“End overpopulation” and “protect the environment”. These goals of the Ecopop initiative appear quite reasonable. However, opponents say the freeze on immigration won’t solve any problems, but instead create new and bigger ones. A debate.
“The free movement of people fuels neo-liberal ideas. People become goods that can be moved around arbitrarily,” says Cornelia Keller, vice president of the Ecopop Association. “We want people to be able to live a dignified life where they are.”
The association’s initiative calls for growth in Switzerland’s population as a result of immigration to be limited to 0.2%. In addition, 10% of the government’s developmental aid should go towards family planning in developing countries.
“The free moment of people is an achievement of liberalism, which helps make many people wealthier,” says Stefan Schlegel, a board member of the pro-European movement, Operation Libero, which is fighting against the Ecopop initiative.
Keller and Schlegel faced off against each other for swissinfo.ch.
swissinfo.ch: Ms. Keller, a glance at your biography gives one the impression that nature is very important to you. Is it more important to you than people?
Cornelia Keller: People are a part of nature. People have no future without nature.
swissinfo.ch: In your eyes, are people today a disaster for the earth’s biota?
C.K.: I wouldn’t put it that way, but it appears that for several decades humans have posed a significant threat not only for certain species but for the whole ecosystem, and ultimately also for themselves.
swissinfo.ch: Mr. Schlegel, don’t you care about Switzerland’s nature and countryside?
Stefan Schlegel: I am the son of a spatial planner. The concern for an intact environment is in my political DNA. But I believe that the link between “ecology” and “immigration” is crude. The preservation of nature and the countryside is a question of spatial planning, the clever management of resources.
CK.: The 40-year history of spatial planning is a singular disaster. In the best case, it organizes but does not prevent the attrition of the land. The last sentence of the new Spatial Planning Ordinance states: “The building land reserves can be expanded when required by a change in population.”
swissinfo.ch: Mr. Schlegel, a Switzerland with some 8 million inhabitants looks quite a bit different from a Switzerland with 6 million inhabitants, which was the case for decades.
S.S.: Yes, but the question is whether the ecosystem is worse off. The calculation that “more people result in a worse ecosystem” is much too simple. It depends on how we live. The water quality has improved despite population growth. There are more forests today than 10 years ago.
C.K.: What Mr. Schlegel fails to mention is the fact that fewer goods, including furniture and food, are produced in Switzerland. This production has been increasingly outsourced in recent years. Today goods are imported, for instance from China or the Amazon region, where they create massive environmental problems.
swissinfo.ch: Would you like to return to the Switzerland of Gotthelf’s era?
C.K.: No, today is much better than back then. But the environmental problems didn't exist at that time. That’s why we have to deal with this today.
swissinfo.ch: By limiting immigration? How are carbon dioxide emissions altered if a German drives a car here in Bern instead of in Hamburg?
C.K.: People come here because they earn more, and as a result they also consume more. And when they visit their relatives in their homeland, they have to drive longer distances. And some immigrants come from climate zones that are less demanding on resources, for examples where fewer materials are needed for construction. But this is not the main argument.
swissinfo.ch: But rather?
C.K.: The principle of sustainability. It was established more than 20 years at the first international environmental conference in Rio. It assigned responsibility for the environmental balance to nation states. The population and consumption of resources should be balanced. The United Nations’ environmental goals when it comes to individual countries can be summed up by the tenet: “think globally, act locally”.
S.S.: Your arguments are a strange combination. On one hand you argue from a global viewpoint, on the other hand you act as if Switzerland is a closed ecosystem. If the ecosystem means something to you, then you must campaign strongly for countries such as China and Brazil to use sustainable methods of production. Instead you want to prevent people from China and Brazil moving here.
swissinfo.ch: Ms. Keller, is it not egotistical to prevent people who are willing to immigrate from living a better life?
C.K.: We’re not saying that people in other countries don’t have the right to the same consumption of resources that we do. But we don’t want people to move to where there’s money, becoming migrant workers. They should have a better life where they are.
swissinfo.ch: But your initiative doesn’t help to improve the life of people in other countries?
C.K. You can’t stuff a whole “save the world program” in one initiative. But the Ecopop association is one of the first environmental movements, which connects the environment and the number of inhabitants.
swissinfo.ch: Mr. Schlegel, immigration has increased significantly since Switzerland concluded the free movement of persons agreement with the EU. Do you want to open the borders for all people without restrictions?
S.S.: I wish a better life for all. This is why I am committed to a step-by-step liberalisation of migration policies. Migration aids in the transfer of know how and innovation, it is the golden path out of poverty, not only for those who migrate but for those who stay at home as well.
swissinfo.ch: But don’t you also wish that there would still be green spaces here in Switzerland for your children and grandchildren?
S.S.: Switzerland has succeeded in preserving green spaces despite the pressure from urban development.
C.K.: Many species are extinct or threatened because they don’t have enough living space here in Switzerland. If Switzerland would like to maintain a minimum level of self-sufficiency, then the agricultural sector will need to produce more intensively on perpetually smaller spaces. And this intensification impacts biodiversity.
swissinfo.ch: Do you believe that the agricultural sector will adopt more natural production methods once more if immigration is stopped?
C.K.: We now have a population of 8 million people, and farming is already very much under pressure as a result. I don’t harbour the illusion that organic cultivation would expand dramatically, but the status quo is better than a Switzerland with 12 million people.
S.S.: Limiting immigration via laws in opposition to business cycles has never been successful anywhere. The law for foreigners roughly states that “when one needs labour, one can get it.” This would also be implemented somewhere in the Ecopop initiative. It’s a self-delusion that isn’t harmless but rather puts migrants in a worse legal position.
C.K.: In Switzerland, immigration is set against the business cycle. Gross domestic product (GDP) is stagnating despite immigration continually reaching new peaks.
S.S.: That’s because Switzerland is an employment miracle. Switzerland creates good, high-quality jobs like nowhere else in Europe.
C.K. And how does the local population benefit?
S.S.: In countries where the immigration rate is high, the unemployment quota for older workers is the lowest according to a recent report from the OECD. And the industries where the most jobs are created for foreigners, are those with the highest job growth for Swiss workers as well. Everyone benefits from this growth.
C.K. You’re really singing a song of praise for neo-liberalism. Labour productivity has declined in Switzerland, while the cost of living and unemployment have risen.
swissinfo.ch: In a free market economy, an increase in supply leads to lower prices. In the labour market, this means lower salaries.
S.S.: In theory, but in reality this has not occurred. And what’s more, no free movement of people in Switzerland would mean no access to Europe’s domestic market. Whoever believes that salaries in Switzerland would be this high without access to this market, lives in the land of milk and honey.
The new, pro-European movement appeared after a slim majority of Swiss voters approved the reintroduction of a quota system to restrict immigration in February 2014 . As a consequence, Switzerland would contravene the free movement of persons agreement with the EU. Operation Libero was launched by young academics. They have links to the Foraus think tank. Their platform comprises a wide range of topics for a liberal society.
The politically independent environmental organisation was founded 40 years ago. Prior to the launch of the initiative “Stop overpopulation – safeguard our natural environment”, also known as the Ecopop initiative, the group was little known. The Ecopop Association formed at the beginning of the 1970s within the context of the public discourse regarding overpopulation. Many global contemporaries of that time viewed the world’s increasing population in light of the planet’s limited resources as the greatest threat to mankind.
(Translated from German by Catherine McLean), swissinfo.ch