Why we will Never Stop Migration.
A friend of mine believes the first settlers in North America arrived from Siberia as the ice of the last ice age retreated northwards. He has written a young adult novella, yet to be published, based on that assumption.
Anthropologists assert that the first examples of Homo Sapiens emerged in Africa and spread outwards from there. Whether or not you believe the Judeo/Christian creation myth, there can be no doubt that the first books of the Old Testament are a history of repeated migrations and wars over access to the most fertile lands.
In more recent, European, history, say a millennium or so ago, we see a succession of peoples — Saxons, Vikings, Normans, among others — contesting for occupation of various parts of the continent and the many islands close to its shores. Subsequently, those same Europeans crossed the seas and settled North and South America, parts of Africa and Asia, and the Antipodes.
Towards the end of my forthcoming book “Called to Account”, set in famine stricken County Clare, the protagonist, Arthur Kennedy, muses about Thomas Malthus’s theories regarding the limits on population. Arthur concurs with many of the thinkers of his time in their belief that there is ample space in the New World and that emigration is the solution to over-population and starvation in his homeland.
Kennedy, an Ulster man, would go on to govern several of the new territories, established by Britain, in Africa, Asia, Australia and North America., services for which he was knighted.
What such a life underlines is the extent to which Britons, like most of the rest of Europe, being descended from migrants, were themselves inveterate migrants.
Young men and women, sometimes whole families, travelled at considerable risk in search of better lives in these newly discovered lands. Ship owners profited from the trade. Traders made fortunes transferring material resources from these territories in order to feed, clothe and house those who remained back home in Blighty.
Like the Israelites in those Old Testament tales, they gave little thought to the indigenous peoples of these territories, pushing them off the land, using force where necessary. Even after the ending of slavery, natives were used as cheap labour in the mines and plantations by means of which an enormous variety of crops and minerals were extracted and transported to Europe.
Later, when Britain and Europe needed labour to rebuild after two attempts to destroy each other as they fought over the very resources they’d plundered from the rest of the planet, they were happy to recruit that labour from among the descendants of slaves and labourers their own ancestors had employed in those trades.
And now we have that awful woman on the BBC’s Question Time, broadcast on 20th February, claiming “The country is full up . . . It’s time we closed the borders and stopped immigration altogether.”
The woman’s effrontery, ignorance of history, and sheer arrogance are beyond belief. Yet a moment’s thought tells us we should not be surprised. Similar opinions, sometimes disguised as facts, have been the daily fodder from the UK’s right wing, largely foreign owned, print media for decades, although usually framed in less intemperate language,
The reality is that, compared to much of the world, the UK is far from “full up”. However, at 7.8 billion and rising, the planet arguably is full up. The UK’s 68 million residents represent a tiny proportion of the total number of individuals now contesting for the planet’s resources. Many do the same as those former refugees from UK famines and epidemics, seeking a better life elsewhere. It should be no surprise that their first choice of destination is one that grew rich at the expense of their ancestors!
For the record, the UK currently ranks at 32 in the list of most densely populated countries. Several of those with a greater population density are much smaller, city states like Hong Kong, Singapore and Monaco for example. Within Europe, Belgium and the Netherlands are more densely populated than the UK.
Among the larger nations, India, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines are more densely populated than the British Isles. The USA, on the other hand, is among the least densely populated nations, at position 145 on the list.
Of course, simply dividing the population by the land area, as this list does, cannot provide a full picture: we need to know how much of the land is habitable, how much capable of being used for agricultural production. That is much harder to define.
As for Malthus, it was easy to dismiss his theories in a world where the population was less than 1 billion and there where empty plains and forests ripe for exploitation by eager migrants. I would argue that it is impossible to ignore his hypothesis today.
Although Malthus and Kennedy were born 50 years apart, average life expectancy in Europe in both their lifetimes was around 35. And although both men, living privileged lives, survived much longer (Malthus died a few months before his 68th birthday, Kennedy shortly after his 74th.), that was exceptional, whereas the average age at death today, in Europe and most of the developed world, is almost 80, many living well into their 90s and beyond. The number of centenarians in the world at the start of the 21st century was around 150,000. Today it is estimated to be over 570,000, a near fourfold increase in just 20 years.
Humanity’s success at combatting disease and infections; developing techniques for destroying parasites; substituting the body’s failure to produce essential secretions with synthetic or harvested alternatives; replacing complete organs, most of which procedures did not exist when I was born, is responsible for the dramatic increase in population during my lifetime.
This is not the place to commence a discussion of culling and eugenics, despite the latter also having featured in the week’s news. Suffice to say that unless we resort to cruel practices, and/or desist from our eager pursuit of medical advances, we must be prepared to accept that the movement of people, from the genuinely over-crowded parts of the world to those with space to spare, is likely to accelerate, not reduce, in the years to come.
This is an extended version of a post that first appeared on my own website earlier today, 24 Feb. 2020. https://www.franklparker.com