Migration as Ecology: How Culture Evolves

06/25/2012 02:14 pm ET | Updated Aug 25, 2012

The immigration debate in the United States often centers narrowly around people who cross a border, and their social impacts on the "destination" country. But what if we viewed migration as a social phenomenon, or as a natural process? An ecological viewpoint can open a new frame for exploring the immigrant experience as a continual cultural and demographic transformation. This month, advocates at the Rio +20 earth summit took up the issue of migration as a form of ecology.

The environmental lens moves the immigration debate beyond the concept of rich countries "receiving" outsiders, or poor countries "sending" workers across borders. Seeing immigration as a zero-sum game ignores the humanity of the people who are driving, and are driven by, constant movement and resettlement. For the U.S. in particular, the focus on border enforcement-sanctifying artificial boundaries as a delimiter of citizenship-ignores the idea that migration is both an inevitable social process, and intimately connected with all other forms of social change, be they political movements, poverty, war, or, perhaps more acutely, environmental disaster.

The International Organization for Migration, which aids refugees and displaced populations, hosted a side event at the Rio +20 summit focused on the ecological implications of migration:

The continuous flow of migrants, refugees and other displaced persons is one of the key factors behind the rapid growth of cities, with many of them originating from rural areas and smaller urban areas.

Although many are drawn to large cities by the prospect of a better life, others increasingly migrate from environmentally fragile areas as a means to adapt to climate change.

The forcibly displaced often seek the protection and opportunities that cities may offer, yet too often end up in over-crowded slums and peripheral spontaneous settlements that lack the most basic services.

Researchers point out that instead of framing migration solely as a negative consequence of disasters and environmental harm, civil society actors and governments should see it as a natural response, and an opportunity for transformation:

Migration often seems to be misperceived as a failure to adapt to a changing environment.  Instead, migration can also be an adaptation strategy to climate and environmental change and is an essential component of the socio-environmental interactions that needs to be managed.  Migration can be a coping mechanism and survival strategy for those who move. At the same time, migration, and mass migration in particular, can also have significant environmental repercussions for areas of origin, areas of destination, and the migratory routes in between and contribute to further environmental degradation.

The predominant media narrative on immigration in the U.S. is "what to do about it," how to either stem the flow of outside "invaders" or jam people into some legal taxonomy controlled by bureaucrats and corporations. Amid all the panic over the alien hordes and job stealing and "overpopulation," there's not much meaningful critique of migration itself. This might be because culturally, as a relatively stable country, many Americans tend to become conscious of immigration only in the image of perceived instability or social threat.

But when you set aside the issue of "legal" versus "illegal" border crossings, we can grasp migration as a process that is constant and all around us. And in many parts of the "developing world," it is a fact of life that is just as routine as marrying, searching for a job or sending a child to school-and it many cases it is a prerequisite of all those social practices.

According to the IOM, most migration actually takes place across close distances, such as from the countryside to urban areas. Many migrate to neighboring countries; the migration across the U.S.-Mexico is one obvious example but we see mass migration across different regions of the Global South, as well.Environmental changes fuel these vectors. Projections of environmental migration actually dwarf other kinds of movement and displacement of populations.

"In 2008, 20 million persons have been displaced by extreme weather events, compared to 4.6 millioninternally displaced by conflict and violence over the same period," reports the IOM. And by the middle of the century (that's just about the time that immigrants will constitute one-fifth of the U.S. population), there might be as many as 200 million environmental migrants-sometimes called "climate refugees"-around the world, moving within or across borders. When so much of the world is on the move, will the political debate still be about "us" versus "them," those who "belong" and those who must be excluded? The dilemma isn't unique to immigration debates: the neoliberal ideology underlying the mainstream Rio +20 negotiationswill be criticized by grassroots activists who reject the corporate exploitation of the earth's resources. A grassroots pro-migrant movement should similarly reject the commodification of labor and seek justice as a path toward making people and communities whole.

The impetus for mass migration is sometimes a huge disaster like a hurricane or major drought. But often it's a product of a more gradual cumulus of environmental-and by extension, economic and demographic-pressures, such as deforestation or rising sea levels. The IOM notes that environmental migration blurs the line between "voluntary" and "involuntary": "Environmentally-induced migration is best understood as a continuum, ranging from clear cases of forced to clear cases of voluntary movement, with a grey zone in between."

The response of state and federal authorities to migration has been to eagerly welcome the "cheap" labor and economic activity it brings, while pursuing increasingly cruel and perverse measures to suppress, impoverish and criminalize people. Ironically, the government's militaristic reactions to immigration-the construction of barriers to "enforce the border"-can themselves injure the environment by wrecking the surrounding ecosystem.

Our current immigration debate is mired in a myopic, chauvinistic debate focused on the criminalization of crossing a national border. Without acknowledging the systemic problems that drive people from their homes and pull them toward a new life abroad, we can't have a rational conversation about how nations and communities can address migrants' needs and rights-which are, after all, human needs, and human rights.

The (unfulfilled) aim of Rio +20 was to encourage policymakers and social organizations to envision a world that harmonizes environment and society. Part of that project is recognizing that change and movement are constants, and yet no matter where or how we move, we carry with us certain fundamental ethics and needs, and share a common moral genealogy. Changes in climate and natural processes portend frightening disruptions to people's lives and deepening poverty and desperation. Yet we'll grow more intertwined with one another as well: by enriching our cultures and nurturing diverse community, or alternatively, by driving our communities further into conflict and crisis. Whether we move away or stay put, we'll all have to choose between those two paths.

Cross-posted from CultureStrike