No one would mistake President Donald Trump for an environmentalist. Yet his immigration policies could inadvertently safeguard the environment.
Here’s why. More than 325 million people live in the United States. By 2065, that figure is expected to grow to 441 million. Immigration will account for 88 percent of this increase.
If this growth materializes, we’ll have to bulldoze millions of acres of open spaces to build housing for 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, and U.S. greenhouse gas emissions will rise.
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.’”
They were right. Population growth is the chief driver of urban sprawl in America.
Look to Texas. The Lone Star State population grows by 450,000 people each year, forcing the state to build 115,000 new houses and 2,500 roads annually. Texas loses 120,000 acres of open space every year due to population growth. 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 food demand increases. America boasted 1.9 acres of cropland per resident in 1982. That number could drop as low as 0.3 acres by the end of the century if current trends continue.
A lack of farmland could send food prices soaring, thereby harming working-class families. Or farmers would convert pristine wild spaces into farms, using harmful pesticides and fertilizers to boost crop yields.
A growing population would also overtax fresh water sources. Consider California, which has suffered horrific droughts. 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, more sprawl, and less space for nonhuman inhabitants. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife 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 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.
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 who in turn sponsor more family members. Chain migration accounted for 70 percent of all legal immigration between 2005 and 2015.
Reducing chain migration would 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 Trump. But they should give his immigration proposals a second look. Curtailing immigration-fueled population growth is an essential element of any pursuit of a sustainable future.
Ryan James Girdusky is a writer based in New York.