Green Party leader Natalie Bennett recently took a strong stance on migration, warning of the dangers that the other parties risk when stoking up public anger about population. She rightly suggested that we shouldn’t blame migrants for problems with the NHS, schools, housing and jobs. Instead, we should be concerned about the failure of misguided economic policies that have caused these problems.
In response, three members of the Green Party wrote a letter to the Guardian saying that they, and many other Greens, are concerned about migration as well as the nasty rhetoric. The authors of the letter wrote:
Many of her party’s supporters are as concerned as the rest of the public about a high level of net immigration, mainly because it is a major contributor to population growth. This adds to the uphill task of protecting our environment and moving the economy to an ecologically sustainable one.
A long list of Greens replied with “dismay” at this letter, and Adam Ramsay wrote his own letter accusing the three authors of the first letter of “demonstrating an outdated 70s environmentalism obsessed with population while ignoring vast inequalities in consumption levels”.
The debate continued with a reply from some members in Devon, who countered:
To be concerned with the impact that world population rising to 9 billion people has on resource availability, pollution, climate change etc is not to be locked in a 1970s time warp. It may have ceased to be the number one issue for some greens, but in terms of the long-term damage to our planet as a habitat for all species, it remains at the forefront.
I want to address this point alone, because it hits a controversial nerve in the Green community. Does population really matter? Should we restrict migration to protect our environment?
I should say that I am not an expert on migration or population, but I have worked for seven years in the connected areas of housing and environment policy. The three authors of the first letter ask us to “read the statistics” in order to pursue “open and honest debate”. I quite agree! So that is what I hope to do in this article.
Does population matter at the global level?
One common starting point is to view our impact on the rest of the natural world as a simple function of our affluence, our technology and our population. We can bring human society more into harmony with the rest of nature by wanting less, improving our technology to get more out of the resources we consume, and by reducing our population.
Life is never quite that simple, of course. How much each person impacts on the rest of the natural world is also a function of our political and economic systems. The “population doesn’t matter” lobby suggest that it is inequality and rampant consumerism that matters, not the total population. They seem to suggest that if we were all more equal and all reduced our impacts, without those rich bankers trashing the planet, then it would be perfectly possible to accommodate nine or ten billion people and lead healthy, happy lives.
So can we really ignore the population factor in these equations? I don’t think we can.
In my previous job at BioRegional I worked a lot with ecological and carbon footprinting, particularly drawing on the technical work of the Global Footprint Network, the Stockholm Environment Institute and the UK Government’s Committee on Climate Change. Their work tells us that if everyone lived as the average Briton does we would need three planets’ resources to sustain us, and ten times the capacity of the planet to absorb our greenhouse gas emissions.
But it’s not just mega rich bankers in mansions that are living unsustainable lifestyles. Yes, there are vast inequalities in consumption levels, but we are all consuming too much.
One of the projects I worked on at BioRegional was the BedZED eco village in south west London, built to high standards and designed to make it easy for residents to adopt lower impact lifestyles. Through a monitoring project I worked on, we found that after seven years living there the working class (social tenancy) residents were still living unsustainably. If everyone in the world lived as they did, we would need 2.6 planets’ worth of resources. Their greenhouse gas emissions were also far above a sustainable level.
Blaming it all on consumerism, or assuming we can quite easily get to a sustainable level with a high standard of living, is just burying your head in the sand. If you work in this area for any amount of time, you quickly realise that reducing our environmental impacts to a truly sustainable level is really hard.
Joel Cohen, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University, has compiled lots of research by other academics on the question of how many people the earth can support. Most estimates were in the range of one to sixteen billion. What would those different populations mean? The Worldwatch Institute has estimated that we could sustain a global population of 2.1 billion with a “high income” of $36,000 per capita (lower than the US average), or a population of 13.6 billion with a “low income” of $1,230 per capita. It’s worth reflecting on the changes we’d need in the British economy to enable 13.6 billion people to live on an income that is only 5% of a current UK living wage.
Our global population may well peak within this century, rising to 10 billion. If this happens we would each have an allowance of less than a tonne of carbon dioxide. This figure comes from unpublished work done while I was working at BioRegional. As with much of the detail on climate change it is subject to a huge degree of uncertainty – some would say it’s overly pessimistic, others think we should already have negative carbon footprints (i.e. we should be zero carbon and start taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere).
Let’s assume your allowance is in fact under one tonne, as per that work undertaken by colleagues at BioRegional. Let’s also assume that we make big strides towards a renewable electricity grid, and our technology improves as much as we might reasonably expect over the next fifty years. Well that one tonne isn’t even enough to cover the greenhouse gases required for your share of our country’s basic infrastructure – that is, if we divide up the resources needed to run our hospitals, schools and trains, and to build our roads, homes and council offices between everyone so we carry an equal share. It certainly doesn’t leave you with any of your allowance for heating your home and taking the occasional holiday to Cornwall by train. Read this study of London’s footprint to see what I mean. Sustainable lifestyles with a global population of 10 billion, without some incredible new technology, would be hugely challenging and materially impoverished.
If the population stabilised at 5 billion, our allowance would rise to around two tonnes, making it conceivable that with improved technology we could take that one annual British holiday – still materially far poorer than the average Briton today. In terms of other ecological impacts, the consumption of other natural resources would most likely leave almost no space for wildlife and wilderness.
It’s also relevant to know when the population stabilises. If it were to stabilise tomorrow, then fall consistently for the rest of the decade, that suggests a far smaller release of greenhouse gases and a far smaller consumption of natural resources in the 21st century than a population stabilising in 2050 and remaining high to the end of the century.
Now, it is a big step to go from recognising that population is relevant to then advocating population reduction policies. But we have to face up to two truths: first, that the larger the population, the greater the challenge our technology and politics must overcome; and second, that at some point, without radically new technology, a human population surpasses the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet.
Is migration relevant to this?
The problem for the authors of the first letter (showing concern about migration) is that it clearly shouldn’t concern us whether somebody lives in the UK or Romania when tackling global environmental problems.
If they have the same lifestyle, it makes no difference to the atmosphere where their carbon emissions arise (and indeed much of our impact arises from global supply chains anyway).
It’s possible that migrants move from less affluent countries to the UK, and become more affluent than they would otherwise have been. So their environmental impact rises, making the task of “protecting our environment” more difficult. But I believe it is unjust to move to an ecologically sustainable economy through nationalistic discrimination. We shouldn’t say “you can’t come and enjoy our lifestyles”. We have to find an equitable way for us all to enjoy a decent quality of life within the planet’s constraints. The Green Party’s longstanding commitment to the principle of contraction and convergence would be undermined if we sought to protect our own affluence and suppress that of others.
Does population matter at the local level?
I’m going to take Greater London as my “local” scale, only because it’s a region I’m knowledgeable about, I live here, have been involved in politics in the city and have suffered the effects of our dysfunctional housing market. It’s also an interesting case study because the population is in the midst of an unprecedented boom.
If we were to assume high net international migration – lots of people moving from abroad into London – this does present dilemmas. I will explore one local environmental dilemma – the impact of housing on other species’ habitats – though there are many others such as waste, water and air pollution. I’m not going to explore the impact of population on social policy, such as the provision of health care and housing.
I wrote in a previous blog post about the role of migration in London’s housing market in order to debunk the idea that London is sucking people from the rest of the UK. It isn’t. But international migration has been a major contributor to the city’s rapid growth in the past decade. This chart shows that two factors are pushing up our population: more people move from overseas into London than the other way around; and many more “new households” are formed (births, divorces, etc.) than are dissolved (deaths, moving in together, etc.). It also shows that many more people move out from London to the rest of the UK than the other way around – Londoners are fleeing the capital!
One stark conclusion I drew in my previous blog post is that, if the population keeps rising like this, we simply have to build more homes. Read the post if you don’t believe me.
Now, the last assessment of land to build homes on carried out in 2009, looking in all of Greater London’s nooks and crannies for brownfield land, allowing a tiny bit of development on greenfield land and assuming optimal urban densities, only found space for around 37,000 homes per year at a stretch. But the Green Party on the Assembly has already found that these assessments don’t take proper account of the habitats on brownfield land, which can be among the most biodiverse sites in the city. Green roofs and walls are nice, but they cannot compensate for the loss of all habitats for all species. So building 37,000 homes a year will already have a negative impact on our local environment.
The Mayor of London now estimates that we need an extra 40,000 homes to be built every year to keep up with the growing population. Our failure to get anywhere near this in the past decade has led to rising overcrowding. Darren Johnson has dug out estimates that we would need to build 44,500 a year if supply was our only way to stabilise prices. So if we want to build another 7,500 a year on top of the 37,000 we might have space for where will they all go? We can either build at higher densities, or we can encroach further on other species’ habitats, including greenfield sites.
So it may be uncomfortable, but the fact is that migration matters when it comes to protecting our local environment. If we had zero net migration, or if we had a lower birth rate, it would be much easier to accommodate ourselves with the rest of the natural world in Greater London.
However, as with global migration, we have to consider justice when deciding what we do with this fact. Do we restrict entry to the UK to protect our local environment? Or do we open our borders completely and accommodate whoever chooses to live here?
We also need to think beyond our local boundaries. To take Romania as an example, being topical because the rules restricting migration to the UK are about to be relaxed, what habitat impacts in Romania are avoided when people move from Pitești to London? Might it be easier to develop an ecologically sustainable economy with a growing population in Pitești than in London? Or is the reverse true? Perhaps it would be better if people move to London, a compact city with falling car usage, or perhaps it would be better if migrants from all corners of the world settled in parts of the UK with large quantities of empty housing? These questions go far beyond my expertise of Romania or any other country, but they shouldn’t be forgotten!
Population matters, but migration doesn’t (much)
My own take on this, going by the facts and the Green Party’s guiding principles, is as follows: population definitely matters, at both a global and local level. Some may want to dismiss this as “outdated 70s environmentalism”, but I have arrived at this conclusion after working with the latest understanding of ecological and carbon footprinting. There is nothing racist or xenophobic about it. Higher global populations make an ecologically sustainable global society much more difficult, and past a certain point impossible.
But migration shouldn’t really be a major environmental concern at a global level because it probably makes a negligible difference. Insofar as migration increases affluence, this is not a just reason to oppose migration.
At a local level, environmental pressures shouldn’t be so great a concern that, taken alone, they wholly validate the public’s concerns about migration. Pressures on habitats, and perhaps on water, waste management and pollution, are major considerations that we cannot simply dismiss. But if I am honest, at this point I have exhausted my expertise. I instinctively feel that we should be able to accommodate the free movement of labour within a more equal Europe, and to reconcile mass migration with any resulting local environmental pressures. But I am not certain that this is possible, nor am I confident about how to balance these competing demands on public policy.
Finally, this is just my view on one aspect of wide and complicated debates. I’d encourage you to read and think about this subject more, and discuss it. For example, here is an interesting article suggesting that liberal migration policies help people affected by climate change to adapt. Here’s another by Violeta Vajda reminding us that immigration is about human experiences as well as bare facts. I think it’s a shame that the tone of debates such as this can quickly turn nasty, with people seeking to shut down debate and insult each other rather than to seek understanding and consensus.
Hi Tom, thanks for a thoughtful and interesting post. Last time I tried to comment here, it didn’t work for some reason, so I’m just going to test this before I comment at greater length.
OK, cool, that seemed to work…
Well, there are a few interesting things here. First, I hadn’t seen your previous post on housing and London, and think it’s worth saying that I think you are right and that the party is sometimes on the wrong side of that.
The second thing is that I think you are right about immigration. One thing that frustrates me is when people talk about how densely populated we are. Britain is quite densely populated. But not as much as India, or Bangladesh, from where many of our immigrants come, and Pakistan is roughly the same level of density to us. I also think your point about biodiversity is really important. We should care about density, I think, for two reasons – the local environment, and quality of life. In the former, how dense it is now isn’t the only question – there is a good case for people clustering. On quality of life, it is hard to argue that density is the only factor.
Finally, on global population, I won’t dispute your basic figures. However, I think there are a few things to add.
First, I think that, were population to lower with our current economic system, it would quickly rise to similar levels of consumption – that’s what endless growth in material throughput requires. Second, it is important to recognise that we live in a world in which there are vast inequalities. You say that 1 tonne of CO2 would be sustainable per capita in a world with 10 billion. In the country with the highest birth rate, Mali, the per capita emissions are significantly lower than that.
But none of that is really the point, because none of that is an argument against highlighting this, it’s just an argument that it’s not the top priority, and that’s never a reason not to talk about something.
But I also do think there is another factor we need to think about – the effect that us highlighting one thing vs another has on debate, and on the likelihood of securing change. And this is where discussion of population concerns me. Given that the way in which we influence the world is primarily through what we say (we aren’t in government), we have to believe that this matters, if only a little.
Out of consumption and population, there is an important question – who is it that is seen as resonsible for each one. The answer is obvious: the vast majority of consumption is done by white people in Europe, America and Australasia (and some people in Gulf States). Most population increase comes from much poorer people – those who also, it happens, are suffering most from the impacts of the historic emissions which have contributed to our wealth.
If we highlight population as a factor, even if we do so alongside consumption, then we are in effect shifting blame onto those people who are suffering, and who are least to blame. There are two problems with this.
The first is that it is perpetuating a racist narritive. I chose those words carefully – I do not mean that people who say this are racist. Lots of people who talk about this are vocally anti-racist, including you, Tom. However, by teaching people in the West that environmental probems are caused by population, in a world in which almost all population increase happens in those communities least responsible for these problems and suffering most from them, they are inadvertently encouraging racist attitudes, and are blaming the victim of the problem, despite them being the least responsible.
(there is also a case that it is perpetuating a sexist narritive, common in climate activism, that it is a problem caused by things which are largely seen as the responsibility of women, when in fact the opposite is true – more on this here: http://brightgreenscotland.org/index.php/2011/11/disentangling-population-reduction-and-womens-empowerment/)
These are very real problems. Friends who work as fundraisers at Oxfam, for example, tell me that the most frequent negative comment they get from the public is that the real cause of poverty and of environmental problems is women having too many children, and so they won’t do anything about these – why should they, until these Ethiopian women stop what they are doing. Contributing to this attitude is risky.
This feeds in to my second concern. If the problem is located elsewhere, then the solution is also elsewhere. And that removes any imperritive for us to act here. And that too is very dangerous.
I hope all is well,
Thanks for the comments.
I don’t understand why you think a population of 5 billion will necessarily end up having the same impact as a population of 10 billion. Surely the economic growth imperative and population are separate? It is no more difficult to stop endless growth with a population of 5 billion than 10 billion, and it is twice as easy to level off the economy at a level of consumption that is sustainable.
Mali is an interesting example to raise. Their ecological footprint is already slightly over the sustainable and equitable limit. Are you suggesting we should all level down to the Malian economy and then some more? Or that we should stop Malians from developing?
We can’t even provide basic public services and a welfare safety net in the UK without busting our per-capita allowance in a world of ten billion people.
I’ve read pieces by people like George Monbiot and Duncan Green, but they always look backwards. Mali is growing fast but it hasn’t increased its footprint very fast, so they’re not to blame and their population growth doesn’t matter. But hang on, there are two factors in that equation, and if we want their quality of life to develop fast then their average footprint will develop fast as well. That growing population of middle class people then joins the rest of us. The environmental consequences of the growth of the middle class in the global south along industrialist lines is truly terrifying.
But I don’t think it is helpful to talk about people being responsible, or bringing blame into this discussion. I haven’t said that countries where the population is growing (including the UK, let us remember!) are to blame for high populations, nor that the citizens of rich countries are to blame for high ecological and carbon footprints. It’s unhelpful, and I think it is often raised to set-up a straw man that can obscure important arguments. The same accusations are levelled against Greens by those who want to ignore the damage that cars and factories have – that we are blaming people for trying to make ends meet and give their children a better life. Except we aren’t blaming anyone, we’re just pointing out some facts and arguing for change.
In domestic politics, Greens think we should use public policy to make sustainable lifestyles the easy option, and to discourage, penalise and even prevent unsustainable choices. I see no reason why we shouldn’t also, with sensitivity and humanity and justice, use public policy both domestically and internationally to promote women’s rights, family planning and welfare systems as well.
It isn’t either/or. It isn’t about shifting responsibility. It’s about doing everything we can to find an equitable, sustainable future for the global population.
As for what we prioritise, that is an entirely different question and gets us into a discussion about whether this theoretical transition to an ecologically benign world is even remotely likely!
Hi Tom and Adam, I’m absolutely fascinated by the discussions here and on the margins of my article, and I am learning a huge amount from all of it.
I wrote my piece on immigration from a particular individual perspective, chosen because I believe people often forge ahead with generalities without understanding how the personal is political – a feminist outlook which has the virtue of getting people to think twice about the implications of our positions on ourselves and those close to us. (And I’m really pleased to see sexist narratives named in your post, Adam.)
At the same time, I do think there is a larger issue at stake in the immigration and population debates, and one that is highlighted in what you both said and, lest we forget it, in Natalie’s original speech which sparked this discussion.
I’m talking about the scapegoating mechanism, successfully employed for many centuries by the powers of the day to deflect attention away from real problems (eg economic exploitation of the majority by the minority) and onto particular groups of people that were/are more vulnerable and ‘primed’ for scapegoating. Jewish people everywhere have been ‘fed to the lions’ for centuries when rulers felt they needed to escape the wrath of the masses.
Unfortunately, since humanity has not really successfully got its collective mind around how scapegoating operates as a general mechanism, all of us are vulnerable to allowing it to happen again and again. Hence, Muslims have also become fair game, and of course immigrants too. And I really appreciate learning a bit more about how we push the blame onto the global majority population living in non-Western countries.
I personally do think that economic inequality and greed (leading to excessive consumption) are the main culprits in our day and age, and for these to continue, artificial divisions are created between all of us (such as the local/foreign dynamic). These divisions then prevent us from organising collectively to solve major challenges such as the rise in population and the degradation of the environment.
I’d love us to think together about how to move forward the discussion on this within the Green Party.
With much respect and good wishes
I’m not sure how shifting the blame to countries with low industrialisation and high birth rates contributes to a racist narrative?
In the developing world there are lots of different races. We in the west live in a multi-racial society. In fact white people are in the minority in the western world. http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2000/sep/03/race.world
Racism is prejudging people based on the colour of their skin, that all people who are white, for example, behave in the same way. But high consuming countries and high birth rate countries do not belong to one racial group
You cannot ignore population, you cannot ignore consumption, as the carbon emissions by country clearly show:
Who’s at the top? – China -high population with mid level consumption and United States, high consumption, medium population.
Also, in the top emissions per capita list appear a whole mixture of countries (not just countries traditionally viewed as western)
Personally I’m much more interested in the 3rd item in your population x consumption x technology equation. We have technology to green the grid – now, ready, also the technology to reduce the impact of heating our homes by 90% through energy efficiency. It’s all there it’s ready to go – we need policies and political change to make these technologies economically viable.
Whoops wrong second link – here it is by capita: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_carbon_dioxide_emissions_per_capita
Thanks for the replies all.
I think, Tom, that your example kind of makes my point for itself when you say:
“The same accusations are levelled against Greens by those who want to ignore the damage that cars and factories have – that we are blaming people for trying to make ends meet and give their children a better life. Except we aren’t blaming anyone, we’re just pointing out some facts and arguing for change.”
You are quite right that you are careful not to talk about anyone being to blame. But that’s not necessarily the message people hear. People are very quick to take complex policy messages and turn them into simple morality lessons in which the finger of blame is pointed at someone. And so when we talk about things, it’s also very important to understand not just what we say and the policy content of it, but what will be heard, and the real world implications of that. And, as members of a small political party, the latter is more likely to be important than the former.
In the Guardian blog I wrote today, for example, a number of the comments below are basically saying ‘well, the problem is people in poor countries having too many children’. That’s the context we live in, and it’s the most common response I hear to both global environmental problems and to global poverty. If, in that context, you encourage those people, then you are contributing to a process which shifts blame, even if you don’t do so yourself.
Which, Rachel, I think is an answer to your comment to.
Also, another little thing. Either you want women to have fewer children, or you want to allow them to choose how many children they have. If you want the former, then can we please stop calling it the latter. As it happens, women do usually choose to have fewer children when given the choice, but if you pre-define the outcome of a choice, it’s not abot rights or empowerment, it’s about telling women what to do in a different way.
An excellent article that argues based on evidence rather than assumptions.
I think the Green Party’s problem is that it’s trying to distance itself from being simply an “environmental issues party” and instead to position itself broadly on the left, considering how right-wing Labour is becoming.
Given that labour mobility is a question of freedom and a way of redressing injustices in international development on the back of decades or centuries of colonialism and imperialism, it’s a left-wing position to defend and promote it.
This then finds Green Party members who joined the party thinking it’s about saving badgers and promoting organic food at a loss.
Thanks for the kind feedback, but I’m not sure how many members joined to save the badgers!
I do think it would be a huge mistake for the party to try and position itself simply as a broadly left-wing alternative to Labour. We should consider labour mobility in ecological terms. If there really were good reasons to think that uncontrolled migration would cause terrible damage to the rest of the natural world, or to social cohesion, or to some other important goal, then we ought to take that into account. Just putting the aim of “redressing social injustice” on a pedestal above all others makes us little more than a traditional socialist party.
I think Natalie Bennett, for example, is trying to explain that our ecological position has always included strong policies on issues such as rail renationalisation and migration. I don’t think she, or Caroline Lucas, or any other past principal speakers, were trying to move from “being simply an environmental issues party” (which we never were) to just being “broadly on the left”.
I wrote the letter in the Guardian which kicked this off and it seems to have been very widely misquoted and misunderstood. My personal main objection to Natalie’s letter was her implication that no one could be concerned about immigration without being part of a “rhetoric” that leads to violent abuse of immigrants. I thought and think this is a false and dangerous link to make. The reality is that, whether you agree with them or not, a large proportion of the public are concerned about immigration for reasonable and decent reasons. Those reasons you might think wrong, but that does mean they are immoral ones, still less racist or xenophobic. I briefly gave the example of the contribution net immigration (I wish people would use that term, “net migration” can mean both net immigration and net emmigration) has on populaton growth, and referred to that as a mathematical fact. It is. This is not a concern over overall global population growth, for the obvious reason that one country’s immigrant is another’s emigrant. But total global populatoin is not the only aspect of population growth that needs addressing. We are a country that grows less than half its own food – and most of that production depends on fossil fuel inputs.. We lose agricultural land to urban development at a rate of about one English county every ten years. We are currently experiencing an annual population rise of 150,000 through net immigration and something similar through natural increase. We aren’t building houses at anything like the rate needed to house that increase, and we already have a huge shortfall in housing, declining housing standards, and inexorable rising housing in costs in real terms. Economic growth can in theory solve these problems, but that is on the never ending economic growth model which the Green Party has always stood against as unsustainable. It is becoming ever more obvious that it is unsustainable. The reality of an ever richer UK, living from its exports of high tech manufactured goods and provision of financial services to the world, by which it pays for its food and raw materials on the world markets looks every day less secure. It is in any case what we have been opposing in the Green Party from our inception. We seek localism, which means populations should be located close to land that produces their staple foods, that populations are in balance with the local food and water resources, and as far as possible with timber and other natural products. We also want to protect access to landscapes, the countryside and nature, for everyone. This is simply impossible if we see this country as a mega-city which can go on growing and spreading over its productive land for ever. We have some of the best food growing land and climate in the world. Good soils, plenty of rain, mild winters and summers free from baking drought. To throw these assets away in favour of concreting over to house, how many million, 70, 80, 100, million people, who will be dependent on imports of food from poorer soils, in drought stressed climates, will in the long run help no one. These are some the problems as I see them. There is also the practical political one. Immigration has become the football of the extremes of politics. Most regretably, the extremes now includes the GP, which has positioned itself on the left extreme on this. These extremes are shouting at each other over the heads of most people. They are not racists, but nor do they want an open doors immigration policy. The bulk of public opinion lies between the extremes, and a long way from either. On this one, we have become as irrelevant to the real national debate as the BNP. Sixty % of the British public now believe that overall recent levels of immigration have made the UK a worse place. Calling them racists, and promoting an open doors immigration policy is not going to make them start voting for us. Hating them for holding an honest opinion isn’t going to help us, them, or anyone. Anyone in the party who cannot recognise that most of these people actually have a point, then I guess they will have already abandoned any idea of succes through the democratic process, so why bother with a political party?
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