|Caveat: This is a grim post. I’ve put it off because I knew it would be, but this issue is tearing the environmental movement apart, so I had to write about it. If you want something more upbeat, yesterday’s post was much more hopeful.
If there’s a political quagmire for environmentalists, it’s the immigration issue. Most environmentalists are progressives, and there is no question that immigration allows both political and economic refugees an opportunity to make a better life in a country with less repression. What’s more, you have to cheer the demonstrators in American and European streets who are fed up with immigrants being treated as second class citizens, and who remind the rest of us that civil disobedience has a long and distinguished tradition of bringing about social change that would never occur otherwise. Immigration brings diversity of thinking. And if you dare to question whether immigration is good for your country, not only are you likely to be labeled a racist, you are likely to get put on mailing lists of objectionable racist organizations who mistake your cause for theirs.
On the other hand, the natural environment in many struggling nations has been largely destroyed, due to a combination of extreme overpopulation, corruption in the enforcement of environmental laws, and theft and poisoning of these struggling nations’ resources, land, soil and water by opportunistic and reckless global corporatists, largely based in, and benefiting, the very nations refugees are flocking to. Importing rapid population growth merely globalizes and accelerates environmental degradation in the few nations where there is some functioning regulation of environmental damage. And it contributes heavily to urban sprawl. If immigration continues at current levels it is quite conceivable that the US will host a billion people by the end of this century, and Canada 100 million. And as social and environmental catastrophes accelerate in the struggling nations in coming years, Europe will have no choice but to reluctantly open its doors to a comparable flood of new immigrants, and expect a tripling of their national populations by the end of the century. That essentially means every square mile of inhabitable land in these countries will be given over to housing these teeming billions. There is no hope for the environment anywhere under such conditions.
The inevitable ‘compromise’ is to allow as many ‘legal’ immigrants as possible but to crack down on ‘illegal’ immigrants. The probability of this actually working is about the same as it would have been five centuries ago if the First Nations of the Americas had tried to control European influx on the same basis. It is simply foolish to believe that, when billions of people would sooner risk death than stay in their country of birth, any kind of functional constraint on immigration is viable. So the ‘compromise’ is nothing more than cynical political posturing. The flow of people can no sooner be stemmed effectively than the flow of goods (including drugs and other contraband) or the flow of information. Attempts to control any of them simply increases the demand and price of workarounds, wasting resources trying to control the flood, encouraging organized crime and creating massive hardship in the process.
And although the UN Population Bureaus don’t want to point it out, historically when people move from a struggling nation to an affluent one, they bring their propensity for large families with them, and it takes at least a couple of generations for that to change. And voilý — one billion Americans, cheek to jowl, in an ecologically devastated land.
The dark side of the current immigration debate, of course, is the xenophobia and racism that underlies the nonsensical ‘war on terror’. Right now that hysterical xenophobia is directed at Arabic peoples and others with ‘swarthy’ complexions, but it’s only a matter of time before cascading ecological catastrophes and civil war in China will add the rest of the Asian continent to the feared list.
So I believe the current debate on immigration is a waste of time, because it amounts to a debate on whether to put one finger or two in a dyke with a million holes in it. Better to prepare for the flood. And since it is largely corporatist theft and dumping of poisons, imperialist adventures, puppet governments, scientific and cultural invasions and shameless exploitation of struggling nations by affluent nations that has caused the crises that have billions wanting to leave their homes and countries of birth — leave their homes and countries of birth! — for an uncertain, frightening future in another unimaginably strange land — can you imagine being that desperate? — perhaps the onus is on us to make reparations for the damage we have done by sharing some of the spoils of our pillaging with the people of the nations we’ve pillaged.
Suppose we were to give up on immigration control entirely (and while we’re at it, also give up trying to control the flow of goods and information). Suppose we declared that everyone in the world is now a global citizen, free to travel, live, work and vote wherever they want. And while we’re at it, let’s give the ‘free’ trade advocates what they want and allow free movement of goods and services as well. No more regulations. Take whatever drugs you want. Oh, and no subsidies either — sorry corporatists, you’re going to have to try to figure out how to live without massive government handouts — good luck! So we tear down the borders, and with them, the need for national governments — how are you going to launch a war when the enemy just moved in next door instead of joining the army to attack you? What’s the point of Iran having nukes (and us worrying about them) when all the Iranians have left?
This plan would not work, you say — our global footprint is already more than twice what the planet can sustainably produce, and accelerating. Level the playing field and we would surely have a global civil class war between rich and poor, until, as the song goes, there would be no rich left. We would open the floodgates to the exploitation of the last of the world’s forests, oil, minerals, and arable land, so instead of running out over a century they would run out in a decade or two. We would be left with a desolated world with a debt to Earth that could not possibly be repaid, so we would quickly freeze, starve, broil, perish of thirst, succumb to the poisons we have produced, or die from a stab or gun wound from a neighbour coveting our last loaf of bread.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps instead we would face the yawning chasm that lies in front of us, behind the wall of self-delusion, and, as rich and poor did in the Great Depression, ratchet back our lifestyles and consumption, drastically and voluntarily reduce our birth rate, share generously, and start to take care of ourselves and our communities.
My point is that the only thing standing between us today and the horrific scenario above is inequality and time. The ‘haves’ are using up all the Earth’s resources by suppressing and exploiting the ‘have nots’ — politically, economically, and through limits to immigration. And they perpetrate the myth that, with hard work and discipline and technological innovation, all 6, 7, 10, 14 billion people on Earth can live well too. But they cannot. We have already stolen the wealth of most of the planet to provide for a dwindling number in the world’s affluent nations. We are now stealing from our children, poisoning their world with our garbage and chemicals, using their share of resources, and saddling them with the debt, and with global warming. If we don’t tear down the walls now between rich and poor, struggling nations and affluent nations, and take responsibility for all life on Earth, including that of future generations, we will just produce a pressure cooker that will eventually, inevitably, and catastrophically blow up in our faces. And then we’ll have billions more people in the same desolate level playing field, and the chances of recovering will be diminished even further.
So for environmentalists, immigration is not only a dilemma, it’s a Hobson’s Choice — pay me what you don’t have now, or pay me much more later. Encourage wide-open immigration now, so that perhaps it will dawn on us just how far beyond our means we are living, at the immediate cost of desolating affluent nations as horribly as we have devastated struggling nations, and of accelerating the rape and poisoning of the Earth and our debt to future generations. Or continue to encourage some kind of futile ‘pressure-valve’ immigration restrictions, and sustain our delusion that the way most of us in affluent nations live today is not excessive, obscene, massively destructive, ultimately unsustainable, and an impossible dream for most of the world’s people even at today’s population levels. And those restrictions will also allow us to keep a few more species from becoming extinct for a few more years, a few small pieces of dwindling wilderness intact a little longer, so we can show our children beforeit’s gone. Isn’t all that worth a few billion people’s suffering?
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