Special Report

Malthus’s Quarreling Children

Two versions of a tired argument are at loggerheads at the Sierra Club.

By 3.24.04

Send to Kindle

LOS ANGELES -- For the granddaddy of the modern environmentalist movement, the latest Sierra Club elections have been anything but stately. Rival camps have been slugging it out for five seats on its 15-member board, accusing each other of "racism" and "corruption" as well as launching three separate lawsuits. Also drawn into the hijinks are outsiders such as the nationalist website Vdare.com and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

At the heart of this quarrel is the Sierra Club's stance on immigration. Immigration? For a group that has spent much of its time opposing efforts to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, H-1 visas and border crossings would not seem like a pressing concern. But immigration is very much tied into the environmental movement's conceit, inspired by the dour Rev. Thomas Malthus two centuries ago, that humans are taxing natural resources to the brink. Thus more people = big problems.

Sierra's current official position on immigration is neutrality. But a group of left-leaning anti-immigrationists led by former Sierra executive director John Tanton, founder of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), have tried to nudge the organization toward their position by grabbing seats on Sierra's 15-member board.

Leading this year's campaign, which concludes once voting ends on April
21, is Tanton's ally Richard Lamm, the former Colorado governor best known for his 1996 attempt to displace Ross Perot as the Reform Party presidential nominee. Along with entomologist David Pimentel and Frank Morris, a former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Lamm hopes to join three other fellow-travelers currently on the board.

STATUS QUO SUPPORTERS such as Sierra board president Larry Fahn are not pleased. They have accused Lamm, Pimentel and Morris, none of whom have had much previous involvement with the group, of serving as Trojan horses for anti-immigration and white supremacist groups.

The challengers have responded by accusing Sierra of electioneering with member funds. Lamm and Pimentel filed suit in a California state court last month, after it placed on member ballots a list of groups allegedly intervening in its affairs with ties to the insurgents. That list included FAIR, on whose board Lamm had served, as well as the Center for American Unity (which operates Vdare) and the SPLC, whose founder, Morris Dees, is also running for a board seat. Lamm and Pimentel dropped the suit after Sierra countersued to recover legal fees.

"I have never seen an election less just, less objective or less democratic," Lamm told the Rocky Mountain News last month, which, considering some of the alleged irregularities in the 1996 Reform Party election, is saying something.

But for all the rancor both sides share the same underlying theme of modern environmentalism first espoused by Malthus. This almost Hobbesian view of human existence is reflected in doomsday scenarios proposed by Lamm and others. "Unabated" immigration, they say, will cause the United States to have a population of at least 800 million by the beginning of the twenty-second century.

That in turn, will wreak an ecological havoc of "stink and sprawl" similar to conditions in China and India because the country will have to mow down national forests and other spaces, ultimately polluting our air and water.

THE CHALLENGERS HAVE THIS going for them: Sierra has already tacitly accepted that less immigration would be a good thing. Since 1968, it has advocated family planning regimes in Third World countries as well as supported legalizing abortion; it has recently demanded President Bush to restore funding for U.N. abortion and family planning programs. A dash of abortion here, a pinch of morning-after pills there, and voilà, the utopian nirvana of zero population growth is served.

Cutting birth rates, Sierra currently argues, would improve ecological conditions, which in turn, would lead to lower emigration to the U.S. "If we improve the quality of life in other countries, they will stay in their own country," said Sierra board member Jennifer Ferenstein, professor at the University of Montana.

Neither side is correct. Although the U.S. population is now 280 million, population growth has slowed to just 4.5 percent a year since 1995 and will likely reach just 394 million by 2050 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile the nation's urban areas alone make up only 2.6 percent of total land mass according to 2000 Census data.

Sierra also fails to consider real causes of environmental problems in developing nations such as the lack of free markets, property rights, and economic development. These will lead to the creation of middle classes, which, in turn, will advocate better living conditions, and voluntarily restrain birth rates.

Watching this internal debate over two wrongs, however, will continue to be a blast.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.