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May
19
2015
Appeared in Free Inquiry, vol 35 issue 4

POPULATION, IMMIGRATION, AND THE GLOBAL FUTURE

Introduction

Tom Flynn


As my editorial in this issue should have made clear, I have strong opinions on the issues of population, immigration, and the human future. These issues overlap in frightening ways; what is perhaps most disturbing is that despite their interconnectedness, many activists are loath to speak of them. Too often, experts on climate change, environmental depletion, and species loss go out of their way not to discuss population’s relevance to their concerns—yet, as I note in my editorial, there is not one of our looming ecological crises that might not be more tractable if human numbers were shrinking instead of growing. And few even in the population-activist community are willing to mention immigration, even though the United States cannot possibly achieve a deliberate reduction of its population without sweeping changes to immigration policies—changes that trend in quite another direction than anything being argued over under the heading of “immigration reform” in Washington, D.C.

The contributors to this section are willing to cross lines that others will not. That said, each takes a unique approach to the issues.

In “Four Out of Five Scientists Agree: Population Matters,” Robert Walker, president of the Population Institute, probes the reasons that scientists may be reticent to address population issues, even though most of them acknowledge that population plays a central role in today’s ecological crises. He is optimistic that population concerns can be addressed, at least in large part, by increasing the rights and autonomy of women worldwide; he does not address the issue of immigration.

In “Seven Billion Wolves: Why the Human Head Count Matters,” anthropologist Jeffrey K. McKee offers a novel paradigm for comprehending—and communicating—the impact of overpopulation and the critical need to bring it under control. As he notes in the article, given the choice between increasing the death rate or increasing the birthrate, the vast majority of us prefer the latter. But if humans are unable to reduce their birthrate, ecological despoliation may compel a reduction in our numbers without regard for our preferences.

In “Two Realities,” journalist and educator Richard Heinberg draws a stark contrast between the perceived reality of political operators who regard unlimited population growth as desirable, even economically necessary, and that of the more scientific-minded who recognize that boundless growth cannot long continue on a finite planet.

If you thought my editorial was pessimistic, in “Humanity vs. Nature—Winner Take All!” independent researcher Christopher Clugston puts me to shame. He predicts that long before human activity can strangle Mother Nature, perhaps as early as 2050, growing scarcity of nonrenewable natural resources will bring our economy to its knees. Clugston has some startling numbers to back up his dour forecasts.

In “Sharp Danger, but Grounds for Hope,” issue advocate Joe Bish suggests that doom-and-gloom pronouncements may be counterproductive. While acknowledging the gravity of the challenges we confront, Bish stresses engagement with women’s rights issues and argues that attaining the lowest range of current United Nations population growth projections could, just maybe, put humanity on track for long-term sustainability by the mid–twenty-first century. He also profiles an innovative publishing project that will deliver a thrilling, positive population message to places never before reachable.

Our last three contributors engage directly with immigration as a population issue. In “U.S. Immigration and the Limits of Supporting Earth Resources,” geologist and American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow Walter Youngquist spotlights the particularly harrowing environmental issues facing the American Southwest and the role of immigration in exacerbating them, especially in California.

In “Toward NPG: Cutting Legal Immigration by Four-Fifths,” Negative Population Growth’s David Simcox and Tracy Canada connect the dots. Current U.S. immigration policies will negate any effort to set the United States on a path of responsible population reduction, they argue, because current immigration levels are so high as to guarantee continued population growth. Simcox and Canada outline a strict but, on my view, reasonable program that would restrict legal immigration to about 200,000 persons per year so that long-term population decline might begin. Needless to say, nothing remotely resembling this proposal is being discussed in the corridors of power—but if we’re serious about getting a grip on our numbers and making even short steps toward meaningful sustainability, this is the sort of policy thinking that we need to entertain.

Simcox and Canada put it this way: “The United States has accepted nearly eighty million documented immigrants since 1820. Without guilt, our nation can now be generous to the world in new ways: by slowing our extravagant consumption and waste dumping, by remaining a major food exporter, and by curbing our intense competition for world energy supplies.” Hear, hear.



Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry.

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