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. …