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Ecological Imperialism And Immigration Restrictions

Historically, environmentalism has had to battle a temptation toward messianic totalitarianism. I'm not talking about the figurative totalitarianism that causes trust fund conservatives to hyperventilate over the idea of being forced to drive a hybrid and eat irregularly-shaped tomatoes. I mean actual totalitarianism, stomping on social justice in the name of saving us from certain destruction. (It's a temptation that isn't as present in most other progressive movements -- as much as, say, feminists and civil rights activists may at times dismiss the other's cause, the problem is that our society is all too capable of going on and on as a sexist or racist system, rather than it being that we're swiftly approaching an apocalypse.) Garrett Hardin is among the most noted offenders, proposing a "lifeboat ethics" by which environmental sustainability demands that we withhold aid to victims of famine lest we simply encourage them to keep breeding.

I'm reminded of this issue by a story (via RaceWire) about some researchers at Monash University who claim that the only way for Australia to achieve its climate goals is to close off immigration. (In my discussion, I'm relying on the above-linked news story, because I'm not paying $16 to read the whole study it's referencing.)

The basic logic of these stop-immigration-to-save-the-earth claims goes like this: Affluence involves activities and possessions that generate climate impacts. When a person moves from a less-affluent society to a more affluent one (e.g. Indonesia to Australia), even if they end up on the bottom economic rungs of their new home society, their lifestyle will be more affluent and hence more climate-impacting. Therefore we should keep them out, confining them to their low-affluence lifestyle and thereby saving the planet.

The problem here is not that (more) open borders are an important progressive value that's being trampled, nor is it (just) that it puts one more argument in the quiver of general-purpose nativists and bigots against immigrants and racial/ethnic groups that include large numbers of immigrants. The problem is that for this argument to make any sense, oppression of foreigners is a necessary mechanism. In order to reduce the amount of change we in the affluent nations have to make to ensure sustainability, we have to make sure that all the poorer countries' people stay poor. If our hypothetical immigrant were to get lucky in Indonesia and find a way to earn the money to live a lifestyle of comparable affluence to what they would have in Australia, the benefit of keeping them out would be erased. And if they found a way to enjoy a form of affluence without emitting a comparable amount of greenhouse gases, the need to keep them out -- which is premised on the difficulty of making cuts in emissions in the affluent country -- would be erased. And that's why the political conclusions are always enforcement-first -- seal the border so they don't come in and start living our lifestyle. Any more progressive response to immigration -- involving changes in international and national political and economic systems so as to take away the severe "push" factors of poverty and political-economic instability -- would undercut the environmental rationale for immigration restriction.

The environmental argument against immigration thus boils down to ecological imperialism. In the name of saving the whole world, already-oppressed people are told they must bear the biggest costs. While environmental immigration restrictions would probably be applied to all countries of origin in order to preserve an appearance of fairness, it's clear that it's poor country immigrants -- not, say, someone like me who would be getting a high-emissions Australian lifestyle in exchange for a high-emissions US lifestyle -- who are the real "problem."

Nevertheless, the particiular framing of the Monash study does highlight one important absurdity of the current climate change thinking, an assumption embedded in both the Kyoto protocol and all other proposals for international agreements I've seen that have been taken at all seriously by real decision-makers. That assumption is that carbon emissions (or climate impacts more generally) are the property of nation-states. Whatever the targets and whatever the mechanisms, the agreement is based on the idea that each nation-state has a given entitlement to emit that it must not exceed. This assumption flies under the radar as long as we can further assume that the nation-state as a territory is more or less equivalent to the set of people living in it. But the further assumption gets mixed up in the case of a high rate of immigration or emigration (or high or negative population growth).

In the case of the Monash study, their anti-immigration conclusions are driven in part by this nation-state allocation of emissions rights. The allocation system encourages each country to care only about its own domestic emissions. A pure focus on the number of tons of CO2 emitted in your own country does shift the argument somewhat. In this case, Australia could accept that their erstwhile immigrants ended up living it up -- with all the emissions that entails -- back in Indonesia, as long as their emissions are kept off of Australia's accounts. This type of legalism blunts the clearest problems of ecological imperialism as expressed in the typical environmental anti-immigration argument, but only at the price of becoming environmentally absurd.

I should note, however, that there is one narrow sense in which an environmental anti-immigration argument can make some sense: territorially fixed resources that are in adequate supply in the sender country. The best example here for Australia would be water. While greenhouse emissions affect the whole planet, people basically have to stick to drinking from their own local watersheds. Therefore it's possible to say, in a non-ecologically-imperialist way, "the watershed you want to move to doesn't have enough water for you, so you'll have to stay where you are (which does have enough water)." This is, in effect, what the Arizona is eventually going to have to start saying to all the northern snowbirds and Californians who want to move here.

However, just because it's possible for there to be a non-ecologically-imperialist invocation of territorially fixed resource scarcity doesn't mean any use of it is OK. If for example the reason the destination watershed is at capacity is because its current inhabitants live a profligate affluent lifestyle that involves water parks and artificial lakes, while the reason the source watershed has adequate water is that everyone there is too poor to use it up, then restricting migration is ecological imperialism for the same reasons as given above.


Blogger Alon Levy said...

There used to be a big faction at the Sierra Club that tried arguing that "Immigration reduction" was necessary to protect the US environment.

It's almost always an excuse, I think. It's hard to see this with carbon emissions, because those scale with wealth very well. But environmental nativism has existed since before climate change became the most salient environmental issue. The "There's no more room in America" nativists would typically talk about pollution or resources. But pollution often decreases as affluence increases: Beijing has more air pollution than Tokyo; Singapore's air and water quality has improved in the last few decades, despite rapid economic and population growth.

2:18 PM  

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