Book Review: Storming the Wall

“More dangerous than climate disruption, was the climate migrant. More dangerous than the drought were the people who can’t farm because of the drought. More dangerous than the hurricane were the people displaced by the storm.”

Storming the Wall

One cannot read Todd Miller’s Storming the Wall without thinking immediately about the concentration camps forming at the U.S.-Mexico border, the enlistment of facial-recognition software from companies like Amazon and Palantir to track down and criminalize immigrants, and the “migrant caravans” that confronted the violent repression of security forces from three countries (Guatemala, Mexico, and the U.S.) as they pushed past checkpoints and border crossings for a chance at asylum in the U.S. All these things have happened since Miller released Storming the Wall, which was written as Trump was coming into power. The kind of escalation of xenophobic state violence we are seeing today was something we could only imagine on the horizon in 2016.

The crisis that the U.S. is currently facing on the border is of its own making. This is true in two senses: first, the influx of migrants arriving from Central America and seeking asylum are fleeing desperate conditions shaped by U.S. policies, and second, inhumane government “deterrence” strategies are forcing immigrants into overcrowded detention facilities and subjecting them to grave abuses. As the U.S. military, Customs and Border Patrol (CPB), and private companies continue to fortify the U.S. Southwest border, grassroots groups are struggling to coordinate an opposition to the anti-immigrant machine and shed light on the root causes of the crisis.

Storming the Wall by Todd Miller. Published by City Lights Open Media, 2017.

In Storming the Wall, Miller focuses our attention on one of the root causes rarely discussed – the growing impact of climate change on global displacement and migration. His exposé takes a deep and broad look into the “worldwide border regime” that is being consolidated to enforce global climate apartheid.

There are over 700 million low-elevation coastal dwellers at risk to rising sea levels around the world. Floods are now impacting 21 million people worldwide, a number expected to double to 54 million by 2030. The United Nations projects that 250 million people will be displaced globally by 2050. An average of 21.5 million people were displaced every year between 2008 and 2015 from the “impact and threat of climate-related hazards.” These are just some of the harrowing statistics cited in Storming the Wall that demonstrate the imperative to see climate change among the many compounding factors fueling mass migration today, but also as a factor that will take on greater significance into the future.

Miller is careful not to isolate climate change as a factor, but to instead understand is as part of a “catastrophic convergence” – the economic, political, and ecological factors that compound each other to create unlivable situations across the globe. In some ways, Miller’s book picks up where Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything leaves off.

While Klein calls on us to understand climate change as a systemic problem of neoliberal capitalism, Miller shows us how border militarization and anti-immigrant authoritarianism have been, and will continue to be, a consequence of both of these systemic failures. While three decades of neoliberal restructuring have generated new levels of inequality, climate hazards will only exacerbate such inequality as the world’s poor will be the most vulnerable to its effects.

The militarization of borders, Miller argues, the predominant response to the influx of human displacement around the world, is incapable of reaching the root of the problem because it serves to further perpetuate the status quo. As he states, “Just like super-typhoons, rising seas, and heat waves, border build-up and militarization are by-products of climate change… the theater for future climate battles will be the world’s ever-thickening border zones and not, as national security forecasts constantly project, in communities where individuals fight each other for scarce resources.” To demonstrate these links, Miller takes us to the main sites where struggles over climate change, migration, and militarization are playing out.

Storming the Wall is not intended to be social movement theory. In contrast, it provides insights into how the military apparatus has co-opted the concerns of climate change and the language of sustainability to further a project of U.S. military domination. First and foremost, Miller explains how global elites are organizing themselves in response to pending climate catastrophe in order to reinforce the status quo. For example, Miller takes readers to the Defense, National Security, and Climate Change conference to show how the U.S. military, fully aware of the reality of climate change and the climate refugees it will produce, has deemed climate change a “stresser,” “threat multiplier” and “accelerant of instability.”

The climate security doctrine, as Miller calls it, uses this impending threat to bolster border security operations and push forward a project of “sustainable national security.” While the U.S. military is one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world, “greening” the military apparatus by transitioning to so-called renewable energy sources, is not being done principally to mitigate climate change but instead to maintain a comparative military advantage as the world moves further into climate chaos. Technology developers and contractors have eagerly seized the opportunity to profit in the emerging climate-security business.

The conversion of a humanitarian crisis into a security threat and then into a business opportunity has led to a build-up of mass surveillance on the border, an expansion of constitution-free zones, and a “prevention through deterrence” strategy that has turned the borderlands into a deathscape. Around 6,000 bodies have been recovered in the U.S. side of the desert since the mid-1990s (The International Organization for Migration reports that 40,000 people have perished crossing borders worldwide from 2000-2014). Miller takes us along the migrant routes through Mexico and Guatemala to show how such spaces of exception and “prevention through deterrence” strategies implemented at the U.S.’s behest, have pushed south. Stripping migrants of their rights and forcing them into the most dangerous forms of passage, such as hopping cargo trains (known as la bestia) has led to countless deaths and loss of limbs.

One of Storming the Wall’s most compelling chapters takes us to rural Honduras. Many of the bodies maimed and violated on the grueling trip north come from here. In 2015 and 2016, Central America experienced one of the longest droughts in history and farmers lost entire seasons of crops. The farmers Miller talks to about their state of calamity did not find solutions with their government. Rather, they’re still dealing with the fallout from 2009, when the U.S. tacitly supported a military coup that ousted the elected President and allowed a right-wing military regime to take over. Since then, violence and drug trafficking have become rampant, poverty has risen, and rural farmers, including Indigenous and Afro-Indigenous communities have faced dispossession of their lands for african palm production, mining, and tourism. The “solutions” to these crises from above have been two-fold: further disenfranchisement through the creation of privately-governed cities/territories (called ZEDEs), and an elaborate system of check-points throughout the country, or in other words, increased border militarization with funding and training from the U.S.

While more focused on the global forces of militarization, Storming the Wall is very-much told through the voices of those directly impacted around the world, and through grassroots groups fighting for both human mobility and planetary survival in places like Honduras, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Arizona. Miller provides a conceptual roadmap for understanding the links between climate change, migration, and border militarization, as well as clues for a greater integration of disparate struggles and broad-based solidarities.

Storming the Wall ends on a hopeful note. Written as a beautiful message to his unborn son, the last chapter invites us into imagination, reminding us to, in the words of poet Mary Oliver, “always leave room in (our) hearts for the unimaginable.” The call is more than a sentimental pick-me-up at the end of a devastating exposé. Given the enormity of the existential threat that is climate change, a fundamental shift in consciousness and the ability to imagine alternatives to our current model of development are essential to seeing past false solutions and militarized responses to climate change.

Miller calls for change from the grassroots, an economy “based on ecological function” instead of growth, a re-directing of border resources and labor to grassroots ecological restoration projects that would transform devastated areas. Above all, Miller argues that this must be combined with cross-border solidarity, in particular, cross-border mutual aid. Such work challenges the very paradigms of the nation-state and its borders that will, in coming years, uphold and enforce global climate apartheid, unless we do something about it.

The kind of borderless aid Miller is calling for is the kind we are currently seeing criminalized at the U.S. Mexico border and in the Mediterranean Sea. Lawyers, journalists, and NGO workers are being harassed and barred from international travel. The cases against Carola Rackete, Pia Klemp, Scott Warren, and other humanitarian aid workers with No More Deaths, further demonstrate Miller’s point that the border regime will use state violence to enforce its classification of which human lives deserve saving, and which do not.

In our present moment, Storming the Wall is nothing less than a gift. Miller’s poetic writing, unapologetically humane and injected with raw emotion, presents an antidote to the extreme dehumanization that is the topic of much of the book. Storming the Wall shares the first and last names of those profiting off of impending ecological collapse and the punishment of those most vulnerable to it. It is also arms us with a language of urgency against the humming-along of business-as-usual.

This review was originally published in Interface: a Journal for and about Social Movements.

Author Bio

Beth Geglia is a filmmaker and a PhD candidate in anthropology at American University, where she researches new corporate enclaves in Honduras. She is co-director of the film Revolutionary Medicine: A Story of the First Garifuna Hospital, and has produced short films with grassroots groups in the U.S. and Central America.