The Connection Between Paul Ehrlich and Immigration Opponents

Reason's Hit and Run points to this article by Chirstopher Hayes that helps connect the dots.  The founder of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and NumbersUSA, both prominent conservative anti-immigration groups, is John Tanton.  Apparently, Tanton's roots are in Ehrlich style population bomb limits-to-growth zero-sum fearmongering.

In 1968, a Stanford biologist named Paul Ehrlich made these ideas mainstream
with his book, The Population Bomb. With terrifying certainty, Ehrlich
argued that the exponential growth in population and the incremental growth in
food could only mean one thing: mass famine. "The battle to feed all of humanity
is over," the book begins. "In the 1970s "¦ hundreds of millions of people are
going to starve to death."

It was an instant sensation, turning "overpopulation" into a hot topic and
landing Ehrlich repeatedly on "The Tonight Show." Tanton had been ahead of the
curve. As early as the '50s, he avidly read reports from the Population
Reference Bureau, and by the time Ehrlich's book was published, he and Mary Lou
had already started work on the first Northern Michigan chapter of Planned
Parenthood. "I believed in the multiplication tables," says Tanton. "Since I was
a physician and could do something about birth control, it struck me that this
was where I could make my contribution to the conservation movement."...

Tanton, whose worldview was forged in this intellectual milieu, is haunted by
the spectre of an apocalypse just over the horizon, and the thought that he is
one of a select few who see it coming. Sitting at his desk during one of our
interviews, he reaches into a drawer, withdraws an electric metronome and flicks
it on. As the device pulses at 135 beats per minute, he explains that each beat
is a new birth (at the 1969 rate), and each new birth requires resources: food,
clothing, education. It's a trick he used when he gave talks on population in
the '70s, and it's effective. His voice barely rises over the percussive
onslaught, and after just 30 seconds you want to yell: "Make it stop!"

I never really realized this connection or Tanton's roots (for reasons outlined below, his public message has moved on from environmentalism and overpopulation).  Tanton's real reason for being anti-immigration is this:

He explains that reducing immigration will force countries like Mexico to
confront their own population growth rates. "Each country," he says, "ought to
try to match its population to its resource base."

Whatever the hell that means*, since the amount of population the
world's "resource base" is able to support has grown exponentially over
the last 100 years.  But the really, really nutty part, the part that
separates him from the just-plain-wrong Ehrlich types, is the fact the
he thinks this resource matching has to proceed country by country.  No
global markets for this guy, I guess.  Somehow people crossing an
immaginary line in the Sonoran desert makes the population less
sustainable?  On the south side, things are OK, but move 100 miles
north and suddenly the world is doomed? 

In fact, the reality is just the opposite, for the same reasons that
Ehrlich's population bomb theory went bust -- which is that increasing
wealth and technology always tend to lower birth rates.  So I would
argue that immigration from Mexico to the US, with the wealth creation
potential that provides the immigrants, is  likely to result in a net
reduction of world birth rates.

Of course, Tanton has moved on, because the immigration movement could
not get excited about his environmental message and environmental
groups couldn't make heads or tails of his immigration message.

Crisscrossing the country, Tanton found little interest in his
conservation-based arguments for reduced immigration, but kept hearing the same
complaint. ""˜I tell you what pisses me off,'" Tanton recalls people saying.
""˜It's going into a ballot box and finding a ballot in a language I can't read.'
So it became clear that the language question had a lot more emotional power
than the immigration question."

Tanton tried to persuade FAIR to harness this "emotional power," but the
board declined. So in 1983, Tanton sent out a fundraising letter on behalf of a
new group he created called U.S. English. Typically, Tanton says, direct mail
garners a contribution from around 1 percent of recipients. "The very first
mailing we ever did for U.S. English got almost a 10 percent return," he says.
"That's unheard of." John Tanton had discovered the power of the culture
war.

The success of U.S. English taught Tanton a crucial lesson. If the
immigration restriction movement was to succeed, it would have to be rooted in
an emotional appeal to those who felt that their country, their language, their
very identity was under assault. "Feelings," Tanton says in a tone reminiscent
of Spock sharing some hard-won insight on human behavior, "trump facts."

I have never, ever understood why Americans get so unbelievably bent out of shape when they encounter a language other than English, but unfortunately this bizarre brand of xenophobia is fairly prevalent in this country, and Tanton has taken to tapping into it.  The article continues on to describe how Tanton has been very successful in making common cause with a broad range of people, from liberal activists to outright racists.

I found the article interesting as much for the descriptions of all the tactics and campaigns that failed to motivate the anti-immigration base in the past.  My sense from the article is that Tanton understands full-well that if the illegal immigrants were actually 12 million Canadian English-speaking Anglos, he would not be having near the success in getting people riled up about immigration.

* its amazing how many people talk about the world approaching some resource limit, but in fact no one has ever offered any shred of evidence as to where the world's population is vis-a-vis some mythical "carrying capacity".  Every prediction that we are approaching the limits of growth have been wrongJulian Simon pointed out that the only resource that matters is the human mind, and it never runs short.  He used commodities prices to prove his point, and beat Ehrlich in his famous bet. 

  • amateur

    World's population is, and should not be, constrained by what you beautifully name "some mythical "carrying capacity"".

    BUT the problem is not one of carrying capacity, really, but rather of quality of life. Should all countryside become a suburb, just because it can be done and sustained?

    Technological progress means the world can certainly feed an ever increasing number of people, but the cost is not hunger: it is congestion and loss of beauty.

    There is a trade off between populationgrowth and quality of life; focusing on the "hunger" or "support" arguments is misleading.