Discovery Guides Areas


Environmental Refugees: How Many, How Bad?
(Released June 2006)

  by Ethan Goffman  


Key Citations



Classifying Environmental Refugees


From the various schemes categorizing environmental refugees, it is possible to derive a few clear types derived from human history and organization, at least speaking theoretically. Natural disasters are the most obvious, and have the longest history. Since the start of Homo sapiens, forest fires, hurricanes, floods, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes have caused human dislocation, both temporary and permanent. While these would seem to be out of human control, decisions to live in disaster-prone areas intensify the danger. For instance, for economic and aesthetic reasons, a large proportion of people choose to live in coastal areas, and therefore make themselves more vulnerable to floods and hurricanes.

massive hurricane strikes Gulf Coast
Hurricane Katrina

In a hunter-gatherer society, in which nomadism is often a way of life, it might be difficult to say when migration is part of a "normal" pattern and when it achieves environmental refugee status. Drought has always been with human beings, with the response generally being to move on to the next watering hole, fresh spring, lake, or other water source. Of course in contemporary times drought takes on a whole new context, and must be looked at in regional, national, and international contexts. Lester Brown, for instance, worries that on a global level we are drawing down our overall water supply.27

Ever since humans adopted agriculture, and largely abandoned a nomadic way of life, over the last 10,000 years or so, we have made ourselves vulnerable to another kind of environmental dislocation, that caused by land degradation, of which the dust bowl is but one example. Drought, erosion, and soil depletion threaten the stability of agricultural societies. Some environmentalists believe that modern agricultural methods, depending largely on a very few crop types, have permanently altered ecosystems and left us vulnerable to massive crop failure, although continual technological changes might very well offset this.

The industrial age brought forth pollution, yet another kind of environmental stress, at times leading to refugees. Pollution, depending upon how one defines the word, had always existed, both from natural sources and from human garbage, yet not of the kind or concentration generated by industry. Evolving technology has led to new chemical wastes, with varied and often unpredictable effects. Brown describes New York state's Love Canal, site of "21,000 tons of toxic waste" that led to "birth defects and other illnesses," as the site of "the first toxic-waste refugees."28 Although this may be exaggerated, such toxic events as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster periodically mar our world. Most pollution, however, leads to a kind of slow degradation, a decrease in health, rather than a mass exodus.

weeds in pavement
Weeds overrun the ghost-town Pripyat near Chernobyl

Finally, global climate change caused by humans is an extremely recent phenomena that seems to have created only a few refugees, but almost certainly will increase future numbers, perhaps exponentially. The most obvious way is through raising sea levels, as may already be happening in the Pacific. And global climate change has the potential to interact with other environmental problems. Recent scientific papers, for instance, suggest that hurricanes may become (or may already be) larger and fiercer than those in the past. Changes in climate also make agricultural output unpredictable; techniques that grow bounteous crops in one climate may not work as well in another, making planning for best practices in a given area increasingly difficult.

In sum, then, while natural disasters have been always with us, human innovation leads to increases in the quality of life, but also to unexpected consequences and periodic waves of refugees.

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