The agenda seemed straightforward for the final day of the Bay Journal’s winter conference on Growth and the Future of the Chesapeake Bay—talk about how to slow or reverse population increase, a little-discussed but significant part of the Bay’s environmental problems.
Yet, by the end of the day it seemed that before we can talk about solutions to population growth, we need a deeper discussion on how to talk about population.
We at the Bay Journal knew the subject can be controversial. Indeed, most environmental groups avoid it.
For example: Legal and illegal immigrants, along with their children and grandchildren, could account for about 82 percent of population growth by 2050, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Growth could translate in coming decades to more than half a billion Americans (now 321 million) and to around 24 million in the Bay watershed, about triple the number here in the 1950s when the Chesapeake was healthier.
There is a wider, national war over immigration reform these days, involving economic, political and social issues. It has led anti-hate groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center to paint some of those advocating restrictions on immigration, including environmentalists, as racists in disguise.
Still, we were unprepared for last-minute objections in early January from a politically influential Latino coalition. They felt two speakers who were to address our conference on the environmental aspects of increased immigration were preaching hate, not environmental concern.
We disagree. It is wrong to blame immigrants for our environmental problems; but wrong also to say we cannot have a respectful discussion of the factors that contribute to population growth, including immigration.
None of the objectors had read a word published by our two speakers, rather they had read critical articles about them. But to avoid the risk of the debate overshadowing the rest of the conference, we agreed to disinvite both men. As conference moderator I explained why they weren’t there, and delivered a version of their talks.
Apart from the controversy of immigration, other examples emerged of the impediments to meaningful conversations about population and the environment.
There is an ugly history associated with concepts like “overpopulation,” from Nazi Germany’s elimination of Jews, to forced sterilizations in India, said Robert Engelman, author of a book that argues women throughout history have really wanted just the number of children they can care for well.
“So I think the obligation is up to me, as someone who feels that population is a really important issue, to learn how to listen to those concerns and learn how…to address them in ways that will be listened to,” he said.
Perhaps we need to agree that we have no fixes to population growth that will gain consensus, even as we agree it is a serious problem that we must talk about, Engelman said.
He offered the notion of linking problems of income and equality and lack of jobs with population as one place to start; of distributing revenues from pollution taxes to encourage family planning; also seriously working to reduce unintended pregnancies, which run as high as 50 percent even in nations like the United States with good access to family planning.
Interestingly, while Engelman, former president of the Worldwatch Institute, is an environmentalist, none of his discussion points involved having fewer children “for the sake of the environment.”
Nancy Wallace, a longtime feminist and population activist, told the audience of the “surprising” objections she ran into years ago as head of a Sierra Club campaign that successfully increased United Nations funding for birth control.
“The feminist movement that I grew up in… turned out to attack the environmental groups talking about population…[They said it] was fundamentally anti-woman because no one should talk to a woman about the number of children she should have.”
Today she thinks ecofeminism is important to the population-environment conversation: “It says that for many millennia of human history, women have been controlling population in tune with the local ecosystem…doing a great job until the last couple of centuries…of male dominance and pulling women away from their connection with the land, their ability to control their own reproduction.”
Current high rates of foreign immigration, she said, are fundamentally “a sign of failed nation-states or failed economies or failing ecosystems,” issues to which the environmental community needs to rededicate itself.
A lot of education must happen before we have a public that understands the issue of population well enough to have needed conversations, other speakers said.
People are too easily lulled into thinking population growth will solve itself if we just get richer, which will then cause birth rates to fall, said Bill Ryerson, head of the Population Institute. Countries like the United States and Europe are widely seen as proof of this, wealthy countries with relatively low birth rates.
“But the best evidence we have is that the reverse is true; you reduce (birth) rates first and then incomes go up…when somebody has fewer children, they have a little money left over (to) put into savings that allows business to borrow and expand. That builds employment opportunities…drives up wages, more money into education, rising incomes.”
Ryerson also suggested population conversations had to go beyond “the medical model,” such as access to contraception. “We need cultural and informational interventions in a human rights context that will help people achieve gender equity…delayed marriage…daughter education.” He produces popular television shows with those messages in developing nations.
We had asked the Latino coalition if they would drop their objections to our immigration speakers if we invited a speaker of their choosing; but no deal.
It seemed like something we should have done anyhow, so at the last minute, we invited Ramon Palencia-Calvo, of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.
He gave the audience a primer on the changing face of citizens who inhabit the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Latinos have doubled in the last decade to 8.4 percent of Maryland’s 6 million people. Their numbers are young and growing, contributing economically and concerned at high levels about clean air and water. Many live near sources of pollution.
The arguments that reach them, environmentally, connect “through their health, their communities, with their pocketbook,” he said.
They are obviously a significant part of the Bay’s future. We must include them and other minorities in the Chesapeake restoration effort. The EPA’s Bay Program is making some progress here.
But we obviously don’t now have the language and the trust to do this while also speaking frankly about population’s impact on the estuary. We need to find a way of increasing the diversity and appeal of the environmental movement around the Chesapeake without losing our ability to discuss the full range of problems facing the Bay.