American Renaissance

Only By Setting Limits Can We Control Growth

Richard D. Lamm, Arizona Republic, May 2

Two questions, I would suggest, will be of prime importance in judging the future of immigration in the West:

Are current development patterns sustainable? And are Mexicans Italians?

Got your interest?

Current immigration patterns will give America approximately 500 million Americans by 2050 and a billion by the end of this century.

What will that mean to Arizona and the West? I can go 90 miles from my office in Denver and see the wagon wheel tracks of the Oregon Trail, laid down 140 years ago. In the East, South, North and California, all traces would have been gone in weeks. Should we not ask if living in a desert imposes limits?

Civilization has triumphed in the West because it has refused to accept limits and has overcome myriad obstacles. Our ancestors found a desert and made it into a garden. Our existing culture teaches that ingenuity and imagination can prevail over any obstacles, and that there are no limits, only lack of creativity.

This is the Western culture of irrigation canals, transmountain diversions, pivot sprinklers and other adaptations that allow us not only to live in a semi-desert, but also to enjoy green lawns and prosperity.

This first culture suggests the future is a logical extension of the past, that all problems have achievable solutions: “Go forth and multiply and subdue the earth” and “Go West, young man.”

It is the world of green revolution that has given us the potential to eliminate hunger, and of technology that some say has repealed the law of supply and demand and discovered endless and unlimited wealth. This is the world built around unlimited people — unsaturated consumers.

There is a second Western culture, a culture of limits. The West also teaches that we must adapt to nature, and be acutely aware of nature’s fickleness and limitations. It teaches us that there is such a thing as “carrying capacity,” and we must respect the fragility of the land and environment.

It argues that nature teaches us that we never can or should rely on the status quo, that our climate is harsh and variable, and that the price of survival is to anticipate and prepare. It questions the proposition that growth, population or economic, can go on forever.

This is the world of conservation, national parks, wilderness legislation, crop rotation, Planned Parenthood, Malthus. It is the vision of Thomas Berry: “The earth and the human community are bound in a single journey”; and it listens to Isaiah: “Woe unto them that lay field upon field and house upon house that there be no place to be left alone in the world.”

Only one of these cultures can prevail.

Go forth and prosper

Our industrial civilization is built upon the assumptions that there are no limits, and that we will not reach any sort of carrying capacity. It assumes infinite resources, where scarcity is caused by want of imagination. Civilization in most of the world supports this assumption of the infinite.

The second culture, with fewer adherents, but equally passionate, contends that the first culture is making “empty earth” assumptions that cannot be sustained. They want to stabilize U.S. population and help the rest of the world do likewise.

I believe a new reality requires us to rethink our tradition of immigration. The first census in the United States was in 1790, and it found 4 million Europeans living in America. That means that between 1790 and 1990, we have had six doublings of U.S. population (4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256) and we now have approximately 290 million Americans. One more doubling gives us more than 500 million, and two more than 1 billion.

Clearly the proponents of the first culture have prevailed for these 200 years, and appropriately so. But what if — just what if — this culture of the infinite was only a temporary victor? What if nature bats last? What if the real lesson the West should have learned living with 13 inches of rain was the need to appreciate that limits could be pushed and extended but never eliminated? What if the rain forests, the dying coral, the rising temperatures are trying to tell us something?

The lessons I have learned from my love affair with the West support this second culture. I believe we need to transform society from an earth-consuming technological civilization to a sustainable and more benign civilization. That requires us to rethink immigration and what it is doing to drive American population growth.

Italians were the last immigrant group to come to America under antagonism and suspicion. Prejudice was palpable, discrimination widespread, intergroup relations difficult. Italians 90 years ago, like the Mexican immigrants today, had poor graduation rates, more dropouts, fewer college graduates per capita and fewer professionals. It seemed for a time that Italians would be a permanent underclass of blue-collar workers.

But the Italians, while they took longer to succeed in the traditional ways, took on the educational and success patterns of the majority community, and now they equal or exceed the performance of the majority community. They are among the proudest Americans. Are Mexicans today’s Italians?

The land of immigrants

All American history is on the side of success of our new immigrants. But there are three big differences which, in my opinion, make a Hispanic Quebec an equally likely scenario.

Those three all began with “D.”

— Distance: Previous generations had to come a long way, and didn’t have much option to go home. They had to become Americans; today many of our immigrants can go back home for a weekend. The pull to assimilate is considerably less.

— Diversity: The only way past immigrants could talk to one another and live their lives was to learn English and assimilate. Today more than 50 percent of our immigrants are Spanish speaking, and America is backing into becoming a bilingual/bicultural country.

I know of no bilingual/bicultural country in the world that lives at peace with itself.

— Discontinuity: The history of American immigration is times of large immigration followed by periods of low immigration (war, depression), which gives the new immigrants a chance to assimilate and join our community.

I believe that America and the world will have to develop sustainable lifestyles and policies. One of those policies will be to move to stabilize the population of the United States. A second equally imperative agenda is to assimilate and acculturate our newcomers. I suggest that these are among the most important issues facing Arizona and America.

Richard D. Lamm is co-director of the Institute for Public Policy Studies at the University of Denver, and a former three-term governor of Colorado.