Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On environmental migration research

The jet lag has worn off from my trip last week to participate in a European Science Foundation-sponsored conference on environment and (human*) migration. It's a subject that European scholars and policymakers have been paying a fair bit of attention to in recent years, far more than on this side of the Atlantic. It was a fascinating conference, appealing to the true academic nerd in me. The conference covered a wide range of topics, from regional climate modeling to Foucault-inspired deconstructions of the hidden meanings that might be embedded in the term "environmental migration".

I was fascinated by the many presentations by scholars from developing nations (who must have made up at least 1/3 of those in attendance) describing empirical research into how adverse environmental events and conditions affect mobility, population displacements and migration patterns in their home countries. A lot of this research never makes it to scholarly journals (at least, not ones easily accessible here in North America), which is a real shame. The study of environmental migration, although it has been around for a while, is still relatively underdeveloped as compared with other areas of migration and mobility research. While it has been known by scholars since the days of Herodotus (if not earlier) that changing environmental conditions affect population movements, scholars are still trying to work out all the various potential linkages between ecological and socio-economic systems that influence migration. The more case studies we can assemble from different places, the better.

It was also really nice to be among scholars with expertise and interest in this field. There aren't a whole lot of people in North America doing research on environment and migration, even fewer on climate-related migration, a subject that interests me particularly. When you work on your own a lot, you can't help but start to wonder if the subject you're studying is as relevant as you think it is. In Canada, for example, each year there are all kinds of well-attended conferences and workshops on subjects such as how newcomers integrate when they arrive in Canadian cities, on the meaning of citizenship, on how certain social groups use and interpret urban space, and so on. Environmental themes tend not to crop up. And of course, there is an enormous amount of research being done on vulnerability and adaptation to climate change, but not many of us work at that interface between climate and migration research.

People in the security policy field show an interest in climate change and migration from time to time, often with the goal of trying to foresee how many people might be involuntarily displaced in the future and where they might end up going. While I am generally interested in such questions and have written about them, the research questions that most appeal to me are what others have described as socio-ecological ones. As a simple example, when you have a drought, why is it that the farm family on one side of the road quits farming and moves on while the family on other side of the road stays on? Is it because of some difference in the configuration of the family? Their farming skills? Access to credit? The amount of clay in their soil or the quality of the well water? Luck? Some farming choice made years previously that has come back to pay dividends or cause trouble? The possibilities are not necessarily endless, but they are many and are fascinating in their complexity. And gaining more insights into them is, in my view, an essential component in understanding what our world will look like in coming years. Happily, it seems a good number of researchers in Europe, Asia and Africa share my interests.

*I add the term "human" simply because there is a much larger body of research out there on the migration of organisms other than humans in response to environmental change.

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