Minnesotans For Sustainability©


Home ] Up ] Feedback Please ] Table of Contents ] Search MFS ] MFS News ]

Sustainable Society:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.







The Environmental Movement’s
Retreat from Advocating
U.S. Population Stabilization (1970–1998):

A First Draft of History*

Roy Beck and Leon Kolankiewicz
May 2000


Population Issues and the 1970-Era Environmental Movement
The Missing Issue in 1998
Reviewing the Rejected "Foundational Formula" of 1970-Era Environmentalism
Cause #1: U.S. Fertility Dropped Below Replacement-Level Rate in 1972
Cause#2: Abortion and Contraceptive Politics Created Organized Opposition
Cause #3: Emergence of Women’s Issues as Priority Concern of Population Groups
Cause #4: Schism Between the Conservationist and New-Left Roots of the Movement
Cause #5: Immigration —Protected by "Political Correctness"— Became the Chief Cause of U.S. Growth

The years surrounding 1970 marked the coming of age of the modern environmental movement. As that movement enters its fourth decade, perhaps the most striking change is the virtual abandonment by national environmental groups of U.S. population stabilization as an actively pursued goal.

How did the American environmental movement change so radically? Answering that question will be a challenging assignment for historians. The authors are not historians. We have spent most of our lives as a journalist and an environmental scientist, respectively. But to the historians who eventually take up the task, we have many suggestions of where to look.

To begin to understand why that retreat has occurred and the significance of the retreat, it will be important to review the 1970-era movement and its population roots.

Population Issues and the 1970-Era Environmental Movement

Around 1970, U.S. population and environmental issues were widely and publicly linked.

In environmental "teach-ins" across America, college students of the time heard repetitious proclamations on the necessity of stopping U.S. population growth in order to reach environmental goals; and the most public of reasons for engaging population issues was to save the environment. The nation’s best-known population group, Zero Population Growth (ZPG) —founded by biologists concerned about the catastrophic impacts of ever more human beings on the biosphere— was outspokenly also an environmental group. And many of the nation’s largest environmental groups had or were considering "population control" as major planks of their environmental prescriptions for America.

As Stewart Udall (Secretary of the Interior during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations) wrote in The Quiet Crisis: "Dave Brower [executive director of the Sierra Club] expressed the consensus of the environmental movement on the subject in 1966 when he said, ‘We feel you don’t have a conservation policy unless you have a population policy.’"1 Brower encouraged Stanford University biologist and ZPG cofounder Paul Ehrlich to write The Population Bomb, published in 1968, which surpassed even Rachel Carson’s landmark work, Silent Spring, to become the best-selling ecology book of the 1960s.2 Ehrlich’s polemic echoed and amplified population concerns earlier raised by two widely read books, both published in 1948: Our Plundered Planet, by Fairfield Osborn, chairman of the Conservation Foundation, and Road to Survival, by William Vogt, a former Audubon Society official who later became the national director of Planned Parenthood.3

The seeming consensus among leaders of the nascent environmental movement was paralleled, and bolstered, by widespread agreement among influential researchers and scholars in the natural sciences throughout the 1960s and 1970s.4 The importance attached to each country’s stopping its own population growth was not confined to the United States. In 1972, Great Britain’s leading environmental magazine, The Ecologist, published the hard-hitting Blueprint for Survival, supported by thirty-four distinguished biologists, ecologists, doctors, and economists, including Sir Julian Huxley, Peter Scott, and Sir Frank Fraser-Darling. With regard to population, the Blueprint stated: "First, governments must acknowledge the problem and declare their commitment to ending population growth; this commitment should also include an end to immigration."5

Organizers of the first Earth Day in 1970 note that U.S. population growth was a central theme.6 The nationwide celebration revealed a massive popular groundswell that helped spur Congress and the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations to enact a host of sweeping environmental laws and create a federal bureaucracy to implement and enforce those and others that had been pushed through in the 1960s. Two months after Earth Day, the First National Congress on Optimum Population and Environment convened in Chicago.7 Religious groups —especially the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church— urged for ethical and moral reasons that the federal government adopt policies that would lead to a stabilized U.S. population.

President Nixon addressed the nation about problems it would face if U.S. population growth continued unabated. On January 1, 1970, the president signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA),8 often referred to as the nation’s "environmental Magna Carta."9 In Title I of the act, the "Declaration of National Environmental Policy" began: "The Congress, recognizing the profound impact of man’s activity on the interrelations of all components of the environment, particularly the profound influences of population growth."10 Later in 1970, President Nixon and Congress jointly appointed environmental, labor, business, academic, demographic, population, and political representatives to a bipartisan Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, chaired by John D. Rockefeller III.

Among its findings in 1972 was that it would be difficult to reach the environmental goals being established at the time unless the United States began stopping its population growth. Rockefeller wrote that "gradual stabilization of our population through voluntary means would contribute significantly to the nation’s ability to solve its problems."11

Environmental advocates envisioned making the transition to U.S. stabilization within a generation—by the time the college activists of that period had children of their own in college. The Sierra Club, for example, in 1969 urged "the people of the United States to abandon population growth as a pattern and goal; to commit themselves to limit the total population of the United States in order to achieve a balance between population and resources; and to achieve a stable population no later than the year 1990."12

A large coalition of environmental groups in 1970 endorsed a resolution stating that "population growth is directly involved in the pollution and degradation of our environment—air, water, and land—and intensifies physical, psychological, social, political and economic problems to the extent that the well-being of individuals, the stability of society and our very survival are threatened." The same groups committed themselves to "find, encourage and implement at the earliest possible time" the policies and attitudes that would bring about the stabilization of the U.S. population.13

The environmentalists’ population emphasis heavily influenced the news media. Discussions of U.S. population problems were featured regularly on the front pages of newspapers, in magazine cover stories, on the nightly TV news, and even on network entertainment such as the popular "Johnny Carson Show." Suddenly after more than twenty years of the Baby Boom, journalists and politicians were treating population growth as something that could and should be tamed rather than as a natural, inevitable force beyond human and humane control. Most of that interest had disappeared by 1998, however —but not because population growth had stopped or the problems it caused had been solved.

The Missing Issue in 1998

When the Society for Environmental Journalists held its annual conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in October 1998, urban sprawl was a recurring theme. And no wonder —U.S. population growth was every bit as potent a force in 1998 as it had been in 1970: some 2.5 million Americans were being added each year at a rate faster than some Third World countries and ten times faster than Europe. It was a volume of growth nearly matching that of the Baby Boom years that helped trigger the 1970-era environmental/population movement. The Earth Day 1970 vision of a stabilized American population within a generation had never materialized.

Yet population growth was strangely missing from most reporting on sprawl and from a popular session in which a panel of newspaper reporters and editors discussed their expansive coverage of the problems from, the causes of, and the solutions to urban sprawl in different parts of the country. The panelists talked about problematic zoning, planning and lifestyle choices, but not about the 25 million new residents added each decade —or the sheer amount of space required for their housing, worksites, schools, roads, recreation facilities, shopping centers, and other infrastructure. When challenged from the audience, all the panelists agreed that urban sprawl would be far less destructive without the massive population growth that was occurring in America.

And they agreed that urban life and environmental losses would be immensely different if some 70 million people had not been added to the U.S. population since 1970. In the late 1990s, as in 1970, the problems stemming from U.S. population growth were huge news. But the underlying population growth itself and its causes were barely being mentioned.

Journalists tend to look to competing interest groups to define the issues they cover.

Business groups always have defined one end of the growth issue spectrum as they pushed for ever more population growth. At one time, environmental groups defined the other end by calling for no growth. By 1998, however, environmental groups no longer emphasized population growth as something a nation could choose or reject. When interviewed about sprawl, environmental leaders did not mention the population factor. That was reflected in the back of the Chattanooga hotel room where the sprawl panel took place. There, a representative from the national Sierra Club headquarters had placed a display of literature from the Club’s major new campaign against urban sprawl. The highly publicized, multimillion-dollar campaign mentioned population growth only in passing, and then only to minimize its role. None of the materials suggested stabilizing U.S. population as one part of the solution to urban sprawl.

The Sierra campaign instead focused its advocacy on creating more regulation and management of U.S. growth to ameliorate its adverse effects on the environment. And it assumed —and tacitly accepted— that the U.S. population would never stop growing. That Chattanooga room’s anecdotal reflection of the news media and environmental movement in the late 1990s was verified in national research by Professor T. Michael Maher of the University of Southwestern Louisiana. He conducted a study of news coverage of urban sprawl, endangered species, and water shortages —all issues profoundly affected by population growth. In a random sample of 150 stories on those issues, he found only one which mentioned that part of the solution might be to try to stabilize the U.S. population.14

The journalists told Maher they were uncomfortable raising the population issue on their own. With the business and political establishments continuing to push for "more growth" and the environmental establishment now pushing for "smart growth," the special-interest groups had defined a spectrum for the media that excluded "no growth" and "greatly reduced growth" from the range of available, acceptable options. Maher studied the membership materials for the nation’s environmental groups and discovered:

"Population is off the agenda for the purported leaders of the environmental movement."15 The authors have chosen 1998 as the end of the period being analyzed here because that was the year when the environmental movement erupted in a highly public battle over U.S. population issues. After more than two decades of dwindling interest in population issues, many of the old environmental guard from the 1970 era openly challenged the national leadership of two influential organizations, the Sierra Club and Zero Population Growth, to put U.S. population stabilization —and the reduction in immigration levels it entailed— back on the agenda. The Sierra Club and ZPG, once so outspoken in the 1970s on the urgency of U.S. stabilization, had each changed their policies in the two years prior to 1998 to dissociate themselves from this cause. We use them as primary case studies.

[A note: In 1998, the national Sierra Club leadership defeated those who tried to return their organization to its earlier pro-stabilization policy, which advocated both lower fertility and lower immigration. It remains to be seen whether this failed attempt represented the last gasp of the 1970-era environmental-population movement or if it was in fact the latest skirmish in an ongoing, intensifying struggle.]16

Reviewing the Rejected "Foundational Formula"

of 1970-Era Environmentalism

The retreat from stabilization advocacy by environmental groups in the 1990s directly contradicted the conclusion of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development in 1996. Established by President Clinton to follow through on the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro (the "Earth Summit"), the council acknowledged the integral relationship between a stable population and sustainable development, observing that "clearly, human impact on the environment is a function of both population and consumption patterns." and declaring the need to "move toward stabilization of the U.S. population."17

Such thinking was central to the environmental activism of the 1970 era because most environmentalists’ view of environmental quality was deeply shaped by what we will call here the "Foundational Formula" of the movement. That formula expressed the movement’s understanding of the problem it was tackling and of how to solve it. The 1990s environmental movement was fundamentally different from the 1970-era movement in that it had largely abandoned that Foundational Formula.

There are several ways of expressing the environmental impacts of humanity. One of the best known is the I=PAT equation offered by biologist Paul Ehrlich and physicist John Holdren:

Environmental Impact (I) equals Population size (P) times Affluence, or consumption per person (A), times Technology, or damage per unit of consumption (T).18

However it was expressed, the Foundational Formula considered the goal to be reduction of total environmental impact on a watershed or any other ecosystem. And it considered total environmental impact to be the result of two factors:

(1) Individual Impact and (2) Population Size

Individual Impact is the environmental effect of an average individual’s resource consumption from environmental "sources" and waste generation into environmental "sinks." An individual does not have direct control over all of his or her environmental impact. That impact is determined directly by individual voluntary choices about consumption and lifestyle, and indirectly by collective political choices through laws and regulations limiting the impact of producers and consumers (including private and public sectors, individuals and institutions), by the vigor of enforcement of those rules, by available technology to reduce the impact of economic activities, by the financial ability of a society to utilize available technology, and by the methods corporations use to produce and market goods and services.

Population Size is the total number of individuals living in a given bio-region or ecosystem. Thus, the Total Environmental Impact on the Chesapeake Bay is primarily the result of the Individual Impact of a person living within the larger Chesapeake Bay watershed multiplied by the Population Size in the watershed —plus some of the "ecological footprints" of people outside the watershed. The "footprint" is the area of ecologically productive land needed to supply per capita demand for food, housing, transportation, and consumer goods and services, as well as the land area necessary to sequester carbon dioxide emissions (via photosynthesis) from energy use, i.e., fossil fuel combustion.19

One doesn’t have to work with the Foundational Formula much to realize that changes in the Individual Impact and changes in the Population Size factor have roughly equal power over improving or deteriorating Total Environmental Impact. For example: Increasing the Individual Impact by 30 percent while holding Population Size constant, would have a tremendously deleterious effect on the bay. And so would increasing Population Size by 30 percent (as Individual Impact is held constant). It really doesn’t matter which one is increased; the bay feels similar pain.

By working on both factors of the environmental Foundational Formula, the early movement had a comprehensive approach to move toward restoration and protection of the environment. The later environmental movement, however, chose a course that allowed the Population Size factor to move ever upward. Every move upward by Population Size ratchets the Total Environmental Impact upward. Thus, the later "half-formula" environmental movement would forever have to work for lower and lower Individual Impact just to keep the environment from deteriorating further —let alone to achieve restoration— running faster and faster just to stay in place.

While most environmental groups averted their attention from the population issue, the U.S. population soared by more than 33 percent (nearly 70 million people) between 1970 and 1998 —mostly because of increased immigration. The Census Bureau projects that, under current immigration policies, U.S. population will grow by yet another 50 percent over the next fifty years.

As the Foundational Formula would predict under such rapid population growth, most U.S. environmental goals set in the 1970s had not been met by 1998. The worsening of the Population Size factor had in many respects negated the improvements in the Individual Impact factor. For instance, America’s lakes, rivers, and streams were to have become "fishable and swimmable," according to the 1972 Clean Water Act. But after more than half a trillion dollars spent controlling water pollution (costs passed on to consumers and taxpayers), around 40 percent of U.S. surface waters still weren’t fishable and swimmable in the mid-1990s.20 The nation has more nitrogen oxide (a smog precursor) and more carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) emissions than thirty years ago, more endangered species and fewer wetlands.21 Regulations on Individual Impact that were thought to be sufficient to meet overall goals had to be tightened much further.

The environmental groups never stopped pressing Congress to lessen Individual Impact on the environment by advocating legislation and regulations targeting private companies, government resource managers, and individual consumers. But through the years, they dropped their advocacy for dealing with the Population Size part of the environmental Formula. And as Congress numerous times debated and approved policies that increased Population Size substantially, the major environmental groups stood silent.

Historians will likely find that the environmental movement’s abandonment of its Foundational Formula has many causes. We list several of the possibilities below, along with some evidence for each, which can serve as a "first draft" for future historians.

Cause #1: U.S. Fertility Dropped Below
Replacement-Level Rate in 1972

In 1972, the U.S. Total Fertility Rate fell to below the 2.1 births per woman that marks the replacement-level fertility rate. By 1976, fertility had hit an all-time low of 1.7 and hovered just above that for years.

A common remembrance of aging population activists is their memory of the night in 1973 when TV broadcasters announced that the 1972 U.S. fertility rate had reached zero population growth. The American people apparently were profoundly confused by this announcement, with many believing the U.S. population problem had been solved. (In fact, because of what demographers call "population momentum," it takes a country up to seventy years after the replacement-level fertility rate is reached to actually stop growing. But by 1972, the fertility rate had indeed declined to a level low enough to eventually produce zero population growth, as long as immigration remained reasonably low.)

With zero population growth supposedly achieved (or at least approached), many people in the population movement may have felt their activism was no longer needed. Americans had reduced the size of the average family as far as was necessary. On average they were living up to the rallying cry of "stop at two." Many activists shifted their former population energies into feminism, other aspects of conservation and environmentalism, or moved on to other pursuits altogether. "Full-Formula" environmentalism that dealt with both Individual Impact and Population Size factors shrank to a small core constituency as quickly as it had burst into a mass popular movement. The population committees of environmental groups lost popularity and significance or disbanded altogether.

The neglect of the population issue within organizations surely influenced new employees as they came on board during this period. Many of them probably never heard of the "full-Formula" environmental approach. They worked only on the Individual Impact side of the Formula. Many had little background in the natural sciences, resource conservation, or analytical/quantitative fields. To them, population advocacy may have looked like an external issue that could easily be left to external groups to handle.

Perhaps another factor was at work as well. The overwhelmingly non-Hispanic, white leadership of the environmental movement may have felt it was defensible to address population growth as long as the great bulk of this growth came from non-Hispanic whites, which it did during the Baby Boom. But the situation changed dramatically after 1972. From that year forward, the fertility of non-Hispanic whites was below the replacement rate, while that of black Americans and Latinos remained well above the replacement rate.22 To talk of fertility reductions after 1972 was to draw disproportionate attention to nonwhites. Certain minorities and their spokespersons —with long memories of disgraceful treatment by the white majority and acutely aware of their comparative powerlessness in American society— were deeply suspicious of possible hidden agendas in the population stabilization movement. As the Reverend Jesse Jackson told the Rockefeller Commission, "our community is suspect of any programs that would have the effect of either reducing or levelling off our population growth. Virtually all the security we have is in the number of children we produce."23 And Manuel Aragon, speaking in Spanish, declared to the Commission: "what we must do is to encourage large Mexican American families so that we will eventually be so numerous that the system will either respond or it will be overwhelmed."24

During the twenty-six years after 1972, the non-Hispanic white share of population growth declined significantly from the 1970 era.25 Thus, by the 1990s, a majority of the nation’s growth stemmed from sources other than non-Hispanic whites (especially Latin American and Asian immigrants and their offspring). Environmentalist leaders —proud and protective of their claim to the moral high ground— may have been reluctant to jeopardize this by venturing into the political minefield of the nation’s volatile racial/ethnic relations through appearing to point fingers at "outsiders," "others," or "people of color" as responsible for America’s ongoing problem with population growth.

Cause#2: Abortion and Contraceptive Politics
Created Organized Opposition

In June 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved oral contraceptives for sale. By the late 1960s, the Vatican and American Catholic leadership were engaged in a major counterattack on the growing use of contraceptives in the United States. They focused a considerable amount of their ire on groups advocating population control. Their focus made a certain sense from their point of view. Most population and environmental groups that called for stabilization also made explicit calls, not for abstinence or celibacy, but rather for more availability of reliable, safe contraceptives and sex education. Many of them also called for the legalization of abortion.

Then in 1973, in Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion. That set off a much more intense campaign by the Catholic Church —and increasingly by conservative Protestants —against the whole of the population movement.

Abortion had been something of a minor issue within the population stabilization movement but was included because of the thought that fertility might not be brought to replacement level without the availability of abortion. As it turned out, legalized abortion was not a necessary component to reach replacement-level fertility. America reached its stabilization fertility goal the year before the Supreme Court legalized abortion.

But to the Catholic hierarchy and the pro-life movement, the legalized abortion and population stabilization causes have been inextricably linked. In the 1990s, it was still difficult for a pro-stabilization person or group to get a hearing among many Catholic and pro-life groups without being automatically considered an abortion apologist.

A number of leaders of philanthropic foundations and politicians involved with population efforts in the 1970s have said that active measures by Catholic bishops and the Vatican were the greatest barrier to moving population measures and in setting a national population policy. Congressman James Scheuer was a member of the 1972 Commission on Population Growth and the American Future.

In 1992, he wrote that "the Vatican and others blocked any reasonable discussion of population problems."26 This opposition applied both nationally and internationally. In a 1993 interview, Milton P. Siegel, assistant director general of the World Health Organization from 1946 to 1970, indicated that "one way or another, sometimes surreptitiously, the Catholic church used its influence to defeat, if you will, any movement toward family planning or birth control."27

As population activists reported on the Catholic activism and criticized it, the population movement began to be tarred as anti-Catholic. Environmental groups seeking membership, funds, and support from a wide spectrum of Americans had good reason to stay out of population issues altogether rather than risk offending their own current and potential members who also were members of the largest religious denomination in America. Environmental groups with Catholic board members were known to use them as reasons for not being more involved in population issues.

Roman Catholic opposition, both from the Vatican itself and from American Catholic leaders, apparently played a key role in pressuring government policymakers as well. On May 5, 1972, gearing up for his reelection campaign, President Nixon publicly disavowed the recommendations of his own Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, which U.S. Catholic bishops had blasted for its permissive attitude toward contraception and abortion.28 Evidently still concerned about overpopulation, however, Nixon ordered a study in April 1974 of the national security implications of population growth.29 When the study was released in 1975, President Gerald Ford endorsed the findings of National Security Study Memorandum 200 (NSSM 200).

The report strongly stated that exploding populations in the Third World would threaten the security of the United States. These threats would come from the destabilization of those countries’ economic, political, and ecological systems. Besides recommending helping those nations curb their population growth, NSSM 200 called on the United States to provide world leadership in population control by seeking to attain stabilization of its own population by the year 2000.

Although President Ford endorsed the NSSM 200, nothing ever became of it. Historians will want to study the literature that through the years since has made the case that NSSM 200 was never implemented because of meetings between Vatican officials and U.S. government officials of Roman Catholic background as well as a systematic campaign of pressure by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "American policy [toward support of international family planning programs] was changed as a result of the Vatican’s not agreeing with our policy," President Reagan’s ambassador to the Vatican told Time magazine.30 How much pressure was actually exerted is an important question to resolve.

Cause #3: Emergence of Women’s Issues
as Priority Concern of Population Groups

Another likely reason environmental groups did not fully engage U.S. population issues in the 1980s and 1990s was that the groups that specialized in population issues drifted away from population stabilization and environmental protection as primary reasons for being. Those groups had played key roles in the 1970 era by prodding the environmental groups to join them and by doing the bulk of the research that was used by the environmentalists. Except for such small groups as Negative Population Growth, Population Environment Balance, and Carrying Capacity Network, however, that role had ended by the 1990s.

By the 1990s, for example, Planned Parenthood no longer played any role in advocating for U.S. population stabilization to protect the environment. Its focus had narrowed to making sure that women had full access to the whole range of options concerning fertility and births. That had always been a primary mission of Planned Parenthood, but one of the major purposes of empowering women had once been to reduce U.S. population growth.

To understand these shifts, historians will need to look at the differing roots of the 1970-era population movement. While one root included people with high environmental consciousness, several roots did not. Many of the early population leaders were primarily concerned about health issues; others about development issues. Still others were predecessors of the modern feminist movement. The environmentalist angle tended to be pushed out front during the late 1960s as environmentalism reached mass popularity.

But as environmentalists abandoned population issues in the 1970s, the population groups more and more de-emphasized their environmental motives. By the 1990s, some of the groups actually opposed helping the environment through population stabilization or reduction efforts. Christian Science Monitor correspondent George Moffett observed: "Women’s groups complain that overstating the consequences of rapid population growth has created a crisis atmosphere in some countries, which has led to human rights violations in the name of controlling fertility."31

This was in striking evidence at the 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt. As Catholic lay theologian George Weigel observed, "Over the long haul . . . the most significant development at the Cairo Conference may have been a shift in controlling paradigms: from ‘population control’ to ‘the empowerment of women.’" 32

"The Cairo Programme contains hundreds of recommendations about women’s rights and other social issues but almost none about population," wrote former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Environment and Population Affairs Lindsey Grant.33 The long international document from Cairo made no mention of the connections between population growth and the environmental ills of countries with growing populations.

This shift away from an overriding concern with population and environmental limits may be seen most importantly in the group Zero Population Growth (ZPG). In 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb ignited a national movement. Zero Population Growth was founded that same year to take advantage of the incredible publicity the book generated.

Hundreds of ZPG chapters sprang up overnight. ZPG’s first leaders were described as all being pro-environmentalist, pro-choice, and pro-family planning. In the beginning, ZPG had a motto, "Zero Population Growth is our name and our mission." There were several large organizations dealing with population growth in other countries. But ZPG’s primary mission was explicitly to stabilize the U.S. population, according to members of the early ZPG boards of directors.34 That remained the stated mission through the 1980s.

In the 1970s, ZPG’s population policy recommendations covered every contribution to U.S. population growth. It included stands on contraceptives, sex education for teenagers, equality for women, abortion, opposition to illegal immigration, and a proposal to reduce legal immigration from about 400,000 a year to 150,000 a year by 1985 in order to reach zero population growth by 2008.35

ZPG started the modern immigration-reduction movement in the 1970s. After American fertility fell below the replacement-level rate, the ZPG board recognized that immigration was rising rapidly and would soon negate all the benefits of lower fertility.

Even though immigration seemed separate from the family planning issues that had dominated precursor population organizations, ZPG tackled it squarely because it related to the issue of U.S. population stabilization, which was deemed essential to the health of the American environment. By the late 1970s, the ZPG leaders who were the most interested in immigration issues spun off a new organization called the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Their idea was that FAIR would take no stand on abortion and other controversial family planning issues in order to attract a wider constituency that would work for immigration reform not only for environmental reasons, but for economic relief for the working poor and taxpayers, for social cohesion, and for national security.

The ZPG leaders who left the ZPG board for FAIR also happened to be most of the people with the greatest interest in population as an environmental issue. That meant that those remaining on the board were more inclined toward the type of population movement that was rooted in family planning and women’s issues. While ZPG continued to have policies on U.S. stabilization and the environment —and produce some outstanding educational materials— these policies and programs got less and less staff and board attention as the 1980s progressed. New staff were hired less on the basis of their environmental expertise and commitment and more because of their commitment to women’s issues.

By 1996, ZPG was focused overwhelmingly on global population issues from the women’s empowerment perspective. A secondary focus was excessive consumption by Americans.36 The board removed the word "stabilize" from much of its literature and its Mission Statement. On October 25, 1997, the ZPG board substituted "slowing" for "stopping" so that it then advanced a goal of merely "slowing" U.S. and world population growth.

ZPG’s president Judith Jacobsen wrote in the newsletter ZPG Reporter that the reason ZPG didn’t support creating U.S. policies to reduce domestic population growth was that population problems in Third World countries needed to be resolved first. She said that the "Cairo Conference taught us that changing the conditions of women’s lives is the most powerful answer" for population problems. She then gave a long list of ZPG’s essential commitments, none of which were population stabilization or environmental protection.37

Thus, just before its thirtieth anniversary, ZPG had severed its goals from its name and its founding mission—zero population growth. Also abandoned as a central concern was the protection of the American environment, which had been at the heart of ZPG’s founding. ZPG had not necessarily turned anti-environment or anti-stabilization, but it had evolved into an organization with different priorities.

Cause #4: Schism Between the Conservationist
and New-Left Roots of the Movement

Historians are likely to find other important clues to the environmental movement’s shift by studying the roots of the modern environmental movement. Three of the roots are of special interest here.

Two of the roots go back a century: (1) The wilderness preservation movement was exemplified by John Muir, the National Parks, and, later, Wilderness Areas.38 (2) The resource conservation movement was exemplified by President Theodore Roosevelt, his chief forester Gifford Pinchot, and the National Forests.39

A third root of the modern environmental movement is much younger. It was an outgrowth of what was called New-Left politics with, in some cases, a strong strain of socialism, as espoused by its guru of the 1970 era, Barry Commoner. This root was given its greatest impetus with the 1962 publication of Silent Spring by naturalist Rachel Carson. Although Carson was deeply concerned about the unforeseen effects of pesticides and other man-made poisons being released indiscriminately into the natural environment, this third root of modern environmentalism came to focus more on urban and health issues such as air, water, and toxic contamination, as they affected the human environment.

Commoner, in fact, criticized conservationists for putting wildlife ahead of human health. As journalist Mark Dowie writes: "The central concern of the new movement is human health. Its adherents consider wilderness preservation and environmental aesthetics worthy but overemphasized values. They are often derided by antitoxic activists as bourgeois obsessions."40

Having much in common with the emerging Green parties of Europe (social justice, peace, and ecology), the new "greens" of America joined with the wilderness preservationists and resource conservationists as the modern environmental movement was born in the 1960s. But the New Left greens held opposite views on population from those of most preservationists and conservationists. In his influential 1971 book The Closing Circle and elsewhere, Barry Commoner minimized the role of population as a cause of environmental problems. Commoner said the problems attributed to population growth were actually caused by unfair distribution of resources and by profitable technologies. Environmental degradation could be rectified by changing economic systems.41

Conservationists and preservationists, in contrast, had always been concerned about some aspects of population growth and became especially alarmed by the Baby Boom impact on the environment. Their decades of experience watching wilderness and other habitats disappear under the constant growth of U.S. population led large numbers of them to confront that growth boldly and directly by the late 1960s. Wilderness advocate and popular southwestern author Edward Abbey spoke for many when he said that "growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell."42

It appears that the New Left greens tried to keep population issues off the Earth Day 1970 agenda. They lost. Conservationists and preservationists succeeded in retaining their fundamental tenet that there could be no long-term environmental preservation without limiting human numbers. The college students and young adults who were rushing into the movement at the time may have been more temperamentally inclined toward the antiwar, antiestablishment New Left greens, but the young new environmentalists —armed with millions of dog-eared copies of The Population Bomb— seemed overwhelmingly to accept the old-line conservationists’ assessment of population. Most of the new more-liberal environmental groups that were formed at the time rejected the New Left’s opposition to fighting never-ending population growth and joined with the conservationists on their population stances.

But the New Left wing of environmentalism reversed its losses in the 1990s, according to Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman, one of the most publicized and aggressive players in the first twenty years of U.S. environmentalism.43 He said the New Left wing —which he called "Progressive Cornucopians"— established its antistabilization view as the dominant one in the national staffs and boards of many groups, including the Sierra Club.

On the winning side of the 1990s population policy conflict were people like Brad Erickson, coordinator of the Political Ecology Group (PEG), which played a key role in helping the Sierra Club board abandon its proscriptive population stabilization policy in 1996 and then fight off the pro-stabilization Sierra members in 1998.44 Erickson said the fight was a replay of the one at Earth Day 1970, which the New Left greens lost.45

He said the plan of the New Left greens in the 1960s had been to use the environmental issue as one of several they hoped would bloom into a full manifestation of a progressive movement far beyond the confines of traditional American economics and culture. But conservationists hijacked Earth Day, forced their population issues into it and the movement, and have limited the effectiveness of environmentalism ever since, Erickson explained. This view is shared by author Mark Dowie, who argues that population stabilization and immigration reform have retarded the transformation of conservation and preservation-oriented environmentalism into a movement for "environmental justice."46

Cause #5: Immigration —Protected by "Political Correctness"— Became the Chief Cause of U.S. Growth

Modifications in immigration law in 1965 inadvertently started a chain migration through extended family members that began to snowball during the 1970s. At the very time that American fertility fell to a level that would allow population stabilization within a matter of decades, immigration levels were rising rapidly.

By the 1980s, annual immigration had more than doubled and was running above 500,000 a year. By the 1990s, annual average legal immigration had surpassed a million. And that didn’t even include a net addition of 200,000 to 500,000 illegal aliens each year. By the end of the 1990s, immigrants and their offspring were contributing nearly 70 percent of U.S. population growth.47

If immigration and immigrant fertility had been at replacement-level rates since 1972 —as had native-born fertility— the United States would never have grown above 250 million.48 Instead, U.S. population passed 270 million before the turn of the century. And the Census Bureau projected that current immigration and immigrant fertility were powerful enough to contribute to the United States surpassing 400 million soon after the year 2050 —on the way past a billion.

Most environmental groups by the late 1970s simply turned away from these kinds of stark trends and didn’t address them. But a few remained true to the "full-Formula" environmentalism of the 1970-era. They responded directly to the new challenge —at least in their official statements.

The most aggressive group was Zero Population Growth —before it shifted away from being an environmental organization. A 1977 Washington Post story revealed the public way ZPG confronted immigration.49 Under the headline "Anti-Immigration Campaign Begun," the story began: "The Zero Population Growth foundation is launching a nationwide campaign to generate public support for sharp curbs on both legal and illegal immigration to the United States." It quoted Melanie Wirken, ZPG’s Washington lobbyist, saying the group favored a "drastic reduction in legal immigration" from levels that were then averaging about 400,000 a year. The article reported that ZPG was adding another lobbyist so that Wirken could devote all of her time to immigration issues.

The Sierra Club urged the federal government to conduct a thorough examination of U.S. immigration policies and their impact on U.S. population trends and how those trends affected the nation’s environmental resources. "All regions of the world must reach a balance between their populations and resources," the Club added.50 Then in 1980, the Sierra Club testified before Father Hesburgh’s Select Committee on Immigration and Refugee Reform:

"It is obvious that the numbers of immigrants the United States accepts affects our population size and growth rate. It is perhaps less well known the extent to which immigration policy, even more than the number of children per family, is the determinant of future numbers of Americans."

The Club said it is an "important question how many immigrants the United States wants to accept and the criteria we choose as the basis for answering that question." In 1989, the Sierra National Population Committee declared that "immigration to the U.S. should be no greater than that which will permit achievement of population stabilization in the U.S.," a policy confirmed by the Club’s Conservation Coordinating Committee.51

The immigration-reduction advocacy of the Sierra Club and ZPG beginning in the 1970s was affirmed in the Global 2000 Report to the President in 1981, which stated that the federal government should "develop a U.S. national population policy that includes attention to issues such as population stabilization, and . . . just, consistent, and workable immigration laws."52 It was reaffirmed in the 1996 report of the Population and Consumption Task Force of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development. The task force concluded: "This is a sensitive issue, but reducing immigration levels is a necessary part of population stabilization and the drive toward sustainability."53

But even as that governmental recognition was being announced in 1996, ZPG and the Sierra Club were in the final process of abandoning immigration reduction and, as a practical result, U.S. population stabilization goals. Even though rapid U.S. population growth was making it ever more politically and technically infeasible to meet environmental goals set in the 1970 era, the environmental movement of the late 1990s was willing to miss those environmental goals (and newer ones) for the sake of protecting a level of immigration that was four times higher than the tradition before the first Earth Day. What was it about the immigration issue that made environmental groups, by and large, meekly acquiesce to a level of immigration that clashed head-on with the fundamental goal of population stabilization?

Years of pondering this question have led the authors to the conclusion that, of all the factors involved in the environmental movement’s retreat from U.S. population stabilization, the growing demographic influence of immigration is the single most important one. Thus we are devoting the remainder of this article to a discussion of its different aspects.

Historians will find much to consider in the following possible explanations for the groups’ avoidance of immigration numbers:

  • Fear that immigration reduction would alienate "progressive" allies and be seen as racially insensitive

The primary lens through which most environmental leaders in the 1980s and 1990s seemed to view immigration was not an environmental —or labor— paradigm but a racial one. According to this paradigm, immigration often appeared to be about nonwhite people moving into a mostly white country, just as whites themselves had done to indigenous Native Americans in previous centuries. To propose reductions in immigration was not seen as reducing labor competition or population growth but as trying to protect the majority status of America’s white population. It was seen as rejecting nonwhite immigrants.54

Australian sociologist Katherine Betts has examined that phenomenon. She uses the term "new class" (a group similar to what former Clinton Secretary of Labor Robert Reich calls "symbolic analysts")55 to describe the intelligentsia, professionally educated internationalists and cosmopolitans, lawyers, academics, journalists, teachers, artists, activists, and globe-trotting business people and travelers.

Her cogent analysis of why the new class has eschewed the cause of limiting immigration in Australia is germane to the case of U.S. environmental leaders: "The concept of immigration control has become contaminated in the minds of the new class by the ideas of racism, narrow self-seeking nationalism, and a bigoted preference for cultural homogeneity. . . . Their enthusiasm for anti-racism and international humanitarianism is often sincere but there are also social pressures supporting this sincere commitment and making apostasy difficult." And later: "Ideologically correct attitudes to immigration have offered the warmth of ingroup acceptance to supporters and the cold face of exclusion to dissenters."56 Similar analysis in the United States suggests that it is "politically incorrect" to talk of reducing immigration.

Taboos against challenging immigration policies are enforced by a "political correctness" that often is based on honorable sentiments tied to an individual’s personal connections to immigration. These sentiments are usually strongest among those with the most direct, and recent, immigrant experiences in their immediate families, i.e., those whose spouses, parents, grandparents, or aunts or uncles immigrated to the United States.

Sensitivity is heightened still more for those who feel a strong personal identity as a member of ethnic groups —such as Irish, Italian, Greek, Slavic, Chinese, Japanese, or Jewish— whose members once fled persecution in other countries or who may have met with discrimination in this country.

Even when such a person does recognize that U.S. population growth is problematic, and that immigration is a major contributor to it, he or she may well reason that it would be hypocritical, as a descendant of immigrants and indirect beneficiary of a generous immigration policy, to "close the door" even partially on any prospective immigrant.

Dealing with immigration can become almost physically sickening for such people, who feel they must make a choice between environmental protection and their view of themselves as a part of an immigrant ethnic group. (For such Americans, their own ethnic group’s experiences seem to obscure the fact that more than 90 percent of present immigrants are not fleeing persecution or starvation but are simply seeking greater material prosperity.)

Thus, the response of these Americans to the population dilemma may have more to do with their sense of ethnicity than any scientific analysis of environmental challenges.

Many participants in the 1970-era environmental movement have suggested that the strength of ties to immigrant ethnic identities was a major factor in determining which leaders abandoned population stabilization and which continued to advocate it even when it entailed tackling immigration. To learn if this was an important factor in the movement’s retreat from stabilization advocacy, scholars would need ways of quantifying this claim. Despite the reality of the above discussion about the effect of immigrant ethnic identity on many individuals, it is possible that environmentalists of such ethnic backgrounds were no more likely —and maybe were even less likely— than other environmentalists to abandon the population side of the Foundational Formula. Careful research, quantification, and analysis are required here.

One of the main reasons the Sierra Club leadership gave in 1998 for avoiding the immigration issue was that they dared not risk appearing to be racially insensitive. Executive Director Carl Pope acknowledged that the official endorsers of the referendum trying to confront immigration numbers did not have racially questionable motives. Rather, he admitted, they were esteemed Sierrans and environmental scholars, with distinguished records of environmental service to their country. In fact, Pope said, he used to agree with them that immigration should be cut for environmental reasons. But he changed his mind because he didn’t believe it possible to conduct a public discussion about immigration cuts without stirring up racial passions: "While it is theoretically possible to have a non-racial debate about immigration, it is not practically possible for an open organization like the Sierra Club to do so. . . . [Recent history in California has] caused me to change my view of whether it is possible for the Sierra Club to deal with the immigration issue in a way which would not implicate us in ethnic or racial polarization."57 Pope acknowledged that it was the opponents of stabilization who were injecting race into the discussion by publicly "lambasting the club as racist." But the Sierra Club, he insisted, could not subject itself to those kinds of epithets merely in order to confront the full issue of U.S. population growth.58

ZPG’s president, Judith Jacobsen, addressed the racial issues in a letter to members: "ZPG is already explicitly committed to building bridges to communities of color and working on immigrants’ rights as part of our long-held goal of improving the success of the population movement by expanding it to include a broad spectrum of American diversity. A policy to reduce legal immigration now would make this work impossible.

We want ZPG to strengthen our ties to communities of color, not jeopardize them. In this way, we can build relationships, listen and refine our immigration policy and strategy as the public debate evolves."59 Jacobsen said the ZPG board voted to take no position on reduction of immigration, "with full knowledge of immigration’s important role in the U.S. population growth, both today and in the future."

One participant at a "roundtable discussion on global migration, population and the environment" in Washington, D.C., on November 15, 1995, sponsored by the Pew Global Stewardship Initiative and the National Immigration Forum, was struck by how emphatically then-ZPG President Dianne Dillon-Ridgley dismissed any concern about immigration’s contribution to the country’s population growth as illegitimate.60 At a March 1998 speech in West Virginia, ZPG Executive Director Peter Kostmayer, when questioned about immigration, told the audience: "Let me be frank. You are a wealthy, middle-class community, and if you concentrate on the issue of immigration as a way of controlling population, you won’t come off well. It just doesn’t work. The population movement has an unhappy history in this regard."61 About the same time, in a handwritten note to a ZPG member inquiring about the group’s immigration stance, Kostmayer wrote, "It would be so, so counterproductive to be perceived as antiimmigrant."62 By the 1990s, at ZPG, the imperative of welcoming "diversity" had evidently trumped stabilization and environmental concerns.

  • The transformation of population and environment into global issues needing global solutions

In 1970, population growth often was discussed in terms of its threat to local or national environmental resources —in countries all over the world. The argument often went something like this: The cultures, traditions, religions, economies, health care, tax structures, and laws of each country create incentives for high birth rates. Each country has to make its own changes to bring down those birth rates to protect its own environmental resources, but nations also must act cooperatively in international efforts to provide financial and technical assistance to those nations requesting them.

Because some of the problems of overpopulation are indeed global, each nation has a stake in every other nation moving toward population stabilization. By the 1990s, most environmental group comments about population growth were that it was almost exclusively a global problem. Population growth rarely was described as a threat to localized environmental resources such as specific watersheds, landscapes, species’ habitats, estuaries, and aquifers. Rather, population growth usually was linked to global (or worldwide) environmental problems such as biodiversity losses, climate change, and the decline of the oceans.63

Under the new thinking, the population size of individual nations was not nearly as important as the size of the total global population. Certain top leaders of the environmental groups said this was a significant reason they no longer saw U.S. population stabilization per se as a priority goal.

They especially lost interest in U.S. stabilization when in the 1990s long-term U.S. population growth was being driven almost entirely by people in other countries moving to the United States and having their above-replacement-level number of babies in America. In the ascendant "global" view, this migration wasn’t important because it was merely shifting the growth from one part of the globe to another; the global problem was not increasing because of it, they reasoned. The Sierra Club’s Carl Pope said: "I seriously doubt that anyone is in a position to calculate exactly which changes in immigration policy would minimize GLOBAL environmental stress."64

The former Sierra Club and Audubon executive Brock Evans wrote the board of the Sierra Club on the eve of the 1998 immigration referendum that "[immigration] is an environmental issue (among others). Somehow, if we love our earth —yes, even the earth of this, our own country, where we live (not some abstraction from far away)— we must face it."65 But the board was not swayed by this or other appeals. Instead, Executive Director Pope wrote in Asian Week that overpopulation and its effects on the environment are "fundamentally global problems; immigration is merely a local symptom. . . . Erecting fences to keep people out of this country does nothing to fix the planet’s predicament. It’s the equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."66

  • Influence of human rights organizations

The influence of human rights groups and philosophies on environmental leaders may be another part of the explanation for why environmental groups were not willing to work for population stabilization in the 1990s. Michael Hanauer, a ZPG leader in the Boston chapter, who resigned from ZPG’s national board in 1998, pointed out that environmental groups no longer dealt with U.S. stabilization because "much of their roots, associations, history, knowledge, empathies and even networking was within the human rights movement. Offending these groups was not in the cards."

Throughout the U.S. human rights community had arisen various concepts of the human right of poor workers to cross national borders if they could improve their economic condition by taking jobs in another country. Most U.S. human rights organizations —with the American Civil Liberties Union being the best-known example— actively lobbied against any reductions in immigration. Dozens of human rights organizations were formed specifically to advocate for the rights of immigrants and for immigration. Environmental leaders in the 1990s increasingly worked in coalitions with the human rights groups, especially on international environmental, trade, and development issues and on antitoxics crusades. It appears that people moved easily back and forth between human rights and environmental jobs. Researchers may want to study how many of the staff members, committee members, and directors of environmental groups in the 1990s had previously worked for some kind of rights organization.

In the 1990s Sierra Club, for example, officials began to appoint people from human rights organizations to its National Population Committee. These individuals came from organizations which argued that population growth is not a cause of problems in the United States or the rest of the world. They opposed stabilization efforts before being appointed; they were among the most aggressive leaders in working to change the Sierra Club’s pro-stabilization policy and in fighting the referendum that failed to reestablish the policy.68

While the agendas of the human rights and environmental groups should not be seen as fundamentally at odds with each other, they nonetheless are not the same. The human rights agenda is about protecting freedoms and rights of individuals here and now. The environmental agenda since the inauguration of the conservation and preservation movements a century ago, and since its rejuvenation and reorientation in the 1960s, has been about protecting the natural and human environments, now and in perpetuity.

The human rights agenda is by necessity oriented toward the immediate needs of individuals. The environmental agenda has often also dealt with immediate threats but just as often works for goals that are far into the future.69

Human rights work is about people getting their full share of rights; its ideal is freedom. Environmental work is often about asking or forcing people to restrain their rights and freedoms in order to protect the natural world from human actions, so that people who are not yet born might someday be able to enjoy and prosper in a healthy, undiminished environment.

The fact that human rights work and environmental work involve tensions between goals and philosophy does not mean that either of them must be seen as wrong or right. A democratic society ultimately must effect compromises among all of the competing interests within it, based on those interests making their best case.

But by the 1990s, it may be that environmental groups had conceded priority to the human rights groups and at least tacitly had agreed to press for environmental protections only when they did not conflict with the human rights agenda. Hanauer wrote that during the 1990s the moral high ground was often yielded to those who gave precedence to human rights over environmental protection.70

  • Triumph of ethics of globalism over ethics of nationalism/internationalism

It appears that in at least some cases a significant change in ethical frameworks was occurring among many national environmental leaders and a portion of the membership.

Historians will want to explore the extent to which the rising "globalist" philosophies that took root in the American business communities of the 1980s and 1990s also began to replace the "nationalism" of the earlier environmental movement.

For the purposes of this analysis of globalism versus nationalism, we distinguish "globalism" as something quite different from "internationalism." The internationalism to which we refer is based on the "nationalist" philosophy; it is the interrelationship of nations, all of which are working together but in their own self-interest. Globalism, however, supersedes traditional liberal and conservative ideas of the nation-state and of working toward national solutions of national problems, and toward international solutions for international problems. Globalism refers to elimination of the sovereign nation-state as a locus of community, loyalty, economy, laws, culture, and language.

The heart of the difference between globalism and nationalism is an ethical viewpoint of whether a community has the right or even the responsibility to give priority attention to the members of its own community over people outside the community.71

That relates to whether a nation has the right to protect its own environmental resources before it succeeds in helping some other country to preserve its environment.

Is it ethical to stabilize the population of one’s own country when other countries are still growing? Is it ethical to bar a human being who is alive today from immigrating and advancing economically if the reason for barring the immigration is to preserve the natural resources of the target country for the benefit of human beings not yet born? All of these questions came up during the 1998 national debate within the environmental movement about U.S. population stabilization.

The ethical basis of nationalism is as a community in which every member has a certain responsibility for everybody else in that community. The highest priority of a national government under the nationalist ethic is the members of that community. This has been the dominant ethical principle in the United States and most other nations in which the national government is expected to establish laws and regulations concerning trade, labor, capital, civil rights, and the environment based primarily on their effects on the people of its own nation.

The globalist ethic that we describe here is less communitarian and more individualistic. It gives a higher ethical value to the freedom of an individual (and by extension, the corporate bodies owned by individuals) to act with fewer or no restrictions by national governments. This ethic similarly unleashes workers around the world to cross borders to work in ways that maximize their incomes and unleashes corporations to move capital, goods, and labor in ways that maximize their profits.72

Under a globalist ethic, immigration policy should not be used to protect America’s poor if it blocks the economic improvement of even poorer workers from other countries. Historians should look for the strains of those globalist philosophies in the voluminous statements, memos, articles, and interviews of the environmental leaders who fought the pro-stabilization environmentalists during 1998. One of the most common arguments by environmental opponents of U.S. population stabilization in 1998 was that it would be unethical to protect U.S. environmental resources and achieve U.S. population stabilization at the expense of workers and their families from other nations who would not be allowed to move here to better their lives. Another major argument was that stabilizing the U.S. population merely protected U.S. ecosystems at the expense of ecosystems in other countries where population would be higher because people weren’t allowed to emigrate.73

In contrast to those globalist arguments, one can easily see the nationalist and internationalist ethic at work in 1970, when the Sierra Club and other environmental groups jointly endorsed a resolution that committed them to "bring about the stabilization of the population first of the United States and then of the world." By 1998, Sierra leaders had turned around 180 degrees. Rather than endorsing "stabilization first in the United States and then of the world," they now called for, in effect, "stabilization first of the world, and then maybe the United States." Under the more globalist ethic of the 1998 Sierra leaders (and the leaders of many other environmental organizations who publicly or privately supported them), it was seen as both selfish and futile for the United States to stabilize its own population before the rest of the world does. In fact, some leaders suggested that if some countries remain poor, Congress should not reduce immigration and U.S. population growth even when the rest of the world’s population does stabilize. Only when socioeconomic conditions in the rest of the world are high enough that foreign workers no longer want to move to the United States should this country be allowed to stabilize its population, they indicated.

One of the most direct examples of this globalism was in ZPG’s official explanation for abandoning goals of zero population growth in the United States: "It is ZPG’s view that immigration pressures on the U.S. population are best relieved by addressing factors which compel people to leave their homes and families and emigrate to the United States. Foremost among these are population growth, economic stagnation, environmental degradation, poverty, and political repression. ZPG believes that unless these problems are successfully addressed in the developing nations of the world, no forcible exclusion policy will successfully prevent people from seeking to relocate to the United States.

ZPG, therefore, calls on the United States to focus its foreign aid on population, environmental, social, education, and sustainable development programs. Changing political conditions present opportunities to work cooperatively with other nations to address the root causes of international migration. Studies show that of the people who emigrate to the United States, the majority would have stayed in their home countries had there been economic opportunities or democratic institutions."

That essentially was the plan touted by Sierra leaders and that 60 percent of Sierran voters approved in
their 1998 ballot (in which turnout was about 15 percent, the highest in a decade).75It is difficult to know if those positions were taken because of a full belief in the globalist ideology that seems to undergird them or simply because of an attraction to globalist rhetoric. There is little sign that the leaders of those groups or their members did any calculations as to what it would take to achieve such grand goals of eliminating global poverty —or whether there was any practicality at all in the thought of raising the living standards of more than 4 billion impoverished Third World citizens high enough that they would not want to immigrate to the United States.

Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael (something of a cult favorite among environmentalists), observed: "We have encouraged people to think that all we have to do to end our population expansion is to end economic and social injustice all over the world. This is a will-of-the-wisp because these are things that people have been striving to do for thousands of years without doing them. And why we think that this will be doable in the next few years is quite bizarre to me. They don’t recognize any of the biological realities involved."76 The most likely scenario, according to geopolitical elder statesman George F. Kennan, is that current quadrupled immigration to the United States will decline naturally "only when the levels of overpopulation and poverty in the United States are equal to those of the countries from which these people are now anxious to escape."77

  • Fear of demographic trends

Still another reason environmental groups didn’t want to tackle immigration numbers to slow U.S. population growth may have been their fear of changing demographics. As the population of foreign-born Americans and their children rose ever higher, they became an increasingly powerful political bloc whom many environmental leaders feared could thwart environmentalist initiatives and legislation if they perceived environmental groups to be hostile to immigration. Particularly in California, where the foreign born and their children already comprise more than a third of the population, Sierra leaders worried aloud not only that advocating U.S. population stabilization might lose immigrants, their friends and family as supporters, but that sensitive political alliances with ethnic politicians could be jeopardized as well. The executive director of the California League of Conservation Voters —an organization immersed in state politics— pleaded with the Sierra Club not to "commit suicide over the immigration issue. This is something the environmental community cannot afford."78

In this fearful way of thinking, advocacy of immigration reduction to stabilize the population and protect the environment can only be seen by those ethnic or racial minorities whose numbers are significantly augmented by immigration as an attempt to prevent them from becoming a majority of the population in California during the next few years —and of the country later next century. Having their future power thus threatened by environmentalists, these groups would insist that their elected officials vote against environmental protection measures, according to the demographic-fear scenario.

UCLA astronomy professor and environmental activist Ben Zuckerman was among those in 1998 who dismissed the suggestion that immigrants and ethnic minorities would retaliate against immigration reduction by insisting that the natural environment of their new country be despoiled. He wrote that if the Sierra Club renewed its proscriptive commitment to U.S. population stabilization, "Political allies will continue to vote for sound environmental legislation when it is in the interests of their constituents —which is what they do now."

In this fearful way of thinking, advocacy of immigration reduction to stabilize the population and protect the environment can only be seen by those ethnic or racial minorities whose numbers are significantly augmented by immigration as an attempt to prevent them from becoming a majority of the population in California during the next few years —and of the country later next century. Having their future power thus threatened by environmentalists, these groups would insist that their elected officials vote against environmental protection measures, according to the demographic-fear scenario. UCLA astronomy professor and environmental activist Ben Zuckerman was among those in 1998 who dismissed the suggestion that immigrants and ethnic minorities would retaliate against immigration reduction by insisting that the natural environment of their new country be despoiled. He wrote that if the Sierra Club renewed its proscriptive commitment to U.S. population stabilization, "Political allies will continue to vote for sound environmental legislation when it is in the interests of their constituents —which is what they do now."79

Whether the fear of immigrant retaliation was justified or not, if felt by environmental leaders it could have greatly affected their decisions about pursuing U.S. population stabilization. Certainly there were some reasons for the environmental leaders to have adopted such a belief during the Sierra Club’s referendum campaign. They heard from some self-appointed immigrant spokespersons who made the threat of retaliation. And Sierra leaders may have drawn similar conclusions from a contingent of California Democratic state-level politicians, many of them Latinos, who directly challenged the Club to defeat the immigration-reduction referendum. "A position by the club to further limit immigration would be considered immigrant bashing by many elected officials of color with near-perfect environmental records," wrote Santos Gomez (an appointed member of the Club’s National Population Committee) in a newspaper op-ed piece.80 Pete Carrillo, president of the Mexican Heritage Corp. of Santa Clara County, California, told a reporter that if the Sierra Club returned to its policy calling for immigration reductions it would produce "a gap as wide as the Pacific Ocean between the Sierra Club and the Mexican American Community."81

Thus, intimidated environmental leaders may have chosen the logic of the California League of Conservation Voters’ executive director: If immigrants did retaliate, that would be something "the environmental community cannot afford." It would not be a question of whether the environment could afford another doubling of the U.S. population but whether the environmental community could afford immigrant retaliation if environmentalists tried to stop the doubling. Protection of environmental institutions may have been placed ahead of protection of the environment itself.

  • The power of money

There were many observers —and players— in the 1990s who suggested that the shifts in population emphasis had more to do with the funding of environmental groups than any other factor. Historians will need to be investigative reporters to get a clear picture on this one.

With scores of environmental groups competing with each other for members and donors, each needs special programs and actions to distinguish itself. They also need programs that can yield short-term victories that they can tout to their donors. Even under very favorable circumstances, a campaign for U.S. population stabilization cannot achieve its goal for several decades. And the benefits are not easily seen at first. In contrast, many other environmental crusades bring about faster, more tangible results.

Stabilizing population, on the other hand, doesn’t improve the environment; rather, it keeps environmental conditions from growing worse. You can’t photograph the bad things that you prevented —because they didn’t happen. Which direct-mail package is likely to raise more money: newspaper clippings about forcing the removal of a dam, cleaning up smog, and establishing a park, or a headline stating that the rate of population growth declined incrementally from the previous year? How much of this kind of thinking occurred inside the environmental groups?

The 1998 edition of the catalogue of Environmental Grantmaking Foundations82  listed 180 foundations that specified population as an area of environmental gift-giving. Yet these and most other foundations interested in underwriting population programs had a distinctly global perspective and were focused on family planning, women’s empowerment, and reproductive health issues. The experience of the 1990s showed that fewer than ten foundations in the entire country were willing and able to significantly fund nonprofit groups with a clear U.S. population stabilization agenda.

Then there is the possibility that corporate donors actively steered groups away from population issues. In his book Living Within Limits, Garrett Hardin asserted that the corporate and philanthropic foundations that funded the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day in 1990 let it be known that they would not look kindly on the event having a population emphasis.


1. Steward L. Udall, The Quiet Crisis and the Next Generation (Salt Lake City, 1963, 1988), 239.
2. Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York, 1968); Rachel L. Carson, Silent Spring (Boston, 1962).
3. Stephen Fox, John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement, 1890–1975 (Boston, 1981).
4. Examples include the University of Georgia’s Eugene P. Odum, a leading ecologist and author of the textbook Fundamentals of Ecology (Philadelphia, 1971); the University of California–Davis’ Kenneth E. F. Watt, a pioneering systems modeler and author of Principles of Environmental Science (New York, 1973); the Conservation Foundation’s Raymond Dasmann, a zoologist and author of The Destruction of California (New York, 1965); the University of California–Berkeley’s Daniel B. Luten, a chemist, natural resource specialist, and author of Progress Against Growth (1986); and the University of California–Santa Barbara’s Garrett Hardin, a human ecologist, president of the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and author of the most reprinted article ever —"The Tragedy of the Commons"— in the prestigious journal Science (13 December 1968).
5. Edward Goldsmith, Robert Allen, Michael Allaby, John Davoll, and Sam Lawrence, A Blueprint for Survival (New York, 1972), 48. The authors were all editors of The Ecologist.
6. Gaylord Nelson, personal communication, 1998. Former U.S. Senator Nelson is widely credited as the founder of Earth Day.
7. Doug LaFollette et al., "U.S. Sustainable Population Policy Project —Planning Document," unpublished, 20 June 1998. Doug LaFollette is Secretary of State of Wisconsin.
8. PL 91-190; 83 Stat. 852, 42 U.S.C. 4321.
9. R. B. Smythe, "The Historical Roots of NEPA," in Environmental Policy and NEPA: Past, Present, and Future, ed. Ray Clark and Larry Canter (Boca Raton, 1997), 12.
10. 42 U.S.C. 4331.
11. Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, Population and the American Future (Washington, D.C., 1972). Excerpt above from transmittal letter.
12. Sierra Club Board of Directors policy adopted, 3–4 May 1969.
13. Resolution sponsored and circulated by ZPG; adopted by the Sierra Club on 4 June 1970.
14. T. Michael Maher, "How and Why Journalists Avoid the Population-Environment Connection," Population and Environment 18.4 (1997).
15. T. Michael Maher, Personal communication with the author, 1998.
16. Dirk Olin, "Divided We Fall? The Sierra Club’s debate over immigration may be just the beginning," Outside 23 (July 1998).
17. President’s Council on Sustainable Development, Sustainable America: A New Consensus for Prosperity, Opportunity, and a Healthy Environment (Washington, D.C., 1996). The council included representatives of a wide range of interests and backgrounds, including environmentalists, population activists, women’s groups, minorities, academics, and business leaders, as well as cabinet-level federal officials. Quotes from chapter 6 and chapter 1, respectively.
18. Paul R. Ehrlich and John P. Holdren, "Impact of Population Growth," Science 171 (1971), 1212–17.
19. Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact Upon the Earth (Philadelphia, 1996).
20. Council on Environmental Quality, Environmental Quality: 25th Anniversary Report (Washington, D.C., 1997).
21. Ibid.
22. In 1970, the "black and other" Total Fertility Rate (TFR) was 3.0 (National Center for Health Statistics, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970 [1976]). By 1997, black fertility had fallen to 2.2, slightly above the general population’s replacement rate of 2.1. Overall Hispanic fertility even in 1997 stood at 3.0, well above replacement level. That of Mexican-born women residing in the U.S. was 3.3 (National Center for Health Statistics. 1999. National Vital Statistics Report, vol. 47, no. 18)—actually higher than the fertility rate of women in Mexico itself (2.9 in 1998 according to the U.S. Census Bureau at http://www.census.gov/cgibin/ipc/idbsum).
23. See note 11 above, pp. 72–73.
24. See note 11 above, p. 72.
25. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the TFR of non-Hispanic white females was 1.8 in 1997 (compared to 2.1 for replacement level). Using Census Bureau data, it can be calculated that in 1970, non-Hispanic whites comprised 83 percent of the U.S. population and accounted for approximately 78 percent of the births. By 1994, non-Hispanic whites comprised 74 percent of the population and accounted for 60 percent of the births. With immigration included (approximately 90 percent of which originates from non-European sources), the non-Hispanic white share of current population growth drops well below 50 percent. According to medium projections of the Census Bureau and the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, non-Hispanic whites will account for 6 percent of the nation’s population growth between 1995 and 2050, blacks for 18 percent, Asians for 20 percent, and Hispanics for 54 percent (James P. Smith and Barry Edmonston, eds., The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration [Washington, D.C., 1997], table 3.7.) By 2050, non-Hispanic whites are projected to have declined to 51 percent of the U.S. population from 87 percent in 1950 (table 3.10, The New Americans).
26. James Scheuer, "A Disappointing Outcome: United States and World Population Trends Since the Rockefeller Commission," The Social Contract 2.4 (1992).
27. "The Vatican and World Population Policy: An Interview with Milton P. Siegel," The Humanist (March–April 1993).
28. David Simcox, "Twenty Years Later: A Lost Opportunity," The Social Contract 2.4 (1992).
29. Stephen D. Mumford, The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy (Research Triangle Park, N.C., 1996).
30. Carl Bernstein, "The Holy Alliance," Time, 24 February 1992.
31. George D. Moffett, Critical Masses: The Global Population Challenge (New York, 1994), 190.
32. George Weigel, "What Really Happened at Cairo, and Why," in The Nine Lives of Population Control, ed. Michael Cromartie (Washington, D.C., 1995), 145.
33. Lindsey Grant, "Multiple Agendas and the Population Taboo." Focus 7.3 (1997); reprinted from chapter 16 of Juggernaut: Growth on a Finite Planet (Santa Ana, Calif., 1996).
34. Judy Kunofsky, post to on-line Sierra Club population forum, 1997. Dr. Kunofsky was on the ZPG Board of Directors from 1972 to 1984 and was president from 1977 to 1980; Joyce Tarnow, personal communication, 1998. Tarnow is president of Floridians for a Sustainable Population.
35. Celia Evans Miller and Cynthia P. Green, "A U.S. Population Policy: ZPG’s Recommendations." Zero Population Growth policy paper, 1976.
36. Alan Kuper, "ZPG or ZCG?" E-mail to list, 10 April 1999. Kuper, a long-time Sierra member and one of the population activists who spearheaded the 1998 referendum, pointed out that seven out of ten questions on ZPG’s latest Earth Day quiz related to consumption. "Based on what I have, I’d say ZPG is promoting in classrooms across the US, reduction in consumption more than reduction in numbers."
37. Judith Jacobsen, "President’s Message," ZPG Reporter, February 1998.
38. Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven, 1973 rev. ed. [1967]).
39. Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement, 1890–1920 (Cambridge, Mass., 1959, 1969); Douglas H. Strong, Dreamers and Defenders—American Conservationists (Lincoln, Neb., 1971, 1988).
40.Mark Dowie, Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), 127.
41. Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle (New York, 1971).
42. James R. Hepworth and Gregory McNamee, Resist Much, Obey Little, Remembering Ed Abbey (San Francisco 1996), quote at p. 104, John F. Rohe, A Bicentennial Malthusian Essay Conservation, Population, and the Indifference to Limits (Traverse City, Mich., 1997).
43. Dave Foreman, "Progressive Cornucopianism," Wild Earth 7.4 (1998).
44. A 1998 fundraising letter from PEG claimed that "Sierra grassroots leaders told us that ‘The Sierra Club would not have won this vote without PEG,’" an assessment that PEG’s adversaries would probably agree is not far off the mark.
45. Brad Erickson, personal interview, May 1998.
46. See note 40 above.
47. Steven A. Camarota, "Immigrants in the United States—1998: A Snapshot of America’s Foreign-born Population," Backgrounder (Washington, D.C., 1999).
48. Poster Project for a Sustainable U.S. Environment, 1998. Based on Census Bureau data.
49. Susan Jacoby, "Anti-Immigration Campaign Begun," Washington Post, 8 May 1977.
50. Sierra Club Board of Directors, "U.S. Population Policy and Immigration." Adopted 6–7 May 1978.
51. Sierra Club Population Report (Spring 1989).
52. Gerald O. Barnye, "Global Future: Time to Act," in The Global 2000 Report to the President. A report prepared for President Carter by the Council on Environmental Quality and U.S. Department of State, 1981, p. 11.
53. President’s Council on Sustainable Development, Population and Consumption Task Force Report (Washington, D.C., 1996).
54. Emil Guillermo, "The Sierra Club’s Nativist Faction," San Francisco Examiner, 17 December 1997.
55. Robert Reich, The Work of Nations: A Blueprint for the Future (New York, 1991).
56. Katherine Betts, The Great Divide: Immigration Politics in Australia (Sydney, 1999), 5, 29.
57. Carl Pope, on-line post to Sierra members, 1997.
58. Club leaders appeared unaware of or unimpressed by the numerous surveys over the years which have indicated that majorities of most minorities favor reduced immigration levels. For instance, in a February 1996 Roper poll, 73 percent of blacks and 52 percent of Hispanics favored cutting immigration to 300,000 or fewer annually. The 1993 Latino National Political Survey, largest ever done of this ethnic group in the United States, found that 7 in 10 Latino respondents —higher than the percentage of "Anglos"— thought there were "too many immigrants." A Hispanic USA Research Group poll (1993) found that three-quarters of Hispanics believed fewer immigrants should be admitted. A majority of Asian-American voters in California cast ballots in favor of Proposition 187 in 1994. Findings such as these should have allayed the Club leadership’s ostensible fears that even a principled stand against (what Club icon David Brower termed) "overimmigration" strictly on environmental grounds would spark a minority backlash. But they did not. It may well be that the Club establishment cared more about the opinions of minority elites and self-appointed "leaders" than they did about rank-and-file minority opinion.
59. See note 37 above.
60. Personal communication from an individual present at the conference, 1999.
61. Georgia C. DuBose, "ZPG official says law, local action can cut population." The Journal (Martinsburg, W.Va.), 29 March 1998.
62. Peter Kostmayer, letter to ZPG member, 30 March 1998.
63. A prime example of this global view is Al Gore’s 1992 book Earth in the Balance (Boston, 1992). In 1998 Vice-President Gore again explicitly linked population growth to global issues when he touted increased family-planning support as one means of combating global warming.
64. Carl Pope, post to on-line Sierra Club population forum, 16 December 1997.
65. Brock Evans, "The Sierra Club Ballot Referendum on Immigration, Population, and the Environment." Focus 8.1 (1998). Evans is the executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition, and a former vice-president for National Issues of the National Audubon Society, associate executive director of the Sierra Club, 1981 recipient of the Club’s highest honor (the John Muir Award), and a 1984 candidate for Congress from the state of Washington.
66. Carl Pope, "Think Globally, Act Sensibly—Immigration is not the problem." Asian Week (San Francisco), 2 April 1998. The irony of using the Titanic analogy to represent overpopulation and immigration is that if the HMS Titanic’s bulkheads had been sealed and reached all the way up (a standard feature in ships nowadays) instead of just part way, the ship might have been saved from sinking because in-rushing ocean water would have been confined to several compartments instead of spilling over the top of each bulkhead into subsequent ones. (The Titanic could flood four compartments and still float. It breached five.) Thus, the opposite conclusion can be drawn from this maritime tragedy, namely, that barriers between distinct nation-states may well be essential to preventing one country’s failure to address overpopulation from becoming the whole world’s failure. Economist and philosopher Kenneth Boulding (author of "The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth"), in another of his insightful essays, wrote that what really disturbed him was the possibility of converting the world from a place of many experiments into one giant, global experiment.
67. Michael Hanauer, "Why Domestic Environmental Organizations Won’t Visibly Advocate Domestic Population Stabilization," draft of unpublished manuscript, 1999.
68. See note 43.
69. See note 67 above.
70. See note 67 above.
71. Roy Beck, "Sorting Through Humanitarian Clashes in Immigration Policy," paper presented at the Annual National Conference on Applied Ethics, California State University at Long Beach, 1997.
72. For more detailed descriptions and critiques of corporate globalism, see Sir James Goldsmith, "Global Free Trade and GATT," Focus 5.1 (1995), excerpted from his book Le Piege; Herman E. Daly, "Against Free Trade and Economic Orthodoxy," The Oxford International Review (Summer 1995); idem, "Globalism, Internationalism, and National Defense," Focus 9.1 (1999); Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith, eds., The Case Against the Global Economy: And for a Turn Toward the Local (San Francisco, 1997); and David Korten, When Corporations Rule the World (West Hartford, Conn., and San Francisco, 1995).
73. In a 1998 post to the on-line Sierra Club population forum, Executive Director Carl Pope cited a hypothetical example of 100,000 peasants moving from the Guatemalan highlands to the Peten rainforest (also in Guatemala) versus their moving to Los Angeles, and concluded that the former was worse for the global environment. Similarly, environmental filmmaker and author Michael Tobias (World War III: Population and the Biosphere at the Millennium [Santa Fe, 1994]), when questioned after a 1994 Los Angeles speech on overpopulation, said he would favor relocating people from rapidly-growing tropical countries with high and threatened biodiversity to countries like the United States with less biodiversity, although he admitted this idea was "quixotic."
74. ZPG Reporter, February 1998.
75. William Branigin, "Sierra Club Votes for Neutrality on Immigration: Population Issue ‘Intensely Debated,’" Washington Post, 26 April 1998; John H. Cushman Jr., "Sierra Club Rejects Move to Oppose Immigration," New York Times, 26 April 1998.
76. Daniel Quinn and Alan D. Thornhill, "Food Production and Population Growth," video documentary supported by the Foundation for Contemporary Theology (Houston, 1998).
77. George F. Kennan, Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy (New York, 1993).
78. John H. Cushman Jr., "An Uncomfortable Debate Fuels a Sierra Club Election," New York Times, 5 April 1998.
79. Ben Zuckerman, "Will the Sierra Club Be Hurt If the Ballot Question Passes?" in Population and the Sierra Club: A Discussion of Issues About the Upcoming Referendum, ed. Alan Kuper, Dick Schneider, and Ben Zuckerman (1998), 8-page discussion paper distributed by Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization.
80. Santos Gomez, op-ed in San Francisco Chronicle, 17 November 1998.
81. Home Builders Association of Northern California, "Behind the Sierra Club Vote on Curbing Immigration: Do Environmentalists Risk Alienating the Fastest-growing Ethnic Group in California?" HBA News 21.1 (February 1998).
82. Rochester, N.Y., Resources for Global Sustainability.
83. Garrett Hardin, Living Within Limits (New York, 1993).
84. Howard Gleckman, "A Rich Stew in the Melting Pot," Business Week, 31 August 1998.
85. Alan Kuper, personal communication based on meeting with Sierra Club executive director, 1998.
86. See note 81 above.
87. Laurie Ann Mazur, ed., Beyond the Numbers: A Reader on Population, Consumption, and the Environment (Washington, D.C., 1994).
88. Mark Krikorian, personal communication, 1999.

[MFS note: works of several of the cited authors are available on the "Sustainability Authors" page here; for two directly related items on the MFS Website, see "How and Why Journalists Avoid the Population – Environment Connection" and Powerdown.]
Used with permission of the authors.
Originally published in the Journal of Policy History,
Vol. 12, No. 1, 2000. 123:156. Pennsylvania State University Press,
University Park PA.
MFS note: Also see the much more detailed and comprehensive version at this website here.


Please send mail to webmaster@mnforsustain.org with questions or comments about this web site. Minnesotans For Sustainability (MFS) is not affiliated with any government body, private, or corporate entity. Copyright © 2002, 2003, 2004 Minnesotans For Sustainability