The Next Great Migration: The Story of Movement on a Changing Planet

Sonia Shah

Bloomsbury, £14.99

AT this time of year I’d normally be in Spain, a place called Tarifa to be exact. It’s the most southerly point in Europe, a place where two continents meet, with Europe and Africa separated by just a few miles of sea.

Because of this it’s a transitory place. I’m no ornithologist, but over many years on my hikes along the coast there I’ve watched the marvel and splendour of vast numbers of bird species on their migratory routes moving to and fro from Africa.

Increasingly, I’ve also come across abandoned rubber dinghies and other small boats on remote beaches or run aground on this, a rugged coastline which marks the precise nautical point where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic. These makeshift vessels are reminders of the refugees and migrants that have made the perilous crossing from the North African shores of Morocco in yet another stage on a journey to Europe that might already have taken them across swathes of sub-Saharan Africa.

This Andalusian coastline that I’ve hiked for almost two decades is a microcosm of the themes that run through Sonia Shah’s latest book The Next Great Migration: The Story of Movement on a Changing Planet. I must confess that on first picking it up, I did so with some trepidation. Would it be a jargon- filled account blunted by impenetrable scientific research and endless demographic statistics, I wondered? Alternatively, it could turn out to be some idealistic paean by a writer simply rapt by the vast spectacle of people on the move. Any misgivings, however, were quickly dispelled, for this is a book that captivates and educates on so many levels.

Part travel journal, part reportage, part investigative journalism, it’s a work impeccably researched but heartfelt and driven by eloquent descriptive storytelling. These myriad components all serve to make the book’s core argument that migration, far from being a problem, is in fact the solution to the crises that confront so many species today, not least humankind.

For the author, an American investigative journalist, “migration is a force of nature, rooted in human biology and history, along with that of the scores of other wild species with whom we share this changing planet.” In explaining it this away, Shah takes the reader on a fascinating kaleidoscopic historical and geographical journey. From the southern Californian habitat of the checkerspot butterfly to the high Himalaya and its shifting forests, to the teeming refugee and migrant camps on the Greek island of Lesbos, the eyewitness accounts and interviews from these locations are the work of an accomplished journalist.

This diversity and juxtaposition of insights into many aspects of migration are, however, both the book’s greatest strengths and occasionally a weakness. I say weakness only because of the odd moment of uncomfortable jarring in certain comparisons between human migration and that of other species. Can there really be parallels between the infinitesimal territorial relocation of the checkerspot butterfly and, say, Syrian refugees? But then again both are stories of adaptability and the necessity of mobility as a means of surviving in threatening environments.

Over the course of the book’s 10 chapters and conclusion, some readers might at times find this scattergun sweep that draws from the natural, scientific and geopolitical realm slightly disorientating. Some nitpickers might argue, too, that it occasionally takes the reader too far off course in terms of the book’s main thesis.

But such shortcomings are minor irritations and more than compensated for by the way Shah convincingly pulls these disparate ends together to reveal how migration and movement are as much a necessity to existence as breathing.

In this respect there are echoes here of the great travel writer Bruce Chatwin’s wonderful homage to nomadism and wanderlust The Songlines.

But Shah’s account, while acknowledging the near “spiritual” need for humans to be on the move and the positive role this plays in our collective culture and psyche, also concerns itself with the arguably much more pressing issue of biological need and physical survival. It was Chatwin himself, after all, who admitted that for many “a journey is a fragment of hell”. Those caught in the ravages of climate change, war and poverty already know this from bitter experience. As one of the many revealing indicators in the book points out “by 2045 the spread of deserts in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to compel 60 million inhabitants to pick up and leave. By 2100 rising sea levels could add another 180 million to their ranks.”

Faced with such an onslaught it’s no surprise that almost daily our news reports highlight the growth in migration. And, just as they do so, politicians - especially those of a populist or rightest bent - use the perceived threat of migration to kindle fear and appeal to voters with policies that ultimately consolidate their own power.

Here Shah does a tremendous service to our understanding of the malign manipulation of the supposed “migrant threat”. She traces this perception of it, something sinister and to fear back, back to the 18th century Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, generally considered to the originator of modern taxonomy, which is the practice and science of classifying things or concepts.

Linnaeus was “entranced” by order, effectively reinforcing the idea of putting things in their place, including people. For Linnaeus there was no such thing as a shared ancestry and over time such theories helped shape many of today’s more toxic narratives about immigration.

“The paths taken by human migrants are shaped primarily by abstractions,” explains Shah. “Distant political leaders lay down rules based on political and economic concerns, allowing some in and keeping others out. They draw and redraw invisible lines on the landscape in biologically arbitrary ways.”

She writes, too, of how some observers have seen the writing on the wall for some time, citing the US national security expert Robert D. Kaplan, who described it in a 1994 Atlantic magazine article headlined “The Coming Anarchy.”

That the next great migration of plants, animals and humans is already upon us is indisputable. As this timely book outlines, scientists have found that of the four thousand species that they have tracked, between 40 and 70 per cent had altered their distribution over the past handful of decades, around 90 per cent into cooler lands and waters in sync with the changing climate.

Human relocation is no less dramatic, with more people living outside their countries of birth today than at any time before. Floods, storms, poverty, persecution and war have all been triggers.

Previous books by Shah including Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, have been prescient to say the least. This study is no less so. Totally fascinating, and extremely well written, this is a book of our times and one all of us should take the time to read. When Covid-19 and lockdown recedes I will return to that Andalusian coastline with its migratory birds and people on the move crossing between continents. Having read this book it will certainly make me think again about what I encounter.