It is increasingly clear that the coalition government’s immigration policies are going to be informed by the population pessimism which regards growth at the level of the ONS’s upper predictions of 70 million people by 2031 as the very worst fate that could befall the United Kingdom. Much of the discussion around the announcement of a cap on third country migrant numbers made by the Home Secretary on 28 June is in line with the gloomy thinking that more people always means bad news and draconian measures are justified to bring about a reversal of trends.
Whilst the negative take on population figures has been contested by social policy analysts working in such bodies as ippr and Centre Forum the sheer force of Malthusian commonsense continues to rule the roost amongst politicians and tabloid headline writers.
Peoplequake: Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash
That might change with the publication of a splendid new book by the Guardian’s Greenwash columnist, Fred Pearce. Peoplequake: Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash goes at the argument full tilt and from just about every possible angle. Pearce looks at the work of the Reverend Bob Malthus as it moved through its various stages of gloomy population punditry, training manual for colonial administrators, and the foundations for the distasteful ideology of eugenics, showing just how unreliable it has always been as a predictor of the outcomes of population rise.
The UK illustrates the error in this type of thinking as clearly as anything else. In 1821 the population of Britain was a mere 20 million and this has risen by 300% in the 190 years since to our present 61 million. But rather than the famine and pestilence predicted by Malthus, this same period has seen encouraging moves away from the conditions of epidemic disease, the appalling congestion of the cities of the early industrial revolution, better planned housing and health care, and social amenities which have all tended to the improvement of human life and the increase of happiness.
Pearce argues that rather than banging on about large numbers we should be looking at the likely scenarios to be worked out in the years ahead. He points out that, although the world population will continue to rise over the next few decades, reaching around 9 billion in 2040, most of this will arise from a decline in the rate of deaths, rather than the arrival of new people. Our societies are filling up principally with people who are living longer and growing greyer.
A decline in birth rates, long noted in the countries of the developed world but increasingly apparent in China, India and other emerging regions, means that the generation alive in 2040 will be living on the cusp of a prolonged period of human history during which more people die each year than are born. For Pearce, this is the really significant fact which should be bearing down on our policy-making in today’s world, as a we plan for a transitional period of adjustment and as we work out the social relations needed to sustain civilised life in what will be older, but also more peaceful and hopefully wiser societies.
In this scenario immigration is not a phenomenon we need to bear down on, but a useful resource which will ensure that youthful energy and innovation finds its place in the parts of the world where smooth foreheads and clear-sighted eyes are becoming increasingly scarce.
What might be the possible answer
There are many counterfactuals stacking up against the population pessimists, challenging the idea that downward pressure now needs to be brought to bear on levels of migration. They suggest that better principles for managing migration will be found in the empowerment of migrants rather than increases in coercive controls. If we are going to tap into the resources of the young, the energetic, the brightest and the most imaginative to meet the demands of this transitional period of human history we should start to do that now by drawing them – and the them increasingly being migrants – into the policy discussion, rather than leave it until too much later.