The Flaw in the Statue of Liberty

The talented and hard working men who replaced our patio door had heavy Russian accents. I soon discovered that they were from the same part of Russia, Belarus actually, where my grandparents were born. One worker had been here for 13 years the other for three. My paternal grandfather got on a ship that sailed for our borders in 1922. I am a second generation American who has always appreciated the sacrifices made by those who immigrated here so that subsequent generations could have a better life in America.

I have intentionally traveled to countries populated with people with different languages because I enjoy learning and absorbing different cultures. I have devoted my professional life as a naturalist to make our nature center accessible to everyone. The doctor title before my name was earned in a degree that was steeped in social justice. I have not wavered from my steadfast belief in the justice for all concept in our constitution, but I am continually stunned by how so many of our policies completely ignore ecological reality.

It is time to have a more nuanced discussion about immigration that includes the environment. In this time, on this planet, in our country we have a reality shaped by how many people are already here. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Is a heartfelt sentiment put on the Statue of Liberty on its 100th anniversary. Though the statue was intended to be about liberty, the addition of the Emma Lazurus poem gave it a new twist. It started to be symbolic of our attitude toward immigrants. It was an amazing gift given by France to the United States in 1886, back when our population was just over 50 million people. By the time this poem was added to this beautiful statue our population had soared to over 240 million. Now that we are over 324 million the message and the meme of being the repository for all who need to escape their lives or join their relatives needs to be revisited. 

The flaw in the sentiment on this iconic statue that stands in the harbor of New York is that it assumes that our country will always be better off with more and more people. It assumes we will have enough resources for them. It assumes we will have enough fresh water, open space, wildlife, wild lands and everything that makes for a quality of life. It assumes we have enough now. When the hushed voice of environmental measurement is allowed a seat at the table, it speaks a shocking story. It turns out that if we are to look at immigration and the US population through the eyes of sustainability then we passed up our sustainable numbers at least 150 million people ago.150 million just might be sustainable but it depends at what level of consumption and how many resources are left at the time this goal is achieved. 

I am in my sixties now.  Our population in the US has doubled in my lifetime. Those additional 163 million consumers have transformed this country. They are responsible for our crowded cities and traffic problems, more pollution and less open land. More people make a wide variety of negative impacts on the environment and it doesn’t matter from this perspective the nationality of those additional people. We are all consumers. We can and should try to consume less but we all need water, energy, food, jobs, open land and none are in a limitless supply. The consumption in the US is so high that those who keep the statistics on this like Global Footprint Network, tell us that it would take five planets to supply the globe with enough resources if everyone were to consume like us. Adding more high level fossil fuel consumers is horrendous for our climate too. I acknowledge that this is a very difficult discussion to have. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers. But I know for sure it is a part of the equation that needs to be on the table.

Overpopulation has been ignored, dismissed and trampled upon for far too long. We absolutely cannot allow our overpopulated country to be an excuse for treating immigrants inhumanely. The atrocities happening at our border are indefensible. But it is equally hard to imagine that we can make good decisions about our country’s future regarding immigration policies while ignoring the tragic state of our country’s limited life-giving resources. Is it really fair to welcome people into a place that is already over-pumping its aquifers? We must acknowledge that we all suffer when we exceed our country’s environmentally determined limits, and we have already exceeded them. We must try our best to walk that fine line between loving our fellow human and conserving the resources that support life itself. 

It would have been great if a more futuristic poet would have added these words to her welcoming poem, “until it is no longer sustainable to do so.” The Statue of Liberty would then honor both the goals of social and environmental justice.