This article is wrong-headed for many reasons. And the idea that immigration is a major environmental problem is offensive.
1. This idea that immigration is a threat to our environment assumes that somehow environmental issues stop at international borders and if we keep people out of our nation, our environment will be protected. Meanwhile, climate change imperils our wilderness areas whether people remain in Guatemala or try to improve their lives in the United States.
2. Even if the above assumption is strictly true when it comes to technical boundaries of wilderness, it assumes that environmental issues in the U.S. are somehow more important than environmental issues in other countries.
3. The entire argument that overpopulation is the major threat to the environment shifts the blame for environmental problems from rich people who consume a vast majority of the world's resources and onto poor people. Immigrants, because they are poor, are going to have a much smaller environmental footprint than a person with a house in the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico who commutes into Albuquerque for instance. Who is really to blame for climate change in that scenario--the person with the 3000 square foot mansion in the Sandias or 100 immigrants with their combined environmental footprint?
4. The focus on wilderness and the potential threats to it is emblematic of the white elitist form of environmentalism that has dominated the movement since the late 1970s. Rather than focus on the environmental problems of people and the ecosystems around them, Wolke worries about lands that most Americans will never visit. And while those lands have great value, this kind of argument does zilch to build the kind of bipartisan and electorally popular environmental movement of the 1960s that focused as much as the environment of the backyard as that of the alpine wilderness.
This isn't to say that overpopulation is a non-issue. But it certainly isn't the most important problem we have to face as environmentalists. And to reinforce the environmental movement as white and privileged, of which this article is guilty, does absolutely nothing to further a sustainable world.
While some may take offense, the reality is that overpopulation, which in the United States is driven largely by immigration, is a major global environmental problem, one we agree knows no borders. It is important for every country, including and maybe especially the United States, to stabilize its population. That can't be done in this country without limiting immigration. It's the indisputable numerical demographic that drives population growth in the U.S. Howie never implied that immigrants are any more of a problem than anyone else.
Overpopulation is the root cause and driver of all of humanity's other problems (in the U.S. and around the globe)—including climate change, water shortages, overcrowding, etc. Quite simply, the earth cannot indefinitely sustain an ever-expanding human population without major die-offs of other species. We think it's pretty darn important to recognize this issue, especially when no one seems willing to tackle it.
We agree that overconsumption is also a major problem, and it's well-known that industrialized nations use much more than their fair share of resources. That's an issue we'll try to address in another post.
There are many great organizations dedicated to important humanitarian and social/environmental justice work, but Wilderness Watch is the only national group working to ensure that America's great National Wilderness Preservation System stays wild.
--Wilderness Watch staff
Why on earth would it be especially important for the United States to stabilize its population? I don't understand why this would be so over other countries.
Also, you might think about writing about consumption in another post, but it's precisely the type of behavior that allows wealthy white people to be wilderness consumers that goes toward creating climate change, not immigrants. By far, the greenest place in the United States is Manhattan. If you are really worried about these problems, isn't it far better to move into a 500 square foot apartment in an urban center and not drive a car (and of course I don't have any idea of your lifestyle) and never burn fossil fuels to visit wilderness areas?
Immigration is essentially a non-issue to US environmental problems, particularly when compared to transportation infrastructure, housing policy, and personal consumption patterns. If you truly believe in these the sanctity of these wilderness areas, the best thing you can do is never visit them unless you walk or ride a bike. And if you do visit them and say that the peoples of the world should not be allowed to come to America (as your ancestors were allowed to do) is to say that only the wealthy (and mostly) white can benefit from visiting the wilderness.
And that's really screwed up.
One of the biggest threats to wilderness areas are the people who purport to love them and visit them all the time--because their burning of fossil fuels creates climate change and because of the desire of people to live in the "wilderburbs" of the West which breaks up wildlife habitat, forces people to buy gas guzzling 4x4 vehicles, and drive 50 miles into work and back.
Compared to this, the threat immigrants pose to wilderness is a drop in the bucket.
I think it would be very interesting to take a poll of the Wilderness Watch staff to see where they live, what kind of vehicles they drive, and gauge what their carbon footprint is.
Then we can compare that carbon footprint to the average person in Bangladesh, Zambia, or Indonesia. And we'll see if overpopulation is really the issue here.
Protection of Wilderness is your legitimate stated mission, and is a good thing.
It is unfortunate to allow partisan personal views to enter into this discussion. Human-hating radical ideas are one's right to hold, however such fringe statements diverge from the legitimate purpose of strongly defending Wilderness.
As a result of Howie’s essay “Wilderness and Overpopulation”, we’ve had – not unexpectedly – a few comments from folks who take issue with Howie. In a nutshell, their complaints are:
1. They are offended by the idea that immigration is a problem.
2. The ecological footprint of poor people, including immigrants, is much lower than that of affluent Americans, including those who frequently drive to visit wilderness areas.
3. An emphasis on wilderness is elitist since few people in general and very few poor people ever visit wilderness, and this emphasis does little to build effective political coalitions of people working on obvious immediate environmental concerns such as air and water pollution, toxic chemicals, etc.
4. They are offended by Howie’s assertion that reducing the U.S. population may be “especially important”, compared with other countries.
5. Lack of a discussion on over-consumption.
6. One writer from Texas challenged the Wilderness Watch staff’s lifestyles (while knowing nothing about them) and suggested that they should move to a 500 square foot apartment in New York, the “greenest” place in America, based on the ecological footprint of those who travel little and live in apartments.
Howie Wolke responds:
We at Wilderness Watch certainly appreciate critical opinions, but I think that these folks should carefully re-read my essay, leaving their ideological baggage behind. A sacred cow for some Americans is immigration. My essay never blamed individual immigrants for anything, but it is a demographic fact that immigration is responsible for most of today’s population growth in the United States. So if the U.S. is to stabilize and hopefully reduce its population, reducing immigration must be included in the equation. It’s simple mathematics, nothing more.
Obviously, we’re all either immigrants or descended from immigrants and it should be equally obvious that most immigrants aspire to become affluent. Which is why I suggested that stabilizing the U.S. population may be more important than anywhere else, simply because Americans consume so much, so inefficiently, and thus our per-capita ecological footprint trumps all. But yes, of course it’s a global problem. Yet policies are enacted by nations, and the U.S. is one of a dwindling number with no population policy. We need one, and its goal should be to reverse population growth and stabilize it. Let’s begin to take care of our little corner of the world as we also encourage others to take care of theirs.
We at Wilderness Watch agree that over-consumption and inefficient use of resources -- especially energy -- are bigger problems in the U.S. than most anywhere else. That just wasn’t the focus of my essay. As a writer, you can’t do justice to every problem at once. We are a wilderness group. Despite our individual concerns about other environmental problems and social issues, all of which are connected, we focus on wilderness and therefore we are effective at what we do: work to keep wilderness wild. I chose to discuss overpopulation because few others choose to, and because population growth is fundamental to the degradation of wilderness.
A couple of comments belittled the importance of wilderness. I’ll simply say that if you have no love for wildness, if you can’t appreciate or be open to the magic of the Earth’s most basic and most wondrous primordial environment, then nothing I can say here is likely to change your mind.
What I cannot ignore are personal attacks directed toward our staff. For the record, the entire Wilderness Watch staff lives in the city of Missoula, Montana. They live in modest abodes, mostly bike, walk, and bus-ride their short commute to the office, drive fuel-efficient vehicles, and they tend to buy primarily products that they need, including organic and locally produced foods, when possible. I’m a bit less pure; I live in a remote rural area and I drive too much.
It also occurs to me that yes, while the average urban New Yorker’s ecological footprint is relatively slight, New York is hardly a very green place. It’s mostly concrete. And if few visit or live near our remaining wild places, I guarantee that few will defend them.
So I shall not consider a move to New York City, as the fellow from Texas suggested for us Wilderness Watchers. For one thing, I would likely be incarcerated for any of numerous possible anti-social behaviors that I would quickly display as a result of being closed in and crowded like a rat in a maze. I’ll remain here, near Yellowstone, where I can continue my efforts to impact society’s outlook toward and efforts to preserve, real wilderness.
Upon reading Howie Wolke's response, largely to my critique, I should like to reply. I will say that I am mildly outraged that my comments were deleted (or in the 2nd comment, not posted) allowing you to say that I personally attacked Wilderness Watch staffers (which was not my point) without the public being able to read the comments. That kind of strategy hardly creates a space for open discussion.
And while I assume this comment will not be published (and that's fine), this seems to be the best way to communicate with you, which is worthwhile to do. So I will leave my outrage over the comments behind to make a couple of points:
1. To be quite clear on who I am and my own perspective, I am an environmental historian and college professor who teaches about wilderness and writes about logging in the Pacific Northwest. I grew up in Oregon hiking the Three Sisters Wilderness. So don't assume that I or others who critique these ideas don't appreciate wilderness.
2. Re-reading my comments about the potential of Wilderness Watch staffers to contribute to climate change, it is quite clear that this was not a personal attack upon them, but a simple question. If we are critiquing threats to wilderness, should we not start with own personal consumption patterns rather than point our attention to the world's poor? So again, that was a deeply unfair attack upon what I was saying, which actually publishing the comment would have shown.
But more to the point--I want to posit a few statements that I hope can potentially create constructive dialogue over these very important issues.
1. The environmental movement was most successful when it focused on the problems of people rather than of lands most people will never visit. 1960s legislation combined wilderness protection with protecting the bodies of human beings from the products of industrialized nature. It was a popular, bipartisan movement. While the evolution of environmentalism into a movement that, in the U.S. anyway, is dominated by protecting faraway lands and charismatic endangered species is complex, it has been politically disastrous.
2. The frequent criticism of environmentalists as elitist and even antisocial is difficult to refute with this post. Again, it is not that population growth is a non-issue. But by saying that certain people get to visit these lands and other people do not (which is essentially the upshot of restricting immigration for this reason), you are working toward codifying environmental elitism into the law. And this then reinforces the criticism that my friends in the immigrant rights and social justice movements lob--that environmentalism is racist. I don't want this to be true. But it's hard to argue with it here, even if there was no racism intended.
Again, it is not that immigration is not an issue, but that it is such a tiny issue within the larger cluster of issues facing the planet. And like the period when the Zero Population Growth racists combined with the animal rights activists to nearly take over the Sierra Club, this allows environmentalists to be tainted as racist and antisocial. And again, an environmental movement not focused on people is an environmental movement doomed to fail politically. Even as people working on wilderness, this truism has to be central in your minds. If you can't make, say, African-American voters in the east side of Cleveland believe that wilderness is important to them, than you cannot create the diverse, multi-generational movement necessary to create permanent change in this country. That's true of any issue, but for some reason, environmentalists often have trouble understanding this.
3. I highly recommend "Green Manhattan," the David Owen piece from The New Yorker, which argues that Manhattan is the most environmentally friendly place in the United States.
From any standard of measurement, this is true and worth considering by the wilderness movement or any other aspect of the environmental movement.
4. Wilderness does not have inherent values; it is a cultural construction reflecting specific historically constructed desires of Americans to escape the cities. I highly recommend William Cronon's "The Trouble with Wilderness," which I assume you are already familiar with. Like Cronon, I do not believe that "wilderness," as we construct it, does not have value, but rather that it is created, bounded, and defended in response to America's centuries long discomfort and distrust of cities.
As it stands, I will be incorporating Wolke's piece into my environmental history courses of the future--as an example of the antisocial nature of environmentalism that has made it increasingly irrelevant as a political movement in this country. To me, this is precisely the wrong kind of environmentalism, one that is elitist, a political loser, and which marginalizes the concerns of people in favor of promoting abstract landscapes which do not help create a sustainable world.
However, I fully admit that I am perhaps wrong. I am open to other arguments and in that spirit, I urge you to open a conversation about these matters rather than cut off debate. Frankly, these issues are too important to not discuss openly. I would be more than happy to have this discussion in any forum that Mr. Wolke or any member of Wilderness Watch might choose. My e-mail is email@example.com
Dr. Erik Loomis
Visiting Assistant Professor
Department of History
College of Wooster (Assistant Professor of History at the University of Rhode Island beginning in the fall of 2011)
PS--at the very least, this reminded me to change my profile to note that I no longer teach in Texas.
Thank you! Thank you for bringing up a topic so few will broach, even in simple conversation among friends. I am not a blogger, never have used much social media, but upon viewing the all too typical 'humans are better than our environment' response, I felt inclined to respond, and let you know this gal and her sisters have spoken on this exact topic since we were teenagers, many decades ago.
Your article was so well written and echoed our sentiments exactly, that human overpopulation is a scourge on this once beautiful, and yes, perfect, planet. We are the definition of insanity, the degradation we have placed on our life blood. Overpopulation is a choice, and humans choice has brought a living nightmare to earth's environments. Simple. It is long overdue that people stop being apathetic and having the 'I want what I want!' attitude, skimming along oblivious to why they feel anxious and angry.
Thanks also to the amazing people who staff Wilderness Watch in various ways.