Environment: Why cutting immigration won't help
By Lisa Macdonald
Two weeks ago, the well-known environmentalist and spokesperson for Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population (AESP), Tim Flannery, won the prestigious Eureka award for his contribution to science's understanding of the Australian environment.
Flannery took the opportunity to hammer on his favourite theme: that the Australian continent has surpassed its human carrying capacity and its population must be reduced as a matter of urgency. An immediate, if only partial, solution to the problem, he said, is to substantially cut Australia's immigration intake.
Flannery shares this position on immigration with the Australian Democrats, the Australian Conservation Foundation (whose official policy is eventually to reduce Australia's immigration to a net zero) and, it appears, the majority of individual environmentalists in this country.
Whatever the intention, arguments for less immigration on environmental grounds strengthen the hand of all those proposing immigration cuts on economic, political and/or ideological grounds — the Liberal and National parties, Australians Against Further Immigration, right-wing independents Pauline Hanson and Graeme Campbell, Labor Party leaders such as NSW Premier Bob Carr and all racists and xenophobes. In every instance, immigrants are used as scapegoats for one or another apparently insoluble social problem.
The "overpopulation" lobby argue that there is a direct and proportional relationship between the number of people, their rate of consumption and the degradation of the natural environment. Given the massive and escalating crisis of the world's ecology, they say, the central task is to reduce human population growth and thereby reduce consumption of increasingly scarce resources.
Flannery and others in the overpopulation, anti-immigration lobby in Australia further argue that immigration is the main source of overpopulation in this country and therefore that the key to reducing population growth and size is to cut immigration substantially.
Obviously, any given ecological space can be overfilled by an indefinite increase in human (or any other) population. But what constitutes "too many people" for the environment is not a simple matter of mathematics, nor of natural laws.
For example, in a presentation to the 1990 National Immigration Outlook Conference, Phillip Ruthven pointed out, "The world's 5.3 billion inhabitants [now 5.6 billion] could fit on the island of Tasmania if they were prepared to have a density equivalent to that of downtown Manhattan and the technology to service such a residential mega-metropolis". Ruthven was not advocating this scenario but simply reminding us that, contrary to many overpopulationists' hysteria, the world is not a place left with standing room only.
This is least of all the case in Australia. In June 1993, according to the United Nations' Demographic Yearbook, the number of people per square kilometre in Australia was two. This compared to three in Canada, eight in Papua New Guinea, 13 in New Zealand, 26 in the US, 99 in Indonesia, 124 in China, 238 in the UK, 327 in Japan, and 445 in North and South Korea.
More important than the these figures, however, is the fact that a country or continent's "carrying capacity" is not fixed. The fact that much of the Australian land mass is desert does not, given the necessary technological developments, mean that it will always be so. The carrying capacity of all land is a product of a complex interaction of social relations, technology and nature.
The ecological crisis itself, while inescapably a crisis of "nature", is not natural in any simple way. For example, while climate changes may play a role in triggering famine and heightening the social and environmental impact of drought, famines today are the product, not of a world scarcity of food, but of international capitalism's production and trade systems. These destroy Third World people's food self-sufficiency via multinational agribusiness's demand for cash (export) crops, deem it more profitable to dump mountains of "excess" wheat into the ocean than to donate it to the Third World and impose such brutal debt-repayment demands that it is nearly impossible for Third World governments to buy food on the "open market", let alone invest in sustainable agricultural practices.
So too, while population growth, currently concentrated in the Third World, does increase the demand on food supply, the real problem is not the number of people (or a shortage of food) but the economic division of the world into a tiny minority of rich and a growing majority of poor to whom the "choice" to have fewer children is denied.
In today's world, the amount of food and other goods produced is not driven by the number of people or their needs. Neither are the methods used to produce it informed by a desire to preserve the environment. Rather, production is driven by the profit motive, corporations' need to constantly expand production and capture a larger share of the available market at the minimum possible cost for fear that their rivals will out-compete them and drive them out of business. This, not the mass of ordinary people's consumption patterns, is the motor force behind the destruction of our environment.
Remove the profit motive (and therefore the constant need to produce more, more quickly) and we would remove the escalating soil degradation, pesticide poisoning, air pollution, deforestation and water depletion that result.
While consumption does play a part in the destruction of the environment, this is principally due to the irrational and wasteful ways in which capitalism forces consumers, especially in the advanced industrialised countries, to meet their needs. Capitalism commodifies social necessities and services, leading to unnecessary packaging, planned obsolescence and other forms of waste. The commodification of transport, for example, where capitalism has deliberately promoted the use of private motor vehicles rather than electrically powered public transport, has resulted in a major drain on the world's energy resources and massive air pollution.
More fundamentally, the last 20 years of capitalist economic downturn reveal that production, and the environmental damage it causes, are largely independent of the consumption patterns of the populations in the advanced capitalist countries. In both the US and Australia, despite a stagnation or decline of the disposable income of the overwhelming majority of households since the late 1980s, the per capita gross domestic product — including agricultural, mining, manufacturing and fishing production — continued to grow. If, tomorrow, Australia's population growth dropped to zero, and even if the disposable income and therefore consumption of the population began to decline, the impact on all major sectors of production would be negligible precisely because production, and in particular the environmentally destructive methods of production in use today, are not determined by human need but by the pursuit of ever greater profits.
Those who choose to ignore these facts and focus on overpopulation (and consequently "over-consumption") as the primary concern like to present themselves as scientists — impartial observers and commentators on the planet's ecology and demography who are "above politics". In fact, they take a clear political position — a reactionary one.
"Overpopulation" has long been a euphemism for "the pressing surplus of non-white poor". By classifying them as "surplus", overpopulation theory denies them the very right to exist. Not only have they no right to exist, but this is presented as "scientific" fact, the operation of the "law of nature". The historical, political, economic and social reasons for poverty and environmental degradation become irrelevant.
Faced with a choice between acknowledging the need to confront the most powerful sections of society to demand that the driving force for development becomes meeting the basic human needs of all people in an ecologically sustainable way, or pointing the finger of blame at the poor and powerless, the overpopulationists take the easy and (for First World, relatively affluent, white people) more comfortable way out. In focusing on the number of people as the problem, they don't just let the existing social relations off the hook, they obscure them.
The argument that immigration, as a specific component of population growth, is responsible for environmentally devastating production levels and methods is even less justifiable.
The anti-immigration version of overpopulation propaganda is particularly vociferous in Australia in part because, as a relatively young capitalist country which was built on the backs of immigrant labour, the issue of immigration has figured large in our history and political debate. The popular assertion that Australia's immigration intake is too high relative to other First World countries is a manipulation of the fact that immigration rates are high per capita in Australia because it has a relatively low starting population.
The AESP is fond of arguing that as the "natural" population growth rate in Australia (births minus deaths, as a proportion of the population) has declined over time (from 1.6% in 1946 to 0.7% in 1995), the weight of immigration as a cause of "overpopulation" in Australia has increased and therefore warrants "special attention".
In fact, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, between 1945 and 1995 the net overseas migration rate (permanent and long-term arrivals, including refugees, minus permanent and long-term departures, as a percentage of the population) as a proportion of total population growth was actually higher in 1961-70 (43%) and 1981-90 (44%) than it is today (39%). Furthermore, net migration has never been the main (50% plus) contributor to total population growth in Australia.
Australia's net migration rate has fluctuated, but today is less than half (0.46%) what it was 50 years ago (1%). Furthermore, between 1984 and 1994, the number of refugees included in the intake declined by 23%, from 14,800 to 11,400. In 1995, the UN estimates that, worldwide, 14.5 million people were officially recognised as refugees.
Taken together, today's lower net migration rate and the declining natural population growth amount to a significant slowing in Australia's total population growth, from 2.7% in 1946 to 1.16% in 1995. There is no evidence that this decrease impacted to reduce either Australia's gross domestic product or the rate of environmental destruction in this country.
But that doesn't satisfy the overpopulation, anti-immigration lobby. So what level of reduction do they want? A survey of the literature on the "population problem" in Australia reveals that there is little agreement among the "experts" on Australia's exact carrying capacity. Undeterred by their inability to measure and test their claim that Australia is or will soon be overpopulated, however, these people are all too willing to indicate the ways in which a given target population can be achieved and maintained.
The fact that cutting the immigration intake is the preferred method at present is a (again unacknowledged) political rather than "scientific" decision. Given the political price that any First World government would pay if it tried to enforce fertility regulation on the entire population, the immigration component of population increase, however small, presents itself as the most "realistic" and achievable solution. After all, potential immigrants in the Third World can't do much to prevent or protest First World governments' policy changes.
(The AESP does, nevertheless, also advocate that the government cut family payments after the second child and reduce them after the first as a way of "getting the message across that large families are no longer acceptable given the crushing crisis of world population".)
The notion of closing the borders not only contradicts the fundamental truth of the environment movement's catchcry "one planet, one future" (the most urgent and potentially devastating ecological problems do not acknowledge national borders), it is also, in effect, racist.
The overpopulation, anti-immigration lobby deny this: "It doesn't matter what the races of immigrants are; in environmental terms it's numbers that count", says AESP. Nevertheless, while many anti-immigration environmentalists may not be motivated by racist ideas, they are national chauvinists in a world in which the vast majority of those seeking to escape war, oppression or poverty by migrating to countries like Australia also happen to be dark-skinned, so their positions lead to racially discriminatory policies and practices.
Cutting immigration will make not an iota of difference to the massive environmental devastation being wreaked by the huge agricultural, mining, fishing and manufacturing conglomerates which own and control most production in this country. Even a substantial reduction in the existing population would not repair the damage.
It is not the number of people that we need to change but the conditions that make it necessary or attractive for people to pursue environmentally destructive production methods. Many of the technologies required to reverse the devastation of capitalist production already exist, on the drawing board as well as in limited application around the world: land and water reclamation technologies; organic farming methods; technologies to capture solar and other renewable energy sources; clean transportation and processing methods. The problem is that capitalism, with its indiscriminate exploitation of both human and natural resources for immediate profits, is incapable of developing and applying such technologies. It cannot "afford" to allow, let alone encourage, fund and develop them.
The urgency of ridding the planet of this irrational and brutal system escalates every day as more species are lost forever, more water supplies poisoned beyond repair, and more forests and fertile lands transformed into deserts. More than ever, the eradication of capitalism from the face of the earth is a matter of human survival. And only the victims of this system, the mass of exploited and oppressed people around the world, have the interests in and capacity to achieve this goal.
To blame immigrants to the First World (or the mass of people around the world) for the environmental crisis we all confront is not only "scientifically" insupportable, but also erects barriers to uniting the victims of the crisis in action to reverse it. If we are to truly "think globally and act locally", we will welcome more refugees and migrants to this land and, in the process, encourage and convince them to join with us in the struggle for a society which puts human rights and the environment before profits.