“If we are wise, the answer will be ‘programmable geography’ — recoding places based on their changing roles in our fluid global system. Habitable geography is our most precious terrestrial resource, and we must optimize it for those that come after us.”
Parag Khanna, “Migration Will Soon be the Biggest Climate Challenge of our Time,” Financial Times (Oct. 3, 2021)
“By the waters of Babylon
We sit down and weep,
Far from the pleasant land
Where our fathers sleep.”
Christina Rossetti, “By the Waters of Babylon” (1861)
They say that no one has ever washed a rented car. Nor do the tenants of an apartment building spend their weekends cleaning the gutters. I confess that I have never entered a motel room and declared to my wife, “we must optimized it for those that come after us.” Nomads are exploiters. Tenants are termites. Only sedentary people husband their resources. And the roots of the word husband mean householder.
What Mr. Khanna called “programmable geography” is a world in which there are no householders, only tenants. In Mr. Khanna’s world, the earth is a giant event center, its lands are rentable party rooms, and a man’s “home” is a table he has booked for the evening.
I remember how much I hated the words “assigned seating” when I was in school. Girl, boy, girl, boy . . . And not a friend or companion in sight. Indeed that was why my killjoy teachers assigned seating. It made us students docile and sad.
In Mr. Khanna’s world of “programable geography,” a people will be obliged to look to the calendar and say, “time for us to pack up and clear out. We’re only booked into this country for another decade, and if we don’t leave it clean we’ll lose our security deposit.”
Habitable geography is our most precious resource, and this is why God punishes people who, owing to their violence, indolence, or stupidity, degrade their homeland into a wasteland. A foolish people that fells its forests and allows its soil to wash into the sea should be compelled to sit among the stumps and learn the lesson of its folly. A quarrelsome people should be compelled to suffer the evils of its quarreling until it learns the art of peace.
Hell holes are hell holes because they are inhabited (and rendered uninhabitable) by the hellions who live there.
There is, I know, a vast literature that argues that the denizens of hell holes are not hellions, but are rather victims of capitalism, colonialism, or climate change. I also know this is partly true. Every denizen of a hell hole is not a hellion. But exculpatory theories of the exogenous origins of hell holes do not in fact teach us that every hell hole needs a large door marked Exit.
The reason is that this Exit will be used, either by the non-hellions, in which case the hell-hole will become more hellish, or it will be used by the hellions, who will take their hell-hole-making genius with them.
One great lie in Mr. Khanna’s article is that very little of the earth’s geography is uninhabitable, as a cursory glance at human history will show. Humans are the most adaptable animal there is, and can live in a desert, a swamp, or a frozen arctic waste. But human adaptability requires intelligence, a lively fear of the terrible consequences of screwing things up, and a resolve to make things work in the land that is under one’s own feet.
We will all drive rentals in a world of “programmable geography,” a world where there are no borders and everyone keeps a bug-out bag under his bed. And in a world where we all drive rentals, the oil will never get changed.