environment Reviews

‘The Next Great Migration: The Story of Movement on a Changing Planet’ review: On a dynamic planet, migration is integral to life

“A wild exodus has begun. It is happening on every continent and in every ocean.” Sonia Shah quotes scientists who studied everything from plankton to frogs and found that of the 4,000 species they had tracked, between 40% and 70% had altered their distribution over the past few decades, around 90% into cooler lands and waters in sync with the changing climate.

The science journalist herself travelled far and wide to understand this phenomenon.

For instance, at McLeodganj with the looming Dhauladhar mountain range and its “heart-stopping panoramas,” and where Tibetans settled after crossing treacherous routes, she discovered that young saplings in the forests established themselves a little bit higher up the slopes every year. Since 1880, the forests had steadily climbed the mountainside, moving 19 metres uphill every decade.

Exodus and panic

In her insightful new book, The Next Great Migration, she points out that like “our wild cousins, people are on the move too,” and argues why it is necessary for the survival of the planet, contrary to popular belief.

Migrations are as old as history and run deep into the complex past, as new genetic techniques have revealed, and “a growing body of evidence suggests they may be our best shot at preserving biodiversity and resilient human societies.”

Yet, the prevalent idea of migration is that it is a disruptive force even though it is the migrants who often end up living in pitiful conditions. Images of African migrants fleeing the continent on ramshackle boats across the Mediterranean, Syrians pouring into Europe, people from Honduras and Guatemala on the long walk towards the U.S. border have filled newspapers.

Social panic invariably follows stories of movement, with migrants often associated with criminality, disease and economic drain. Shah tracks these commonly-held theories and quashes each with research and data.

Shah says scientific ideas that cast migration as a form of disorder were widely disseminated, and not only did they influence countries like the U.S. which closed its borders in the early 20th century, they also “inspired the fascist dreams of Nazis.” Some of that fervent nationalism and divisiveness are on display around the world right now.

Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. has been stridently anti-migrant; Britain voted to leave the European Union and several politicians opposed to migration have climbed into power.

Hollow narratives

Using a metaphor from nature, she ruminates that narratives used to justify anti-migrant policies are bloated and hollow. Shah compares these policies to an unusual species of mushroom called Calvatia gigantea which explode into a smoky cloud on maturity, leaving behind nothing but an empty, crinkled shell. “With even the lightest scratch on their surfaces, they [anti-migrant moves] dematerialised into a cloud of smoke.”

Rich in stories from nature and life, particularly the migrant experience, Shah builds a powerful argument on why walls of hatred against the outsider must be torn down. Over the long history of life on earth, migration’s benefits have outweighed its costs, she explains. Historians of disease have never found “any systematic association between infectious diseases and modern migration.” The relevant question to ask, according to Shah, is what we are going to do about this “force of nature,” because the next great migration will have to overcome more “purposeful barriers.”

The Next Great Migration: The Story of Movement on a Changing Planet; Sonia Shah, Bloomsbury, ₹599.


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