Immigrants, 2

Can there ever be too many immigrants?

If climate change makes heavily populated regions of earth uninhabitable, then we will not be able to stop the people from these regions heading for other places. Borders will come under extreme pressure; no doubt, nationalists will defend them with extreme force. But I do not want to look ahead so far.

I must begin with some disclaimers.

First, immigration is inseparable from nationality, which I don’t really understand. If you lose out at a job interview to a better-qualified person, or if you are delayed by people driving their donkey-carts on the motorway, are you supposed to feel better if these people have the same colour of passport as you? Nationality so easily shades into nationalism, which is rather close to the evils of racism and war. I think the most appropriate word for nationality is one invented by Kurt Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle: a granfalloon.

Second, I don’t have to hand statistics to back up the claims I make here, unlike the previous post. In most cases, I have seen figures in the past to back what I say, but in a few instances I am just guessing.

My topic is whether there are absolute limits to the number of people that a given area of land can support, which should dictate strict controls on immigration. I am going to focus on the only two countries in the world where I think I understand the situation a little: Australia and Britain.


When I was growing up, there was a feeling that Australia’s destiny was to be the new world leader, even surpassing the United States. This attitude is exposed and satirised in Russell Braddon’s novel The Year of the Angry Rabbit.

Perhaps the main reason this did not happen is water. Australia is a dry continent; at the beginning of the twentieth century someone (I forget who) predicted that there was only enough water to support a population of 20 million, and was vilified for saying so. The population has now exceeded this figure, and water shortages are common. Here are two examples from my own experience.

In Toowoomba, the town where I went to school, there was recently a proposal to use greywater for toilets, gardens, and so forth. The proposal met a lot of opposition. In Britain, most people would not be so squeamish. It is said that water in the river Thames passes through several human bodies between the source and the sea. When I was an Oxford don, the Professor of Biochemistry refused to drink tap water because of “women on the pill in Swindon” – but then he was an immigrant!

The Queensland government spent a lot of time and trouble trying to build a huge dam at Traveston Crossing on the Mary river, to supply water to Brisbane. The site was near my brother’s farm at Lagoon Pocket, so I saw it. A less suitable site for a dam is difficult to imagine. The river valley is wide and flat there; the dam wall would have to be very long and expensive, and the impounded water would have heavy losses due to evaporation and seepage. Also, the Mary is subject to severe flooding, and it was not clear that the proposed dam could stand up to the worst floods.

One major factor in killing off the project was similar to the plot of Compton Mackenzie’s Rockets Galore: the unique fauna of the Mary river would be threatened by the dam, and the plans were turned down on environmental grounds. But the effort put into the fight shows how desperate the state government felt.

Climate change is unlikely to improve the situation, and it may be necessary to resort to large-scale desalination in the end. This will divert massive amounts of energy away from more “profitable” enterprises, and so may prove difficult.


Britain also experiences water shortages, and depletion of aquifers, in hot dry summers. But this does not yet seem to be the limiting factor.

Maybe the chief concern that people have is space. In In the Wet, Nevil Shute imagined a future Britain with declining population, in which there are so many houses that enterprising young Australians have no difficuly in finding roofs as they travel round the country. This is not the present reality. The population is increasing, though rather slowly.

It seems to be necessary to build huge numbers of new houses, and cover quite large tracts of countryside. At present, the country north of Oxford from Wolvercote to Barton is threatened with such a scheme, though the infrastructure doesn’t seem up to supporting it: anyone who has traversed the Banbury and Woodstock Roads roundabouts in rush hour will dread the thought of thousands more commuters on these roads.

Again I must stress that I don’t have statistics to back up my claims here. The housing shortage seems not to be caused primarily by increasing population, but by the rapid decline in the average size of households through the twentieth century. Not only have family sizes decreased dramatically, and servants become a thing of the past, but couples split up and each of them needs a house. At the same time, there are indeed vast numbers of empty houses across the country, many owned by people who have no intention of living in them. This is a constant concern to housing campaigners.

So I am still a little sceptical about the limitations of space. More serious perhaps is that Britain has largely run down its agriculture: farms are converted into golf courses, or farmers find houses a more profitable crop than corn. This is fine as long as the country makes enough money to pay for food imports, and the present trade system holds up. This may not always be so.

So the upshot is, I really don’t know what limits would really justify an attempt to clamp down on immigration, but I am not convinced that they have been reached.

This is the end of my little rant; I will give it a rest now.

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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1 Response to Immigrants, 2

  1. Mark says:

    This is tangential to your post, but there’s an overwhelming case that the primary cause of the housing shortage in most of the UK is under-occupation. And not (as the government would like us to believe, with their “bedroom tax”) in social housing, but in the owner-occupied sector. People buy (or bought) large houses to raise families, but when the kids leave home they are typically at peak disposable income with the mortgage nearly paid off, and our relatively flat property taxes give them little incentive to downsize. Changing the tax system to penalise under-occupation and incentivise downsizing would probably more or less solve the housing problem in most of the country (although clearly not in high-demand areas like inner London), but seems to be a political taboo….

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