The migration of the Mexican poor is the largest human movement across a border on the planet. It was triggered by the destruction of peasant agriculture at the hands of the North American Free Trade Agreement, by the corruption of the Mexican state, by the growing violence in Mexico, and exacerbated by the millions of Mexicans working illegally in the U.S. who send money home to finance their families’ trips north. It should be seen as a natural shift of a species. We need ecologists on the border; the politicians have become pointless.
While many living in the affluent cultures of the Global North have the luxury to fret over the decline of heritage pig breeds or the threat that GMO monocultures pose to heirloom vegetables and grains, billions of less fortunate human beings struggle just to have something to eat every day. As their physical, economic, and cultural habitats have been destroyed by the rapacious hunger of our consumerist society for ever more goods at ever cheaper prices, they have been forced by circumstance to assimilate with this alien culture, choosing physical survival over the loss of their own cultural identity. This choice usually entails the abandonment of the rural, the tribal, the local, or the ancestral landscape for jobs hundreds or thousands of miles away in the big cities.
In biological terms, the migration of species is nothing new. The ability to migrate for any species may be the greatest tool in the toolkit of evolutionary adaptation. Just as our hominid ancestors left the rift valley of Africa fleeing an evolutionary bottleneck for greener pastures elsewhere, humanity has always harboured the myth of the ‘Promised Land’. This myth for most of human history has held true: no less so for the first Native Americans who crossed the land bridge of the Bering Strait from Siberia into North America than for my own ancestors who more recently fled the famine in Ireland in the mid-19th century for a new life here in the US.
But the myth of the Promised Land is predicated on the existence of a relatively unpopulated, resource rich, and abundant territory in which to expand and prosper. With a population of 7.4 billion and growing, the world is now a crowded place, and abundance is relative as we enter a period of increasing global resource scarcity.
In ecology, there is the notion of the ‘indicator species’, a canary in the coal mine of sorts, the animal or vegetable most sensitive to change, which, when present, indicates a healthy ecosystem. Conversely, when this species becomes suddenly absent, it’s often an early indicator of a declining or failing ecosystem.
Species that are capable of travelling any considerable distance from their habitat usually will when their habitat begins to fail. Migratory birds in particular are increasingly viewed by scientists as indicators of the relative health of an ecosystem. They preferentially seek habitat with the requisite resources to sustain them. Human beings, other land mammals, and various forms of aquatic life – among others – all possess the ability to travel in order to seek out better habitat.
On the other hand, most human societies are very resilient and are the opposite of sensitive, as far as being any kind of early-warning system. Beginning in Neolithic times with the birth of agriculture and the domestication of animals, many formerly nomadic or tribal groups began to settle down and found cities and civilisations that were characteristically rooted in place. Humans generally adapt to the circumstances of their habitat until it is no longer feasible to do so, and the survival instinct takes hold, and then they migrate. Humanity is not in any strict sense an indicator species, but please bear with the analogy for the moment.
Take for example, the Joad family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, or virtually any dustbowl family from the agricultural American southwest of the 1930s. When the dual catastrophes of economic depression and climatic disruption set in, a mass exodus from the affected areas of Oklahoma, Texas and surrounding areas to the then relatively less populous and prospectively more prosperous state of California occurred, but only after these families endured years of hardship and uncertainty on their farms. For most it was a matter of survival when they finally made the tough decision to hit the road.
Human beings also like to understand things, to recognise patterns, to infer the outcome potential latent in any given course of events. It’s one of the things that is also responsible for our survival in the context of evolutionary history, and we’ve become pretty good at it. We look for signs, portents, omens, indicators. We try to establish the nature of cause and effect. We theorise and postulate, reckon and predict; we create stories and narratives to explain things. It’s the instinct at the root of both science and religion, and it may be the defining hallmark of our humanity in relation to other species.
Since at least the time of Thomas Malthus but probably even much further back in history, there has been an endeavour to apply this human urge to understand and predict to the issue of populations and resources. In other words, to figure out the carrying capacity of the human ecosystem before population overshoot occurs and the ecosystem collapses. In the last 50 years, scientists such as Garret Hardin, Paul Ehrlich, and the Limits to Growth working group headed by Dennis and Donella Meadows, among others, have warned that systemic collapse is approaching, as the exponential curve of population growth crosses the line representing the finite resources available to sustain that growth.
Even the scientist Norman Borlaug, widely hailed as the father of the so-called green revolution in agriculture, has warned of the limits of technological intervention to stave off the effects of our numbers here. But thresholds have already been crossed, emergent systems too complicated to extrapolate or model outcomes from are faltering. The problems we have created continue to outstrip our ability to solve them before it is too late.
Economists, petroleum geologists, and financiers have likewise warned of the phenomenon of Hubbert’s peak in relation to cheap and readily available oil, and more importantly, all of its ramifications for our advanced civilisation. While global peak oil has likely already occurred, it is unlikely that an equivalent green revolution breakthrough in energy will occur to save humanity from an impending crash. It won’t matter how much food can be grown (food heavily dependent on petroleum-based fertiliser inputs) if it can’t be efficiently harvested and brought to market. Fracking and deep-water drilling are temporary stop-gaps, fingers in a dike that is failing.
On the contrary, as we’ve seen over the past decade, increasingly complex and interconnected systems fail in strange and unpredictable ways. For example, as a result of NAFTA in particular and economic globalisation in general, the support price for corn (the staple food in the Mexican diet) moves in relation to the price of oil as that corn may now be turned into ethanol when oil prices cross a certain threshold, as they did in 2007. Americans will keep on driving and Mexicans will starve.
The increasingly dire predictions of scientists regarding rates of species extinction, climate change, population overshoot, and resource limits can continue to go mostly unheeded by the populations of the Global North because these things are, for now, an abstraction to the well-insulated societies we have built up for ourselves. We can just turn up the air conditioning and pay a little more for food and fuel.
But it is impossible to ignore the massed evidence, standing at our national doorsteps, of fellow human beings who have had to flee their homelands at great personal risk, to seek a better life – the only life now possible for them. Under the best of circumstances, all they can hope for is to live as strangers in a strange land.
In 2017 the unthinkable has already become reality, amidst a referendum for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, a Trump presidency in the US, and massacres perpetrated by Islamic extremists occurring with increasing regularity in continental Europe, provoking predictable political reactions.
The immigrants of the Global South, the cultures we’ve turned our backs on even as we profit from their labour, are the indicator species of our own societal collapse. The most sensitive and susceptible elements of our own species – the ones from whom everything has already been taken, the ones who have no recourse to technological mediation, whose subsistence economies have already been wrecked by globalisation, whose land succumbs to the rising seas, whose societies have been destroyed by imperial land grabs and resource wars – they are here now, knocking on our front doors, because they have nowhere else to go. On a planet dominated by the movements of human beings, we are our own indicator species.
The unprecedented numbers of Syrian, Iraqi, and North African immigrants that have flowed across Europe’s borders in recent years are for the most part casualties of the resource war that the US, Great Britain, and ‘the coalition of the willing’ brought to the Fertile Crescent and Libya. Though really this war has been fought in the name of progress – for anyone anywhere who drives a car, uses a computer, and enjoys the comforts that easy access to fossil fuel resources afford. Currently, that includes most of Europe and North America and much of Asia – the Global North. We are all complicit in this, and we’ll take whatever our populations believe we must to sustain it, under whatever pretence.
As much as we like to think about it as a culture war, a conflict of one cultural or religious identity over another, it really just boils down, at the end of the day, to who eats and who doesn’t. The Arab Spring, for all its much-touted utilisation of social media for political organisation, democratic principles, et cetera, was precipitated by the self-immolation of one Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizij. Bouazizij’s livelihood was selling food on the street, and this was taken from him one day by municipal officials in the city where he lived. So he set himself on fire in protest.
In the US, immigration from Latin America has been a major political issue for my entire life. I don’t remember a time when Mexican and Central American Latinos were not present in my community, though. Some of their children were my classmates in grade school, we grew up speaking English and attending school and mass together, and they are as American as I am.
In the run up to the 1980 US general election, immigration from Latin America was an issue then as it is today. In video footage from a debate during preliminary campaigning for the Republican nomination that year, both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, the man who was to become Reagan’s vice president, sounded – there is no other word – compassionate. It was something to see, each one trying to outdo the other in demonstrating his sensitivity to the plight of those just then seeking to join in the so-called great American melting pot.
This is in stark contrast to the language Donald Trump has used recently to characterise Mexican immigrants in the United State. He has publicly suggested on numerous occasions that they represent the worst elements of Mexican society and that they are responsible for an increase in crime in the US. This is in addition to reinforcing the longstanding prejudice held by many Trump supporters that Latino immigrants are too lazy to work, but nonetheless somehow taking American jobs. I have to question the intelligence of those who make this inherently oxymoronic claim, which seems to be perennially applied to immigrants anywhere. An Austrian friend of mine recently posted a tongue-in-cheek infographic to his Facebook page, explaining the paradox as ‘Schrödinger’s Immigrant’.
Charles Bowden wrote ‘A Mexican dictator once noted that nothing ever happens in Mexico. Until it happens.’ Bowden was an American writer and journalist who spent a lot of time in Mexico, especially in the border city of Juarez, 30 feet across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. The city he described in much of his writings since the mid-1990s is a hell on earth, a rapidly growing community already populated by well over a million souls, most of them living in squalor.
Many are forced here by the poverty of the rural outlands, but all are trapped between the hammer of the failing Mexican state and the anvil of an exploitative and indifferent United States, to whom most are denied legal entry. Juarez has recently been called ‘the most dangerous place in the world’, but this would already have been apparent to anyone in 1996 who read Bowden’s unique book, Juarez: The Laboratory of our Future.
The book is uncommon in many interesting ways, but foremost in that it is a collaboration between Bowden and the Mexican street photographers who risked their lives to document the cruelty, terror, and degradation that is everyday life for many in Juarez. In photographing the victims of the police, the gangs, and the drug cartels responsible for most of the violence, the photographers risked the same fate as that of their subjects. Many of the photos in this book are of cadavers, some of them showing signs of having been viciously tortured before being killed and left in the dumping grounds of the adjacent desert.
The photos as much as the writing bear witness to the plight of those who will inhabit the world we are now bringing into being everywhere. The rural poor, whose agricultural livelihood has been destroyed by the economics of globalisation or the general anarchy of living in a failed state or the vicissitudes of an increasingly unpredictable climate, wind up in Juarez.
Or they end up in cities just like it, the world over, working for slave wages in the usually foreign-owned sweat shops. In the case of Juarez, these are called maquiladoras, and many are situated just across the physical border with the United States. Here the cheap and easy conveniences of global trade are churned out by the truckload. This work never pays well enough to sustain the workers, so many turn to crime – prostitution, drug trafficking, gangs – just to survive.
Or they try to cross the border into the US. In a later work, Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing: Living in the Future (2007), Bowden writes
They are sleeping on the street or under the trees down by the river, and they tell me of their journey north, tell of the men who tried to kill them or rape them or rob them and they are rolling over Jordan as soon as night comes down but they are so very hungry and I start handing over money, ten dollars, twenty dollars, forty dollars, and they stream towards stands selling tacos in the street, and there are many words for them and their fate, studies of migrations, failed economies, declining resources, words that clatter on the floor of a bar like small change, and I turn to leave and get into my car and they claw at the windows like animals and follow me as I plow down the rutted street and flee from what is everywhere but now is hot breath on my neck.
Juarez could be anywhere, and soon it will be almost everywhere. In the words of Joe Strummer: It could be anywhere/Most likely could be any frontier any hemisphere/In no-man’s-land/There ain’t no asylum here/King Solomon, he never lived ‘round here.
Juarez, Caracas, the Gaza Strip, Baghdad, Karachi, Manila, Cape Town, New Orleans, Aleppo –
Go straight to hell, boys…
Charles Bowden through his writings, and his photographer-collaborators in their images, show us a world of consequences – none of them happy – for the societal choices we’ve made in this life, knowingly or otherwise. The laboratory of our collective future is a hellish place: It looks a lot more like the favelas of Sao Paulo than the pipe dreams of Palo Alto. And the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.
What can we do besides turn away in despair? Bowden has summarised the question more succinctly: ‘How can a person live a moral life in a culture of death?’ This is the question of our times. It has been since at least the Second World War, when our philosophers and writers, artists and cultural leaders – the better among them anyway, seriously began asking it.
Still the question remains, growing in urgency as the circle of death spreads outward, consuming ever more. The alarms are all sounding, the indicators, either through their absence or presence, are piling up daily. Will we ever have the courage to seriously ask ourselves such questions? If so, will we have the courage to answer honestly? I hope so.
Herd (not seen), Daro Montag, detail
Charred wooden animals purchased from charity shops
The climate is changing. Species are disappearing from the body of the Earth at an alarming rate. Extinction is forever. Yet people like animals. Many people collect carved wooden animals as souvenirs from their travels. Or as gifts for their friends. Often such trophies are hand carved from tropical wood by poorly paid workers. Some of these wooden animals end up in charity shops when they are no longer wanted. As an artist I shall receive a fee as my commission to create a new work. I propose using this entire fee to purchase wooden animals from charity shops. The money will be recycled. The collected animals will be charred. Wood is rich in carbon. Charring organic matter is a method for stabilising carbon to reduce atmospheric CO2. The charred animals will be placed in the gallery. Ultimately the animals will be buried in the ground. Their carbon content will be returned to the soil. The project will be documented.
Daro Montag‘s art practice starts from the premise that the natural world is best understood as being constituted of interacting events rather than consisting of discrete objects. This philosophical position foregrounds the significance of process and its residue. Another ongoing project is RANE-CHAR, in which biochar is produced and distributed as a means of raising awareness and mitigating climate change. www.rane-research.org
You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book.