The Sierra Club, most venerable of environmental organizations, is awash in charges, countercharges, suits, countersuits, invective, counter-invective, and double counter-invective bounces-off-me-and-sticks-to-you. At issue, depending on whom you talk to, is whether single-issue racists will take over the organization’s board or whether club democracy will be squelched by blatant interference from the group’s old guard. What’s barely discussed in the news accounts I’ve read is the substantive question behind this fracas: Does it make sense for environmentalists to want to limit immigration?

As it happens, this is an important question. Or at least a subset of an important question: Does the size of America’s population matter? It’s worth trying to figure out the answer, because the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that at our present pace we’ll grow from our current size of almost 300 million people to nearly half a billion by sometime later this century. Immigration accounts for most of that increase, both directly and because immigrants, at least for a generation, tend to have larger families.

Half a billion is a lot of people. Try to imagine almost twice as many of us squeezing into the same towns, parks, schools, hospitals, roads. But more to the point, it’s a lot of Americans. When people think about population, they tend to think about Africa and Asia and Latin America, where growth rates are much higher. And clearly Malians or Bengalis can damage their own prospects with rapid population growth. But they can’t do much damage to, say, the upper atmosphere — they simply don’t use enough stuff. If you’re worried about shredding the global environment, the prospect of twice as many world-champion super-consumer Americans has got to worry you. If they appeared in, say, Italy or Germany instead, they’d use half as much energy in a lifetime as they would in California or Texas — the additional 200 million people would, as far as the atmosphere is concerned, be 100 million.

Sprawl together now.

At which point, of course, you could conclude that our job is to cut American consumerism, to turn us into the material equivalent of Italians or Germans. Which of course it is — that’s what I spend most of my time working on. But you have to be optimistic indeed to anticipate that happening so quickly that another couple of hundred million Americans wouldn’t make a difference. So I think that the immigration-limiters running for the Sierra Club board have a reasonable point.

Which is not to say they’ve hit upon the environmental grail. Demography is fun precisely because you can imagine all sorts of different scenarios. Say, for instance, that more Americans decided to have single-child families. With a little proselytizing this might happen, especially since researchers have finally exploded most of the myths about only children being spoiled loner oddballs. If as many American families raised one child as raised two — if it became a co-norm, you could say — then America could continue to have historically high levels of immigration and still stabilize its population pretty quickly. There’s more than one way, in other words, to skin a projection (and as the father of an only child who also happens to be the greatest 10-year-old girl you could ever meet, I tend to favor this method).

And of course there’s a good deal to be said in favor of immigration — for instance, that it tends to create precisely the kind of connected, vital communities that environmentalists in other contexts long for. (At least for a generation or two, until people move to the suburbs.) And that in some sense it’s our moral duty to let lots of people in, since we’ve so carefully rigged the rules of world trade to keep most of the rest of the planet incredibly poor.

But avoiding the issue of population is not a solution. I give the “zealots” running for and currently sitting on the Sierra Club board credit, because they knew going in they would be called every bad name in the book. For instance, Morris Dees, cofounder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has entered the race for a board seat because, he says, the immigration-limiters “are interested in keeping this country white,” which is about the nastiest thing you can say about another American in 2004. It’s not true — I’ve met current board member Ben Zuckerman, an advocate of immigration limits, and he’s clearly not concerned with any colors but forest green and ocean blue. And his fellow board member Paul Watson, of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, in the words of a friend, “doesn’t dislike minorities; he just dislikes people.” They are zealous, and they may not be particularly balanced in their understanding of the issues. I’m not sure I’ll vote for their slate, because I think the Club has a vital role to play defending beautiful places from Republicans, not to mention organizing outings, and it would be a mistake to concentrate on population to the exclusion of those jobs. But that’s not the same as thinking them racists.

Statue of Liberty How many immigrants should she greet?Virtually no one, in fact, wants absolutely unlimited immigration to the United States — we all intuitively understand that the nation would be overwhelmed. And few people want to stop immigration altogether. Given all that, you simply can’t say, “He’s a racist because he wants the limit to be 250,000 people a year,” or “He’s Dr. King incarnate because he thinks the number should be 750,000.” What you can say is: It’s past time to think seriously about population.

 

Doubtless the Sierra Club will survive — after all, it survived the decision of its eminent, reasonable, and incredibly dense board members to fire David Brower, the greatest conservationist of the 20th century. But it will do a real service if it manages to make population one issue among several that the movement considers seriously in the years ahead. America added 30 million people last decade. It doesn’t take long for numbers like that to add up.