Bursting at the Seams

Sunday, 2nd August 2015

Europe faces an unprecedented stream of human traffic from Africa, the Middle East, Southern and Central Asia. As wars rage from Afghanistan to Yemen and Darfur while deserts expand and arable land available for each inhabitant shrinks, this crisis shows few signs of abating. The heart-wrenching scenes of refugees huddling together on makeshift rafts in the middle of the Mediterranean should concern any conscientious human being, but why would anyone go to such extreme lengths to seek economic betterment? Why did this not happen on such a large scale 20 years ago when people in the developing world were arguably even poorer?

Many economists will tell you more people mean more workers, more consumers and best of all more economic growth, all of which are supposed to be good things. Bleeding heart humanitarians will tell you we cannot turn a blind eye to the plight of millions seeking to flee war, persecution and extreme deprivation for the greener pastures of post-industrial high-consumption countries like the UK, Sweden or Australia. Meanwhile many environmentalists prefer to blame greedy corporations and past Western imperialism for the tragic scenes we see unfold before our eyes as migrants struggle to reach the more prosperous corners of Europe.

Yet few seem prepared to admit the real causes of the undeniable social and environmental problems that drive so many to abandon their home regions. Rational debate on this subject is impossible unless we can get our facts right rather than rely on the selective statistics that many powerful lobbies present us. First there are two competing justifications for more mass migration.

  1. More people boost the economy, which in turn creates more happiness and prosperity. If this were true countries like Nigeria and Pakistan would be paradises on earth rather than exporters of human traffic. But given current levels of overconsumption and waste in much of Europe and North America, do we really need to boost our economy to improve our quality of life? What matters isn’t the economy, but people’s livelihoods dependent on a sustainable work-life balance.
  2. We have an ethical duty to help other human beings in need: I find this argument a lot more appealing and can think of many circumstances where it’s absolutely right to help those less fortunate than ourselves if we can. For instance, if you have a spare room, you could let a homeless guy sleep there until he can afford his own accommodation. Would you trust this guy to respect your property and how many other homeless guys are out there? However, with the current migration crisis, we end up helping only those who choose to migrate, leaving behind everyone else who cannot afford to pay people traffickers or just prefer not to leave the devil they know best. So by helping people to emigrate, we promote mass migration as a solution rather than treat it as a symptom of systemic failure. Besides, it's sheer hypocrisy to advocate open-door immigration while living in a gated neighbourhood as many wealthy neoiliberals do. Borders are just a variant of fences and gates between properties. In an ideal world we wouldn't need any protection against intrusion, but it's human nature to envy other people's perceived wealth.

Next, many seem unclear about the extent and long-term consequences of such large movements of people. Were we faced with a limited flow of people due to a temporary natural disaster, it would be much easier just to rise to the challenge of acccommodating everyone. 

Many pro-migration charities and NGOs will endlessly recycle claims that more mass migration is just what Europe’s ageing population needs. Indeed many businesses too welcome the prospect of an influx of more malleable young workers eager to accept low wages. Meanwhile, opponents of mass migration tend to forget the culpability of our economic system that keeps diverting resources away from poorer regions to non-productive high-consumption regions. The fundamental question that many refuse to answer is why should an IT recruitment consultant from Aldershot earn much more than a sardine-canner from Agadir, especially as the latter actually produces something we need and the former just wants a slice of the someone else’s earnings. More important, why should an unemployed Moroccan get nothing, while a jobless Briton can claim generous welfare handouts? Life just ain’t fair. Another good question is if the global economy has been steadily growing for the last 20 years, why are so many young people jobless? The real answer lies a phenomenon we tend to call globalisation, with an unprecedented acceleration of technological, social and cultural change. These days few countries are remotely independent or self-sufficient. National economies have become little more than localised regions of a larger global economy. Many global corporations are more powerful than the governments of large countries.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, hundreds of millions in the developing world have moved from rural communities to sprawling conurbations. A majority of Sub-Saharan Africans now live in towns and cities, while just 20 years ago most still lived in traditional rural communities as subsistence farmers. Once a rural African has overcome the culture shock of cosmopolitan urban life in their nearest African metropolis, it only takes a small leap of faith to leave the overcrowded shanty-towns and slums of Lagos, Cairo or Mogadishu to seek refuge in a region where nearly everyone gets to enjoy the wonders of our consumer culture and the security of the modern welfare state. All large cities have ostentatious displays of material wealth. You’ll see plenty of Mercedes and iPhones in Lagos or Kinshasa, but many more street traders, beggars and sex workers. Unemployment is not an option, without a viable business or a paid job, one has to work full-time to raise funds for basic sustenance. With no land, new city dwellers have no choice but enter the financial economy. Everything from clean potable water to food, transport and lovemaking now has a price. Once people are mentally and emotionally connected via modern telecommunications technology with the wider consumer world, they suddenly feel entitled to a fair share of the action. It hardly matters if a single trademarked iPhone costs more than the annual income of many Subsaharan Africans or if Africa is being raped to meet growing global demand for raw materials required for disposable electronic goods, the mass consumer genie has well and truly popped out of the proverbial bottle. If white welfare claimants from Uppsala or Hull can afford a smartphone, a new pair of Nike sneakers and a holiday in Ibiza, why the hell should a hardworking shoeshine boy from Karachi not be entitled to the same modest luxuries? Welfare subsidies may have been won through decades of workers' struggles, but as most manufacturing and even many office jobs have been outsourced to low-wage economies, it’s hard to justify special treatment of the unemployed in countries with traditionally higher living standards, except to prevent social unrest and keep the consumer economy alive and kicking. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, everyday I would read reports of factory closures compensated only by retail expansion. In reality many traditional manual jobs have either been automated or assigned to expendable cheap labour. A flexible economy transforms workers from valued full-time employees into human mere resources who can be hired and fired or self-promoting agents whose contracts can be terminated whenever their services are no longer required. As the pace of technological change quickens, stable jobs have become very much a luxury and well-paid permanent jobs are only available to the highly qualified. Ironically the current wave of mass migration owes much more to Thatcherite business restructuring and outsourcing than it does to the social-democratic mixed economy of the 1960s when most adults of working age either had full-time jobs or were gainfully employed at home in childcare.

Many on the left believe in universalism, at least in theory, i.e. they care as much about the rights and wellbeing of your average Burundian as they do about their next-door neighbours or extended family. If we can accept, say, 1 million migrants from the Middle East and Africa, what about the 1 billion or more we cannot accommodate? Even if we spread the migratory load among other prosperous regions, we’d be hard-pushed to accommodate more than 1% of those who would potentially prefer to enjoy our living standards. Moreover, the UK’s population has increased by 6 million in since the year 2000 meaning to sustain our current lifestyle, we need to import more and more resources from the very war-torn regions that millions wish to flee. Often these resources are expropriated indirectly, e.g. A UK-based retailer imports electronic goods from China, who in turn cuts deals with kleptocratic African leaders to gain access to essential raw materials. Most of the pollution and habitat destruction created by retail therapy and wasteful lifestyles is outsourced. Conveniently, the trendy left prefers to blame greedy capitalists and selfish billionaires for all this wanton environmental destruction rather the consumers who buy this junk. Of course, if all 7 billion human beings alive today enjoyed a typical Western European lifestyle, we’d have a good deal more environmental destruction, without significantly boosting efficiency and cutting unnecessary waste, both of which would shrink the very economy that motivated and enabled such rapid technological change in the first place.

How many is too many? If we took universalism to its logical conclusion, then the European Union would merge with all other regional trading blocs to become the Global Union and everyone everywhere would not only enjoy complete freedom of movement, but also universal global welfare and a global minnum wage. Seriously, if big business is global and the wages of non-productive service workers in the UK depend on corporate profits gained by exploiting resources in other countries, why should welfare be restricted to a few nanny-state countries? In case you’re wondering, I’m not trying to write the 2020 Green Manifesto. I’m just trying to suggest that if we can barely afford a fair and equitable welfare system in one of the most financially prosperous countries in the world, any move towards a global government will inevitably spread poverty more than prosperity, unless we can ramp up global consumption at least five-fold so your average Pakistani or Ghanaian consumes as much as your average Dane. As I hope to explain soon on the Economic Growth Mantra, most of the world’s social and environmental problems are caused by our obsession with economic growth at all costs and by our inability to adapt to an unprecedented rate of technological change. While technology may help us tackle environmental constraints in the long run, but right now we are generating mountains of garbage from obsolete gadgets, toxic chemicals and sprawling road networks just so we can travel to shopping malls or office jobs.

My question to the wishful thinking left is how does accepting a few hundred thousand more refugees help address any of the underlying causes of socio-economic deprivation? More to the point, how does a growing UK economy reliant on resources from the rest of the world, help people in poorer countries? In short it doesn’t, it just grows corporate profits and increases demand for fossil fuels to ship goods over here. If we were to pay the real price of our compulsive shopping, then many goods and services would be a lot dearer.

Real green solutions to the migration crisis:

  1. Stop destabilising other countries through direct or indirect military intervention. Wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, the Balkans and Libya as well as arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan or Israel have not only fuelled internecine warfare, but have led millions to flee their home regions. Do not trust any politicians who supported recent wars on spurious humanitarian grounds and now wants us to accommodate refugees from wars they helped foment. The main downside to this approach is much lower revenue for our arms industry.
  2. Replace free trade with fair trade, i.e. only import goods and resources if their production respects a global minimum wage and meets very strict environmental protection standards. This would make many goods much more expensive, but would also remove the primary motivation to move from low-wage regions to high-wage regions. People need to be aware of the true environmental and social impacts of their carefree consumption habits.
  3. Promote greater regional self-sufficiency, by relocalising agriculture and production. Why should Kenya export mange-tout beans to the UK, while many Kenyans starve? Globalisation has led to hyper-specialisation where goods essential for basic human existence are no longer made in many countries. Hyper-specialisation creates hyper-dependence on large transnational corporations. Currently, corporate lobbyists export free trade as a model of development, but once a country relies on imports to feed its people it is subservient to international bankers. Once again, while regional diversification would bring about more sustainable development, it would be very bad for corporate profits and economic growth measured in strictly financial terms.
  4. Cut consumption in the wealthy world. Whether you like it or not, people tend to move regions where per-capita consumption is highest. We need to seriously rebalance the world economy so we pay the real price for the products we consume before we can build a more stable and sustainable future for all. In the short term, that means fewer cars in the wealthy world and a lot less waste. Your mobile phone may have to last 5 to 10 years.
  5. Responsible procreation: If you want to benefit from modern sanitation and medicine so more children survive, you cannot keep having more children than your local environment can sustain. In the past, nature would always keep population in check usually through higher infant mortality, emigration and starvation. Few regions in the world are currently able to accommodate larger populations without drastic changes to lifestyle. As a result of the demographic transition, much of Europe and Asia already has fertility rates at or below population replacement level. However, not only is the global population still destined to peak at 10-11 billion, but per capita consumption is rising much faster. It cannot escape our attention that the countries with the highest emigration rates are also those with the highest birth rates. By promoting sustainable development, i.e. where countries become more rather than less self-sufficient, we can motivate more responsible procreation. If you think that can’t be done without coercive Chinese-style one-child policies (which saw the fertility rate fall from 6 babies per woman in 1970 to just 1.66 in 2015), then just look at Italy and Bangladesh, where the birth rate has fallen from 2.4 to 1.4 (Italy) and from a staggering 7.0 to 2.2 (Bangladesh) respectively between 1970 and 2013. We need to think more in terms of the quality of our next generation than quantity. The world may have a growing elderly population, but we will not run out of young people any time soon. However, owing to greater automation of most manual labour, will they have any meaningful jobs?
  6. Easing the burden of migratory flows: If we cannot stop migration in the short-term, without imposing Draconian restrictions on travel that would adversely affect economic activity, we can at least divert as many migrants as possible to regions that have recently experienced large-scale population decline. Many areas of Eastern Europe are full of abandoned dwellings and villages with few young people of working age. This would not be long-term solution and probably not very popular in with the locals (Indeed Hungary has already refused to apply the EU rule that requires it to accommodate all migrants that claim asylum in its territory), but may in the short-term be more cost-effective than cramming more into a few economically hyperactive regions like the South East of England.
Author: 
Neil Gardner
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