Migration and the shared planet

Clem McCartney

A butterfly flaps its wings in the African jungle, and a few weeks later a hurricane results in North America.  That was the image that chaos theory used in order to show that small changes can have big consequences.  Before that, the science fiction writer Ray Bradbury dramatised the phenomenon in his short story The Sound of Thunder (1952) in which a time traveller steps on a butterfly in a trip to the past and finds the world changed when he arrives back in the present. 

Actions have consequences

But, we are not in a science fiction fantasy.  It seems that something happened in a wet market in Wuhan at the end of last year and now the whole world is struggling to contain a pandemic.  And it is multi-directional.  If I cannot be bothered to switch off a light switch in the developed world, and others don’t either, then more electricity has to be produced, releasing carbon into the atmosphere – if we are not using renewable energy.  If I decide to have a double burger instead of a single, that could lead to deforestation in the Amazon – unless I have a veggie burger, which is a better option for the Amazon.  Deciding to upgrade my car (or any other piece of kit) every year also increases the carbon in the atmosphere – even if it is an electric car.  And think of the big decisions we are making – sending rockets into space to explore the feasibility of escaping earth and settling on Mars.  Because I can, does not mean I should.

We know that all these decisions and their impacts have consequences, but often not for us – or so we think.  We like to call these consequences “externalities” and push them away.  The immediate impact is often on people who do not have light switches; have never eaten a burger; do not have a car and perhaps no road on which to drive.  They may be facing rising sea levels if they live on the coast; they may be suffering from more extreme weather conditions – floods, drought, heat waves; they may be living with violent conflict over scarce resources.

Policy and personal decisions taken in the west have significantly impacted environmental and economic conditions in developing countries.

Migrations don’t happen in a vacuum

It is not surprising that some of those people decide to migrate or find that they have no alternative to migration.  They go to the cities or they leave their own country to head for a place where they think they have a better chance to survive.  So our actions are a factor in causing migration, but when a migrant gets to the border, he or she is rejected by the people who turn on the light without thinking, eat a double burger on a whim, buy a new car or clothes that they do not really need.  They condemn the migrants as scroungers and trouble makers who are trying to take advantage of them and destroy their way of life and they gravitate to political leaders who promise to close the border.

The rejection of the immigrants causes another set of consequences.  For the individual migrant it can mean death, either because they try to enter the country through dangerous, illegal routes or because they have no alternative means of survival.  It increases the pressure on their country of origin which cannot sustain the current population, especially if climate change is causing increasing harm.  The situation creates an unstable environment in which illegal gangs can thrive and legitimate government is undermined.  So the urge to migrate becomes ever more compelling.  The problem has not gone away.

The malign cycle between action that causes climate change and the act of migration is of course only one part of the story.  The relation between fast fashion and unsafe and onerous working conditions as a driver of migration is another malign cycle.  The demand for cheap food leading to clearances of huge areas of land for intensive farming and forcing poor peasants off their land is a third dynamic interacting with and reinforcing the many other drivers of inequality, environmental degradation, climate change, instability, and forced migration.  And of course we have to factor in the natural desire to migrate in order to experience a different environment, to better oneself and one’s community and do something useful.  None of this is new.  These interconnected, self-replicating systems are widely recognized, but such recognition does not seem to permeate approaches to tackling these problems.  Existing policies are designed to change behavior by incentives, coercion, rational argument, or a mixture of them all, without considering if such strategies have the capacity to overcome the powerful drivers of these behaviors – human feelings. 

The human dimension

If we have not experienced the desperation that often fuels migration or the sense of threat that motivates opposition to migration, then it is hard to understand the depth and strength of such feelings, or their persistence in spite of efforts to suppress or divert them.  We do not look at how to counteract these feedback loops and the emotions driving them.  We expect migrants to stop wanting to migrate because we make it more difficult, not realising that the policies designed to make it more difficult, actually increase the desperation.  We expect host communities to be more open to migrants, not taking into account their fears and uncertainties that are exacerbated by being told that they are selfish and bigoted. 

We seem to forget or ignore the emotional energy that drives and sustains these patterns, much of it fed into the systems by the actions or inaction, feelings and emotions, of all those involved.  We act and we react.  In the modern inter-connected world, the actions of individuals, amplified by the similar actions of many other individuals are having greater impact and feeding the malign cycles in which we are trapped.  We are all consumers now.  We are all broadcasting our views on social media.  Many of us are taking direct action to defend our interests or find a new life in another place.  Many are seeking refuge from war, crime, poverty, and hunger.  All these actions combine to feed the malign cycles that are damaging our planet and its residents, both humans and other living things. 

There are realistic fears of the unknown and of changes which impact negatively on us.  And the problems are complex.  But the strength of these feelings indicates deeper uncertainties. It is an ironic paradox that those same individuals, whose small actions trigger big consequences, do not feel that they have agency or voice, but that they are the victims of decisions taken elsewhere.  

Fear and alienation

Particularly in the developed world, too many people feel that they do not belong and that they are unable to play a meaningful role and influence what is happening.  They and their skills, talents, and ideas are discarded.  They fear that their way of life, economic status, and security are under threat, not least by the presence of newcomers.  They feel irrelevant and ignored, victims of their circumstances.  We are living through a period of alienation and anomie which is at odds with public rhetoric about the importance of the individual and personal freedom, only increasing frustration and despair.  It is easy to play on these fears as demagogues do, amplifying the disillusionment and offering explanations for the problems by scapegoating others.  In doing so, they encourage people to feel hostile and negative, and limit their potential to feel open and empathic to others, creating another malign cycle, this time between governed and governments. 

People have pushed back against demagogues trying to demonize migrants.

In an article in The Atlantic in 2018, Yuval Noah Harari succinctly describes such patterns by saying, “Perhaps in the twenty-first century populist revolts will be staged not against an economic elite that exploits people but against an economic elite that does not need them anymore.”  He then concludes, “This may well be a losing battle.  It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.”  But even if these feelings are suppressed they do not disappear and the anger and frustration, the fear and desperation continue to drive the malign cycles we have described.  It is difficult to ask people in such circumstances to act for the common good when they feel threatened by “progress,” modernisation, and globalisation.  Many are worse off. 

It is not surprising that people feeling like this do not believe their actions matter and have little interest in trying to contribute to the wider society beyond their immediate circle.  It is not surprising that, fatalistically, they avoid the issues we face, as too difficult and someone else’s fault and, spurred on by advertising and cultural pressures, indulge in over-consumption of the world’s resources.  The attraction of conspiracy theories is also not surprising as they offer certainty, based on the idea of a secret movement running society and the whole world. 


The Concept of Shared Societies offers an antidote to this social malaise.  The vision of a Shared Society is a place where all those living there feel at home.  It respects everyone’s dignity and human rights, while providing every individual with equal opportunity.  It is “shared” because everyone shares in the benefits but also everyone gladly shares responsibility for the wellbeing of the society as a whole and individuals within it.  It is tolerant.  It respects diversity.  It is stable and safe.  A previous piece describes what needs to happen to bring it about: https://radicalecologicaldemocracy.org/shared-societies-in-the-times-of-covid-19/

If we live in such a society, we feel valued and significant and are ready to interact and engage with others to develop and implement solutions together.  Does this add an extra level of complexity to the challenges we face?  At one level, yes, but it offers the possibility of more effective and sustainable solutions.  Faced with a complex problem, our response is often to focus on one goal, usually our own interest, and ignore other considerations.  Our efforts are designed to push back against the inexorable wheels of the malign cycles that maintain the current crises.  In doing so, we reinforce them and possibly set in train a new set of consequences.  The constant struggle becomes dispiriting.  It is more effective to recognise the complexity and acknowledge the many competing points of view.  It then becomes clear we cannot address them separately and need shared co-operative solutions to meet the concerns of everyone.  If we did not know already that many problems need the support and co-operation of the whole community, Covid-19 is bringing this point home to us. 

It is right that we campaign for our own interests and in response to our own concerns, but we need to work with opponents to look problems squarely in the eye and be mindful that the challenges are common, shared problems to which we all contribute.  We need to audit constantly our attitudes, ideas, alliances, policies, statements, and actions to see if they are truly inclusive – they will be more effective for that.

Acknowledging a “shared society” allows us to accept the humanity of everyone, including migrants..

At the local and national levels, we need to build inclusive Shared Societies where everyone feels they are valued and are able and willing to make their contributions to the community’s wellbeing.  And, since we are facing interconnected, mutual reinforcing global challenges, at the global level, we need to take joint action against climate change; inequality and injustice, economic and fiscal imbalances; racism and gender bias, deprivation and hunger; we need to address the problems that force people to migrate; and we also need to ensure the movement of people in safe and orderly ways in response to the absence of opportunity in some places and the need for skills and talents in another.  Development has come to mean disruption, with jobs being moved, and land and resources becoming worthless due to drought, flooding, or rising sea levels, or else claimed by the state or entrepreneurs or seized illegally. 

Joseph Stiglitz has pointed out that the problem of globalization is not that it has not worked.  It has worked in the way in which it was conceived by the economic elite who have benefited richly from it, but at the expense of other sections of society whose needs and interests were ignored and treated as externalities.  We need a different model of globalisation. 

Designing a new agenda

When I was with the Shared Societies Project of the Club de Madrid, we convened a seminar in April 2012 with The Center of Concern in Washington and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, New York Office, and, and drafted what we called A Global Shared Societies Agenda to Promote Long-Term Inclusive and Sustainable Growth: http://www.clubmadrid.org/publications/#shared-societies-project.  We looked at issues such as public expenditure policy, taxation, monetary policy, social protection, education and health, labour market institutions, women’s empowerment, public participation in economic decision-making, sovereign debt restructuring, financial and macroeconomic regulation and supervision, and proposed changes that would be needed to ensure an inclusive global order that worked for all.  It is of course an enormous challenge but the Agenda is grounded in realism, and participating in their private capacities were economists and others from the major international agencies. 

The adoption of such an Agenda will facilitate and can guide the effective implementation of the practical steps that are already well-known.  In relation to migration, we need to improve conditions in the countries of origin, tackling the factors that lead to desperation in the community; we need fair and open systems for processing applications from both economic migrants and asylum seekers, which give them a reasonable pathway to resettlement in a new country; we need effective and humane resettlement programmes that involve host communities to ensure that successful applicants are distributed fairly across the receiving country, taking into account where there are needs for their skills and labour, and provide the necessary training and support to facilitate the resettlement of the migrants; and we need clear data on the situation across the world to inform policy makers and administrators AND the community at large.  None of these things is difficult, if there is the political and societal will.  The numbers seeking to migrate are manageable considering the existing populations of the receiving countries.  None of the measures is expensive, bearing in mind overall national budgets – it is instructive that our societies never seem to question the much, much larger expenditure on armaments because it offers a false sense of security and a measure of control, yet do question modest expenditure on positive action in response to the needs of others, ignoring the effectiveness of such expenditure in ensuring more stable, safer societies. 

Should we be protesting modest amount of money being spent on the welfare of migrants or the wasteful expenditure on armaments?

A similar check list could be identified in relation to all the other global challenges we face and there are international agreements which, though not perfect, point the way to the steps that need to be taken:  Framework Conference on Climate Change (1992) and subsequent agreements, Agenda 2030/the Sustainable Development Goals (2015), the Global Compact for Migration (2018), and the Global Compact on Refugees (2018).

Reconfiguring obstacles

One should not ignore the other obstacles holding back the implementation of all these strategies.  Our economic systems are not fit for purpose – too short-term and based on competition and rivalry rather than co-operation.  Public debate and political systems across the world are dominated by sectional interests who determine decisions about political, economic, social, and cultural affairs.  In any case, the natural inertia in systems impedes change.  But these systems will change and cease to be obstacles and instead become enablers if we are transforming our societies to become more shared and inclusive, taking into account the voices and concerns of all.  Perhaps the first step is to create opportunities for meaningful participation by all sections of society to ensure that they are understood and able to shape the changes that are needed to reflect their concerns, alongside the needs of other stakeholders.

If we do not make those changes, many people will remain marginal and disaffected.  Make the changes, and they will grow in confidence, and the natural tendency to be welcoming towards strangers and those in need will overcome the other natural tendency to be uncomfortable and wary when faced with new situations, the unfamiliar, and different.  It will “make hope possible rather than despair convincing,” to quote the writer and cultural theorist, Raymond Williams.


Clem McCartney has been an independent research consultant on conflict and community issues for the last 40 years, working in many parts of the world with organizations such as Conciliation Resources, Berghof Foundation and the World Leadership Alliance/Club de Madrid.

Discuss these articles on our forum

1 thought on “Migration and the shared planet”

  1. An excellent article naming the difficulties that we facing by rejecting to consider solutions to problems of today. Fear, the feeling of having no power to change things and selfish interests hinder us to agree on a new agenda…. Putting oneself in the role of a refugee or a victim of war or hunger may help to change our attitude and will to become active in promoting a new agenda…..

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top