- - Tuesday, April 24, 2018

No one would mistake President Trump for an environmentalist. Yet his immigration policies could inadvertently safeguard the environment far better than any proposal from Greenpeace or the Sierra Club.

Here’s why. Right now, more than 325 million people live in the United States. By 2065, that figure is expected to grow by more than a third to 441 million. Immigration will account for 88 percent of this projected increase, according to Pew Research.

If this growth materializes, we’ll have to bulldoze millions of acres of open spaces to build housing for the new arrivals. To feed a larger population, we’ll have to convert more forests and grasslands to farms. Further ecosystem destruction will occur, more species will be threatened or driven to outright extinction, and U.S. greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise.

None of these harmful outcomes are inevitable. We have a choice. Environmentalists can prevent this ecological catastrophe by supporting humane reductions in future immigration levels.

Sensible limits on immigration were once the mainstream environmentalist position. The Sierra Club’s first executive director, David Brower, remarked, “Overpopulation is perhaps the biggest problem facing us, and immigration is part of the problem.” The founder of Earth Day, Sen. Gaylord Nelson, commented that “it’s phony to say ‘I’m for the environment but not for limiting immigration.’ It’s just a fact that we can’t take all the people who want to come here.”



They were right. Population growth is the chief driver of urban sprawl in America’s cities and suburbs.

Look what’s happening in Texas. The Lone Star State population is growing by 450,000 people each year. That forces the state to build roughly 115,000 new houses and 2,500 roads annually. Texas loses 120,000 acres of open space — an area about three times larger than Washington, D.C. — every year due to development associated with population growth. A recent press release from the Center for Biological Diversity noted that “Soaring human populations are putting incredible pressure on endangered animals in Texas and across the Southwest. We’re crowding out wildlife and destroying wild places at an alarming pace.”

Sprawl results in a sharp reduction in farmland per capita — even as the demand for food increases. America boasted 1.9 acres of cropland for every resident back in 1982. That number could drop as low as 0.3 acres per resident by the end of the century if current population growth and development trends continue.

In the worst-case scenario, a lack of farmland could send food prices soaring, thereby harming working-class families. In the best-case scenario, farmers would be forced to convert pristine wild spaces into farms. And they’d have to use harmful pesticides and fertilizers to boost crop yields. Widespread adoption of organic and sustainable farming practices would be out of the question.

A growing population would also overtax aquifers and other sources of fresh water. Consider California, which in recent years has suffered horrific droughts that forced communities to ration water.

If not for foreign arrivals, the Golden State’s population would be relatively stable. The state has a below-average birth rate and experiences net outflows of current residents. About 6 million Californians moved to other states in the past decade, while only 5 million people from other states moved to California.

But due to immigration, California’s population is set to grow from roughly 40 million today to 44 million by 2030. That means more pressure on limited water resources — as well as more sprawl and upward pressure on rents and home prices. It also means less space or degraded habitats for the state’s nonhuman inhabitants. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, in its Atlas of the Biodiversity of California, states unequivocally, “Habitat loss due to human population growth presents the single biggest problem facing native plants and animals in California.”

A growing population also means that, even as per-capita carbon emissions decline thanks to the adoption of clean energy technologies, the nation’s total emissions could increase. Population growth was responsible for nearly 30 percent of the increase in U.S. emissions between 1997 and 2007.

Mr. Trump’s proposed limits on “chain migration” would prevent such emissions and sprawl. Currently, legal immigrants are allowed to sponsor non-nuclear family members for admittance into the United States. The process results in a “chain” of migrants, as each green-card holder sponsors additional family members, who in turn sponsor even more family members. Chain migration accounted for 70 percent of all legal immigration between 2005 and 2015.

This system runs on autopilot — American citizens have little say in how many people arrive each year.

Reducing chain migration would significantly curb population growth. And the changes would only affect future immigration levels. So no immigrants currently living in the United States would have to leave.

Environmentalists rarely agree with Mr. Trump. But they should give his immigration proposals a second look. Curtailing immigration-fueled population growth is an essential element of any path forward in pursuit of a healthy, ecologically sustainable future.

Ryan James Girdusky is a writer based in New York.

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