the forces that move us

Parag Khanna explains how climate change is remapping humanity

Welcome to Civilisation 3.0. We’re on the brink of a population crash and the map of humanity isn’t settled, not now, not ever. But why do we migrate? And is migration good?

The right to mobility is the best way
to achieve human rights.

Parag Khanna

Let’s get straight into it. If aliens arrived on Planet Earth, Parag Khanna would take them to London. At least, that’s what he’d do to show them the most comprehensive example of human civilisation.

“London is still the greatest city in the world in terms of completeness,” says Parag Khanna, a leading global strategy adviser, bestselling author, and map-lover. He appreciates its connectivity to the rest of the world; its global, cosmopolitan flair.

Parag’s latest book, MOVE (2021), deals with the forces uprooting us and the unsettled map of humanity. It examines the factors that drive humans to relocate, and why we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. It’s also a book about the future of human civilisation, which is no small thing.

In 2019, the world reached record numbers of migration, with 272 million people classed as migrants. Enter a pandemic, and the world of travel changed. But the forces that cause us to migrate, Parag says, won’t stop in the face of a pandemic.

“The greatest migration that took place during the lockdown, which of course, betrays the notion of a lockdown, was a great reverse,” he says.

Expats went back to their home countries. Indians working in the Gulf returned to India when work dried up. All across the world, people went home.

“We forget that even during the lockdown, there was movement. The lockdown was a great reset of populations,” Parag says.

And just why do people move across borders? According to Parag, there are five forces that contribute to migration, the first being climate change.

“Climate change wasn’t the biggest factor for the last couple of thousand years, but it was for the previous 95,000 years. And now it’s becoming number one again,” he says.

Climate change will remap human geography.

“The second factor is labour shortages and demographic imbalances. We’ve never in human history had a bigger gap between old and young, within countries and across countries as we do today.”

The old and young, he explains, are in different places geographically. This is a first for human history, and it’s a problem.

The third factor is politics.

“We have had centuries of war, of genocide and political instability, civil conflict, and strife, that drive people in and out of countries. So that is a continuation of the norm. Whether it’ll be worse, or slightly better? That’s an open question, but it’s going to be bad,” Parag says.

Parag’s words are sobering, even more so since Russia has invaded Ukraine. People across the country are being forced to flee their homes, and the rest of the world is holding its breath, waiting to see what happens next.

Factor four is economics, as people go in search of opportunity and higher wages. The final piece of the puzzle is technology.

“People are being pushed away because of labour automation. Or they’re able to work anywhere, because they’re remote workers. So that’s a positive thing,” Parag explains.

These five forces – climate change, demographics, politics, economics, and technology – are all in hyper overdrive. And just because we stayed put during the pandemic, Parag says, doesn’t mean we’re going to keep sitting still.

Lockdowns have had another effect – they’ve made people reflect. A question that’s crossing people’s minds is, ‘Where would I want to spend a future pandemic?’ They’re taking advantage of nomad visa schemes in places like Estonia, and talent visas in Singapore. Cities are retrofitting themselves to fit a post-pandemic lifestyle. People are moving in new directions.

This, Parag says, is a great world for young people.

The Big Bang moment for movement

“Do you live in a climate resilient area?” Parag Khanna asks me. I think of the graphic I recently saw showing my town, Christchurch, Dorset, underwater in a few decades. No.

The pandemic might have changed things for migration, but in Parag’s eyes there’s one issue, one of his five forces, that will completely change the way humanity moves. And that’s climate change.

“Climate change has already moved tens of millions of people in the last 21 years. So this is not a prediction. And it’s hardly going to stop based upon what we saw at COP26,” Parag says.

He deals with this issue in MOVE. To some degree, it’s a book about civilisational climate adaptation.

“The single best way to adapt to climate change is to do what human beings as mammals are programmed to do,” Parag says. “We have two legs, we move. That’s it – fight or flight.”

The alternative, he says, is to turn to technological interventions. If you’re trying to protect the coastal town where I live, you build a seawall. If you’re somewhere hot, get some efficient cooling and heating insulation technology. Indoor vertical farming and agriculture in areas of drought. Use solar energy where power generation is volatile.

We have two legs, we move. That’s it – fight or flight.

“We don’t spend as much on climate adaptation as we should. We’re spending the money on climate mitigation, which is reducing emissions. And of course, we should be doing that too. We should be doing both,” Parag says.

Climate change will remap human geography. According to Parag, there will be new patterns of people moving across the world, from Asians moving into Central Asia, Russia, and Europe; to Latin Americans moving into North America.

“We can do this suddenly, jarringly, painfully, and reactively, with a lot of collateral damage. Or we can do it strategically, gradually, with the right investments and technology and policy, because we know it’s going to happen,” he says. “And I obviously advocate the latter approach.”

This upheaval won’t be easy either way, particularly if you’re the one leaving your home in search of a new one. But this, Parag says, is about survival. And if we’re looking for a positive spin, it could lead to the rejuvenation of humanity. 

“Imagine a world where we enable and unlock greater mobility,” he says. “Imagine bringing people together in new melting pots in sustainable and livable geographies. We will literally replenish and rejuvenate the world population because young people will meet young people of different ethnic groups, and they’re going to have babies.”

We’re on the brink of a population crash, Parag explains, and so as a planet we have three options, two of which are extremely unpleasant. First, you let the population crash happen. Second, people are forced to have children against their will. Third, you recirculate the world population. It might be challenging, but Parag says this third option is the right thing to do.

The future of humankind

Parag has a vision for the future of the world. He calls it Civilisation 3.0. It’s based on two fundamental principles: mobility and sustainability. He wants humans to have the right to mobility, and for them to actually be able to put those rights into practice.

“The right to mobility is the best way to achieve human rights,” he explains.

Parag’s perfect world would still have borders, but people would have the right to truly move freely. But equally important, he says, is to do this sustainably. That means using more hydrogen and solar power, renewable resources, more wastewater recycling, and more hydroponic agriculture.

There’s a problem right now, he explains, with what’s been termed resource nationalism, where people claim to be against migration for environmental reasons.

“They’re not actually environmentalists. In America, these people drive Ford trucks and Hummers, but they pretend they’re environmentalists, because they’re racist,” Parag says.

“And how do you defeat that? By saying, we will have high mobility and high migration. But we’re going to do so sustainably.”

He envisions people living in solar-powered trailer homes with wastewater showers and peat moss toilets, living in nomadic ways. He imagines people eating less meat and growing food.

Connected with this free flow of people, is a technological opportunity. We could soon be using blockchain passports.

“You can have a QR code that embeds your data around your financial history, criminal records, education certificates, travel itineraries, and so on. So your passport is on the blockchain – all the data that is in your passport,” Parag says. 

“Yes, you’re trading some degree of privacy, but it’s situational. You’re only sharing it on your authority with those needed, and in order to grant you access. So it’s a transaction.”

There are billions of people who are never going to be able to enjoy their rights to move, he says, unless it’s made a lot easier for governments to accept them. In the meantime, people will continue spending vast sums of money on plane tickets, before arriving at a new country and being forced to queue at a consulate, fill in lots of forms, pay more money, and then get rejected the next day. Parag is on a mission to make movement technologically easy.

Parag is himself a world traveller. He has been to over 150 countries. He was born in India, he spent his childhood in the UAE, and now he’s raising his family in Singapore. He’s an American, or more specifically, a New Yorker. He has memories of Roman ruins in Libya and the mausoleums of Central Asian conquerors in Uzbequistan before tourists arrived. But the one place that’s had the biggest impact on him, is Germany, where he visited at the age of 12 to witness the aftermath of the Berlin Wall falling.

“That was the most important moment in my life,” Parag says. “I sat on the Berlin Wall. I’m 44 today, and I still get goose bumps.”

He’s gone back to Germany plenty of times, and he speaks German like a German. Berlin, he says, is who he is.

In Parag’s vision for the future, perhaps more of us will have a mosaic of homes and meaningful places, as he does. And if you want to understand the future of human civilization, and your physical place on the next map of humanity, he says, the answers are in MOVE. 

What’s so good about this?

When we think about climate migration, we think about all the doom and gloom that comes with it: the precarious future of our planet and the lives impacted by destruction and upheaval. We can’t and shouldn’t minimise this. But, somehow, there is a sliver of a silver lining to be found. Redistributing ourselves around the world could save humanity, even if climate change is the catalyst. Exciting new populations could be formed, and a shakeup of genetic intermingling could be the answer Planet Earth has been looking for. Parag Khanna’s plans for adaptation could make this a whole lot easier.

For more from Parag Khanna, check out all his books here.

Katie Dancey-Downs writer profile

Meet the writer

When she’s not pretending to be a beaver holding back the rivers, Katie Dancey-Downs is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for human stories, nature and culture. She is also assistant editor at Index on Censorship, an award-winning quarterly magazine. She’s travelled the world to report on issues such as vegan activism in Toronto, regenerative farming in India, and the destruction of Sacred Natural Sites in Kenya. She can usually be found with her head in a book, stomping through the forest, or wishing she looked cool on a surfboard. @Katie_Dancey.

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