The Doorstep: The New Age of Mass Migration, with FutureMap's Parag Khannna

October 14, 2021

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, Nick Gvosdev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Council.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a Senior Fellow at Carnegie Council, and very excited to welcome today Parag Khanna, who will be speaking to us about his new book MOVE: The Forces Uprooting Us.

Parag is the founder and managing partner of FutureMap, a global strategy advisory firm, and has written several books, but this latest one is about global migration scenarios for what will happen as a result of climate change and as a result of the movement of people. It is a great conversation. He will be joining us in a few minutes. I am very excited to share some of his scenarios for the future.

One of his questions is, "Where will we live in 2050?" Nick, I don't know where I'll be in 2050. Do you have any idea?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: No clue, but I think that this increasingly is a question that we're all grappling with as we look at what The Guardian did this past week with its very graphic images of taking beloved seaside locales and showing what an increase in sea levels will do in a lot of places that people take for granted as being places that they might live in—South Florida, the California coast, Manhattan—that absent a shift in the climate or mitigation measures are going to look a lot different. This really does raise the questions, as we are already seeing now, of: Where are people are going to live? Where is there available land and resources? What's the food supply going to be like?

We have already seen this past week that the real jump in energy prices is leading to not only fuel going up, but because natural gas is going through the roof fertilizer prices are going up, and we have already seen the first major spikes in food prices. We are seeing goods coming off the shelves.

As a Doorstep vignette, last night I was doing some shopping and already noticing some empty shelves and signs in the supermarket saying: "We apologize. There are supply disruptions. There are supply chain issues, and we don't have this particular product available." Forget 2050. We're already seeing some of these impacts now in 2021.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Yes. The other news that I wanted to talk about is that over the last couple of weeks government officials in the United States have cited the fact that about 20 or so species have gone extinct and so should be moved off the endangered list to the extinct list, including the ivory-billed woodpecker, which people in the South are familiar with. As I was looking at that, I was looking at the biodiversity conference going on right now in China and the statement today that came out there that more than a hundred countries have pledged to put protection of habitats at the heart of government discussions, but what does that really mean? Is it more Greta Thunberg saying, "It's just talk?" What are countries really committing to?

I think in addition to migration of people we have to look at the migration of animals and the problem with biodiversity and, as you know, the food chain. That's all interconnected. As we like to say at The Doorstep, "Everything is interconnected and affects us at home."

Are you hearing anything in particular from the biodiversity conference from your sources?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: What I'm hearing is that, of course, this is a very serious issue that we all need to put at the center, and that stays at the center until you run up against other considerations. So, whether it's the biodiversity conference, we just had the EU summit in Slovenia, where all of a sudden after a year of hearing about green targets and climate change it's back to "How do we get more oil and gas into the market?" because consumers are worried about higher prices and shortages and the like.

I don't know that we have found yet a framework for this—and I know that our guest Parag Khanna will have already met this gentleman—but I had the opportunity to speak with Nils Schmid, who is a member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, and he is talking about the challenge of how do we in the West and around the world come up with a way to move to more sustainable means of production but also acknowledging that telling people that you're going to have to take a cut in your standard of living is not going to be electorally persuasive.

I am less concerned about these conferences. I think it's all important. It's more do we actually have policymakers who are able to help bridge the gap and be able to create the frameworks that will incentivize the markets to move forward with the new technologies that we need in energy and food production that can then help protect habitats and the environment and help us deal with the impacts of climate change.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I don't want to leave us with all doom and gloom before we talk to Parag, but I want to talk about the connections because I do believe that global connections can save us. Have you watched Squid Game yet?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I have not. I am aware of it but have not watched it.

TATIANA SERAFIN: It is one of the number-one shows. I think it hit number one here in the United States. It has been viewed over 111 million times around the world. In 94 countries it has hit the top ten. Why am I mentioning it? It's a South Korean series talking about soft power. We get really bogged down with the physicality of things, but I do think soft power is important. I do think global connections can be made via social media, and I think Squid Game is one of them.

The other thing I want to mention is that this particular show has led to an increase in the study of Korean, so the app Duolingo—I don't know if you've played with that—has seen an uptick of 76 percent in the United Kingdom for studying Korean and a 40 percent rise in the United States for studying Korean. I think that is really surprising because I don't normally equate Americans with great study of language, but Korean is on the list, and I think it is really something interesting to note Netflix's strategy—speaking of The Doorstep, it is very much like The Doorstep—they take good local content that connects globally, and that's exactly what we do at The Doorstep, talk about issues that are impactful locally but are important globally.

I don't know. I think we need to speak with Netflix next about their strategies reaching people, but I think that this idea of global interconnectedness is really important and can provide maybe an opportunity to find solutions for some of the problems we'll be discussing with Parag in a few minutes.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: And it goes to the fact, Tatiana, that you anticipate trends before they happen because in the very first Doorstep you were highlighting Korean soft power culture, youth culture as a driving force, so I think this just again confirms that you were ahead of the game on Korea's role in helping to spawn a truly global interconnected certainly youth culture but just culture in general.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Absolutely.

Join us in a few minutes as we talk to Parag.

Parag, thank you so much for joining us, and congratulations on your wonderful book MOVE, which I just got in the mail yesterday. I am so excited today to talk to you about how you researched this book, what your goal is with this book, and especially the timeliness of this book ahead of the Conference of the Parties (COP) 26 in November and in the midst of the biodiversity conference going on in China right now as we speak, and so many important topics on climate change, migration, and where we're going to be in 2050.

When I read that first chapter I thought, Where am I going to live in 2050? I don't know. I hope New York, but New York City is one of those places that might be under water. Is that right?

PARAG KHANNA: It could well be. Just be flexible, Tatiana.

Let's cut straight to the punchline. The book is called MOVE, but it's about mobility as a human right, mobility as destiny, mobility as optionality, and mobility as a strategy, and that is where someone like you or me fits in, a professional who could be anywhere and should preserve the capacity to be anywhere given changing circumstances because it's really about how humanity, each and every one of us, responds to complexity, and complexity is almost by definition something none of us can control. You can try to control for the local politics or your economic conditions, but you can't control your environment at the same time.

So it's almost impossible to hold everything equal in this day and age, and we are in a way all price takers. We are all vulnerable to this complexity. So our response is in that classic mammalian fight-or-flight way to move if need be, or if we just want to, or in search of a better life. So that is generally what it's about.

I think it's actually very funny, Tatiana, that you mentioned the timing because, of course, this book was supposed to come out a year ago.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Ah.

PARAG KHANNA: But COP 26 has arranged itself very nicely to coincide because, of course, climate adaptation is one major feature. As New Yorkers, you know on page one I mention my friend Greg Lindsay, who lived in Brooklyn. When Hurricane Sandy hit, he said, "Enough is enough," and he moved to Montreal.

So ask the question for yourself: Where is your Montreal? What is your backup plan? I grew up in New York. My parents just moved right before the pandemic to California. That was their sort of backup. But for them it was more like they don't want to shovel snow anymore.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And it was during the pandemic, as you mention in some of your recent op-eds, which I have been enjoying reading in National Geographic and Literary Hub, the movement to Florida during the pandemic, and yet Florida, Texas, and even California are some of the states that you cite as states that might be suffering the most over the next few decades in the migration move.

PARAG KHANNA: Some might call that irrational, but it's really about the difference between short-term and long-term logic. A hedge fund manager who wants to escape Manhattan income tax, a city tax, could move to Miami and buy a $20 million mansion, and even if it was destroyed one year later in some tropical storm, he would still have saved money versus his New York City tax bill. So everyone has different incentives.

Of course, climate models would not have told people in 2019 and 2020 to move to Miami, and yet it is one of the cities whose population has grown. There are obviously climate-resilient cities whose populations have risen during the pandemic—Denver; Boise, Idaho; Charlotte, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; and so forth—but the most climate-resilient zone in the United States would have to be the Great Lakes region, and so I focus a lot on that in the book as a really ironic kind of fact because its population is still declining, Michigan in particular. It has just lost a congressional seat, if I'm not mistaken. So the economic logic of simply saying, "Well, we should go to Michigan because it's cheap and because it's climate-resilient," doesn't yet square I should say with its economic realities. But I do think those will come into alignment.

Then fundamentally, Tatiana, as you know, this is actually not so much a book about migration as it is about geography. It's about aligning the geographies of where our resources are on the planet, where people are on the planet, where our borders are on the planet, and where our infrastructure is on the planet, and it is the misalignment of these four layers of geography that causes so much stress in our global system.

Of course, most people, when they analyze the world, especially in the world of international relations, don't follow the turtles all the way down. And when you do, it does, of course—and I know that you and Nick and all of your listeners will appreciate—come down to geography, but geographies in the plural, and that is, I would say, where I have tried to be innovative here. A lot of people writing about geography, myself included, have focused on one prism, and what I am trying to do here is to take the four different geographies that we rarely talk about in a harmonized, synchronized, and a merged way, put them all together, and try to reconcile them.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that's so important as you mentioned for our audience, which tries—and what we try to do for our audience is to look at these global issues and bring them to our listeners' and readers' doorsteps: How is this going to impact you?

One of the terms from your book—it's about maps, it's about geography—you also mention "climatology." I'm wondering if you can explain to our audience a little bit more about climatology and how that works with your analysis.

PARAG KHANNA: I cite the beloved Professor Charles Pirtle from Georgetown, who taught many of us geopolitics. Anyone who was an undergrad in the School of Foreign Service in the 1980s and 1990s would have taken "Map of the Modern World," and I very nostalgically work him in there.

TATIANA SERAFIN: How about that! 

PARAG KHANNA: So you're one of the initiated. We need a secret handshake.

That class obviously had a profound impact on everyone who took it. I have mentioned it in various essays in the past briefly, but here I really wanted to give it some space to breathe.

Of course, Charlie would say, "You are all cartographically ignorant." He would thunder at us, but that was also a class fundamentally about understanding the different layers of geography. It wasn't normatively attempting to coach us in terms of pursuing some kind of reconciliation, but that's where one of his most memorable phrases, and here I am quoting it verbatim 26 years later, he said, "International relations is mere meteorology, and geopolitics is climatology." The deep science of understanding the dynamism and change in the global system fundamentally is about geography and the equivalent of climatology.

"Climatography" I guess would be, "How does climate change affect specific geographies and understanding that impact?" In half a sentence what this book is about is where complexity collides with geography and the impact that has on us as human beings individually, and that is going to be highly differentiated based upon the climatography, if you will.

TATIANA SERAFIN: One of the biggest changes that you speak about is this movement from South to North, whether that is in the United States, which you just mentioned, or the movement of peoples from the Caribbean to the North, from the Global South to the North. I was particularly fascinated by your observations in Russia and some of the changes going on there that we might not be seeing and that might not be talked about but that are already happening. Can you speak to us a little bit more about the South-to-North migration and the change that you see in the world in the next decades?

PARAG KHANNA: This is something that has been widely underreported. It is an issue that I have been tracking now for, dare I say, 20 years, since the first time I started traveling into Central Asia, parts of the Russian Far East, and the Sino-Russian border. When I first started speaking about this issue—and it was originally raised more by environmental watchdog groups and so forth around overexploitation of Russian forestry by Chinese companies and a sort of influx of seasonal and maybe even permanent settlers, merchants, and otherwise from China and the Russian Far East, and there was talk of a "yellow peril" in Moscow and so forth—when I documented or just put together all the various reportage I was definitely persona non grata in Moscow for a good while.

But over time what you found, it's not that it has come 180 degrees—Russia's immigration policy is not Canada's policy—but as you saw in National Geographic a couple of weeks ago I provided a fair number of quotations from administrators, officials, and bureaucrats who I have actually spoken to in places like Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, and Vladivostok as I have traveled to these places, and I flesh it out more in the book according to the subregions of the Russian Far East.

But when you talk to the people who actually run, govern, and administer the Russian state on a day-in-and-day-out basis, you realize that their appreciation of their own dilemma is far more refined, sophisticated, and nuanced than what you hear in the Kremlin. If you were to judge Russia's actual demographics and demographic policy and strategy in future and create a scenario around it based purely on Kremlin statements, you would assume that there was no migration into Russia, and of course that's not true.

Whereas if you look at the people who face this challenge—again, the bureaucrats and technocrats way out in the Far East—of managing Chinese infrastructure investment, wanting to diversify their economy, wanting to reindustrialize certain areas, and wanting to harness their agricultural potential, guess what the answer always comes down to? "We need more people." And what's the one thing that the Russian Far East has an ever-diminishing supply of? It's indigenous people.

That's the reality, and of course climate change puts us into uncharged territory, let's face it. There are many situations, the Russian Far East not exclusively—and the book is full of them—geographies in the world where I say, "Tell me how you believe that the demographic map stands still while climate change accelerates and you have all the verdant, habitable geographies here and all of the people here." Russia and Central Asia—I have a whole chapter on Kazakhstan too, I talk about the Caucasus, Eastern Turkey—are all places that are increasingly livable relative to regions like South Asia.

The conclusion I come to is I look at the new vectors of mass migration, directionality, populations, and ethnicities that we have literally never seen before migrating in the directions that they will migrate in in the years ahead, and we will live to see that. I don't recall any prior other documented source other than my own firsthand observation of ever larger populations of Indians and South Asians in Kazakhstan and in Russia, so we have this South Asia-to-Central Asia migration, and then the forecast that I am making about Persians and Arabs moving into Eastern Turkey and the Caucasus and potentially into Russia as well. All you have to do is look at a map that overlays the geography of resources and habitability with the demographics, and you would only naturally come to that conclusion, irrespective of the political geography.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Listening to all of this and having read the book and related works that you have written, what does all of this mean for the structure of global politics and really the idea that politics will be a series still of nation-states that are competing? What happens to the idea of the state or blocs? As people move do they carry old loyalties with them? Do they get subsumed into new loyalties? And maybe—I guess this begs the question—is the 21st century going to be a contest between states which can absorb new people and bring them into their matrix versus states that can't and that will fall behind?

PARAG KHANNA: Great question, Nick.

I think fundamentally from a geographical standpoint it is really about the stability of regional federations, and the world is moving certainly from an economic gravity standpoint more and more into these regional formations. Over the course of the Trump administration but predating his administration, American trade with Canada and Mexico each bilaterally came to exceed American trade with China. So you really have a de facto North American union. Though we in North America would never speak of such supranationalism, there is a continentalism. As you know, in 19th-century geopolitical thought, continentalism is a very significant tradition. So in a way the United States is now practicing a continentalism, as are Canada and Mexico technically. We are all engaging in continentalism in that tradition, and that's a very good thing, to strive for a regional self-sufficiency and lack of dependency on other regions.

Europe has already been there for some time in terms of trade and now in monetary policy, but it is still not there obviously—as we see every day with the gas issue—in terms of energy and food, but they could do it, and no region is committing more capital with a manageable population size to be able to do it. Of course, it is a region that is climate-resilient, let's bear in mind. If you can see the maps behind me or the maps in the book, Europe is pretty well placed in all of this, let's face it, as climate change accelerates. So Europe still matters very significantly in this regard. 

Then Asia is still on the one hand a system that is more economically integrated than ever before but still geopolitically divided.

Now let's bring in the demographics because most migration has tended to be regional anyway, but, as we were discussing earlier, there are examples of inter-regional migration that are going to be different. In the demographic context of a global population plateau, a global demographic plateau by which the world population is leveling off at about 9 billion people in the coming decades, and again in geopolitics, in classical geopolitics otherwise, demographics are a foundation of power, so you might say collecting people is collecting power, and in a depopulating world we do want to ensure that a powerful region, if you will, has that demographic magnetism and that it maintains a large, stable, and demographically balanced population between old and young.

That is actually quite problematic right now in North America because both the United States and Canada are at sub-replacement fertility levels absent immigration. The United States—Canada in particular is going out of its way to bring in 400,000 people a year, which is more than 1 percent of its population. The United States has dropped off a bit, but I have some faith that the Biden administration is going to return to pre-Trump-era immigration policy, so I think North American demographics can remain very healthy.

Europe is really the interesting case because its demographics are downright terminal without mass migration, but where is it going to get those people from? So that brings us back to one of these non-traditional vectors. In the book I talk about the rise of Asian Europeans. It's not cheeky, but it's just kind of funny in a personal context because I immigrated to America and grew up as an Asian American, and that's just a term that we are familiar with because there are 25 million Asian Americans. But there is no such thing as an Asian European, and the reason is because there is only 4 million of them, and the data is so sparse that I literally had to add it up: How many Vietnamese are in France? How many Pakistanis are in Spain? How many Bangladeshis are in Italy, and on and on. I literally added it up, and I came up with about 4 million.

But to make a very serious point, Nick and Tatiana, I forecast—this is one of the scenarios that I map out in the book—that there will be tens of millions more Asians in Europe in the years ahead because Europe actually views them as an important geography of origin to plug its labor shortages, and it feels that they are more capable of assimilation than the Arab migrant populations and the African populations. They are getting both, of course, in the same way that the United States is getting migrants from all directions, but for Europe to be experiencing this is obviously quite novel, and that could be, if managed well, a source of strength, of vitality, and of industriousness for Europe.

Germany is absolutely ground zero for this because, of course, Germany is the only country with a growing labor force and a fundamentally strong economic position and economic expansion, and it has done so on the back of bringing in and incorporating migrants into its labor force. It's another reason why Europe may be better positioned than people think in this future.

But notice I did not really talk too much, other than Germany, about specific states. I really focus on the regional level because we are simultaneously moving into these softer regional federations.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I do want to ask, though, because you mentioned in the beginning of our conversation this idea of short-term thinking and planning versus long-term thinking and planning, and I feel like we are in a very short-attention-span, short-termism way of looking at things and dealing with problems, and migration is one of them. In a certain sense, migration has been weaponized by politicians. The latest that concerns me, for example, is what Poland is doing with migrants at the border that are coming in through Belarus, sending them back, flouting EU and UN conventions, and many states in Europe are not very friendly towards migrants or refugees.

So there is that, the weaponization of migration. When you look at migration, is it also refugees or is it pure economic migration?

PARAG KHANNA: Of course. Let's remember that particularly in the 20th century the majority of migration was economic, and I say that despite the fact that the 20th century was also a century of world wars, genocides, and expulsions. Despite those numbers that we know from World War I, World War II, and the inter-War period, the late 20th century economic migration massively dwarfs that. It was tens of millions of people crisscrossing the world in search of economic opportunity, so the Latin American population and Asian populations rising from the 1960s onward in the United States because of the Immigration Reform Act and, of course, the guest workers coming into Europe from Turkey and elsewhere are just several examples of that. So we are a species of "economic migrants," if you will, in terms of recent history.

On the political level, of course, you continue to have political refugees and the weaponization of migration, and those instances number still in the single-digit millions. That is significant and it's tragic, but in the grand scheme of things when I categorize these, let's remember that in this century climate migrants already outnumber political and economic migrants. I do take them as a totality, but in each region, each constellation that we look at, the composition of the movement of people is going to be different. In some cases, it is going to be more economic than environmental or political. In other cases, it's going to be more political. So I do think when it comes to refugee flows and this weaponization phenomenon, of course, this is where the Mediterranean region, Turkey, and now Eastern Europe when it comes to what is happening between Belarus, Lithuania, and so forth, those kinds of situations come into play.

Again, we have these incredibly tragic situations. Obviously, one has to mention what Spain, Italy, Greece, and France are doing in terms of dealing with militias to prevent migrant flows across the Mediterranean. I think this is all obviously terrible, not only from a humanitarian standpoint and the fact that lives are being played with in this way and exploited, but when you look at the labor shortages in these economies they could actually do with a lot more workers in those societies. Of course, these would be unassimilated migrants, and it would be extremely difficult—and again, I have nothing but humane reactions to the situation, but at the same time you can also step back, and if you look at it technocratically, you would say: "Wait. Greece has labor shortages in agriculture. So does Italy. They could really use these people. Why can't we find a way for them to grapple pragmatically?"

This is a legal question, and I talk about this in the book. We are in uncharted territory because right now in European political systems they are having these debates about sending back asylum seekers and refugees to Syria because in some justice systems they have deemed that Syria is stable-ish enough-ish, so you can put people on a plane. The Syrians are, of course, saying: "No, please don't send me back. You're basically signing my death sentence." But they are being put on planes and sent back, and Sweden and other countries are doing this.

Now I want you to apply the same logic to a climate scenario. We don't have a precedent for this. Can you send a climate refugee back to Eritrea or some country that has no more water? Can you really do that in good conscience or otherwise? No. These are some of the issues that I'm grappling with, so the weaponization issue that we are talking about right now is one issue, but it is not the only one, and we have to treat them each in their particular situation.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Listening to this calls to mind that human history is replete with mass migrations often caused by climatic factors, as we know from the migrations that ultimately went through the Roman Empire and the Han Empire in the third, fourth, and fifth centuries, but what you're saying here also really speaks again to questions about territory and sovereignty. At some point are you going to have people saying, "We need water, your country has land and water and doesn't have a lot of people, we need your land and water?" I can see this could either lead to, as in the past, war and conflict, or do you see a process by which the international order will be able to accommodate and rebalance populations?

As you said, a climate migrant from Eritrea, at some point people in the Maldives will no longer have a country because it will disappear under the oceans. Are we going to create a homeland and say, "We're going to find a piece of Northern Europe which will become the Maldivian homeland?" How is this going to work itself out, do you think?

PARAG KHANNA: I don't have a lot of faith in our collective action capability and foresight. We have foresight in terms of seeing that this is going to happen but again not really the diplomatic toolkit or the degree of international cooperation to make it happen.

Let's remember that the strongest vestige that remains of sovereignty is really the control over the movement of people across borders because we can't control pathogens, drugs, pollution, and cybercrime, but we can still more or less stop people from moving across borders. So sovereignty and mass migration are still in some ways quite antithetical.

In terms of where can we imagine a novel approach is, you would only see it at a localized level. It is not about large-scale population transfer across regions in a coordinated way. I wish it were, but it is of course not. You can see what New Zealand has done with issuing a climate visa to the people of Polynesia and Oceania, basically saying: "Look, it's carte blanche. Whenever you feel you cannot tough it out any longer, you can come to New Zealand, you have a climate visa, and you will eventually become a citizen." Boom.

India will eventually have to do the same for the people of the Maldives. It's not like it's going to make a large dent in India's population figure on a relative basis. Pending what happens with China's efforts around the South-to-North river diversion projects and the efforts to clean up the water systems in the East and Northeast of the country, you could well see a push of Chinese people into the Russian Far East, something that again we almost know is coming but hasn't happened at that large scale yet.

So it is going to be situational. Again, we are already seeing it, of course, on the U.S.-Mexico border. Let's not ignore one of the largest such cases that is closest to home, because many if not most of those people are in some way not only fleeing poverty, deprivation, violence, and so forth, but also obviously climate phenomena. I think that we also have to think about that.

Again, Canada is the kind of country that would say, "Okay, we are going to set aside some space for these people and 3-D print lots of homes for them," and this kind of thing, but other countries are not like Canada.

But generally speaking, in terms of the kind of nomenclature for all of this, I do talk about when does sovereignty become stewardship in certain places, and I use this word "stewardship" a lot. It's not about abdicating sovereignty, which no self-interested actor would do, but to say, "How can we lease certain territory for international purposes and be compensated through various means for allowing this space to be used in this humanitarian way and perhaps profit from it?" I talk about what some of those examples would be in places like Russia and elsewhere.

Again, it's hypothetical. Let's remember, this is a book of scenarios. I am not saying definitively that you will have x number of migrants from Country A to Country B. It's about saying—in fact, I built the book around four scenarios, and the scenario that we are talking about right now is called "northern lights," and it's the only one of the scenarios that is positive. The other three are dire quite frankly, so no one should paint me as a rosy optimist about the future.

TATIANA SERAFIN: But I think your ideas about stewardship and us working together are really important and critical, and we would love to have you back to talk about how your scenarios are playing out. Congratulations again on the book. We really enjoyed our conversation today.

PARAG KHANNA: Thank you both so much. So great to see you both.

 

 

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