California's Next Battle: Immigrants vs. Greens


April 30, 1991|By FRANZ SCHURMANN

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA — Berkeley, California.-- If California were Mexico, the International Monetary Fund would prescribe a program of vigorous market-led growth to get out of its monumental budget deficit. Yet this state has spawned what may be the world's most powerful environmental movement, determined to limit growth and put nature before profit. The new Republican governor, Pete Wilson, more- over, has long considered himself an environmentalist.

If it were a nation, California would rank eighth among the world's economic powers. To many it makes sense to prevent growth from further damaging ecosystems after a century of rapid development, especially through the world's mightiest water works.

Yet California also has a population growing dramatically, mainly through Latin and Asian immigration. It is close to being a state where ''minorities'' are the majority. If environmentalism prevails could mean that 20 years from now the children of immigrants and minorities will find it much harder than now to find jobs and get housing.

The effects of the prolonged drought are already forcing tight limits on water use. Environmentalist pressure is also blocking .. long-distance movement of water and seeking cutbacks of water for agriculture. That will mean fewer farm jobs in an economic sector that has long attracted immigrants.

It also will make it difficult for immigrant families to build ''mother-in-law'' apartments to house relatives; with water rationing now likely to become permanent, there is a real danger that these growing immigrant families will not get increases in their water allotments. And because they still have little power in city councils, they will lack the political clout to gain remedy.

As the white population becomes older and fewer, immigrants -- entrepreneurs, professionals, workers -- will account for an ever-increasing share of economic growth in the state. Increasingly, they will find themselves hemmed in by the limits on growth brought about by the political power of environmentalism.

As has often been noted, environmentalism remains an overwhelmingly white movement. Its advocates are passionately convinced that their efforts to save nature, work in harmony with it, or benignly manage it, are aimed at ensuring the survival of the entire human race.

They oppose, for example, the new Free Trade Agreement with Mexico as something that will only accelerate Mexico's rampant modernization and industrialization, further poisoning its already ravaged environment. They believe redesigned industrial technology can produce sustainable growth that can create jobs. They call for efforts in developing countries to reduce population. And they fear that if immigration continues, it will generate even more overcrowded ghettos and barrios.

If all immigration were to stop and all Latinos, Asian-Americans and African-Americans had as few children as whites, 20 years from now the U.S. could look a lot like what it did in the '50s. The better educated but fewer ''new Americans'' would meld into a tolerant white middle class, eventually producing a cafe-au-lait society. What's wrong with that vision?

Whatever its intrinsic merits, it springs entirely out of California's whites, a slowly waning segment of the population but one which still does -- and probably long will -- wield the political,

economic and social power in this rich state. By making it harder for immigrants to prosper, environmentalism will give whites a future many now see as endangered not just by environmental degradation but also by immigration.

What is really disturbing about the new power of California's environmental movement is that it will lock future Californians, who in the majority will be people of color, into a public condition their parents had no hand in determining.

The remedy is clear. Sooner or later, the new Californians are going to get significant political power in the cities.

Whatever their inter-ethnic differences, they will want economic growth and jobs. If their clout were now as powerful as that of the environmentalists, then a new social contract could be hammered out between these two forces.

However much it might displease many in either camp, such a social contract would have a better chance of bringing about economic growth with political stability -- because it would be a social contract firmly rooted in democratic soil.

Franz Schurmann teaches history and sociology at the University of California. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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