Anti-Immigrant Platform Pollutes Sierra Club

Revolutionary Worker #951, April 5, 1998

The Sierra Club, the largest environmental group in the U.S., is holding a vote on whether to support a clampdown on immigration into the U.S--in the name of protecting the environment. A referendum of the 550,000 Sierra Club members will go on from late February through April 18. The members will be voting on whether to endorse an "Alternative A" that supports reducing immigration into the U.S. Members can oppose "Alternative A" by voting for "Alternative B" which says that the Sierra Club will not take a position on immigration matters. "Alternative B" adds that the organization should "address the root causes of global population problems" by championing "the right of all families to maternal and reproductive health care, and the empowerment and equality of women" and by addressing "the root causes of migration by encouraging sustainability, economic security, health and nutrition, human rights and environmentally responsible consumption."

The Sierra Club is an organization that has lobbied within the system for laws like the Clean Air and Endangered Species Acts. Their membership is largely made up of middle class people who are concerned about protecting the environment and who oppose the destruction of old-growth forests and the damming of rivers.

The passage of "Alternative A" within the Sierra Club would be an outrage. It would offer the endorsement of mainstream environmentalism to all kinds of attacks on immigrants. There is already a mean-spirited climate in which immigrants are falsely accused of all kinds of things--from draining government resources to "taking American jobs." If the Sierra Club went on record saying that immigrants hurt the environment it will give undeserved respectability to the toxic arguments of anti-immigrant forces. And, for exactly that reason, the internal Sierra Club discussion has spilled out into the public arena, especially in California where there has long been intense struggle over immigration. The issues have been debated on the radio, in newspapers and on different Internet discussion groups.

Progressive organizations of various kinds are supporting forces within the Sierra Club who support "Alternative B." And, at the same time, right-wing and racist groups have come out in support of "Alternative A." "The right-wing has realized they need a centrist anchor to help them out," Michael Dorsey of the Sierra Club Board told the New Times weekly. "Their bottom-line objective is to sort of P.C.-ize their rhetoric, so they can go and say, `Look Mr. Congressman, the Sierra Club agrees with us. If they do, you should too.' "

Approving "Alternative A" would also destroy significant new alliances that have been developing. Recently, activists in several environmental groups have taken up struggle against what is called "environmental racism"--the ways in which oppressed nationalities in the U.S. face special dangers from pollution. For example, an alliance of environmental activists and a largely Latino community defeated plans to place a toxic waste landfill in California's Kettleman City. The San Francisco-based Political Ecology Group (PEG) has joined with farmworkers and rural communities to fight the use of powerful poisons like methyl bromide in the production of strawberries.

Anti-People Logic and
Imperialist Chauvinism

There have always been sharp debates within the U.S. environmental movements over what causes environmental problems. Some forces correctly point to corporate capitalism as causing the wasteful, destructive and unplanned way human society currently deals with the environment.

Others believe that the key cause of environmental degradation is simply that there are too many people--and that controlling population growth is key to solving environmental problems. There has always been a powerful current within the Sierra Club that promotes this conservative "overpopulation" theory. In fact, the Sierra Club was the original publisher of The Population Bomb, a highly influential 1970 book by Paul and Anne Erlich that put forward this idea that "overpopulation" causes society's problems, including poverty and environmental destruction.

The Sierra Club has never before put forward a position of opposing immigration. But there are forces within the organization who believe that opposing immigration is a "common sense" application of the stand against "overpopulation." If immigration increases the U.S. population by a million people a year, then curbing that immigration, they say, is just a practical way of cutting U.S. population growth and easing the population pressure on natural resources.

This is not the first time reactionary anti-immigrant positions have broken out in the environmental movement. A decade ago, the militant Earth First organization split when some of its original founders, including Dave Foreman, argued that human beings represented the main danger to wilderness areas. Many people within Earth First, including Judi Bari, argued that this approach let corporate capitalism off the hook. They argued that capitalism's drive for profit lay behind the destruction of the environment and that all kinds of people, including workers within the timber industry, could be won over to opposing corporate environmental destruction. In that earlier debate, Dave Foreman shocked many people by calling for an end to immigration into the U.S.

After losing out within Earth First, this same Dave Foreman got himself a position on the governing board of the Sierra Club, where he promoted the campaign for "Alternative A."

You don't have to dig far into these debates to see the hostility that some supporters of "Alternative A" have for impoverished people of the world (and especially the Third World). One writer in this debate, Garett Hardin, compares the United States to a lifeboat with limited room, food and water. In his view, the U.S. is surrounded by countries whose "lifeboats" are overcrowded and undersupplied. Everyone is trying to board "our lifeboat," he says. According to Hardin, the "ethical" thing to do is to defend the U.S. border, beat back the "intruder immigrants" and keep the "lifeboat" from capsizing.

Clearly such politics are not about trying to solve (or even understand) the world's environmental problems or the intense problems of world poverty. Hardin's "lifeboat ethics" are about defending the existing inequalities of the world and using a eco-veneer to justify it. This is the "ethics" of officers on the sinking Titanic who locked working class passengers into the lower decks at gunpoint--so the first class passengers would have more room on the available lifeboats. For people in a country like the U.S. to take this position is a shameful display of imperialist chauvinism.

On a fundamental level, the struggle to save the world's environment will never be solved at a national level--by looking at one country as a "lifeboat," and looking at everyone else as a threat. The current global situation of human society is profoundly unequal. The wealthiest 20% of the world's population receive 64% of the world's income while the poorest 20% get just 2%. Much of that inequality is concentrated in the huge gap between a handful of imperialist countries and oppressed countries. U.S. society, in particular, contains 5% of the world's population but produces 72% of the world's hazardous waste and consumes 25% of the fossil fuel.

Those extreme inequalities are part of the environmental problem--and defending such inequalities cannot be part of any real environmental solution.

The white supremacist leader David Duke now writes on his web page: "I will fight to limit overpopulation and protect our environment by stopping all illegal immigration and almost all legal immigration into America." Certainly the members of the Sierra Club do not want to place themselves in that company!

Getting Real

"Restricting immigration will do nothing to protect the environment and blaming immigrants makes our environmental problems worse by ignoring the real problems and real solutions...The U.S. military is the largest polluter in the world. Its generation of toxic waste isn't related to consumer demand, the number of people in the U.S. or in any other country... Poison dumped into rivers, air that makes us sick, wetlands paved over for huge development projects, none of these are caused by immigrants. In fact, blaming immigrants lets transnational corporations and other big polluters off the hook. The way to solve environmental problems is to attack the direct cause. Reining in big business will improve many of our worst environmental problems. Blaming immigrants diverts our attention from the solutions."

PEG's Brad Erickson on KQED radio

Many forces within the Sierra Club and the larger environmental movement have worked to defeat "Alternative A." The Sierra Club's current Board of Directors (where Foreman no longer has a seat) has unanimously opposed the anti-immigration position and supported "Alternative B." Twenty-six of the Sierra Club's 60 chapters have taken a position on the referendum--and all of those 26 endorsed "Alternative B." Other supporters of "Alternative B" include the Sierra Club's current president, United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta and Carl Anthony, President of the Earth Island Institute.

A fact sheet put out by "Alternative B" supporters says "destructive agricultural and industrial practices, such as unnecessary pesticide and chemical use, strip mining, timber clearcutting, toxic dumping and wasteful energy use on the part of corporations have a far greater negative impact on the environment than does growth in U.S. population."

A strategy document by the National Network on Immigrant and Refugee Rights and the American Friends Service Committee points out that "Alternative A" actually has things upside down: Immigrants don't cause environmental destruction--but environmental devastation by large capitalist corporations often forces people to emigrate. Their report said, "Millions of people have been forced to move because their land has become toxic or is unable to support them. Environmental degradation is frequently linked to multinational economic interests which disregard protections or exploit natural resources. Each year 11 million hectares of tropical forest are cut down, 26 billion tons of topsoil are lost, and nearly 6 million acres of arable land is desertified. In addition many `development' projects force displacement from traditional lands. Mechanized `agri-business' replaced many traditional small scale farming techniques with toxic farming methods geared at producing cash crops for exports. Other examples of the environmental consequences of development include the flooding of large land areas by dams and projects to develop forest or savanna lands inhabited by indigenous people. An estimated 10 to 25 million people in the world are currently displaced from their homelands for environmental reasons."

A look at the U.S./Mexico border reveals a lot about the real relationship between countries and its effect on the environment. Factories called maquiladoras, mainly owned by U.S. firms, crowd the Mexico side of the border. These factories poison the workers and dump huge amounts of toxic waste into the atmosphere and water. In one small community of 800 people near Tijuana, there were 25 cases of anencephaly, a rare and fatal birth defect between 1990 and 1994. On the other end of the border, 16 families sued 80 companies, including General Motors, claiming that their manufacturing plants in Matamoros caused birth defects in their newborn children.


"Of all things in the world, people are the most precious."

Mao Tsetung

The masses of people in the world are suffering from the degradation of the environment--they are not the cause of this destruction. Targeting oppressed people will not stop oil spills in Nigeria or the destruction of the world's remaining rainforests. It won't stop refrigeration chemicals from eating a larger hole in the ozone layer.

It is the modern system of capitalism, in its latest global-imperialist stage, that is savaging the planet. To stop the destruction of the environment and all the suffering that causes, capitalism has to be replaced by a totally different social system. People are key to bringing about this kind of revolutionary social change. Activists who want to build a movement that can end the rule of profit and the destruction of the environment should welcome immigrants here into the belly of the beast--and work to unite with them and learn from their experiences and consciousness.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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