Book Review: “The Great Displacement”

Review The Great Displacement
“The Great Displacement:
Climate Change and the Next American Migration”
By Jake Bittle
Simon & Schuster, 2023
368 pages, hardcover, $28.99

“The Great Displacement” — with a title that references the Great Migration of the 1920s to the 1970s, when more than six million Black people migrated from the South to cities in the North — tells a story of widespread human relocation unfolding in real time. Journalist Jake Bittle, a staff writer at Grist, takes readers on a tour of climate change-ravaged landscapes across the United States, with stops in Big Pine Key, Florida; Kinston, North Carolina; Santa Rosa, California; Pointe-au-Chien, Louisiana; Houston, Texas; Pinal County, Arizona; and Norfolk, Virginia. In each location, Bittle seeks out residents of communities already devastated by climate change — from an orchardist whose collection of rare tropical fruits was wiped out by Hurricane Irma, to cattle ranchers and cotton farmers whose operations in the desert are drying up in tandem with drought-stricken water supplies.

Everywhere Bittle goes, people are moving. He favors the word “displacement” over “migration,” writing that the latter “implies an intentional, one directional action” while displacement “conveys the reality: these movements will be unpredictable, chaotic, and life-changing.” Deftly intertwined within the narratives teased from hundreds of interviews are the complex realities of the unknowns of climate change — what every human across the globe is facing, though, as Bittle reports, not in equal measure. The impacts of displacement — dispossession, homelessness, loss of social support networks and the erosion of culture— will be felt disproportionately, with Indigenous people, communities of color and low-income areas on the frontlines. Navigating a dizzying maze of insurance payouts (and lack thereof), federal disaster relief (ditto), the booms and busts of the private housing market, and climate adaptation measures adopted based on tax revenue potential, Bittle paints a disturbing portrait of how, in the wake of a neighborhood razed by fire or eclipsed by the rising sea, some people get left behind while others are buoyed to relative safety. “Climate change is applying stress to the social and economic order, widening cracks that have been there the whole time,” writes Bittle.

While there is no way to prophesy where climate disaster will strike down to the zip code or neighborhood, the stories shared in this book and Bittle’s thorough reporting provide evidence that reliable predictions can often be made based on any number of factors, from flood and fire zones to depleted aquifers and aging or inadequate infrastructure. The end chapter entertains what the future may bring: Similar to the Great Migration, people are likely to move north, or inland, and the exodus will be even more far reaching, “uprooting millions of people in every region of the country.”

A question that Bittle returns to time and again isn’t why to move but how. There are the practical pieces, sure, like how to finance a move to a “less risky” area, but then there are questions around how to navigate the loss of not only a physical home but also a sense of place. How does one grieve giving up the dream of teaching their child to ride a bike on the same quiet tree-lined street where they also learned? Or leaving behind the house their grandfather built, brick by brick? Or letting go of the bayous that sustained their family for generations, for millennia?

Holli Cederholm

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