We Have to Get Better at This


“Migrants”, “immigrants”, “refugees”– none of these terms actually addresses the contextual narratives of people who need to leave their homelands.  This is, in fact, not a crisis that will go away, it is the beginning of an era in which large swaths of our planet are becoming unlivable ecologically, economically or politically– or all three. At this moment in history all 7+ billion residents of this planet should be accepting that old notions of nationalism have already changed. Now, we should all be ready to accommodate those who are moved, and also be ready to be the ones moving. But, the transitions ahead of us are bigger than the existing structures to accommodate them. And, the speed of this change is unprecedented. The packing list for the transformation ahead is mostly a list of collaboration and improvisation skills.

Let’s try out this for a baseline: This is a transformational time of desperate movement for survival of families that cannot live in the land they have known as home.

This movement around the globe is not an event, there is no end in sight to the millions of people who will walk over continents to find survival. The trajectory that we are on is in play; denial is merely a dangerous postponement. There is no time to let seeds of resentment against cultural and economic change take root; our children will have to live in the consequential violence thereafter. The way in which we think about this situation matters, and the language also matters.

To refer to the people in transit as “refugees” is to stigmatize and victimize. If you have ever actually been a victim you will know how deeply dehumanizing this defining is in a time of excruciating pain. Some say that without the term “refugee” the infrastructures of aid for those who fit that description cannot be utilized. This demand however leads to the discrimination between types of reasons for moving, and who has the right to determine the motivation for survival? However, to use the term “immigrants” is to harken a history of slow socio-economic integration– when we no longer have that option. “Migrants” is another term that is unsuitable as it implies that there is some sort of economic preference involved in this movement. To prefer to survive is not merely leveraging the opportunities of another land’s freedom for economic betterment. Get over it.

red cross

Somewhere in the midst of the discussion and presumptions around the “crisis” of the human beings that are now needing to leave their homes there is an unspoken leverage of the idea of fairness. What is it to be fair? What is the definition of a civilization? The sentiment of exclusion that is emerging will do irreparable harm to the culture, psyche and economy of those countries who say they “just can’t take in any more people”.– Who are we? What kind of society let’s millions people die at the doorstep?

The future of social collocation is largely determined now upon the way we approach the complexity of this integration, not upon economics or policy. There are underlying stories currently informing political decisions around what action to take, are they of decency, or of viscous small minded short sightedness? Those of us living in this era of history will be the authors of the story of how this transition is conducted. The difference is not abstract. We will know the success of our efforts in living together by what it will feel like to walk down the streets in 10 years. Will the near future be one of violent, polarized societies or one in which there is an understanding of solidarity in the project of learning to live together?  There is not room for the lack of common decency that will give rise to panic and hatred.

immigrant lifejackets

The current upsurge of nostalgia for a sense of nationalism that once was is a fraudulent nostalgia. Besides, it’s useless. The changes are already here. The damage that was done by exploiting nature and other people has long since been heading to this pivot point. The difference is until now, for those living in the relative comfort of middle class life in the “developed world”– it was out of sight. Now, with millions needing new homes there is no more rug to brush the exploitation under. There is no going back to a time of  cultural clarity, and economic security. Was there ever such a time? No. And, now there certainly is no way to fake the complexity of the cultural shifts we are already within.

The level of consumption and wealth we have now is not viable for many reasons ranging from social justice to ecology. There are many who will say it is not reasonable to destabilize the systems in place in the EU or other lands, but I would put forth that they are already destabilized, and any notion of life as it was projecting into the future is an illusion anyway. Will this transformation decrease our wealth and comfort as individuals?- Probably. Arguably that is happening anyway. No point in blaming the wealth gap on anyone but the 1%. Before we say the EU or the US cannot afford the newcomers, we need to ask who has the money? Why is there no money for integration? Ask Apple. Find the money.

There is no reason that the expense of creating housing, medical, education etc should fall upon the lower and middle classes when over half the money in the world is in the hands of a few dozen that could, and should pay. The anger toward the people who are arriving is misguided, and an enormous social risk.

Exclusion is a difficult beginning of a friendship, especially when that exclusion looks like millions of families with nothing but the contents of their pockets traveling across continents to find a new life and being met with rejection. How does it feel to wait in a tent for months to be granted entry to what will be your family’s new home only to learn that the residents do not want you and have burned down the buildings assigned to your fellow refugees to begin their new lives? I cannot imagine how this public display of repulsion leads anywhere but toward a future of resentment. The expense of that resentment is more than anyone can afford, not only in terms of material properties and damage, but more importantly to the shared future which awaits. I cannot fathom the reckless irresponsibility of condoning such public discourse. It is nothing short of a security threat. The genie is not going back in the bottle.

This is an issue that highlights the importance of new methods for approaching complex problems. This is ecological, economic, cultural, educational, political, medical— there is no single sector to turn to for a solution. The actions to take are those that are considered across the spectrum of systems. Where is the mandate for this form of interaction?


In a world in which change is the constant there is some difficulty to be found in making the statement that change is here, that it is now, and that it is next-level-extreme. Yet this is case. Like it or not. The attitude with which we muster the courage and sacrifice to meet this challenge matters. We really have only one choice; get better at this- or live in the social cesspool of our own making.

(Note on photos: All of these photos were taken by me on the island of Lesbos, in February 2016 at a session with the Tallberg Foundation)