The Next Great Migration contests the widely-held belief that animals and humans ‘belong’ to particular places. It argues that migration is not a catastrophic crisis, but instead a natural part of both the animal and the human world. Do you draw a distinction between animals that follow migratory patterns (like monarch butterflies or whales) and animals who do not migrate, but who must move from one area to another because of habitat destruction? Between a ‘natural’ and an ‘unnatural’ migration?
Most of what we know about where animals go, historically, is based on biased methods in which scientists confirmed that animals moved where they expected them to go. So long as they presumed wild animals stayed in fixed locations, they would not – could not – find evidence to the contrary. What we’re just learning about now, thanks to new methods of tracking animal movements wherever they may go, is that many species move farther, faster, and in more complex ways than previously imagined. They have a greater physiological and navigational capacity for movement than we’ve presumed, and they overcome the geographic and biological barriers once thought to constrain them into particular habitats more readily, too. So, I don’t think we really know what the ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ amount of movement is. And generally what movement studies suggest is that the drivers of movement, in both animals and people, are multifactorial and interactive. There’s rarely a single reason.
Even if we resist the idea of ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ migration, do you think the increasing migration of humans around the world has the potential to harm humans as well as plant ecosystems? There are numerous examples of plant diseases that have been spread by human migration, such as chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease.
Yes, it does. My argument is not that migration isn’t disruptive. It is. But in the big picture, the benefits outweigh the costs. Given that, our goal should be to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs.
The risk that migrants might move plant diseases around is real, but it’s manageable. We should weigh it in its broader context, which is that pathogens move around even without humans – carried by animals on the move, or migrating birds, or ocean currents and winds – and that human movements bring benefits to plant and other ecosystems as well as harms. Think of earthworms and honeybees and almost all of our crops, for examples, all of which were ferried by humans from one continent into others. Not to mention migration’s role in injecting biological and cultural diversity, which is critical to resilient ecosystems and societies.
Your book also contests the idea of ‘native’ and ‘invasive’ species, noting that Nazi leaders like Heinrich Himmler ‘issued rules for landscape design forbidding the use of any plants deemed “nonnative”’. Biologist Ken Thompson made similar arguments in his essay for Granta 153: Second Nature. It’s a fair point. Still, what to make of the invasive species wreaking havoc on local ecosystems?
I don’t dispute the fact that some species can be invasive in certain environments and cause disastrous effects. But what many scientists who specialize in biological invasions now say is that the origins of the species are irrelevant. Invasiveness is not the sole province of alien species arriving from afar: so-called ‘native’ species can become invasive too.
Non-native species have been blamed for being invasive the way that immigrants have been blamed for causing crime. It’s not that immigrants never cause crime, or that crime isn’t a real problem, but rather that crime is not a problem of immigration. Similarly, invasiveness is not a problem of non-nativeness.
You have written about the failings of the paradigm which sees coronavirus or other diseases as an invader to a body, to a nation, and the response to it as ‘war’. What would you offer as a counter-paradigm?
The Hippocratic view that dominated Western thought before the advent of germ theory in the late 19th century described disease as the result of unique interactions between individual bodies and their local environments. They didn’t know about microbes of course, but there’s a lot to recommend the general gist, I think. We could say that there are no pathogens at all; only microbes that can become pathogenic depending on their context. We could picture nature as a continuum of living things, with microbes moving between bodies and across species boundaries. The way they do that – benignly or pathogenically – is up to us.
The strategy for preventing the spread of coronavirus in many nations has been to close the borders to all those who aren’t citizens or residents. Do you find the overlap in this kind of health measure and anti-immigration measure concerning?
I do. Because we’ve let SARS-Cov2 spread so lushly across our populations, being as still as possible is necessary right now. But closing international borders ends only one, high-profile type of movement. It still allows for plenty of transmission opportunities, up to and within the biologically arbitrary lines we’ve drawn around the edges of nation-states. In many cases, we’ve been more willing to close borders, despite the insufficiency of the measure, than take other kinds of more effective action, like paying people to stay home.
In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, a notable feature was that it was reported to have been spread by the wealthily mobile: early outbreaks in Europe centred around locations like luxury ski resorts. On the other hand, in Singapore, outbreaks centred among migrant workers who lived in cramped conditions that did not allow for adequate social distancing. How do you think class and wealth play into the ideas around migration and disease?
That aspect struck me too. It’s an expression of what Mimi Sheller calls ‘mobility capital’, that peculiar mix of documents, racial privilege, and financial resources that allows some people to move relatively freely across borders. Those with mobility capital can easily spread pathogens, as in the examples you cite. I think also of the first SARS outbreak in 2003, which was amplified into a global outbreak by business travelers who flew out of a hotel in Hong Kong, and about highly drug-resistant bacterial pathogens, which spread out of surgical centers in India and elsewhere into dozens of countries by so-called “medical tourists” who visited for cheap surgeries. Those outbreaks were not, by and large, blamed on the movement of people. That happens mostly when outbreaks coincide with the movement of people who are marginalized or unwanted in some way. The truth is that there’s almost always more than one factor that can be blamed for outbreaks. The choices we make about which factors to highlight reveal more about us and our priorities than about the nature of the outbreaks themselves.
It’s widely accepted by now that climate change will cause – is already causing – mass migration and climate refugees. Your book offers a counter-narrative: that although we have been led to believe that such migrations will cause social disorder, this is not the case. I wonder if you could highlight any particular examples that illustrate this?
Think about the people displaced by the California wildfires, or the people from Puerto Rico displaced by Hurricane Maria, many of whom moved to Florida. Populations of entire towns such as Pecan Acres in Louisiana, Shishmaref in Alaska, and along the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay have been forced out by rising seas and melting ice. Their movements have not caused anything resembling the mass disorder predicted by some alarmists. Arguably, we’ve seen more social disorder in places where people who need to move are forced to stay put.
Jenny Offill writes in her novel Weather of the pressure on those who tell stories about the climate to offer the ‘obligatory note of hope’. Do you have one to offer? Is there hope that lives, both human and non-human, will adapt more easily to climate-induced migration than we have previously thought?
Yes, I think so. Migration is how we’ve adapted to environmental change in the past, and it’s how we can adapt in the future, too. It’s already happening all around us. Eighty percent of wild species are moving into new places in sync with the changing climate. People have been moving to higher ground and into higher latitudes. Those movements are driven by climate change and other emergencies, but the movement itself is not the crisis. It’s the solution. The sooner we embrace that reality, the better off we’ll be.