Human Geography

In conversation with Parag Khanna
by Jacopo Ottaviani 

It was back in 2018 when I last spoke to Parag Khanna about the future of humanity. I was in Nairobi back then, my Wi-Fi connection was shaky and a pandemic was not an immediate thought we considered would unfold before our next chat. This time I’m riding a motorbike in Filicudi, one of the most remote Aeolian Islands, when Cartography decides it’s a good time to go back to him and talk about Move: The Forces Uprooting Us, his last book published by Simon & Schuster (2021), and of course get an update on the state of the global society and explore the next big challenges and opportunities ahead of us. 

JO: In Move you ask very interesting questions related to the concept of mobility, which blends the material and philosophical. You raise questions such as: Why are we moving, and what do these shifts reveal about our needs and desires? Where should people go? What is the optimal distribution of people around the world? How would you respond to these questions in a nutshell?

PK: Why are we moving? Well, human beings by nature  seek social, political and ecological stability. We’re animals. All animals seek these things, and we’ve always moved in search of these things. We’ve been nomadic for most of the history of our species, certainly for the last 100,000 years. Only in the last several thousand years have humans been privileged enough to be more sedentary than we were in the past.

Where should people go is the question about the optimal distribution of people around the world. And to answer the optimal distribution question, we have to again be philosophical. The position I take in the book is what I call “cosmopolitan utilitarianism”, meaning a sense of fraternity and equality among people seeking to give maximum benefit or welfare in an equitable way to people in the world. In order to do that, you would want to have a fair distribution of people in stable areas. The optimal distribution would be a mass relocation of billions of people from stressed areas that won’t recover from climate change, towards more stable habitats, and that is what we need to engineer today.

Since February 2020, we’ve been witnessing an unprecedented global lockdown effort to fight the pandemic. How will the travel industry change, once the pandemic is under control? How will the change induced by the pandemic affect the way and frequency tourists travel around?

Long-distance business travel will certainly reduce. We’ll also see more growth of trade and investment intensity inside regions in North America, Europe, Asia, and perhaps less across those regions, and therefore there might be less need for that long-distance business travel. Tourism may also be concentrated within regions, because people don’t  want to be trapped far away from home, at least for now. People will also travel to places that are environmentally and epidemiologically stable. Perhaps they’ll visit those places as tourists or even to relocate, because people want to move to green zones rather than to live in red zones. To me, travel can be a dress rehearsal for future migration.

Climate change, pandemics and other crises jeopardize global stability and trigger new migration flows. Which areas will people abandon and where will they resettle within the next few decades? How soon will that happen, and why do you think global decision makers are procrastinating over solutions?

I think it’s very clear which places are no longer liveable. In fact, many parts of Africa, Latin America, South and Southeast Asia, whether it’s coastal areas because of rising sea levels, or areas where there’s drought and a diminished fresh water supply. Then there are of course politically untenable areas with civil war, international conflicts, genocides and so forth. 

The places where people are going are, of course, places that are more stable. So, you see that Canada is absorbing large numbers of people. America has opened up its immigration policy again under the Biden administration. Germany is a magnet for new residents from around the world, especially from the Middle East and the Balkans. Countries like Kazakhstan are absorbing large numbers of new migrants and workers as well. Singapore is very attractive, though it’s difficult for people to get in. Japan has never had so many foreigners as there are today. There are a lot of destinations, and as countries reform and improve their quality of life and have more dynamic labour markets and more activity and so forth, there will be people moving to those places.

Social links and the way people interact have evolved during the Covid-19 pandemic. More than ever, people use tools like Zoom or Whatsapp to connect and interact. Remote work is also being accepted as a new custom across the globe. How do you see this evolving in the next decades? What’s next?

There’s a lot more digital work and so forth, and remote connectivity is the new custom. Of course, it accelerated during COVID and it will accelerate further in the years ahead, and I think this will obviate and reduce the need for much of the business travel. In terms of youth, the demographic paradigm shift is, again, one of the great ironies of the world. The societies that are ageing and depopulating are the societies in the northern hemisphere that are also very climate resilient, like Europe. The young populations, on the other hand, are concentrated in the geographies that are the most environmentally at risk, like South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and this is part of the mismatch that we need to correct. 

In Move there’s a paradigm shift: we often talk about a world that’s ageing but, as at 2020, millennials and Gen-Z represent more than 60% of the world population. How should this affect us and the way the global north operates and decides on policies on a global level?

The global north, as you say, operates and decides on policies at a global level. Well, policies are more regional than global when it comes to migration, so what we see is that there is a lot of circulation of Asians within Asia, Europeans within Europe, and North Americans and Latin Americans in the western hemisphere. What new directions and vectors of migration we will see in the years ahead? I think that there will be, for example, many more East Asians and South Asians coming to Europe than before. Right now in Western Europe, there are only four million people that you’d call Asian Europeans, and by contrast, there are 25 million Asian Americans. I predict that in the coming decades, you’ll have tens of millions of more Indians and Chinese and Vietnamese and Asian people in Europe itself and I think this redistribution is gradually underway.

With the expansion of digital/remote work more and more “urban” workers are considering moving out of the big cities to live in cheaper and greener areas. Some Italians who had migrated in Northern Europe are going back to their hometowns in the south of Italy, for example (creating a new category called “southern workers”). How big is this phenomenon on a global level, and do you think it will help develop rural places in a sustainable way? Will this be enough to reduce the massive rural-to-urban migration flows and redistribute resources?

There’s been some rural to urban or urban to rural migration, if you will. For example, Indian construction workers have gone back to the villages and become farmers. Some Chinese people have become burned out professionally by the very difficult conditions in the offices, and have now moved to villages and towns so they can relax more. You see a little bit of that, but most people still want to move to cities because the quality of life is higher, the quality of services is higher, the salaries and wages are higher and so forth. I still think that you will have people moving to cities, but cities will also need to reinvent themselves to become more affordable, to have more mixed-use kinds of environments, to have more green space, to offer more amenities and these kinds of things. We’re evolving in multiple ways. Where people are, and how we build to accommodate people who work in offices as well as from home, all of these things can and will change.

In Move you highlight how we can no longer take for granted a stable relationship between our geographic layers such as nature, politics and economics. These are among the major forces that have determined our human geography for the past thousands of years – and in turn, our human geography has shaped them. How can we and decision makers handle this complexity to mitigate future crises?

The complexity of the world, I believe, emerges from the fact that we have these mismatches. The instability of the world emerges from the mismatch of the geography of resources, borders, infrastructure, and people, and our task is to reconcile and harmonize these layers again. There is no central governing body whose task it is to realign these layers of geography. We have to do it one step at a time. We have to, as I say in the book, move people to the resources, and technologies to the people. These are the twin missions that we must have, and this will require relocating people, but also investing in sustainable technology, sustainable housing, more technologically driven food production and so on.

In your books and publications you use data and maps very frequently as a tool to navigate complexity and drive global change. How can cartography and geographic data help us navigate through the upcoming global challenges?

When I depict the layers of geography on maps rather than just talking about it, it makes a lot more sense to people, and data helps us tremendously to geolocate where resources are, where fresh water is, where people are and the trends in terms of the challenges that geographies face from various aspects of climate change. We have data for every place. 

You need different data for different issues and challenges at different times. You may not know exactly the value of certain farmland, you may not know how much money is in the black market or the grey market. These kinds of questions we may not have access to. We may not have full access to data around child mortality or education levels and these kinds of things for many countries, but we can estimate, and make good calculations about them, so I don’t think that data is the problem any more. I think the problem is accepting and incorporating that data and using it in productive ways in order to make policy with foresight, to use that data, to be confident about and make future predictions, and then to act on the challenges that lie ahead.