Question of the Month - August

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H-Nationalism’s Question of the Month series offers a forum for discussing the big questions surrounding research, pedagogy, and practice in the field of nationalism studies and the history of nationalism. Use the reply feature to join the conversation! Email Simon Purdue (purdue.s@husky.neu.edu) of Northeastern University if you’d like to propose a question of you own. If you need technical assistance with logging in and posting comments, please contact H-Net’s Help Desk (help@mail.h-net.org).

 

Dear H-Nationalism members,

In April, Dr. Daniele Conversi raised the question of whether nationalism scholars have sufficiently engaged with the topic of climate change. Here, we hope to follow-up on his points by asking: How are the histories of nationalism and climate change linked? How can we and should we connect them? Do the politics of nationalism have a net positive or negative effect on our environment? 

We look forward to hearing your insights on this important question!

Best wishes,

Simon

Daniele Conversi identifies an important lacuna, namely the relationship between nationalism and climate change. One suggestion would be to interrogate this relationship through the (settler) colonialism framework, particularly with respect to discourses and practices regarding the environment and the ways in which homogenisation practices are legitimated. Consider, for instance, Bolsonaro’s policies in the Amazon rainforest vis-à-vis the natives there and how they are rendered not really Brazilian or modern. Or, consider Israeli’s policies in the Negev desert vis-à-vis the native Bedouins (see The Conflict Shoreline). Or, indigenous resistance to colonisation practices (e.g. in the USA, the Arctic) which incorporates climate change and the environment, particularly in the era of national-populism, the Alt-right etc. (see, for instance, Julian Reid’s 2019).

Dear Daniele,

A stimulating place to investigate your topic could be the regions where the impact of climate change is or will be especially harsh, e.g. the so-called Least Developed Countries, mostly located in Sub-Saharan and Central Africa. Is the issue of climate change influencing the - quite under-researched - nationalist discourses in these countries (both at the state level, and at that of the many local ethnic groups)? If so, how? What are the differences between African and Western nationalisms in this regard?

Dear All,

This strikes me as a particularly interesting and urgent topic to tackle. In the news and academic blogosphere there have already been several warnings about how population growth and climate change are going to combine to produce crises in various parts of the globe, in part by exacerbating ethnic and national divisions. As I thought about it over the last few days, I found myself asking a few question. The first is what the classic theorists of nationalism—Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gellner, Anthony Smith, and others—would have had to say about it. I found the question perplexing, in a good way.  Since much of the canonical literature in the field concerns the Origins Debate and the transition to modernity, it may be that it makes for a poor foundation for addressing a problem of the present (but please prove me wrong on this). The second was whether the relationship between climate change and nationalism wouldn’t hinge heavily on struggles over resource allocation within and across individual nation-states. Over at H-Diplo, they have a recent review by Peter Rutland of Stefan Berger and Thomas Fetzer, eds., Nationalism and the Economy, that speaks to this topic by pointing to the lack of engagement between nationalism scholarship and economics. I also appreciated the previous two comments for prompting me to think about how expansive this topic is and how complicated it will likely prove to be to fully explore. Since climate change is a global process with varying local manifestations, it will likely intersect with national identities and conflicts in different ways. No doubt there are grounds here for a multitude of detailed case studies, as well as historical studies that offer comparative context by looking for analogous processes of environmental degradation that play out on more regional and local scales.

Best wishes,

David Prior
Board Member, H-Nationalism
Assistant Professor of History, UNM

All the comments so far are potential contributions to an emerging debate that is beginning to take shape. Before responding to these comments, I will attempt to define the problem as it affects our field of study.

The problem largely concerns method:  most work in nationalism, particularly case studies, is increasingly carried out within history and related disciplines, like historical sociology. Other work is influenced by cultural studies and concerns existing narratives and discourses. Both trends constrain nationalism to the study of the past or the perceived past.  This makes it impossible to make either a realistic assessment of current trends – let alone future ones – or a connection with other scientific fields, in particular, the hard sciences. 

This insistence on the past may be a combination of various factors, including a fascination with one's own field of studies, theoretical laziness, intellectual inertia, inability to reach across disciplinary boundaries and an unconscious incorporation of nationalist perspectives. (I exclude both ignorance and denial, as I prefer to think that most scholars in the field are sufficiently informed, honest and psychologically able to withstand the unpleasant reality of climate change)

Quantitatively-based studies in the field have also been immune to cross-fertilisation with other scientific disciplines that study various aspect of climate change. Sociological theory, social psychology, anthropology and ethnography are, among others, important disciplinary approaches that offer additional methodological tools.

In general, the social sciences are very slow in coming to terms with scientific discoveries, even if these concern society as a whole. Only recently has sociology shown a rapidly growing output on various aspects of climate change – particularly the notion of the Anthropocene. But none of these studies have, as yet, been incorporated by nationalism scholars.

Immigration studies, genocide studies, refugees studies, populism studies and related disciplines have addressed various dimensions of the consequences of climate change. That's why nationalism studies seems to be the Cinderella of human, social and exact sciences. This predicament may not be casual, because nationalism is an intrinsic part of the problem. Therefore, the question is being addressed from beyond our disciplinary lines within other disciplines – and even outside academia (see George Monbiot’s illuminating piece). This seems to indicate that scientists and opinion-makers are highly interested in the relationship between nationalism and climate change. 

So: How important is the relationship between climate change and nationalism? 

Let’s start with the USA. Millions of Americans are likely to prematurely die as a consequence of climate change unless drastic socioeconomic changes are introduced at a reasonable speed – although most of the American upper class seem to think they will be immune from this. This is not a fantasy, but derives from connecting the dots and combining the most recent data produced across all the hard sciences. For instance, an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) states: "If we don’t change the current GHG [greenhouse gases] emissions trajectory, Washington, DC, where I reside, will see 100-degree days jump from 5 to 37 by midcentury with 20 days over 105 degrees" . Only two years ago, estimates were rosier. That's death by political decree. On a massive scale and within a generation. 

Yet, interestingly, just when all the scientific evidence points in the same direction, American public opinion is being sucked into an unparalleled vortex of ignorance in the name of extreme nationalism. Nationalism has the capacity to deny evidence by finding solace in a fantasy-world fabricated around increasingly absurd territorial boundaries. 

According to the same UCS report, we are rapidly reaching "conditions so extreme that a heat index cannot be measured". It refers here only to one of the aspects of climate change, namely global warming.

All Americans will be affected by climate change both directly and indirectly. If there is one thing that objectively, rather than subjectively, unites all Americans it is climate change. Nevertheless, the objective aspects are removed from public consciousness in favour of easily manipulable subjectivity. Through hetero-directed short-sightedness, most Americans are distracted by problems created by their flag-rallying authoritarian nationalist leaders.   

Of course, the problem is not limited to the United States, although the American political landscape creates perturbations far greater than its global demographic share. India has been regarded as the most vulnerable country in the world with respect to climate change (India most vulnerable country to climate change - HSBC report). Yet, it is precisely in India where Trump-style nationalism has been mobilised while millions of people are already affected by climate change which is approaching “unsurvivable” levels (Climate change and the public health dilemma in India). Does this mean that extreme nationalism is one of the consequences of extreme climate change? Can any force stop the connection between warmongering nationalism and the continuing spiral of mass casualties as a consequence of climate change? 

The implications for nationalism scholars are staggering: if we are precipitously entering such a drastic transition to somewhere – or nowhere, as we certainly are – it is likely that what is being written today will retain NO meaning for the next generation. If the threat is so overbearing and the consequences of our delays in political and social action so drastic, it is perhaps unavoidable that whatever is written today without the scientific background firmly in mind may seem utterly senseless in a few year’s time, when all energies will be directed towards climate change adaptation, that is, mere survival. This will happen as soon as it becomes clear, once a threshold of no return is reached, that climate change mitigation is no longer possible. For many scientists this threshold is being reached right now. 

The ramifications of the notion of the Anthropocene are potentially infinite. Even if we restrict the new geological epoch to climate change, and even if we restrict the notion of climate change to global warming, the future is dire, probably hopeless, for entire nations:"Heat isn't just heat. It is also illness, power outages, extreme rain, tornadoes, flooding, wage loss, new disease vectors, other impacts..." 

Moran, Roberto and David - Thanks for your questions and fascinating observations. It is indeed an entirely new area, so with a potentially infinite range of possible expansion. In your questions, an underlying concern arises that the most vulnerable and immediate victims of climate change are poorer people. But even this would be an understatement – the consequences affect everybody and there is no evidence that the richest people or nations can survive much longer.  

Two main trends of research can be envisaged. 

One is obviously the link between extreme nationalism/oligarchic capitalism and the denial of science – the former two being the causes and the third one the effect. 

The other is the positive role nationalism, particularly stateless nationalism, may or may not play in the near future.

As I argued, whether one sees it as a discourse/narrative, an ideology, a psychological disposition, a political movement or anything else, nationalism entails a process of boundary construction. Now, in a situation in which boundaries are pretty useless and counter-productive to the survival of future generations, it is essential to study what prevents politicians and academics from starting the necessary steps that could avert the death of future generations and entire nations. 

 

Dear All,
To pick this thread back up, one thing that I’ve been pondering is which other academic keywords provide a good way into this topic. Daniele’s original queries pointed to the paucity of terms like “climate change” and “Anthropocene” in leading nationalism studies journals. I found myself wondering whether “desertification” wouldn’t lead to some more direct hits since it refers to a process, driven in part by climate change, that has direct and often dire local consequences. A google scholar search for “desertification and ethnic conflict” returns some helpful leads—although Daniele’s point about nationalism journals holds, with “desertification” returning one hit in N&N and two in Ethnopolitics. In the process I also came across this helpful, brief overview of desertification and climate change, with the maps being particularly suggestive.

It occurs to me as well that, in mentioning classic theorists of nationalism, I should have added John Breuilly and his Nationalism and the State, which is more directly relevant to the issue of climate change and struggles over resource allocations than the others.

To second the closing point in the previous comment, it may be that climate change will shape our studies of the future of nationalism. The recent resurgence of right-wing, populist forms of nationalism has perhaps dampened interest in the debate over whether nationalism will remain such a powerful force in the world moving forward. If a global-minded alternative to national identities is going to take root in popular politics, it might do so, or perhaps already has, through a sense of shared crisis due to environmental change. Then again, it may be that the attempt to contain global warming will tap into and harness national identities. It’s worth noting that there is a growing competition among nation states, as evinced by India and Ethiopia, to lay claim to the record for most trees planted in one day.  

Best wishes,

Dave Prior

As with most important structural changes, climate change will pan out in different and even contradictory ways in different social and political fields. States and societies will have a new ground for competing over shifting resources pressurized by climate change: water in the Middle East, rainforests in the tropics, geopolitical claims around the melting North Pole. Drought-driven mass migration will increase, placing increasing infrastructural and ideological pressure on host countries where xenophobia will rise further, be this the Mexican-US border or European illiberal states. On the whole, populist leaders, who thrive on a climate of perceived crisis and "states of exception", stand to gain from these disruptive effects of climate change. However, most of these are climate deniers dedicated to market/industry deregulation, and since the political divide between populism (i.e. the new presentation of xenophobic nationalism) and liberal internationalism correlates with education level, those most worried about climate change tend to be on the whole at the more internationalist end of the spectrum. They will perceive and present climate change as a transnational, global phenomenon requiring multiulateral, international action. Short-term, climate change is a wedge issue exacerbating the tensions between populist vs internationalist politics.

To follow on with a historical rearward look: the relationship between society and climate has been studied by French historians in the tradition of Le Roy Ladurie’s benchmark 1959 article “Histoire et climat”, but that approach traces mainly the economic impact of climate on the fabric of society as such. (Think of the role of bad harvests or famines in the run-up to revolutions like 1789 and 1848). More recently, the worldwide, diffuse impact of major disruptive volcano eruptions in Iceland and Indonesia on things like English Romanticism has been studied as well, as part of the "anthropocene" paradigm now popular among cultural and literary historians. All that, too, is fairly generic without really addressing something as specific as "nationalism".

An early harbinger was Fiona Stafford’s memorable book The Last of the Race, which looks at "extinction patterns" such as the Dodo, reflected in Romantic imagination (The last of the Mohicans, The Lay of the Last Minstrel). Social Darwinism thrived on the idea that some “backward” human societies were doomed to extinction if they could not keep up with the march of modernity as set to the tune of Western supremacy. Here, perhaps, lies a more suggestive message for nationalism scholars. But climate and the experience of climate are two differencent things.

Environments and landscapes are changing; but the iconic function of landscapes as constitutive of a national self-image still perpetuates the iconography of when they were canoinized, between 1850 and 1900: White Christmases and glaciered Alps, boreal forests, olive groves. That imagery is outlasting, at the symbolical level, the disappearance of the real thing. It may well inspire a very powerful form of national nostalgia

Hello all,

Thank you for your great contributions this month. As we see the powerful impact that populist nationalism is having on the environment in Brazil this conversation seems to be more relevant than ever.

Our contributors this month have highlighted the important differences in the intersection between nationalism and climate change in settler colonies and in less economically developed areas. It seems that in the context of former settler colonial areas, the environment and indigenous peoples are often sacrificed in the name of a new nationalism, based around industrial production, economic protectionism and a racialized identity politics. Meanwhile in the less economically developed world it seems that climate change may be actually influencing nationalist discourse, rather than vice-versa.

Dr. Conversi has also highlighted the climatic danger associated with nationalist discourse. The propagation of nostalgic and pseudo-historical narratives that is so often associated with populist nationalism often contributes to climate denial and backwards steps. By centring an imagined past greatness defined by Industrial production, it is an easy transition to a science-sceptic rhetoric which sees discourse around global warming as a concerted attempt to curtail or limit said nation’s economic or cultural dominance.

Finally it seems that climate change is already having a major impact on nationalist politics the world over, and will continue to do so. As desertification, deforestation and global temperature increase create an ever increasing population of climate refugees, fuel is added to the fire of xenophobic nationalism and ethnic conflict.

The environment must be a major consideration for scholars of nationalism as we move forward as a field. The intersection between nationalist rhetoric and global climate change is one of the most important areas of study across the social sciences, and has the potential to have very real social impacts in years to come.

For those of you who still wish to contribute we welcome your comments. Please join in the conversation! However we will be launching a new Question of the Month this weekend, so please do so before Friday!

Thanks again to our contributors and we look forward to your further insights as we continue our series over the coming months.

Best,

Simon Purdue
Editor, H-Nationalism Question of the Month

Dear All, 

And just a quick note that our system may be down for part of Wednesday, August 28 for a server upgrade. There is still plenty of time to comment, so don't panic if you compose a lengthy post but then can't immediately upload it... just hold onto it as a Word file or the like until our system is back up.  

Best wishes, 

Dave

Dear all,

Due to the server maintenance that caused some issues with the site earlier this week, we have decided to extend our conversation on nationalism and the environment for another week. We will be launching our next Question of the month next Friday, so if you have ideas or opinions on the intersection of nationalism and climate change, please do contribute!

Best wishes,

Simon Purdue
Editor, H-Nationalism’s Question of the Month

In his usual rich and evocative style, Joep Leerssen clearly describes some of the key issues derived by trying to link climate change with nationalism 

Here is my view (adapted from a recent publication): Nationalism  and  environmentalism  have tended  to  be  historically  at  odds  with each  other.  The  traditional  emphasis  on  territory,  land  and  soil,  the  rhetorical celebration  of  landscape  and natural  beauty  and,  at  least  in  some  countries, the  idealisation  of  peasants  as  prototypes  of  national  purity,  have  been  contrasted  and  contradicted  by  megaprojects  informed  by  patriotic  grandeur  and competitive  state-building.  The  latter  have  often  contributed  to  the  destruction  of  both  the  environment  and  the  rural  economy.  Characteristically,  the centralising  state  has  opened  up national  folklore  museums  while encouraging  urbanisation  and  accepting  rural  displacement,  thus  contributing  to  the destruction  of  traditional  lifestyles.  Concurrently,  modern  states  have  created national  parks  and  nature  reserves,  while  contemplating  the  consequences  of their  accelerated  development  plans  and  unrestrained  abuse  of  the  environment.  In  war  contexts,  nationalism  provides  additional  fuel  to  state builders  engaged  in  sweeping  infrastructure  building  and  war  machine  expansion to annihilate both the environment and human societies. 

As professor Leerssen rightly points out, most xenophobic populists are climate change deniers directly or indirectly linked to forms of deregulated capital accumulation  ('oligarchic nationalism' is the fitting definition given by George Monbiot) , but also dependent on media machines fully dedicated to censor scientific advancement .

Ultimately xenophobic populists have become so utterly dependent on "fake news" (as cultivated in the tabloid press and nearly all tycoons-controlled media ) and the silencing of science that the ultimately gain from keeping their potential voters (the 'people') asleep, unaware or 'skeptic' about climate change. They have denied the reality of climate change or claimed that climate change has 'always' existed. The industry and politics behind this has been famously explored by  historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway in their Merchants of Doubt (2010)  

However, there is a collateral trend which seems to contradict the classical nationalist-modernist ideology : some regional governments run by nationalist parties (as in Scotland or Catalonia) have been more  effective  in  tackling  the  environmental  crisis with  more  vigorous eco-friendly  legislation --at least in comparison to their  respective  central  governments. Scholarly research is still underway in this respect. 

Romanticism and 19th century nationalism have championed a certain vision of nature through national self-images grounded on landscapes associated with specific territories  --  as glaciers and the ice poles are melting, green pastures are turned into desert, forests are burnt to ashes, it is possible that a powerful nostalgia is emerging for the disappeared and disappearing world. But it is not certain that nationalists will be the sole carriers of this nostalgia.

The liberal internationalism associated with academia and science lacks the emotional power and symbolic value that can transcend various education levels.  At the same time, a new narrative and set of symbols is slowly emerging as well. But, unless scholars stop publishing exclusively in top ranking journals and begin disseminating their findings among the broader public, not much will change in this respect. 

I hope I can answer to the other posts as well.

I'm glad to see this issue raised, as I am working on it in my own research. Seeing this discussion is helpful to me as I work on the relationship between pastoralists and nationalism in Kenya. Many pastoralists are experiencing great cultural transformation while at the same time they have been having to adapt to climate change for much longer than people may realize. Research has shown that in southern Kenya, changes in the rains and cyclical weather patterns has been impacting livelihoods since the 1970s. Nationalism enters the picture here as the state struggled to find a place for the Maasai and other pastoralists in their vision for what a "modern" Kenya would look like. The government used wildlife and environmental issues to enforce changes in how pastoralists engaged with the market economy as well as changes in their land tenure. However, the Maasai have seen themselves as a nation within a nation (actually two nations if one includes Tanzanian Maasai). This streak of independence has frustrated the government's development agenda and attempts to engage with a global effort to mitigate wildlife concerns.

In response to Amanda Lewis-Nang'ea:

There is an interesting article comparing reactions to climate change among pastoralists in Kenya and Sudan. Although it doesn't mention the role of nationalism, it refers to the possible genocidal consequences of climate change:

"Acting as a ‘threat multiplier’, climate change could exceed adaptive capacities and undermine the livelihoods of communities. In the most affected regions, the erosion of social order and state failure as well as already ongoing violent conflicts could be aggravated, leading to a spiral of violence that further dissolves societal structures. "

This is, I think, very useful to our discussion. Obviously nationalism emerges here as an extreme attempt to artificially recreate a sense of social order out of the dislocation and chaos caused by climate change. Reverberations of Ernest Gellner's approach can be seen here. But in this way nationalism only perpetrates the problem, indeed it contributes substantially to worsening it. Moreover, the role of most nation-states seems to be the old developmental goal assigned to them by former colonial powers. 

I now respond to Simon and Dave as I didn't have time in the previous post. 

Simon Purdue begins his post with the dramatic example of the Brazilian ecocidal regime propped up by a combination of social media and private mass media monopoly (the Grupo Globo  TV and  media conglomerate is Brazil's largest media group). Here, like in Australia, former settler colonial (creole) societies are ready to sacrifice the environment and indigenous peoples in the name of nation-state sovereignty by promoting a white nationalism backed by industrial elites and other oligarchies. There is therefore a strong correlation between climate change, racially exclusive white nationalism and big business / corporate interests, mostly visible in the links between many governments and the automotive and fossil fuel industry.

David Prior suggests “desertification” as a search keyword along “ethnic conflict” (one hit in N&N and two in Ethnopolitics). Desertification may indeed be one of the results of the current man-made fires in the Amazon, as drought pervades North East Brazil.

I think environmental destruction, environmental conflict, and similar searches could yield even more results.  

I agree that John Breuilly 's work, particularly his Nationalism and the State, can be very useful to relate state-making by competitive nationalism with environmental destruction and unrestrained development. 

On the issue of multilateralism: Even while India and Ethiopia may plant more trees than other countries, such effort must be coordinated. Biodiversity cannot be created ex nihilo. It will not work if on the other side the largest forest on the planet is burned down by government-related forces, which are a combination of agrarian interests, US junk food industries and Brazilian ultranationalists (a set of linkages worth in themselves a hundred of investigations and entire books) https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/amazon-crisis-brazil-tribes-bolsonaro-ra...

One side-effect is that more people have become aware of the threat to all living beings by this minuscule elite of nationalist oligarchs. 

This sense of shared crisis may indeed unite individuals across national boundaries. It can be defined, I believe, as 'survival cosmopolitanism'.

Finally, one more thing: for those of you who want to continue the discussion, I have opened a question and answer session on ResearchGate at the following link:  https://www.researchgate.net/post/How_can_we_conceptualise_and_explore_the_relationship_between_nationalism_and_climate_change (How can we conceptualise and explore the relationship between nationalism and climate change?). 

This is may well be the beginning of a prolific field of crossdisciplinary research. 

Hello all,

I'm joining this conversation (late) as someone from human-environment geography with an interest in learning more about how nationalism shapes responses to environmental crises such as climate change. There was a recent news piece suggesting that multilateralism is the best bet for achieving an appropriate scale of climate action. However, the incomplete adoption of the Paris Agreement (not to mention the preceding decades of stagnation within international climate negotiations), coupled with the significant strides made at other levels of governance (e.g. C40 Cities), suggest that the multiscalar and decentralized approaches that define Elinor Ostrom's polycentric view will be both more likely and appropriate to the task. 

One of the most striking areas to examine the relationship between nationalism and climate change is national climate security. In this realm, my colleague, Ben Warner, and I have documented the ways that powerful actors such as members of the G7 and national agencies like the US Department of Homeland Security increasingly construe climate vulnerable groups as risks to national security. We describe this process as "weaponizing vulnerability" because such entities are bolstering the security of relatively well-insulated populations in the Global North against and at the expense of more vulnerable groups. So, we find that the most xenophobic nationalists that Daniele Conversi referred to earlier are actually very much accepting the fact of climate change, but are using it advance exceedingly narrow agendas.

Best,