Shepherds with Cell Phones Can Mobilize Rapidly When Resources Become ScarceArtificial world demonstrates how digital communication influences migration
1 June 2021, by Miguel Rodriguez Lopez
Shepherds need water and grazing land for their animals. In arid regions they constantly have to move to new locations because the grazing areas shift over the course of the year. That means that mobility is essential to their livelihood. But what happens when climate change worsens water scarcity?
I’m especially interested in how communication via cell phone affects mobility, since migration has a variety of determining factors and triggers. Together with my team at Universität Hamburg’s Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability (CEN), I have investigated these aspects using an artificial world created on the computer.
In order to study the shepherds’ movements, we created a simplified digital environment on the computer in which they can move as so-called “agents,” and where we can define the environment ourselves. For example, does it have external boundaries? Where are there resources like water or grazing land? In addition, we give the individual agents various characteristics. Do they have a cell phone? Do they have numerous friends or a large family they communicate with? This allows us to subsequently compare which groups demonstrate which types of migration behavior.
At the same time, the agents have needs – which we integrate in the program. If, for instance, there isn’t enough water for their herd, then under certain circumstances they will move on. In our example, climate change further worsens the situation in arid regions. In other words, we make fertile pastureland even scarcer.
Like with GPS, we can track the agents’ positions in our virtual landscape. We monitor when they move on, and what this choice depends on. What direction do they head in, and how far do they go?
Our findings show: communication plays a significant role. Agents who possess cell phones tend to move in a more coordinated manner, and to go faster and farther. More individuals set off, and they cover larger distances, but are also more likely to return. After all, when large numbers of people are underway, the grazing land at the destination will also rapidly become scarce. Accordingly, roughly one in three usually returns to where they started.
Even before the era of cell phones, individual decisions were based on communication. Personal contacts or letters from relatives who had already migrated provided vital information. However, back then the news didn’t travel as quickly or reach everyone at the same time. Nevertheless: with or without cell phones, the total number of migrants has remained roughly the same.
Here, for the first time, we have used simple means to map complex human behavior patterns – a major step forward! Our model doesn’t provide precise forecasts, since in the real world there are further unknown factors. However, we can now analyze past migration movements and understand the patterns and reasons behind them, helping us develop new solutions for the future.
Freedom of movement is a human right – and there has always been migration. Nevertheless, many countries are suspicious when it comes to nomadic groups in their populations; they are considered to be unpredictable and hard to control. As such, there is a growing global trend toward stigmatizing such groups. Yet the fact is: mobility offers human beings more flexibility and makes them more resilient. That can be vital – especially in regions that are affected by climate change.
Miguel Rodriguez Lopez
Dr. Miguel Rodriguez Lopez is an economist and political scientist. At the CEN, his research focus is on conflicts and collaborations with regard to climate change.