Migration, environment and social justice

How can we foster a more productive dialogue between the green movement – often perceived as too localised and issue-based – and groups working on human rights issues such as forced migration, asks Agnes Woolley. 

Agnes Woolley
1 October 2013

Paradoxically, the link between climate change and migration is also what drives them apart in public discourse: the age-old distinction between nature and culture, in which culture stands for the human or social. Although migration and environmental degradation are both highly politicised debates, where the former is seen predominantly as a human rights issue, parts of the environmental movement have been guilty of overlooking the social implications of the drive to preserve the ‘natural’ world. The entrenched separation between ‘human’ and ‘natural’ concerns, which has its roots in Enlightenment man’s sense of mastery over his environment, is a perennial obstacle to a more cohesive approach to phenomena which affect the world over.  

Reconciling human rights with such diverse issues as biodiversity and genetic engineering isn’t only a philosophical matter, but is central to the effectiveness of practical work in addressing the inequality that results from a precarious geo-physical and geo-political environment. In bringing together organisations focusing on human rights, environmental justice, development and migration, the UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition provides a much-needed forum for approaching the differential effects of environmental degradation as they unfold across a deeply divided globe; especially as displacement is often the result of both social and environmental injustice. The coalition’s aim is to foster a more productive dialogue between the green movement – often perceived as too localised and issue-based – and groups working on human rights issues. The UKCCMC provides a model for the kind of collaborative strategy that is increasingly important in our hyper-connected era, in which everyday decisions reverberate on a global scale.  

The practical opportunities and challenges to this kind of collaboration was the topic of the roundtable and workshop on ‘The Environmental Movement and Migration’ held at Amnesty’s Human Rights Action Centre earlier this month. According to Alex Randell, the project manager at UKCCMC, the event arose out of a perceived anti-immigration sentiment in parts of the green movement. The day was intended to bust a number of myths about the relationship between climate change and migration, one of the most insidious being that climate change will produce vast ‘waves’ of migration to the UK. This perception was illustrated recently by Chris Bryant who predicted ‘unparalleled’ migration to the UK as a result of increasingly unstable weather patterns. As Norman Myers, among others, has pointed out, the effects of climate change on agricultural livelihoods, and even extreme weather events prompted by global warming, are much more likely to result in internal displacement. In turn, this produces a kind of long-term precariousness in which people are unable to establish secure homes and instead exist in hastily constructed camps or temporary dwellings within their country of origin.  

Another myth often called on to justify an anti-immigration stance is the idea that more migration to the UK means a heavier strain on resources and habitats. As Randell points out, new arrivals do not usually occupy prime green-belt locations and are more likely to live in impoverished parts of major cities. Bolstering this view, it is often suggested that migrants moving from low to high carbon countries inevitably adopt a high carbon-emitting lifestyle and therefore contribute further to the warming of the planet. Whether or not this is the case (it seems unlikely that migrants forced to leave their homes will join the ranks of the UKs highest carbon emitters), the suggestion prompts a more wide-ranging question about rights; namely, who has the right to pollute? On a global scale, this argument can be used to justify calls for poor societies to curb their own industrial development, despite the fact that the imperilled condition of the planet today is almost certainly attributable to the industrialisation of the global north throughout the nineteenth century.  

As a number of the workshop participants pointed out, these myths are predominantly circulated in the right-wing press rather than being an endemic aversion to migration from within parts of the green movement. But where conservation does become Conservative is on the issue of finite resources and the preservation of areas of natural beauty; often used as arguments against immigration to a supposedly ‘full’ island. As George Monbiot has pointed out in relation to absentee landlords in the Scottish Highlands, less people does not necessarily mean a more diverse eco-system. The Clearances of the 1700s, which drove people off their land to make way for sheep and game turned parts of the highlands from a ‘multi-culture’ to a monoculture. Observations such as these suggest that the myths that circulate about the link between immigration and environmental conservation are a red herring designed to steer the conversation away from systemic inequality. As one participant pointed out, shifting the economy away from London and the southeast would do much to assuage concerns that the UK is ‘overcrowded’.  

Resistance to the Narmada Valley Development Project

Resistance to the Narmada Valley Development Project

Lively discussions were had during the workshop on another key myth about climate change and migration: the idea that those who are forced to migrate across borders, or who are displaced internally, do not care about environmental issues because they are too busy surviving. This supposition ignores the fact that those displaced by events related to climate change are likely to come from agrarian societies which depend on the ‘environment’ for their livelihoods. It is also a symptom of how the conversation is skewed in favour of a fragmented green discourse, which encompasses calls for ‘bioregionalism’ (the preservation of naturally-defined geophysical regions), ‘deep ecology’ (a primordial connection between human and environment) and, at its more abstract end, a highly individual and romanticised attachment to the land. For many, the green movement does not have a strong track record on social justice, and this causes a rift with organisations that work on these issues; migrants’ rights groups, for example. Moreover, the Anglo-American bias in much of the environmental movement tends to subordinate what Ramachandra Guha describes as ‘the environmentalism of the poor’. In an article about the environmental campaigner and journalist Anil Agarwal, Guha enumerates multiple protests and well-organised campaigns against the industrial appropriation of water, fish and forest resources in countries such as India, Brazil, Malaysia and Kenya. Indeed, according to Guha, the poor have the greatest stake in the responsible management of the environment. Displacement is often a key factor in the ‘environmentalism of the poor’, as the ill-fated Narmada Valley Development Project in India attests. Not only has the project ousted hundreds of thousands of people from their land, but the environmental impact of its construction has been devastating. Resistance to the Narmada Valley dam, and the Chipko movement of the 1970s, have much to offer the environmentalism of the global north, not least a model for how to combine the fight against the commercialisation of nature with a concern for social justice.

The UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition is an important collective approach to global issues that are interconnected and multilayered. As many participants noted, coalitions such as this need be even more inclusive – bringing in climate scientists for example – if they are to tackle myths about climate and migration while improving the lives of those worst affected. For participant Teresa Hayter, of campaign group No One is Illegal, human rights should be the basis on which we make the case for immigration. But this must be a form of human rights that does not make of humanity an exceptional case, which exists outside or beyond the natural world; the interdependencies of humans, animals and environment should be at the forefront of any approach to social justice. Attempts to bring together advocates and activists working on these issues encourage a dialogue which begins to unpick the opposition between human and nature that has wrought so much damage to the environment and has historically designated some ‘inhuman’ and therefore not deserving of rights. More than ever, we need to tackle changes to the climate and environments – which may be caused by global warming, resource depletion, industrialisation or war – while maintaining a commitment to social justice in a world which looks increasingly mobile and precarious.


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