The End Of The Population Movement

On a typically bright and sunny day on the corner of 24th and Mission in San Francisco, the trade in forged birth certificates and Social Security cards flows with the same efficiency as the burrito shops that surround the BART rail station. On this day I watched three people order or pick up their papers in the period of an hour, none of them appearing concerned that he or she was breaking the law.

This reality is an open secret in America, deemed unacceptable by those on both sides of the aisle, from Ted Kennedy to Rush Limbaugh. In recent years American exclusionists have tried to turn the need to reform immigration procedures into a crusade against foreigners.

In the last decade, one of the ugliest battles over immigration has occurred here in San Francisco, as immigration-control activists have tried to seize the agenda of the nation's oldest and largest grass-roots environmental group, the Sierra Club.

At first blush, immigration and environmentalism have little connection, and that has been the argument made by most of the club's volunteer and staff leaders. They have tried to deflect the exclusionists with a position of “neutrality,” stating that the Sierra Club shall take no position on the question of immigration. During the first modern battle over this topic, I served as president of the Sierra Club and spearheaded the successful campaign to defeat the insurgent takeover efforts. But I was unable at the time to convince the club that neutrality as a position is politically impractical and bad for the environment. In fact, it is possible to be pro-immigration in ways that are good for immigrants, good for America, and good for sustainable development.

The argument I'll propose in this article is that the population discourse undercuts progressive goals and instead helps right-wing exclusionists and those with little compassion for humans. To be effective, well-meaning population activists need to be open to leaving behind their existing framework and allow their work to be described as a women's empowerment and sustainable-development movement.

“Population control” frames the problem as too many people, and even worse, as too many poor people. Within this framework, one set of issues counts (including immigration, contraception, and abortion), while another set of key issues (the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, economic development, the rights of women, and poverty) remains outside. In the population-control frame, the number of people and their placement on the planet is the root problem that needs to be solved. But is that really the problem? Family planning has succeeded only where economic security has been improved for women, including access to food and shelter, health care, and education. With this as background, the real population problem may be the treatment of women on the planet.

A related challenge is to reject the Malthusian premise that more people will necessarily deplete resources and lead to human and ecological ruin. As technology and human understanding evolve, it is possible to sustain a large population with decent living standards, and without plundering the planet -- but not if billions of poor people are left to scratch out a living in dwindling rain forests and expanding deserts doubly threatened by the desperation of the poor and the rapacity of the rich.

Here's the paradox: If we reject the population-control frame in favor of the goals of women's emancipation and sustainable development, we may achieve a healthier and more stable population, without inviting the unwelcome embrace of ugly exclusionists. It's an ideal time to make the change: The global population growth rate peaked more than a decade ago and is now declining. The annual growth rate in 1963 was 2.2. percent; today it's closer to 1.2 percent. Today's population of 6 billion people will become 9 billion people in the next 50 years, and then it will begin to decline.

My hope is that those people who describe themselves as population activists for historical reasons, who already find themselves working for women's emancipation and sustainable development, will seize this moment to challenge the population orthodoxies and allow their work to move forward without the baggage of the population framework. Today they're fighting a losing battle against history, language, and commonly understood mythologies that attract the wrong types of allies. An emerging new movement could seek to unleash human potential, build human dignity, and allow women across the globe the choice to have a small family, go to school, and pursue employment outside of the house. To this end, a pro-immigrant, pro-America immigration policy can demonstrate that, with planning and thought, we can help people achieve their dreams while allowing us to continue ours. The Sierra Club, and the population movement as a whole, will never stop the debate over immigration policy until we leave the population framework behind and allow a new movement to grow.


In the 1960s, Paul Ehrlich was a young assistant professor at Stanford, fascinated by the emerging resource challenge of population growth. After he delivered a high-profile speech at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club, David Brower, the legendary executive director of the Sierra Club, approached him about turning the speech into a book. Three weeks later, Ehrlich and his wife, Anne, produced The Population Bomb, which would become the founding text of a new global effort to control the size of the world's population.

Ehrlich's wife co-wrote the book, but the publisher thought that it would sell better if Paul's was the only name on the cover and Anne's was left off. Despite the fact that Paul and Anne are quite forward-thinking when it comes to their vision of population control, the publisher's simple act of leaving Anne's name off the book is a fitting metaphor for how women have been viewed by the population movement. A short while later, Paul Ehrlich was invited to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and the Ehrlichs' 95-page book was imprinted on the American psyche as the framework for understanding the significance of the size of the world's population.

At that time a new collection of activists -- combining suburbanites wanting to protect the wide open spaces of the West and internationalists worried about global poverty -- formed an uneasy alliance behind the concept of reducing the size of the global population as a means of protecting the planet.

In 1980, University of Maryland professor Julian Simon famously challenged Ehrlich. Simon invited Ehrlich to pick five metals worth $1,000 in 1980 dollars, and offered a wager. If the 1990 price of the metals was more than $1,000, Ehrlich would win; if the value of the metals after inflation was less than $1,000, Simon would win. The bet was centered around demand and scarcity. Would more people and more consumption make metals more rare, and therefore more expensive? Or would scarcity induce invention and substitution, and lower prices?

Ehrlich chose copper, nickel, tin, chrome, and tungsten. By 1990, the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Day, all five metals were below their inflation-adjusted price level in 1980. Ehrlich lost the bet and sent Simon a check.

In the early 19th century, Thomas Malthus had similarly projected that that the core impact of population growth was to be found in food scarcity. Malthus' hypothesis was that unchecked population growth would always exceed the available means of subsistence and a series of “positive checks,” like disease and starvation, and “preventative checks,” like the postponement of marriage, would keep balance in society.

Ehrlich wrote, “The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” United Nations figures show that over the past 30 years among developing countries as a group, the percentage of undernourished people in the population has decreased from 37 percent to 18 percent. While there have been an unconscionable number of deaths in the 20th century from famine, there has been nothing like the cataclysm predicted by Ehrlich.

In the last decade there have been a number of efforts that have moved beyond the population framework. They are not described as “population” efforts. In fact, most of the work done by population activists today would not be associated with “population control” by the public if population activists didn't self-describe the work in that fashion.

Take the case of 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai. She's launched a new effort, Women for Change. Among its goals:

  • Assist young girls and women [who are facing] the challenges of growing up, making complex decisions about their sexual and reproductive health, and [helping them to gain] knowledge and skills to protect themselves from hiv and aids.

  • Facilitate … income-generating activities such as tree planting, beekeeping, and food processing to engender economic empowerment.

  • Promote healthy eating habits through indigenous and nutritious foods.

Since 1977, Maathai's Greenbelt Movement in Kenya has focused on empowering women through natural-resource protection as a means of economic development. Giving women more choices will inevitably give them the freedom to choose to have a smaller family without fear of losing children in childbirth or to disease.

By contrast, “population” projects bring up many cultural references, nearly all of them bad. From Nazi-era eugenics to forced sterilizations, the population framework is indelibly linked to colonial paternalism. Family-planning clinics are the most benign of these, but it's widely accepted that they need to fit into a larger network of rural health-care efforts and sustainable development. If the goal is purely population control, allowing hiv to rage unchecked in Africa would be a solution worthy of Jonathan Swift.

This brings us back to immigration. Many, if not most, population activists have attempted to steer clear of the issue for moral and political reasons. But this lingering debate is a compelling argument for moving beyond the population movement.


About 11 million people in America are unauthorized migrants. About 57 percent of these migrants are Mexican, and another 24 percent are from other Latin American countries. It's fair to say that when people are talking about illegal immigration into the United States they are speaking of Latino immigrants. In 1990 only 12 percent of unauthorized immigrants lived outside the big six settlement states of California, New York, Texas, Illinois, Florida, and New Jersey; today 39 percent live outside these states. Their arrival has made it impossible to turn on right-wing talk radio and not hear someone ranting about immigrants.

To understand immigration, we need to understand why immigrants choose to leave their families and hometowns and decide to move to the United States. The majority of immigrants moving to the United States from Latin America do so for economic reasons. Why?

  • Ineffective, corrupt governments like Mexico's profiteering pri, which ruled Mexico from 1934 to 2000.

  • Economic dislocation caused by global trade -- for example, the post–NAFTA collapse of the Mexican corn market brought on by the flood of cheap U.S. corn caused thousands of peasant farmers from the southern state of Chiapas to seek work in the United States.

  • The great Mexican baby boom.

In 1970 the fertility rate for Mexican women was about seven children per mother; today, with modest progress toward women's emancipation and middle-class aspirations, it's just a little more than two children. Because fertility is down, Mexico's rate of population growth has slowed. By 2010 the number of immigrants will begin to decrease.

Immigrants may not have legal documents, but many, if not most, obtain document forgeries that entitle them to pay taxes that they'll never benefit from. A recent New York Times article estimated that unauthorized immigrants pay about $7 billion a year into the Social Security system. Immigrants also pay the most regressive of taxes, the sales tax, which helps pay for policing, roads, and fire stations.

Many in the right-wing anti-immigration movement want to keep Mexicans out on crudely nativist grounds. Environmentalists committed to population control end up with more refined arguments but the same bottom line: fewer immigrants. They contend that a Mexican, once assimilated into the United States, begins to consume like an American, and the planet can hardly afford more Americans. But consider the practical alternatives.

In southern Mexico, on the Guatemala border, is the Lacandon rainforest, an impenetrable mass of hardwoods and canopy and home to rare birds like the quetzal. I've visited this forest a number of times over the last 15 years and I've seen its decline as peasants from Mexico and Guatemala have tried to clear land to scratch out a living. As someone who loves rainforests, it's difficult to witness the Lacandon's destruction, but it's impossible to deny people who are barely surviving the opportunity to eat. These displaced peasants are casualties of global forces. From an ecological perspective, it would be better to have these displaced migrants on farmland that can support them and allow the rainforest to remain intact.

In this equation lies an answer to our immigration challenge. Mexico has people to spare, at least for the next 20 years, and America has land that needs people: the Great Plains.


Since 1920, the Great Plains -- covering 10 states with an almost mystical flatness -- have lost about a third of their population. One-third of all counties in the Great Plains -- 900,000 square miles -- have fewer than six people per square mile. My wife's grandfather worked a farm in Bazine, Kansas, all his life. By the time he was ready to retire, no one in his family wanted the farm. When he finally found a buyer, he sold the house and the land for $4,000. The Great Plains are once again America's frontier.

The idea of filling up the Midwest with aspirational settlers is not a new one. It was Abraham Lincoln who signed the Homestead Act to provide western land to settlers, kicking aside Native Americans, a mistake that does not need to be repeated. Immigrants are already moving to the Midwest; in the last decade, 85 percent of the labor-force growth in the state of Illinois came from immigration.

It's time now for a new movement to rekindle the aspirational American dream, first for those Americans displaced by Hurricane Katrina and those who can't afford an apartment in San Francisco or New York, but also for the teeming masses of people who can help make America hunger for excellence again. In the process, we can also set aside a massive new Buffalo Commons to give nature back the land it requires.

Targeted migration is one way of guiding immigration so that it works for Americans and for immigrants. Yet the broader need is to make it possible for people to earn a living in their own countries.

Today the free flow of people and goods across borders in Europe provides a model for North American integration. The flood of immigrants across the border won't be stopped by force; it will stop once North American economies hit an equilibrium that allows some Mexicans to find work at home and others to find opportunities on empty U.S. farmland and in small, emptied towns. As Mexico becomes a more productive, higher-wage society, there will be less pull to the United States.

These ideas -- targeted migration, economic integration, and women's emancipation -- all fit together into a new strategy that rejects “population control” in favor of an unleashing of human potential. If we're successful at moving beyond the population movement and toward an integrated economic development and women's rights movement, we'll stand a much better chance of creating a world where we all can live.

Adam Werbach formerly served as the national president of the Sierra Club and is currently launching a new progressive film club.