Firebird Journal

Survival and Renewal in the Anthropocene

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The Great Disruption — climate migration

Drought Refugees Hoping for Cotton Work, Blythe, California, 1936 — Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress

The Great Distruption – Part 1 – Climate Migration

This is the first part of a series on what Australian author Paul Gilding, in his 2018 book on the climate catastrophe, has called “The Great Disruption.” (Read Part 2, Part 3) Gilding’s thesis, and that of this series, is not that we are necessarily headed toward the end of the world, or even the end of civilization, but toward a significant disruption of our economic and social systems caused by the biosphere’s loss of much of its resilience, and large swaths of the planet becoming unproductive or uninhabitable. In this series, we’ll examine disruption caused by climate migration, flooding, droughts and other environmental shocks to the planetary system, and discuss how these impacts can overlap each other, disrupting many of global civilization’s functions.

Climate change this century is going to alter economic geography… — Gaia Vince, “Nomad Century”

Can migrating to escape unlivable climate conditions be a good thing? According the book “Nomad Century” by British environmental writer Gaia Vince, the answer is yes — if we view migrations as an economic opportunity, change our definition of nation states and their borders and smoothly relocate most of the world’s population north of the 50th parallel.

In her book, Vince tell us, correctly, that coastal lowland flooding, excessive heat, extended drought and so on will push billions of people out of their homes in the coming century. (The U.N. estimates that there will be 1.2 billion climate migrants by 2050, three billion by 2100.)

Vince supplies maps that show global “belts of habitability,” circa 2100, extending around the planet. Most of the areas occupied today are shown as overly hot and humid equatorial zones or massive deserts — both unfit for human habitation— in today’s temperate zones.

The remaining habitable regions include Canada, Alaska and Northern Russia and New Zealand, Patagonia and thawing regions of Antarctica. Over the next century, virtually everyone living in the uninhabitable zones will relocate, quickly, to these newly warmed regions where they will settle, build new megacities and feed themselves by growing wheat and fishing. This inevitable transition will happen peacefully as the economic benefits of allowing billions of new workers to move into or pass through settled countries become clear to humanity as a whole. And when a new world order of cooperation is born, not of idealism but, if we want our species to survive, of necessity, it will replace our current parochial modes of thinking and dealing with each other.


The idea that most of the earth, except for a few far northern and southern regions, could become uninhabitable is plausible. The idea that the remaining habitable areas could feed and house anything approximating tomorrow’s projected population of 10 billion people is much less so.

While, as Vince maintains, the newly warmed zones could have sufficient living space for everyone, agriculture would be severely constrained. The Canadian Shield (55ºN and above) is mostly glacier-scraped rock with little arable soil. And although temperatures in the far north would clearly be warmer, sunlight is limited and the growing season is short. Canadian or Siberian permafrost, mostly melted to slush by then, is unlikely to support much traditional agriculture. And fishing whatever stocks remain in our increasingly acidified oceans is also a dubious proposition.

Additionally, where would we find the materials to build megacities on a planet bereft of forests?

Then there’s the plausibility of Vince’s kumbaya society of the future. Of course she’s right — we “should” understand that we’re all in the same sinking boat and change our tribal ways before most of us slip beneath the surface. Before chaos reigns.

But when I think of Vince’s “Nomad Century,” an unfortunate image from a recent news article comes to mind. It’s that of a man standing on the U.S. side of our southern border holding a cardboard sign that reads, “Cross Here Over My Dead Body.”

When I recall the roughly 100 books I’ve read on the environmental crisis that propose future scenarios ranging from human extinction to our technofix salvation to our transformation into a gentle, equitable society of earth stewards, the title of one volume keeps surfacing. That’s “The Great Disruption” by the Australian environmentalist Paul Gilding.

Distressingly, what we can expect from global mass migration is xenophobia, competition for resources possibly leading to wars, abandoned regions, extensive human trafficking, crashing economies — unmitigated disruption.

Potentially, we could evolve to create Vince’s utopian society. But not until our population is voluntarily or forcefully slashed and we learn to cope with environmental disruption.

Author’s note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.

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Articles in This Series


Books by Philip S. Wenz

Your Ecological House is a homeowner and designer’s guide to creating a “home ecosystem,” an integrated habitat that conserves and produces energy, reduces waste and produces food and other goods.

This upcoming book discussed three possible futures — ” bad,” “good,” and “likely” — for the planet and humanity in the Anthropocene.

Read the Synopsis.