In recent years, a growing meme that immigrants are bad for the environment has taken hold, fueling a rabid minority's xenophobic paranoia with good old-fashioned eco-angst about carrying capacity and population bombs.
Using climate change as a rallying cry, the basic premise goes something like this: since the U.S. has by far the largest per capita carbon footprint in the world we must by all means avoid adding more folks from countries with lower footprints (translate: poor), in effect converting them from being "climate-friendly" entities in their native countries into carbon-spewing Americans.
This rather dubious Machiavellian proposition, of course, begs the obvious question:
How about we become "climate-friendly" Americans?
Problem solved. No deportations needed. Thanks for your Econcern.
There is enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.- Mahatma Gandhi
To be sure, enlisting environmentalists and environmental ideas to justify nativism dates back over 40 years. The Southern Poverty Law Center gives a timeline of how immigration and burgeoning population have been advanced as the root cause of most environmental degradation since Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb in 1968, warning that population would outstrip the earth's food supplies unless something was "done" to depress fertility in underdeveloped countries.
However, the recent anti-immigrant fervor -- stoked by the passing of Arizona's SB 1070 -- has turned up the volume substantially on the "immigrants are bad for the environment" notion, successfully co-opting legitimate growing concern among the general population about climate change and over-consumption for its xenophobic agenda.
In his recent article in The Nation, Greenwashing Nativism, NYU professor of social and cultural analysis, Andrew Ross, gives a good overview of the dynamics involved in the rising tide of environmental scapegoating and the major players behind it:
To commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day in April, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) updated and reissued its fifty-three-page report "The Environmentalist's Guide to a Sensible Immigration Policy." Fingering "immigration-related population growth" as the "principal cause" of urban sprawl, the report insisted that "so-called environmentalists pretend as if this connection does not exist." And what was FAIR's response to the land speculation, overdevelopment and three-car mentality that drive sprawl? As on nearly every issue, the solution, it said, was to cut immigration to the bone and put an end to the policy of family reunification.
In a recent press release, The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a spinoff of FAIR, warns that "wildlife populations are increasingly threatened by illegal immigration and the alien smugglers who are cutting paths through federally protected lands," and asks the question: "How long will these beautiful lands remain unspoiled if the border is not secured?"
In a now infamous case, Dan Millis, a volunteer with the faith-based organization No More Deaths, was convicted of "littering" for placing plastic bottles of water in the middle of one of the highest corridors of death along the Arizona border, a case that has since been overturned by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
And anti-immigration groups such as Population-Environment Balance, write in their mission statements:
Populations with relatively high standards of living in industrialized countries use large amounts of energy and generate disproportionately large per capita quantities of "greenhouse gases" (which cause global warming) and toxic pollutants, so even small population increases in such countries can have disproportionate adverse impacts.
In a 2003 interview in The New Scientist, Betsy Hartmann, director of the population and development program at Hampshire College, describes how the rekindled nativism gets oxygen from many well-intentioned people who have been seduced by The Greening of Hate:
I find even well-educated and well-meaning acquaintances have alarming responses on population issues. They believe the poor create their own problems by breeding, and it absolves the rest of us from responsibility. Even some committed feminists will scapegoat poor women’s fertility for the planet’s evils. It is a kind of ideological schizophrenia. Phrases like the population bomb and the population explosion breed racism.
To be sure, population is a complex and important topic in the context of climate change, loss of biodiversity and a host of other environmental problems. The planet's ecosystem could probably benefit from fewer humans. However, just as it is widely held that there can be no peace without justice, it is hard to imagine sustainability without justice.
A quick look at some numbers shows just how skewed the distribution of material wealth and pollution is on our planet.
In 2007, the United States emitted almost 6 billion metric tons of CO2 into the earth's atmosphere. That is 19.91% or 1/5 of all CO2 emitted worldwide, with less than 5%, or 1/20 of world population. Compare that to Mexico, a country that emits 1.61% of the world's CO2 with 1.58% of the world's population. Or El Salvador, which emits 0.02% of CO2 with 0.09% of the world's population. In other words, while a person living in the U.S. pumps 4 times his or her share of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a person living in Mexico is contributing exactly his/her share of our collective burden, and a person in El Salvador emits only 1/4 of his/her share.
These numbers, of course, are where FAIR and right wing spinoff groups like NumbersUSA and Population-Environment Balance find their fodder for immigrant bashing. Feeding off prominent ecologists such as William Rees and Thomas Lovejoy (who sit on the board of the Carrying Capacity Network), or David Attenborough, Paul Ehrlich, Jane Goodall, and James Lovelock (all patrons of UK-based Optimum Population Trust), they greenwash their xenophobia, in effect saying: "Don't take it personally, but you're destroying the planet by immigrating to the U.S." (or any other country that has a higher footprint than your native one).
The problem with this rather cynical "Take one for the Team" attitude should be pretty obvious, but the fact that so many sincerely eco-minded people seem to have subscribed to it (thus enabling the many more motivated by ulterior nativist motives) shows a disconnect from a very basic precept of justice.
Says Betsy Hartmann:
It all avoids looking at the real issues on our own doorstep—of over-consumption, for instance. On climate change, we hype up fears of rising emissions in "overpopulated" India rather than looking at our own consumption patterns. Better a one-child policy there than a one-car policy here. We don’t understand that communities all over the world can and do live in sustainable relationships with their environments.
A simple example: Let's say you have two boys. The older one has been getting allowance money for a few years and been spending it on ice cream and candy. He's been putting on a lot of weight and getting cavities. Now your younger one has reached the age to get an allowance. Obviously you don't want him to get diabetes and lose his teeth, but he really likes ice cream and says that it's only fair for him to spend all his money on ice cream since his older brother got to do it, too.
Wouldn't every fair-minded parent have a problem telling their younger son that he can't have ice cream while their older son goes on wolfing down the sugar bombs? And wouldn't the most common sense agreement sound something like this: "You know what, your brother has been eating way too much ice cream, more than is good for him. But how can I tell you not to do the same unless I tell him to eat less? So let's make a deal: You can have exactly as much ice cream as your brother, and my job will be to make sure that your brother gets his sweet tooth under control first.
It's as simple as that: Unless we in the rich, over-consuming countries get our
sweet oil tooth under control, we really have no credibility in trying to ration others, whether it's telling them to stay thrifty in their own countries or refuse them the right to come to our country because we don't want them to be as "big" as us. Not to mention that we could actually learn a thing or two about living less wasteful lives from immigrants.
As Greg Grandin writes in The Game Change
It (immigration) helps America's cities. I lived in Durham, North Carolina, for a few years, and for all the romance of Southern porch culture, it was mostly Latinos, nearly all of them undocumented laborers from Mexico and Central America, who were outside, facing the street, talking, listening to music, raising families. The city's more settled residents were inside with their air-conditioners and TVs. Throughout the United States, Latinos are re-energizing neighborhoods and populating downtowns, opening stores and pumping money into established small businesses. Not too long ago cities were rearguards of a progressive ethos in retreat. Today, with the help of Latinos, one of the fastest growing urban demographics, they are again vital hubs of social democracy. Google the words "Latinos," "cities" and "revitalize" and you will be led to any number of stories about how stressed city centers in Detroit, Dallas, Memphis, Newark and the Hudson Valley are being rescued by Latinos. No wonder the right hates them.
If we are sincerely concerned about the U.S.' inflated per capita carbon footprint, the most honest and just solution is to fight for clean energy, less waste, public transit, better urban design and a number of other structural, political and economic changes that will significantly reduce the CO2 and pollution each American resident produces. Once the U.S. gets closer to emission levels that are proportional to its share of world population (like Mexico, for example), the issue of immigrant "carbonbaggers" should no longer be of concern.
But as long as rich western countries' disproportionate consumption, pollution, and emissions contribute to poverty, drought and flooding in places with much smaller footprints, it's disingenuous to fault migrants for what Andrew Ross calls "their own carbon-conscious version of the retort offered by postcolonials when they settled in cities like London and Paris: We are here because you were there."
There can be no sustainable planet without environmental, economic and social justice. Anyone using climate change or ecological imbalance to promote anti-immigrant measures really just wants to eat their ice cream and not share.
All photos by Sven Eberlein, except for the b&w "almuerzo" in the street by Debra Baida
EcoJustice series discuss environmental justice, or the disproportionate impacts on human health and environmental effects on minority communities. All people have a human right to clean, healthy and sustainable communities.
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