Migration, geography and humanity: Parag Khanna, author of 'MOVE' on the Book Club Podcast

Parag Khanna, Senior Research Fellow, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, Singapore speaking during the Session "Strategic Geography: Connected Corridors" at the Annual Meeting 2018 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 23, 2018.Copyright by World Economic Forum / Sandra Blaser
Parag Khanna, author of MOVE: The Forces Uprooting Us
Image: World Economic Forum
  • Subscribe to Book Club wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • This episode's author, Young Global Leader Parag Khanna, answered questions from members of the Forum's Book Club.
  • MOVE: The Forces Uprooting Us looks at one of the biggest issues of our time: mass migration. He explains why climate change will uproot billions of people, and suggest ways that can be made to work for the migrants, and the countries that welcome them.
  • Read an extract of the book here.

Parag Khanna

On the third episode of the World Economic Forum Book Club Podcast, we're joined by geographer and Young Global Leader Parag Khanna.

Parag was first featured in the Book Club in 2019, with his book The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict & Culture in the 21st Century. He is the founder and managing partner of FutureMap, a data and scenario based strategic advisory firm.

He joins us to discuss his latest book, MOVE: The Forces Uprooting Us, which focuses on mass migration and its causes. He also takes questions posed by some of our 200,000 Book Club members.

I first asked Parag about the key forces at play when it comes to mass migration and how can we adapt to ensure we avoid the worst outcomes? And of course, why do we migrate?

Parag Khanna:

Historically, climate has always been a significant driver in our human geography. Going back to the retreat of the last Ice Age, more than ten thousand years ago, we began to settle in the latitudes that scientists call the climate niche: right roughly between 20 and 30 degrees latitude. So of course, now with climate change accelerating, this climate niche is shifting northward. A large share of the human population might need to do so as well.

Whether it will is another question.

Beatrice: What other pressures affect migration? And are they also something to consider around the world today?

Parag: So let's take the last thousands of years where climate wasn't one of the factors. Still, people migrated because, of course, politics was a major driver: civil wars, international conflicts, genocides and so forth. And that obviously carries all the way up to the present. If we look at the collapse of Syria and now Afghanistan and so on and so forth.

Then, there's economic crises and economic rationales. During the financial crisis of more than a decade ago, southern Europeans moved to northern Europe. Americans in the Rust Belt moved to the Sun Belt and so on.

Labour automation: when your factory closes down somewhere, you have to move somewhere else in search of a job, right?

Demographic imbalances: the mere gap between old and young. And the labour shortages in ageing countries have been a huge driver, especially in the 20th century. Think of Turks in Europe, Latinos and Asians in the United States. So much of it was driven sheerly by demographic imbalances.

Now, bottom line, every single one of these drivers is at its most intense point, right? All of them. And therefore, it's not a great stretch as much as it stretches the imagination. It's not a very ludicrous assumption that with all of these drivers of mobility and migration in overdrive that coming out of the pandemic, we will see an explosion of mass migration.

What I set out to do is to explore the new vectors, the new directions, the new geographies of origin and destination. And of course, can we handle it? And I believe we can, and I try to kind of create a roadmap for that.

Beatrice: Your book outlines some probable scenarios which sketch out how the world might handle these various pressures. You mentioned regional fortresses, the new Middle Ages, amongst others. Could you talk us through them?

Parag: I do begin by exploring four scenarios, and they're not at all sci-fi. You have to create scenarios that are not completely mutually exclusive because it should be possible for elements of all of them to be true at the same time. Otherwise, your scenario is not realistic and you shouldn't even build it right. It has no plausibility.

I tried to construct four plausible scenarios and juxtapose them, but show how all of them will actually come true. And all of them are coming true at the same time right now in this world and will continue to.

They are built along two axes know the x axis around more or less migration and the y axis run more or less sustainability. One of the scenarios is regional fortresses. It's the one that most resembles the present. It's where the clusters like North America, Europe and Northeast Asia kind of wall themselves off and say, Look, we're going to invest in sustainability for ourselves and self-sufficiency in energy and so forth. And we might provide some technology to help the rest of the world cope with climate change. But we're certainly not going to absorb a lot of migrants. So globally, it may not be all that sustainable, nor is there a lot of migration.

The new Middle Ages scenario is more like a hunter-gatherer scramble, right? Because we have these cataclysmic chain reactions from a climate standpoint, supply chains are disrupted. We are left to our own local devices and have to scavenge in a way as cities and communities, and with political fragmentation as well, which very much reminiscent of the kind of mediaeval structure, particularly in Europe at the time. And that's, of course, low sustainability and low migration.

Barbarians at the gate is the third scenario, and that's low sustainability, high migration because you have this unbearable climate catastrophe. People are leaving unsustainable red zones and seeking to knock down walls and borders and so forth. But you obviously are not having huge amounts investment in global ecological resilience either.

Beatrice: Wow. So those are some pretty bleak outlooks, but you have another outlook you call Northern Lights, which takes into account a more fluid approach to migration, where populations move according to the local conditions, but where, crucially, our infrastructure is set up to accommodate that. Could you talk about that a little bit more?

Parag: So northern lights actually means people are actually continuously moving and we become more nomadic in many ways, and therefore we have to build our infrastructures and habitats accordingly to be more sustainable and enable mobility.

It doesn't look like anything we've had in the past. Unless you're looking at, most of the last hundred thousand years, the human species was nomadic, but not in a high tech sense. So a super high tech and sustainable, you know, nomadism is what the northern lights scenario looks like. And that's what was really fun about the book because I didn't think I would be getting into Kim Stanley Robinson sci-fi territory. But I started to, and it was very gratifying because it awakens you to the possibility of us actually using the technological tools that we have at our disposal today at a much more radically enhanced universal scale.

Beatrice: So what does the infrastructure in those cities look like? Does everyone need to start moving to high tech megacities? What do these places look like?

Parag: It's not really about can we build one giant megacity or several of them to house people? It's actually can we achieve the resource production that is needed for human sustainability. There isn't one silver bullet to answer that question, right? But obviously, it comes down to the basics. We do have to be thinking about water. We have to be thinking about about food and about energy.

And when we think about water, first of all, the places that are stricken by mega droughts are not the places where you want to be using the latest technologies like atmospheric water capture, which is a really incredible and promising technology. But you know, right now it can fill a swimming pool in a couple of days with fresh water. But that's still not enough for a town, right?

So we need to be actually thinking about when we resettle people in the climate oases, which again, is a term I use a lot in the book to designate areas that are sufficiently fertile, right? How do we move people there but not ruin those places as we move people there such that they would then have to flee again because we've ruined those places?

We have a finite amount of space to work with, especially given the climate effects that we have created. So to me, the mission is the best practises for this sustainable habitat development. Scaling them in these climate oasis zones and absorbing people, but with much less footprint. And that is the thought process that we have to go through.

Beatrice: So when you talk about ideas around nomadism and continual adaptation for you, migration isn't just a challenge to be met, but it's actually a key way for us to adapt to the climate challenge. What can governments and businesses do to harness migration as a way to adapt to the climate challenge we all face?

Parag: Of all the adaptation things we can do, such as the new kinds of urban developments and housing settlements and habitats, that's adaptation. We don't talk in the COP26 process or anywhere about the single silver bullet, if you will. And that is mobility, that is migration. We don't talk about it - climate is over here and migration is over here.

That's fairly obvious. Why? Because the one arena of sovereignty that remains sacrosanct for every government in the world, it's controlling who comes in and out of your borders. So we have to work piece by piece, country by country, region by region to try to put migration into the climate adaptation agenda and raise that up the global agenda. And that's, of course, something for governments to take seriously.

Companies play a big role as well because they are the ones who feel the labour shortages most. So do they feel that pinch. Most immediately, you're going to have more and more people, you know, more and more countries saying, you know, we need more people. And that's something I'm strongly advocating for. We know that ethically, morally and even economically in dollars and cents, immigration restrictions are bad economic policy.

I am for supply and demand, dictating our immigration policy much more than xenophobia and populism. And of course, in all of the innovation in the technological areas that that we've been talking about, there too, it's business in the lead. I'm optimistic because of the incredible amount of innovation happening in these areas and the successful deployment in some of these technical technologies. And as you know, very well, it's really all about scale, scale and political will.

Beatrice: I think you're right. Political will is the challenge here. Many people would look around the world today and say migration is causing serious social difficulties. You have the rise of nationalism or nativism in many countries where there's mass migration fit into that picture

Parag: We have and this is something that everyone needs to be reminded of, whether you're pro or anti-immigration. For the last 100 years, we have had hundreds of millions, actually, you know, over a billion people resettle across continents and across oceans almost entirely peacefully, mutually beneficially and with political stability, right? We've already done this. There is nothing new here, right? We are very good at this. We are so bad at international cooperation in so many areas.

Here is something that humankind has done incredibly well, welcoming people who have been victims of of genocides and international conflicts and civil wars. And we haven't done enough right. Of course, so many more refugees could have been resettled from all of the conflicts of last decades. But I'm talking about in the grand overarching right sweep of absorption of migrants waves upon waves upon waves crossing again, continents and oceans. We've been doing this for 200 plus years at a massive worldwide scale. There's nothing new here. We should continue to do it and we should get out of the way of it, and we should devote way more fiscal resources and political resources not to debating whether or not immigration is good or bad, but to promoting assimilation. It's about integration.

When I look at Europe, I say by the numbers Europe has does not have an immigration problem. It has an emigration problem. It has a a fertility problem. The real political challenge, therefore, is assimilation of more migrants, and a lot more positive efforts can go in that direction. And again, there's good case studies. Look at Germany, right, absorbing more migrants, growing its labour force in the process. You can see the efforts that migrants make to integrate, and you can see that populist forces are very much on the wane in the country. So, that is that is the way it can look. Canada is another example. Even Japan, they've never been as many foreigners in Japan as there are right now as we speak.

Beatrice: So how do we plan this out? How do we prepare and plan for this migratory future?

Parag: Well, a very important concept in the book for me is what I call pre-designing, right? Pre-designing the habitats that will be able to absorb larger populations to prepare them for it. So supply-led growth and those kinds of concepts. And I want to kind of close with this.

Think of the irony. The societies in the world that are de-populating the fastest, that have the highest proportion of elderly people, are the ones that are the most sustainable and most liveable in the future.

Russia shrinking population. Europe shrinking population. Canada, without immigration would be shrinking. So I advocate for what I call a cosmopolitan utilitarianism, right? So, you know, fraternity with one and fellow man. But but also utilitarian meaning seeking to improve the living conditions and the welfare for as many people as possible. And that will require enabling people to leave areas that again through our own deeds of the unliveable and helping to resettle them in places that are.

We will be glad that we did, because the world population is plateauing at just about, you know, less than nine billion people, potentially. So we have a self-interest in this because we need to actually preserve our numbers as a human species. And this is where the book begins, because we predicted twenty twenty-five years ago, demographers thought the world population would reach 15 billion people and we'd be in a Malthusian crisis. But we're not in such a crisis. We actually need to worry about collapse. And so therefore we should be preserving our numbers and the surest way to going to do so to adapt, to adapt is to move.

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