In a recent commentary (“Maine Voices: Rethinking the future – how much growth do we want?” Feb. 24), Jonette Christian of Mainers for Sensible Immigration Policy focuses on immigration and population as the primary factor in humans’ impact on the environment. Written well and seemingly innocuous, this piece espouses a simple, problematic solution for a complex problem. It also highlights a deep misunderstanding of people’s role and the environment, specifically in the United States, and creeps close to promoting xenophobia.

A worker prepares a rig to drill for water in the suburbs of Phoenix last October. Landscaped yards and grassy playing fields typify the 14th fastest growing metro area in the United States, despite a water shortage caused by historically low flows in the Colorado River. Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS

There is a longstanding formula to help identify human impacts on the environment: I=(PAT). Impact equals Population times Affluence (consumption) times Technology. In other words, our impact on the world has numerous factors. While one can and might be more of a factor at certain points, they have to be looked at together. Most issues are not black or white. There is nuance, and two things can be true at once: dialectical thinking.

Look at the science. It’s not only about population, but, specifically in the United States, it’s also about affluence and consumption.

Consumption is a tough conversation, as there are so many in the U.S. and the world who are going without, but the U.S. is the most affluent society on Earth, ever. At the same time, our extractive, profit-seeking economy creates winners and losers and has created a system of inequality. Without tackling the structure of our economy, population growth matters little. If there is any blame to place, it is not on immigrants – it is on the structure of profit-focused extractive industries.

Our collective impact on this world has hit a tipping point. I understand the fear that accompanies that, and simply want to offer that addressing humans’ impact on the environment requires intersectional, collaborative solutions. It sounds like we might have common ground on bridging the inequality gap, which would be a big step toward limiting consumption of our resources and elevating people’s lives and happiness. The most affluent consume the most, in the U.S. and around the globe (meaning, as a whole, that everyone in the U.S. is part of the problem). But the focus should be on the most well off. Focusing on closing the border is a draconian measure rooted in fear. This is right out of the playbook of the wealthiest and of corporations: Pit people against each other and avoid any responsibility for our planet.

I do want to acknowledge that some scientists have tried to identify a maximum number of people the planet can sustain. There, of course, is a point at which our species cannot sustain itself, but it’s about how we use resources, not about how many of us there are, or how many come to the U.S. Because of the outsized role of the U.S. in creating our climate crisis, and our being the wealthiest country, we are responsible. The U.S. is a massive country that is currently more resilient to the climate crisis than other places, and we have a moral obligation to help those in need, especially those from countries we have disrupted with coups, war and more.

Ms. Christian described some of the complexity of environmental issues well, but ending with the wrong conclusion. For example, the Colorado River is drying up from overuse, urbanization and climate change-related megadroughts. That is a perfect example of the I=(PAT) formula: An expanding population in arid areas is consuming more and more water, mostly for things unrelated to survival (Phoenix has some of the most golf courses per capita), and there is no scalable technology right now to replenish the rate of loss. The number of people is not the primary problem; it’s overconsumption, and archaic water rights laws.

Complex issues require complex solutions, and that will most likely require us to look at ourselves first to make the changes necessary for the greater good, not impose restrictions on others.

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