Carrying capacity and borders

March 24, 2013

first appeared in Chain Reaction, #91, 2004]

Jess Whyte & Nicholas Beuret

How many people can Australia support – that is to say, how many can it ‘carry’? It seems a reasonable question, especially of a fragile and old continent, with limited resources. Especially one we are doing our best to destroy through practices like land-clearing, over-fishing, mining, etc. In light of this on-going destruction many people, including environmentalists, are focusing their attention on the movement of people across Australia’s borders. This movement is constructed as a crisis, resulting in an atmosphere of fear. Certainly this fear is largely a vote-courting fabrication of a Federal government intent on displacing the anxiety brought about by neoliberalism. Yet despite the obviousness of the ploy, and the racism it embodies, the question of ‘how many’ continues to be raised by many, including progressive groups and environmentalists.

So what is Australia’s ‘carrying capacity’? Carrying capacity is nominally the number of humans any defined body of land can support within environmental constraints into the indefinite future. However talk of carrying capacity or of a ‘sustainable population’ is an abstraction that obscures issues of extraction rates, and production, and fails to interrogate current levels and disparities of consumption, both globally and within nations. Within such a perspective, questions of urban sprawl, fossil fuel use, dumping etc are neutralised, as immigration, rather than existing practices within the nation, is viewed as the cause of environmental destruction.

Furthermore, the notion of carrying capacity relies on conceiving of environmental issues as being confined within national borders. In a global economy, this makes little sense (if indeed it makes any sense outside of one). How can we talk of Australia’s carrying capacity, when we export food –Australia’s food production feeds something like 80 million people annually – as well as coal, oil, metals, and timber to the world? Conflating extraction rates and environmental damage with population ignores the extent to which resources are extracted for export and are therefore tied into global circulations of capital and production, not local population levels.

Perhaps then it is by looking at these circuits of consumption, production and distribution both within and without Australia that we can better understand environmental devastation, and also begin to understand current talk of a crisis of migration. The history of the modern world is one of the growth of the nation-state, the rise of capitalism, and the development of vast European and North American (Northern) colonies. The wealth of the North and spread of capitalism over the globe are both products of this process of colonisation. The North lies in stark contrast to the South – in power, wealth, privilege, all of which is most clearly brought out in the disparity of resource consumption. The North comprises only 23% of the world’s population but consumes over 80% of the world’s resources. Not only does this figure speak of the vast ‘debt’ the North owes to the South, it also provides one reason for migration, as people leave the poverty and devastation of the South for the possibility of a new life in the North. Such migration can be seen as a counter-process of the redistribution of wealth, as those impoverished by the North attempt to reclaim some of their wealth. It is precisely to prevent such unsanctioned processes of redistribution that national borders, and the brutal border controls that they require, are necessary. As globalisation subsumes local economies into a single market, border controls give people of the South only two options: stay where they are, and provide global corporations with a pool of cheap labour, or migrate, often illegally, and live in precarious and hyper-exploited conditions in the North.

Without the vast disparities, the wealth of the North would not exist – and without borders this disparity could not be maintained. Not only is capitalism dependent upon the disparity, it is dependent (and premised upon) environmental destruction. Without the ability to ‘externalise costs’ (read – destroy the environment without any immediate costs to the corporation or consumers, or shift environmental costs to the people who live near the site of production) corporations would not be nearly as profitable. Without large scale enterprises that are rapidly depleting non-renewable resources – land, rivers, oceans, oil, minerals, etc – there wouldn’t be profit. Without the over-consumption of goods and services, there would be no system of global capitalism. Without disparity there is no system, and without borders no disparity can be maintained.

Let’s take oil production as an example. Oil production creates social dislocation via dictatorial regimes of various hues, ‘democratic’ oligarchies or military regimes (supported by the states of the North) in places like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Colombia, and Nigeria, while producing massive environmental impacts. It’s also no small point that the majority of the damaging environmental effects of this mode of production occur in the South – from the toxicity of factory output, to the effects of deforestation and erosion, to the impacts of climate change: the South, serving as a globalised sweatshop and factory floor (or mining pit), bears the brunt of environmental devastation as corporations flee the gains of green movements in the North, just as they flee the gains of Northern labour movements by relocating to places whose states are happy to allow the repression and murder of environmental and labour activists and where labour and environmental regulations are equally lacking. This corporate ability to flee the strengths of environmental and labour movements is predicated on national borders and on the controls that maintain them. Unless green movements in the North are prepared to take responsibility for this trend, they risk becoming complicit in the devastation of much of the globe, by corporations that are happy to put on green, consumer-friendly faces in the global North.

In our region, the place where the complicity of environmental devastation, colonialism and border control is most evident is Tuvalu, a Pacific Island state with a population of around 11,000 which is facing being submerged as a result of rising sea levels. In 2002 Tuvalu approached Australia – the nation with the industrial world’s highest per capita rates of greenhouse gas emissions – to play a role in accepting those on Tuvalu who will soon be forced to abandon their home. Australia refused, and instead, offered Tuvalu the chance to become an Australian penal colony – an offshore detention centre for Afghans and Iraqis forced to leave their own homes as a result of war and Western backed dictatorship. In this scenario, Australia refused to take responsibility for the impact its industry has on people throughout the world, and instead tried to blackmail Tuvalu into participating in its vicious border control policy.

Tuvalu is only a microcosm of the intersections between environmental devastation and border control. In 1998, 25 million people were displaced for environmental reasons. Like those displaced by wars, famine induced by eradication of subsistence agriculture and structural adjustment, and development projects, the corporations and states of the global North play a substantial role in this displacement. And like in these cases, when it comes to environmental refugees, border control policies enable the North to evade responsibility for the social, as well as the environmental costs of unsustainable environmental practices.

We, as environmentalists, cannot afford to confine our thinking to the fiction of national environmental problems. Politically, environmentalists must be inter-continentalists — part of a global series of communities opposed to the current world order as embodied in capitalist nation-states. This must include an opposition to both border controls and borders themselves, as borders are part of the system that is destroying both the Earth and human lives. There is no ‘humane’ border regime any more than there is a ‘green’ capitalism. Capitalism relies on an international system of disparity and inequity as well as the destruction of the environment (in the forms of direct resource extraction, as well as over-consumption and pollution). The nation-state is crucial in violently creating the climate in which capital can be profitable, as is perhaps best illustrated in Nigeria. To be for social and environmental justice then, is to be necessarily against both the state and capital, and the border.


We are not trying to argue for a change in Government policy – how could any government legislate to end its own borders or give up control of them. The movement of people across national borders is a reality. The question for us is what should we, as environmentalists, do about it. For us, any response has to acknowledge that it is the processes of colonisation and capitalism under the state that have brought us to this point. And that any response cannot include reform of either the state or capitalism. But even if you don’t agree with us or our conclusions, one question would still remain – if you wish to posit a final number of people that should live in Australia, what is it that you would do to stop those who wish to come when that number is reached? What would you do to stop their movement? And how is that different to the camps and patrol boats that currently exist?

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