Books | Migration

“Get ready to move”

In his new book, author Parag Khanna envisages a future in which we are all migrants 

A group of people of different ages, packed with rucksacks, walk along a path. The group stands out against the orange-brown background like a play of shadows.

"The era of migration"


Even just his biography is enough to make Indian-American political scientist, Parag Khanna, an expert on migration. He was born in India, grew up in the United Arab Emirates, the USA and Germany, and then as an adult he has travelled the world. He currently lives in Singapore.

Migration is part of being human, whether one moves for economic or political reasons, or if – as it was in earlier times – because the temperature changed, as in Europe's Little Ice Age between 1303 and 1830. As the subtitle of his book - Move: The Forces Uprooting Us – suggests, the fact that we live in an era of migration, has as much to do with digitalisation as climate change, something the author makes very clear. 

For example, in the United States alone, four of the continent's most important cities are endangered by global warming. New York and Miami are sinking into the sea, Los Angeles is running dry and San Francisco is continuously under threat from forest fires on its outskirts. In Europe, the city of Venice seems doomed to be submerged, Italy is turning into a desert and in worse-affected areas elsewhere, like Bangladesh or Indonesia, millions – possibly even billions – of people are being forced to move to higher ground, or northwards. 

In his book, Khanna also talks about the winners of climate change. In Canada, Russia, Scandinavia and Greenland, areas that are uncomfortable now will become more habitable. The so-called “Rust Belt” in the US may benefit from the fact that it has plenty of water and begin attracting engineering talent for new industries, such as the production of electric vehicles and 3D printers capable of constructing modular housing. 

The author has some advice for anybody who wants to survive in the climate change future: “Be prepared to move,” he advises. Khanna outlines four scenarios for the future, which could well happen simultaneously in different parts of the world. In one, the wealthy nations of the northern hemisphere unite to try to keep climate change migrants out, while at the same time providing countries in the global south with technological aid so their inhabitants can remain there as long as possible. A second scenario involves a sort of new Middle Age, where cities defend themselves against the rural areas that are devolving into chaos. The third envisages the collapse of the global economy as we know it, leading wealthy elites to retreat to the only remaining fertile areas while civil wars rage over water elsewhere. The only potentially positive situation, where human beings survive, is the fourth scenario. In this one, an archipelago of sustainable settlement is created in the far north. It can accommodate two billion climate migrants, whom international agencies have helped to move there. An economy based on “human-centred innovation” allows everyone a livelihood. 

“[...] the countries with the greatest labour shortages are also those with the most anti-migration policies [...]”

Khanna's arguments are based on the assumption that we will have utilized all possible forms of technology to save ourselves. He writes about houses made from 3D printers, mobile hospital clinics and urban agriculture. Increasing numbers of us will live in compact, mobile homes and the heat belt, which has become uninhabitable, will be used to supply climate-neutral energy for all. Huge solar farms in the Sahara, the south-west US, in Mediterranean countries and in the Australian desert will generate energy and heat, which would then be distributed around the world in a just and equitable way. 

However the further you get into this astonishingly good-natured tome about impending disaster, the more you begin to have doubts. Of course, all this is possible and certainly some of the ideas are impressive. But it will only work if people no longer think in terms of nations, and if their actions are selfless and all about the long-term well-being of our planet and our fellow humans. We would have to have no issue with the melting pots that our cities will become, welcoming climate refugees and other kinds of migrants to our countries. Khanna doesn't dwell on these doubts though. He deals with the issues that might arise from right-wing extremist populists in the first few chapters, saying that the appeal of these sorts of nationalists is mostly to an older generation. This generation will die out and the nationalism will go with them, he suggests blithely. 

Following them, Khanna imagines, will be the first generation of “post-nationalist” Europeans. One of the chapters in his book is actually headed with a call for the young people of the world to unite. He also argues that Europe doesn't actually have a migration problem, it has an assimilation issues, ones that can be solved through smart socio-economic policy making. He doesn't seem particularly bothered that examples of such smart socio-economic policy-making are few and far between at the moment (except perhaps in Canada). 

In fact, the author makes it very easy for his readers, with all his seductive and contradiction-free arguments. He thinks it's ironic that the countries with the greatest labour shortages are also those with the most anti-migration policies, and that the desperate need for healthcare professionals, IT engineers and construction workers will eventually do away with anti-immigration populism. In the long run, needs for a more mobile labour force will see borders soften, so people can simply move to where their skills are most needed. Khanna ignores anything that could get in the way of his optimism. For example, he paints the future of the eastern half of Germany in rosy colours. Demographic trends will eventually see the end of the right-wing extremist Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party. And as soon as the xenophobes are gone, the neglected cities of the east could be rejuvenated by an influx of more than a million migrants, Khanna enthuses. 

In another exuberant vision, Khanna describes how Greenland, a climate oasis-to-be, could be settled by six, or even sixty, million people in the future. Any infrastructure or supply issues for such a large population are casually put aside with talk of “improved logistics”.

The author also likes to speak about the global hunt for talent, where a crisis in one country is an opportunity for another to poach the most highly skilled locals. But the migration of the wealthy and highly skilled takes place under very different conditions from that of the poor, not to mention the old and the sick. The latter have no choice but to serve in the wealthy west. Unskilled migrants are needed in both Europe and the US, to do things like maintain infrastructure, collect rubbish and care for the elderly. Europe is dependent on Polish plumbers, Romanian agricultural workers and African sewer maintenance people. 

Khanna is not particularly interested in the fact that Romania has lost around a quarter of its population since it became part of the EU in 2007. What that sort of loss means to the country of origin, who will look after the Romanian elderly, or pick the strawberries there, doesn’t seem to concern him. Instead he talks about the billions of members of the Asian middle class who wish to emigrate to the West. Such an attitude could be considered colonialist. In Khanna's worldview, it is absolutely acceptable that migrants from poorer countries serve wealthier societies. He happily describes an integration project in Italy, where Nigerian and Pakistani migrants iron clothes, waitress or drive garbage trucks. As if to console his readers, Khanna goes on to speculate that the children of these migrants will be the next doctors and athletes of Italy.  

The human cost that migration entails is passed over. The plight of refugees, who have lost their societal status along with their homes, doesn’t particularly interest Khanna, nor does the fear and xenophobia of the individuals in the destination countries, those who fight with all their might to reject the desperate newcomers. Nor does Khanna mention the misery of migrants trapped in refugee camps like Moria in Greece, or the illegal pushbacks happening more frequently at Europe's external borders. He only talks about the failures of the EU's migration policy in sweeping terms. 

So what value is there in a book like this then? In the US, Khanna is a controversial figure. After the publication of an earlier book, the American-Belarussian intellectual Evgeny Morozov called him an intellectual imposter and accused Khanna of being contemptuous of democracy and human rights. That criticism could also be applied to this book, with its many sunny but empty sentences about building planetary connectivity and happy young folk uniting in melting-pot cities. But it is possible for the reader to learn something from Khanna - and that is how to think on a more global scale. For him, national borders are conditional. His imagined solutions apply to all of humanity and he clearly delineates the migratory movements that climate change will set in motion around the world. And because he sets everything up in an optimistic way, you can certainly feel good while you're reading – even if you despair of the reality outside. A closer reading of any of Khanna's scenarios though and the glow starts to fade. For instance, where are the sixty million migrants from places like Africa, India or southern Europe to Greenland going to live? How will their needs be met, and what might the indigenous people of Greenland have to say about all this? In Khanna's retelling of global migration, there are only challenges followed by opportunities. He behaves as if the world belongs to us all and indeed, that is exactly why his stimulating scenarios are so attractive. 

The only problem is that all his calculations exclude one important factor: Human beings.

For Khanna, humans are just a mass of creatures moving to and fro, as if on a board game, going where climate change and global labour shortages take them. That's not only an unrealistic way to look at the situation, it also divulges an overly apolitical vision. And because Khanna ignores, or devalues, the political movements that characterise our present reality, his book cannot really help us shape our own futures. 

Move: Das Zeitalter der Migration, published in German in March 2021, by Rowohlt Berlin, 2021. 
Move: The Forces Uprooting Us, will be published in English in October 2021.  

Translated by Cathrin Schaer