Book Review | Gaia Vince: Nomad Century: How to survive the Climate Upheaval

Shahid Ahmed reviews Vince's work on climate change and argues that in order to tackle climate crises, Pakistan's wealthy will need to radically change how they live. But will they?

Book Review | Gaia Vince: Nomad Century: How to survive the Climate Upheaval

The word ‘existential’ tends to be over-used these days, especially since the financial crisis of 2007/08. It is used to describe any challenge or even minor difficulties that appear to crop up on a regular basis for individual countries or even for entire regions, such as the EU, in managing their affairs. In most cases the difficulties have their origin partly in the general incompetence that currently pervades the quality of governance across the world and partly in an uncritical adherence to the tired nostrums of neoliberal economics that dominate policy-making in the world, though with important exceptions.

However, one challenge that is already affecting the world and will do so with increasing severity in the coming years certainly deserves the title ‘existential’, such is going to be the wide-ranging nature of its impact. It is the challenge of climate change driven by CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels which is ushering in planetary warming at an alarming pace.

Moreover, climate change is no respecter of national borders; nor is it a respecter of national ideologies and beliefs and will test not just national competence but commitment and, at a higher level, willing recognition that as inhabitants of this planet we are all in this together with borders, passports and visas reduced to irrelevance.  

Apart from commitment and resources, human and financial, that will be needed at the national level, facing the multi-dimensional challenges of climate change will also need international cooperation of a far more serious kind than any that the world has seen so far.  

Unlike, say, economic and financial crises that tend to hit the global economy every now and then, climate change is a genuine existential challenge whose gravity, although increasingly visible, still invites cranks and conspiracy theorists in droves to express not just doubts but ridicule and denial as to its very existence as a scientific phenomenon.

With the help of social media, recalcitrance on the part of the biggest CO2 emitters and pressure groups funded by profit-motivated corporate interests, these elements continue to exercise significant influence in international fora such as the UN-organised COPs (Conference of Parties) against which the hard work and research of UNs IPCC (Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change) is essentially helpless.

Against this background, Gaia Vince the UK-born anthropologist and academic has written a marvellously readable book on the problem, based on her work in more than 60 countries. There is little or no scientific jargon to frighten lay readers. On the contrary, the author has managed in a little over 200 pages not only to lucidly explain the problem itself but to also offer a ray of hope that all is not yet lost. Hope comes in the form of a manifesto for the countries of the planet that charts a way forward. But the ray of hope comes with caveats and warnings.

According to the author, we face a climate-driven environmental catastrophe if nothing is done. This means that a probable 3-4 C degrees hotter world – a more likely outcome rather than the 1.5 C degrees that the world has reluctantly agreed to restrict itself to - will make life unliveable. But that is where we are headed by 2100 on the basis of current trends. This scenario may seem comfortably distant for some but is, in fact, only three generations away and is about the length of time since the end of World War II.

If the world is going to prevent such a cataclysm the work must start now to control CO2 emissions instead of thinking up excuses to delay the action that is required. As we can testify ourselves, the effects of climate change can be already seen in many areas with heat waves, drought and floods the most visible climate-related phenomena in places as far apart as western North America, Russia, Southern Europe, China and South Asia.

As the world heats, the equable temperature band of 15-25 C degrees, ideal for human life and its various activities, will shift northwards and southwards from the tropics and the tropical zones will become hotter with average temperatures rising to between 20-30 C degrees. Thus far the oceans have been absorbing the extra heat generated by global warming. While this has had the effect of creating huge fluctuations in weather patterns large land masses have been spared. Now it is their turn and some stray examples of exceptional weather events in 2021 and 2023 will indicate what is likely to happen.

For instance, Death Valley in California recorded a temperature of 55.6 degrees C in 2021 and Antarctica recorded a temperature of 9 degrees C in the southern hemisphere winter in 2023. If you add humidity to these temperatures – the ‘wet bulb’ effect - you are looking at temperatures of 35 C degrees in which even fit people, let alone the elderly and children, will struggle to survive. If nothing is done half the world’s land area and 75 per cent of the population will be exposed to deadly heat for more than 20 days per year.

Apart from the heat itself, a warming climate will lead to the steady melting of ice in the Antarctic and Arctic regions and of the glaciers that feed the river systems on which agriculture is based. On a worst-case scenario one half of the world’s population is likely to be adversely affected, with effects ranging from large-scale deaths to chaotic disruptions in economic and social conditions in a wide range of countries both rich and poor.

Furthermore, as the planet heats, more of the rain will fall over the oceans and less on land. The world will have to confront the havoc that droughts bring not just for agriculture but for the societies that depend upon it for food and for a variety of other materials, such as cotton and edible oils. In a little over 25 years, from Iberia in Europe to Pakistan and south India in the East plus the southern part of Russia, western United States and Mexico severe water scarcity will become the norm.    

Melting ice shelves and glaciers plus random bouts of massive falls of rain will lead to flooding in coastal and low-lying areas that lie next to rivers. Coastal areas could also be flooded by salty seawater by rising oceans and tides. But other areas will not escape unscathed. Massive downpours will result in huge landslides and in the washing away of nutrient-rich top soils in many parts of the world. This may not signify the end of agriculture in these areas but the need for shifting the affected agricultural activities to northern latitudes. In other words, from 2050 onwards and very possibly a good deal sooner Earth’s Homo sapiens will be on the march in search of somewhere to survive.

Pakistan has not contributed to climate change and is, in fact, a victim of the behaviour of others. Nevertheless, it will not be immune to the adverse impact that climate change will inflict on it. Hence, facing it will require radical change in the way Pakistan’s well-off lead their lives.

According to the author, large-scale human migration will be the way out of the crisis that global warming will create. Mitigation measures will not be enough and practical, low-cost technological solutions are still nowhere on the horizon. Hence, the title of the book.

The author explains that today’s world has been essentially made by large-scale migration. Migrations, from disaster to safety, for trade, for new opportunities, under duress or otherwise is what lies at the basis of human societies across the world.  Migrations have driven, and have been driven by, the cross-fertilisation of cultures and societies and have generated not just ideas but new and better ways of doing things. Migrations have been the life-blood of progress. Isolated communities may be ethnically pure but have lost out otherwise.

Moreover, migrating is something that Homo sapiens has copied from the animal kingdom where many species have developed a remarkable capacity to undertake long and dangerous journeys in response to the seasonal variations in their habitats that mother nature willy nilly forces upon them. The major difference this time will be that the size of the migrations will be massive – on a scale that defies imagination – and compressed within a few decades at most. Since we can foresee all this, as rational human beings it should be possible for us and the world to prepare as well as we can to make the process as safe as possible for the societies and countries concerned.

Given the level of prejudice against immigrants in virtually all countries, but more especially in the developed countries where it also takes on racist demonology, making migration an acceptable phenomenon might appear to be close to impossible. But, given the right education such prejudices can be not only overcome but reversed. The education that is needed now is one where we learn anew the virtues of multi-faceted social and economic cooperation by countries and unlearn the costly prejudices and sentiments of national rivalry that all too often degenerate into military conflict.

The utility of global decision-making based on the nation state has had its day because the challenge of climate change will never be met if states continue to indulge in the ‘narcissism of small differences’.  The nation state is only five centuries old; it is not part of the DNA of Homo sapiens and according to the Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson nation states can be best described as contrived or imagined communities. But, for now, they cannot be wished away.

 within the ruling elite there is either indifference or scepticism about the whole subject of climate change, although recent devastating floods in Pakistan have certainly shaken this extraordinary complacency. 

The example of China shows how large-scale migration can be done. With a population of 1.4 billion – more than the combined population of Europe and North America - China has been described as a ‘civilisational’ state in terms of its history and the wide range of its ethnicity and linguistic variety. While Han Chinese constitute the majority of the population there are at least 50 other ethnic groups who speak not only the many dialects of the Chinese language but their own languages as well.

However, cultural and emotional unity has been achieved by the role of Mandarin Chinese as a lingua franca within both the borders of the country and within the 60-70 million strong overseas Chinese diaspora living in South-East Asia.

Along with the devolution of power but within an extraordinary unity of purpose provided to the state by the Communist Party of China that has a membership approaching 100 million, the country has scored some remarkable successes over the last four decades not only in achieving rapid economic and social progress and, more importantly, by creating a consensus on how this progress will be made. For example, since 1990, 400 million have moved internally from China’s rural areas to cities. China has managed this without the emergence of vast poverty-ridden slums as in the rest of the world. China has shown that large migrations can be handled efficiently by the devolution of public services and administration to city-level governments and even below. This is the scale of ambition that will be needed, if not at the global level then certainly at the level of regions and subregions across the world, to tackle the massive migrations that will inevitably happen between 2030 and 2050.

Can Pakistan manage something similar? When we consider this question honestly doubts creep up.

First, Pakistan’s biggest constraint is resources and it has taken the view that they will be externally provided. Second, administrative capacity in Pakistan is also a major constraint. Third, within the ruling elite there is either indifference or scepticism about the whole subject of climate change, although recent devastating floods in Pakistan have certainly shaken this extraordinary complacency. To imagine that Pakistan’s elite can be motivated to devise a meaningful response to the climate challenge thus borders on fantasy. Fourth, the entire country remains hooked to the values/thinking/collective preferences of consumer capitalism – to constantly desire and search for satisfaction in material things. The idea that societies might need to modify their values/preferences for the greater good of its members is wholly alien within the thinking matrix of the vast majority of Pakistan’s elite.

The few who argue that such change is needed tend to be dismissed as cranks or dreamers. It is true that Pakistan has not contributed to climate change and is, in fact, a victim of the behaviour of others. Nevertheless, it will not be immune to the adverse impact that climate change will inflict on it. Hence, facing it will require radical change in the way Pakistan’s well-off lead their lives. Help from the Climate Change Fund will not only be too little but might also be too late.   

The whole of Pakistan needs to learn what is at stake and a beginning needs to be made with a simple message that conveys the critical importance of the country’s natural bio and eco systems, like soil, water, and its plant and animal diversity. For this to happen social pressure might be a better tool than any IMF-driven strategy based on prices and markets. Gaia Vince ends her book with a Manifesto. Let me quote: “We need to redirect the productive capacity of society to address climate change and we must work urgently to reverse the destruction of ecosystems and build resilience.”

Will Pakistan rise to this challenge?       

The author who is based in London is a former UN official. He is the author of two books Rentier Capitalism: Disorganised Development and Social Injustice in Pakistan and Ruling or Serving Society: The Case for Reforming Financial Services, both published by Palgrave Macmillan, London