Concept Note

Human migration and the environment are two of the most pressing issues of our times. Migration is a defining attribute of the human condition, and yet all across the world negative attitudes towards migration are intensifying. Meanwhile, our natural environment is undergoing such profound transformation that the future habitability of Earth is regularly called into question. But what is stake when these two phenomena – human migration and environmental catastrophe – are articulated as a singular relation? In popular media, this relation is often said to be one of mass migration which culminates in religious or ethnic violence, whereas contemporary liberalism poses it as a problem of international cooperation or state managerialism. But how else might we conceive of this relation? Is it enough to understand it as a binary between alarmist rhetoric and managerial reason? Or does our of understanding of human migration and the environment require entirely new concepts? Are we to conceptualise migration in the context of climate change as a matter of in/justice, law and sovereignty? Or does it pose something more fundamental to the human condition? What does it mean when future environmental catastrophe conjugates with prejudice, inequality and difference? What ontological, epistemological and methodological challenges arise when environmental change and migration are characterised as a single relation? How are we to conceive of the Human, Nature, the State, the migrant and the citizen when human migration and environmental change are conjoined? What political, sociological, cultural and legal challenges does this relation pose? And what futures does it make possible? How should we conceive of migration in the Anthropocene?

By asking these and many other questions, this conference provides a multidisciplinary forum for scholars, policymakers, practitioners and artists to chart out the next generation of research on human migration and the environment. Whereas the first generation of research on environmental migration focussed squarely on problems of causation and on questions of law and policy, our starting point for the conference is that the relation between environment and migration is multidimensional, touching on all aspects of human and non-human life, including economy, social institutions, politics and culture, as well as bio- and geo-physical processes. The aim of the conference is to expand the debate on human migration and the environment beyond its current configuration as a problem of causation, law and policy towards a more pluralist debate that acknowledges the multidimensional nature of environmental change and migration. The conference should appeal to social scientists, humanities and legal scholars as well as to scientists committed to working with and within the social sciences, humanities and law.

The conference is organised around three interrelated themes of Futures, Politics, and Invention.


One of the most striking features of environmental migration is the way in which it is represented in science, politics and media as a future-conditional phenomenon. Whether represented as threatening security or as a pending humanitarian crisis, environmental migration is routinely said to be an event that will occur at some point

in the future. This is also the case for more recent representations which frame migration as a legitimate adaptive response to climate change. Computer modelling, scenario planning and futures mapping are all future-oriented forms of knowledge through which the relation between environment and migration is given form. The significance of these representational practices is that they orient public imaginaries towards futures of environmental change and migration. Yet what we observe today is a noticeable disconnect between the ways in which these futures are imagined publically through, for example, media and political rhetoric, and the empirical realities of migration. This disconnect is especially apparent in the contrast between environmental migration futures conventionally conceived as deterministic and linear and those more recent approaches which conceptualise such futures as non-linear, complex and uncertain. This subtheme seeks to explore what is at stake when the relation between environmental change and migration is imagined as future-conditional. How can attending to the future help us better understand the phenomenon of environmental migration? What new forms of knowledge and new concepts are required to grasp the future-conditionality of migration and environmental change? What implications does such knowledge have for our understanding of science, politics, art and media? What new concepts might be required to help us better understand the intersections of environment and migration in the Anthropocene?


There is widespread agreement that environmental migration is a matter of global justice and responsibility as evidenced, for example, in the Nansen Principles. But most manifestations of environmental migration are said to occur at a very local level. Empirical research, for example, has routinely shown that international migration is the exception rather than the rule, and that claims of potential mass migration from countries in the South to industrialized countries in the North have been grossly exaggerated. The result is a burgeoning geographical debate about how and through which scales of political activity migration in the context of global environmental change should be governed. What role should local and national government play in managing environmental migration? What about regional and international organisations? In the absence of an international treaty explicitly designed to address the migration effects of environmental change which other international agreements might address the phenomenon? Should we develop a universal framework that builds on the Nansen Principles? Or do we even need such framework in the first place? How might we conceive of climate change adaptation as an issue of human rights? These are all pressing questions that could be addressed under theme of ‘Politics’.

But politics are never just about governance and management. Politics are also about power, interests and contestation. This is no different for environmental migration. Questions that might therefore also be asked under this theme include: Is there a politics to environmental migration? If so, how might we characterise this politics? Whose interests are served by the politics of environmental migration? And whose are undermined? How, if at all, is the discourse of environmental migration contested? What models of power (i.e., economic, territorial, colonial, patriarchal, racial) are emerging within or reproduced by the discourses and practices of environmental migration? To what extent is existing political and social theory sufficient to grasp the complexities at stake in environmental migration? Or do we require new theories to help us better understand this phenomenon?

And finally, perhaps one of the more salient political dimensions of environmental migration is the way it challenges the continuity of existing forms of identity and political community. Migrant identity is, by definition, an unsettled identity. So, too, migrants are regularly feared inasmuch as they are said to threaten existing ways of life. Consequently, we might ask what new forms of political community are possible in the context of environmental migration? What role might Diasporas play in the formation of political community in the context of the Anthropocene? To what extent can and should migration be embraced as an adaptive strategy? What kinds of strategies are used to strengthen the bonds of political community in the face of their apparent dissolution? What forms of hospitality and generosity can be extended to those who may need to relocate as a result of environmental change? And what image of the Human emerges at the interface of migration and global environmental change?


One of the persistent difficulties researchers and policy makers face when thinking about environmental migration is that the phenomenon oftentimes exceeds comprehension. This is starkly apparent in the context of small island states where it is almost impossible to fathom how the sovereignty of small island states can persist in a context in which rising sea-levels threaten the habitability of these island territories. Cities planners will face similar issues as the impacts of climate change begin to take hold. City planners have no reliable ways of knowing in advance how many migrants will relocate to cities, where and how they will live when they get there, or the kinds of risks (i.e., environmental, political, social, economic) they will face on arrival. This makes effective planning next to impossible. In both instances, new forms of political and social innovation are required in order that those implicated in such scenarios are able cope and adapt.

Given that the effects of environmental migration remain so uncertain, this subtheme asks how notions of invention and social and political innovation can be harnessed to accommodate the migration effects of global environmental change. What models of innovation can be used to think about migration and environmental change? Is invention an appropriate ethic to adopt for thinking about migration and environmental change?