Saturday, June 14, 2008

Book Recommendations: Immigration and Population Issues

I've added a list of book recommendations in the sidebar. The only one I need to qualify is How Many Americans?: Population, Immigration, and the Environment, by Leon F. Bouvier and Lindsey Grant.

I'm not sure how many times I picked this book up and set it back down before committing to reading it. The title alone made me feel defensive. If it was going to be bashing immigrants, I had no stomach for it. Simply put, I don't recognize borders. They are imaginary, divisive things. We are one species and I don't believe that any individual has more of a right to occupy a particular place on this planet than anyone else. So if this book was going to be saying, "Keep out all those d*** foreigners", it wasn't going to be worth my time.

Well, I'm glad I gave this book a chance, because it ended up being very thought-provoking and fairly persuasive in its argument. And it served as a good reminder to me not just to read things I know I already agree with, but to lend an ear (or eyeball) to opposing viewpoints as well.

I've been keenly interested in population issues and believe overpopulation to be the No. 1 critical issue we face. All of our other problems are stemming from too many people on too small a planet. Until I read this book, though, I had never considered that the U.S. might be suffering from overpopulation. What's a measly 304 million people in this vast land compared to the populations of India and China? It hardly seems significant.

Yet, the authors' projections for population growth here in the U.S. were alarming. They could be way off-base--projections are notorious for that. But the book was first published in 1994 and here fourteen years later it turns out their projections so far were actually conservative. (I wish I had the book handy right now so I could share the figures, which we could then compare with these: Population Clock. Darn it! I'll edit in the figures as soon as I can.) [Okay, here they are: the authors estimated that we would reach 300 million people in 2012. We actually hit that mark in October of 2006, which means the curve is much steeper than even the authors had predicted.]

The book got me thinking about immigration in new ways. I'm not sure what I believe, but at least this book challenged me to think in new ways. Here are some things I wrote in my journal right after I finished the book (don't hold me to any of my crackpot ideas, please):

Regarding borders...

If there were no borders of course people in marginal lands would move in droves to more productive places, which would then in time become over-exploited until people moved on to the next best place and so on. There would still be suffering but (if I can claim such a thing) more equitable suffering.

Regarding immigration...

What I had never really thought through until now is this: in these extremely dire times, closed borders (which is not at all what the authors were proposing--they were proposing serious limits, but not outright restrictions) might be our only hope. Not just for the U.S. but for the planet. If we stop immigration and lower fertility, ultimately decreasing our population, we will be able to preserve groundwater, forests and other vital environmental resources, prevent more species from going extinct, and perhaps a still (relatively) green America might offset some of the massive environmental degradation elsewhere. A green America, in a world out of ecological balance, could potentially be the thing that staves off total environmental collapse worldwide. Who knows? After all, Americans consume something like 20-40 times more resources than people in third world countries, so each person you add to the population here in the U.S. has a huge negative global impact.

Here, Jared Diamond, one of my favorite "big-picture" people, talks about population and consumption. He states that individuals in first-world countries consume 32 times more resources and produce 32 times more waste than individuals in third-world countries, and that it is consumption that matters far more than sheer population numbers. The problem, he says, is not merely how many people are crowding the planet, but how many times how much. Six, seven, or eight billion people, if they've all acquired the American lifestyle, would create quite a different world than the one we have now (or quite possibly no world at all).

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