Population levels and immigration: two responses

Submitted by AWL on 18 November, 2005 - 1:18

The following letters, abridged for space reasons, represent part of an ongoing debate. James Sinnamon makes a case and Martin Thomas replies.

For full text of this debate, click here.

Dear W L comrades,

Population levels and immigration have been taboo subjects within socialist circles.

These issues are an aspect of a question which has been avoided by almost the whole socialist movement, that is the finiteness of this planet, and how we can hope to create a stable basis for a sustainable society within the constraints of the physical limits of our planet, given the unprecedented population levels of well over six billion.

If we can't achieve this, our future may be too awful to contemplate.

As I said in less than two hundred years, less than a blink of an eye in human history, we have dug up and burnt off energy stored in carbon, which took tens or hundreds of millions of years for the earth to accumulate thorough biological and geological process (I wrote this in a letter which was printed in March this year in The Canberra Times and The Australian, see below) This, to me, is an astonishing and frightening fact.

In our discussion, it didn't strike me that you fully appreciated this fact and all the implications of all of this.

Many informed people believe that the current population levels are already well in excess of this country's carrying capacity, especially if you take into account that our economy largely depends on non renewable petroleum.

No socialist current has ever given a clear answer as to what it thinks the population levels of this country should be and hence what the levels of immigration should be. Your response is that you still support open door immigration and that you didn't believe that that many people would want to come here anyway, so it is not really an issue.

With one billion on the planet in dire poverty living in shanty towns on the outskirts of cities, I would suggest that the potential for Australia's current population to be easily overwhelmed many times over if an open door policy were to be adopted is beyond doubt.

Which one of these one billion people, do you believe would not come to a county like Australia if given an opportunity?

In my heart I am still a socialist internationalist, but today the ideal of unconditional internationalism is an unachievable pipe dream, and, in fact, dangerous. As a friend put it so well a few months ago, that ideal has been subverted to suit the needs of globalised capitalism.

For the past generation, the whole of the left has had no answer to the developments that have not only harmed the interests of ordinary Australians, but have threatened our sustainability: off-shoring of jobs to countries like China and India, privatisation, deregulation, lifting of limitations on foreign investment, allowing foreigners to buy and speculate in Australian property, with disastrous consequences for ordinary home buyers. To have raised objections to these developments would incur accusations of nationalism and sometimes, even racism.

We need a serious answer to this and that answer must be a pragmatic compromise between socialist internationalism and the recognition of our own collective interests as a national community.

I hope that you all will all come to understand the sense of what I am saying, and quickly ditch the cornucopian baggage carried by the socialist movement up to now. If you do so, then I think there is a hope that you will be able to contribute positively to the future political development of this country, and even the rest of the world. If not, I believe that you will continue to be regarded as irrelevant by all but a small minority of our population.

If you cannot do so right away, please at least start to acknowledge these questions in your newspaper and try to refute what I have said. I have also written some of my understanding of the current state of the world here :


James Sinnamon

Dear James,

You raise two issues: the threat to human life on the planet Earth from the exhaustion of fossil fuels, and the threat to conditions in Australia from increased openness to the world, including immigration. You draw two conclusions: global reshaping of human society to reduce the use of non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels; and immigration controls (tighter than the present ones, if I have understood you right) for Australia.

I think your two lines of thought contradict each other. On an ultra-optimistic scenario such as some neo-liberals project, it would make some macabre sense to support tight immigration controls. They could serve as a way to avoid disruption and "jumping the gun" - to keep order in a queue from which everyone will eventually reach a Californian middle-class lifestyle.

If rural China, Bangladesh, and Nigeria will all in the due course of industrial development reach that Californian level, then their people, or at least enough of them, may be willing to wait.

But if humanity faces ecological catastrophe - and if, in the run-up, the richer countries had been trying to seal themselves off as "gated communities" - then the first step towards extinction would be world war in which the peoples of the poorer countries sought, quite literally, space to live in.

The greater the risk of global ecological catastrophe, the greater the need for human solidarity and cooperation in dealing with that risk - and the more disastrous a policy of "looking after number one" will be.

I agree that there are grave ecological dangers. More urgent than the threat of fossil fuels being completely exhausted is the threat of disruption through global warming arising from their use; but both threats are real. It is not possible, even if it were desirable, for the whole world population to live in big air-conditioned houses, eat highly processed and packaged food, use clothes dryers and dishwashers, go round in four-wheel drives, take frequent trips by air, etc.

But we know that capitalist consumerism is not an unavoidable part of human nature. There have been societies where out-consuming your neighbour is considered foul, not a cause for pride. Many studies have shown that people get happier with increasing material wealth up to a definable point - but that beyond that point, already passed by the Californian middle class, they do not.

In a society of solidarity, people could live in "abundance", on a rule of "to each according to their needs", with comfort and some luxuries - while accepting that some sorts of consumption must be restrained for ecological reasons. But only in a society of solidarity! In a capitalist society, both capital's drive for profit and the consumerist drives instilled in the mass of the population by the workings of commodity fetishism make impossible the development of any such collective responsibility for the sustainability of our society.

I have a less catastrophist view of future energy supplies than you do, if only because I have no objection to the development of nuclear power with safeguards of democratic and working-class control. Its risks are far less than those of continued escalating use of fossil fuels, or of leaving a large part of humanity without electricity. Nuclear fission draws on finite resources, but with a much longer span of availability than fossil fuels. Nuclear fusion - if it can be developed workably, and a prototype nuclear fusion power station is already under construction - can draw on practically infinite resources. Of course I am also in favour of the development of renewable energy sources - hydroelectric, wind power, tidal power, solar power, etc.

You say open borders are unworkable, even if they might be desirable. Open the borders of Australia and tens or hundreds of millions of paupers would flood here the next day, creating social disaster. In the first place, such immigration as has been allowed to come to Australia has clearly benefited the people of this country. If there is a level at which immigration becomes unworkably disruptive, we are certainly nowhere near it now.

Would "open borders" bring us there? Well, the USA had open borders up until 1921. A transatlantic boat trip, or a journey across the Rio Grande, was more expensive and difficult than analogous journeys today, but not prohibitive even for very poor people in Europe and Central and South America. Millions of people migrated to the USA, many of them fleeing starvation or extreme poverty in countries like Ireland and Italy. The result was the richest and most dynamic country in the world.

Today there are "open borders" within the European Union, a population of 460 million. National income per head in Luxemburg is six times what it is in Latvia, or five and a half times what it is in Poland. Will opening the borders of Luxemburg to all those Latvians and Poles lead to catastrophe? On all the evidence, no. We have a lot more Poles in London since Poland joined the EU, but no catastrophe at all.

The USA does not have open borders, but geography makes it practically impossible for it to police its southern border. The US government estimates that the USA has at least seven million illegal immigrants. That they are illegal creates a heap of problems. But on the evidence, the fact of having seven million more people, doing jobs otherwise hard to fill, benefits their fellow-citizens rather than harming them.

Israel has had an "open border" for Jews since 1948, and as a consequence its society - a mere 650,000 Jews in 1948 - has received large and unpredictable inflows of Jews from the Arab world in the 1950s and after 1967, and from Russia and Eastern Europe after 1989. On a tiny patch of land with few energy resources and scanty water supplies, its population has been increased to 6.5 million. Israel has had to build desalination plants to extract fresh water from the sea, but it continues to develop.

It would develop much better, to be sure, if it would cease its oppression of the Palestinians. But its policy of unlimited immigration has not wrecked it.

Germany has "open borders" for anyone who can claim German origins. In 1945 west Germany had to deal with some 13 million Germans forcibly expelled from Eastern Europe. After 1990 it received a new flood of immigrants from the East. Again, no catastrophe.

According to Nigel Harris, author of a recent book arguing against immigration controls, "Thinking the Unthinkable": "There were up to two hundred econometric studies done in the United States in different localities at different times in order to try to detect whether there was a decline in wages or an increase in unemployment of native workers as a result of a significant inflow of immigrants and in general they could find no trace whatsoever." In Britain, according to Kenan Malik, "a Home Office study published last year concluded that 'the perception that immigrants take away jobs from the existing population, or that immigrants depress wages of existing workers, do not find confirmation in the analysis of the data'."

You agree in general, I think. You write that some form of socialism is the only sustainable future. But if the ecological problems are global, then, more than ever, this socialism must be global - based on a recognition of a common humanity, and a common human interest in sustaining the Earth's environment - not a socialism of "gated communities".

And, in any case, how can we possibly hope that working classes preoccupied with keeping up the barriers around their relatively favoured patches of the Earth's surface, or wondering how they can possibly jump those barriers to escape their earlier-doomed patches, will ever achieve any form of socialism? If the working classes of the world are turned towards that way of thinking, then there will be no socialism.

Martin Thomas