Progressive protectionism - the Green case for controlling our borders

With most luxury apartments in central London sold off-plan to overseas investors who often leave them empty or use them for a few weeks a year, the UK's social fabric is suffering from unrestricted capital inflows. Photo: Andrea Kirkby via Flickr (CC BY-
With most luxury apartments in central London sold off-plan to overseas investors who often leave them empty or use them for a few weeks a year, the UK's social fabric is suffering from unrestricted capital inflows. Photo: Andrea Kirkby via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
The green movement's squeamish social liberalism has left it to the political right to exploit public concerns about population and immigration, writes Colin Hines. We must make the progressive case for controlling our borders, and restricting not just migration but the free movement of goods, services and capital where it threatens environment, wellbeing and social cohesion.
The absence of environmentalists from immigration and population debates makes them appear not to be serious about tackling these major global, environmental and social threats - and instead trapped in politically correct denial.

In 2016, the 'globalisation is like gravity' brigade saw their fixed certainties turned upside down by the election of Donald Trump and the further rise of Marine Le Pen.

What these two politicians and other extreme right wing parties in Europe had in common was not just an opposition to inadequately controlled immigration, but also an increasingly politically effective anti-globalisation stance.

Given that the high watermark of free trade is now over and that resistance to present levels of migration into richer countries is growing rapidly, its time for environmentalists to start to consider what form of protectionism should replace globalisation, now it's on the ropes.

The right with its usual political sure-footedness is already utterly dominating this discussion. The rest of the political spectrum is caught like hares in headlights, with no comprehensive idea of what to do.

It is to fill this vacuum that I have written Progressive Protectionism: Taking Back Control. My new book presents a green, left - and with its emphasis on rebuilding local economies a small 'c' conservative - alternative that could effectively challenge the rise of the extreme right, while giving voters hope for a better future.

Controlling our borders - and not just to people

It details why progressives should endorse the controlling of borders to people, capital, goods and services - though not as a repeat of the oxymoronic protectionism of the 1930s, when governments attempted to protect domestic jobs while still wanting to compete and export globally at the expense of others.

Progressive Protectionism, by contrast, aims to nurture and rebuild local economies in a way that permanently reduces the amount of international trade in goods, money and services and enables nation states to control the level of migration that their citizens desire.

This approach can return a sense of optimism to the majority through championing policies geared to achieving more job security, a decrease in inequality and protection of the environment worldwide.

Such taking back control over borders has the obvious advantage that there would be less transportation of materials between countries. The emphasis on domestic production and ever less imports would result in a push for maximum efficiency of energy and materials use, recycling of waste materials and longevity of products.

For such a dramatic change to occur political activists must move from opposition to proposition. Given the global politics of today with its rising concerns about immigration and job killing globalisation, this is not the time to stick to failed calls for nirvana with no policies for taking back control of the borders.

The failure of environmentalists and the Left

The huge error made by progressives was their failure around a decade ago to countenance addressing the concerns of the majority in Europe about a rapid and uncontrollable rise in immigration, as millions of workers from the new member states in Eastern Europe came to Western Europe. There were similar sins of omission in the United States. These left the stage clear for the European extreme right and Donald Trump.

The absence of environmentalists from immigration and population debates makes them appear not to be serious about tackling these major global, environmental and social threats - and instead trapped in politically correct denial.

Likewise it is time to ditch the tried, tested and failed path of fragmented issue-specific skirmishes which unsurprisingly results in constant defeat. The only way to reverse this trend and to actually defend the people, communities and the environment they purport to want to help is for activists to seriously consider uniting around the overarching alternative of 'Progressive Protectionism'.

Were these concrete proposals to become central in environmental campaigning it might return the movement from the ever more obscure sidelines and back centre-stage. To increase public credibility it is also crucial that the green movement should campaign for controlling population as a priority.

Last year, the world population was estimated to have reached 7.4 billion, rising by approximately 83 million people per year. Because of previously overoptimistic expectations of declines in fertility rates, the UN now projects that world population will reach 11.2 billion by 2100, a staggering one billion more people than was forecast a mere six years ago.

The environment movement has a responsibility to take the lead in campaigning to curb such increases. It was they after all who first drew global attention to the need for population control in the 1960s and 1970s. Since then most of the green groups have fastidiously ignored this topic, particularly in the face of developing countries' activists and leaders saying it was a form of colonialism, racism etc.

Others, particularly on the left, claimed that the root of environmental problems was the consumption patterns of the rich, not the growing numbers in poor countries. The result of going down that that either or dead end track was that the topic was less and less discussed, particularly in polite political circles.

Most environmentalists are still gutlessly asleep at the wheel over this issue.

Immigration does matter - for the environment too!

As I've said in The Ecologist before, it is also crucial that there is a candid, public recognition by green activists that the present level of migration, though not the cause, makes it much more difficult to tackle all social and environmental problems. Also that it has taken away jobs from the unskilled and that it has rapidly changed many communities in a way the majority oppose.

Not to control such migration is clearly undemocratic given the polls showing the overriding public opposition to present net immigration.

If we don't control migration in the UK more effectively, this will contribute to the population growing by nearly 8 million (virtually a Greater London) in the next 15 years, including stealing skilled professionals from poorer countries.

This will have severely adverse environmental effects in terms of increased resource use, a greater national contribution to climate change and further building on the green belt in a country that has to import nearly half of its food in a world of likely ever increasing food insecurity.

To underscore how correct the average person is to be very uneasy about inadequately controlled migration, an international Gallup poll showed that around two thirds of a billion people from poorer countries would choose to migrate if possible, with over 40 million choosing the UK, the second most popular choice after the US.

Greens must campaign to limit migration and population

It is a complete dereliction of environmentalists' duty to protect the planet to continue to ignore immigration and population growth and not to campaign for their reduction. Without this decrease all solutions to other aspects of ecological and social concern are made far more difficult to deal with.

Imagine it they did this and contributed to a fundamental shift in the end goals of diplomacy, aid and trade polices such that they were seen through the priority prism of limiting peoples' need to migrate. This could turn campaigns at present deemed as mere moral handwringing into international priorities. These would include controls on tax havens and an end to arms deals which prop up despots and allow them to prosper.

The proposed new UN Sustainable Development Goals would become more politically relevant, as would policies to urgently curb global warming to lessen the potential for climate refugees. The structural adjustment and austerity policies forced onto poor countries and the Eurozone will have to end.

Aid and development policies would have to prioritise local employment opportunities for young men and women. Education for girls and access to all for fertility control would take centre stage in order to reduce population growth. Finally to help stem any future rise in refugees, the developed countries and Russia would have to stop their involvement in wreck and run, no Plan B military interventions.

However, today's absence of environmentalists from the public debates about immigration and population makes them appear not to be serious about really tackling global, environmental and social threats. Instead they appear to be trapped in a form of politically correct denial. This must stop.

Green groups must resume their central role in alerting the public to these problems and campaign publicly for their solutions. Central to this of course will be 'Progressive Protectionism'.



Colin Hines is the convener of the Green New Deal group, having coined the term 'Green New Deal' in 2007. He was formerly Co-ordinator of Greenpeace International's Economics Unit having worked for the organisation for 10 years.

Books: Colin's book 'Progressive Protectionism' was published in January 2017. It details why and how groups of regional nation states and their communities should join together to reintroduce border controls to protect and diversify their economies, provide a sense of security for their people and prevent further deterioration of the environment. He is also author of 'Localization - A Global Manifesto'.

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