Monday, April 10, 2006

Immigration and Living in Place

Immigration is a hot topic on the lips, and computers, of most people these days. Local and national elected representatives scramble for the moral high ground, providing lurid newspaper headlines to delight and titillate, juicy soundbites for TeeVee newsertainment. Here in California, it’s near impossible to have a friendly conversation on any street corner without choosing sides.

The immigration controversy provides something for everyone to chew on, from economics to culture clashes to environmental degradation. The resulting mix is confusing, immediately inflammatory and impossible to approach at the national level. In a nation firmly grounded in its history of immigration, arguments for immigration control seem hollow and self-serving.

The United States has around 350 million people spread over 3,537,441 square miles. An immigration rate of 3.5 immigrants per year per 1,000 residents seems a paltry increase when considered as a whole across the entire nation. However, when we look at the impacts of population increase at the local level, the problem gains clarity and immediacy.

The effect of human population increase on any local environment is a product of the rate of consumption of natural resources, plus the rate of production of wastes, multiplied by the human population. William Rees, of the Fisheries Center at the University of British Columbia, calls this our "ecological footprint." We have managed for some time to spread this footprint out and reduce its impact locally by importing raw materials from other areas and exporting wastes, through regional, national and global economies.

The days of plenty are over. There are fewer and fewer places in the world with excess raw materials to be exploited by imperialistic national policies, and even fewer places able to receive externally produced waste materials resulting from a high consumption society. Some "resources" such as clean water, clean air and arable croplands are in decreasing supply everywhere and cannot be exported to areas with growing human populations.

Looking at our own biological region, our "bioregion," here on the coast of Monterey Bay, we experience increasing concern over a limited water supply, already exploited to the limit in drought years at present human population numbers. City and county officials look to desalination to extract water for human use from the seemingly unlimited amounts of salt water just offshore. In their excitement over the promise of this gleaming technology, they ignore the accompanying increased power demands required from limited fossil fuel sources that must be imported from other bioregions far away. They minimize concerns for the salty brine that must be exported back to the ocean bioregion from whence it came. In the words of John Muir, "Everything is hitched to everything else."

It doesn’t matter the color of their skin or the language they speak, from a bioregional perspective, there is a finite limit to the number of human beings that can be supported in any place at any given level of consumption. If more people live in a bioregion, whether from birth in place or through immigration, more resources must be imported as well, or consumption must be reduced. If essential resources such as clean water cannot be imported, then all humans in the bioregion must consume less. If we cannot import more resources into our bioregion, then it makes sense that we do not import more humans.

The challenge for all societies on Earth is to find ways for humans to live within existing biological and geophysical limitations of the bioregion in which each society exists. We should no longer consume more limited resources than are available locally. We should no longer produce more wastes than can be absorbed locally. We should not steal from others to feed our own, nor should we move someplace else when we run out at home. There are no more frontiers; we should make do with what we have, where we live.

As Gary Snyder told us over thirty years ago, "The first step to living in place is to stop moving around!"

Leona Gulch
Pacific Plate

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