On the move

Have you decided where you will go when your home, farm, community or city is destroyed by climate breakdown? Thirty million Pakistani citizens are facing just that challenge. Displaced by catastrophic flooding of the Indus – the result of a long monsoon and rapid glacial melt in the north – they are looking for new, safer homes and farmland, with the prospect of finding them far from certain. For those millions, and many millions more, Nomad Century provides a guide to potentially “liveable” cities of the future – many on the fringes of the Arctic.

Gaia Vince’s advice for all climate refugees is to head for places made more attractive by the same forces that have destroyed other environments. These include Nuuk, the capital city of Greenland. Greenland’s ice sheet – the biggest on earth after Antarctica’s – has already melted significantly. In this case, Vince explains, the impact is positive: the melting ice will expose new areas and land for people “to live, farm and mine minerals”. Other recommended destinations include the small coastal town of Höfn in southeastern Iceland, and Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, a “barren outpost, winged between boreal forest, Arctic tundra and Hudson Bay”. Then there is the Cossack city of Yakutsk, capital of the Republic of Sakha in Siberia and “the largest city built on continuous permafrost”. In Yakutsk, once thawed bogs stabilize, the “landscape will be exploitable for drainage, construction or agriculture”. Under the Arctic ice there is useful agricultural soil and land, Vince assures us, which will allow the development of “a hub of connected Arctic cities”.

In the United States tornadoes, heatwaves, wildfire and drought will soon make life difficult for its 330 million citizens. The nation stands to lose half its maize crop and most of the Corn Belt, Vince argues. This has implications for us all. Together the US, Brazil and Ukraine account for nearly 90 per cent of global food exports. A 4C rise in the global temperature will slash harvests. Flooding, erosion and the fouling of freshwater will make hitherto desirable locations such as Florida, California and Hawaii uninhabitable. Equally, Vince says, mass migration north will ensure the renaissance of the Rust Belt cities, as a globally diverse community of new immigrants revitalizes them all.

A team of scientists writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has estimated that up to three billion people will have to leave their homes by 2050. So far there is no evidence of any planning by international institutions or governments for such a movement. Hence Vince’s ambitious, well-researched and wide-ranging book: a science writer’s urgent plea for policymakers to grasp the inevitability of mass migration, plan for it and implement appropriate policies.

throughout Nomad Century the author frames such preparations as of immense economic benefit to host countries. Vince presents readers with considerable evidence that even large waves of low-skilled migrants have no negative impact on the wages or employment prospects of the native population – often quite the reverse. The National Bureau of Economic Research reports that US counties that welcomed large numbers of immigrants between 1860 and 1920, for example, experienced a 57 per cent average increase in manufacturing output per capita by 1930 and an increase of up to 58 per cent in farm values . Average incomes were 20 per cent higher relative to counties with no immigration flows, and over the rest of the century educational standards in those areas greatly improved, with a corresponding drop in unemployment and poverty rates by 2000.

This evidence is widely accepted by economists, but Vince’s predictions and hopes for the future involve us in a contradiction. Migration must not be feared, apparently, because it will boost GDP, which is to say that it will increase economic activity. She cites World Bank evidence to show that

If rich countries increased their population by just 3 per cent through immigration, they would boost global GDP (economic output) by over $365 billion in less than a decade … The lead researcher, Michael Clemens, said that there were effectively ‘trillion dollar bills lying On the sidewalk’ to be picked up if borders were all opened.

And yet, as environmentalists and ecologists have long argued, capitalism’s “growth” dynamic is itself the problem. Economic history makes it clear that we “are the asteroid”. This is because “growth” under capitalism implies the continual expansion of economic activity, which finds expression in the term GDP (Gross Domestic Product) – a measure of the market value of a nation’s final goods and services produced over specific periods of time. The expectation is that GDP must always grow. Central to the expansion of economic activity is the exploitation of the planet’s finite raw materials. These industrial activities are the drivers of carbon release. These are the activities that have triggered climate breakdown and ecological degradation. One of their consequences is mass migration away from degraded environments. So Vince’s argument that migration will produce a benefit that is, on inspection, more of the same extractive capitalism is a restatement of the problem. Surely there is a case to be made for mass migration – “survival”? – that doesn’t involve “trillion dollar bills on the sidewalk.”

Vince’s strength is her positive approach. But her idealism leads to more contradictions – that flexible borders and mobility can and “must be managed at the global level”, even as we suffer “decadal erosion in the powers of global bodies, from our failure to act on greenhouse gas emissions to our failure to vaccinate the global south.” There are plenty of sound democratic reasons for building decision-making not in remote and unaccountable global institutions such as IMF, the World Bank and Nato, but closer to home. Vince ignores them, proposing instead

[a] global UN Migration Organization with real power to compel governments to accept refugees [my emphasis] … to agree a sensible plan for the redistribution of people whose circumstances are becoming harder … and to manage both the immediate and long-term strategy of relocation, remuneration, funding and, potentially, returns.

That compulsion is bound to meet resistance. And the optimism behind it feels naïve, given the constraints under which the UN Security Council operates. What is needed is sound international leadership by those who are most responsible for climate breakdown, based on co-operation and co-ordination.

Naivety is what one might expect from The Children of the Anthropocene by Bella Lack, who wrote this, her first book, when she was eighteen. In fact Lack’s ecological vision is based on real experience of transformation. She offers good advice on the many ways in which individuals and societies can limit global warming. The positive nature of her stories, based on change achieved by her peers across the world, is infectious. One such story is that of twenty-two-year-old Iris Fen Gillingham, who leads a self-sufficient life in the Catskills in New York state. After her family farm suffered three floods in quick succession in the late 2000s, Iris, a founding member of the campaign group Zero Hour, helped to organize the youth climate march in Washington DC in 2018. Now back with her family and community, she is working on the farm’s future viability. As she puts it, “The pathway to a ‘better world’ shouldn’t be a plan … it should be a conversation … The process of change we’re going through at the moment is as important … as [what] we’re striving for.”

In Indonesia a pair of sisters, twelve-year-old Melati and ten-year-old Isabel, petitioned the governor of Bali to impose a ban on plastic bags. Tourists now have to declare all such bags in their possession on arrival at the airport. And in New York Vic Barrett and twenty others have taken the structural change route. After Hurricane Sandy made landfall near Atlantic City in 2012, they filed a constitutional lawsuit against the US government, claiming that policies exacerbating climate change violated the younger generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty and property. The case took years to move through the courts and was dismissed in 2020. Undaunted, the plaintiffs intend to appeal the dismissal.

The practicality of The Children of the Anthropocene is also inspirational. “Each act”, Bella Lack writes, “has webs of cause and effect that ripple out, reverberating and shifting … unwritten histories”. And that is quite something, if not enough.

Ann Pettifor is a Council Member of the Progressive Economy Forum. Her books include The Case for the Green New Deal2019, and The Production of Money2017. She was the winner of the 2018 Hannah Arendt Prize

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