Sunday, April 08, 2018

Migrant caravan: Foreshadowing the future and reflecting the present

The march of hundreds of Central American migrants through Mexico has inflamed tensions between the Trump administration and the Mexican government and focused attention on the United States' southern border.

The ostensible reasons for the march are familiar: The migrants were fleeing corruption, social and political turmoil, and lack of opportunity in their home countries. Many were from Honduras which suffered a coup in 2009 that continues to divide the country politically including during the last election in which supporters of the challenger to the incumbent president claim their candidate was cheated out of a win.

All of this reminded me of Jean Raspail's novel The Camp of the Saints. In it, impoverished Indians seized hundreds of ships docked in their harbors and set sail to find a better place to live. (The book was published in 1973 when many believed that millions of Indians and other Asians would likely starve in the coming decades due to poor agricultural yields. The full effects of the so-called Green Revolution still lay ahead.)

In the novel, as the seaborne caravan makes its way westward, first to the Suez Canal, where it is repelled, then around the Cape of Good Hope, Europe braces for what it believes is an inevitable invasion of desperate Indians.

A vitriolic debate ensues inside France about whether the country should try to help the Indians or simply repel them.

Raspail, a celebrated author in France, was denounced as a racist when the book was released. His book continues to be a favorite among American white supremacists. And, former Trump advisor, Steven Bannon, is reported to be a fan of Raspail.

Raspail defended himself saying that he was only trying to show how French culture and more broadly European culture would be destroyed by a large influx of immigrants. A similar argument now rages across Europe as refugees from Syria and other parts of the Middle East continue to arrive.

I have written about the war in and subsequent migration from Syria as partly climate-change induced. The fact that climate change on its current course could dramatically cut the productivity of grain growing areas means that an expanding world population in need of a 50 percent increase in grain production by 2050 would instead face declining supplies. Could some version of Jean Raspail's dark vision of mass migration be far off if this turns out to be the case?

Just last year America experienced a snap mass migration from Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria knocked out electricity to almost the entire island and destroyed much other infrastructure. The hurricane's severity was arguably linked to climate change. Some 200,000 residents have fled to the U.S. mainland in the aftermath to escape the chaos.

These Puerto Ricans, of course, did not have to cross the U.S. border to enter the country. They are already citizens and constitutionally they enjoy freedom of movement throughout the United States as does any citizen in any U.S. jurisdiction.

In 2007 I suggested that the precipitous drop in Mexico's oil production could lead to a mass migration to the United States as oil-fueled prosperity in the country disappeared. But then $100 oil happened, making up for the loss of production until now. It's not clear that the collapse in oil prices in 2014 has created more of a flow of Mexicans to the United States than before. Border arrests hit a 45-year low in 2017. But someday, dwindling oil revenues will make Mexico an increasingly poor country unless it revolutionizes its economy to create substantial wealth to replace the lost oil revenues.

Mass migrations are not new. They have happened historically because of epidemics, wars, political oppression, and even changes in climate and resource exhaustion (think: mining ghost towns). What's new is that they are happening because humans are changing the climate in ways that affect resources, namely food, and habitability, for example, flooding due to sea level rise or increased rains. Climate-change enhanced epidemics including the spread of tropical diseases are forecast as well.

The migrant caravan through Mexico was relatively small, only a few hundred or perhaps a thousand people. It was an organized and largely tranquil affair meant to be symbolic. The migrations to come are unlikely to be so small or so organized. And, we are doing very little to change the trajectory of climate change or resource depletion that will be at the root of many such migrations.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


sv koho said...

I have never heard of Raspail and any friend of Steve Bannon would not be a friend to me. I think there is a lot more than climate change to explain the mass migrations of these populations. For example Syria, Egypt and many other middle east and African populations have exploded in the latter part of the 20th century as a consequence of resource and energy abundance and social expectations relating dangerous links of large families to a man's virility. Most of these middle east countries have far exceeded their carrying capacity in past decades. In retrospect anyone can now see that these were dangerous governmental and societal blunders. Does that mean that neighboring countries are obligated to pay for their mistakes by welcoming these exploded populations? It is almost self evident that careful screening of immigrants generate benefits to the host country but unrestricted hordes of desperate migrants is destabilizing.

Joe said...

Mass migrations will be a transitory phenomenon, happening only at the very beginnings of collapse when there are still resources available to support millions of people on the move. When collapse into the bottleneck is in full swing, people will simply die where they lived; they won't have the means or ability to travel great distances.

It also may very well happen that any migrations that do happen will not be to what are now called 'developed countries', which are much more vulnerable to any glitches in the global market economy and may suffer far more economic distress than 'emerging market' countries. I suspect that most migrations will happen slowly and will follow favorable climate conditions for subsistence agriculture.

Susan Butler said...

I agree with both commenters. Large numbers of desperate migrants are destabilizing, and developed countries for them to go to will not be so attractive for very long. Mexican migration to the US has already slowed down since the recession. There is another way for the phenomenon to be handled. Governments could partner with NGOs to put migrants, and all unemployed, to work restoring ecosystems on degraded lands which, if done on as broad a scale as migration is likely, will stabilize the climate and build up upon the landscape the primary bases of prosperity --water and photosynthesis. Plants and soils on the planet's surface can sequester geologic quantities of CO2 and draw it out of the atmosphere. Favorable conditions for subsistence agriculture can and must be deliberately created. Otherwise such conditions will increasingly not be found anywhere.