Posted by Tom Horton.
Stand back so you don’t get splattered. I’m going to talk about immigration, and I’m going to get right down in the sewer.
Are immigrants really responsible for degrading the Chesapeake Bay? It’s easier and safer, by far, of course, to say it is too much nitrogen, too much phosphorus, too much sediment, too much clearing and paving and filling—all the usual suspects.
All this, of course, is caused by people, and during the last decade, most of those people were immigrants, both legal and illegal, and their children.
A report released last month by FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, says that foreign immigration accounted for two-thirds of the population growth in the Chesapeake watershed. In Maryland it was 98 percent.
FAIR makes no bones about targeting the Chesapeake as a symbol of what it says are problems being caused across the country by numbers of immigrants that in recent years have exceeded by three or four times the nation’s historical annual average of newcomers from foreign shores.
The organization lobbies to get tougher on illegal entry and to reduce the numbers allowed here legally.
The controversial nature of the FAIR report shows why most environmental groups around the Bay and elsewhere shy away from paying more than lip service to the need to reduce growth as a way to meet restoration goals.
To put it candidly, the typical immigrant these days is brown and poor; the typical environmentalist is white and doing relatively well. It’s easy to come off as racist—in fact it’s almost guaranteed. A recent blast from the liberal Southern Poverty Law Center equated those who talk about the human carrying capacity of ecosystems, or the need to reduce growth in the name of the environment, to racists in disguise.
I was called by a reporter doing a piece on the FAIR report, and asked outright, “Are immigrants the Bay’s biggest problem?”
I asked her to consider the sewage treatment plant, which is where all of us meet the Bay most intimately. They may say death is the great leveler, but even in death we have bigger and smaller gravestones, and better and worse cemeteries.
But there’s nothing more egalitarian than the sewer. Rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, those just off the boat and those who got off the Mayflower—all mix companionably at the sewage treatment plant.
My point is that more people, regardless of where they come from, inevitably put more pressure on the environment. Environmental groups point out the real problem is how those people live in a given environment. That is why, they say, they prefer to work on reducing our per capita environmental impacts rather than wading into sticky issues like population growth and immigration.
They are half right. The problem is per capita impacts, multiplied by how many “capitas” there are. The challenge of restoring ecosystems like the Chesapeake is far too large and difficult to ignore either side of the equation.
Think of the challenge we face this way. To restore the Bay, we must significantly reduce pollution from the current population of nearly 17 million, and reduce it enough so that the two million newcomers we expect every decade have no added impact.
Looking back at the failure of the Bay cleanup to meet deadline after deadline, it defies belief to think current efforts, laudable as they are, will succeed as we continue to pursue both economic and population growth at almost any cost throughout the watershed.
What we need now is a respectful debate about the merits of continued growth. Nothing in modern economic theory says growth is necessary for prosperity. A growing economy and a growing population to fill the growing number of jobs does make for a bigger economy; but not necessarily one that is richer per capita, and certainly not necessarily one with a better quality of life.
Is immigration killing the Bay? It’s part of the puzzle. But it’s just as big a part of the puzzle as is the continued reluctance of those who would save the Bay to even talk about growth.