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Capital Blight: Who’re You Calling “Immigrant”, Pilgrim?

By x344543, May 5, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

A recent article on details a jingoist anti-immigration group’s efforts to wrap itself in a green cloak and (once again) obfuscate the real cause of environmental destruction. The (inaccurately named) organization in question, “Californians for Population Stabilization” (CAPS) attempted to use Earth Day (April 22) to argue that the primary cause of ecological destruction is immigration (read: an influx of poor brown skinned people from south of the US-Mexican border, naturally).

This tired old dog has been asked to hunt so many times, it’s hard to see how anyone could imagine that it can, but sure as I write these words, there it is.

I’ll admit that this is a bit of a trigger for me. I am, by any standards you could imagine, the descendents of varying strains of white, central European and Mediterranean immigrants of several generations back (five or six in most cases), but my ancestors (Jews, Irish, and Hungarians) suffered greatly at the hands of more dominant empires among those regions, so perhaps it has imbued me with a stronger sense of empathy for the downtrodden peoples in what currently constitutes “America”. I don’t take too kindly to insulting racist propaganda—even if it tries to fly a green flag, and CAPS certainly fits that description.

The claims that this group make are simply untenable. They claim that immigration results in increased car usage, increased population, and water shortages. They claim that more people (resulting from immigration of course), “means more cars, trucks, and buses on our roads” as well as “more air pollution, parking lots, and high rise condominiums”(!).


Think Progress writer Esther Yu Hsi Lee does a fine job of cutting through CAPS’s nonsense, declaring quite concisely:

Population growth is a worldwide problem that contributes to environmental degradation. But the net world population is not affected by whether immigrants migrate to California or even to other states. With increased new vehicle purchases and new homes construction, California certainly is a disproportionate contributor to world carbon emissions. But as a May 2013 U.S. Energy Information Administration report found, California comes in fourth to last as a state “with relatively low per capita carbon dioxide emission rate.”

Migration to California from other states and countries has been “greatly reduced” in recent times, according to a 2013 University of Southern California study. The study found declining migration and falling birthrates coincided with “unprecedented growth expected among retirees” and that “about 90 percent of the state’s children are native born Californians,” but that children under the age of 18 have declined in number with growth sharply slowing.

Although the CAPS ad reported that there are 30 million vehicles on California roadways, recent immigrants are less likely to own cars and when they do, drive less than native-born Americans, according to a November 2013 study. Immigrants are also “twice as likely to commute by transit and one-and-a-half times as likely to carpool when they arrive in the country — and they remain more likely to use those modes 15 years later,” according to The Atlantic Cities...

Immigrants and other people of color are the ones who mostly bear the brunt of climate change. According to a 2012 Sierra Club survey, 43 percent of Latino voters say that they live or work near a toxic site like a refinery, a coal-fired power plant, an incinerator, an agricultural field, a major highway, or a factory.

All true, but to be absolutely certain, Lee doesn’t go far enough to debunking the utter nonsense spewed forth by CAPS and their executive director, Jo Wildman.

To begin with, the notion that immigration drives population growth, increased consumption, and waste of resources is driven by two particularly reactionary tendencies: racism and classism.

To begin with, let’s be absolutely clear here. CAPS is not concerned with all forms of immigration, they’re specifically concerned with immigration from “Latin-American” nations. They won’t come out and say it, but whenever anyone talks about the issue, the stereotypical example is a poor, struggling person of color from one of several nations south of the southern border of the United States.

CAPS evidently believes that immigrants are more likely to be prolific once they immigrate to California, and what’s more, as soon as they arrive here, their consumption of resources will increase, either because the resources are available or because browned skinned folks are somehow more consumptive than their light skinned brothers, otherwise CAPS would simply focus on population growth which—as Lee rightly points out—has no direct correlation to immigration.

Not only CAPS’s stance based on racist fallacies about the habits of brown skinned people, they’re based on the pseudo-scientific nonsense first put forth by Thomas Malthus, namely that the level of consumption grows until the demand exceeds the supply.

Thomas Malthus, in his now infamous treatise, On Population, argued that human population always expands until it exceeds the available food supply. Specifically, population tended naturally when unchecked to increase at a geometrical rate (1, 2, 4, 8, 16), while food supply increased at best at an arithmetical rate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). In other words, the destruction of the Earth’s many unique habitats and biodiversity was primarily a result of the sheer numbers of human beings, not their socioeconomic relations.

Malthus, who was born in 1766 and died in 1834, was not an environmentalist, and his treatise was not motivated by environmental concerns, but rather a defense of class privilege, in response to the utopian ideals of his contemporary, William Godwin, an early pioneer of anarchism. Godwin had been a protestant minister, but he had resigned from the clergy. Inspired by the French Revolution, he went on to advocate a society based on equality and the abolition of private property, and he married the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Their daughter, Mary Shelley, wrote the original story of Frankenstein, which was essentially a condemnation of the industrialists’ mistreatment of both nature and the working class. Such ideas were an anathema to the thoroughly reactionary Malthus, who was himself an Anglican clergyman. Malthus argued that starvation and want were divinely inspired to teach virtue and the dangers of sin—though he never offered an explanation on how the wealthy managed to avoid it.

Malthus’ radical adversaries were not so enamored with their contemporary, however. Godwin quickly challenged Malthus, arguing that population growth (or lack thereof in some cases) could always be traced to the socioeconomic effects, but he was not alone. Marx and Engles were particularly quick to pounce on Malthus's "theory" as being quack pseudoscience in defense of the ruling class. Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid was partly written in response to Malthus, and all other elitist justifications of class privilege that supposedly relied on biological science. Even Malthus's conservative contemporary, the economist David Ricardo, castigated his fellow conservative's arguments as being class ignorant—noting the quantity of grain available is completely irrelevant to the worker if he has no employment, and that it is therefore the means of employment and not of subsistence which put him in the category of "surplus population".

To his critics, Malthus was espousing dogma, not science, and as it turns out, the former were correct. For one thing, Malthus offered no basis for his arithmetical ratio, as well as the admission that he was forced to make in the course of his argument that there were occasions in which food had increased geometrically to match a geometric rise in population thereby invalidating his own thesis. This has been proven without as shadow of doubt in modern times. The rate of population growth peaked in the 1960s and has been declining ever since, in spite of a consistent increase in available food supply. And this is not a case of limited supply either. According to the United Nations, in 2007, there was more than enough food available to give every single person 2800 kilocalories per day, enough to make every person on the planet overweight. By 2030, with population growth continuing to decline and agricultural output predicted to rise, the UN forecasts enough food will be grown worldwide, despite a global estimated population of 8.3 billion, to give everyone 3050 kilocalories per day. That Malthus would make such an error is understandable, because he wrote his treatise four decades before the emergence of modern soil science in the work of Justus von Liebig and others which demonstrated that food production could be increased quite easily.

The know-nothings at CAPS evidently didn’t get the memo, however, and seem to think that the primary source of ecological destruction is population growth, particularly that by brown skinned immigrants seeking to better their lot, presumably in quest for SUVs, flat screen plasma TVs, and McMansions.

The neo-Malthusian beliefs held by the folks at CAPS simply do not hold water, however.

To begin with, in the United States of America, automobile use is actually declining as more people turn to alternative modes of transportation, notably public transit. However, as Samantha Winslow recently noted, even though this is the case, the capitalist class had cut transit funding and service. As Lee notes, above, immigrants tend to use public transit more than anyone else, so if the capitalist class is cutting said service, how can the cause of increased auto usage—if there is any at all—be blamed on immigration?

Sure, “more cars, trucks, and buses” on the roads means more air pollution, but more buses and trains don’t necessarily correspond to more cars and trucks—or people for that matter. Replacing our autocentric transportation system with efficient public transit and freight transport by rail, as opposed to trucks, would have a significant positive benefit to the environment of California and the Earth in general, even if the population doubled in the meantime.

In fact, the public transit system could be run entirely on electricity and hydrogen with at least 99% fewer emissions than now if the political will to make it happen were present, but under capitalism it is not.

Of course, doing away with capitalism would make it easier to replace suburban sprawl with smart, walking and biking oriented urbanism and a more holistic integration of country and wilderness into currently urbanized areas, but CAPS doesn’t even consider that.

Even if we didn’t replace automobiles, automobiles can be run on electricity and powered by renewable energy sources, so linking immigration to auto use to air pollution is a reach, at best.

As for water shortages, in California at least, the primary causes of drought have nothing to do with immigration and are instead due to the following:

  • Global Warming, which is driven primarily by the capitalist class’s continued insistence on fossil fuel extraction and dominance (more about that later);
  • Suburban Sprawl, which is driven primarily by the profit seeking tendencies of large capitalist land speculators and developers;
  • Corporate Agribusiness, who depend on water, petrochemical, and capital intensive monoculture rather than small scale organic permaculture;
  • Fracking, which uses a good deal of water, of course;
  • Capitalist Inefficiency

Likewise, the current levels of air pollution, whether by NOx, SOx, CO2, Methane, O3, or others is again overwhelmingly attributable to capitalism. It is becoming increasingly apparent that human civilization could kick the oil habit sooner than later, but it is the capitalists—whose power depends upon (artificially created) scarcity, so that the majority of wealth and economic resources are placed within their few hands, who hold us back from doing so.

Widely distributed, abundantly available renewable resources (namely wind, solar, tidal energy, geothermal energy, and small scale hydro-power used efficiently), locally controlled and resilient, yet backed up by an interdependent, horizontally controlled worldwide grid eliminates the need for polluting, capital intensive fossil fuel resources, and with it $trillions in capitalist wealth and profit. It’s no wonder the Koch Brothers and their capitalist brethren are doing everything in their power to hold back the transition away from a fossil fuel dominated economy. How can any of that be blamed on immigration?

CAPS argues that, “if we slow mass immigration, we can slow population growth and save some California for tomorrow.” Uh, no, we can’t. Why? Because even if we somehow managed to seal off California’s southern border and ports entirely, it won’t stop immigration (which isn’t the real problem) from happening elsewhere, nor will it have any effect on pollution in any case.

Stopping immigration won’t stop US Corporations from offshoring their labor to China and other nations with lax environmental and labor standards (which results in greater pollution and population growth, and—for that matter, creates incentives for downtrodden peoples from the exploited lands to immigrate to wealthy nations like the US).

Stopping immigration won’t stop fracking, shale oil mining, mountain-top-coal removal, or uranium mining.

Stopping immigration won’t magically do away with suburban sprawl or autocentric development.

Stopping immigration won’t eliminate capitalist driven waste and inefficiency.

Stopping immigration won’t bring about the implementation of renewable energy.

Stopping immigration will do nothing to stop deforestation, overfishing, or the acidification of the Earth’s oceans.

Heck, stopping immigration won’t even stop population growth (never mind, for the moment that statistics show that population growth is already slowing (and has been doing so for at least a generation), in spite of immigration—which CAPS seems to think is on the rise), immigration isn’t the primary engine that drives population growth in the first place. Instead, the engines that drive population growth are poverty, lack of education, lack of access to contraceptives, denying women reproductive choice, and religious dogma. Even if immigration has an effect, it is miniscule in relation to the other factors. CAPS doesn’t seem to concerned with these, however.

And CAPS does nothing to address what drives immigration in the first place, and that is—again—capitalism. The capitalist class drives immigration in two ways: (1) They virtually colonize “third world, satellite” nations thus driving the masses in those into country into poverty (by exploiting and privatizing their resources and land), thus creating incentives for the downtrodden masses to emigrate in the first place; and (2) They seek cheap labor domestically, tacitly welcoming immigrants as a source of it, yet all the while making it damn near impossible for the exploited immigrants to organize collectively for improved living and working conditions for fear of reprisal. Of course, the same capitalist class that actually depends on immigration also creates the negative propaganda directed towards the immigrants, not because the former doesn’t want immigrant laborers, but rather because they want these immigrant laborers to feel isolated, desperate, and beaten down so they’re more exploitable!

CAPS either fails to understand this or knows perfectly well that this is the case. Either way, their “concern” for the environment of California is empty talk and nothing more. Perhaps it’s not even that. In all likelihood, CAPS are simply an opportunistic bunch of racists who simply want to exploit what they see as a gullible cross section of bourgeois white environmentalists who’re too clueless to notice what’s really going on.

Sadly, this is not an unbelievable possibility. It wasn’t that long ago that most radical of ecological movements, Earth First!, counted among its leading lights (and at least one cofounder) individuals who actually supported the same nonsense being pushed by CAPS. Consider the following statement by Earth First! cofounder Dave Foreman, made in 1986:

“Letting the USA be an overflow valve for problems in Latin America is not solving a thing. It’s just putting more pressure on the resources we have in the USA.”

Or consider that Ed Abbey once cosigned a document calling for a moratorium on immigration to the US which included the following statement:

“Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants and billions of dollars of narcotics are being smuggled into the United States. While these are two distinct problems, they have a common denominator—an open border. At a time when millions of Americans are in poverty and drug use has reached epidemic levels, we cannot continue to wink at wholesale violation of U.S. sovereignty.”

It’s extremely odd that two spokesmen for a movement that championed the belief of biocentrism would suddenly concern themselves with arbitrary, anthropogenic concepts such as national “borders” (something which they would be quick to point are not recognized by nature, especially if the effects of pollution cross them), and yet, in the ca of immigration, they did, and that is probably due to the fact that as supposed “radical” environmentalists, they still suffered from internalized racist baggage so prevalent in the southwestern states of what we now call “America”. It’s telling that one of the cosigners to the document Abbey lent his name was right wing anti-environmentalist, Dixie Lee Ray.

Perhaps it would have been a waste of time to point out that less than 200 years ago, what we currently call “California”, “Nevada”, “Utah”, “Colorado”, “Arizona”, and “New Mexico” were once part of what we call “Mexico”, and no more than 300 years before that, what we call “America” was (and still is by some of its surviving indigenous peoples) called (by some) “Turtle Island”.

Later, long after Dave Foreman left Earth First! he joined the Sierra Club and tried to get that organization to enact a plank in its platform restricting immigration (the membership democratically rejected the idea in 1997).

Although Earth First! has long jettisoned the baggage of some of its founders and early leading lights, and no longer subscribes to the reactionary impulses of these three individuals, still there are “environmentalists” who do. These impulses are wrong, and it’s a shame that we still have to deal with racist pigs like the folks at CAPS, but this is the world in which we currently live. As long as capitalism exists, so too will capital blight, and that includes racism—even racism wrapped up in a green flag.

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