January 31, 2004
Immigration profoundly affects the global environment, particularly when it involves the movement of people from backward, rural areas to advanced industrialized countries.
But the effect is not harmful, as most environmental organizations believe. Nothing better protects the global environment – and in particular the rich country environments – than immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families.
Most environmentalists argue that Westerners, and especially Americans, consume too many resources. The U.S. represents less than 5% of the world’s population, they note, yet it consumes an estimated 20% of the world’s resources. More immigrants adopting a U.S. lifestyle, they believe, would outstrip the globe’s already perilous capacity to maintain itself.
The facts are right but the conclusion is wanting. Yes, this 5% of the world’s population does consume 25% of the world’s energy production, 14% of its water, 19% of its wood, 15% of its grains and a disproportionate share of other raw resources. Yes, when you add it all up, it’s reasonable to estimate that the United States consumes 20% of the world’s total.
But that 20% of the world’s resources, in American hands, produces 30% of the world’s goods and services. The rest of the world, meanwhile, requires the remaining 80% of the world’s resources to produce just 70% of its output. If the rest of the world were as efficient in its use of resources as the U.S., it would have produced its 70% using just 47% of the world’s resources. The globe would be saving an astounding 33% of the world’s resources.
New immigrants to America and other advanced countries contribute to the global welfare. When people leave a society that makes poor use of the resources at its disposal, and arrive at one that uses resources less wastefully and more fully, the resources they use can both last longer and contribute to more wealth. The greatest gains occur when the immigrant travels from a highly inefficient country to an advanced country, but gains also occur when people immigrate from one advanced country to another, in pursuit of a superior opportunity. Whether the immigrant is a blue-collar worker crossing a border to help keep a construction project on schedule or an academic switching to a university that provides research facilities better suited to his needs, the immigrant more efficiently uses his talents while simultaneously aiding the project’s fulfillment. The relentless drive of U.S. entrepreneurs to become more efficient by using their human and natural resources more efficiently has created a country that produces ever more wealth from ever fewer resources, leading to ever less pollution. Simply put by energy guru Amory Lovins: “Energy savings since 1973 have cut America’s energy bill by US$150-billion to $200-billion a year and carbon emissions by one-fourth.”
The United States, along with Canada and other developed nations, cut the energy required to produce a dollar of GDP by about one-third. The rest of the world, meanwhile, most of it run by top-down dictatorships that quash their peoples’ innate drive to innovate, has largely gone backwards: On the whole, the poor countries consume more energy, and create more pollution, to produce a dollar of GDP today. So, too, with other pollutants: Per dollar of GDP, affluent countries produce fewer nitrous and sulphur oxide emissions, and generally enjoy cleaner air, safer water and a healthier environment.
Many believe the rich countries achieve their wealth by consuming an unfair share of the poor countries’ resources. Poor countries, in fact, have become all but irrelevant to the rich countries’ economies – the rich countries’ share of raw materials that comes from poor countries has been declining for decades. The World Resources Institute, a UN-funded environmental think-tank, explained this most starkly. “With a few exceptions (notably petroleum), most of the natural resources consumed in the United States are from domestic sources,” making the United States “largely self-sufficient in natural resources. . . . its material flows are almost entirely internal.”
Even in oil, the U.S. meets half of its needs domestically and will be receiving much of the rest from Canada, which is emerging as America’s largest supplier. The only important resource that these North American countries need from the Third World, and can’t get enough of, are its people. North America’s immigrants have historically outperformed the native-born, raising the continent’s productivity and conserving its resources out of all proportion to their numbers. For such reasons, the U.S. recently announced measures designed to increase the number of immigrants that it will accept, and Canada has been striving to attract more immigrants than it has been getting.
And because the immigrants know that they’re wanted, and that here they will acquire the freedom to pursue their dreams, the immigrants will come, particularly to North America’s cities, whose governments have been competing among themselves for immigrants. With more immigrants, infrastructure tends to be better used: Public transit becomes more viable, water and waste water systems obtain the additional customers needed to finance upgrades, energy distributors and telephone companies run at lower cost. With more immigrants, urban neighbourhoods acquire the population densities and pedestrian traffic needed to support local merchants. With more immigrants, farmers in the agricultural belt surrounding cities acquire new markets for the many niche crops that ethnic communities demand. With more immigrants, all the environmental amenities improve, and then, so do we.
Third in a series; Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Toronto-based Urban Renaissance Institute, a division of Energy Probe Research Foundation. www.urban.probeinternational.org; LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com;
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