Migration is a Natural Phenomenon and Fundamental International Right

Scott Deshefy


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As a graduate student, I was honored by Hungarian biologist and biogeographer, Miklos Dezso Ference Udvardy (1919-1998), who requested reprints of a scientific paper of mine in Animal Behaviour. Dr. Udvardy had classified biogeographical provinces of the world in 1975 and coined the terms “zoogeography” and “competitive exclusion” to describe distributions of animals. After exchanging letters, he even sent me a copy of his important book on animal migration, Dynamic Zoogeography. Serving as Professor of Biological Sciences at California State University Sacramento from 1967 until his retirement in 1991, Dr. Udvardy was a true gentleman, eclectic scholar and acute, but convivial critic. Were he alive today, he’d be asked about the causes of dispersions of migrants worldwide, especially refugees poised along the Rio Grande in Mexican border towns, waiting to claim asylum here and legally cross.

Migration is a natural zoological phenomenon and fundamental international right. Animals, in order to survive and contribute to the gene pool, relocate whenever habitats deteriorate and resource competition threatens. Homo sapiens are no exception. During the Great Depression’s Dust Bowl years, a single freight line estimates 680,000 Southerners hopped its rail cars to California seeking arable land and better lives. John Steinbeck memorialized their exodus in The Grapes of Wrath, Woody Guthrie in song. America’s migrant experience is central to country and western music from the Maddox Brothers and Rose living in west coast culverts to Jimmy Rodgers, Bob Wills and the Carter Family. Here, as globally, poor rural families, facing the brunt of climate-related disasters, joblessness, and physical harm, undertook uncertain, heroic odysseys ─ and still do.

Most of today’s Central American migrants, fleeing gangs, government persecution and economic instability, come from the northern triangle comprising Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, an area profoundly affected by climate change and environmental degradation. The average temperature in Central America has increased 0.5 degrees C in recent decades, cutting arid swaths through farmland and decimating crops, especially coffee on which 90 percent of growers depend. Climate change impacts in the Guatemalan highlands make emigration there virtually inevitable. When farm work dries up, literally and figuratively, job seekers who range outside their local communities are targeted by rival gangs as interlopers and violence ensues. Concurrently, in El Salvador, mangrove forests on which diverse populations of marine life and fishermen depend are gradually being destroyed by rising seas.

As Galveston and other communities in the Gulf suffer another round of floods, wind-damage and power outages from tropical storms, consequences of our 40-year delay addressing greenhouse gas emissions and global warming continue to mount. For decades worldwide, growing rampancy of wildfires, deluges, droughts, record-breaking temperatures, melting ice and rising seas has been apparent. Effects of these disasters not only correlate with meteorological and climatologic changes, but social and political processes as well. Despite such obvious links, mass migrations among them, the previous administration ignored international initiatives aimed at global warming. Aid to Central America, vital to safety programs, job skills development and drought-resilient agriculture, also was cut, hastening emigration and making wall-building and crackdowns on asylum-seekers ineffectual facade. Many of the same people who express outrage over border crossings, legal or not, still fail to support greenhouse gas reduction measures needed to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius. Only reductions in atmospheric carbon emissions can both limit environmental catastrophes and stanch future mass migrations of climate refugees global warming will produce.

Research has proven the obvious. Climate change spurs conflicts which force people to abandon their homelands for alternative safe havens, just as nonhuman animals, driven from habitats, seek other locations where conditions for survival fit tolerances. Rising temperatures, wildfires, heat waves and floods destroy crops and edible wild forage, causing shortages of food, water and other resources. Limited resources inevitably create conflicts and competitive exclusion. For years, even the U.S. military has warned that rising global temperatures will create political instability and displacement of the poor. Civil wars in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa are prime examples. Climate was also a factor in Arab Spring and political uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, and conflicts in western Asia from 2010-12. The ongoing conflict in Syria, which began in 2011, also bears the climate-conflict-migration tag. Refugees from Africa’s famines and droughts have been inundating Mediterranean countries in the EU for over a decade. The poorer the nation is, the more susceptible it becomes to political instability because of climate change. According to studies, climate-induced migration is more pronounced in countries with less egalitarian governance. Share and share-alike nations, it seems, more readily and equitably adapt to scarcities.

Average per capita consumption rates of resources like oil and metals, and per capita waste generation in the form of plastics and greenhouse gas emissions are roughly 32 times higher in the First World than developing nations. America, not surprisingly, leads these disparities. A half century ago, when Paul and Anne Erlich wrote The Population Bomb (1968), many considered world population the biggest crisis facing humanity. We’ve come to realize population growth is just the underlying cause for concern. Total world consumption, a function of population, is the real bugaboo. U.S. citizens consume 32 times more resources than Kenyans do, even though we only outnumber them 6 to 1. Italy’s population of 60 million consumes almost twice as much as the 1 billion people populating all of Africa. Because of increased communications and travel due to globalization, folks in developing nations gain extensive knowledge about these enormous differences in consumption. Globalization’s spread of emerging diseases (and evolving variants) from poorer, remote countries to rich is clear to us now. But the anger people feel in poverty, when consumption disparities become known, also makes waste and extravagance untenable. As long as those differences exist, terrorist attacks will threaten, not only here, but Europe, Australia and Japan.  If governments of developing nations can’t deliver comparable lifestyles, millions upon millions of people made homeless by climate disasters, fearing for their safety, or unable to compete for food and potable water will migrate to First World borders. Each such transfer from low- to high-consumption habits raises world demands on necessities for life.

In Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis (2019), Jared Diamond estimates that transfers of developing nations into high-consumption societies, whether through economic initiatives or mass-migrations, will accelerate depletions of natural resources by 11-fold. That’s equivalent to a human population of 80 billion. While even “Soylent Green” couldn’t support 80 billion people, optimists claim 9.5 billion humans on Earth is our carrying capacity. In truth, we barely support First World extravagances for 13% of us now, despite destroying ecosystems and habitats essential to all life. For decades, we’ve promised developing nations that, should they adopt honest governance and free market economies driving that destruction, they too could become First World. At best that’s a canard, at worst a cruel hoax. Earth lacks the resources to sustainably support humanity, not to mention the rest of the biosphere, at current First World levels. To avoid catastrophe, we Americans will have to reduce our consumption rates, whether we like it or not, to lower the bar for China, India, Brazil and other ascendant economies seeking over-indulgences comparable to our own. Except to the very worst merchants of opulence, cutting back on excesses is not a big deal, let alone sacrifice. A large percentage of American consumption is wasteful, contributing little to our quality of life. Even Western Europe has half our per capita oil consumption but surpasses us in every meaningful parameter of existence: life expectancy, infant mortality, overall health, general happiness, access to medical care, diet, vacation time, work hours, educational quality, retirement, subsidizing the arts. As global warming, climate change and political instabilities push people across our borders, sustainable living should be part of their acclimation process.

Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.