Once (I remember it was on one of the hour-long train journeys between Doncaster and Grimsby when one had come up fast from London and now deeply regretted the slowness of the connection with the East Coast main line) two English people (I never deduced their relationship) talked long and loudly about why they were glad one now lived in Spain (where I gathered he spent most of each year) and the other in Canada (from where I gathered he was returning for the first time in very many years) since immigration had ruined England.
Making the immediate limited obvious point is too easy. Making the faux sophisticated point that we are all relatively recent immigrants is too smug. There is a more challenging point which it is much harder to face.
The European population surge of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (as an agricultural society intensified and gave way to an industrial one, alongside improvements in sanitation and medicine) was dealt with by the safety-valve of mass emigration to places such as America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa – there may be more descendants of the eighteenth century inhabitants of the British Isles today outside them than inside them – and the largely displaced native populations of those countries took the consequences of this. It happened despite the fact that new travel and international communication possibilities were in fact comparatively poor. It happened while the environmental consequences of industrialisation were visibly acute only in the largest urban areas.
The world-wide population surge of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (similar factors are rolled out across the world) has happened with no remaining safety space – the human population of the world has more than doubled in my life-time – and native peoples of both the British Isles and the countries we have populated are undisplaceable and unwilling to face any consequences. Travel and international communication possibilities are much greater so intensify the pressure. The environmental consequences of industrialisation are now visibly acute everywhere.
In this context, ridiculing overheard train conversations, railing against Trump and despairing at Brexit are hardly the point. Those who do not perceive themselves to be the products of eighteenth and nineteenth century population expansion and redistribution unconsciously wish to isolate ourselves from the consequences of visible twentieth and twenty-first century population expansion and redistribution pressures. It is simply that this instinct (expressed by a majority as sneers at multi-cultural societies, as votes aimed at making one’s own nation great, as policies to uncouple formal international interdependence) cannot actually remove anyone from the global situation in which we are all caught up together.
Dead children on Mediterranean beaches and in the Rio Grande are individual human tragedies and are also the hard to face markers not of where our boundaries will be preserved but of where these shifting human tectonic plates are colliding inexorably.
The tree is at the end of our road.