[This installment of Terror and Terraformation originally appeared in AlterNet, May 2008]
Chew on this word, jargon lovers. Envirogee.
It carries more 21st century buzz than its semi-official designation climate refugee, which is a displaced individual who has been forced to migrate because of environmental devastation. Maybe the buzzword will catch on faster and shed some much-needed light on what will become a serious problem, probably by the end of this or the next decade. That light is crucial, because so far envirogees haven’t been fully recognized by those who certify the civil liberties of Earth’s various populations, whether that is the United Nations or local and national governments whose people are increasingly on the move for a whole new set of devastating reasons.
In short, immigration is about to enter a new phase, which resembles an old one with a 21st century twist. For thousands of years, humanity has fled across Earth’s surface fearing instability and in search of sustainability. But that resource war has kicked into overdrive thanks to our current climate crisis — a manufactured war with its own clock.
And the clock is ticking.
From earthquakes in China to cyclones in Myanmar to water rationing in Los Angeles, societies are shifting like their borders. And all the outcry over so-called illegal immigration neglects to answer one time-honored question: If the borders aren’t standing still, why should the people who live in their outlines do so? Especially when they’re under attack from catastrophic floods, fires, droughts and any number of other environmental dangers?
Right now, the 1951 Geneva Convention does not recognize the envirogee phenomenon, instead focusing on immigration as a result of political persecution. But then again, it was established over five decades ago when Earth’s climate was anything but a terrorist. But the Geneva Convention, like everything that must adapt or die, needs to mutate in time with the rest of the world and its hyperconsuming inhabitants in order to remain relevant in our still-new millennium.
Here are some startling envirogee numbers to crunch: According to the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Earth’s fracturing communities will have 150 million envirogees by 2050. According to Australian climatologist Dr. Graeme Pearman, coastal flooding resulting from a mere two-degree rise in temperature would kick 100 million people out of their danger-zone homes by 2100.
Here’s more scary data. Desertification is claiming land from China to Morocco to Tunisia and beyond at an increasing rate. New Orleans and parts of Alaska are slowly sliding into the sea, while the former, as Hurricane Katrina ably illustrated, is becoming a reliable target for intensifying weather events, human corruption and half-assed infrastructure. Aquifers around the world are shrinking, while acidification is claiming cropland in Egypt and beyond. Hypoxia has claimed portions of the ocean itself with alarming speed, as stretches of the Atlantic and Pacific lose oxygen and, by extension, the marine life that not only feeds millions but establishes the continuity of the food chain.
No food chain, no food. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.
But numbers are fallible, which is another way of saying the above figures are most likely best-case scenarios. In other words, the future is now. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the IPCC might have taken home a Nobel for their statistics and bleeding hearts, but their math was significantly off. Worse, the rate at which these things happen is rising exponentially.
“The rate of increase in carbon dioxide concentrations accelerated over recent decades along with fossil fuel emissions,” explained a report on methane and CO2 rises by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Organization for Atmospheric Administration. “Since 2000, annual increases of two ppm or more have been common, compared with 1.5 ppm per year in the 1980s and less than one ppm per year during the 1960s.” As for methane, in 2007 it exploded by 27 million tons after a decade with relatively no rise at all. Think about that next time you eat that Happy Meal.
So what’s an envirogee to do, other than opt out of wasted fantasies like Happy Meals, factory farming, bottled water and Hummers? What else? Move.
Which is what envirogees worldwide are already doing right now, by choice or by gunpoint, and will do more often than not as situations on the ground and in the air deteriorate.
The conflict raging in Darfur is a sobering example of the complexity of the situation. It has so far displaced 2-3 million people, and for all the talk of political or religious persecution, the fact remains that it is at its root an environmental crisis. An arid desert whose water is drying up by the day, Darfur is one of the first flashpoints of our new phase of climate conflict, a conflict that U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon explained in the Washington Post as one “that grew at least in part from desertification, ecological degradation and a scarcity of resources, foremost among them water.” But this too should have been foreseen: According to remote sensing, Darfur sits atop of an underground lake that once used to hold over 600 cubic miles of water and dried up thousands of years ago.
And like Darfur, we are numbly sitting atop our climatological past while it races to catch up with us. Parched by thirst and hungry for fossil fuels which, in turn, only exacerbate that thirst and the wars it engenders, envirogees are streaming out of these hot zones into less murderous ones, whose inhabitants are circling their wagons on the outsiders. Civil wars are breaking out. Outsiders, in turn, are becoming invaders. The irony is rich.
It gets richer, or poorer, depending on where you stand on peak oil. The planet’s shrinking petroleum reserves are now more valuable than ever, and the prices for its capture and capitalization show zero sign of returning to normal. That expense is also beginning to be measured in lives, as carbon concentration exponentially increases and weather events become more extreme.
And you all know what they say about extreme times calling for extreme measures.
We’ve been here before, which is to say on the brink of extinction. In one instance, drought shrunk our numbers to about 2,000 scattered in a diaspora across Africa, a fearsome thought for a 21st century superpower that may be entering its own permanent drought. But the wrinkle is different this time around the tightrope: We built this coming dystopia with our own hands.
And that’s going to reshape not just immigration policy, but the concept of immigration altogether. And that’s where the envirogee comes in. The envirogee, you see, is on the run from himself.
In other words, and no matter how much blowhards like CNN’s Lou Dobbs bitch and whine, the inconvenient truth of climate change, and its rampant resource wars for what’s left of the planet’s stores, remains a reality. Beneath genocide in Darfur lies a desert that used to be a lake. There probably isn’t a better metaphor for our current hyperhighway to hell in existence, if one could argue that it was a metaphor to begin with. But one can’t, because it is reality, pure and simple. And so are envirogees, regardless of the outdated assertions of the Geneva Convention or the staid refusals of the insurance industry to wake up and smell the hurricanes.
“If we keep going down this path,” French prime minister Nicholas Sarkozy argued to the superpowers gathered at the Major Economics Meeting in Paris last month, “climate change will encourage the immigration of people with nothing towards areas where the population do have something, and the Darfur crisis will be only one crisis among dozens of others,” he stressed.
That is, we won’t be worried about Mexicans coming to the U.S. for economic reasons, or Africans doing the same in France and England. We will be worried about hyperviolent cyclones, floods and droughts destroying what’s left of our jobs and the people who want them, as we all pack our crap and move northward, where temperate weather and more bountiful supplies of water, gas and food lie. We will be the ones enduring the hard stares and perhaps bullets fired from locals who are circling their wagons against victims of their own consumption and apathy.
Whether or not we can settle, literally, with that solution, time will tell. But according to the continually underperforming science of climate crisis, we won’t settle for long. Barring any meaningful sociopolitical or economic engagement, to say nothing of much-needed technological revolution, on the issue, we’ll have turned from territorial citizens into climate nomads, all in a cosmological eyeblink.