I’M a strong subscriber to the notion that the arts are an early warning system for troubles – and possibilities – ahead. That’s not just when they go science-fictional (thought the lazy default to dystopia is something I could fill another column with).

But it can also be a bold commitment to an aspect of the present, with the arts imagining how we’d feel and think, if this aspect became the centre of our concerns.

Give us flaky ones our due: we really commit to both skygazing and introspection. And when we issue forth, something new and important can be illuminated. This was my thought as I delightedly picked my way through this year’s Edinburgh International Festival programme, the swansong of Fergus Linehan’s term as its director. The overall theme is migration and refugees, the topic refracted through classical and up-to-the-minute lenses.

Highlights look like being Liz Lochhead's (below) Medea, where the child-murdering mother is daringly emphasised for her migrant status. There’s also Akram Khan’s dance recasting of Mowgli from the Jungle Book as a climate refugee in the jungle, relating to fellow creatures under crisis.

The National:

GridIron are taking over another Edinburgh site (Leith Academy), and immersing audiences in the “Muster Station”. This is a zone where those who usually only gaze upon the tribulations of migrancy, start to feel it themselves, as pandemics make us all more precarious on this planet. As the GridIron website headlines it: “Q: How are we to treat others? A: There are no others.”

Other quirkier items involve a performance around a ­23-mile walk from Dungavel Detention Centre to the Home Office in Glasgow. And The Zimbabwean writer, performer and curator mandla rae will explore “belonging, trauma and forgiveness” in “as British as a watermelon”.

The overall context, as artists and creators both take up arms and flee from Ukraine, couldn’t be more poignant. Seventy-five years ago, Rudolf Bing picked up his life again, in exile from a blasted Germany, and convened the first Edinburgh International Festival.

So this is what culture perennially does, at its best, when we face a pressing collective concern: make it subtle and amenable to invention, pulse with recognisable human dilemmas, allow fresh identities to forge themselves out of the encounter with tired ones.

An old term for this might be cosmopolitan – that is, a polity that enthusiastically contains many worlds, places and peoples within it. Is Scotland a cosmopolis like this? The question is less about aspiration, and more about adaptation. The forces of the age may simply command that we must be.

My old Sunday Herald colleague Neil Mackay (below) did one of his typically expansive interviews a few months ago, with the Indian-American policy analysis Parag Khanna, described as the world’s leading expert on the future of migration.

The National: Neil Mackay

“In this century in just 20 years, climate change already accounts for 30-40% of total displacement in the world”, says Khana. The causes are “one-third economic, one-third political [wars and persecution], and one-third climate change. And of course, they all tie together. Look at the Syrian drought which led to urbanisation, political unrest, civil war and an exodus of nearly one-quarter of the population as refugees.”

“We’re talking about billions of people moving”, concludes Khanna. “That’s what I’m trying to explain, literally billions”.

The author adopts an occasional (and ostentatious) hard-nose towards Western populist movements, based on calls to restrict immigration. How does the equation even work, says Khanna, when birthrates in Asia way outstrip Europe? The latter’s crisis of available workers will just compel recruitment of young, educable and trainable Asians – also keen to escape the unliveable climate zones in their own country. “Populism is bullshit,” Khanna states bluntly.

Towards the end, Neil asks him about Scotland’s prospects in this teeming world. With its sustainable riches, its soft power message of “Scotland is Open”, and the allure of already worldly cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow, Khanna believes the country is set to thrive in these conditions.

I’m particularly interested in Khanna’s Northern Lights scenario from his recent book Move. This implies a “large-scale re-sorting of the global population”, where billions of migrants will come to “vast tracts of transnationally financed and governed zones”.

“If the Nordic countries have a total population of less than 30 million people,” asked Khanna, “are they willing to triple it?” Well, cast an eye over the equally under-populated Scottish landmass. Are we? If we are, we’ll probably need a big narrative to bridge over our anxieties. For the sake of clarity, Khanna paints it big. “This is civilisation 3.0. Civilisation 1.0 was nomadic, agricultural and pastoral; Civilisation 2.0 was industrial and sedentary; Civilisation 3.0 needs to be governed by the principles of mobility and sustainability – moving people to resources with a minimal environmental footprint.”

A citizen of the world is to be “rootless by choice”, he says at the end of his book. “To move is to be free”. One might imagine much current pushback on this point, as wars and despots brutally throw settled populations out of their homes. But there is much support for Khanna’s position, in the researches of the most important book of the decade (one often quoted here), David Wengrow and David Graeber’s The Dawn of Everything.

Looking back over 20000 years of the human record, the Davids want us to celebrate just how inventive and surprising humans have been, in their forms of organising and self-government. Their intent was to get us “unstuck” from our current top-down model of capitalist managerialism – by showing how complexly we have flipped between hierarchy and egalitarianism in the past. From their studies, W&G establish three basic freedoms that have dominated most of human social existence: “the freedom to disobey, the freedom to create or transform social relationships” – and the “freedom to move”. The scholars chart gigantic networks of mobility, stretching across American and Asian landmasses. These rest on an ethos of welcome for the traveller and nomad, to the extent they were able to contribute to the welcoming community. Other kindred studies have also suggested that welcome for the other was particularly practised by women in Neolithic communities. This has been their contribution – generally unsung in the historical record – to replenishing and refreshing their settlements, both culturally and genetically.

Indeed, take all of these freedoms together (assuming they will be motivating for we sapient animals) and we may have a “theory of change” for this transition, as the activists put it. And one which could go with the deep grain of human nature. So instead of the prospect of billions on the move shutting us down and making us defensive, it could be a joyful and permanent challenge to invent new relationships and traditions of togetherness.

For the authors, the lead finding in Dawn of Everything is the centrality of “ritual play” in the ancient (but also recognisable) societies they map. Play is the machinery that makes complex social adaption possible. It’s games, pageants and wild debates that safely (and enjoyably) allow us to rehearse possible futures —whether 20,000 years ago or now.

Which bring us neatly back to the purpose and role of a festival, sitting in the heart of a cosmopolis. Putting a heart, face, body and voice on the challenges we face. Welcome back, Edinburgh International Festival (and your kindred initiatives). We missed you. Because we need you.