Should Climate Activists Support Limits on Immigration?

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by Ian Angus and Simon Butler
Immigrants to the developed world have frequently been blamed for unemployment, crime and other social ills. Attempts to reduce or block immigration have been justified as necessary measures to protect “our way of life” from alien influences.

Today, some environmentalists go farther, arguing that sharp cuts in immigration are needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow climate change. However sincere and well-meaning such activists may be, their arguments are wrong and dangerous, and should be rejected by the climate emergency movement.

Lifeboat ethics and anti-immigrant bigots

“Environmental” arguments for reducing immigration aren’t new. In a 1974 article, “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor,” US biologist Garrett Hardin argued that “a nation’s land has a limited capacity to support a population and as the current energy crisis has shown us, in some ways we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of our land.” Immigration, he said, was “speeding up the destruction of the environment of the rich countries.”[1]

Elsewhere he wrote: “Overpopulation can be avoided only if borders are secure; otherwise poor and overpopulated nations will export their excess to richer and less populated nations.”[2]

Hardin’s ideas have been very influential in the development of the right-wing, anti-immigration movement in the US and elsewhere. In 1979, he helped to found the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an anti-immigrant lobbying group that has been named a “hate organization” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.[3] In addition to the usual array of anti-immigrant arguments FAIR has made a particular point of linking concerns about the environment with opposition to immigration.

Virginia Abernethy, a Hardin collaborator who calls herself an “ethnic separatist,” argues that the ability to migrate to rich countries gives people in poor countries an incentive to have bigger families. “The U.S. would help, not harm, by encouraging an appreciation of limits sooner rather than later. A relatively-closed U.S. border would create most vividly an image of limits and be an incentive to restrict family size.”[4]

Shifting gears

In the past, the “environmental” anti-immigration argument was: immigrants should be kept out because their way of life is a threat to our environment. That argument is still made by anti-immigrant groups and some conservationists.

Recently, as concern about greenhouse gas emissions and global warming increased, the anti-immigrant argument has taken on a new form. Now the argument is: immigrants should be kept out because our way of life is a threat to the world’s environment.

That’s the argument made in a recent briefing from the US Centre for Immigration Studies, a “think tank” founded by FAIR: it says that immigration worsens CO2 emissions “because it transfers population from lower-polluting parts of the world to the United States, which is a higher polluting country.” CIS calculated that the “average immigrant” to the US contributed four times more CO2 than in their country of origin.[5]

Otis Graham, a founder of FAIR, made the same argument in his 2004 book Unguarded Gates:

“Most immigrants … move from poor societies to richer ones, intending to do what they almost always succeed in doing, take on a higher standard of living that carries a larger ecological footprint. This being the case, the logic of the relationship is straightforward. Population growth in both poor and wealthy societies, but especially in the latter, intensifies environmental problems. Where immigration shifts population numbers to wealthier societies, it does not leave global environmental damage the same, but intensifies global as well as local environmental degradation.”[6]

A recent FAIR report claims that increased population is the primary cause of the huge increase in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions between 1973 and 2007 – and that the population increase was caused by immigration. “The United States will not be able to achieve any meaningful reductions in CO2 emissions without serious economic and social consequences for American citizens unless immigration is sharply curtailed.”[7]

The racist British National Party, which likes to call itself the “true green party” because it opposes immigration, also uses this argument. BNP leader Nick Griffin recently told the European parliament that climate change isn’t real – but that hasn’t stopped him saying immigrants will make it worse. He told author Steven Faris that by accepting immigrants from the third world, “We’re massively increasing their impact of carbon release into the world’s atmosphere. There’s no doubt about it, the western way of life is not sustainable. So what on Earth is the point of turning more people into westerners?”[8]

(It is significant that none of these supposed defenders of the environment take their argument to its logical conclusion: if immigration to the North is bad for the climate then emigration to poor countries with low emissions must be good and should be encouraged.)

Greens versus immigration

For anti-immigration bigots, concern for the environment is just a ploy – they’ll say anything to justify keeping immigrants out. It’s an example of what author and feminist activist Betsy Hartmann has called “the greening of hate — blaming environmental degradation on poor populations of color.”[9]

But it is particularly disturbing to witness the promotion of similar arguments in the mainstream media, and by environmental activists whose political views are otherwise hostile to those of FAIR and the BNP.

For example, Ross Gittins, economics editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, said in 2008 that cutting Australia’s immigration was “one of the quickest and easiest ways to reduce the growth in our emissions” because “it’s a safe bet they’d be emitting more in prosperous Australia than they were before.”[10]

Australian renewable energy expert Mark Diesendorf has urged the Australian Greens to call for immigration restrictions because Australia is such a big polluter. “Australia is world’s biggest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases. So every additional Australian has a bigger impact than anywhere else.”[11]

Even the highly respected U.S. environmentalist Bill McKibben has written that, “the immigration-limiters … have a reasonable point,” because “If you’re worried about shredding the global environment, the prospect of twice as many world-champion super-consumer Americans has got to worry you.”[12]

Noted environmentalist and journalist Tim Flannery made a similar argument during a debate on immigration policy broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in September 2009:

“Growing Australia’s population has a much greater impact than growing the population of a poor country. We are the heaviest carbon users in the world, about 23 tonnes per capita, so people that come to this country from anywhere on the planet will result almost certainly in an increase carbon emissions ….”

As these examples show, “green” arguments against immigration are no longer the exclusive property of anti-immigrant bigots. They are increasingly heard within the climate movement, and so require strong answers from climate activists.

Wrong Diagnosis, Wrong Cure

The view that stopping immigration to wealthy countries is a good way to fight global warming rests on a the simplistic idea that because immigrants come from countries with low per capita emissions to countries with high per capita emissions they supposedly increase total emissions simply by moving.

This argument is false on its face.

To calculate “per capita emissions,” we simply divide a country’s total greenhouse gas emissions by its total population. This provides a useful baseline for comparing countries of different sizes – but it tells us nothing at all about the emissions that can actually be attributed to individuals.

In fact, most emissions are caused by industrial and other processes over which individuals have no control.

In Canada, for example, no change in the number of immigrants will have any effect on the oil extraction industry at the Alberta Tar Sands, described by George Monbiot as “the world’s biggest single industrial source of carbon emissions.”[13]

Reducing immigration to the United States will have no effect whatsoever on the massive military spending – up 50% in the past decade – which ensures that the Pentagon is the world’s biggest consumer of oil.[14] To put that in context: a study published in March 2008 found that the CO2 emissions caused directly by the Iraq war until then were equivalent to putting 25 million more cars on the road in the U.S.[15]

Closing Australia’s borders would have had no effect on the climate denial policies of the previous Liberal Party government, or on the current Labor government’s determination to continue Australia’s role as “the world’s largest ‘coal mule.'”[16]

As US immigrant rights campaigner Patricia Huang has pointed out, “the relationship between population growth and environmental destruction is shaped by how we use our resources, not by the number of people who use them.”[17]

Labeling migrants as a climate change problem is not only unjust, but it obscures the real challenges the climate movement faces. The decisive question we must address is who makes decisions about resource use in society. In capitalist society, the big financial institutions, multinational corporations and fossil-fuel companies wield this power with devastating results for the planet’s ecosystems – and governments do their bidding.

Focusing on immigration diverts attention from the real social and economic causes of global warming, and makes it more difficult to solve them. This approach mistakenly links the trends of population and ecological harm, and so misdiagnoses the root causes of the current environmental crisis. It leaves social change out of the equation or consigns it to the far future. It downplays or ignores the fact that immigration would have a very different impact in the zero-emissions economy we need to fight for.

A pessimistic outlook

As we’ve seen, the argument that reducing immigration will protect the environment originated with right-wing, anti-immigrant bigots. Our major concern, however, is that virtually identical arguments have been adopted by progressive activists and writers who are sincerely concerned about global warming.

Despite their sincerity, their arguments betray regrettable pessimism about our common ability to build a climate emergency movement that is powerful enough to win the anti-emissions fight. As Larry Lohmann of Cornerhouse writes, the anti-immigration argument “relies on the premise that changing Northern lifestyles is a lower priority, or less achievable, than preventing others from sharing them.”[18]

In fact, including “close the borders” as an anti-emissions demand tends to make their pessimistic outlook self-confirming, by making it more difficult to build a mass movement. Not only does targeting immigration divert attention from the social causes of global warming, but it divides us from our allies, while strengthening our enemies.

Sadly, some groups that favor immigration control seem oblivious to the danger of lending credibility to bigots and racists who view immigrants as a threat to “our” way of life.

For example, last year the Australian Conservation Foundation praised Labor MP Kelvin Thompson, and Sustainable Population Australia named him to its “Population Role of Honour” when he called for immigration cuts to deal with climate change. Both ignored the fact that just 10 days earlier Thomson had revealed his real motives by calling for immigration cuts “to minimize the risk that people who do not respect Australia’s laws and legal system will enter this country.”[19]

The anti-immigration response to climate change raises a huge wall between the climate movement and the most oppressed working people in the imperialist countries. How can we possibly win migrants and refugees to the climate movement while simultaneously accusing them of responsibility for rising emissions and asking the government to bar them and their families from entering the country?

What’s more, it undermines efforts to work with the growing and important climate justice movement in the Third World, where global warming is now producing its first and most devastating effects. How can we expect to be taken seriously as allies, if we tell those movements that migrants are not welcome in our countries?

The Climate Justice and Migration Working Group, an international coalition of human rights and immigrant rights groups, estimates that between 25 and 50 million people have already been displaced by environmental change, and that could rise to 150 million by 2050. It calls for recognition of the right of human mobility across borders as an essential response to the climate change threat.[20]

The climate justice movement in the rich countries has a particular responsibility to support this demand – but blaming immigrants in general for global warming will make it more difficult to win public support for climate refugees.

Despite the good intentions of its green advocates, support for immigration controls strengthens the most regressive forces in our societies and weakens our ability to stop climate change.

It gives conservative governments and reactionary politicians an easy-out, allowing them to pose as friends of the environment by restricting immigration, while doing nothing to reduce real emissions.

It hands a weapon to climate change deniers, allowing them to portray the climate movement as hostile to the legitimate aspirations of the poorest and most oppressed people in the world.

People are not pollution. Inserting immigration into the climate change debate divides the environmental movement along race, class and gender lines, at a time when the broadest possible unity is essential. It is a dangerous diversion from the real issues, one the movement cannot afford and should not support.

Ian Angus is editor of Climate and Capitalism and co-editor of Socialist Voice. Simon Butler is a member of Australia’s Socialist Alliance and a staff writer for Green Left Weekly.


[1] Garrett Hardin. “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor.”

[2] “Garrett Hardin Quotations.” l

[3] Southern Poverty Law Center. “New SPLC Report: Nation’s Most Prominent Anti-Immigration Group has History of Hate, Extremism.”

[4] Virginia Abernethy. “The Demographic Transition Revisited: Lessons for Foreign Aid and U.S. Immigration Policy.”

[5] Leon Kolankiewicz & Steven Camarota. “Immigration to the United States and World-Wide Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Centre for Immigration Studies, August 2008.

[6] Otis L. Graham Jr. Unguarded Gates A History of America’s Immigration Crisis. Rowman & Littlefield. Lanham·MD. 2004. p. 140.

[7] FAIR. “Immigration, Energy and the Environment.”

[8] Fred Pearce. “How can Nick Griffin’s racist policies belong to the only ‘true green party’?Guardian, December 10, 2009. .

[9] Betsy Hartmann. “Conserving Racism: The Greening of Hate at Home and Abroad.”

[10] Ross Gittins. “An inconvenient truth about rising immigration.” Sydney Morning Herald, March 3, 2008.

[11] Mark Diesendorf. “Why Environmentalists must address Population as well as Technology and Consumption.” Powerpoint presentation to a meeting organised by the NSW Greens, June 2008.

[12] Bill Mckibben. “Does it make sense for environmentalists to want to limit immigration?

[13] George Monbiot. “The Urgent Threat to World Peace is … Canada.” December 1, 2009.

[14] Sara Flounders. “Pentagon’s Role in Global Catastrophe: Add Climate Havoc to War Crimes.” December 19, 2009.

[15] Ian Angus. “Global Warming and the Iraq War.”

[16] Guy Pearce. “Quarry Vision: coal, climate change and the end of the resources boom.” Quarterly Essay, March 2009. .

[17] Patricia Huang. “10 Reasons to Rethink the Immigration-Overpopulation Connection.” DiffernTakes, Spring 2009. .

[18] Larry Lohmann. “Re-imagining the Population Debate.” Corner House Briefing 28, March 2003.

[19]Emily Bourke. “Migrants may pose terrorist threat.” ABC News, August 7, 2009.

Australian Conservation Foundation. “Population boom will bust environment and quality of life.” September 22, 2009.

Sustainable Population Australia. “Kelvin Thomson Joins Population Roll Of Honour.”

[20] “Climate Justice and Migration: Position Statement.”


  • It should be noted that, while you are using Obama’s recent very un-green actions to support your reactionary anti-immigrant stance, his actions have nothing to do with immigrants or a crisis of there being too many people. They are the result of him representing and bending to the will of the influence and sway of capitalist industry. He could have announced that he was going to implement a plan to switch to solar, wind, and other renewable energy resources. But he didn’t. The system did not permit him to. The PROCESS and SYSTEM of Capital is to blame. Not immigrants and the poor.

  • Hi Glen,
    Let us know how your support for repression by the capitalist state against the poorest and most oppressed peoples turns out. Maybe in your ‘lifeboat’ you can console yourself that it is the ‘ethical’ thing to do.

  • Hi folks,

    You can say all you want about not dealing with immigration and population. But your position will help ensure that greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow.

    As I had predicted a few weeks ago with some friends, President Obama is now all for more nuclear plants, offshore oil drilling, and “clean coal”. As I’ve been telling people, meeting the needs of an ever increasing population will mean that the environment will be sacrificed for more energy, more dams to provide water, more drilling, more sprawl, more roads, destruction of agricultural lands, etc.

    Let me know how your plan works out.

  • The population bomb argument can often slip into racism and serves to distract from a look at the key cause of eco destruction: our current economic system.

    There are not huge bill boards urging me to have more kids, but there are huge bill boards and a trillion dollar spend urging me to buy more crap.

    The migration dimension is particularly noxious, well done for publishing a critique here on C and C.

  • By the way, here’s a great immigrant solidarity song by the great David Rovics. You can listen to it here:
    The clouds gather in your forests
    And drift to my desert town
    And I think of far-off places
    As the rain is coming down
    You’re bent down in the fields
    Picking fruit there from the vine
    And it ends up on my table
    As it moves on down the line

    The moon shines brightly in the night sky
    The river flows from south to north
    With the changing of the seasons
    The birds migrate back and forth
    But they say that you can’t come here
    Not in the light of day
    Somebody has got plans for you
    Starve at home or hide away

    Will we open up the borders
    Tear down the prison walls
    Declare that no one is illegal
    Watch the giant as it falls

    So much travels across these borders
    So much is bought and sold
    One way goes the gunships
    The other comes the gold
    Free trade is like a needle
    Drawing blood straight from your heart
    And the border’s like a prison
    Keeping friends apart


    Hear the stockholders cheering
    The world’s getting smaller
    Hear the drowning child crying
    “Why are the fences growing taller”
    Some whisper in the shadows
    While others count the dollars
    Some have suits and ties
    Others, chains and collars


    May the fortress walls come down
    May we meet our sisters and our brothers
    Stand arm and arm there in the daylight
    No longer fighting one another
    Will we stand together
    For therein lies our might
    Will we understand these words
    “People of the world unite”


  • Ian,

    I doubt if I’ll change my mind on population and immigration.

    But maybe we can work together on things we agree on (like almost everything on the “Belem Declaration” as long as we stay away from non-productive, antaganistic ad homenen attacks on those we disagree with on immigration.

  • Glen:

    I’m glad that you are researching ecosocialism. I hope you’ll do more. As Tim’s response shows, there is much more to the subject than a Wikipedia article and a leaflet that we wrote for distribution at last year’s World Social Forum.

    On the Climate and Capitalism site, you could click on “Articles by Topic” and scroll down to “Reviews” to get some suggestions for books. Or you could scroll to “Population” for other articles on topics related to the one we are discussing here.

    There are also links, in the right hand column, to many other ecosocialist sites.

    You’ll find a lot to read, and you;ll find that ecosocialism is not a monolithic movement — we publicly disagree with each other on many issues.

    But I am willing to bet that you will not find any ecosocialists, no matter what their views on other subjects, who think that restricting immigration is an acceptable response to climate change. As a previous commenter said, that’s not negotiable.

    I look forward to marching with you on campaigns we both support. But when it comes to immigration and population, you are marching in the wrong direction, and I hope you’ll turn around.

  • Glen,
    Ian Angus, who wrote the original article that prompted this long comment exchange was arguing against placing restrictions on immigration and is one of the authors of the Belem Declaration. Angus is one of the leading voices calling championing the cause of ecosocialism. In the article, Angus writes:
    “People are not pollution. Inserting immigration into the climate change debate divides the environmental movement along race, class and gender lines, at a time when the broadest possible unity is essential. It is a dangerous diversion from the real issues, one the movement cannot afford and should not support.”

    In fact, if one is any kind of revolutionary socialist, eco or otherwise, one stands in solidarity with their immigrant brothers and sisters and against the reactionary calls to criminalize or restrict them in any way. One also stands for full equality with them and for the immediate granting of their full rights, including rights to organize unions, go where they must to find work, and a living wage. One doesn’t do so, as Dave accuses, out of some kind of “humanitarian” impulse or a kind of “charity”, but in solidarity. This is at the core of socialist practice. Sorry you aren’t familiar with the philosophy and history of socialism. So if YOU wanted to use the socialism, you would be the one “hijacking it” and distorting it with your anti-immigrant “nonsense”. Again, to see an example of what a socialist stance on immigration looks like, I refer you to a 1910 letter Eugene Debs criticizing right wing anti-immigrant policies of some activists of his day. Debs writes:
    “Upon this vital proposition I would take my stand against the world and no specious argument of subtle and sophistical defenders of the civic federation unionism, who do not hesitate to sacrifice principle for numbers and jeopardise ultimate success for immediate gain, could move me to turn my back upon the oppressed, brutalized and despairing victims of the old world, who are lured to these shores by some faint glimmer of hope that here their crushing burdens may be lightened, and some star of promise rise in their darkened skies.

    The alleged advantages that would come to the Socialist movement because of such heartless exclusion would all be swept away a thousand times by the sacrifice of a cardinal principle of the international socialist movement, for well rnight the good faith of such a movement be questioned by intelligent workers if it placed itself upon record as barring its doors against the very races most in need of relief, and extinguishing their hope, and leaving them in dark despair at the very time their ears were first attuned to the international call and their hearts were beginning to throb responsive to the solidarity of the oppressed of all lands and all climes beneath the skies.

    In this attitude there is nothing of maudlin sentimentality, but simply a rigid adherence to the fundamental principles of the International proletarian movement. If Socialism, international, revolutionary Socialism, does not stand staunchly, unflinchingly, and uncompromisingly for the working class and for the exploited and oppressed masses of all lands, then it stands for none and its claim is a false pretense and its profession a delusion and a snare.

    Let those desert us who will because we refuse to shut the international door in the faces of their own brethren; we will be none the weaker but all the stronger for their going, for they evidently have no clear conception of the international solidarity, are wholly lacking in the revolutionary spirit, and have no proper place in the Socialist movement while they entertain such aristocratic notions of their own assumed superiority.

    Let us stand squarely on our revolutionary, working class principles and make our fight openly and uncompromisingly against all our enemies, adopting no cowardly tactics and holding out no false hopes, and our movement will then inspire the faith, arouse the spirit, and develop the fibre that will prevail against the world.

    Yours without compromise,

    Eugene V. Debs.”
    The whole letter is here:

  • Tim and others,

    You have motivated me to take the time to google ecosocialism and read wikepedia and information on the Ecosocialism International Network Link that was posted on this website.

    I think that a few of you have tried to hijack the ecosocialsm concept for your own open borders agenda, which is inconsistent with the ecosocialism platform. Below is information from the Blenem Ecosocialist Declaration. Nowhere does it talk about the open borders, pro-immigration nonsense that you have espoused during this discusssion. In addition, the position that you have espoused is so much more extreme then the Belem declaration that you are marginalized in the discussion of climate change and immigration.

    Ecosocialism proposes radical transformations in:

    the energy system, by replacing carbon-based fuels and biofuels with clean sources of power under community control: wind, geothermal, wave, and above all, solar power.

    the transportation system, by drastically reducing the use of private trucks and cars, replacing them with free and efficient public transportation;

    present patterns of production, consumption, and building, which are based on waste, inbuilt obsolescence, competition and pollution, by producing only sustainable and recyclable goods and developing green architecture;

    food production and distribution, by defending local food sovereignty as far as this is possible, eliminating polluting industrial agribusinesses, creating sustainable agro-ecosystems and working actively to renew soil fertility.

    To theorize and to work toward realizing the goal of green socialism does not mean that we should not also fight for concrete and urgent reforms right now. Without any illusions about “clean capitalism,” we must work to impose on the powers that be – governments, corporations, international institutions – some elementary but essential immediate changes:

    drastic and enforceable reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases,

    development of clean energy sources,

    provision of an extensive free public transportation system,

    progressive replacement of trucks by trains,

    creation of pollution clean-up programs,

    elimination of nuclear energy, and war spending.

  • Glen, like Ian, I respect your and Dave’s work and desire to call attention to eco-crises and the role of rampant growth. But I profoundly disagree with some aspects of your approach and your playing the victim here isn’t very convincing. Go re-read what I (and Jeff White for that matter) actually posted. A few of my main points re-capped:

    1. Liberal (i.e. ‘progressive’) and Right wing green politics are dead ends because they are blind to the reality of class and they fail to acknowledge the roots of ecological degradation in the workings of the capitalism system. They lead to reformism and top down ‘solutions’ that will either be not truly ecologically sustainable, not in the interest of the vast majority of people, or most likely both.

    2. The only way to wrest meaningful and desirable reforms (ones that are both ecologically sustainable AND in the interest of all human beings) and ultimately do away with the capitalist system is for an international movement of workers and the oppressed to gain power. This requires solidarity across borders and opposition to using state power or any other means to exclude our brothers and sisters.

    3. No matter how ‘progressive’ one may be on other questions, a call for restrictions to immigration (which inevitably would have to involve criminalization of the most vulnerable, state roundups of so-called ‘illegals’, militarization of the border, etc) is reactionary. Like racism, sexism, and homophobia, nativism and nationalism divide the working class, whose unity is necessary for the kind of international movement that is required to challenge the eco-destructive perogatives of capital in a humane, sustainable, and democratic way. Eco-socialists cannot be too uncompromising in their opposition to anti-immigrant politics and calls to restrict the movement of working class people across borders. And neither can they be too harsh in their denunciations of them.

    Currently, ecological degradation, waste, AND social injustice (such as hunger and imperial war, f.e.) are caused by a system which is based around production for profit and separation of the vast majority of people from control of the means of production and subsistence. They are not due to there being too many people. That’s why I’m an eco-SOCIALIST not a ‘progressive’ or a liberal. That’s why green politics must be red and red politics must be green. That’s why ecological struggles and struggles for workers and immigrants rights are ultimately one.

  • Ian,

    I appreciate your thoughts.

    There has been a tendancy by some to label and viciously attack anyone who is for immigration reduction as (take your pick) xenophobic, hate-filled, right wing, extremist, bigoted, racist, yada, yada.

    But as you just noted, many progressives(ncluding myself) including McKibben, Diesendorf, Gardner, Flannery, Dick Lamm, believe that mass immigration hurts the environment and really doesn’t help the billions of poor in the world.

    We do agree on many things including the need to reduce consumption, readress free trade (CAFTA/NAFTA, etc), stopping US imperialism, using less resources, protecting the environment, etc..

    I would suggest that these ad homenen attacks on progressive immigration reductionists are very counter productive to efforts to address any of these issues. It quickly puts up barriers between people who might disagree on immigration but might agree and work together on other issues.

    In addition, the terms racist, bigot, xenophobe, etc. have lost meaning because so many people who obviously aren’t racists are labeled that way along with others who really are.

    So, if “eco-socialists” want to enlist any help in reducing the powers of corporations, readdressing the negative aspects of capitalism and free trade, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, etc. or attaining other goals, it would be wise to work with other progressives, instead of attacking and labeling them.

  • I don’t know if Dave Gardner is still reading these comments. I hope so, because I want to say that I don’t think he is racist, elitist or reactionary. I suspect that his views on most subjects are somewhat to the left side of the American political spectrum. I agree with much of what he has written about the devastating effects of so-called growth on the environment, and I know that he agrees with at least some of what I’ve said on the subject, because he once asked for a clip of me speaking, for inclusion in his film.

    Simon Butler and I wrote the article that triggered this discussion not as a critique of the right-wing anti-immigrant movement, but in response to a disturbing trend we’ve noticed in the environmental movement in several wealthy countries. We wrote:

    “For anti-immigration bigots, concern for the environment is just a ploy – they’ll say anything to justify keeping immigrants out… But it is particularly disturbing to witness the promotion of similar arguments in the mainstream media, and by environmental activists whose political views are otherwise hostile to those of FAIR and the BNP.”

    To illustrate our concern, we quoted Mark Diesendorf, Bill McKibben, and Tim Flannery. None of them could be described as bigots, but a wrong explanation of the environmental crisis has led them to political conclusions that contradict their otherwise progressive views.

    Uncontrolled growth is the inevitable result of an economic system that cannot function without generating constantly increasing short-term profits – even at the cost of making the world uninhabitable.

    Diesendorf, McKibben, and Flannery (and Dave Gardner) are harshly critical of unrestricted growth, but they stop there: they don’t examine its social and economic roots. That leaves them with explanations based on biology (too many people) and psychology (greedy human nature) – in short, with the view that people are the problem.

    Unlike most populationists, Dave has focused his attacks on hypergrowth in the richest countries, not on the birthrates of the poorest. That’s to his credit. But because he believes the economy is driven by people as consumers, rather than by an irrational system of production, his ultimate solution is to reduce the number of consumers. Wrong diagnosis, wrong cure.

    In the course of this discussion, Glen Colton objected that “your concept of ‘climate justice’ is more important to you than taking real action to reduce climate change.”

    “More important?” No – inseparable. Ecosocialists support every practical measure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But we are convinced that that environmental restoration and social justice are inextricably linked. In the long run, the only way to save the earth is to replace the existing social and economic order with one that is committed to justice for all. All of our actions today must be guided by that goal – and that excludes building fences to keep out this system’s victims.

  • Dave Gardner likes to pretend he’s interested in having a discussion, whereas he shows no evidence of wanting anything of the sort.

    I read his screed, gave it some thought, and responded to it directly and in detail. I even posed some questions for him to answer in order to clarify the issues. Gardner chooses to ignore all questions or even to try to defend his positions.

    Can’t say I blame him, actually.

  • Just a quick list of a few of the labels, derisions and baseless assumptions, and unproductive sarcastic remarks from earlier comments that do not further the discussion:

    economic nationalism
    disgusting anti-immigrant clap trap
    “gated community” mentality

    it’s only the Asians, Latinos, and Africans (the ones with the small ecological footprints) who have to be excluded – for the good of the human race, dont’cha know?

    how about forcibly sterilizing the people who are already here?

    reactionary positions on the issue of immigration

    My words from here on:

    I would be insulted if you weren’t so far off the mark, so far from the truth, in your assumptions. If you only knew.

    I’m done here. Will spend my time with those interested in respectful, intelligent discourse and discovery.

    Not a troll.

  • Dave, I have seen no name calling. I’m just trying to classify what your politics are because anyone who would advocate such reactionary positions on the issue of immigration is definitely not any kind of socialist. It’s just not negociable.
    And here in the US we have nothing even close to open borders. We have a militarized, repressive, and murderous border regime. See: . The ruling class wants to be able to control the border like a faucet, letting cheap rights-less migrants in when it desires them and shutting down the flow when it doesn’t. But most importantly, it wants immigrants to be without rights and virtually helpless. And pitting native born workers against immigrants is to their benefit as well. A socialist knows who their allies and enemies are. Their alllies are workers and the oppressed all over the world, not national capitalist states and the local bourgeoisie. We understand that we’re ultimately divided by and should organize as an international class. That’s why the old socialist slogan is ‘workers of the world unite’ and not ‘nationalists of the world divide’.
    Racism and nationalism are not solutions. They’re two of the biggest barriers to the kind of world ecosocialists want to build.

  • Well I do refuse to engage in name-calling, so I guess I don’t belong in the tim and jeff club. I’m going to keep looking at ecosocialsm, however, as I suspect tim and jeff may not best represent the movement.

  • David says:
    “I’d love to see your plan for achieving social justice, ending poverty, AND achieving a sustainable equilibrium on the planet that doesn’t liquidate the resources future generations will need.”

    Well David I’m glad that you admit that you don’t believe social justice or ending poverty are possible. And Jeff is correct. With your economic nationalism and reactionary anti-immigrant views, you are most definitely NOT a socialist of any kind. Maybe an eco-Stalinist. But not an ecosocialist.

    By the way, to any one who might want to take a look, a great article on this subject from an actual green socialist perspective was published
    in a recent International Socialist Review. It’s here:

  • Wow, Jeff. You appear to believe there are endless resources. It is not fair that some of us got to plunder the planet, and some cannot. But the Earth cannot support billions of automobiles driving the freeways or billions of families sitting in 4,000 square-foot houses watching big-screen TVs with the air-conditioning on high. It just can’t.

    Now, we need to change our ways in the richest nations. We need to make major changes and make them quickly. It is hard enough today to do that. We don’t need to convert more of the world’s population to superconsumers first, and THEN try to correct course. Are you familiar with the work of the Global Footprint Network? Do you know how many people the Earth can sustainably support at various levels of affluence? We need to be shrinking the footprint of the superconsumers, not expanding it.

    While it’s tempting to answer you point by point, I think it’s pretty clear you are not interested in thinking this through. You have your mind made up. Mine is, too, but I spent 6 years of research to make up my mind. I have no idea what research, logic or emotional path brought you here. But I admit it’s hard for me to imagine that facts got you here.

    You are quick to attach derogatory labels to the commenters in this thread. Quick to make assumptions about their motives. I don’t believe I’ve disparaged you in my comments, nor have others who’ve tried to make similar points. I think that’s an embarassment to the cause you claim to represent. But maybe that’s just me.

    I’d love to see your plan for achieving social justice, ending poverty, AND achieving a sustainable equilibrium on the planet that doesn’t liquidate the resources future generations will need.

  • Jeff,

    I’m not exactly sure what an “eco-socialist” is, but based on your comments, I don’t think you care about the environment or ecology at all. I guess that just makes you a good old socialist.

    By the way, I’m against so-called “free trade” and CAFTA/NAFTA, and also don’t see how allowing the free movement of people helps save the environment or reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It’s been good having this conversation with you. I learn more all the time…..

  • Dave Gardner’s words appear in bold below:

    1. If you really want what is best over the long haul for the people in the poorest nations, is stealing their most ambitious workers to grow the U.S. economy really the answer?

    Your bizarre suggestion that allowing immigration is tantamount to “stealing” ambitious workers has no support at all from other countries. Where are the “poor nations” who are begging the USA to slam the door shut on immigration? Please name some.

    If you really want the rest of the world not to hate the United States so much that they are willing to fly airplanes into your buildings, do you really want to tell them that they can’t live in your country, and pretend that keeping them out is for their own good? Especially after your country has done more than any other to make their lives miserable and turn many of them into climate refugees?

    2. If you believe the capitalist system is unsustainable, do you have a better chance of spreading eco-socialism by first importing and indoctrinating people into the capitalist system? Or might it be wise to encourage the people in other nations who want a better life to leap-frog over our capitalist experiment and build a more sustainable system in their nation, where they are working with a clean slate?

    Translation: “Now that our system of neoliberal monopoly capitalism has succeeded in plundering much of the wealth of your country and destroying your environment, we intend to hold onto that wealth and leave you to fend for yourselves, in the hope that you will find a way to fix the colossal mess we have made of the world. Go away and come back when you’ve figured out how to do that. After all, we wouldn’t want to corrupt you with our ways.”

    And “clean slate”? What does that mean? Can you name a single country that can be said to have a “clean slate”? Haiti perhaps? Nigeria? Honduras? Indonesia? France?

    3. Unfortunately we need borders in order to have accountability.

    Capitalism doesn’t respect borders – it’s become a worldwide system of “free trade” agreements where money, commodities, raw materials, and military forces move freely around the globe, to wherever there is a profit to be made, a natural resource to exploit and despoil, or a rebellious population to control.

    Accountability must be demanded first and foremost from the capitalist system. This has nothing to do with borders.

    So importing people (workers, consumers, taxpayers) feeds their growth addiction. They are asisted in this exploitative,unsustainable Ponzi scheme by well-intentioned progressives (including, apparently, eco-socialists) who want to be compassionate today to an immigrant trying to improve his or her life. But today’s compassion perpetuates the greater evil of seeking perpetual economic growth.

    If you read my previous comment directed to Glen Colton, you will see in the first paragraph how I explained that stopping immigration is not going to prevent the continuing growth and expansion of capitalism, which cares nothing for the international borders you are so eager to defend. It’s unfortunate that someone who purports to be producing a documentary on growth understands it so poorly.

    I thought I was an eco-socialist. But if membership in this club requires having a closed mind to the big picture of how to most quickly (and actually more humanely) achieve global sustainability, then I must be out.

    Trust me, you’re no ecosocialist. Ecosocialists would never adopt such a callous and brutal attitude to the majority of humanity. We want to make it possible for all the people of the world to share in the enormous wealth that has been taken from them by the international capitalist system. We do not regard them as the enemy, but as our allies in the struggle for a better world.

  • Here’s the deal:

    1. If you really want what is best over the long haul for the people in the poorest nations, is stealing their most ambitious workers to grow the U.S. economy really the answer?

    2.If you believe the capitalist system is unsustainable, do you have a better chance of spreading eco-socialism by first importing and indoctrinating people into the capitalist system? Or might it be wise to encourage the people in other nations who want a better life to leap-frog over our capitalist experiment and build a more sustainable system in their nation, where they are working with a clean slate?

    3. Unfortunately we need borders in order to have accountability. 7 billion people on the planet makes it very easy to abdicate or diffuse responsibility — whether it’s responsibility for sustainable economies or sustainable population levels. We absolutely have to get smaller groups of people to start taking responsibility for these things. Otherwise, we’re always waiting for the other guy to take responsible action first.

    Does your town or city believe it has to grow to have a “healthy” economy? Probably. Does your nation? Most likely. Some are quite open about that, others have a prosperity policy based on growth that is more covert. Whether they admit it or not, they link population growth with population growth. How do you propose we have a sustainable world as long as it’s subdivisions have unsustainable goals?

    So importing people (workers, consumers, taxpayers) feeds their growth addiction. They are asisted in this exploitative,unsustainable Ponzi scheme by well-intentioned progressives (including, apparently, eco-socialists) who want to be compassionate today to an immigrant trying to improve his or her life. But today’s compassion perpetuates the greater evil of seeking perpetual economic growth. And it retards real progress worldwide in improving the lives of billions of would-be but cannot-be migrants and delays real progress in killing the destructive, overconsuming, growth-obsessed capitalist beast.

    I thought I was an eco-socialist. But if membership in this club requires having a closed mind to the big picture of how to most quickly (and actually more humanely) achieve global sustainability, then I must be out.

    Dave Gardner
    Producing the documentary
    Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

  • Unless crypto-racist pseudo-greens refer to Immigration from outer space, immigration is irrelevant. Climate change concerns the whole planet, not just a country.

  • Well said Jeff. The climate crisis is an international systemic crisis and the resistance to that system must also be internationalist. The only thing that can wrest concessions from and ultimately destroy capitalism in the interest of human well being and ecological restoration is an international mass democratic movement from below of workers and the oppressed. This is a great example of why green politics must also be red politics. Right wing and liberal green politics are both dead ends. They lead to ineffective and elitist top down proposals and economic nationalism in which either the needs of the many are ignored or the ecological sustainability intended is a mirage. This is largely due to a lack of understanding about how capitalism operates and a blindess to the problem of class. But socialists and/or green activists who recognize that capitalism has to be challenged should really know better than to fall for this disgusting anti-immigrant clap trap. We all know how terrible the old ‘socialism in one country’ idea was. Now try ‘ecosocialism in one country’!

  • Well, I guess we just need to let everyone move here and that will take care of climate change.

  • Glen, in case you haven’t noticed, the “most rabid capitalists” don’t need to bring people to the USA in order to exploit their labour and get them to consume commodities. Capitalism is happy to go to the far corners of the world, if need be, to recruit cheap labour for their offshore operations and to peddle to the global south their Coca Cola and their Big Macs. Anyone who imagines that curbing immigration will somehow starve the capitalists of labour and markets doesn’t understand the international nature of capitalism.

    And to suggest that U.S. imperialist exploitation of “developing” countries is somehow driven by “pressure” from domestic US population growth is to display an even more profound ignorance of how capitalism operates.

    Was the pressure of population growth in Belgium in the 1880s responsible for the rapacious plunder and genocide against the Congo? Were the activities of the East India Company in the 17th century driven by population pressures in England? Of course not. Capitalism needs no excuses or external pressure to look for new markets and new resources to exploit; its drive to do so is built right into its DNA.

    So don’t pretend to be fighting capitalism or helping “poor” countries by turning your back on the vast majority of humanity at whose terrible cost the wealth of your society has been built.

  • Jeff,

    The most rabid capitalists encourage immigration to the most consumptive countries like the US and Europe because it feeds their capitalist machine. So, when you argue for more immigration you are actually supporting the capitalist machine you so despise. And, I don’t support mass immigration to the US from any country, whether a poor, third world country, or a developed country for economic and environmental reasons. The more people we add to the US and the more we grow our population/economy, the more pressure there is for our government and corporations to take the resources from other poorer countries. I don’t think that is fair to those other countries, do you?

  • Barring the door to immigration does nothing to reduce the wasteful and environmentally destructive nature of the capitalist system that rules in the “advanced” countries of the world. This is a system that is by definition unsustainable and wasteful, regardless of how low you drive the population down.

    Barring immigration is the state-level analogue of the “gated community” mentality – we’ll put up walls to keep out the world’s riff-raff so they won’t be able to move into our cities, eat our food, and pollute our air and water. We want to keep that exclusive right all for ourselves.

    Of course, if those who seek to immigrate also come from countries where the per capita ecological foootprint is high, then there’s no reason to exclude them, because it’s a zero sum. So it’s only the Asians, Latinos, and Africans (the ones with the small ecological footprints) who have to be excluded – for the good of the human race, dont’cha know?

    How stupid do you have to be not to recognize the rampant xenophobia behind this?

    Why stop at barring immigrants? If the theory is that things will be better if we forcibly keep immigrants out, why not start forcibly exiling North Americans to the global south? That would simply follow the “logic” of not letting any more people in. Think of it as “undoing” the immigration policy errors of the past! And how about forcibly sterilizing the people who are already here? That would work, too.

  • Tanya,

    Trite sayings like “no one is illegal” are not going to save the planet from global warming.

    It just shows that your concept of “climate justice” is more important to you then taking real action to reduce climate change in the very countries that have the highest rates of consumption.

    Open borders will not solve climate change, but could certainly make it worse.

  • No one is illegal.

    How will a discussion even begin to include ecosystems as living “citizen” when “we” are still attempting to exclude some people as deserving “citizens” or not?

    It is definitely the “we” that has posed problems historically. As for myself, I can’t imagine having the power or temerity … to decide borders … to decide who is illegal … who is legal.

    Indeed, I find it incredibly ironic that the very beneficiaries of colonial genocidal practices (the old settlers) are at the forefront of limiting new settlers.

    How Sad and truly has little to do with climate justice.

  • I don’t believe there is any reason to believe technology can prevent us from destroying our home and resources if we ignore the perils of economic growth and population growth. Today’s solutions usually end up being tomorrow’s problems.

  • Fair point, Dave … if our clean technologies prove to be as attractive and useful — I guess that is partly a technical problem. I wonder how far ingenuity can get around the ecological burden imposed by production (production which is in some sense justified by other than profit, though in what sense & by whom is another issue).

  • Immigration is a very odd concept. Insiders and Outsiders. Hmmmm. I suppose we should have had much stronger immigration laws regarding migrant workers / traders 500 + years ago.

    So Strange….capitalism and nationalism really IS oxymoronic. Hey, I thought everyone was all free and equal….

  • It was not “right wing, anti-immigrant bigots” that first supported reducing immigration to help the environment. It was actually all mainstream environmental organizations that supported U.S. population stabilization in the late 1960’s and into the 70’s. Back then it was generally agreed that the US had enough people (at 170 million) and our population should be stabilized to help save the environment.

    If we are to address climate change as an issue, we must address both consumption levels and population. Working on one to the exclusion of the other is shortsided and will not result in a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

    I would also ask the authors to consider how hypocritical it appears to mainstream America, and how harmful it is to efforts to convince Americans of the urgency of global climate change, to ignore the population/immigration side of the problem. In effect, climate change reduction advocates are asking, in fact demanding, that all Americans significantly change their lifestyles, quit driving cars, pay more for energy, and otherwise make what many consider, inordinate sacrifices to reduce their individual “climate footprint”. Then, when it is suggested that we don’t add more people through mass immigration to the highest consumption countries in the world , people like the authors, call people names like “right wing, xenophobic, bigots”.

    Well, in my book, that doesn’t go over very well with the majority of the people that we are trying to convince that global climate change is a dire threat to the world. And we wonder why there is such a backlash to proposals like Climate change legislation.

    So, if we, as environmentalists really want to make progress on climate change we must address the reality of both individual consumption and population in the wealthiest of countries. And this means reducing immigration to these countries and helping people in their own countries. To not address both, will result in a failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a meaningful way.

    It is time for people like the authors to quit throwing stones at immigration reductionists and work towards real solutions to global warming.

  • Mary,

    The developing nations ask for our support. And the humanitarian thing to do is to give it. I’m suggesting it be in the form of developing clean technologies, education, etc. Not in the form of exporting our dirty industries to their shores.

    And I’m suggesting, if they want our help, that we encourage them NOT to make the same mistakes we’ve made – which have landed us in the predicament we today find ourselves in. And even though we have gone down a dead-end road, we are MATERIALLY richer than those nations – significantly, even with our current economic crisis. So I think my points stand. The critical thing for all of us is that we end the era of unbridled economic growth, consumption and plunder and move the entire world in a sustainable direction as soon as possible.

    I appreciate the opportunity to clarify.

  • Unexamined assumptions do seem to be a problem with the authors. But with ‘helping them [people from poor countries] improve their own nations’ and ‘develop in a way that does not follow our pattern’, Dave Gardner seems to display a few himself. Surely how ‘they’ develop their own nations and regions is up to them? Otherwise we seem to be back in the days of the ‘white man’s burden’.
    Furthermore, Dave seems to assume that ‘we in the richer nations’ are all well-off, something belied by the ongong economic crisis. For example, basic infrastructure in the USA needs massive regeneration.

  • Should climate activists support limits on immigration? Absolutely, if their main concern is limiting greenhouse gas emissions and the threat of catastrophic global climate change.

    According to the US Department of Energy, between 1990 and 2003, U.S. per capita CO2 emissions increased 3.2 percent, while total U.S. CO2 emissions increased 20.2 percent. Why the discrepancy?

    During that same period, America’s population increased 16.1 percent. More people drove more cars, built more houses, etc. Population growth greatly increased total emissions, and it is total emissions, not per capita emissions, that quantify the full US contribution to global warming.

    There are pros and cons to increasing or decreasing immigration into the US. Policy discussions of the issue would be strengthened by more attention to the numbers, and less ad hominem attacks on people whose views one disagrees with.

    Those looking for the best up-to-date analysis of the impact of US immigration on worldwide greenhouse gas emissions should read the study by Kolankiewictz and Camarota, referenced and with a link in footnote five above.

  • I have to take exception to this. It is telling that 50% of this piece is spent passing on the author’s assumptions about the motiviations and attitudes of various groups and individuals who have advocated in some way for limited immigration. No facts, just assumptions, which have little to do with the wisdom of limiting immigration. And the assumptions are, in many cases, just wrong. But it is a waste of time to argue about the motivations, when we should be examining the merits of public policies that either encourage mass immigration or discourage mass immigration into the UK, Australia, the U.S. and Canada – the big overconsumers.

    When the authors do finally move beyond allegations of bigotry, they still get it wrong. They assume (yes, more assumptions) that a nation’s industrial production is in no way related to the number of consumers or the number of cheap workers available in that nation. There is a relationship.

    They also fail to address the pressure these overconsuming nations, hooked on growth, feel to keep feeding the beast. They import consumers/workers and now they have to provide social services and infrastructure. They believe added tax revenue is the answer to that, so they try to grow their economy and their population even more, in order to increase tax revenue. Even the military operations expand, as there are more mouths to feed and gas tanks to fill. And the cycle plays on.

    How do we stop this cycle? Yes, we absolutely must address the overconsumption, both in gross terms and on a per-capita basis. But we also must get these systems unhooked from perpetual expansion. Whether your focus is on importing cheap labor, more consumers, or more taxpayers, your nation, state or city’s prosperity strategy is unsustainable.

    And like it or not, a nation’s footprint is the product of per-capita resource intensity X population.

    While compassion may tempt one to promote open borders, there are many big-picture public policy reasons to reconsider:

    1) We cannot continue to abdicate sustainable population policy to future generations or unknown political subdivisions. Every city, state and nation needs to get unhooked from growth and discontinue economic growth policies that encourage and depend on population growth.

    2) Importing the most ambitious workers from poorer nations is exploitative. It separates them from their families and their homes, crowds them into substandard living conditions, and pays them unfairly low wages so the wealthy can get things on the cheap. It may appear humane on the surface, but over the long haul it is the least humane choice. It dooms the donor nations to develop much more slowly, because the ambitious just leave rather than improving conditions at home.

    3) It does turn them into superconsumers much more quickly. I can guarantee you they are shopping at Wal-Mart within weeks of their arrival. Instead of exploiting them to drive Wal-Mart profits and provide the labor for continued unsustainable expansion and sprawl, we should focus all our energy on helping them improve their own nations and develop in a way that does not follow our pattern.

    Yes, our pattern is wrong. Yes, we have no right to plunder the planet and prevent others from following in our footsteps. But their survival and quality of life, as much as ours, depends on everybody shifting to a new system as quickly as possible. There is a blank slate in the donor nations, and an ambitious workforce available, if we in the richer nations can get over our desire to have cheap construction, landscaping and housekeeping while calling it humanitarian.

    Dave Gardner
    Producing the documentary
    Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

  • Thanks for posting this. It’s funny how so many ideas for ‘saving the planet’ really come down to ideas for saving the privileged lifestyles of the wealthy. I’m reminded of this project for people in rich nations to encourage birth control in poor countries as a way of combating climate change. I wonder how the math works: how many less Africans for a LCD television?

  • Ian/Simon: I don’t want this to sound like a commercial, but I have a book out next month called Peoplequake which has some scary material about lifeboat ethics, eugenics and the pervasive nature of right-wing ideologies in the environmental debate on population, as well as immigration. — Fred Pearce