Gaia Vince’s Nomad Century is a fascinating book with a powerful core message that needs to be painted on banners, shouted from rooftops, and dragged across the sky behind (electric!) planes: migration is not a problem to be solved. It is a reality that we must manage.

Migration is our most successful survival behaviour as a species, and in the face of a warming planet, it is guaranteed to become more necessary for more people. The only question is whether this happens in a safe and planned way, or in chaos.

Vince’s book takes an uncompromising and realist view of climate projections, while making a compelling case for drastic new levels of global cooperation. The end result for readers is a disorienting combination of crushing resignation and radical hope. This rollercoaster read is an important addition to the growing conversation linking migration and climate realism.

It is a call to action, spanning how to manage water, food and agricultural production, energy supply, city planning, and, most importantly, migration policies, as the inevitable impacts of global heating create droughts, floods and unbearable heat, forcing vast numbers of people to move in the coming decades.

Vince does not ease us in gently. She is not convinced that existing climate pledges would be sufficient to avert serious climatic disaster, even if we were on track to fulfil them. She paints a picture of a world where temperatures rise by 2–4 degrees this century and the only habitable zones that remain are at the polar extremes. This, she argues, will force us to embrace truly massive migration of most of the population – a migration that has already begun, in defiance of the western world’s futile attempts to prevent it.

The solution she presents involves planning for the relocation of several billion people, particularly the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, into new, compact, smart cities located primarily in Canada, Russia, Greenland and the Arctic.

Despite the grim start, Vince argues that migration is not something to be feared, and that it can be managed. She draws on a range of evidence and case studies demonstrating migration as an adaptive behaviour, and the benefits it brings when well managed. Only after discussing how massive migration is a solution we need to embrace does she return to the question of minimising or reversing climate catastrophe through societal or technological changes.

Climate despair and the disastrous demotivating impact it can have has been a topic of growing concern in much of the activist response to increasingly doom-laden projections. Vince’s book does not shy away from these predictions, but still lies in a tradition of thinkers, from Ernst Bloch to Rebecca Solnit to bell hooks, for whom hope is a political imperative. We must cultivate hope in order “to believe it is worth taking the next step”.

For me as an interloper in the world of climate writing, but an expert in migrants’ rights, this book is very welcome. Vince excels at reinforcing the message that migration is going to happen whether or not we prepare for and welcome it, so we’d do better to get ready and facilitate it. Her explanation of migration as a natural and perennial human behaviour is comprehensively argued from the perspective of evolutionary history up to our current day, where borders are imposed with deadly force against the global poor, yet migrant numbers, including those escaping climate breakdown, grow regardless.

There are some masterful sections discussing how climate-driven migration has already begun. These show that where large influxes of migrants have been carefully planned for by host societies they have been successful, and bust some of the pervasive myths around how migrants threaten local populations’ jobs and public services. Vince’s discussion of successful urban design is fascinating, citing case studies in Bijlmermeer in the Netherlands and Parla in Spain, where high-immigration neighbourhoods and cities are seen as successes or failures based on how thoughtfully they were designed.

Meanwhile, amidst a relatively hard-nosed narrative, the case study of the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati, which is set to disappear beneath rising seas, stands out for wrenching your heart out. The president accepted that the inevitable ‘point of no return’ had been reached a decade ago and began a project of mass emigration ‘with dignity’ – which means enabling the population to leave through managed migration, before it has to be done in desperation as refugees. As someone who argues daily against the false distinctions we draw in Europe between ‘deserving refugees’, ‘skilled migrants’ and ‘economic migrants’, I was floored by the informed realism of this approach.

While her illustrative case studies often showcase the power of planning at a smaller scale and at city level, Vince does not shy away from big, bold ideas of global expanse. This is a brave opening into meaningfully imagining how the world could be different. A global scheme matching individuals with training and work opportunities in climate-secure host countries is one of the tamer of these ideas, while charter cities leased to the governments of newly uninhabitable countries to house their populations within the boundaries of northern states is a more disruptive one.

One of the most interesting ideas to me is a move to push power over migration and economic policy downwards to city level, essentially a city-state model. This seems to me more plausible than Vince’s preferred option of a new ‘global agency with real powers’ – essentially a world government – to direct global movement. The book would benefit from some more thorough examination of the democratic deficit implied by such a model.

This book is a serious intervention in a necessary discussion that politicians don’t want to have. Vince herself comments on the absurdity of the position she is forced to take when she writes, “We are trapped in the socio-political-economic web that we’ve woven. This invented trap, this human construction, is keeping us in so much danger that we are now in the absurd position of having to save humanity by moving vast populations.”

Confronted by these big ideas, I felt jolted out of my complacency – a complacency I hide from myself by a constant, obsessive engagement with news and policy on a minute-by-minute scale. The jolt is the need to zoom out and ask ourselves where this all leads to forty or fifty years from now, and to face up to the scale of changes we have to make. Mustering the hope needed to make such changes is clearly an aim of this book. Vince gives us a cold, hard look at the future and insists there is – and must be – hope that we can stop getting in the way of our best chance at survival. Migration is part of life, and we must embrace it.

Nomad Century: How to Survive the Climate Upheaval by Gaia Vince. Allen Lane, 2022. ISBN: 9780241522318

Zoe Gardner is Policy and Research Manager at the European Network on Statelessness.