimately disproved by more critical examination.

Posted by Katrina Kuh on June 12, 2008 at 07:24 PM | Permalink


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