From Sentience to Silence

Alan Kuper

How the environmental establishment changed its tune on U.S. overpopulation

The Era of Concern

In the heady days of the new environmental awareness, at the first big Earth Day celebration in April 1970, the ecological threat posed by U.S. population growth was part of every discussion. David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, had encouraged Paul Ehrlich to write The Population Bomb, which became a runaway best-seller. The educational work of the new organization Zero Population Growth, or ZPG, became familiar to American school children. In 1972 the Sierra Club, the nation’s premier conservation organization, adopted a ZPG platform, declaring as one of its objectives to “. . . bring about the stabilization of the population first of the United States and then of the world.” Other groups made similar commitments.

This stance was nothing new for the Sierra Club. As early as 1959, at the Sierra Club biennial Wilderness Conference, Resolution Seven said, according to one historian, “that there was no point in talking about wilderness, which would only be an incidental victim of the coming malignant population explosion.”1 Loss of wilderness, a cornerstone issue for American environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, was now seen as a symptom of population growth.

During the 1970s, U.S. overpopulation attracted concern. Because of the impact of the post-World War II “Baby Boom,” the threat of population growth was serious. Between 1950 and 1970, U.S. population had grown by fifty-two million people, almost double the increase during the prior twenty-year period. In 1970, U.S. population stood at 203 million.2 Popular books addressed the problem in urgent tones. Corporate leaders sounded the alarm with banner advertisements in leading newspapers.3 Even the federal government took note: at the request of President Richard M. Nixon, Congress empanelled a commission headed by John D. Rockefeller III to conduct a two-year study of population and the American future. The commission’s 1972 report generated such interest that it was republished as a mass-market paperback. Famously it stated, “We have looked for, and have not found, any convincing economic argument for continued population growth. The health of our country does not depend on it, nor does the vitality of business nor the welfare of the average person.”

The Era of Unconcern

Why isn’t the threat of U.S. population growth taken as seriously today? In a stunning reversal, the idea that the United States might be overpopulated is extremely controversial today, even within the environmental movement. The subject has essentially been declared taboo by the environmental establishment and the leaders of the major environmental organizations, an assemblage I’ll call “the Enviros.”

20th Century U.S. and World Population Growth

*According to the U.S. Census Bureau population clock on June 7, 2004, 2:58 P.m. sources For other FIGures are the u.s. census Bureau and the United Nations.

Whatever lies behind this change, it certainly isn’t the numbers. In 2000, U.S. population was more than 281 million, having grown by fifty-five million between 1980 and 2000, a larger increase than the Baby Boom growth of 1950–1970. Yet today’s environmental establishment is silent on the subject, routinely quashing attempts by its own activists to alert the public to the link between rapid U.S. population growth and environmental degradation. Corporate America, too, is silent—in fact it is promoting rapid population growth. Meanwhile, the federal government is responsible for this growth through its immigration policies and continues to encourage it. As for Zero Population Growth, the organization has changed its name and now teaches schoolchildren more about conservation than population. It’s

One Activist’s Response

I have been active in Sierra Club population work, a leader since 1990. And I have been and continue to be involved in much of what I have described in this article, including playing a leading role in Club campaigns to increase foreign aid for family planning as well as in campaigns to focus on U.S. population. I’m a longtime Club activist and loyalist with two national honors awarded to me by Club boards over my thirty years of Club work. And I maintain a cordial relationship with nearly all the players.

In 2000, I embarked on an effort to offer the envi-ronmental movement an acceptable way to strive for U.S. population reduction and a sustainable future. The effort is called CUSP—Comprehensive U.S. Sustainable Population—to emphasize that U.S. population and consumption must be considered comprehensively in order to achieve an economy that can persist sustainably far into the future within the limits of what Nature provides. CUSP now has nearly one thousand partners in forty-eight states. Its acronym also refers to the “cusp” or peak in a population-time growth curve, beyond which ecosystems and the economy that depends on them col-lapse, a fate we must avoid.

The cornerstone of CUSP’s approach is to forge a coalition of U.S. environmental organizations, providing safety in numbers while advocating U.S. population reduction. No one organization can then be singled out for attack because it involves itself in natural-increase reproduction issues, nor for being concerned about immigration. Further, this “Sustainability Coalition” can work at arm’s length on the issues through its political arm, the well-respected League of Conservation Voters (LCV), to score congressional votes comprehensively in accordance with the fundamental environmental principle that numbers matter as embodied in eye-Pat (see my “The Silent Crisis: Overview,” p.30). See

—Alan Kuper

changed its name to Population Connection—though its leadership may not appreciate the irony that “PC” also stands for Politically Correct.

The major difference between the old Baby Boom and today’s rapid growth? The old Baby Boom was driven by an upsurge in births. Today’s growth is an Immigration Boom. Business and industry favor it, because it keeps wages low. Government perpetuates it in response to the wishes of industry, and because of the growing political power of the foreign-born vote. And the Enviros keep silent about it for several reasons:

•They wish to protect their organizations from being labeled as anti-immigrant. Population-environment activists make easy targets for “guilt by association” accusations because of the hate rhetoric of some anti-immigrant and immigration reform organizations.

•Most of the public doesn’t appreciate the connection between population and environmental degradation. This—and the fact that environmentalists tend disproportionately to be of European extraction, “white,” and well off—leads many Americans, especially the foreign-born and people of color, to impugn their motives.

•Staff members and supporters of environmental organizations are often uncomfortable discussing reproduction and immigration issues. They may believe that these are subjects for other organizations to deal with, though U.S. population growth has been a subject of concern in the environmental movement since at least the 1960s. Unfortunately, while the Enviros stand aloof and silent, other organizations do not possess the needed credibility, environmental credentials, and political clout to force examination of the links between population growth and environmental degradation.

•America is now more theocratic, with religious fundamentalists and other antichoice activists in the ascendancy. As a result, efforts to end U.S. population growth or reduce population do not enjoy nearly as much acceptance as they did in 1970. Additionally, some women’s groups are suspicious of programs that in their eyes put environmental protection ahead of women’s freedom.5

•Members of environmental organizations do not differ much from the general public on the issue of U.S. immigration. They tend to be more human-centered than eco-centered in their views on the issue. They turn away from, rather than confront, the fact that Nature imposes limits.6

Situation: Dire and Deteriorating

In truth, as of Earth Day 2004, the U.S. population-environment situation is significantly more dire than it was in 1970. Since then, some ninety million inhabitants have been added—a 44 percent increase. This is roughly equivalent to the current populations of Germany and Austria. The United States now ranks third in population after India and China, and is growing at a science-fiction-like pace, due mainly to immigration and children born to immigrants. If present rates continue, U.S. population will double in less than seventy years, creating the same population density China had in 1950, when it first considered instituting a one-child policy.

And yet the Enviros are largely silent.Scattered attempts to restore U.S. population as a priority issue have been undertaken by individuals within the National Audubon Society and the Wilderness Society. The most visible—if as yet unsuccessful—such efforts within the American environmental movement have occurred within the Sierra Club. This is because, unlike the other Enviros whose boards are appointed, the Sierra Club is democratic. Members elect their officers and have the right to petition to place issues on the annual ballot.7

What Changed?

In 1965, Congress relaxed long-standing restrictions on immigration to the U.S. The Immigration Act of 1965 had been intended primarily to widen the criteria for legal entry. Its unanticipated consequence was a marked increase in the scale of immigration as the law went into full effect.8 By 1987, U. S. population was beginning to show runaway growth, driven mainly by post-1970 immigrants and their descendants.

Sierra Club spokespersons insisted then, as they do today, that the way to reduce U.S. immigration was to reduce the “push” factors that cause emigration from other lands, rather than by lobbying Congress to reduce immigration levels.9 This peculiar proposal is akin to saying that the way to end clear-cutting in America’s northwestern forests is to convince the Japanese to stop buying our logs, rather than to seek relief in Congress.

Opponents of immigration restriction also argue that it doesn’t matter what country people reside in; their adverse effect on the environment is about the same. But this is not true for persons who immigrate to the United States. According to one estimate, a baby born in the United States will, on average, have thirty times the lifetime environmental impact of a baby born in India or Bangladesh.10 So it is to a greater or lesser extent for every sending country. Immigrants rapidly adopt levels of consumption similar to those of native-born Americans.

Refocus on Immigration? No, Thanks

By 1987, concern about domestic population within the environmental movement, industry, and government had ebbed as the Baby Boom had ended. On July 11 of that year, the United Nations declared World Population Day, marking the presence of five billion humans. This spurred some environmental organizations to solicit grants to increase their population activities. In 1989, the Sierra Club issued a report stating: “Immigration to the U.S. should be no greater than that which will permit achievement of population stabilization in the U.S. . . .”11

In the same year, the Club leadership proposed to undertake immigration reform advocacy in cooperation with the newly formed Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).12 Among other things, the proposal sought increased funding for the Agency for International Development’s population program

and sought “a cap on total immigration levels consistent with domestic [popula-tion] stabilization.” The proposal noted that “Immigration is a new issue for the Club to be dealing with explicitly, although long-standing Club policy implies support for immigration no greater than that consistent with zero population growth.”13

Influential leaders within the Sierra Club opposed the 1989 immigration initiative, and it was not adopted. If it had been, the Club’s position on U.S. immigration and population might well be the opposite of today’s policy of no position on immigration.

The Sierra Club was not alone in declining to focus on domestic population. Throughout the environmental movement, attention shifted to Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia—where some 95 percent of world population growth was occurring. (It’s more like 98 percent today.) Domestic agendas tended to focus on reducing consumption, not population. Still, individual activists whose consciousness had been raised about population, reproductive, and immigration issues continued to speak out. Arguments within Sierra Club grassroots population committees became so heated that in February 1996, the Club’s Board of Directors resolved to put an end to them, voting early in the year that the Club would “take no position on immigration levels or on policies governing immigration into the United States.”

Grassroots reaction to this decree of silence came swiftly. By the fall of 1996, activists were gathering signatures on a petition to reverse the policy. If adopted, Club activism against growth from net immigration (immigration minus emigration) would be placed on par with its activism against growth from natural increase (births minus deaths). The petition statement appeared on the 1998 ballot; Club management launched a fierce campaign to defeat it, going so far as to recruit allies from the social justice and pro-immigration movements. Their principal strategy was to equate opposition to immigration with racism. Most notably among these was the Political Ecology Group (PEG), a handful of activists who vilified environmentally motivated immigration opposition with the phrase, “The Greening of Hate.” (Another, more embarrassing management ally was the Home Builders Association of Northern California, normally a Club adversary on development and urban sprawl issues.14)

In spite of the broad front that Sierra Club management had mobilized against the petition, although it failed it won a remarkably high 40 percent of members’ votes. Nonetheless, the petition failed.

Population activists within the Sierra Club have continued to fight and have gained modest victories. On September 24, 1999, under threat of another petition campaign, the Sierra Club’s Board of Directors altered Sierra Club policy from seeking to stabilize U.S. population to seeking its reduction. That remains the Club’s official policy. But it has been quietly filed away, a gesture never implemented, unknown to most members.

Battling For the Board

As a last resort, population-immigration activists attempted to alter the make-up of the Sierra Club’s board, most recently in the Club’s 2004 election. Amid substantial media attention, Management’s “Old Guard” overwhelmed the “Insurgents” with an unprecedented display of money, publicity, and aggressive tactics. Critics questioned whether management had broken Club election rules by their heavy campaign spending, their use of Club lists and newsletters, and by recruiting management-friendly outside groups to repeat dire Old Guard warnings in their own communications.15

Americans who depended on the news coverage might be forgiven for viewing management’s victory as a triumph of pluralistic Sierra Club veterans against a cabal of nativist and racist outside agitators. Management’s investment in media relations had repaid itself handsomely. But who really were the good guys and bad guys in the 2004 election?

On one side were the Insurgents, three candidates who promised to join three like-minded sitting directors to vote for Club action toward curbing high U.S. immigration. They were people of a stature rarely seen in Sierra Club elections: Richard Lamm, former three-term governor of Colorado and a long-standing humanist activist; Frank Morris Jr., former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and a one-time academic dean; and David Pimentel, professor of ecology at Cornell University.

Though they held estimable environmental credentials, they were “outsiders” who had not come up through the leadership ranks in the Club. They were easily attacked because of a statement made by an Insurgent Director in advance of the election that “we will take over the club.” Their years of advocating immigration reduction provided a trove of guilt-by-association opportunities, which the Old Guard exploited by recruiting Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center to paint the Insurgents as racists. The Insurgent candidates were never able to remove their metaphorically imposed white sheets and hoods (never mind that one of them was a prominent African-American) long enough to make the argument that corporate boards need some independent outside directors.16

Opposing the Insurgents were the candidates of the Old Guard, an impressive array of former Club presidents and Club leaders who emphasized the importance of their long experience in Club affairs. They won overwhelmingly.

Inevitably, the American environmental establishment will one day break its silence on the issue of U.S. overpopulation and the immigration that drives it. Tragically for the American environment, the Sierra Club’s 2004 election postponed that day yet again.


1. Sierra Club Bulletin 44 (April 1959): 10–14. Reported in Michael P. Cohen, The History of the Sierra Club 1892–1970 (San Francisco: Sierra Books, 1988), p.232.

2. U.S. Census Bureau,

3. Lawrence Lader, Breeding Ourselves to Death (New York: Ballantine Books, 1971).

4. John D. Rockefeller III, “Transmittal Letter to the President and the Congress from the Commission Chairman,” in Population and the American Future: The Report of the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future (New York: New American Library/Signet, 1972), p. vii. Also published by the Government Printing Office.

5. See e.g., Committee on Women, Population and the Environment of Hampshire College ( [For more on this remarkable historical episode see Stephen D. Mumford: “Overcoming Population: The Rise and Fall of American Political Will,” Free Inquiry Spring 1994, pp. 23–28.—eds.]

6. For a more complete analysis, see Roy Beck and Leon Kolankiewicz, “The Environmental Movement’s Retreat from Advocating U.S. Population Stabilization (1970–1988): A First Draft of History,” Journal of Policy History 12, no. 1 (State College: The Pennsylvania State Press, 2000).

7. Sierra Club management, which adopts policy, consists of the executive director, Carl Pope, who has been a Club administrator since 1973 and executive director since 1992; and a fifteen-member board of directors whose composition changes annually, as five new members are elected to three-year terms. Because of this continual turnover, directors tend to defer to an established executive director. Because voters expect their candidates to have come up through the ranks, outside directors are rare, making for a conservative board.

8. Stated by Paul R. Ehrlich in “Who’s Overpopulated?,” CNN Special Report, 1987.

9. Carl Pope, “Think Globally, Act Sensibly—Immigration Is Not the Problem,” Asian Week (San Francisco, April 2, 1998).

10. Ibid. The 30:1 ratio is likely to have changed, but it is still a large number.

11. Dr. Judy Kunofsky, Sierra Club Population Report, Spring 1989, p. 1.

12. Proposed Sierra Club Population Program, December 1989. Drafters: Michael L. Fischer, executive director; Judith Kunofsky, chair of the Population Committee; and Carl Pope, Deputy Conservation Director.

13. Vernon M. Briggs Jr., Mass Immigration and the National Interest, 3rd ed. (Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe, 2003), p.133.

14. “Behind the Sierra Club Vote on Curbing Immigration: Do Environmentalists Risk Alienating the Fastest-Growing Ethnic Group in California?” HBA News 21, no. 1 (February 1998).

15. Among these were e-mail alerts sent by E–The Environmental Magazine and, a letter accompanying a billing mailing from Working Assets Long Distance, and an op-ed by Robert Redford that ran in many newspapers.

16. James Surowiecki, “The Financial Page—Board Stiffs,” The New Yorker, March 8, 2004.

Alan Kuper

Alan Kuper is the founder and president of CUSP (Comprehensive U.S. Sustainable Population) and a former professor and physicist. He was active in the Sierra Club for thirty years and was the recipient of two club awards.

How the environmental establishment changed its tune on U.S. overpopulation The Era of Concern In the heady days of the new environmental awareness, at the first big Earth Day celebration in April 1970, the ecological threat posed by U.S. population growth was part of every discussion. David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, had …

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