Saturday, January 21, 2012

Migration and Sustainability

In 'The Environmental Argument for Reducing Immigration Into the United States', Philip Cafaro and Winthrop Staples III argue that, given Americans' disproportionate "environmental footprint", environmentalists should want to halt population growth in the U.S., and hence to severely restrict immigration into the U.S.

Despite the authors' constant mentions of "population growth", migration of course doesn't (in itself) alter the global population. So what they're really objecting to is allowing poor people from dysfunctional countries the opportunity to increase their wealth (and hence consumption) through hard work in a place where their hard work will be better rewarded. Because material consumption is bad for the environment. So we should do what we can to keep people poor, including blocking their access to countries with better infrastructure, institutions, etc. After all, if they're stuck in a failed state, with no roads and barely enough reward from their work to put food on their family's plates, they'll use less gas! Yay! (Right?)

Cafaro and Staples seem unimpressed by such welfare-based objections. Besides the tradeoff with environmental values, they offer two responses that engage directly with concern for human welfare:

(1) They claim that "mass immigration drives down the wages of working-class Americans", and so is "unjust" to the latter. But immigration may actually raise native wages, and in any case the welfare gains so drastically outweigh any losses that a little redistribution to compensate any disadvantaged groups could easily bring about an outcome that's better for everyone. (General lesson: whenever an otherwise good policy might seem to unfairly "burden" the poor, just redistribute the proceeds. Environmentalists, of all people, should be aware of this from populist objections to gas taxes.)

(2) They claim that migration to developed countries "makes it easier for common citizens and wealthy elites in other countries to ignore the conditions that are driving so many people to emigrate in the first place." I have no idea why they believe this. It seems at least as likely that mass emigration ("brain drain") would call attention to the country's problems. Though I'm pretty skeptical that the likelihood of implementing needed reforms is going to be much affected, either way, by emigration levels.

Stepping back: If we want to get the most welfare "bang" for our ecological "buck", barring the global poor access to economic opportunities is surely not the way to go. (It's less extreme than outright killing them, but I think ultimately misguided for fundamentally similar reasons.) We should strive for improved efficiency in less humanly damaging ways: emissions taxes, reduced animal (esp. cattle) farming, increased urban density / efficient transit, etc. Not to mention investing in scientific research to uncover new solutions -- investments which are more easily made by a wealthier, better educated populace.


  1. "So what they're really objecting to is allowing poor people from dysfunctional countries the opportunity to increase their wealth (and hence consumption) through hard work in a place where their hard work will be better rewarded."

    You have clearly never heard of benefit tourism.

    1. Such concerns can presumably be avoided by, e.g., appropriately designed guest-worker programs.

  2. I can see a number of arguments for limiting immigration for environmental concerns but do think they are quite lacking. For example:

    1) If states wanted to ensure internal sustainability. A state has finite resources, more immigration puts greater strain on these resources and makes existing policies less sustainable given the finite constraints.

    This argument is severely weakened by the fact that a) the US seems to have little regard for domestic sustainability and b) many environmental problems are externalised via global trade.

    2) Compliance with some kind of cap & trade style global agreement that limits emissions to a per capita per state basis (eg the US is entitled to say 10 tonnes of CO2E pp, and third world country X to say 2 tonnes pp). In this case, an migration from lower limit to higher limit country would increase global emissions as more people can emit at higher levels.

    Again, this line of reasoning is severely weakened by the absence of the US in any kind of global environmental agreements.

    The problem with welfare based approaches to sustainability is that they seem to commit us to something like Parfit's repugnant conclusion. Global welfare & equality commit us to either more migration from poor to rich countries, or more wealth & technological transfer from rich to poor. Both of which tend to lower welfare in richer countries.

    Environmental impact is strongly linked to human welfare, both in terms of per capita footprint and increases in population. Given our finite resources, we can either have a) more welfare with fewer people, b) less welfare with more people, or c) have both offset by efficiency improvements. Given the diminishing marginal returns from technology, it sadly looks like we will end up with b)

    1. What's the evidence that poor immigrants to rich countries "tend to lower welfare in [those] richer countries"? Most economists that I'm aware of believe the opposite.

    2. I'd agree with you about economists but disagree with them about what constitutes welfare.

      GDP is the typical proxy for welfare and immigration from poor to rich countries will almost always show an increase in both average & aggregate GDP for the receiving country (labour being a primary input). In the absence of resource constraints, GDP is a pretty accurate proxy for welfare and thus immigration is a net positive (pre-war immigration to the US is a good example)

      Under resource constraints however, GDP has a number of significant problems, most notably its treatment of natural resources as an income flow rather than a stock (Stiglitz provides a good summary of the problems here In this case, while immigration may still increase GDP, average welfare will decrease as more people must share the same goods & services (assuming net migration increases can't be offset by efficiency gains).

      The empiric questions then are a) are we facing resource constraints and b) can we make compensatory efficiency gains. Most scientists would say yes to a) but I'm not sure about b).

  3. Replies
    1. Not too far off Al Bartlett's old Arithmetic, Population and Energy

  4. The other thing about gas prices/fuel duty is that it is rent for roads. It allows you to use a certain number of miles on public roads. If road infrastructure is not funded by the users of the roads you need either tolls or pass the cost onto general taxpayers.

  5. The thing you forget about (non managed) immigration is it reduces social capital of the working classes, who may end up isolated. Most politician ignore the plight of the poor so they oppose things like this as they don't have enough power to increase redistribution.
    Redistribution can also create dead weight losses.
    However, overall agree with your points.


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