Blog Series

Here we feature blog posts submitted by our members and fellow environmental politics enthusiasts on a range of topics relating to the interdisciplinary field of environmental politics. We always welcome pieces (600-800 words) meeting the above general criteria, so if you’d like to discuss an idea for a new piece or would like to submit one, email us!


Searching for a New Home: Migration, Belonging and Climate Change

Post by Amina Ghezal, August 12th, 2019

Today, ever-increasing numbers of people are migrating and moving around the world on local and global scales. Transnational migration and human mobility render the world a dynamic, evolving and a changing web, described by the late sociologist John Urry (2007) as being “as if the world is on the move”. Migration and mobility patterns are steered by various imperatives

from seeking economic opportunities and the thrilling experiences of new loci to escaping internal socio-political distress, armed conflict or increasingly because of environmental threats. The environmental pressures of climate change and their social and geopolitical repercussions on people’s mobility patterns and sense of belonging need to be recognized. The environmental and climatic changes currently taking place are likely to significantly alter human migration patterns in the course of this century.

The likelihood that climate change will cause the displacement of thousands if not millions of individuals or deprive them of their lands, remains a far-fetching, futuristic or even unreal notion for some. For example, this can be seen in the discourses of many climate change “denialists” or “sceptics”.  Yet, what will happen to the communities directly affected by the effects of climate change, such as sea level rise, who will increasingly become deprived of their physical land which anchors their sovereignty, unity, culture, and identity? Consider the very real examples of the small island nations such as Tuvalu, the Maldives, Kiribati, Nauru – small Pacific Island States – which are bearing the brunt of the perilous effects of climate change. These island nations are facing a concatenation of pressures such as submergence of landmass, increasing salinity levels, and coral bleaching. These factors not only pose threats to the physical environment but also the socio-economic situation on the islands. Migration is often seen as an adaptation strategy through which the islanders seek employment or resettlement opportunities abroad as a way to adapt or cope with the varying pressures. Statistically, the motives of migration expressed by the inhabitants roughly revolve around escaping the negative effects of climate change. As an example, 40% of households in Nauru state that migration will be a likely response if sea levels keep climbing, while 70% of households in Kiribati and Tuvalu also believe that migration will be a possible solution if agriculture becomes difficult due to sea-level rise, flooding or drought.  Generally speaking, not just exclusive to the former examples, the vast Pacific Ocean, with its 7,500 islands, is under major threat due to the impacts of climate change.

The specificity of climate change-induced migration should be seen as a cumulative process. Namely, if climate change pressures, habitat and food insecurity increase, it will be, accordingly, met with a need of access to international migration and thus a need for sustainable migration or relocation policies as well as a better understanding of the dynamics of this phenomenon. Relocating, either willingly or forcefully as a response to climate change, holds further pressures such as the deterioration of migrants’ physical and mental wellbeing, as well as risks of losing social and cultural capital. Relocation in this regard may involve abandoning traditional practices, language and other cultural or political beliefs to “fit in” or “be accepted” within the new host-states. Migrants may also suffer from alienation and dispersion in their new environments. This may result in losing community cohesion where they can be subject to different cultural pressures, potential distress as well as unemployment and other economic pressures.

 Migration from different Small Island Developing States (SIDS) can be generally characterized as willful planned mobility in most cases, where the political leadership of many of these islands seek planned migration of its population through schemes such as labour migration or planned resettlement in foreign or neighbouring countries. This resembles what the former president of Kiribati Anote Tong advocated for, “migration with dignity”, in order to guarantee the rights and the safety of the I-Kiribati (natives of Kiribati).   Each case in fact consists of a cocktail of climate change imperatives and other complex factors such as remoteness, economic fragility and lack of natural resources. In the scenario of the continual sea level rise that is gradually swallowing the landmass of these islands, it is compelling to think about the relationships that the Islanders will have with their home of origin after migration. Will their identities, unity, and culture gradually dissolve or disappear if their physical sovereign states become uninhabitable or disappear altogether? The repercussions of climate-change-driven migration on attachment to place, sense of belonging and integrations have received little attention to date but are of increasing relevance.

References:

Urry, J. (2007). Mobilities. Cambridge, England: Polity.

Towards a Cosmopolitics for the Anthropocene

Post by Heather Alberro, PSA Environment co-convenor, May 27th, 2019

The question of how to live together harmoniously with our earthly co-inhabitants has never been more pressing amid the severe and worsening socio-ecological perturbations of the Anthropocene. Perhaps the most troubling is the systematic annihilation of our co-evolutionary kin that is the planet’s sixth mass extinction. In monopolizing the earth for ourselves- largely through neoliberal-capitalist socioeconomic systems predicated on ceaseless growth and consumption, spurring deforestation and related land-use changes, and the commodification of life itself for profit accumulation as an end-in-itself- a staggering 60% of monitored vertebrate species per 1970 levels have disappeared. Crucially, such loss is no mere epistemological phenomenon, as if these beings were quantifiable resources that could be recuperated, but a protracted event that marks the slow unravelling of cherished and irreplaceable ethico-political relations.

The aforementioned trends further stem from the long-standing tradition of anthropocentrism and its positing of humans as separate from and superior to the natural world and non-human entities, a legacy of the deep-seated Cartesian reduction of non-human animals to things acted upon, as not seeing but merely ‘seen’ by human subjects. If one conceives of politics as the manner by which society or the collective is arranged so as to enable its members to live well, then traditional conceptualizations have been woefully deficient in their arrogant exclusion of non-human others. Aristotle’s conception of the polis was famously logo-centric- a community predicated on its citizens’ abilities to speak, listen, and share a common vision of the good life. Similarly, Kant’s famed cosmopolitan proposal in Toward Perpetual Peace for a global citizenry bound by universal law and solidarity was thoroughly Western-Euro-centric in its exclusion of beings external to the human-world correlate. Kant regarded only rational beings as worthy of being treated as ends in themselves; non-rational beings (i.e., animals) had only “relative worth, as means” and were therefore regarded as mere things.

Such legacies are alive and well in contemporary political thought, which continues to construe the ‘cosmos’ far too narrowly. The non-human world is still posited- often implicitly and sometimes explicitly- as mere inert background to the unfolding human drama. In popular, policy, and even academic discourses, the natural world and other species are still framed matter-of-factly as resources for the satisfaction of human needs and desires. Yet, as Latour poignantly observes, the litany of ecological crises proliferating amid the Anthropocene in the form of super hurricanes, scorching droughts, raging wildfires, and rapidly vanishing flora and fauna constitute a ‘generalized revolt of the means’- protests by recalcitrant entities who no longer consent to being treated as mere inert objects for furthering human ends. Hence the fundamentally ethical imperative of a radical reconstitution of our common world, to be carefully designed by and for the long-excluded multitudes. As with the old schism between ‘Society’ and ‘Nature’, the ‘proliferating associations of nonhumans’ behind every human- and without whom we simply could not be- highlight the profound deficiencies of traditional conceptualisations of the cosmos and polis.

Both Latour and Stengers attempt to extricate themselves from these profoundly humanist traditions through their conception of cosmopolitics- ever-expanding assemblages of multiplicities of actants- human and non-human- that must be continuously negotiated and co-constructed. However, Latourian cosmopolitics perhaps affords a little too much primacy to the existing collective’s right, and indeed capacity, to decide, pending compromise and accommodation, who and on what terms is to be ‘welcomed’. In this case, new arrivals are to be welcomed pending the degree to which they can harmoniously mesh with existing actants by finding their rightful place in the collective, and on condition that they do not fundamentally disrupt the already-existing order. The query, ‘Can we live together?’, is posited as the sacred duty of those in the already-established collective rather than equally posed by external others. Moreover, the collective’s perimeter, however tentative, is still policed by those on the inside. It is here where Latour fails to direct sufficient attention to the violent, undemocratic, and therefore unethical implications of exclusion.

We must always ask ourselves who is left out and, crucially, from an ethical standpoint, what effects this might have on them. When Latour enquires as to what obliges one to “reserve the water of the river Drome for fish as opposed to using it to irrigate corn fields subsidized by Europe”, the answer doesn’t simply lie in whether or not we’ve taken into account all entities affected by such an act or in considering how excluding fish will affect the whole collective. Depriving the fish of water is ethically unacceptable because the fish needs water in order to live and flourish. Thus, a new ethic for the Anthropocene demands that we treat the vast profusion of more-than-human life on earth as singular and irreducible entities who matter in and of themselves, as political subjects worthy of inclusion and active participation in the earth collective, and crucially, as fellow earthlings who are with and not for us.

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