books climate change

Book review: Nomad Century, by Gaia Vince

When I was working on my book on climate and race, I planned to write a chapter on migration. I didn’t include it in the final draft because my research opened up far more questions than I could satisfactorily answer for myself, let alone for readers. I have been on the lookout for a book that really grapples with those questions ever since, and Gaia Vince’s Nomad Century is the book I have been waiting for.

The climate crisis will drive the biggest movements of people in human history. As ways of life are eroded in drying, flooding or burning landscapes, people will make the choice to move. Uninhabitable is a scary word, but we’re not talking about unliveable conditions so much as practical questions. How many times do you rebuild after a flood or a cyclone? Do you want to raise a family in an area at increasing risk of wildfires? How many years of drought and loss do you push through before you abandon a family farm? Perhaps it’s not even your decision in the end – you can’t get insurance any more, or local authorities are suspending basic services. As I have written about before, the extent of the world that could be practically uninhabitable by 2070 is eye-watering – home to 3.5 billion people.

Our world is not set up for even a minuscule fraction of the migration that is coming, and we urgently need a grown-up conversation about it. As Vince and others (see also Sonia Shah and Carola Rackete) write, migration is a form of climate adaptation. In many ways it’s the most obvious one, something humans have done throughout history: moving away from danger and seeking better prospects elsewhere. It is only very recently, the last century or so, that borders, passports and citizenship began to lock people in place. “There have never been more barriers to migration, as countries seal borders and build walls,” writes Vince. “We should not be handicapping ourselves by limiting our most important survival tool.”

Can we imagine a world where people are free to move? Where migration is managed, rather than forbidden? Thinking of billions of people on the move, with today’s anti-immigration politics, is a deeply troubling vision of the future. So it is no small feat of imagination to think beyond that, and this is where Nomad Century excels.

The book builds a case for seeing migration as a positive for all parties, with real world examples of countries that are doing things differently. There are countries with vast land resources, such as Canada and Russia. The latter is currently hostile to migration, but Canada is not and has a national strategy for welcoming new residents. Some countries have shrinking populations, and migration offers a lifeline. Climate change will also open up new places to live. Whole new cities will emerge in previously limited places, such as Greenland – a territory larger than the whole of Western Europe with a population of just 56,000 people. There is no shortage of space for a mass movement north.

The book isn’t naive about any of this. Safely redistributing the world’s population would need detailed planning, international cooperation, and new forms of citizenship. Vince explores ideas such as charter cities or international passports. Whole chapters deal with questions of how to house billions of people on the move, how to provide, food, materials and energy for that kind of shift. And how we might stabilise the climate and restore land so that people movements can flow back the other way in time.

I’ll be honest, contemplating the mass people movements that the climate crisis will trigger makes my blood run cold. It’s not the people movements themselves that trouble me, but the response of destination countries. The risk of inhumane, fascist, even genocidal responses feels all too plausible – foreshadowed by ugly policies like Britain’s ‘hostile environment’ or the Conservative’s deeply racist Rwanda plan. Nomad Century left me feeling much more hopeful, which I did not expect. There are options. Not everyone is lurching to the right. Disruption is inevitable, but tragedy is not.

Migration isn’t something we usually associate with the climate crisis. That will change in the coming years, and Nomad Century is a vital introduction to a conversation that may come to define the 21st century.

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