Which endures — passports or humans?

David Zetland thinks passports will become more important. The interesting question is if they will make you more important.

The first passports were issues centuries ago, but it wasn’t until after World War I that travelers needed them to cross borders, prove their identity, and protect their rights as citizens, both domestically and abroad.

Passports allowed their holders to “pass through the port [gate]” of new diplomatic and bureaucratic walls. People without passports could not pass from their original country to another country. (Illegal crossings could only go so far before they were prevented.)

Passports are valuable precisely because they separate humans into two groups: those who may pass, and those who may not.

In many cases, people do not worry about this difference because they do not care to leave their countries of origin, but there are numerous examples of people taking dramatic risks or paying exorbitant sums when they want to leave their countries but lack the “proper paperwork.”

Humans in the not-too-distant past did not need passports to leave poor prospects for hope.

Migrants face costs of all kinds. They leave behind their families, friends, and place in the world. They are willing to bear those costs because they think the benefits of their new “home” to be worthwhile.

pportThe cost of moving has increased as passport (and visa) requirements have tightened over the past century. During World War I, refugees could flee violence for safer places. During the 1920s and later, they were trapped behind bureaucratic walls that could not be breeched without the right papers.

The entire plot of the 1942 movie, Casablanca, depends on the heroes getting the right visa, but the movie’s happy ending was denied to the millions of refugees and political prisoners (most famously, the Jews) who died (or were murdered) through government action or neglect. The situation is not much different today for the people who want to flee cruel and deadly places (North Korea, Eritrea, Syria, etc.) but lack “papers.”

Some people might think that the suffering of would-be migrants is a price worth paying to protect their own homes from being overrun and pockets emptied to help refugees, but those people (usually members of the “lucky sperm club” born with the right papers) miss the obvious middle option of allowing migration without the gold-plated protections they expect themselves. Most migrants are less interested in handouts than in safety and the opportunity to work and contribute to their adoptive communities.

Passports will become more valuable in a climate-changed world as disruptions (failed crops, miserable weather, sinking cities, violence, etc.) increase the value of moving. Refugees — human and animal — will seek to cross borders as their domestic prospects deteriorate. Some of these refugees will have more money (those fleeing record temperatures in the Persian Gulf or abandoning beachfront houses on tropical islands), but most refugees will be the poor who cannot feed or protect themselves.

The increased importance of passports will mean that those with “good passports” will be very interested in ensuring their identity is protected. People with “bad passports,” on the other hand, will be willing to pay more to get forged passports (or obtain real passports via fraud). Those forces will complement each other in driving governments to increase the security of their passports.

A few months ago, I was extremely upset when I opened the washing machine to find my passport. We were leaving to South America in a week, and there was no time to get a replacement, so I took a chance. Luckily, the damage was too small to affect the passport’s function, but I really thought a lot about how vulnerable I was without that document to “protect my rights.” No border guard, soldier or police officer is interested in my charm, blog or business card. The only thing that stood between me and deportation was a 32-page booklet.

Passport controls and identity are going to get very sophisticated, very quickly if even half the predictions of climate change come to pass (let alone the chaos that leaders create on their own!). To me, that implies that we are going to replace passports with technology that’s harder to forge or lose, such as implanted RFC chips, tattoos (yes, I’m saying it), DNA-registration, and other technologies that can pass through the wash without losing their validity.

Is this inevitable? Not exactly. Passports were put into widespread use over 100 years ago at the behest of governments that wanted to control who went where. The balance of costs and benefits has kept that system in place, but that balance could tip entirely over if enough pressure is applied. The arrival of numerous “undocumented aliens” in the US and EU (and China’s breaking documentation system) suggests that controls are fragile, just as the rise of digital currencies (and continuing attraction of gold) has shown people’s mistrust of government motives.

In the future, we may all need to scan ourselves to the authorities on a daily basis, to prove that we have the right to be where we are — or we may just need to find ways to live among a variety of people.

Will we value humans or paperwork? If your answer depends on what passport you’re holding right now, then I suggest you imagine how you’d answer that passport was gone.

dz_smDavid Zetland is an assistant professor at Leiden University College, where he teaches various classes on economics. He received his PhD in Agricultural and Resource Economics from UC Davis in 2008. He blogs on water, economics and politics at aguanomics.com, has two books (The End of Abundance: economic solutions to water scarcity and Living with Water Scarcity), gives many talks to public, professional and academic audiences, and writes for popular and academic outlets. David lives in Amsterdam.

Looking back on the Century of Division

Joe Cotton imagines how a studious alien race might look back on human history (written in the style of Doris Lessing’s novel “Shikasta”).

STUDY NOTES: On the global crisis of climate and the Shikastan young (from History of Shikasta vol 3016: “The Century of Division”)

I want to encourage a healthy amount of scepticism in you, dear student, with regard to the designation of the 21st Century as the “Century of Division”, for you might rightly note that the great majority of Shikastan history was taken up by warring and conflict. Many argue (Taufiq among them) that it was in the Shikastans very nature to be hostile and aggressive, particularly towards those outside of their interactive group. Hence one could say the whole history of Shikasta was one of division! But I want to draw your attention to a more nuanced understanding of this designation by the Archivists. Shikastans were a fickle sort and an enemy of one decade could become the strongest of allies in the next. These shifting allegiances suggested that divisions could always be overcome – if only by the creation of another division in the form of a new common enemy. The global crisis of climate, however, was unique in that rather than being resolvable through new division, what was required was a unification on a scale unprecedented in Shikastan history. Yet as you know, rather than uniting in the spirit of international solidarity (which you may know as Envoy Johor’s Sense-of-We Feeling), the Shikastans turned inwards to their own national groups, reinforced their borders, and forsook the rest of their kind. Consider the prophetic insights provided by Johor regarding the younger generation at the time:

…the young are, in their hordes, their gangs, their groups, their cults, their political parties, their sects, shouting slogans, infinitely divided, antagonistic to each other, always in the right, jostling for command. There they are – the future, and it is self-condemned” (Lessing 1981, 221).

Johor’s description of the Shikastan young is key to understanding the “Century of Division”. We can roughly categorise the young into two groups; apathetics and radicals, whereby the former were so disillusioned and lethargic as to renounce politics altogether, and the latter were effectively zealots of a particular ideology. Both groups, either through pessimism or narrow-mindedness, were quite unable to entertain the possibility that political divisions could ever be overcome. As the century progressed the radicals waged their ideological war, at first with words that increasingly took a parochial and nativist tone. Meanwhile the apathetics stood by – you may be familiar with the Shikastan saying that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [wo]men to do nothing” – the apathetics were, in their entirety, guilty of this. As the vitriol intensified, so international divisions between populations became insurmountable, and hateful words led to hateful deeds. It was this division that precluded an international resolution to the global crisis of climate, which in turn led the Shikastans to their end in the following Century of Extinction. Johor observed the sorry occasion:

The armies covered Shikasta. Meanwhile, the epidemics spread, among people, and among what was left of the animal population, among plant life. Meanwhile, the millions began to dwindle under the assault of famine. Meanwhile, the waters and the air filled with poisons and miasmas, and there was no place anywhere that was safe. Meanwhile, all kinds of imbalances created by their own manic hubris, caused every sort of natural disaster (Lessing 1981, 296).

STUDY POINT: You should notice that in both excepts, Johor describes the Shikastans’ problems as self-inflicted: they were “self-condemned…by their own manic hubris”. Reflect on this observation with reference to the “Century of Destruction” (characterised by the two intensive periods of global conflict), the “Century of Division” (characterised by the collapse of international structures) and the “Century of Extinction” (characterised by the effects of the Global Crisis of Climate). Remember: Following the extinction of the Shikastan population and the rebalancing of natural cycles, the colonisation of Shikasta shall begin anew. Be sure to emphasise lessons from Shikastan history that can inform future policies, so that previous mistakes can be learned from and our colonial effort might be more successful the second time around.

CottonJoe Cotton is a recent graduate of Leiden University College The Hague, at which he followed a Liberal Arts and Science programme and focused on politics and sustainability. Joe is further interested in philosophy, social justice, community engagement, education and climate change. At the moment, he is taking a gap year to consider graduate jobs and master’s programmes, as well as spend some time traveling. If you enjoyed the piece, please do get in contact.

It’s about time!

Chris Holdsworth explains how we’ve reached a Catch-22 where inevitable adaptation obviates the need for mitigation.

timeThe single biggest barrier of our understanding and concern about climate change is time. Time is something that dictates everything, from our day-to-day schedules to how our planet regulates itself, but one’s perception of time is entirely subjective. The recent film Interstellar beautifully demonstrated this concept, and it is at the core of the discussion surrounding climate change. Where’s the evidence, why can’t I see it, why aren’t our summers noticeably hotter, why aren’t cities underwater yet? Climate change is to the human eye often invisible. It is planetary processes responding to human activity. The difficulty is that the planetary responses operate on a geological or planetary timescale, something that far exceeds our concept of time. A useful method of illustrating this is to consider the entire history of Earth in 24 hours. Do this and humans first appeared on the planet at 23:58:43, in fact industrialisation only took place seconds ago.

So this is the problem with climate change, a problem that is of our own doing, but which the consequences far-outdate a single generation. However, the fact remains we live in a human world and the impacts of climate change need to be assessed in human terms. Considering a world where sea levels are two metres higher than today is concerning, not least because the science increasingly suggests it could be a possibility by the turn of the century. This is of course because of the complex interconnectivity of our planet’s natural regulatory systems, whereby one change in the colour of a surface can change the amount of energy available to weather systems and geochemical processes. Our planet regulates itself through a multitude of complex feedback processes of which we are forcing and changing at a rate rarely seen throughout Earth history. But again, we live in a human world so we must consider the problems human society will encounter. Professor Brain Cox highlighted this recently:

“The key point is can we respond to it [the clear evidence that our climate is changing]. Do we have the political institutions, the political will and the organisation globally to respond to this challenge, and that worries me immensely. I don’t think we do at the moment.”

This concern is the real danger of climate change. The science involved is not terminal for the Earth, it has survived much worse than us and will most likely long out-live us. Climate change is humankind making our way of life and day-to-day lives much more difficult than they currently are. What Professor Cox highlights is that to change this our governance systems and figureheads need to be motivated and concerned about this issue and put simply, right now they are not.

The idea of sea levels being two metres higher than they currently are has a certain element of catch 22 about it. There would be no reasonable way of ignoring the problem, particularly in government centres like London which would likely be at least partially submerged, because for the first time significant visual evidence of human caused climate change is a problem and seriously threatens our way of life. However, if and when we reach that level of sea level we will likely be beyond the point of easily reversing the change we have set into motion, because of the nature of how our planet regulates itself. It is if you like similar to approaching a waterfall in a boat. Turn the boat a safe distance from the waterfall edge and the financial and physical cost will be minimal, but the longer you wait and closer you get to the waterfall the more difficult it becomes to reverse the direction of the boat until the boat tumbles over the edge and the financial and physical cost exponentially increases and you lose any real control in reversing the direction of the boat.

It is all rather depressing, but infuriating too because governments, particularly following the financial crash of 2008 are overly cautious with government spending for fear of increasing national deficits and decreasing public ratings. However, the longer we delay in truly addressing the causes and threats of climate change the costlier it becomes to everyone, not just government budgets. What is even more tragic is that the threats and causes of climate change present an opportunity to empower and protect individuals, particularly the most vulnerable in society. Small scale, individually owned, energy production, a more regular exposure to the natural world, enhancing the world we live in rather than degrading it. It truly is a tragedy that too many of us are blind to and on current trend will continue to neglect or not even acknowledge until it is too late.

It is perhaps fitting then to finish on the news that at the end of August 2016 a specially commissioned group of scientists came to a unanimous decision that the Earth has now entered a new geological time epoch. An epoch in geological time is shorted than a ‘period’, but longer than an absolute date or event. The criteria for the progression into a new epoch is should geologists in millions of years look back into the rock record at rocks that formed today, is there a notable shift in factors like species numbers, radioactive particles, atmospheric temperatures and rates of erosion. The group found that we comfortably qualify in all of these criteria and hence agreed that the Earth has indeed entered this new period known as the Anthropocene, likely in the mid 20th century upon the dawn of nuclear weapon usage and exponential population growth. What is even more shocking is that many scientists believe we are currently living in the sixth major mass extinction event in Earth history, the famed extinction of the dinosaurs being one of them, because at current rates three-quarters of species could become extinct in the next few centuries.

Despite all of this the question remains, can we respond? Do we have the foresight and will to really tackle this problem head on and save ourselves so much financial and social expenditure in the future? Only time will tell. There is so much potential to change things that will benefit all, but right now the forecast is bleak

HoldsworthChris Holdsworth is a final year undergraduate student at The University of Glasgow where he studies Earth Science. Aside from his studies Chris is regularly involved in public outreach and science communication work, including writing for various online media sources such as Darrow and The Glasgow Insight to Science and Technology. Chris is also the environmental officer on the student representative council (SRC) at Glasgow and sits on the council of this body. He currently lives in Glasgow, but grew up in Teesside, north east England.