Sunday, April 01, 2007

Mexico and the first peak oil mass migration

More than 30 years ago French writer Jean Raspail warned in his anti-immigration novel The Camp of the Saints of a coming deluge of the world's poor onto European soil. His ghoulish vision of an immigrant invasion frightened some and angered many others who called it racist when the book appeared in 1973.

Today, climate scientists are warning of mass migrations related to the effects of global warming. In addition, the possibility of the first peak oil driven mass migration--in this case out of Mexico and into the United States--is starting to get some attention as well.

More than a third of Mexico's government revenues comes from the state petroleum monopoly, PetrĂ³leos Mexicanos, often referred to as PEMEX. Fast declining output from the company's giant Cantarell field is frustrating efforts to maintain overall production. Some believe that Mexico may now have passed peak oil. If this is so, it is difficult to see how Mexico will be able to maintain its current level of public services or continue on a path of unevenly distributed, but moderately rising prosperity.

Meanwhile, on the U. S. side of the border, conspiracy theories abound about a contract given to Halliburton last year to build, if called upon, emergency temporary immigration detention facilities for the U. S. Department of Homeland Security. One acquaintance of mine informed me the facilities will actually be used to detain American dissidents during a period of martial law. The more likely explanation is that homeland security officials have been reading the reports in the media (and perhaps their own internal ones) about Mexico's oil future and want to be ready for any sudden surge in Mexican immigration. Without mentioning Mexico specifically, a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement which is part of the Homeland Security Department told The New York Times last year, "It's the type of contract that could be used in some kind of mass migration."

Not surprisingly, sudden mass migrations due to ecological catastrophe or resource depletion remain largely an abstraction, even in the minds of those who are aware of such possibilities. But the ongoing slow-motion mass migration across the southern border of the United States has once again begun to stoke the anti-immigrant forces who like Raspail 30 years ago are putting a face--and not a flattering one--on that migration. The Republicans already have one avowed anti-immigrant presidential candidate, Rep. Tom Tancredo, who has made immigration his central issue. I predict that he will do far better than anyone now expects even if an oil depletion induced migration does not occur before the primaries.

As long as the real reason behind such a migration remains obscure, the domestic discussion in the United States will be about jobs and the "threat" to American culture. The issue of immigration and border security is already a thorny one, but it will likely become even more confused as oil depletion proceeds in Mexico. All of this may develop against the backdrop of a plateau or even decline in worldwide production, something that could spark a global recession and further exacerbate concern over the perceived threat of job competition from immigrants as their numbers and their desperation rise.

It is an unhappy development that even as the need for concerted public action increases on such issues as global warming and peak oil, the American appetite for collective action is waning. The general feeling across the land is that public action somehow disproportionately benefits those who are different from America's largely white middle-class tax base, according to Peter Schrag writing in The Nation recently (subscription required).

But, the problems of global warming and oil depletion go beyond borders and will require Americans to do things collectively with other countries whose people aren't like them. And, most assuredly, the problems associated with the world's first peak oil migration aren't going to be solved if Americans bury their heads in the sand and pretend that it's somebody else's problem, one completely unconnected to our own fate.

But what might cooperation with Mexico look like? If it's intelligent cooperation, it would include conservation measures on both sides of the border and perhaps joint development of wind and solar power. It will be in our interest to help Mexico because the better things are there, the more likely it will be that Mexico's citizens will prosper in their own country rather than seek livelihoods in the United States.

But joint action such as this won't even be remotely possible if those who take their inspiration from Jean Raspail or from America's own Tom Tancredo come to dominate the immigration debate in the United States.