Chapter 1: Mobility is Destiny

Children of the twentieth century know the adages “Geography is destiny” and “Demography is destiny.” The former implies that location and resources determine our fate, while the latter suggests that population size and age structure are the most important factors. Together, they tell us that we’re stuck where we are—better hope it’s a well-populated and resource-rich country. Should we continue to buy into such determinism? Of course not. Geography is not destiny. Geography is what we make of it.

In my 2016 book Connectography I proposed a third axiom to explain the arc of global civilization: “Connectivity is destiny.” Our vast infrastructure networks—a mechanical exoskeleton of railways, electricity grids, Internet cables, and more—enable the rapid movement of people, goods, services, capital, technology, and ideas on a planetary scale. Connectivity and mobility are complementary, two sides of the same coin, and together they give rise to a fourth axiom that will define our future: Mobility is destiny.

So what’s stopping us from using our connectivity to the fullest? The root of our collective inertia lies in borders—physical, legal, and psychological. The world’s political map looks the way it does mostly for contingent reasons: where ancient civilizations settled, where European empires conquered and divided, and where natural features separate populations. Borders are where they are because that’s where they’ve been.

But the Earth is ours—not America’s or Russia’s or Canada’s or China’s. The question is: Can we discover a new cartographic pragmatism that brings political geography more in line with today’s needs?

The management guru Peter Drucker warned that “the greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence itself but to act with yesterday’s logic.” We can no longer afford to be passive observers of how human geography unfolds. Instead, we must actively realign our geographies, moving people and technologies where they are needed while keeping livable places habitable. This requires an epochal shift in the organization of global civilization, a collective resettlement strategy for the world population. But if we get this right, we’ll strengthen our odds of survival as a species, revitalize floundering economies, and forge a more sensible map of humanity.

Mass migrations are inevitable, and more than ever, they are necessary. In the coming decades, entire overpopulated regions of the world might be abandoned, while some depopulated territories may gain massively in population and become new civilizational centers. If you are lucky enough to be someplace from which you do not have to migrate—such as Canada or Russia—then chances are that migrants are coming your way. To paraphrase Lenin: You may not be interested in migration, but migration is interested in you.

The world of tomorrow is not only full of mobile people but is defined by the mobility of everything. Everyone has a mobile phone, meaning communications, Internet, medical consultations, and finance are all accessible anywhere; nobody goes to a “bank.” Both work and study have migrated online; the ranks of digital nomads have exploded. Ever more people are living in mobile homes and other movable dwellings. Even “fixed” investments have become fungible: We can 3D print buildings, set up factories and hospitals anywhere, generate electricity from solar or other renewable sources, and have drones deliver us anything we need. As we move, so does the supply chain: Labor and capital can perpetually shift to new land, generating fresh geographies of productivity. Mobility is the lens through which to view our future civilization.

The concept of mobility blends the material and philosophical. It raises questions such as: Why are we moving, and what do those shifts reveal about our needs and desires? Then there are political and legal questions to explore: Who is allowed to move? What restrictions do we face on movement and why? And last but not least, there are normative questions: Where should people go? What is the optimal distribution of people around the world? Mobility is also an intangible and spiritual experience. Pause and appreciate how fluidly our anatomy carries us. Moving stimulates creativity, the process of witnessing ways of life coming together. Philosophers such as John Dewey meditated on the aesthetics of moving freely both in nature and the social milieu, eloquently arguing that such interaction imbued life with meaning. Walter Benjamin spent a decade reflecting on the significance of the glass-covered arcades built in mid-nineteenth-century Paris and the wandering flâneurs they invited. To move is to be free.

Are you ready to move? Is your welfare at risk from political and economic crises, technological disruptions, or climate change? Would circumstances be better for you and your family somewhere else? What is stopping you from going there? Whatever it is, you will need to get over it. For billions of people, perpetual mobility is becoming the norm. Movement may become an end in itself: One won’t just move; one will always be moving. But perhaps, as we move, we will rediscover what it means to be human.