The bumper sticker I’m brandishing on my car now proclaims: "If You Want Peace, Work for Justice," a slogan I interpret to mean that if we want to coexist in harmony, we need a level playing field. Isn’t that the true meaning of "Justice"?
It’s idealistic for sure, but if we took all the world’s wealth and divided it evenly among every citizen of Earth, we’d all be, well…pretty comfortable. (Bear in mind there are a good number of people on this planet who have as much wealth as do some some small nations.) If every community had enough resources to pay for quality education, health care and housing—and ensured meaningful opportunity for all—it would have a medicinal effect across the entire spectrum of society’s ills.
Unfortunately, not only is the world’s wealth concentrated in few hands, but billions of people live in squalid conditions with little hope of improving their lot. Try to imagine being chronically hungry, with no source of clean drinking water and raising children you can’t afford to send to school. For people faced with these unbearable living conditions, one of the few choices available is to seek a better life elsewhere.
As Americans living in the world’s wealthiest country, we need to understand the forces that drive so many to knock on our door. We could play a progressive role in alleviating global poverty, but we’ve largely abdicated that responsibility. As just one example, under Reagan and both Bush Administrations, the U.S. cut family planning aid to developing countries, sabotaging any progress that might be made in reducing human numbers and thus contributing to the pressure cooker environment that fuels peoples" need to flee.
Population is an important environmental issue because growth in human numbers undermines gains that might be achieved by reducing per capita resource use. And this is especially true in the U.S., where new residents take on the consumption habits of the most gluttonous nation on the planet.
But does this mean we should concentrate inordinately on keeping people out? In the end, we won’t reduce population pressures by building walls around America. Instead, we should join forces with international aid organizations to reduce the poverty, inequity and insecurity that has led to a global population explosion. This is ultimately what needs to be done to safeguard the global environment while promoting human rights, peace and justice.
Our cover story this issue focuses on California, where immigration is the main factor in the population growth that threatens the state’s ecology. It’s hardly surprising that California suffers recurrent energy and water crises. The state’s electric grid and limited water supply are ill-prepared for any form of population explosion.
In the end, we have to talk about immigration when we’re talking about U.S. population growth because the impact is considerable. But it’s plain selfish to allow our concern to stop at our borders or to ignore the human tragedy that is fueling a modern global exodus. After all, immigrants aren’t coming here from Mars; they’re citizens of the global commons, just like us.