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