Too Much of a Good Thing

Environmental Commentary by Tom Horton

What if they held an environmental crisis and no one cared?

What if a law moving through Congress would significantly harm clean water, open space, Chesapeake Bay?

You’d hear the alarms, strong and clear, from the largest national groups to the smallest Chesapeake organizations.

But you won’t, because this law is “only” about population, about significantly increasing the number of people who will be living in the United States and around the Chesapeake.

The law, which has passed the U.S. Senate and gone to the House with broad, bipartisan backing, is a comprehensive reform of our outdated immigration laws.

Immigration is almost synonymous with the substantial growth of population occurring in this country. That’s because the only other source of growth, births to people already here, has been for some time around replacement level.

And immigration is a touchy and complex issue, one that few environmental groups will talk about. They prefer to work to reduce our per capita environmental impacts, never mind that ever expanding numbers of us inevitably offset much of their good works.

Most of what has been written about the immigration reform before Congress has focused on what to do about the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants already here.

That’s an important issue, which can only responsibly be resolved by providing a path to citizenship, combined with measures to prevent another 11 million from coming in under the radar. The current bill makes a laudable start on that.

Far too little has aired about the dramatic population increases the same reform measure would promote through changes to legal immigration.

Some numbers:

Throughout U.S. history until 1990, immigrants legally entering the country averaged about 300,000 a year—not many more than the number leaving the United States permanently in recent decades.

Since 1990, the numbers arriving have averaged closer to a million a year, making us the fastest growing of all developed nations, and the third most populous after China and India.

Estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and other analysts are that passage of the current bill will increase those coming here to 1.5 to 2 million a year.

Even after subtracting for an expected decrease in undocumented immigrants, that still puts the nation on track to go from 315 million Americans to around 445 million by 2050, an increase of more than 40 percent.

For the Chesapeake Bay, with a watershed population that has roughly tracked or exceeded the national growth rate, this translates to more than 24 million, up from 17 million.

My point here is not that immigration is a bad thing, or that we blame our environmental woes on immigrants; and it’s not that environmental groups should give up working on the issues they’re working on now.

But we’ve also learned that like the essential plant nutrients such as nitrogen which are degrading the bay, too much of a good thing — including humans with aspirations for a better life — can overwhelm the rest of nature.

Does anyone really think that we can grow so smartly, or cook up such technologies that we can offset tripling the bay’s population from the 8 million or so who lived here when it was last healthy?

The immigration reform bill is rich in irony. It represents some of the best that is in us — diversity, freedom, a better life — with its path to citizenship for millions now here and disenfranchised. But it also represents a colossal failure of our environmental leadership to even acknowledge the full scope of the problems they take your money to fix.

The bill now in Congress has many good points aside from its amnesty for most of those here without green cards. It would shift the emphasis on new immigrants away from just bringing more family members in, to fulfilling work related needs.

It’s also got the usual grab bag of smarmy deals, like special exemptions for cruise boat repair workers (take a bow, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida).

In other words, there’s much to debate but virtually no debate at all on the large increase in sheer numbers that will erode environmental gains across the board.

Republican interests like bigger numbers because they bring a bigger and maybe cheaper labor pool. Democrats and some environmentalists like bigger numbers because immigrants tend to vote Democrat. Latino newcomers will more likely back climate change legislation than white Americans, suggests the estimable activist and writer Bill McKibben.

Others say we need a growing stream of immigrants to pay for Social Security — as if they won’t ever want their Social Security, too?

It’s a perfect, and perfectly shortsighted, storm; a bet that somehow the numbers won’t catch up with us.

For information, visit, a “virtual organization” of leading conservationists refreshingly focused on both the consumption and population sides of our environmental problems.

Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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