The main message of Sonia Shah’s latest book is that another world is possible. An expert science journalist and daughter of immigrants from India, Shah knows that in our current world, we are immersed in a relentless negative narrative about the migration of humans, animals, and species. That narrative says that in order to be safe and to thrive, each group should bloom where they are planted and anything else is a crisis. This story is especially prominent in the United States and in Europe, where it holds enormous political power. The idea is that crossing borders or migrating beyond your native place is almost a crime against nature.
In “The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move,” Shah argues that this narrative has done great harm, solidifying borders in response to diverse factors such as climate change, junk science, governmental policies, and xenophobia. As scary as it is to some, the mass migration of people, animals, and plants is not only underway (“a wild exodus,” as she puts it), but it is necessary for their — and our — survival.
Shah opens the book with the humble example of unobtrusive checkerspot butterflies in the San Miguel Mountains of southern California. Known as sedentary creatures, as the butterflies began to respond to the combined pressures of urban density and climate change rendering their southern habitats unlivable, they adapted by moving north. The butterfly is a universal symbol of transformation, resilience, and perspective; it is also an apt avatar for a vast amount of cross-species movement, including British Columbia parasites lurking beneath the skin of birds found 950 miles from home in Alaska, red foxes suddenly in Arctic fox territory, and more.
People, too, are on the move — less from biological imperatives than from political forces that vary by region or continent. Data from nongovernmental organizations — no one governmental source keeps track of international migration — show there could be anywhere from 250 million to 1 billion people migrating from one place to another in the next 30 years. It’s important here to note that this book was written before the coronavirus pandemic; readers of course will wonder how those numbers may dwindle or shift as a result.
Shah’s overviews of the historical narratives of migration provide important context for our language related to migration. She demonstrates that much of our discourse as journalists, experts, and scholars has roots in mythologies shaped by nationalism and racism. The narratives of nativism and literally made-up theories should be disturbing and maybe will be to those readers who have never been exposed to them before. For example, she describes the harsh population control measures taken in India, and the treatment of Saartjie Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus, an African woman whose body parts were gawked at while she was alive and then preserved in the Louvre instead of being properly buried. If these stories are deeply compelling, it is because they remind us of how invested experts and governments have always been at restricting the movements of people within the universes of their control. These old stories — pseudo-science in the service of xenophobia and racism — are meant to resist the migration of dislocated people, despite evidence that their presence improves nation states, bolsters economies, and the like, not the opposite.
It feels ironic to read this when much of the world has just spent months staying close to home and crippled by a global pandemic. (It is worth noting, too, that Shah wrote a 2016 book titled “Pandemic,” about this very kind of calamity.) But hers is a timeless message. Mass movement and the stories we tell about it, despite walls or other barriers, climate change, ignorant xenophobic, and anti-migrant policies, all have much to tell us about our human and biological nature.
Barriers to migration in the post-pandemic world seem less likely to recede or soften; more likely, they may harden, with fewer opportunities to breach them, though the latter is likely to worsen immigration crises as described in the US. Shah notes that when border policies increased in cruelty and severity, migration attempts into the US went up 64 percent. News reports have suggested that word of a pandemic reduced migration more effectively than any border policies enacted by the US — self-preservation in the face of a disease that relies on high density to spread seems a stronger impulse than any other force.
But that’s just about people. Maybe readers have witnessed photos and videos, real or altered, showing flocks of goats or mountain lions finding their way onto roads that once had too many humans for them to view safely. As countries and cities begin reopening, it feels like a good time to draw on some of Shah’s calls to action in “The Next Great Migration.” Her writing is densely concentrated with facts and anecdotes with brief interludes into lyricism. Her book is a reminder that a more thoughtful approach to the beautiful, increasing movement of sentient beings is indeed close to our realm of possibility.
THE NEXT GREAT MIGRATION: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move
By Sonia Shah
Bloomsbury, 400 pp., $28
Joshunda Sanders is the author of several books, most recently the children’s book “I Can Write the World.”