IIt’s unusual for a book that predicts billions of people displaced by the climate crisis to be optimistic. But that’s exactly the tone Gaia Vince strikes in Nomad Century. “We are facing a species emergency – but we can create,” she writes, “with a planned and conscious migration such as mankind has never undertaken before.”
Vince, an environmental journalist, points out that climate shift is already happening, with people fleeing parts of Latin America, Asia and Africa. Efforts to reduce carbon emissions, while vital to future human survival, are unlikely to limit global warming to the extent that we avoid further displacement. The United Nations International Organization for Migration estimates that 1.5 billion people could be forced to move in the next 30 years alone.
At the same time, the world is undergoing demographic change. Populations in the Global North – the more affluent, cooler parts of the world to which many people might flee – are aging rapidly and the workforce is becoming too small to support older people. This, Vince suggests, presents an opportunity. Collectively, this new population mix can adapt and build cities capable of withstanding the new extremes of flood, fire, drought, and heat.
Technology will help us, Vince argues, but we also need to “shed some of our tribal identities” — like nationalism — and “embrace a cross-species identity” as citizens of Earth. We need to move not just once, but multiple times: Ultimately, Vince says, ecosystem restoration efforts could allow people to return to places they once left.
Nomad Century raises two questions: Are humans capable of meeting this challenge? And if so, how? Vince offers a compelling answer to the first. She takes us on a tour of cutting-edge technologies — from mats of seaweed that float on the ocean and can be used to grow plants, to particles that can be injected into the atmosphere to reflect solar radiation — and at the same time makes its limits clear . Her Human Development Account, meanwhile, argues that movement and intermingling are essential to life’s survival (a topic explored in more detail by Sonia Shah in her 2020 book The Next Great Migration).
However, your answer to the second question is less convincing. “We need to develop new plans based on geology, geography and ecology – not politics,” writes Vince. What is overlooked is that the process of treating parts of life as beyond politics – for example, by allowing society to be increasingly ruled by market dynamics – has led to a resurgence of the “tribalism” that Vince wants us to overcome it. The catastrophe of the past decade is that right-wing populists have undermined efforts to both mitigate climate change and protect refugees by playing on people’s sense that political institutions are no longer working in their interests.
An alternative approach might be to reshape environmentalism as part of a collective demand for more control over our lives—along with our working conditions and our means to afford essentials like food and housing. But for that we need more politics, not less.