Minnesotans For Sustainability©
Sustainable: A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.
The Environmental Impact of
The current high rate of immigration into the United States of America has adverse environmental impacts upon America, and upon the world as a whole. This article documents that impact, from the ten countries that send the most immigrants to America.
As an example consider the impact of a typical family of seven, immigrating from a country where their owning a car was highly unlikely. When they come to America they are likely to acquire cars (0.76 cars per family member)1. For every mile they drive, they pollute and deplete resources that could have been relatively unaffected had they continued their prior lifestyle. The act of border crossing enables them to make lifestyle changes that adversely affect the environment; by becoming Americans they adopt the consumption and pollution patterns of the world's most environmentally destructive lifestyle.
This paper presents the changes in certain key environmental indicators caused by immigration.
Americans have traditionally ignored many of the effects of immigration.2 In the past, this was a reasonable approach because for much of our history, resources were abundant, pollution seemed insignificant, and we were easily able to accommodate new Americans. In today's world, we are exceeding our long-term carrying capacity3 for more and more resources.4 "Carrying Capacity" refers to the number of individuals a region can support without degrading the natural, economic, cultural, and social environment over the long term. Many biologists and ecologists believe that we are now living beyond the Earth's long-term carrying capacity. And so, it is becoming less and less reasonable to ignore the effects of our extremely rapid and unsustainable population growth. The United States is growing much faster than any other industrialized nation. We add about 3 million people every year. At this rate, our population will double in about 60 years. California could double in 35 years.
According to demographer Leon Bouvier, since 1970, fully half of our recent population growth has come from immigration. The United States admits more legal immigrants than the rest of the world combined. In 1990 and 1991 we admitted about 4 million immigrants5. This figure includes legalizations of people who entered illegally. Today, our immigration rate is about eight times our emigration rate. Our fertility is now at replacement level. If we ignore carrying capacity constraints and project the current rates into the future, we reach the mathematically unavoidable conclusion that our population would grow forever. But of course, no ecosystem can survive unending population growth from any species, and certainly not ours.
Since many other authors have dealt with the fertility component of the damage done by unrestrained population growth, I will focus upon the immigration component6 though the higher than average fertility rate of immigrants means that there is significant overlap between the two.
Immigration has far-reaching effects on American society. The positive effects are well known; the negative effects are rarely discussed. A strong taboo is at work here. But the simple fact is that immigration has important and frequently deleterious effects upon our schools and prisons, our traffic and crime rates, our health care and welfare systems, and on our job climate and economy.7 However, this paper focuses on the generally overlooked environmental portion of the broad range of effects that immigration has upon the United States, and upon the Earth. Yes, we will see that some of these effects apply only to the United States. but that others affect the whole world.
Overwhelmingly, the reason people migrate to the U.S. is to improve their standard of living. This will change the impact they have on various natural resources. In other words, immigrants change their consumption and pollution patterns. It is often easy to quantify these changes - just measure their resource impact both before and after migration, and then compute the percentage change:
The percentage change in pollution or depletion rate for one resource =
(U.S. per capita
rate - sending country's per capita rate) x 100
For example. consider someone who migrates from a hypothetical country where the average ChloroFlouroCarbon (CFC) emission per capita is 0.02 metric tons. When that person comes to America emission increases to 0.52 metric tons. That person's resource impact has increased by 2500%. The calculation is simple:
(.52 - .02) x 100
The following table shows these percentages, for certain key resources, for the 10 countries that sent the most immigrants to the United States in 1991. The numbers just under the country names are the actual numbers of legal immigrants.8
Table 1. Percent changes in resource consumption and pollution on migration to the U.S.. Dashes ( ----- ) indicate that no data is available.
(1) There are anomalies caused by third world technologies that are particularly hazardous to the health of the sending country's environment. Slash and burn agriculture is a good example. It may be better for a family to trade a life based on slash and burn agriculture for a life based upon driving 12 mile per gallon pickup trucks.
(2) There are anomalies caused by averaging impact patterns for a whole country: country-wide averages may not accurately reflect the behavior of particular individuals. For example, the negative impact of migration by the affluent can be minor because their lifestyles do not change much when they cross borders: if a family owned five Mercedes Benz cars in Europe, they are likely to own about five Mercedes Benz cars in the United States. On the other hand, a family with bicycles in China is likely to acquire cars in the United States.
But the impact of the affluent can also be major. When a family migrates, they are likely to cause (directly or indirectly) a large new home to be built which implies cutting forest to provide lumber, and the loss of wilderness or farmland to provide a home site. The family will also require space for roads, schools, medical care, incarceration, shopping, and food production. On average, each new immigrant will cause the destruction of about 1 acre.
Future studies could group immigrants by cultural or economic group within sending country. rather than just by sending country. For now, I simply assert that the effects of all groups are reasonably represented by the country-wide averages.
(3) A time lag occurs while recent immigrants adjust to life in America: they do not fall into their ultimate lifestyles immediately. In some ways, this minimizes the initial load (consumption plus pollution) they place on the environment. For example, newcomers usually arrive without an automobile and it often takes at least a few months for them to acquire their first car. Even newcomers who start out on welfare often acquire a car soon. Rather than acquiring a new, relatively fuel-efficient and clean-running car, they're likely to acquire smokers. One smoker can easily out pollute dozens of properly tuned cars. And almost all newcomers eventually cause new housing to be built.
Much more importantly though, the heaviest load most
immigrants place on the environment is their high birth rate. Most come from
countries with high, above replacement-level fertility (which caused many of the
problems that made them emigrate in the first place).
(5) And one last anomaly: the 53,000 immigrants from Mexico includes only the legal immigrants. If illegal entrants were included, their number could easily exceed 400,000 per year. The conservative INS lists the number at 250,000. In each of 1991 and 1992 there were over a million border apprehensions.
Now let's examine the table row by row, and see what else it demonstrates. The first row describes:
This is total energy consumption, a major environmental offender. Energy consumption correlates strongly with various depletions (the energy sources) and with various pollutants (e.g., nuclear waste, COx, NOx, and SOx). Notice that immigrants from all of the top ten sending countries enormously increase their energy consumption as they adopt the American lifestyle.
While cattle production may seem benign, it is not. Cattle emit huge quantities of methane, the second most deleterious greenhouse gas. Millions of acres of forest have been destroyed to provide range land. Cow hooves enormously increase erosion rates. Only people from the ex-USSR decrease their "cattle impact" on immigration.
Over-fishing and pollution are serious threats to the world's fish populations. Many of the world's major fisheries are no longer productive (e.g., the San Francisco Bay) or are experiencing major declines (e.g., the North Atlantic). People living in the ex-USSR. the Philippines, and Korea will harvest fewer fish after migration, but for most other resources, migration from those areas will have a destructive effect.
This may be the most dangerous immediate environmental threat we face today. Skin cancer deaths, and similarly severe threats to other species, are rising sharply with CFC concentrations. Immigrants from all the major sending nations enormously increase CFC production when they come to America. (Note: in 1998, U.S. CFC production is headed downward - good!)
The next two rows describe CO2 production. CO2 is the primary greenhouse gas, and is a serious candidate for being the main environmental threat facing us. The scientific community's consensus is that CO2 pollution is likely to cause about a four degree (centigrade) rise in the Earth's temperature in the next hundred years. The consequences of this extraordinarily rapid rise in temperature are beyond our ability to predict, but will undoubtedly be extreme, unpleasant, and perhaps impossible for us to manage.
CO2 production occurs in industrial processes and automobile usage, but also occurs during rapid land-use change, as when forests are developed. Forest development by incineration immediately converts huge quantities of carbon in trees (which remove CO2 from the air) into airborne CO2. Forest development by clear cutting produces a similar, though slower, effect. Developing countries (see the Table 1 data for the Philippines, Viet Nam, and Mexico) are destroying their forests extremely rapidly, and so migrants from those countries are actually decreasing their carbon pollution rates from land-use change when they migrate to America. But this is more than offset by their increased CO2 pollution caused by their use of American industrial processes.
Next to CO2, methane is the most important greenhouse gas. All immigrants from the top ten senders dramatically increase their methane production.
In most regions, we are removing or poisoning freshwater much faster than it is being replenished. All people adopting the American lifestyle are likely to increase their freshwater consumption.
This is the sum of potash. phosphorus, and nitrogen-based fertilizer consumption. Fertilizer is helpful in that it increases short-term crop yields. It is harmful in that it pollutes the earth with salts that ultimately ruin the land and seriously damage water systems. Again, migration from all the top ten senders causes sharp increases in fertilizer consumption.
Pesticide usage is like fertilizer consumption in that short term benefits cause serious long-term degradation. Only the ex-USSR uses more pesticide per capita than the United States.
Cars very seriously degrade the environment in many ways - from the obvious energy consumption and greenhouse gas pollution, to the less obvious consumption of wilderness and farmland for road construction. Road kills occur in enormous numbers and contribute significantly to species extinction. Disposal of oil, tires, and cars cause severe pollution problems. And so forth. No other country on Earth approaches America's obsession with the automobile.
industry is probably the dirtiest we've yet devised. It combines the worst
problems of toxic waste disposal, with accidents like losing plutonium-based
warheads on ocean bottoms, and war scenes like 500 burning oil wells in Kuwait.
The United States spends much more per capita for defense than any of the top 10
1. World Facts and Figures. Victor
Showers. John Wiley and Sons, 1989.
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