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A great global migration is looming, and this could remap the world

Author Parag Khanna, in his book Move, explores changing dynamics of human geography

parag-khanna Parag Khanna

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Roughly two million years into the past, the first upright humans moved out of Africa and crossed a land bridge to Eurasia. The first proto-human ancestors intermingled, giving rise to Homo sapiens. There were successive waves of migration—our ancestors fanned away from Africa, driven by drought; climatic events like the Last Glacial Period pushed humans across Siberia and over the land bridge to North America. As northern latitudes once again became hospitable, Eurasian migrations gave rise to Indo-European family of languages.

Throughout the course of history, human migration has been the one constant. Jewish people journeyed to escape Pharaoh’s persecution, Prophet Muhammad and his followers moved to Abyssinia, and pandemics like the Black Death and the upheaval of colonialism shifted populations around. It is this history of mobility (and its future) that Parag Khanna, founder and managing partner of FutureMap, a data and scenario-based strategic advisory firm, explores in his latest book Move: The Forces Uprooting Us.

The central thesis can be summed up thus: Civilisation 1.0 was marked by agrarian migration. Civilisation 2.0 (the industrial era) was marked by lethargy, and maps and artificial boundaries solidified. Civilisation 3.0, Khanna says, will be mobile and circular. This leads to the most important question: Where will we end up in 2050?

As Khanna notes in his book, there are multiple reasons provoking this migration paradigm.

Climate change is one. Climate refugees now total 50 million, outnumbering political refugees, with the National Academy of Sciences in the US estimating that a one degree rise in temperature could push 200 million people out of climate niche. This could be particularly pronounced in the Global South. “Asia’s spectacular economic rise propelled by population growth, urbanisation and industrialisation has resulted in spiking emissions output, with rising sea levels threatening megacities along the Pacific Rim and the Indian Ocean,” Khanna notes in his book. Climate oases—like the Great Lakes and Rockies in North America, Upper Rhine and Alps in Europe, Tian Shan in Central Asia, and Upper Mekong and Russian Far East in Asia—will gain prominence in the future.

Then there is the question of demographic imbalances. Europe has one of the highest ageing populations in the world, and are desperate for young blood to sustain economic growth. On the other side of the world, China and India have more millennials than Europe has citizens. Roughly two billion people are sitting idle in Latin America, Middle East and Asia. Movement is inevitable.


Then there are the geographic and geopolitical equations. Countless hectares of farmland remain [unused] along the depopulated regions of Canada and Russia, while destitute African farmers are struggling amid drought and land shortage. There are sterling political systems with too few citizens, like New Zealand and Finland, and then there are millions stuck under despotic regimes and languishing in refugee camps, notes Khanna.

But, will all these future trends come to fruition? The recent years have seen an outburst in right-wing nationalism and nativism, gaining prominence everywhere from India to Turkey to the US, the UK and Europe. In his book, Khanna lays out the reasons why popular political rhetoric is in stark contrast to the realities on the ground. “[Take the] poster boys for civilisational revanchism like Russia and Turkey. Russia now has growing Muslim and Turkic minority populations, and Turkey has an expanding Kurdish and Arab citizen rate. [Change is inevitable],” notes Khanna.

In conversation with THE WEEK, Khanna lays out the framework of the migration debate, exploring the questions of identity, assimilation (when people carry their native baggage abroad, like Kurds and Turks bombing each other’s shops in the 1990s), the role of technologies like cryptocurrencies and blockchains in aiding mobility, and why migration does not need to be such a hot-button issue. Inter-generational shifts in persepective, and the evolving ways of definition of identity, will all hasten the mobility trend, he notes. 

Says Khanna: “There is a bigger point to make [in the debate]. Take a big step back, and look at the last 300 years. We, as a civilisation, are bad at a lot of things, be it maintaining world peace, environmental management or promoting economic equity. But, what is the one thing that we are good at? We are good at mass migration. Billions have been pushed around the world [in events like colonialism and famine]. Those people have been absorbed and have become parts of different societies. This is why Western civilisations have succeeded. Actually, when people talk about mass migration as something to be afraid of, I ask them: What are you afraid of? This is what we are the best at.”

Edited excerpts of the interview:

As you say in the book, migration will be the one constant in the years coming forward. A basic framework of what could lie ahead?

This is a book about human geography, dealing with our distribution across the world. So far, migration has largely been regional, right? [Take India]. Large stocks of Indian people live outside the home region. Indians live in the Gulf countries, a massive diaspora of about 15 million-plus. In the future, what I argue and show is that there will be very large new directions of migrations that will change our human geography. I can imagine South Asians and Southeast Asians in Central Asia and Russia—a situation that I call the reverse Mughal empire. Here, instead of Mughals coming in from north to south, Indians move south to north. Another scenario is what I call [the rise of] Asian Europeans, where we have Asian populations move west to Europe. Of course, there are already a lot of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Britain, but there are not a lot of South Asians in Western European countries like France, Germany and Italy. These two scenarios are very indicative of how human geography will be remapped through migration.

On the point about Russia. You write about the rise of Russia as the centre of an Asiatic civilisation, with an intermixing of Russians, Chinese, Indians and southeast Asians.

Russia as the [future] centre of the Asiatic civilisation is exactly right. And it is the kind of thing that we don’t imagine [or think about] when we look at Russian immigration policies. We look at Russia today, and we think of a country that is perceived as racist, xenophobic and nationalist. The government [might be]. But, on the ground, we see [a growing number of] people from China, Vietnam, Korea, and India. I talk in the book of Indian farmers and Indian factory workers doing many different roles in Russia today. The politics in the capital and the reality that plays out on the ground is very different. Even this very notion of Russia as an Asiatic power is very strange to many people, but it is playing out before our eyes. The second thing is, as I write in the book, 30,000 years ago, there was a significant genetic collision that happened as our ancestors were migrating eastward across Eurasia and eventually crossing the Bering Strait to populate North America and South America. There are findings that the tribal populations of South America have some [genetic] relation to some of the Central Asia nomadic population. So, this new phenomenon—Russia as the Asiatic centre—was exactly what this region was 30,000 years ago.

One of the most interesting explorations in your book was on the topic of shifting and changing identities, in times of migrations and other upheavals. How do we negotiate that, given that our identities are no monoliths, rather an amalgamation of multiple factors like the language that we speak, political backgrounds, or our religious belief systems.

That is exactly right. There are many layers to identity. People older than you and me often assume that identity means ethno-nationalist identity, or at the very least your national identity. But that is not the way young people think. It [identity] could be based upon the causes you support, you could be a citizen of the world, an environmentalist, or a cosmopolitan. It could even be identities based on cities [that you reside in], which, for some, mean as much as their countries. There are many layers to this. Identity is not pre-given. As generations change their views, they change the definition and priorities of identity as well.

It is interesting what you speak about cities becoming a part of your identity. What role will cities play in the migration paradigm?

This is an area where we have strong historical precedent, historical data and historical cases. When we comb through the past, it is absolutely clear that the most desirable, livable, successful and prosperous cities in the world have similar characteristics—they are diverse, multi-ethnic, open to migration, and liberal in culture. Look at New York, Toronto, Los Angeles, London, Berlin, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong or Sydney. They seek to embrace the world. That was the recipe of success for great empires, and it is the recipe of success for great cities. What is true in the past will also be true in the future. The great cities will always be the ones that embrace change, and the secret of success in the 21st century is to become a melting pot for young people.

You have written about cities needing to build climate-resilience. Do cities also have to become identity-resilient in a way, so as to minimise what could be a social churn caused by mass migration and the baggage that people carry from their home nations. How do we identify constructive ways of identity assimilation? Do we have any examples in front of us?

I am a big proponent of assimilation. If we look at Europe as a region of the world with the highest ageing population, the lowest number of young people, and the highest need to recruit young tax-paying talent, I see the difficulty and paradox of a region that needs so many people but struggles to assimilate them. But, I also believe that if you look historically, Western societies have largely succeeded in assimilating populations—at least the US has, Canada has, and Britain has. So, the question is, can non-English speaking nations achieve the same results? Right now, the biggest role model is Germany. Germany has five million Turkish people, one million people from eastern Europe and former Soviet nations, two million Arabs, and over 3,00,000 Chinese and Indians. If you look at their recent elections, a new centre-left government, which is open to migration and pushing a new [easier] citizenship policy, was elected into power. The right-wing parties were swept aside. This is amazing progress. The difference between, say, Germany and France is that Germany spends a lot of money on vocational education, skills training, job training, language training, social policy and housing policy; this means people don’t end up in ghettos and isolating themselves.

[Coming back to the question of identity] Will technologies like the internet play a helpful role in the deconstruction and reconstruction of identities and community-building in a different space?

Identity is a lot more portable than before because of technology. I write a lot about diaspora remaining connected, remaining a coherent community, and having agency because of technology and finance and political lobbying and coordination. All these are examples of how identity doesn’t have to be left behind, or limited to just a geographic space. You can be a global Indian, an Indian anywhere in the world. This is also a part of what we were discussing in the beginning, of a person having their choice of identity in who they want to be. I say this for myself as well. Identity is additive and cumulative, not substitutive. Substitutive means you have to switch from one identity to another, and you have no choice but to do that. That is not the case.

What role will emerging technologies like blockchains and cryptocurrencies play, especially in the post-pandemic era?

This pandemic is not going to be the end of migration. It will just signal an orthogonal shift in the nature and manner of migration. And technology is going to be a liberating force. Now that everybody needs a QR code to verify vaccination status [when you travel abroad], you can apply that same QR code principles to personal data like financial history, educational certification, criminal history, and travel records. All of these things can be stored on a blockchain, verified with relevant authorities to gain access, and this can be done through an app on the phone. You might no longer need to get your passport stamped, or visit the embassy or consulate and pay a lot of money. All of these can be blockchain-based and blockchain-certified. This is how technology after pandemic can have a very positive impact on mobility, even though pandemic itself was a temporary dampener on movement.

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