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Immigration Reform: An Environmental Perspective

Glbal Biosphere on June 6 2009Immigration, as a policy issue, is politically explosive. It is politically explosive because it necessarily involves making choices between bad options, each of which has supporters and detractors with political power.

In advocating for their option, it is not uncommon for some supporters to engage in inaccurate and unjust accusations against their opponents, such as claiming the other is guilty of racism or traitorhood. The situation is further complicated by the small numbers of supporters on either side who are racist or traitorous.

It is unsurprising that the engagements between opponents are volatile. How could decisions about who belongs, and who does not, be otherwise? What is the best way to disentangle a complex web of family relations, personal convictions, and obligations that must be shared between citizens if they are to be a nation, all in the context of the question of how the franchise is to be extended to non-citizens, if at all? It is no wonder that the issue is avoided like the plague.

Plague-avoidance strategies that do not address the causes of the plague, or bolster the immune system against its effects, are doomed to failure, however, and the cost of failure in avoiding the plague is serious illness and death. In this sense, the lack of a workable resolution of the immigration issue endangers the health of the body politic.

At present, the lack of meaningful policy action is, in effect, backdoor advocacy for the situation as it currently stands, in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” sense. This abrogation of responsibility is dangerous beyond its obvious bad effects. It cultivates a sense of powerlessness among the citizenry, who perceive their elected governments as incapable of effecting meaningful change. History has enough examples of what happens when democratic and republican assemblies appear incapable of providing effective leadership in difficult times. This underscores why difficult challenges must be addressed to maintain the health of the body politic. If our leaders will not lead for us, they must be lead by us, if we are to avoid being lead by powered interests. This short, oversimplified post is intended to be a step in the direction of citizen leadership.

The framework that follows views immigration from an environmental perspective that takes into account citizenship within a nationalist framework. I think it practical because we are citizens in nationalist frameworks and because immigration is a normal environmental phenomenon. My intent is to propose a framework for immigration based upon the environmental concept of sustainability, which is also practical, because it is social suicide to adopt models that are not sustainable.

In this post, I shall not address anti-nationalist perspectives, despite their value, because the scope of the issues is already too daunting for a short post. Furthermore, I shall not address economic or ethical perspectives that disregard the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I consider it to be inarguable that the Earth has a more or less finite amount of non-renewable and renewable resources, in human terms, and that their availability is governed by the Law of Diminishing Returns and the Principle of Net Yield. For example, the only reason immigration is an issue is because there is competition for scarce resources. If there were plenty of everything that everyone needed and wanted, then there would be no grounds for disputes and no reason to have systems of justice, except to deal with the actions of the pathological.

The ideas that follow are predicated on the notion that there are limits to growth. The only dispute is about the extent of these limits. Living beyond these limits is not sustainable.

What is sustainability?

“Sustainability” refers to the capacity of a system to persist through time. With respect to environmental practises, Drought in Iraq on June 13, 20009sustainability refers to the capacity of human systems to meet human needs without undermining the environmental systems that form the material basis for those needs. The upper limit of the population that can be sustained without degrading the system is referred to as the system’s carrying capacity. Sustainability advocates work to decrease stealing sustainable capacity from future generations to provide for today’s excesses.

I = PAT is a formula developed by Erlich and Holdren that expresses this relationship.

I = humanity’s impact.

P = population.

A = affluence, i.e. per capita resource consumption.

T = environmental impact per unit of affluence.

According to IPAT, to be sustainable, humanity’s impact must be less than the actual impact that the planet can sustain. The largest population the world can sustain, therefore, is dependent upon per capita resource consumption and environmental degradation. If each person consumes and degrades less, the planet can sustain more people and vice versa.

Threshold Point

Communities that live at the threshold of their maximum impact are courting suffering or death. This is because any small occurrence that temporarily reduces the capacity of their ecosystems to produce their consumables or absorb their toxins necessarily puts their population at risk. Famines are a case in point. The planet is littered with the remains of civilizations that surpassed their thresholds.

Solar Evaporation Ponds, Atacama DesertImportantly, when populations overshoot their carrying capacity, they often undermine the carrying capacity of the ecosystem. Deforestation, desertification, soil erosion, salinization of soils, and feed specie extinction are only a few of the more significant outcomes of such undermining. Once undermined, the area is no longer able to sustain the number of people that it was earlier. When people eat their seed grain to survive a poor harvest, Catton opines, what will they eat in the future?


Sensible societies build resiliency into their systems. They keep their impact below the maximum, which is akin to building a surplus for future use, such as saving during the seven years of feast as a way to survive the following seven years of famine.


When communities find themselves on the wrong side of the threshold, they are forced to ration as a means of reducing their impact, if they are unable to access the carrying capacity of other ecosystems. They ration by reducing their consumption, degradation, population or a combination of these. Migration, for example, is a rationing response that reduces the demands on the stressed ecosystem by transferring the population to a less stressed ecosystem.


Species migrate for habitat advantages. In the case of human migration, generally-speaking, people are either driven from their home, which creates advantages for those who remain, or they leave their homes to gain advantages that exist elsewhere. The set of factors that cause this push or pull is manifold and need not be driven by material factors. “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us” stands as an example. People can migrate for religious, economic, class, health, family, environmental or political reasons, to name a few. The move can be temporary or permanent.

The United States is a destination of choice for many migrants. Are they right to view the US as a less-stressed environment?

Is America’s current way of life sustainable?

ozone_1979-2008That the US offers more desirable opportunities for migrants than their points of origination does not mean the US is less-stressed in terms of environmental impact. For the sake of this post, America’s ecological footprint will be considered equivalent to a nationalized notion of IPAT. America’s ecological footprint is about 40% in arrears, which means that America is living beyond the means of its ecosystems to sustain its population.

{Social justice advocates will note that this figure does not jive with their notions of the unequal resource distribution that exists between north and south. They are right. The point to take here is that each nation is graded based on its carrying capacity, which is part of a global total, and resource consumption is only an aspect of an IPAT or ecological footprint calculation. Further, if America reduces its consumption of southern resources, acquired through present international trade structures, the south’s ecological account will improve.}

To become sustainable, without increasing its own area or reducing the impact in other areas, through conquest or other means, the US must choose to decrease its consumption and degradation in accordance with the population numbers it is willing to sustain. Accordingly, if the US wants to maintain its present population, its per capita consumption and degradation must decrease by 40%. If it wants to sustain a higher population, it must reduce consumption and degradation by a greater percentage. If America chooses to embrace a population reduction strategy, then its degree of per capita sacrifice can decrease. It is true that future technologies could expand the pie, but technological innovation has also decreased pie size. Planning for surpluses created by as-of-yet developed technologies is like depending on the lottery to fund your retirement.

The citizens of the US are faced with a future of diminished material opportunities. For example, why is the US drilling in environmental reserves? The unpalatable reality is that there is only so much pie to go around. Increasing the number of pieces means decreasing their size, unless it means stealing from future generations.

This situation is exacerbated by the reality that the US is a high energy society, which means that participating in American society has a greater effect on environmental impact, then participating in less energy intense societies. Participating in the US lifestyle increases the global impact effect of most migrants.

Would you kill a sacred cow to feed your great grandchildren?

It is likely to be argued that the ancestors of migrants have no right to argue against migration into their country. It is true that waves of migrants transformed the United States into what it is today. Should this history impact how people should choose to act in the future? Are aboriginal peoples justified in seeing this transformation as bad?

On its face, the argument that it is hypocritical for the ancestors of migrants to argue against continuing immigration feels convincing. That any of us are not the product of migration is difficult to conceive. Then again, the existence of a practice is not an argument for its continuation. For example, is it the case that the ancestors of slave holders have no right to legislate against slavery? Is it the case that the ancestors of a society that treated women as property have no right to legislate women into personhood? Is it the case that the ancestors of a society that was ruled by kings have no right to fight for democracy?

To be fair, slavery, chattel, and monarchies do not have the upsides of migration. The point is that it is nonsensical and somewhat immoral to argue that immigration is always a good, especially when it involves displacing existing populations. The fact is that emigration and immigration can bring good results, but they can also cause harm, as in cases when populations escaping post-threshold areas drive other stressed areas into threshold. Frankly, the issue boils down to what obligations we feel we owe to the different groups we do and don’t share membership with?

Brisenia FloresWhy does America have a problem with illegal immigration?

America presents migrants with opportunities that are not available to them in their home countries, be they legal or not. Many of the migrants are economic migrants. The complex patterns of migration and colonization that created this circumstance, as manifest in the social systems that govern the world’s nations, are the facts on the ground. Given the need to reduce America’s environmental impact, what can be done to deal with illegal migration?

One way to reduce the number of illegal immigrants is to work to create opportunities in their countries as well as to act so as to not decrease their opportunities at home, by ending exploitative trading arrangements, for example. An aspect of this process is to reduce the discrepancies between American consumption and degradation and their own, by reducing that of the US.

Of course, this is easier said than done in a world that is encroaching upon, or has surpassed, its threshold point, whereupon a drastic population crash is unavoidable. Humanity forewent acting sooner, so it limited its material and moral choices to act now, and tainted innocence with environmental original sin. Clearly, and as noted earlier, the only options that are left are not good. It will take courage, honest, integrity, and sacrifice to address the immigration issue in a way that does not compromise our humanity.

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45 Responses

  1. Very good analysis. I like the way you lay out the issues and problems.

  2. hmmm most people i know have no prob with immigration it the illegals that get people in an uproar on both sides of the issue. thats when things get heated

  3. They used to think civilizations rose and fall based on some moral and social pattern.

    Numerous civilizations died because of environmental reasons.

    They either grew too big for the available resources or polluted themselves to death.

    Or both.

    • Easter Island … the Anasazi

    • myiq,

      Yes. My research is on post-apocalyptic social design, so I delve into sources of societal collapse. Obviously, you do as well.


      • That sounds like a fascinating field of study! Can you recommend any books that aren’t too difficult?

        • Dr. BB,

          I think a good place to start is Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” It is a book about the precursors of societal development and it does a great job debunking racism. Next I recommend “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail” also by Diamond. Lastly, I recommend “A Short History of Progress” by Ronald Wright.

          The field, at present, consists of a solitary, germinating sprout. 😉


  4. The costs for supporting illegal immigration will be astronomical to the American taxpayer, but not to the corporate world. Say–YES–to e-verify! Say–NO–to any AMNESTY. Call your Senator or Congressman. Digest more of the facts and unbiased truth at NUMBERSUSA, JUDICIAL WATCH, CAPSWEB, and ALIPAC. At AMERICANPATROL, learn about the massive upsurge on illegal alien criminal activity.

    • Sometimes I think illegal immigration has been tolerated because it provides cheap labor. It has allowed some employers (such as in agriculture and food processing) in the U.S. to compete against third world countries. (Don’t bother moving to Mexico for cheap labor, let the cheap labor come to you.) Unfortunately, this practice allows for exploitation and results in costs to tax payers.

      • sam,

        Systems that tolerate exploitation tend to develop hierarchies of exploitation. One example of such as a class-based society could have such groupings as kings and queens, lords and ladies, knights and squires, freemen and serfs, and so on. Hmm. Didn’t someone have a revolution to get rid of that stuff?


      • If every illegal alien in the country were somehow magically deported tonight, tomorrow morning we would be desperately trying to bring most of them back.

        People willing to work very hard for long hours at low pay are hard to find.

        • I’m not sure about that given the unemployment numbers. I think it’s more about exploitation. There are lots of people willing to do hard work for reasonable pay. That’s the rub though, corporations would rather pay a dollar an hour instead of 10. So if all the illegals magically left, there would be plenty of people that would be happy to do those jobs, but the employers wouldn’t want to pay reasonable salaries, and perhaps consumers wouldn’t want to pay a reasonable price for products (they’d prefer to by imported). It’s such a fun problem.

          • Dt,

            It is a problem worthy of dakinikat wielding Alexander’s sword, if only we can get her elected as POTUS.


  5. My idea would be for the nations in the Americas have open and unrestricted borders.US Mexico and Canada. Everyone able to move about and settle freely as one wishes. I would love knowing I could move to Vancouver or retire to La Paz.
    Share everything and live in peace.
    I know. Dreamer.

    • J,

      Such things are possible, if we can reduce our impact. Necessarily this requires getting unsustainable consumption, degradation, and population behaviors under control.


    • This would indeed be a nice way to go. Not unlike the EU. The way to make that happen is to sort of level things among these countries. By the way, I’d include all of central america as well, at least. Heck, why not all the americas. But like I said, it seems like things would have to be a bit more equal otherwise too many people might flow to on area.

      Then again, perhaps it would all work out naturally because as too many people came here, it would become crappy, then lots would go somewhere else, which would become crappy… until things eventually balanced out.

      Now if we could all get together knowing that would happen and think things through better and plan. Nah, never going to happen…

      • DT,

        Armed conflcit is the most likely outcome, given historical precedent.


        • Yea, you’re probably right. We would have to go through a very long process of cleaning up the trade issues, undoing exploitation, trying to even the playing field, among lots of other things before the boarders being open could be thought of as a safe and reasonable thing.

  6. Brittanicus,

    All actions have energy costs. There is no way to deal with the issue of illegal immigration that will not cause resource depletion and environmental degradation. Programs to remove illegal immigrants cost energy. Amnesty programs cost energy. Justice costs energy.

    The fundamental question that needs to be addressed is how can the energy costs be minimized while retaining one’s humanity while looking out for the well being of future generations?


  7. One way to discourage immigration from the south is to discourage artificially depleted sustainability in Latin America. NAFTA has had the unintended consequence of making it cheaper to import corn, which is a basic staple in the Mexican diet, from the United States than to buy it from Mexican family farmers. Combined with the effects of the maquilas–foreign manufacturers that employ cheap labor and often abuse their employees and have not brought the intended properity to the workers–the failure of small farming and its proliferating effects on other businesses has fueled a substantial portion of illegal immigration into the United States. Climate change will worsen the problem as its effects become more pronounced.

    The only effective way to keep would-be immigrants at home is to make their home environments both productive and sustainable. This would mean giving up economic advantage to major corporations. I doubt that the United States has the will to do it, either through fair trade or through adopting tthe Kyoto protocols or other restrictions aimed at averting the worst effects of climate change.

  8. os,

    Interestingly, and as addressed by Cottrell in Energy and Society, the most energy efficient way to grow corn is by manual tillage, especially when environmental costs are factored in.

    In the last short while Mexicans have suffered from corn shortages, a reduction in the genetic diversity in their corn crops, and the growth of corn as a biofuel source (which is a terribly inefficient, and probably immoral, way to use corn). Southern Mexico is ripe for at least small scale civil war, due to conflicts between rancheros, small scale farmers, and the indigenous population.

    I agree that it is likely that our governments will lack the will to do the right thing early, which means a lot of bad things will come later.

    Climate change is a serious issue, but Kyoto is a horribly flawed document. It allows for the developing world to industrialize with yesterday’s bad technologies and the pathologies this is creating in their societies are alarming. The pollution in Beijing is the tip of the metaphorical iceberg.

    • Chiapas already has a “small-scale civil war.” Peru is developing one, with the blessing of the Obama administration on the first stages of genocide against its indigenous Amazonian peoples. Colombia doesn’t even bear thinking about.

      I realize it’s practically treason in the king’s house to some posters here, but the only Latin American leader who has had the guts or the will to try to better the lot not only of local indigenous peoples but the poor as a larger class is Hugo Chavez.

      • Try Chile. Much better!

        • Dakini, Chile and Argentina have some of the smallest indigenous populations and the least poverty in Latin America. They are in many ways culturally closer to Europe than they are to much of the rest of South and Meso-America–Second, rather than Third World, if you will.

          Conflicts in Latin America right now are based on two related factors. One is the class system, which is rigid and displays far wider relative disparities than anything we have seen in the United States since the advent of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. The other is color, or “race.” The upper classes tend to be the “whitest,” with middle class folk grading down from pale to cafe au lait, and unmixed indigenous groups at the very bottom. Check out the number of blonde spokesmodels/telenovela actresses on Mexican television if you can get Univision. Even American TV does better in terms of diversity.

      • os,

        Greetings from the lands of the Blackfoot (and others).

        I enjoy your posts.

        I think it is likely that the indigneous peoples will suffer the most abuse. It seems to be the way. Irian Jaya continues to replay Dances with Wolves in the name of global commerce.

        As to Chiapas, it will spread. The drug wars are a symptom of the larger problem. I wonder how the ensuing refugee crisis will be handled.

        I did a post about immigration. I’ll let you take the heat for Hugo. 😉


        • Thank you, Steven, and greetings from a Tsalagi strayed south.

          Indigenous peoples world-wide are suffering the most. Colonialism isn’t dead; it’s just gone high-tech.

          And yes, the conflict in Mexico will spread. The last election cycle skidded right up to the edge of violence; the next crooked establishment victory will send the people over it.

          The drug wars are a symptom of two larger problems. One is poverty. For many, drug and human trafficking is simply one way of making a living that’s open to someone without much education or other social connection. The other is the insatiable demand for drugs in the United States. I like to point out to Republicans and libertarians that the drug trade is simply the purest form of capitalism–laissez faire from the exploitation of the coca grower in Peru to the “market adjustments” and “hostile takeovers” implemented by the cartels’ sicarios.

          No problem taking the heat for Hugo. I suppose I should confess that I’m an actual, real live socialist and have been since the age of eighteen. In my veiw, Hugo comes closer than any so far to doing socialism right in a country where the initial disparities are so great.

          • os,

            I’m a social democrat, so we are kin. One of my buds is an old-style Italian socialist, which makes him much more fun the the sunny day, post-modernist varieties that inhabit the younger echelons of academe.

            Your description of the drug war in Mexico is apt. My niece’s fiance is from a legal family in Mexico and he’s concerned about his siblings. He’s also justifiably worried about the direction the country is heading.

            Out of sight, out of mind has been an effective strategy for continuing the extirpation of indigenous communities.

            I am ambivalent about Hugo. I know too little to say something definitive.

            Have a great night.


  9. Good stuff, Steven.

    I became aware of this issue after reading an article in the San Diego Tribune in 2006, “America: taking it to the limit?

    The article introduced me to the struggle within the environmental establishment over whether they should continue discussing the impact of immigration and US population growth on the environment.

  10. LINVA,

    Thanks for the link. It’s neat that one of the fellows notes how environmentalists were avoiding the immigration issue “like the plague” because they did not want to step on their social justice friends’ toes.

    My masters thesis concerned the inherent conflicts between environmental justice and social justice, so I’m well versed in what he was referring to.


  11. Get rid of free trade agreements like NAFTA, CAFTA and Panama FTA, the World Bank-IMF and enforce environmental and worker’s rights protections among corporations.

    • Davey Sirota is probably crying to himself now while attending to his nerdster website.

    • DD,

      I think free cannot be separated from fair. Notwithstanding, if fair trade agreements do not correct our current sustainabiity deficits, then they will only postpone the ugly inevitable.


      • It would be enough if they just really enforced environmental and workers rights protections but I don’t see that happening under Obama.

        • dd,

          What’s required is pretty radical. It involves a retooling of the value system. Ergo, I too “…don;t see it happening under Obama.”


          PS Did you find a place to do your doctorate? I seem to remember it being a topic of discussion at Elizabitches.

          • That must have been a long time ago like during the primary! No, I’m just finishing a master’s. I didn’t know you hung out at Elizabitchez!

            If Obama simply had progressive values, he’d enforce environmental and workers protections but he has no discernible values or principles. He does whatever benefits him personally.

          • dd,

            I’m the person who recommended UW due to its ADVANCE program.

            It was then noted that UW cost two limbs.


  12. OMG! Thank you. Good to see you again!

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