Ecological Economics and Illegal immigration

Giorgos Kallis

European Society for Ecological Economics Newsletter Winter 2012

This is a hot topic, but not because of fervent research activity. On the contrary: there isn’t any ecological-economic work on illegal immigration that I know of. It is a burning political issue though and a disaster of humanitarian proportions. Hundreds of people drown every year in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Europe.

Ecological economics has had traditionally very little to say on immigration. Unfortunately when it does say something it tends to be over-simplistic. Normally it takes implicitly the form of immigration as a variable that increases P in the IPAT equation. Since a high I is bad for the environment, well, illegal immigration must be bad too. Some go even further and take Garret Hardin´s “lifeboat ethics” literally. According to this view each nation is a lifeboat with a maximum I and hence a maximum P; unwelcome immigrants are the extra P that should stay out of the lifeboat. In fact this is what happens in Europe where kids from Africa drown without lifeboats in the middle of the sea.

And sadly, prominent ecological economists on the other side of the Atlantic let their names feature in the advisory board of the euphemistically called “Carrying Capacity Network”, an organization whose extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric would shock most members of ESEE.

Fortunately, not all ecological economists fantasize national lifeboats. Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen for one had called for the banning of borders and visas and for a right of free movement to all. This is an idea repeated by Joan Martinez-Alier on various occasions, and taken up by the 2nd International Conference for Degrowth in Barcelona in 2010. What could critical, social ecological economists offer to a better understanding of the unfolding tragedy of illegal immigration?

A first task in which research has much to offer is the dismantling of the lifeboat myth. NGR´s proposal reminds us that if there is a lifeboat, this is a planet Earth, and not any artificially bounded nation-state.

Let me offer here a few hypotheses that could be empirically tested. First, assuming that one accepts a global convergence of incomes as a noble goal, it is better if poorer people get richer and consume more in richer countries, than in their home countries. Richer, more developed countries use resources more efficiently per unit of income. For Earth as a whole it is better if Chinese get richer as immigrants in the U.S., than as Chinese in China.

Second, impoverished nations are much more vulnerable to climate extremes. From a climate change adaptation perspective and a global welfare viewpoint, it is better if more people migrate to rich nations and are protected by the better infrastructures there, than if they stay exposed in their own nations.

Third, impoverished nations tend to put more pressure on local environmental resources. There is a positive feedback between poverty, social marginalization and pressure upon marginalized ecosystems. If some of the people putting marginal pressures can escape by becoming taxi-drivers in New York, so be it, their pressure upon Central Park is likely to be smaller.

Fourth, immigrants of non-Western origin tend on average to live more convivially than their Western counterparts. A large extended family often shares a single housing unit. The household IPAT per immigrant family member is much lower than that of their individualistic Western hosts. Environmental impact per unit of worker is likely to be lower the higher the proportion of (poor) immigrants in a country’s workforce is.

The second area where EE has much to offer concerns the causes of illegal immigration. Economists treat immigration as an individual choice balancing the benefits with the costs of immigration. This will raise some eyebrows among ecological economists. Still, an important finding is that the so-called preference for domestic consumption (sic), i.e. the desire of one to stay home, is an important part of the calculus. Unlike the marginal earnings model of neo-classical economics, most migrants, except some middle-class academics such as myself, do not migrate for the fun of it, but because of a considerable deterioration of conditions at their homes. Other factors equal, most people prefer to stay home. Ecological economists can analyse the contribution of ecological “push factors”, such as environmental degradation, urban deprivation or natural disasters, and their relation with a global economy of unequal exchange and ecological debt or link “push factors” to the oil wars and the oppressive regimes in the Middle East and Africa.

Ecological economists can also shed light on “pull-factors” starting with the Marxian insight, shared by Herman Daly, that within capitalist economies, there is a structural pull for illegal immigration. In the absence of native population growth, immigration keeps the costs of labour low, and illegal immigration even more so. Daly however hints that illegal immigration should be controlled precisely to reduce the exploitation of illegal immigrants. In other words, people should be punished for their own good as if they don’t know the exploitation they are getting into when they decide to immigrate.

To me, NGR´s proposal makes more sense. With open borders, all immigrants would be subject to the same rights and obligations (not least in terms of social security and taxes), and hence their costs will not be any lower than that of natives with the same skills; it is their illegality that makes them cheaper. As less jobs will be available for immigrants given their higher cost, the pull-factor will decrease. Also a global convergence of labour costs because of immigration will reduce the benefits of outsourcing and hence reduce the negative environmental impacts of trade. Finally with open borders, if rich nations wish to control immigration, an efficient way of doing so will be to invest for development in the origin countries and make unequal exchange more equal.

My article has been on purpose provocative. My intention has been to shake lazy thinking around illegal immigration. Ecological economics as I see it has nothing to do with reactionary national life-boat ethics or the hate-spreading views of the Carrying Capacity Network. New research on illegal immigration by European ecological economists should make this as clear as possible.


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