In today’s class, we discussed the topic of forced or “distressed” migration in connection with environmental stresses or shocks and–whether or not related to environmental issues–violent conflict. We quickly discovered there is almost no issue which is not connected to this issue of distressed migration. From food security to public health, and drought to early childhood education, a complex web of factors must be considered. (Indeed, even recent findings in neuroscience on the relationship between cognitive development in children and poverty had a place in our discussion.) The students concluded that even very local issues have global consequences. They debated ways to soundly approach the complexity of the issues involved.
The relevance of the topic, given news headlines these days, was obvious. Some students emphasized the importance of adaptability, or resilience, in home countries for dealing with stresses and disasters. Sometimes, however ,the stresses are too large, too many, and too frequent–and the basic functioning of the country too weak–for needed adaptation. It is mainly in such cases, when few other options exist, that people take the step of leaving their homes in search of a better future. (These issues, said the students, include internally displaced people who must move elsewhere inside their country and exiles or migrants who are forced to leave, and who may even face the prospect of being “stateless.”)
Whether these people are called exiles, migrants, or refugees–or something else–sometimes depends on what international law covers, or not. But, labels aside, these are people, said the students today, who probably would not be leaving their homes if they did not have to. With more frequent and extreme weather events alone, however, freedom of mobility and opportunities for migration are poised to become larger issues around the world, observed some in the class today.
In connection with the issues of “anti fragility” or resilience, one might say that distressed migration occurs when countries become vulnerable and overextended. While, in class, we consulted the work of known experts on human migration issues, outside of class literature unrelated to that specialized area can help reframe the issues involved.
For instance, the emerging concepts of “fragility” and “anti fragility,” as applied by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the book Antifragile, can help consider issues of migration (not the subject of his book) in different lights. According to Taleb, systems such as societies and economies sometimes become fragile because “top-down” approaches make them so. He writes: ” If about everything top-down fragilizes and blocks anti fragility and growth, everything bottom-up thrives under the right amount of stress and disorder. The process of discovery (or innovation, or technological progress) itself depends on anti fragile tinkering, aggressive risk-bearing rather than formal education.” In other words, highly static societies–even seemly highly stable ones–can be highly fragile, or subject to breakdowns.
Following such logic, it appears that nation-states can become more fragile due to policies imposed on them either by internal or external actors. According to Taleb, in heavily top-down systems, this fragility sometimes can be masked, sometimes for a long time. Some societal systems, he writes, “become antifragile at the expense of others by getting the upside (or gains) from volatility, variations, and disorder and exposing others to the downside risks of losses or harm.” The masking of this fragility equates to what he calls “blow-up risks,” writing:
“…as we discovered during the financial crisis that started in 2008, these blowup risks-to-others are easily concealed owing to the growing complexity of modern institutions and political affairs.” In his view, a few are benefiting from “anti fragility at the expense of the fragility of others.”
He also says that the “rare events” or “black swans”–(that are, in part, the subject of this blog)–paradoxically are increasing largely due to the increase of more complex man-made systems. While technological know-how may be increasing, these same advances are “making things a lot more unpredictable.” Modernity itself “makes us build Black Swan-vulnerable systems,” he writes. And societal tendencies to focus on things we can estimate and measure encourage us to mistakenly think that we can calculate the risks and probabilities of shocks and rare events. As he explains, we can’t but that doesn’t stop people (and entire industries) from convincing themselves and others that we can.
As the book, Antifragile, itself is composed of seven books, there is little point in trying to capture all of its key points in a blog post. For purposes of this blog, the main thought in the book to explore further has to do with the interactions of complex systems leading to an increasing number of “rare events,” also known as unpredictable “Black Swans.” Taleb writes: “The odds of rare events are simply not computable. We know a lot less about hundred-year floods than five-year floods–model error swells when it comes to small probabilities.”
The students today were considering what makes countries more, or less, adaptable (or, to approximate what Taleb is addressing, “anti-fragile”) on the assumption that forced migration does not occur if solutions to problems are readily found at home. Understanding how societies become and remain adaptive–particularly in a world of more frequent “rare events”–seems fundamental to finding more effective ways to deal with issues related to forced, or distressed, migration. The real-life urgency of these issues for many people close by and far away is clear. In class, we will continue to grapple with the concepts involved and consider where things might be headed under different scenarios.