Why Bill McKibben is Wrong About Immigration
Yup, you read that right. Before you start clamoring in the comments, though, let me explain. Bill McKibben is right about a great many things, but his views on immigration - at least as presented in the LA Times - are uncomfortable at best.
"For environmentalists," he writes, "population has long been a problem. Many of the things we do wouldn't cause so much trouble if there weren't so many of us."Essentially, his argument boils down to this:
Immigrants who move to the U.S. will adopt our typical carbon-intensive lifestyle. That's not a problem, because they'll be having fewer kids. It'll even out. Plus, "immigrants, by definition, are full of hope. They've come to a new place determined to make a new life, risking much for opportunity. They're confident that new kinds of prosperity are possible. The future beckons them, and so changes of the kind we'll need to deal with climate change are easier to conceive." Finally, if we can make immigrants more engaged in public life, we might be able to shift the conversation on climate and change deniers' minds (or at least overpower them at the polls).
That argument makes me very, very uncomfortable. First, it has echoes of the 'noble savage.' Second, McKibben lumps all immigrants into one giant group. Third, he glosses over the responsibility we over-consumers have for creating the problems that spur mass immigration in the first place. And, finally, he skims past the barriers to entry immigrants face when trying to make their voices heard. Immigrants often don't have a voice in the public sphere, but that's often not for lack of want or trying.
The most uncomfortable point in the piece, for me, is when McKibben discusses the choices faced by an immigrant mother of two from the Dominican Republic. In the U.S., it is assumed she will be consuming more.
"Her two grandmothers had had a total of 27 children," he writes. "The carbon math, in other words, may well be a wash.
But there's a higher math here that matters much more. At this point, there's no chance we're going to deal with global warming one household at a time."
McKibben is focused on the present and future at the expense of the past, and he's reducing people down to numbers. There ought to be no debate that the global crisis we're facing requires bold and united action. But let's not forget that the reason we're facing this crisis (and one of the reasons people are being pressured to emmigrate from their homelands) is because of historical overconsumption by European and North American countries. Our ancestors' (and our current) overconsumption did not just result in the climate crisis. Lands were stripped of their resources and people were killed or displaced. We still export many of the consequences of our consumption to countries like China.
It's misleading and unfair to put the burden of solving the climate crisis on the shoulders of those who have already born the impacts of our lifestyles for generations. It's also unfair to look at population without taking a very hard look at historical and current resource consumption. Though it would be great if immigrants outweighed deniers at the polls and spurred the U.S. to take climate action, maybe we should look a little closer at why people are immigrating in the first place. Is it to escape climate impacts? Resource depletion? If we're the ones who caused the problems, the moral responsibility is ours and ours alone to solve them.