Sunday, 11 September 2016

A Meditation on Migration

From the beginning of this project, the gallery that has enticed me the most has been the Money Gallery. For a start it’s the quietist – many people are so enchanted by the live amphibians and reptiles that they don’t notice there’s anything beyond. Even better, the way through was blocked during most of the project due to building work, so you had to know which back stairs to go up. It’s also one of the least interpreted galleries, which in tandem with the quiet makes it a good space for meditation.

But it’s more than that. Right from the beginning I sensed that you couldn’t think about migration without thinking about money, although this was so much a gut feeling that I’ve struggling to find the rational bones of it.

Certainly from the earliest history of our species, people have travelled to to find the things they need or to exchange things. That much is obvious. None of our ancestors found food or water or shelter by staying in one spot. But there must have been a time when they began to farm and build and store when they began to travel less.

From the start there was someone who filled their knapsack and crossed the mountains – or filled the barrels that filled their boat and crossed the sea. Who knows what proportions of need, greed or curiosity motivated them, but it seems something as fundamental to our human species as the Deaths Head Moth making its journey North from Southern Europe each year.

So from being a people who moved around, we become a species where just some of us move around. Just as we become a species in which just some of us build, and just some of us farm, and just some of us raise children. But those people that move round are fulfilling that function for all of us. They’re bringing us things we need, they’re selling what we’ve got a surplus of, and they’re sharing information about the world.

Now of course we’ve divided the labour even more. There are a dozen other groups of people that move the stuff we sell and buy, and even more that share the information round. So we all get to be a little more still and everything comes to us. And the people that travel come to sell us their labour rather than their goods. But is there really that much difference. The beans we buy from Kenya aren’t just beans. They are the labour of the people that planted and nourished them, picked them and flew them to us. Our phones are the often cheap labour of the people who mined for minerals and assembled them (and I’m a bit sketchy about the rest to be honest!).

The second part of this argument comes from a different gallery. I spent some time speaking with Phil the entomology co-ordinator talking about insect migration. There are a lot of butterflies and moths which used to just visit us seasonally – but which now stay here all year round and breed here – because our climate is getting warmer.

Is this a problem I ask? Do they compete with our native species, many of whom are under threat? Is there anything we do about this? I’m a Botanist by trade. I know about Oxford Ragword and Japanese knotweed. Phil pointed out that by and large our efforts to control insect species backfire on us. Pesticides usually end up killing or damaging the insects we don’t want to damage. Biological control hasn’t turned out to be as clever as we thought either – think how cane toads, introduced to kill insects that fed on the sugar cane have become a pest themselves in Australia and the Caribbean.

And of course it makes perfect sense. If we want to stop this happening we have to deal with global warming. If we want to protect our native insects we have to look after their habitats.

You probably don’t need me to draw the line back to human migration. Human beings have always moved around. Now many of us don’t, it’s money that moves as our proxy. Underlying those movements of people, desperate of hopeful, is the movement of money around the globe. Yes, it’s because of war too, but peel back the grotesque veneer of war and someone’s being impoverished and someone’s being enriched.

Building walls and dragging people kicking and screaming onto aircraft are as pointless and self-defeating as introducing cane toads.  If you want to balance out migration, you have to balance out global financial inequality. And funnily enough as you do so, you’ll probably do help balance out the carbon dioxide level and save a few polar bears into the bargain.  

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