Charter Cities Podcast Episode 38: Mass Migration with Parag Khanna
Parag explains how mass migration has been occurring for decades, and although there are some exceptions, in the majority of cases, societies have absorbed the newcomers and the newcomers have assimilated remarkably well.
Key Points From This Episode:
• Parag shares his thoughts on why the US should (hypothetically) buy Greenland.
• The premise of Parag’s new book, Move.
• Two megatrends that are currently shaping the world.
• Four potential futures that Parag thinks we are heading for.
• Immigration policies in the UK, US, and Canada, and what these indicate about the future.
• Changes in migration dynamics since Parag’s school days, and what is driving those changes.
• The sentiment amongst European politicians about migrants that Parag has picked up through his research.
• How societies have historically dealt with mass migration.
• High volumes of migration that take place in East and South-East Asia.
• Value that lies in having civilizational confidence.
• Parag explains how Germany is breaking open the definition of what German-ness is.
• A brief analysis of the migration situation in the UAE.
• Primary factors which motivate the migration of Western expats.
• The nuanced nature of citizenship.
• Sustainability, mobility, and connectivity from the perspective of the youth of today, and Parag’s opinion on where these ideas emerged from.
• How definitions of community have changed, and how they are changing now.
• The important role that cities are going to play in coming migrations.
• Parag explains what the mobile real estate phenomenon is, and what is driving it.
• Why Parag does not think de-urbanization is a major trend, although it is being talked about as if it is.
• Plans that Parag has for the future.
Mark: Hello and welcome to the Charter Cities Podcast. I’m your host, Mark Lutter, the founder and executive director of the Charter Cities Institute. On the Charter Cities Podcast, we illuminate the various aspects of building a charter city. From governance to urban planning, politics to finance, we hope listeners to the Charter Cities Podcast will come away with a deep understanding of Charter Cities, as well as the steps necessary to build them. You can subscribe and learn more about Charter Cites at chartercitiesinstitute.org. Follow us on social media, @cci.city on Twitter, and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. Thank you for listening
Mark: My guest today is Parag Khanna, he is the founder and managing director of FutureMap, a data and scenario based strategic advisory firm. He is an international bestselling author of six books. His most recent book entitled, Move.
Welcome to the show, Parag.
Parag: Hey Mark, great to see you.
Mark: To start, should the US buy Greenland?
Parag: If it were available, it would be a very smart move, in the same way that purchasing Alaska from Russia in 1860s was very strategic and brilliant move and part of the continental is that was a guiding geo-political philosophy of the US in the 19th century. But, it’s not for sale as President Trump at the time was very curtly informed by the authorities. I think it’s probably moot at this point but if you want to expand on it, it’s extremely important to note that if and when Greenland becomes independent and seeks its independence in a referendum from Denmark, given its geography and given its ethnography, it is far more naturally aligned geographically and culturally to Canada, given the Inuit populations and their commonalities.
The way I see Greenland is as the fourth member of an emergent North American union, right? United States, Mexico, Canada, Greenland. That’s what I actually believe in a very teleological way, as of sort of a geographical determinant is sort of where we’re going is towards a soft, not a supernational north American union, just because we use the word union in the context in the European and that’s a supernatural entity, it doesn’t need that all usages of the word union connotes super nationalism because of course, we’ll never have that in North America.
I do think that we will have an emergent federation that we, some may colloquially call a North American union and Greenland will be a member of it. For what it’s worth, I was the first person to float this in my TED talk in 2009 where I actually showed the Greenland independence separatist flag emerging in a visual animation and I said exactly what I’m saying to you right now about 12 years ago.
Mark: I think it kind of fits with a lot of themes that you had been writing about. I mean, I think that, right, you mentioned that Denmark didn’t want to sell but presumably, if Greenland had an independence vote, Denmark will likely respect that and the population is only 56,000 people.
The US could literally offer a million dollars a person, that ends up being 56 billion dollars which is like a lot of money but we’re currently debating a stimulus check that’s 3.5 billion dollars, 3.5 trillion dollars. 56 billion is not that much in the scheme of things. Two, given the fact that global warming is a thing, that the many, kind of, areas in the arctic circle are going to become much more habitable, it seems like it would be a pretty solid purchase.
Parag: The geographical logic and merits and virtues of this geography known as Greenland are unimpeachable in a climate change world. It has natural gas deposits, it has minerals and so forth. It’s really not about the money in the sense that China has 56 million dollars too and has been bribing its way to prospecting rights and joint ventures in the mineral space and so on. While the US actually has solid military facilities there and cooperation of Canada can also offer 56 billion too. It’s not really about the money. It’s about them having control of their assets and future revenues from those assets rather than selling cheap.
Mark: Sure. What is the thesis of your new book, Move?
Parag: Move is basically about the future of human geography, which is the distribution of the 8 billion members of the human species around the planet. Looking forward the next 10, 20, 30 years. Looking back from 2050, how did we get to where we are in 2050 and why and where are we? What does it tell us about the mega trends shaping the future?
Another way to look at it is really the war for talent, particular the war for young talent. The desire for places to attract young people in a demographically deflating world and amidst the backdrop of climate change. The two sort of reliable mega trends right now are demographic deflation, meaning the plateau of the human population which has been accelerated by the two baby busts of the financial crisis and COVID. And of course, climate change and the acceleration of climate change which renders some places more livable and other places, less livable.
With those backdrop conditions, and others as well, everything from economic crisis to labor automation, to civil wars and unrest and refugee flows, I account for all of that and then I project forward several scenarios for what or where we will wind up.
Mark: What does the world look like in 30 years?
Parag: Well, the world is certainly divided into livable and unlivable zones, how they relate to each other is the area in which I draw four scenarios in the book. The first is called Regional Fortresses so in the Regional Fortresses scenario, the relatively climatically robust or resilient regions, like parts of North America, Europe, Russia, Japan, they are ant-migrant but they are pro sustainability for themselves. Regional Fortresses is a scenario that most represents the status quo.
There’s another couple of scenarios that rank very low or in terms of our overall sustainability and the control over migrant flows. One is called Barbarians at the Gate which kind of says what it is and the other is the New Middle Ages in which I talk about the fragmentation of polities and the competition for scarce resources and the very uneven nature of investments in sustainability, whether it’s energy, food or water.
The final fourth scenario is called Northern Lights. That’s the aspirational one and the sort of the normative appeal that I make towards the end is, what would it take to get to a world in which we can have more fluidity and mobility for our population as well as more sustainable habitats from an infrastructural point of view? The combination of the legal and the implications this has for sovereignty, and the technological, meaning, what other kinds of mechanisms and instruments that would make this possible. I go into that towards the end of the book.
Mark: How would you weight the likelihood of each different scenario? Or maybe what are kind of the inputs that you might look for over the next five years that would cause you to think that one scenario is more likely to happen than another scenario?
Parag: Yeah, people tend to look at scenarios in a probabilistic fashion and I don’t tend to think that methodologically that’s the right approach when you’re dealing with this kind of qualitative visioning kind of exercise.
The more appropriate question in my view is, or rather, metric, is, are each of the four scenarios plausible and do they have a sufficient degree of overlap that all of them could happen at the same time? Because scenarios should never actually be mutually exclusive, otherwise one of them could be rendered more or less utterly implausible.
I actually have crafted these four scenarios in such a way that you could plausibly say that actually, elements of all four of them are occurring and unfolding right now and will probably continue to, and all four of them will be true to a greater or lesser degree somewhere in the world, most likely at the same time.
When you ask though, I think your second question is extremely on point, which is, “What could happen that could suggest that one or the other would be more likely?” Again, the status quo is Regional Fortresses. We can certainly assign a high probability to the idea that climate diplomacy will get more serious around mitigation measures, everything from carbon taxes to geo engineering and then adaptation will happen at a more localized, rather than global scale, right? Again, that’s where we are right now. Fairly high probability.
However, when you bring in the fact of the demographic deflation and the need for young populations to replenish and rejuvenate northern hemispheric societies, you might gravitate towards one of the other scenarios in which there’s increased migration rather than strong protectionism and barriers and you can imagine, again, very plausibly that today’s prevailing populism and xenophobia actually does wind up giving away to this war for talent for very obvious demographic and labor market kinds of reasons.
You can see very strong evidence that that’s actually happening. Trump and his immigration policy were an aberration from the norm, Brexit was an aberration from the norm. If you look at the UK today, it’s easier to migrate to the UK right now in 2021 than it was in 2015. You used to have to pay a security bond and offer a letter or proof of work. Today, you just have to show that you’re a graduate from some institution and they’ll let you in. Such has been the nature of their labor shortages, NHS and then the like.
Canada is another good example of course which is, by design, increasing its population at a rate of about 1% per year which amounts to roughly 400,000 people. The US is now going back to an expanded H1b program and one of the interesting tweaks in the current proposals on immigration reform are that spouses of H1 babies are always allowed to work. That’s a godsend for all of the south Asian and other professional migrants who come to the US and they can suddenly become two income households and that’s like the go to encourage further chain migration, and then of course normalization and some pathway to citizenship for more than 10 million undocumented migrants.
We’ll look back in 20, 30 years and say, “Trump who?” Right? When it comes to immigration policy, and, “Brexit what?” When it comes to the population of the UK, because on a relative basis, North America is a climate oasis compared to other continents and most certainly, Europe is.
Parag: That’s interesting. I guess there’s kind of two things, one that you’re saying right, there is a broad opening or at least, maybe not heavy liberalization but this kind of light to medium liberalization of immigration, particularly for high human capital people.
At the same time, there is, Great Fortress Europe isn’t a misnomer per se. They have begun, sort of systematically reducing migration flows, mostly of low human capital labor. Is that a fair summary of your perspective and two, do you anticipate these trends continuing to accelerate?
Mark: Well, in the case of Europe, we’re looking narrowly at the recent past and that the main or predominant vectors, geographically of inflows into Europe which is Africa and the Middle East, right? And Turkey. Actually, one of the major themes that I explore in the book are the new macro dyads of migration that we’ve not ever talked about in our lifetimes if ever.
Let me give you an example. It’s south and east Asians migrating into western Europe. The term that I coined for this is Asian Europeans. This is for me a bit of an interesting reflection because I grew up as an Asian American, immigrated to America as a kid and I was one of the few, not that many in my particular town in New York, Asian American kids. I went to high school though, in Germany, partially, and I was definitely the only Asian kid and one of the only American kids within a couple of hundred kilometers.
Nowadays though, I go back to Germany all the time and it’s flooded with Asians, it’s flooded with Vietnamese, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis and so forth. There is a quantifiably significantly growing number across western Europe of Asian Europeans, permanent east to west across Eurasia migrants.
It’s backed by any number of very robust drivers. The growing trade between Europe and Asia, the largest access of trade on the planet earth is not transatlantic, the way it was when we were kids, it's trans Eurasian. There’s the new silk roads and infrastructure connectivity, some Belt & Road and so forth, the Chinese plan.
You have obviously the ways in which you would see complementary in the labor markets. When you talk to European politicians, they are actually quite in favor of having more east Asians and south Asians who are skilled in IT, nursing, medicine, whatever the case may be, some of the areas where they have the most significant labor shortages. You can see this is one of the anecdotes I have in the book is from going to SAP headquarters outside of Frankfurt. SAP is Europe’s largest software company, its campus resembles Cisco Systems and not just because of what they do but because of who is there. It’s packed with Indians.
I never would have thought like nearly 30 years after being a high school student in Germany that I’d be in a place in Germany that was surrounded by Indians, and there you have it. If you count it up, you’ve got about four to five million Asian Europeans already now, versus 25 million Asian Americans, but you tell me based upon the trends, based on where people feel that they can have a more stable upbringing for their families and places that might be welcoming towards them under, I think what you rightly call, the sort of light to medium liberalization scenario.
A lot more Asians are going to say, “You know what? Europe is pretty close by and education is subsidized and it feels rather safe and they’re issuing these blue cards.” I predict that whether it’s in 10 years, 20 years, I think we’ll have an equivalent number of Asian Europeans as there are Asian Americans. Now, why does this matter? Because you asked about European policy.
I think what’s evolving in Europe is unarticulated because as a politician, you would never dare say what I’m about to say which is that, “Hmm south and east Asians, they try to assimilate, they try to learn the language, they get along, they obey,” I don’t want to indulge too much in stereotypes but this is of course what they’re thinking. Versus Arabs, Muslims, Africans, “We’re having a really hard time with them.” You can well imagine a completely tangential sort of scenario that’s never really occurred before where Europe will start to heavily recruit the labor force that it needs from south and east Asia and keep away the Africans and the Arabs.
Again, I don’t think you’ve really ever heard a European politician say this in public but this is sort of the sentiment that’s emerging from my research that I kind of talk about.
Parag: Interesting. I want to have follow-up questions for that but none immediately come to mind. I do think a kind of intuition makes sense in that there is a labor shortage, there have been challenges in assimilating different migrant groups, and Asians tend to perform highly if you look at just average amount of education, et cetera. What are the most successful examples of migration in the past?
Mark: Well, quite frankly, much of the 20th century and this is actually one of the political points that’s worth teasing out and elaborating or at least drawing a line in the sand because a lot of people hear the word mass migration and they think of significant instability but you’ve got to remember that much of the 19th and 20th centuries, and a lot of people of course, historians refer to 19th century as the age of nationalism, it was also an age of mass migration, so was the 20th century. The majority of international migration in the 20th century wasn’t World War II political refugees, it was economic migrants, and those economic migrants were peacefully absorbed into their destination society such as the United States.
We need to be clear that mass migration is not something that we historically have a great deal of difficulty with. It’s something that we as a species and a set of societies have done amazingly well at absorbing. We need to be really clear that this is not some T equals zero moment and we are a society that is unaccustomed to migration, right? We have a phenomenal track record of mass migrations on a global scale. Some of it has been involuntary, of course, from slavery through genocide. But numerically the largest number is economic migrants that have peacefully relocated. I think we need to remember that as a backdrop when we have these conversations about where millions of people, tens of millions or more could relocate in the future.
Mark: How do you think that mass migration will change the nature of governance? And so, thinking kind of for context, one extreme example is Dubai, where Dubai, you have the Emirates who, I think there’s only like 200,000 of them, it’s a city of about three million people and basically, nobody who goes there has any rights, most people don’t’ really expect to retire there, you might raise your kids but it’s not exactly the most kid friendly place and so, it is a much more, I guess, transient destination which is in contrast to this universalism of most western societies, while a lot of east Asian societies still have what might be described as a little bit closer to 19th century nation states where there is a much more solidly defined national identity that serves as the basis for political legitimacy.
How do you view, I guess, these kinds of concepts changing over the coming decades, particularly with respect to increased migration?
Parag: In these two different geographies that you cited, basically, west Asia and east Asia. West Asia being the Arabian gulf countries in particular, not Turkey or Iran, and East Asian societies. East Asian societies are civilizations unto themselves that now, in a post-colonial era are sort of embedded within states.
Yes, there is a cultural legitimacy in their political traditions, varying degrees of democracy versus an anarchical rule and everything in between and obviously, post-colonial parliamentary systems inherited from the British Empire. There is a lot of migration within East Asia and Southeast Asia as an organic region, actually, it’s one of the largest intra-regional flows of people in the world in terms of stock and flow of migrants, it’s about 12 million people, which is to put it in context, it’s about the number of people in western Europe who live outside of their country of origin.
You can clearly see that having civilizational confidence, such as these cultures have, actually makes them quite open to foreigners because they don’t feel that they will necessarily be diluted by virtue of simply having people come in from neighboring states. Now, there are exceptions when there is geopolitics or when there are religious tensions at play.
The Rohingya, who are obviously ethnic Bengali Muslims living in Myanmar, are an exception to what I’m saying. Again, I’ve made that caveat for territorial conflicts that are ethnographic in nature. In terms of a country like Thailand or Indonesia, they are absorbing people from neighboring countries on a regular basis and it’s not one of the fault lines in those countries.
Let’s put that aside because again, this is also a very large region that I live in here, southeast Asia, with 700 million people and growing in population and country by country, in the mainstream, migration is never one of their key political issues that’s to be debated. I think that’s a good thing and I don’t want to go so far as to say, “We can learn from that.” What I do want to emphasize though is that our cultural confidence in western societies should not be as threatened by large scale immigration as we make it out to be.
I want to cite a western country as an example of doing this right lately that does pass the test of not having previously been an immigrant society or monochrome civilization. I’m not citing Canada, I’m going to cite Germany. Because Germany obviously has a sense of culturally and ethnographically defined nation about it but has very much become an immigrant society, an immigrant magnet and I gave some examples of that earlier.
There’s a very rich and sophisticated conversation in Germany right now about what they call The New Germans. They don’t mean just Turks, they mean, all manner of people, Persians, Africans and so forth, that are trying very hard to assimilate. And that doesn’t mean that they’re going to become German according to conventional definition, the whole point of the conversation is to actually evolve the understanding, the common, civic understanding of what German-ness is.
That’s the lively conversation that’s occurring in Germany today. This is a country that is being sort of – people are piling in from all directions, southern Europe, from Africa, from the Balkans, from eastern Europe, from Arabian societies, obviously the Syrian refugees and they continue to continue and continue to absorb them and whereas three years ago, we feared that the AFD party, the would somehow be a threat and pull the country to the right, they have an election underway right now and that party doesn’t exist on the radar. Instead, you're likely to have a left leaning coalition that’s pro-immigration. Just to be clear that if Germany can do it, America can certainly do it and not politicize the issue as much as we intended to.
Now, let me go to the gulf because I have a deep, long sort of history with the UAE, example you raise, I spent my childhood there, the first six years of my life. I go all the time to Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Let’s take your numbers and inflate it on a national scale, not just Dubai but the whole UAE.
You have a million Emirates in a population of 10 plus million people. It’s certainly the most imbalanced, by nationality, country in the world where the nationals represent 10% or less of their entire country. Being a monarchy as it is with its own tribal and religious lineage, that is their sort of political legitimacy that derives from that. It is consistent internally; it wasn’t obviously previously a democratic country. We can’t say that it’s gone “backwards” versus our standards.
They have been very, you might say, gracious hosts to those who have been voluntary migrants to that country, primarily, south Asians, such as my family when we migrated there in the 1970s from India but some of the stuff that you were sort of asserting about it was true but a lot has changed.
For example, it is a place where people want to retire and there’s real data to back that up because they have built air conditioned retirement colonies and you have legions of families from across Asia and elsewhere that are choosing to retire there precisely because you have air conditioned retirement colonies and there is much obviously less pollution and the other environmental maladies that afflict places that are relatively worse off, particularly in South Asia.
There will be a steady stream of cash rich or middle class at least Asians from big and primarily South Asia but other countries too who will happily retire there for decades to come even if it gets hotter and hotter unless you have a fiscal and infrastructural and technological miracle in India and Pakistan, which you’re of course not going to have.
Secondly, even western expats, one of the interesting things from my research is sort of at what point do western expats and expat cities – by the way, I just want to put things also in demographic context, western expats are numerically insignificant. We tend to talk about these countries from the perspective of western expat but since I am one myself in this country and I have studied over many years, we are utterly numerically insignificant.
In general, it is the wrong perspective to take but you and I are speaking and we know that’s the people we’re talking about. Just to be clear, we’re talking about a very narrow set of people but I have also looked at western expats behavior and when you see western expat families return to Europe or the United States, it is primarily motivated by one thing, which is that they have elderly parents that they want to be near and they don’t want to be on the other side of the world.
Mortality being what it is eventually those elderly parents pass away and what you see is those expats saying, “Well, you know I might as well go back to expat land now, to expat-istan because actually life is better, taxes are lower, your work-life balance is better, the schools are actually fantastic and there is no culture war,” and this kind of stuff and you actually have the emergence of a new kind of culture, a global culture in these hubs, whether it’s Singapore or Dubai, Hong Kong and many other places.
As a resident of these expat hubs myself, you know, I can tell you that for all the expats I know, all the fellow Americans and Europeans who live in them, they are not there involuntarily, they are not prisoners. They are very much there because they do their cost benefit analysis as intelligently as you or I would and they’ve come to the conclusion that they are the best place for themselves.
Mark: Sure, I guess I was asking a slightly different question in that how should we think about the nature of citizenship changing over the next 30 years? Where historically citizenship, at least in the western context, has been this idea of a set of rights that you are sort of granted from the state, or have intrinsically that then the states maintains, and in exchange for those rights, you also have a set of duties in terms of paying taxes, going to fight wars, et cetera, following the laws.
This nature of citizenship is obviously very different from the nature of being a resident or a worker in Dubai and it is also a little bit different from the nature of being a citizen let’s say in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, even South Korea or Japan and looking at for example, I’ve recently been reading a book on the history of South Africa and one of the interesting, I guess, preludes to the Boer war, one of the contributing factors was there were large population of British living in the Boer Republics.
There was a question over when to basically grant the British residents in the Boer Republics the right to vote. The British wanted a much shorter time of residency before voting while the Boers is quite a much longer time because the Boers tried to control the republics and that is ultimately one of the kind of inputs that led to the Boer war but that in it of itself was based on this model of republicanism that, I don’t know, on a certain margin is changing a little bit, right?
If you just look at the statistic surveys of younger generations, they are much less weighted to the idea of democracy than they were a generation ago and so is it likely that, I guess, European, North American countries move slightly more, I am not saying majorly more, but slightly more in the direction of unbundling citizenship ala Dubai where it is never going to be fully like, or a small number of citizens, large number of residents and workers but do you see changes in governance formation along those lines?
Parag: It is a great set of questions. I think we need to unbundle governance, democracy and citizenship questions, right? Let’s not – to put off to the side for a moment, youth views on the efficacy and the legitimacy and their degree of satisfaction with their democracies in western sites, let’s put that to the side. The governance is much bigger obviously than citizenship so we can also put that aside but we should talk about governance in the context of what constitutes effective governance in a world of constant disruptions and just facing complexity?
Certainly while governing very diverse populations in which democracy can potentially be destabilizing as it was in the 1990s in Eastern Europe and Balkan in countries for example. That too is worth discussing, but specifically on the question of citizenship itself, I think that the sort of disaggregation or unbundling of citizenship is already underway in many contexts. There is quite a long chapter of the book about this issue because people have tended to view it as binary, right? You’re a citizen or non-citizen, but in fact for a very long time, countries have been offering more sort of shades of grey. Of course in America, you can be a permanent resident and have a green card. The same is true in many other countries.
Now, think about how many countries had nomad visa schemes prior to the pandemic, it was like two, and now there’s 65 countries. The number of people who have multiple citizenships has also risen to a very, very high degree.
Then you have entrepreneur visas, technology visas, investor visas, real estate holder visas, business owner visas, this kind of stuff. The UAE, Singapore, even the United States with the ED5 program and you know if you are a foreigner applying for a US visa, I am not sure if you are aware of the bewildering array, it is an alphabet soup of potential legal residency statuses that you can apply for. Really it is already very unbundled and you can have multiple secure and reliable residencies in different countries.
Now of course, you may only have the right to vote in those countries where you are a passport holder but for most people, especially now bringing back in your point about, what is voter turnout anyway and how much stock do people put into the democratic process? What people are looking for actually is access and they are looking for not so much what are their obligations but simply what are their rights under whatever scheme they have?
There is this sort of you could call it citizenship shopping or stakeholder shopping, access shopping that is going on amongst many, many people in the world and you could see again, young digital nomads doing it right now as they are trying to control for their cost of living and tax exposure and bounce around different places and countries are rolling out the red carpet because they need people who are either tax payers or renters or consumers within their borders.
I see a lot of fluidity in that space and I wouldn’t necessarily generalize, we could create a fairly broad typology within the idea of total citizen, total non-citizen, right? Sort of, fully enfranchised voter with only one passport who is truly loyal to that country versus a bonded laborer who’s passport is confiscated on arrival and obviously has no rights whatsoever. That’s a very wide spectrum and there’s many, many within that and a lot of countries have those actually, evermore clear and regimented sort of as a menu of options that people choose from or appeal to.
Mark: In our recent podcast, Mark Andries had mentioned that he thinks the world is getting weird in a Joe Henrich sense, “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic,” where these are at least hypothesized to be some of the cultural factors that lead Europe to have the industrial revolution to become so successful economically and now basically because of that mostly American media is a dominant media globally and that is what is being consumed particularly with smart phones allowing for much more consumption.
This hypothesis that within 50 years, basically two generations, most people will have adopted these values, so one, do you think that that is a kind of baseline semi-plausible assertion? And then two, if you do, how does that impact how you think about the coming migrations?
Parag: The weird acronym I really like and it was sort of a backdrop on my way to my caveat earlier about the relatively numerical insignificance of western expats in the world of the total flow of global migration because again, when we’ve spoken in the last 10 years generally about political attitudes towards migration, we’ve just presumed that Trumpism and Brexit are the kind of dominant mental modes. That is not even remotely true because most of the world has remained pragmatic around immigration and immigration has been rising in so many countries and so on and so on, even the countries again where that xenophobia has been a prevalent political idea. You have not really seen it make a permanent dent or a long-term dent in immigration but when it comes to values, actually I think that the values that youth subscribe to today have a global transnational generational character that doesn’t necessarily emerge from western societies as such.
In other words, they are more universal than they are particular and you can’t fully attribute their emergence to one particular. One of them is sustainability, right? You survey Gen Z or millennials or whatever around the world, of course sustainability emerges as a prime value. You can’t say that sustainability originated with Greta Thunberg alone, right? Or with Al Gore for that matter, whatever the case may be. It is something broader obviously.
The places where people have felt threatened by environmental crisis are obviously countries of the south that have been experiencing this longer than we have and, you know, I think that their voices has not been factored in the conversation in terms of how they are early adopters of the importance of sustainability even if they are not early practitioners with strong global agency over the issue.
Sustainability is one, the other is mobility obviously. Which is again, another cardinal virtue of youth according to survey after survey after survey taking on hold. Young believe that they have the right to leave wherever they want. It could translate into everything from sub-cities for metro cards to the desire for a borderless world, right? They believe in mobility justice in the sense that large scale relocations, resettlement of the world population away from ecologically devastated regions for which of course they blame, not necessarily inaccurately, western industrialization for their ills and therefore, mobility should be a right, a human right.
The third is connectivity, right? Particularly right to digital connectivity, access to the Internet and that kind of thing. Mobility, connectivity, sustainability. So if I tell you that those are the common terms that emerge in global surveys of Chinese, of Nigerians, of South Africans, of Americans, Scandinavians, would you say, “Aha, this is the globalization of quintessentially weird populations values?” Would you say that one demographic invented those values and has now exported them through mass media and culture to the world?
I would see it as a fairly more nuanced kind of dynamic through which those values emerge that young people share around the world.
Mark: Yeah, I guess I would put it slightly differently. I would kind of one, I guess for the typical example of weirdness, for example, I can’t name my great grandparents and if you look at many other cultures it’s very standard for you to be able to name three, four, five, six generations back where one of the characteristic features of weirdness is this focus on the nuclear family on a relatively small set of responsibility displacing the value of kin in other societies.
What one kind of baseline test would be is, okay, over the next generation or two, to what extent does the value of kinship in other societies, whether Asian, African et cetera, that are non-western, how does it, as a value, evolve overtime? And two, to what extent would that be attributable to western and mass media or is it attributable to other trends that are occurring and if so, how do you qualify these different attributions?
Parag: If you look at China and you try to pinpoint if why has eroded as a governing sort of principle of social life and that began of course with mass migration, rural to urban migration, interior to coastal migration in the 1970s, would you say that that was because the penetration of western ideas of mass consumerist culture? No, of course not. It just simply had to do with the physical dispersion of the family unit as young people moved away to factory towns and never came back.
That said, they continue to send remittances of course and every year the largest mass migration in the world is Chinese New Year where Chinese circulate within the country and go back to their ancestral or family towns and reconnect with their families. Of course we can’t, we would have to go region by region, we can’t really generalize about the whole world when it comes to the role of kinship but I do think that there is changing understandings of what constitutes community, right?
Because we are also entering a world where young people are not having children, right? Again, this goes back to the dual baby busts of the last decade and sort of our expectation, given plummeting fertility and economic insecurity and the climate change factors that drive that, that young people today around the world may have different understandings, especially given digitization and sort of cloud communities of what constitutes kinship.
You know, how important is family to them in the sense of literal bloodline relationship versus other forms of community that more or less govern their day-to-day lives especially at a time when they’re not likely to have children? I would be quite open-minded about how we use these terms and what they mean to the next generation rather than assuming that two generations from now, they actually even share the same definition of the term.
Mark: Sure, what role are cities going to play in coming migrations?
Parag: Very important, right? We are seeing it obviously play out right now in the competition among cities within the United States and globally to attract talent. Now of course, the tier one global cities have always been talent magnets but we have viewed the competition between them in a climate agnostic sort of way and in some ways also politically agnostic because we have viewed them as being self-governing realms unto themselves more or less being autonomous in some ways.
Of course Brexit proved that London’s view on talent migration cannot supersede the view of the nation, right? That was problematic. And New York is not immune from climate change. Hong Kong is not immune from Chinese authoritarianism. No place, no city, no global cities but there is still a sort of high intensity competition among not just those cities but many cities that are trying to assemble that culmination of virtues of affordability and livability, climate sustainability, good high quality jobs, liberal culture, free Wi-Fi, cheap beer, whatever the case maybe, there is plenty of indices and rankings that can list for you from 10 to a 100 different variables that make a city attractive but I think we by nature, by impulse, we seek to connect to each other. We do want to commune in city-like geographies but what we have been seeing since before COVID is that younger Europeans have taken a preference for small and medium size cities or again the more affordable, pedestrian lifestyle, that kind of thing.
Americans are now, with haste, moving in that direction as well given remote work. Of course there is also the phenomenon that I had called mobile real estate in the book and of course, this is the sort of the trend towards young people buying trailing homes or even your movable 3D printed housing, tiny homes that kind of thing and I think that is actually really interesting trend because it not only speaks to the economic insecurity and the lack of knowledge about where your next job will be, which is, again, not something that the previous generations middle class really faced, but it might even be a good survival mechanism given where climate change is headed. I watched that scenario pretty closely.
And then the whole idea, you know, people talk about de-urbanization as a trend in light of COVID. Again, I think that is really overstated for a couple of reasons. First of all, just because people have left San Francisco it doesn’t mean that they haven’t moved to another city. So just because one city may be losing it doesn’t mean that other city is not gaining. One should not speak of the death of the city, right? I think that would be entirely mistaken.
Second of all, again, the majority of the human population lives in Asia and in Asia, there is no such trend whatsoever because the gap and the quality of life and access to services and cities is so much higher than anywhere else in a given country, so young people will continue to flock to live in cities.
The question is, well, are those cities ecologically sustainable or will people set out to inhabit second tier cities that become the next first tier cities or third tier cities that are climbing up or entirely new geographies? You know, a big theme in this book is sort of what are the geographies that we may terraform in the future, right? We started this conversation with Greenland. I talk in this book about Siberia and Scandinavia and Greenland and what are the kinds of habitats that we will build based upon current and future technologies?
Can we build habitats that are large scale, that are circular in terms of being sustainable in their impact on resource consumption? Rainwater collection and waste water treatment, hydroponic agriculture, solar and wind power and all of this kind of stuff. And can they even be mobile infrastructures? And to what scale can we build these kinds of future cities? Now that to me, and I know to you as well, is a really interesting concept.
I try to push the envelope on that in this book because I don’t think we can have conversations about what future cities are going to be simply on the basis of the issues that again, I know interest you and me both, like rule of law and the legal parameters and these kinds of things, but without taking account the actual geography, the actual latitude and longitude of such places and because we don’t get to pick which places are going to be livable and unlivable from a climatological standpoint, it is worth bringing geography back in to that conversation about new cities. I try in this book to kind of merge those two themes.
Mark: I think we are running out of time but for our final question, assume you want to build a new city and make a boatload of money and take advantage of the migration as well as climate change, how do you do it, where do you put it, who do you attract and how do you create the rule of law to get good industries there?
Parag: Right, well it doesn’t go without saying that the place you’ve chosen is so lacking with the rule of law that you need to set it up as a special administrative kind of zone but I do think that if you take a tough knot place like Russia, you obviously want to be leasing land with a certain degree of contractual sort of guarantees that you are going to have some autonomy over how that is run and on the basis of that, there is no doubt that you can attract talent because if you have chosen a climatically stable area, there’s a lot of people, talented people even in the vicinity, the catchment area of Russia would be willing to try it out and again. This is happening. I used to spend a lot of time actually in Siberian towns, over the last 10 or 15 years and when I talk to provincial governors and mayors, they are actually very keen on talent attraction. They actually want to change the medium of instruction in their universities to English to do so, and they want to convert their whole Soviet rusting industry talents into something new than high tech clusters and this kind of thing and they want to take advantage of Chinese infrastructure investment.
All that stuff is actually happening at a small scale in places like Russia, so you’d be actually pushing on an open door surprisingly, but I do think that you’d want to look at how you could tokenize the asset, sort of the land ownership so that you wouldn’t necessarily have your capital locked into the Russian financial system. That is one thing you’d want to do, you’d want to obviously have physical corridors for moving in and out.
You’d want to align your objectives in terms of the economic master planning to what that place actually needs. It’s not like, “Let’s all go live in this place and start our own country just for the sake of it because it’s a place with free Wi-Fi and it’s cheap and we get our own country,” but, you know, ask yourself, what is the contribution? What is the geographical value of that place? What is the role of that place in the global division of labor?
That is the question that Russia and Canada are asking themselves as climate change accelerates, as they become agricultural powers for example, as they become arctic corridors for arctic trade and many other things that are happening in those northern hemisphere societies. There is a lot going on that is intrinsic to that place and whatever it is that you go and do, or I go and do, because I actually do plan on doing this, I call these climate oases and I am sure that you and I are going to team up on this journey, but the plan is to embed and integrate and immerse in that particular environment you’ve chosen and to do the same thing in other places as well.
Mark: Great, thanks so much for coming on.
Parag: It was great to talk to you, Mark.
Mark: Thank you for listening to the Charter Cities Podcast. For more information about this episode and our guest, to subscribe to the show or to connect with the Charter Cities Institute, please visit chartercitiesinstitute.org. Follow us on social media @cci.city on Twitter and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. I am your host, Mark Lutter and thank you for listening to the Charter Cities Podcast.