Yesterday’s news?

| 14th October 2019
Borders
BBC World Service
‘Can we love individual immigrants, while opposing mass migration?’ The answer is no.

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In 2020, The Ecologist will be fifty. In 2022, it will be fifty years since our landmark publication of A Blueprint for Survival. As our team approaches these twin anniversaries we’ve been thinking about this early writing’s legacy, and about how to make better use of our capacious archive – a huge body of knowledge – at a time when we are reaching further and publishing more than ever. We have been thinking, too, about what a Blueprint for the twenty-first century might look like. 

Outside of my work as The Ecologist’s content editor, I also teach and research. In the classroom, there are two questions I like to pose to students who are encountering a difficult text for the first time: what does this writing make possible and what does it close down? These questions can help us to see what and who is at stake in a given argument. 

The promise that drives so much amazing work in the climate justice movement is that ‘Another World is Possible’. I believe that. But in the pursuit of possibility we must also ask, what might we be shutting down; who might we endanger; what’s the blueprint? 

Stalking horse 

It’s timely, if unexpected, that the mass mobilization of Extinction Rebellion activists (XR) last week directed our attention to articles published in The Ecologist’s more recent history. 

When Rupert Read appeared on BBC Question Time as a spokesperson for XR, some online commentators turned to his stance on immigration. An article surfaced – published by The Ecologist in 2014 – that asked: ‘Can we love individual immigrants, while opposing mass migration?’. In it, Read argued: ‘We ought to accept the power of reasoning that shows that high level of immigration leads to significant problems.’ Readers are left to wonder: by whose ‘power of reasoning’, to what ends, why?  

I’ve worked for The Ecologist for a little shy of a year. Not too long, but long enough to have developed a pride in the platform and joy in the work. It is a great privilege to use my skills in a way that feels grounded and progressive, and to learn so many new things each day as writing comes in from activists and thinkers the world over, many of whom are on the frontlines of the struggle for climate justice.

Encountering Read’s article for the first time, I felt several shades of shame, rage and exasperation. The standfirst that introduces the piece - and which characterises migrants as 'educated, needy, obeisant, low waged workers' - was not Read's responsibility but that of The Ecologist as an institution. At the time, The Ecologist published a response by Adam Ramsay. But as a member of the incumbent editorial team, the continued existence and recent republication though social media of those words are, in part, my responsibility. 

As a whole, the article feels to me to be dangerous. While it rails against growth-obsessed capitalism, its whole premise is bizarrely neo-liberal: “We Greens need to be absolutely and resolutely pro-immigrant – while turning against large-scale immigration”. It should be noted that this article was not endorsed by the Green Party UK. 

Whatever its author’s intention, the article’s individualising focus offers a stalking horse from which one might more safely attack whole swathes of society; it focuses our attention on an undeserving scapegoat, rather than on the austerity-driven policies that are destroying our communities and the corporations that are destroying our planet. 

False equivalence

In arguing that migration ‘reduces social cohesion’ and ‘puts pressure on public services’, the article stokes counter-productive and harmful division between British and migrant workers. This is particularly concerning given the context of nascent eco-fascism

The article is right to criticise an obsession with GDP, but its argument is governed by a false equivalence between economic growth and population growth. 

Rather, economic growth is contingent on colonial conquest and extractivism. The challenges of resource distribution and finitude cannot be met by a fortress-like mentality that stands guard just as fiercely as it has plundered. I recall a line from a play about displacement and detention, written by members of the All African Women’s Group: ‘We are here’, they say, ‘because you are there.’ 

But there’s another important point of principle at stake here for me and for many others. Migration is crucial, desirable and enriching. An ecologically and socially just world is a world without borders. Extinction Rebellion wants to be inclusive: if 'we are all crew' then the inclusion and safety of migrants is central to its objectives and values. 

So, ‘Can we love individual immigrants, while opposing mass migration?’ Whatever our definition of ‘mass migration’, my answer is no. When we speak out against free movement, we speak out against those who have contributed the least to rising emissions but who are bearing the greatest burdens of global heating; we speak out too against our friends, colleagues and neighbours, our fellow activists, our history; we slice up our world not along arbitrary lines, but along lines that enshrine age-old oppressions and present-day inequalities. Borders are hypocritical, short-sighted and violent. 

We needn't pick nor choose, pitting the 'good migrant' against the swarm. In this, we are for justice or we are against it.

Meaningful solidarity 

So yesterday’s news remains today’s problem. Our editorial team found itself in an invidious position, not least as we unearthed a handful of other old articles that put forward similarly anti-migration arguments: Do we act on a call from some readers to delete Read’s article, fearful of harm to migrant communities, reputational damage, and the sense that each time this article was shared it was effectively republished and validated on our watch? Do we leave it up, wary of revisionism and loathe to conceal arguments that remain all too pervasive? Do we ask for Read’s article to be updated, hopeful that people grow, ideas change, and words don’t always reflect our intent? These are ongoing discussions.

The environmental movement is a broad church. I don’t much like the phrase, but the principles of inclusion and diversity are important. That must not come, though, at the expense of integrity, responsibility and meaningful solidarity. Our ‘power of reasoning’ is rarely neutral - we must be honest about that which mandates and motivates it, and about what and who is at stake in the stories we tell. These issues are not about a single article nor a single contributor. 

Racism – on the scale of everyday microaggressions to structural oppressions and institutional violence – remains the scourge of the environmental movement and society at large. The Wretched of the Earth have made that clear, as have Power Beyond Borders, Extinction Rebellion’s own Global Justice bloc, and many of our own valued contributors among others. 

I’m proud to work for a platform with a rich history, that publishes countless articles that document the legacies and present-day manifestations of imperialism and environmental destruction. The Ecologist seeks to amplify important new research, and celebrate the inspiring resistance and resilience of communities all over the world - people who are calling out injustice and developing innovative solutions to the crises we face. I want to focus on and act in the best interests of those stakeholders. 

Moving forward

It’s clear that it’s time to redraw our blueprint, and that means asking some hard questions and facing up to some hard truths, in the archive and beyond. In doing so, so much more becomes possible. 

At The Ecologist we want to acknowledge our own historic contradictions and shortcomings, as well as the present and future challenges of a changing world. We want to support diverse movements for climate justice that are themselves safe and equitable. Recently we have been developing a section of our website dedicated to international solidarity which you can explore here, and we will be further exploring best practice for holding our processes and platforms to account. 

We will be placing a link to this piece in a number of articles already published by The Ecologist. If you would like to suggest an article that we might need to revisit, or if you would like to discuss these issues, make recommendations for our processes, or contribute a story yourself, please get in touch

In moving forward, we must continue to ask, as Elia Koenig wrote recently in The Ecologist: ‘How do we revive ideas of mutual aid, cooperation and solidarity in circumstances of scarcity and trauma? What is our vision for justice?"

This Author 

Marianne Brooker is The Ecologist’s content editor. Image: BBC World Service, Flickr

Right of Reply 

Rupert Read said: "I was sorry to read Marianne Brooker’s piece. Sorry to have contributed to upset; and sorry that my original article was written in such a way as to leave it open to interpretations that I clearly did not intend. Sorry also to have been therefore badly misunderstood. I have a strong record of standing up for immigrants and refugees and against xenophobia. Indeed, I think that the climate movement must make the resettlement of climate refugees one of its key policy demands." A full length version of his reply can be found on his website.

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