Staying Put: Principled Immobility

For a brief moment in 2020, the global pandemic shutdowns provided a natural experiment: What happens when people stop moving around the globe? Quickly, skies over polluted cities cleared. We could hear the birds even in the most dense urban settings. Pumas and other animals ventured into the vacuum left by humans on the edges of cities. Many academics I know talked and tweeted about how liberating it was not to travel to conferences to give a 20-minute paper. Private and public sector managers decided there would be no return to pre-pandemic levels of business travel, that virtual meetings could stand in for the outsized carbon footprint of in person meetings. While global elites pivoted to virtual work-from-home modalities, two older truths lurked: many have no option of earning a living from home, and many have never had the luxury of free movement. And by “many,” we are talking about global majorities.

These two facts have two separate sets of implications. First, it is important to acknowledge the meaninglessness of ideas like a “pivot to virtual work” for those whose livelihood cannot be earned virtually. Instead, the pandemic required exposure and mobility. Over the past three or four decades of globalization and post-Fordist capitalism, participation in the workforce has mandated “flexibility” above all else, such as the “just in time” scheduling of work as described in anthropologist Elise Andaya’s forthcoming book.  Within “just in time,” U.S. service workers are expected to be perpetually available to work, but they are often kept below the threshold of “full time work” that would enable them to receive benefits. In Mexico, the era of free trade has brought, among other calamities, the normalization of “super commutes”, often exceeding three hours each way, limiting the possibility one might have time for anything besides working and commuting. These trends, in which workers must make themselves fully available to employers, placed where their employers want them, while receiving little or no protection from employers, set the stage for a withdrawal of protection during the pandemic. Putting oneself in the pathway of exposure–to viral pathogens, to angry anti-maskers–is increasingly associated with any kind of “essential” work, work that many critics argue is actually sacrificial, in the sense that it is rhetorically revered while also underprotected. Protection for some is premised on sacrifice of others.

Meanwhile, another form of mobility, being able to circulate around the globe: across borders and between regions in pursuit of employment, education and recreation, has long been a privilege for only a few. While refugees and immigrants have moved and do so now (we’ve seen millions displaced only in the last few weeks in Ukraine) they often must defy rules of passage or idle in limbo to do so. Trade agreements routinely facilitate the flow of goods and capital but prohibit the free flow of people, paradoxically creating less mobility in their aftermath than before. This is even while climate crises increasingly drive the mass exodus of people from impacted regions–people who may not be welcome elsewhere. Moving from one place to another for safety is not an accessible option for most.

I suggest that it is necessary for us as academics and anthropologists to consider a concept of reparative immobility. The conceit, common among anthropologists, that we can go where we want and do what we wish is not only naïve, but it is increasingly recognized as colonialist and violent, as well as damaging to the environment.  What would reparative immobility look like? It would mean that those who are accustomed to being able to move stay put, ceding our carbon footprint to others, exercising principled immobility in order to advocate for the right to mobility of all.

The idea that nations can construct physical and bureaucratic barriers to the flow of people, animals, water, fire, and earth is hitting its limit. As I argue in a keyword essay, migration long precedes human mobility, which long precedes border controls. Birds, butterflies, sea turtles, whales, and so many other species migrate. For a long time, my understanding of the goal of migrant activism and advocacy was to secure mobility for all, to take away the borders that halt some, while letting all move. While I still believe this is needed, what if instead of advocating for everyone to be able to move, we invert contemporary patterns of mobility and advocate for mobility only for those who need it? What if mobility is prioritized for refugees from war, climate change, deterritorialization, poverty and violence? What if we have policies and principles that inhibit the movement of the powerful, the destructive, those whose carbon footprint and privilege always exceed their bounds? Instead of using carbon offsets (a tiny token gesture acknowledging but not truly “offsetting” harm while their purchasers continue to jet around the globe), what if those of us who are used to moving around freely, instead do not? My friend, the activist, poet, and artist Marco Saavedra, noted that the pandemic was causing many citizens of the US and other wealthy nations to suddenly taste how life is for the stateless:

[For centuries the people of] Europe were just going anywhere without a passport and destroying the southern part of the globe. Every year hundreds of college students go abroad and spread American propaganda, and no one questions that. It’s like, ‘the highest ideals,’ and they’re doing it for ‘the noblest of reasons’ and no one questions the Peace Corps, or the next war: it’s our luxury and our privilege. What is central to know is that traveling, leisure traveling is a completely modern phenomena and most people historically as a species have only traveled out of need, despair, for money, for work, war, hunger, poverty, starvation. The notion to be able to travel for pleasure is so minimal, so new, so privileged.

Saavedra provocatively argues that statelessness is the most ethical way of being, both unincorporated and unencumbered by national affiliation. Following Saavedra’s line of reasoning, for those of us with passports to purposely not use them is to experience more solidarity with the refugees and stateless who have had to move, but whose movement is not authorized and is often in pursuit of stasis. To stay put could be a way to live that is sustainable, carbon neutral, anti-nationalistic and an antidote to ethnocentric and capitalist values. While all should have the right to stay “home” if they want to, facilitating the right to move of those who cannot is necessary. Staying put, when many of us are descendants of settlers who came from elsewhere to displace and lay claim to places not ours remains ethically fraught, but it may now be less violent than sallying around without consideration.

Rights and mobility are not a zero-sum game, despite what ethno-nationalist and xenophobic social movements argue. To ensure migrants and refugees have greater freedom of movement does not mean xenophobes lose theirs, even though their frantic border protectionism implies as much. To open borders, or at the very least stop allowing them to be the modern equivalent of a crocodile-filled moat, can perhaps salvage rather than weaken the legitimacy of the nation, with nations as coordinators of care rather than defenders of borders. In fact, global adaptability to climate change, the difference between adaptation and extinction, may lie precisely in the willingness of temperate places to open our borders to those who are displaced from places with scarcer resources and hotter temperatures. The principled immobility of those historically over-endowed with freedom of movement or the illusion of it, could liberate the movement of all those, human and non, for whom it is necessary.

About the Author

Alyshia Gálvez is is professor and chair of Latin American and Latino Studies at Lehman College and of anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  Gálvez is the author, most recently, of Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies and the Destruction of Mexico (UC Press, 2018) on changing food policies, systems and practices in Mexico and Mexican communities in the United States, including the ways they are impacted by trade and economic policy, and their public health implications.