Environmental mural by Jake Seven

Migration History

An Excerpt of To Know the World
by Mitchell Thomashow

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The global migration crisis is one of the most important environmental issues of our times, and will challenge our most profound ethical and moral beliefs.

Excerpted from To Know the World: A New Vision for Environmental Learning by Mitchell Thomashow. Copyright © 2020. Used with permission of MIT Press. All rights reserved.

To Know the World: A New Visino for Environmental Learning, by Mitchell Thomashow

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A Context for the Excerpt

For almost 50 years, I’ve been professionally and personally engaged with environmental learning. Always a student, often a teacher, frequently a writer, and for a few years a university president, I’ve aspired to create dynamic teaching and learning settings. As environmental change itself is such a dynamic process, the most vital curriculum and programs are almost always adaptive, responding to and anticipating the most pertinent and pressing ideas and possibilities.

I wrote To Know the World: A New Vision for Environmental Learning because I believe that we are entering an unprecedented era of global environmental change, requiring new approaches to both teaching and learning as well as emergent concepts and issues. First and foremost is the convergent tides of change—the inextricable relationships between the health of the biosphere and questions of social justice, racial equity, and civic engagement. Second, we must better understand both ecological and social networks, from mycelium to social media, and how to navigate them constructively, creatively, and deliberately. Third, how do we develop adaptive and improvisational approaches to understanding and coping with global environmental change? Fourth, how do we develop compassion, empathy, and humility in considering the plight of the species and landscapes that share our habitats? Fifth, I am convinced that ecological and cultural migration is the overriding challenge of the 21st century. How do we accommodate, plan for, and learn about the extraordinary displacements of people and species? Migration is where climate change, public health, epidemiology, and social justice converge.

To Know the World covers all of these questions at length and does so with the reader’s experience front and center. As students, teachers, and citizens, how do we engage with these questions—not just for schooling and citizenship, but as a way of life. How can we study and practice these challenges as intrinsic to how we “know the world?”

I’ve sequenced three sections from Chapter 6, “Migration: The Movement of People and Species” in what I think is a representative and pertinent excerpt. Every concept I explore is a blend of personal experience and political or social questions, always referring to biosphere phenomena as the template that informs, inspires, and ultimately determines our conversations.

The idea of borders, like race and ethnicity, is merely a human construction that concocts the illusion of safety, a territorial expression, the demarcation of boundaries to distinguish between insiders and outsiders.

Family Stories

Like most children, I came to know the world by listening to the stories of my parents and grandparents. My mother was born in 1920 on a farm on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Her family of Russian Jewish immigrants fled pogroms in Belarus. They were initially denied access to America, hence they briefly settled in Cyprus. The family emigrated again when she was nine years old, arriving at a cold water flat in Brooklyn. Upon arrival, my mother spoke three languages, but nary a word of English. She and my grandfather would tell stories of how much they enjoyed the farm, and how difficult it was to leave the farm behind, even though they knew doing so would bring more opportunities for the family.

My paternal grandmother left the pogroms in Belarus for New York at 13 years old, voyaging on her own, the oldest child in a family of eight. Her mother, father, brothers, and sisters all followed. Similar to many immigrants, she became involved in a fraternal organization, the Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish mutual aid society that promoted assimilation to American life, as well as worker rights and socialist ideals. My father grew up in a politically progressive household of working people trying to find their way in a new country. My father and mother met while working for the Henry Wallace campaign (the third-party Progressive candidate for president) in 1948.

As a youngster I would rather go out and play ball than listen to stories of emigration and assimilation. I found rootedness by playing sports and games with other children. At the same age, my grandparents were emigrating to America. As a first-generation American, my father found stability through his profession and his garden. My mother found stability by keeping a home. My paternal grandparents found rootedness through the Workmen’s Circle and by keeping in close touch and proximity to their extended families. They enjoyed security, livelihood, and community in a new country, but they always told stories of where they came from, and they wanted to make sure that I knew some of those stories, too. They never took their freedom and opportunities for granted, and made sure that I was aware that these opportunities could also vanish in a heartbeat.

This was the milieu of my upbringing. My identity was formed around compelling stories of Jewish migration, diaspora, and intergenerational connections. Family gatherings would often involve heated discussions of the issues of the day, always with the backdrop of their dynamic histories. Accordingly, people expressed themselves with great passion around political, cultural, and social issues.

My family history, one that is common for immigrant families throughout the 20th century and into the present day, depicts many aspects of global environmental change—people who move from rural to urban to suburban locations within a single generation, people who struggle to find ways to assimilate within new cultures, people who are exposed to changing norms and expectations in very short periods of time.

The issue of global migration, refugees, and immigration is a prominent global controversy. Climate change, environmental insecurity, and political uncertainty catalyze global migration movements, and these issues will reverberate for many years to come. To better understand the dynamic circumstances of human migration and displacement, I read widely in a range of subjects from the global history of migration to the unfolding and rapidly moving science of ancient DNA, to the evolution of race and ethnicity. The proliferation of literature is copious, fascinating, and challenging.

My literature survey reinforced my sense that the global migration crisis is one of the most important environmental issues of our times, and will challenge our most profound ethical and moral beliefs. Are there ways to expand our view of human migration by better understanding its context in multigenerational time, as a fundamental ecological and evolutionary component of human residency in the biosphere? Are there ways to link our personal experiences to this perspective by tracing our family histories?

Refugees, Migrants, and Immigrants

An immense land lies about us. Nations migrate within us. The past looms close, as immediate as breath, blood, and scars on a wrist. It, too, lies hidden, obscured, shattered. What I can know of ancestors’ lives or of this land can’t be retrieved like old postcards stored in a desk drawer.
– Lauret Savoy, Trace

In the first two decades of the 21st century, the refugee/immigrant/migration challenge spawned weekly crises of conscience. Consider the long list of catalysts—people who lost everything after extraordinary weather catastrophes, earthquakes or tsunamis; people fleeing civil wars or brutal regimes; people escaping from gang violence and drug wars; or people who were economically desperate. Difficult political controversies ensued, prompting the full range of human emotional responses, from empathy and compassion, to nationalism and anti-immigration sentiments.

In June and July of 2018, sparked by a resurgence of anti-immigration policies in the United States, a full-fledged border crisis emerged, culminating with the heartless separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border. Here’s a snapshot of The New York Times newspaper headlines from the week of July 2nd:

‘Tracking a Package’: The Perils, and Price, of Migrant Smuggling

Affluence of Bavaria is Belied by the Anger

Spain’s Migrant Wave Grows, Tripling in 2017, Even as Europe’s Subsides

This Italian Town Once Welcomed Migrants. Now It’s a Symbol for Right-Wing Politics

Why Europe Could Melt Down Over a Simple Question of Borders

Fraternite’ Brings Immunity for Migrant Advocate in France

Scorpions, Dehydration, Disease: Syrians at the Border Face Deadly Threats

When a Baby Is an Everyday Reminder of Rohingya Horror

In a Migrant Shelter Classroom, ‘It’s Always Like the First Day of School’

Trump Administration Says it Needs More Time to Reunite Migrant Families

Refugees, migrants, and immigrants. Who are these people? Where do they come from? How can they be treated with respect and dignity? How can they find new homes and opportunities? How can we better understand that for a simple twist of fate they could be us? Or that we may be or have been only a generation or two removed from suffering similar fates (in the past or future).

These headlines remind us of the ubiquity of these questions. They are not unique to our time. Migration and displacement are intrinsic to the human condition. But in the Anthropocene, as a consequence of economic globalization and rapid transportation, we are all so much closer together, and the plight of global refugees potentially impacts every community. The idea of borders, like race and ethnicity, is merely a human construction that concocts the illusion of safety, a territorial expression, the demarcation of boundaries to distinguish between insiders and outsiders. But no wall or boundary can possibly be big or strong enough to hold back the tides of change in a world of perennial movement.

Before we proceed any further, let’s parse these terms. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, distinguishes between refugees, internally displaced persons, stateless persons, and asylum seekers. A refugee is “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution war, or violence…. Two-thirds of all refugees worldwide come from just five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, and Somalia.” Over half are school-aged children under the age of 18. An internally displaced person (IDP) “is someone who has been forced to flee their home but never cross an international border.” The UN estimates there are 40 million IDPs in the world. A stateless person “is someone who is not a citizen of any country.” The UN estimates ten million “around the world are stateless or at risk of statelessness.” Asylum seekers “are people who flee their own country and seek sanctuary in another country.” There were 1.7 million new asylum claims in 2017.

Any of these people may be or will at some time become migrants, defined by Human Rights Watch as “people living and working outside their country of origin.” As they point out, “large numbers of migrants fleeing criminality, poverty, and environmental disaster will be without the protections of refugee status.” According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2016, “If all of the international migrants… lived in a single country, it would be the world’s fifth largest, with around 244 million people. In 2017, according to the UN’s International Migration Report, there were 258 million migrants. The International Organization for Migration, another UN activity institution, has a website that lists 34 pertinent migration terms. Migration, it seems, is complicated enough to generate a unique suite of designations.

An immigrant is a person who resettles in another country. This entails an immigration process that varies in its legal protocols from one country to another. Some immigrants come by virtue of choice, pursuing job opportunities, and they may be recruited by employers. But migrants are almost always people who are displaced. When we discuss immigration policy, all of these issues matter, and the distinctions are crucial.

Inevitably the plight of refugees and migrants places great pressure on potential destination hosts. Those who are opposed to immigration are concerned that the influx of newcomers will diminish economic opportunities for people who reside in the destination country, or that they will require too many of the destination country’s resources to accommodate them, or that they will bring unsavory elements, including crime and/or terrorism. Some of this is prompted by a generalized fear of outsiders, and some comes from a legitimate concern regarding their own economic wellbeing, or perceived threats to cultural integrity. Migration waves often spawn a resurgence of nationalism and/or racism, an ensuing call for stricter border controls, and/or outright discrimination regarding migrant populations who already have taken up residence in the host country. These are the underlying dynamics of all the newspaper articles cited above.

A significant percentage of migrant populations are displaced because of environmental catastrophes, often exacerbated by political decisions. Hence the political, cultural, and social outcomes of environmentally induced migration must be considered. The migration/refugee crisis accompanies an environmental crisis. And as the issues become more serious, as will likely be the case with changing climate, wildfires, and sea level rise, the racist, exclusion-oriented approach will continue to cast its dark shadow. There is no escaping the urgency of this dilemma.

Why Environmental Learning About Migration Matters

The key is to provide or somehow create among people stronger clues of trust and common values than might otherwise be suggested by the highly imprecise markers of ethnicity or cultural differences that we have used throughout our history, and then to encourage the conditions that give people a sense of shared purpose and shared outcomes. That is the recipe that carried us around the world beginning around 60,000 years ago, and it still works. Looking around the great cosmopolitan cities of the world, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is already happening.
  — Mark Pagel, Wired for Culture

Mark Pagel’s optimistic message above comes at the conclusion of a comprehensive discussion about the evolutionary origins and cultural manifestations of the human social mind. I find Pagel’s work of great interest because he explores the complexity of social groups and the precarious relationship between four kinds of social behavior: altruism, selfishness, spite, and cooperation. The origins of these behaviors is a fascinating, unfolding, and dynamic research agenda, easily coopted by ideological predispositions. To understand how we respond to migration (in all its forms), it’s crucial to reflect on the full gamut of social responses. Such reflection is a prerequisite for global citizenship in the Anthropocene because of the inevitable proximity of cultures and the flow of people that makes it happen. The political conflicts may play themselves out in the dangerous emotions of Us/Them polarizations. How do we avoid this?

It may be impossible to overcome the evolutionary and cultural legacies of Us/Them dynamics, but it may be possible to mitigate them. As this is a book about environmental learning, the challenge is how to educate about these issues, how to expand awareness, how to situate migration as an ecological response to living in the biosphere, how to better understand the ecological and cultural dynamics of migration, and how to cultivate empathy for the movement of people and species. I conceive this in six conceptual steps—from the biosphere to social behavior—from a map of the world to your backyard or city street, and then to your personal experience. Somewhere in your past, present, or future, your family has a migration history.

  1. Migration is a biospheric phenomenon. Continents move. Atmospheric and oceanic circulations are dynamic flows of air and water. Biogeochemical cycles move nutrients through air, water, and land. Lifeforms navigate these dynamic flows by finding habitats and food sources, while constructing networks and forming behaviors that lead via evolution to an infinite variety of species and adaptations, many of which involve moving from one place to another.
  2. Migration is intrinsic to the human condition. From the dawn of humanity, roving bands moved from place to place in search of food, security, and habitat. Long before there were borders on published maps, these bands established territorial boundaries in a matrix of coexistence and conflict, necessarily prompted by their inevitable movement. As the environment constantly changed, survival demanded multiple strategic approaches, and one of the most important was the ability to follow the food sources.
  3. Recorded human history is a convergence of multiple ecological and cultural mi People disperse in response to environmental change and dynamic territorial boundaries, forming distinct tribal affiliations that lead to diverse cultural worldviews, power imbalances, and the possibilities of exclusion, inclusion, assimilation, displacement, or retreat. Flip through the pages of a good historical atlas and you’ll observe the constant rearrangement of borders, empires, ethnicities, and civilizations. Notice especially the waves of invasion and imperialism as well as the expansion of trade and cooperation.
  4. The Human Genomic Legacy is ripe for interpretation. With the proliferation of genomic data, we are gaining a much better understanding of both human history on the planet, especially regarding migration and movement, as well as the ability to learn more about our personal and ethnic ancestry. It’s becoming increasingly clear that race and ethnicity are cultural constructions. Go back in time just a few generations and you can review the wonderful diversity of your ancestry, while also tracing the geographical path of your genome.
  5. Empathy, compassion, and altruism emerge from expanding personal identity into the collective sphere, and this includes overcoming tribal affiliations and the prejudices they promote. The Anthropocene is characterized by both the intense impact of human activity and the increasing proximity of cultures and ecosystems. There is no escaping from the inevitable political challenges of such proximity. These challenges easily provoke Us/Them dichotomies, nationalist impulses, and the building of walls and obstacles. How do we maintain cultural integrity, political sovereignty, and a pride in local place while enhancing empathy, intercultural understanding, ecological resilience, and constructive connectivity?
  6. The most successful, innovative, and enduring cultures understand the necessity of cooperation, trade, and Cultures and ecosystems alike thrive when they are most diverse. This requires permeable borders, a spirit of exchange, and an understanding of the conditions that contribute to cultural and ecological diversity.



Mitchell ThomashowMitchell Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, environmental learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently his passions are teaching, writing, and advising, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with environmental learning, sustainability, and the arts. Mitchell’s books have significantly influenced environmental studies education: To Know the World: A New Vision for Environmental Learning, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus, Bringing the Biosphere Home, and Ecological Identity. Catch up with him at MitchellThomashow.com.

Read more from Mitchell Thomashow’s Environmental Learning in the Anthropocene series in Terrain.org.

Header image and photo by Jake Seven: jakeseven.com.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.