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Nomad Century: How to Survive the Climate Upheaval review – humanity on the move | Science and nature books

It is unusual for a book that foresees billions of people displaced by the climate crisis to be optimistic. Yet that’s the tone Gaia Vince strikes in Nomad Century. “We are facing a species emergency – but we can manage it,” she writes, “with a planned and deliberate migration of the kind humanity has never before undertaken.”

Vince, an environmental journalist, stresses that climate displacement is already under way, with people fleeing parts of Latin America, Asia and Africa. Efforts to reduce carbon emissions, though vital to the future survival of humanity, are already unlikely to limit global heating to the extent that we avoid further displacement. The UN’s International Organization for Migration estimates that 1.5 billion people could be forced to move in the next 30 years alone.

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At the same time, the world is undergoing a demographic shift. Populations in the global north – the wealthier, cooler parts of the world towards which many people may flee – are ageing rapidly and workforces are becoming too small to support elderly people. This, suggests Vince, presents an opportunity. Brought together, this new population mix can adapt and build cities capable of withstanding the new extremes of flood, fire, drought and heat.

Technology will help us, Vince argues, but we must also “shed some of our tribal identities” – such as nationalism – and “embrace a pan-species identity” as citizens of Earth. We will need to move not just once, but multiple times: eventually, Vince suggests, efforts to repair ecosystems could enable people to return to places they once abandoned.

Nomad Century raises two questions: do humans have the ability to meet this challenge? And if so, how? Vince offers a persuasive response to the first. She takes us on a tour of cutting-edge technologies – from mats made of algae that float on the ocean and can be used to grow crops, to particles that can be injected into the atmosphere to reflect solar radiation – while remaining clear about their limitations. Her account of human development, meanwhile, argues that movement and mixing are essential to the survival of life (a subject explored more fully by Sonia Shah in her 2020 book The Next Great Migration).

Her answer to the second question, however, is less convincing. “We need to develop new plans based on geology, geography and ecology – not politics,” Vince writes. What this misses is that the very process of treating parts of life as beyond politics – for example, by allowing society to be increasingly governed by market dynamics – has led to a resurgence of the “tribalism” Vince wants us to move beyond. The disaster of the past decade is that rightwing populists have undermined efforts both to mitigate climate change and protect refugees by playing on people’s feelings that political institutions no longer work in their interests.

An alternative approach might be to reframe environmentalism as part of a collective demand for greater control over our lives – along with our working conditions and our means to afford such essentials as food and housing. But to do that we will need more politics, not less.

Nomad Century: How to Survive the Climate Upheaval by Gaia Vince is published by Allen Lane (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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