Voodoo Science Raises Specter of Immigration-Fueled “Overpopulation”

Written by on September 17, 2008 in Demographics, Immigration 101 with 5 Comments

Traffic jam on Los Angeles highway. Photo by Atwater Village Newbie.

In a September 2 Washington Post op-ed, “How Many Americans?,” Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies presents a nightmare scenario in which immigrant-fueled population growth in the U.S. degrades the environment and strains infrastructure and the economy over the next half century. The arguments upon which Camarota builds his case are commonplace among immigration restrictionists, but they rely upon flawed logic and a highly selective reading of available evidence that does not withstand close scrutiny.

At first glance, the restrictionist argument is attractive in its simplicity: stringent immigration controls, less immigration, fewer people, more resources, a better environment. However, as with so many simple arguments about complex topics, it misses the point. Over-population is not the primary cause of U.S. environmental woes.

In fact, levels of environmental destruction and resource consumption are not directly correlated with population, even in countries with similar standards of living. Rather, they are conditioned by a wide range of factors, such as the degree to which a society depends upon polluting and non-renewable fossil fuels; utilizes pollution-reduction technologies; develops systems of mass transit to minimize individual automobile use; uses plastics and other non-biodegradable materials in manufacturing and packaging consumer goods; recycles potentially recyclable materials; and controls agricultural run-off into waterways. Put differently, a few people can pollute a lot, or a lot of people can pollute a little, depending on the systems of production and consumption within a society.

For instance, according to the World Resources Institute, in 2000 the U.S. was home to 30.9% fewer people than the nations of the EU-15, which have standards of living comparable to that of the U.S., yet consumed 50.5% more energy and produced 70.6% more “green house gases,” such as carbon dioxide. Even though the U.S. contained only 4.6% of the world’s population, it accounted for 21.1% of global energy consumption and generated 19.2% of all green house gases.

Camarota also argues that immigration will not help compensate for the “aging” of the U.S. population as fertility rates fall. In making this case, however, he dramatically understates the seriousness of the “aging” crisis—how this crisis will affect the U.S. labor force and the U.S. economy—and how important immigration will be in offsetting its impact. According to a January 2008 report by demographer Dowell Myers of the University of Southern California, the aging of the Baby Boom generation will create a rapidly growing demand for younger, immigrant workers, taxpayers, and homebuyers:

“The ratio of seniors (age 65 and older) to working-age adults (25 to 64) will soar by 67% between 2010 and 2030. The rapid rise in the senior ratio will precipitate not only fiscal crises in the Social Security and Medicare systems, but workforce losses due to mass retirements that will drive labor-force growth perilously low. Immigrants and their children will help to fill these jobs and support the rising number of seniors economically. At the same time, immigrant homebuyers are also crucial in buying homes from the increasing number of older Americans. Immigrants will clearly be important in leading us out of the current housing downturn.”

In addition, Camarota claims that the economic benefits from immigration are negligible, accrue mostly to immigrants themselves, and are completely offset by the cost of the public services they use. However, these conclusions are not even supported by the 1997 National Research Council study which Camarota himself paradoxically cites. According to that study, “the average immigrant pays nearly $1,800 more in taxes than he or she costs in benefits,” while the net tax contribution of an immigrant and his or her descendants is $80,000.

In spite of Camarota’s claims to the contrary, stringent immigration controls won’t save the U.S. environment because over-population is not the primary cause of environmental degradation. Nor will arbitrary legal limits on immigration lessen the dependence of the U.S. economy, and the aging native-born population, on immigrant workers, taxpayers, consumers, and entrepreneurs. Effective immigration reform will not be achieved by blaming immigrants for pollution, or by denying the extent to which the U.S. economy has long relied on their contributions.



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  • Jack

    ‘…the U.S. was home to 30.9% fewer people than the nations of the EU-15, which have standards of living comparable to that of the U.S., yet consumed 50.5% more energy and produced 70.6% more “green house gases,” such as carbon dioxide.’

    Europe’s ecological footprint is over twice its biocapacity. They are in ‘overshoot’ just like the U.S., unsustainable, just not as bad as we are. If overnight we equaled the per capita consumption of Europe we’d still be in resource deficit so I hope you’re not implying all we need to do in the U.S. is live up to their inadequate standard.

    ‘Put differently, a few people can pollute a lot, or a lot of people can pollute a little, depending on the systems of production and consumption within a society.’

    But at any given level, fewer people will always pollute less than more. Whatever the per capita consumption, ecological footprint, etc., the total impact is a product of that rate of consumption/impact AND the number of heads. Whatever that rate or ‘systems of production and consumption’, less heads result in a lower total impact—it’s simple mathematics. In elementary school we learn that a product is the result of all factors, not just one. In this environmental case, both factors matter, not just the politically correct one and not the politically taboo one. Facts do not cease to exist just because people choose to downplay or ignore them. Unless the per capita impact were zero, population makes a difference and immigration is the cause of the population growth in both the U.S. and Europe. BOTH already have too high of a consumption rate for their current populations to be sustainable. Growing populations in both the U.S. and Europe make the impact even worse and harder to deal with going forward.


    The bulk of the immigrants moving to the U.S. and Europe are from lower per capita consumption countries and thus the net worldwide result of such immigration is greater environmental impact. If you want to go country by country, the only two EU-15 countries with a sustainable national ecological footprint are Sweden and Finland.


    Does Mr. Ewing maintain that their relatively low population density has little or nothing to do with this? My response to those who say we should just concern ourselves with efficiency and not population is ‘why not both?’ Why must the two be mutually exclusive? If you think the issue is important, even crucial, why exclude one of the two ways we have to make a positive difference? If someone says ‘let’s worry about efficiency first’, it’s only fair to ask at what U.S. population should we start to pay attention? 400 million? Half a billion? A billion?

    ‘A lot of people can pollute a little’ implies that it’s all about the rate and that is misleading. It gives people the false impression and sense of complacency that we can grow indefinitely and with negligible ecological consequence so long as we are ‘smart’ about it—that population/immigration is unimportant or even irrelevant to environmental policy. The hard truth people don’t like to face is that a lot of people CAN’T indefinitely live at a U.S./European level. Any gain made in efficiency can be negated by proportionate population growth.

    Let’s say we manage somehow to double our efficiency over the next several decades—the problem is we are also on a pace to double our population in that time. The two would counteract and we’d end up right where we started at an already unsustainable level except with a much larger population to deal with going forward and with an opportunity missed. Isn’t it smarter to not get to that point in the first place rather than try to deal with it after that fact?

  • Although your points are well taken, they don’t undermine the two basic arguments I made in my post that “over-population is not the primary cause of U.S. environmental woes,” and that “levels of environmental destruction and resource consumption are not directly correlated with population.” Yes, population is ONE factor among many when it comes to levels of pollution and resource consumption. But the simplistic, neo-Malthusian arguments of groups like CIS focus almost exclusively on population, while ignoring the numerous other factors which are at play. In terms of immigration, the question is what makes more sense as a pollution-reduction measure: decreasing auto pollution by reducing automobile use and building cars that pollute less, for example, or reducing auto pollution by trying to keep out foreign-born car drivers who are drawn here by the labor demands of our own economy?

  • Regardless of one’s stance on issuing a greater or lesser number of green card visas to foreigners, the issue of greenhouse gasses and pollution is another one altogether. How dangerous these environmental problems really are for either the short or long term is a topic way too complex for my understanding. However, what I do have a solid grasp on, is the fact that most of these immigrants do not have money for cars and are not starting up any new factories to pollute their cities. There impact on the environment is, just like Mr. Ewing says, hardly a cause for alarm

  • I disagree that the economic benefits of immigrants is negligible. There have been thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in investment capital put into the United States by immigrants taking advantage of the EB5 investor visa – just one of many visas the country offers. I would not say that numbers like this are anything approaching negligible.

  • AlfD

    I find in reading those sites that say that population problems are a myth that their evidence is very sparse and inconclusive. Recently I read Book 1 of the free e-book series “In Search of Utopia” (http://andgulliverreturns.info), it blasts their lack of evidence relative to their calling overpopulation a myth. The book, actually the last half of the book, takes on the skeptics in global warming, overpopulation, lack of fresh water, lack of food, and other areas where people deny the evidence. I strongly suggest that anyone wanting to see the whole picture read the book, at least the last half.
    The outdated fertility replacement rate of 2.1 is also clarified