An Interview with Gaia Vince

Appearing at Stroud Book Festival on Thursday 3rd November at 8.00pm,Lansdown Hall

The warning could not be starker. “With every degree of temperature increase, roughly a billion people will be pushed outside the zone in which humans have lived for thousands of years. We are running out of time to manage the coming upheaval before it becomes overwhelming and deadly”. So writes award-winning science writer Gaia Vince in her new book, “Nomad Century: How to Survive the Climate Upheaval”.

Even assuming the most optimistic projection of global temperature increase by the end of this century (2.1 degrees if all the world’s net zero pledges are met), “Nomad Century” is a terrifying book. But it is also one which presents a radical and compelling alternative scenario. Vince – who tweets as @WanderingGaia – argues that migration, far from being the problem; is actually the solution. We can survive this crisis she argues, if we start planning now for the human migration of millions of people across continents, and into regions with more tolerable conditions, specifically nations in northern latitudes such as our own. Drawing on a wealth of eye-opening data, scientific research, plus her own eye-witness accounts of those parts of the world most affected by climate change, Vince demonstrates that migration has historically enabled humans to survive and prosper, and might do so again. It will mean fundamental changes to infrastructure and food production, and the establishment of many new cities in host countries. But she believes this can – and must – be done.

When we chat via Zoom, Vince tells me that she wrote “Nomad Century” because she wanted to start a different conversation at a time when “we’re surrounded by this political narrative which is the very opposite of what I’m calling for. I wanted to be pragmatic about the global situation we are in, and how we respond because these are issues that have obsessed me for a long time. My first book (the Royal Society Science Book Prize winning “Adventures in the Anthropocene”) was about how one species – our species – is changing the planet. And the consequence of that change is that we’re going to have to move people to where it’s safer”. In short, Vince argues that people can’t escape the physical reality of climate change; fire, heat, drought and floods (“The Four Horseman of the Anthropocene” as she terms them) unless they move. But what we can escape are the invented social barriers we’re erecting to try and stop them doing so.

Vince concurs when I suggest that “Nomad Century” feels particularly timely, not only with the ongoing Ukraine refugee crisis, but also with recently announced data which shows there are more job vacancies than unemployed people in the UK for the first time since records began. “It’s completely true – we have this emergency situation in Ukraine and suddenly the migration of millions becomes perfectly possible and is absolutely saving lives. And yes, we are suffering labour shortages in the UK because we’ve deliberately put up borders with Brexit, thus stopping the flow of labour, of trade, of everything that underpins our economy”.

The consequences of war in a single country are minor compared to what is to come, believes Vince. “Ukraine is huge grain exporter to large parts of the developing world so we’re already seeing this terrible spike in food prices, and hunger in the most vulnerable countries as consequence of war in a single country.  But because of climate change, hunger is going to affect vast swathes of the planet at the same time.  India and Pakistan are still being affected by a heatwave that has been going on for months. Harvests have already been decimated and soo, they’re going to have far less food. And this is a situation that is only going to get worse and affect more countries. Yet I don’t think anyone’s really talking about what happens if the people who live in those places can’t adapt. So that’s what I want to do with this book. I don’t expect people to agree with all my proposed solutions, but I do want people to start engaging with the fact that large parts of the globe are not going to be habitable”.

The focus of Vince’s career as author, journalist and broadcaster has always been how human systems and Earth’s planetary systems interact, and she has travelled the world researching this “unique time in Earth’s history, in which climate change, globalisation, communications technology and increasing human population are changing our world – and us – as never before”. But her personal history– as an Australian-British woman – has also influenced her thinking for it is one in which migration has played its part, as it has for so many of us. “My father was a refugee from the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956 which happened when he was a child.  People were being shot in the streets, and so he and his parents – who were Jewish and had previously managed to survive the Holocaust – escaped hiding in the back of a car on forged passports. Eventually they took the chance to move to Australia, because it was the furthest they could get from Europe – which didn’t seem like the safest place – and they built a life in Sydney. So it’s always been normal to me that people don’t grow up and stay in the same village that they were born in”.

“Nomad Century” represents smart thinking about the future at a time when the 50 million climate-displaced people already outnumber those fleeing political persecution. In a little over 200 pages, Vince marshals a wealth of evidence to show that facilitating migration can make our economies more resilient, citing progressive policies in countries including Canada, Spain and Germany. She shows how we might rethink the nation state (“Try if you will, to clear from your mind the idea of people being fixed to a location they were born in, as if it affects your value as a person, or your rights as an individual”), and move towards a new kind of international citizenship, which also values migrants as a bridge between cultures.  She looks at how we might transform agriculture and global food production. She examines what resilient Anthropocene Cities might look like; how we could design and power them. And finally she looks at how developments in geo-engineering might help us restore the planet and make large parts of it liveable again.

Is she optimistic? “Things have really changed in the last five to ten years. When I started talking about these issues 15-20 years ago, I’d always have to make the case that climate change was already happening and that it was caused by humans. I don’t have to do that anymore, thank God. Everyone now knows it’s happening and that it’s going to get worse. That’s huge progress. It really is”.

Books, Vince believes, are an important way of persuading people to “raise their head from managing their day-to-day priorities and get them to imagine themselves twenty, thirty, forty years into the future”, as she urges in her Conclusion. “This is a non-fiction book based on models and on our scientific predictions of what is the most likely scenario. But also I wanted it to imagine a good Anthropocene, a positive future in 2100. The end of the century is a time when people alive right now, people we care about are going to be around, living their lives. That really helps shrink the time and make it real”.

By Caroline Sanderson, Artistic Director of Stroud Book Festival

With thanks to The Bookseller where this interview first appeared.

Tickets on sale now for this event here

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