We are beginning to experience four convergent crises: a high level of xenophobia, divergent population trends, a rising world temperature and massive waves of migration.
How can we avoid a catastrophic collision of these crises?
First, let’s review the convergence of these problems.
Xenophobia — fear of strangers — has been around from the beginning of our species about 300,000 years ago. There were only a small number of dispersed groups of us back then, so occasional clashes among these groups weren't a big deal. Now the world population is approximately 8 billion and still growing. One prominent source projects a peak of almost 10 billion in 2064, declining to a little fewer than 9 billion by 2100.
These projections are actually good news. For the first time since the early years of our species, our numbers will begin to decrease in this century, thus putting less pressure on our planet’s resources and our competition for survival.
There is, however, a disturbing side to the population story. Wealthier parts of the world are projected to grow and decline at different rates from poor regions. For example, Nigeria is expected to increase from about 215 million people to about 790 million by 2100 and become the third-largest country in the world. On the other end of the spectrum, Japan’s population is projected to decrease by 50%, from about 126 million to a little under 60 million by 2100.
The poorest countries in Africa, Asia and Oceania will grow much faster than more developed countries in the next several decades.
As the world temperature continues to increase, so will extreme weather-related events: droughts, floods, heat waves, wildfires, rising ocean levels and many others. Similar to population change, the severity of these events will vary widely in different parts of the world.
Tropical and subtropical areas will be the worst hit, resulting in an estimated 1.2 billion people seeking more habitable environments by 2050.
Thus, those who live in poor countries in the tropics and subtropics will experience the double whammy of rapidly increasing populations and rapidly decreasing livability in the next several decades. Where will they want to migrate? To wealthier countries in temperate climates, especially North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and less climate-stressed parts of Asia.
What will people face when they attempt to reach these destinations? In the early 2020s they face multiple barriers, many fueled by xenophobia, others by bureaucratic red tape, and yet others by a Babel of inconsistent migration policies from country to country.
Let’s address each of these barriers here.
Xenophobia is probably the most difficult to overcome. But it is not insurmountable.
Individual phobias, such as fear of spiders and fear of flying, are treatable — psychological conditions that can be significantly lessened through gradual exposure to the feared object or activity.
A similar approach can be used to treat xenophobia (and other group-level fears and hatreds, such as homophobia, misogyny and an array of “isms,” including racism, antisemitism and ethnocentrism).
For example, after the war in Vietnam, the United States resettled more than 1.1 million Southeast Asians, the largest single group of immigrants in American history. An important key to this mostly successful resettlement was the fact that these immigrants were dispersed across the country. Because communities received relatively small numbers of immigrants, this is an example of applying “exposure treatment” to a potentially xenophobic pushback. This approach was not without its adjustment problems, but the second and third generations from this group have, for the most part, been well-accepted by other Americans.
Addressing bureaucratic barriers and lack of coordination among countries would require a political will to establish a systematic approach to immigration within and among developed countries.
Over 8 million refugees, fleeing from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have been — at least temporarily — absorbed into other European countries during the past year or so. This tremendous accomplishment shows that bureaucratic and xenophobic barriers to immigration can be overcome in a geopolitical crisis. The question remains: Can this kind of cooperation on migration policy be established proactively to address the upcoming waves of mass migration from poor, climate-battered countries?
The other side of the migration question is: What can countries in tropical and subtropical areas, and international bodies, do to reduce the number of climate and population emigrants? Several things:
• Improve reproductive education and access to contraceptives.
• Develop means to counter climate-induced causes of emigration, such as drought-resistant crops and farming techniques, afforestation and reforestation, community solar arrays (that among other things provide air-conditioning to reduce the deadly impact of excessive heat) building flood barriers and depopulating flood-prone areas.
• Relocate people to more habitable areas within tropical and subtropical zones.
• Desalinate and purify water resources.
• Establish educational programs that fit future employment needs at home as well as in countries that are potential destinations for immigration.
An important point to remember is that many developed countries are facing, and will continue to face, declines in their working-age populations. This workforce depletion will vary from country to country, and will involve both low- and high-skill job opportunities for immigrants. The level of xenophobia also varies from country to country. But in the face of deteriorating domestic economies resulting from a shortage of workers, some of the more racist countries in the world may become more amenable to increasing the number of immigrant workers.
In summary, multiple world crises are unfolding, but none are insurmountable. We’ve done a poor job in addressing the problems of climate change so far. Here’s hoping that world leaders and everyday people can get their act together soon to avert a catastrophic convergence of xenophobia, population problems, an overheated planet and massive migration in the coming decades.