This is the fourth in my series questioning myths about immigration. The first three challenging "Britain is a soft touch", "British jobs for British workers", and "Immigrants are a burden to the economy" can be accessed here, here, and here. Now I am concerned with the pervasive myth that Britain is, or is becoming, overpopulated.
The view of Britain as overpopulated is held by the Optimum Population Trust - an influential group of pessimistic academics, right wing cranks like the British National Party, various House of Lords peers, green activists, and government leaders. The 'Balanced Migration' parliamentary group set up in 2008 believes in a one-in, one-out policy to stop Britain become more populous. Balanced Migration is chaired by Frank Field and Nicholas Soames, Labour and Tory respectively, and supported by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey of Clifton, and by the Muslim Labour peer, Lord Ahmed. But how believable is this idea?
The idea that Britain is overpopulated can seem plausible if you live in a tower block in the middle of a city. However not all of Britain is like this. In fact there are over 60 million acres in Britain - enough for one acre per person. If you are a member of a family of four, that means your household could have 4 acres. Furthermore only 8% of the land in Britain is actually settled. 46% is used in agriculture. This suggests the population could nearly double without pressing too hard on the boundaries of what is currently 'sustainable'.
Like all resources, land use is distributed by the market and enforced by the state rather than according to a conscious plan. Thus although there is enough land for each individual to have an acre, or half an acre if the population doubled, in fact a family of four is very lucky if it has one acre between them. Meanwhile the Duke of Buccleuch owns 270,900 acres. 69% of the UK's acreage is owned by 0.6% of the population. So what might initially appear as a lack of land per head, is really a social issue regarding how it is allocated. Britain is not overpopulated but it does have a social system that favours the few over the majority.
So if Britain is not overpopulated with regard to the amount of land available, what about with regard to public services? Might not public services all crumble if there was more pressure on them from an expanding population? Again, the problem is not too many people, but a political culture that lacks the vision to solve problems. If a public service such as a hospital or a railway appears to be overburdened, this is a political problem that could be solved by finding ways to increase capacity in each instance. To blame 'too many people' is to recast a political problem as a natural problem. This is a dangerous mistake because it prevents the search for humanistic alternatives to the political mistake and leads to draconian social policy against people - immigration controls are an example of this, healthcare rationing is another example.
Some might argue that Britain is overpopulated because we are reaching the end of 'finite resources'. But this too is an error. What becomes a resource depends very much on technological development - for most of human history, for example, uranium was useless. It was used 2,000 years ago to make glass more yellow, but that was it. Now the stuff can power whole cities. Coal was of prime importance 200 years ago but is now fading away in terms of importance to Britons. Oceans were once a barrier to man, but now can be mined for oil. In appropriate locations, the wind and the waves can be exploited for energy generation when in the past they were merely facts of life. Perhaps in a few hundred years, people will be mining the asteroid belt for new resources. And if nuclear fusion becomes a reality, the amount of energy anyone can use will become infinite, and therefore dirt cheap.
The notion that expanding populations use up all the resources and therefore indirectly kill themselves goes back to right-wing country parson Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). Today the argument is hysterically used by groups like the BNP to say Britain is dying under the weight of immigration, but in Malthus' time the argument was new. Malthus thought the increasing population (which he thought was attributable to the masses having too much sex) would become so large that there wouldn't be enough food to go around, and therefore people would starve, thus bringing the population size down again. But Malthus was refuted by history. What happened instead was that industrialised society created more and more food. The population could keep on expanding because humans were creative ingenious types, not mere devourers of resources.
In 1967, Malthus' basic argument was rehashed by Paul Ehrlich who wrote "The battle to feed all of humanity is over ... In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." Ehrlich also thought there would be a generalised materials and goods famine by the mid 1980s. In fact food production outstripped household demand, as raw materials did industrial demand. The basic lesson we should learn from this is that Malthusians are always wrong because they never factor human ingenuity into their equations. And because economic migrants are often very enterprising people, it makes sense to abandon immigration controls in order that their talents might be used to benefit Britain's increasing population.
Arguing that there are too many people only comes to the fore in the context of an absence of a sense of common purpose. For example, at the Glastonbury music festival there is a highly concentrated population, just as there was on the 2003 anti-Iraq war marches. But the crowds add to the atmosphere because you're there for the same reason. Thus you don't think of Glastonbury or a big demo as 'overpopulated'. Individuals in society need to realise they have common goals if the myth of overpopulation is to wither away. And one such worthy goal could be to do battle with all the Malthusian arguments currently being thrown about.
To conclude, Britain is not overpopulated in any sense of the term. Birth rates in the UK and across Europe are in decline - there were 1,014,700 births in Britain in 1964, compared to 716,000 forty years later. Britain's population is ageing. We need more immigrants to help make Britain bigger and better. Open the borders now!
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