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.

1 thought on “Which endures — passports or humans?”

  1. Good piece. I notice that you are not very specific about where people will be migrating from and where they will migrate to. I am not sure climate science is at a point now to be very precise about that. We cannot yet predict things like patterns of rainfall or storms, but more importantly, we can’t predict patterns of adaptation technologies. For example, people might, as you suggest, have to flee unsurvivable temperatures in the Persian Gulf countries, or it might be that the abundance of energy (not just fossil, also solar) and capital in those countries might actually give them a comparative advantage in adapting to climate change, so that their vast air conditioned malls and suburbs would become destinations for refugees, not sources.
    However, all of that is speculation. Regardless of such things, all that would be necessary to drive your passport scenario is that climate change affects countries to different degrees. That would be true even in the fantasy world of some climate Pollyannas who think change will mostly be benign (faster growing crops? Lots of rooms for new population centers in the tundra? New ski developments in Greenland’s mountains?)

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