Immigration controls, environment, and fossil fuels: a debate

Submitted by AWL on 30 September, 2005 - 11:19

A letter from James Sinnamon and a reply from Workers' Liberty Australia.

Letter from James Sinnamon

Hi comrades,

Further to last night's conversation. Towards the end I frankly expressed my thoughts on what have been taboo subjects within socialist circles, that is, population levels and immigration.

These issues are an aspect of a question which, as I have said, 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 6 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)

This, to me, is an astonishing and frightening fact.

We have increased global populations because we have squandered what should have been treated as a priceless resource for this and future generations.

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

In Australia, we are close to exceeding the carrying capacity of this country if we have not already. As just one example, planners don't know how either NSW or South East Queensland can establish sufficient supplies of water to satisfy the needs of the current population, let alone the additional 1,000,000 (that will be allowed to move here by 2025 in order to satisfy the needs of the property speculation 'industry').

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. Coal may be a possible alternative, but an expensive and dirty one, which is also finite. In any case it may increase CO2 levels in our atmosphere to unacceptable levels. Even if Peter Beattie's recent claim that we have 300 years worth of coal left in Australia is true, that is still a blink of an eyelid in terms of overall human history.

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 last night is that firstly you still supported 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 (see New Left Review Article, "Planet of Slums") 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?

And let's not forget 100,000 largely wealthy business migrants who are already coming here every year. The surest way to gain resident status these days is to have money to buy a house and thereby to add to the already obscene levels of housing hyper-inflation.

Of course I am not being judgmental about these people. They are only doing what I would do, if I were in their shoes, and I dare say if they were in my shoes they would in all probability adopt the same attitude that I have adopted.

Already the increased levels of population have clearly had detrimental effects for the existing population : housing costs gone through the roof (property speculators are open about this, if your read their literature), the quality of life largely destroyed in cities like Sydney, water supply crises as I mentioned earlier. These are just not even broached in any socialist literature that I have read.

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 suite 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.

Reply from Martin Thomas

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, then it makes no sense to argue that the people of the regions which will "go under" first will lie down to die quietly while the people of global "gated communities" continue to live in plenty.

China and India, after all, have nuclear weapons. If in a few decades' time, they face mass starvation, while Australians continue to live comfortably behind a big wall inscribed "Yellow and brown-skinned people, keep out!", then why would any conceivable Chinese or Indian government not use those nuclear weapons to break down that wall?

Presumably your support for barriers to protect relatively advantaged countries applies generally, not just to Australia. It would apply, for example, in countries with land borders. It would apply in South Africa, for example, where hostility to Nigerian and Mozambican immigrants as a supposed threat to conditions is already widespread among black as well as white South Africans.

But if the prospect is not just for Nigeria and Mozambique lagging behind South Africa, but of human society collapsing - and for sure it would collapse in Mozambique and Nigeria a long while before it collapsed in relatively well-off South Africa - then how would any restrictions imposed by any South African government hold the desperate human tide?

Global catastrophe would not happen through peoples quietly dying off one by one, each dutifully taking its turn. If, in the run-up, the richer countries had been trying to seal themselves off as "gated communities", 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. - any more than in the 19th century socialists could think that in the future everyone could live in houses with teams of domestic servants.

It is even arguable (I'm not sure about this) that ecological sustainability requires converting more of the population to a vegetarian diet.

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, that 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.

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.

I think 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. At present none of these sources has the portability and the capacity to produce energy round the clock which fossil fuels and nuclear power do.

But I agree that there are real ecological threats. Only, I conclude that to tackle them we need a global working-class solidarity, and moves to raise higher barriers between countries run directly counter to that.

But, 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. An argument could be made against that immigration, that it consists of robbing many poorer countries of some of their most educated and energetic people, but for Australia the immigration has plainly been beneficial.

Working as a high school teacher, I can see this every day: the higher proportion of immigrant kids in a school, the better the education, the lower the level of social despondency.

Even where immigration is less selective than in Australia - in Britain, for example - the benefits, both in bringing new productive person-power and in cultural enrichment, are clear.

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.

Argentina and Brazil, which also received mass transatlantic migration, also developed - as capitalist economies, to be sure, with all the cruelties and inequalities that implies, but they developed. They did not collapse.

Today there are "open borders" within the European Union, a population of 460 million. There are still some restrictions on the movement of people from the poorest EU countries in Eastern Europe, but some richer countries, the UK for example, do not apply those restrictions, and in those that do apply them, like Germany, the restrictions are easily evaded.

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. In the UK, 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 living it. That they are illegal creates a heap of problems. As workers, they have no usable legal rights. 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. If the border were made legally open, rather than just practically hard to police, things would be better.

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 (a technology used more extensively by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states), but it continues to develop.

It would develop much better, to be sure, if it would cease its oppression of the Palestinians, withdraw from the Occupied Territories, and recognise the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own. 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. And that is because the immigrants are moving into the jobs that the native workers won't do..."

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'."

Teresa Hayter, in her pamphlet "The Case Against Immigration Controls", pursues the argument:

"There are many who say that the abolition of immigration controls is a desirable goal, one they themselves would like to see achieved, but that it is politically impossible in a world in which there are severe international inequalities. But the argument that, without controls, there would be 'floods' of migrants who would overwhelm the rich countries some of them go to is little more than scaremongering.

"The fact that there are huge international inequalities in material wealth does not mean that, as neo-classical economists might predict, there would be mass movements of people throughout the world until material conditions and wages equalised. It is true that if there were no controls there would probably be more migration, since the dangers and cost of migrating would be less; how much more is impossible to estimate...

"[But] most people require powerful reasons to migrate; in normal circumstances they are reluctant to leave their countries, families and cultures. When free movement was allowed in the European Union, some feared there would be mass migration from the poorer to the richer areas; the migration did not happen, to the chagrin of the proponents of flexible labour markets. The great desire of many who do migrate is to return to their own countries, when they have saved enough money, or if conditions there improve. Immigration controls mean that they are less likely to do so, because they cannot contemplate the struggle of crossing borders again if they find they need to".

History backs up Harris's and Hayter's arguments. And the urgency of global solidarity also means that it is urgent to fight against immigration restrictions.

Best wishes,



Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 11/12/2005 - 16:03

Martin's argument seems to be that the third world will invade the first world unless there are open borders. He also implies that high rates of immigration in the US and in Germany are overall beneficial and manageable. His opinion is also that Australia's schooling system benefits from a stream of immigrants to that country, which he implies would be depressing without that stream.

He gives no evidence for this opinion. It is merely his opinion apparently that no stable polity can be a happy place and that all communities must be in constant turmoil to be cheerful.

He relies on worker solidarity to engineer a future low consumption economy. He does not mention how workers have been consistently seduced to consume and endebt themselves in the process, thus contributing to the upkeep of their opressors and the upkeep of our tragic gobbling up of fossil fuels and cooking of the planet.

My conclusion is that the benefits from the current situation outweigh the negatives for Martin, and that he has decided that what is true for him must be true for others.

James discloses a quite different point of view, which he came round to after living for a while a Martin perspective.

My view is that human population has only been able to outgrow its dependency on trees and dung for fuel since coal and oil. This overgrowth and outgrowth that we call the Industrial Revolution started in England around 1750 and was the first time that human populations began to grow unsustainably on a very large scale. So far those countries which were able to gain power over fossil fuel resources have been able to feed their vast populations, but most indicators of quality of life and standard of living, industrial rights etc, and rate of endebtedness, have been falling.

The poor have been the losers in the West as in the third world. I do not see any prospect of the third world rising to meet the first world. All I see is an international clique of rich people organising the poor to serve them. In Australia this movement is very pronounced. I think that the socialist movement, to restore credibility, must support the rights of the poor in Australia, by refusing to support immigration until such time as industrial law protects all workers equally - imported and locally born.

This is not the current outlook.

Martin seems to be suggesting that we should let things get worse and worse and then that the workers will rise up. In the mean-time the capitalists are reconquering the land, purchasing water and power. The workers have less and less access to land, which is the only thing that can ever make them independent of capital.

I don't see business as usual, i.e. economic growth, an employer/employee society with no protection for workers, and high immigration as sustainable or fair. I don't think the revolution will bring about justice either. I think it is too late.

I would like to see the natural world protected as much as possible and permaculture to be taught along with self-sufficiency. The capitalist/labour paradigm seems to be nearly dead in the water. We have the corporate/slave paradigm waiting in the wings.

Let the peasants have their land back.


Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.