Climate Change and Colonization

The logic of colonization is brutal, but at least it includes within its practice the redemptive forces of its own undoing. The colonizer oppresses and dispossesses the native, but the native can rise up in a sort of republican and emancipatory anti-colonial nationalism which resists by force his and her dispossession, oppression, subjugation. In other words: colonization is bad, but at least there is someone positioned to fight against it.

Climate change is much worse. Not only because it will cause dispossession and dislocation around the entire globe, disproportionately effecting the poor and the global south, but also because the position of victim and perpetrator is less clear. Climate change is not a form of colonization not because it is less violent or less exploitative of the third world, but because it is emissions rather than geographically based. So how can you establish an anti-climate change nationalism? You may laugh at the idea, but this is because you don’t understand the purpose of emancipatory nationalisms – their role is to allow many people to act together, with one hand, to stand with more force than the few and powerful than benefit from their oppression. For people to act together, they must both be in a situation where their objective needs coalesce towards a goal, and they must feel that their individual sacrifice for the cause is more valuable than the cost that it makes on them as a self interested individual. In other words, the people must be together, and they must not be selfish. This is exactly what is missing in climate change politics – stopping climate change is in everyone’s interest, but no one, at least no one yet, is immediately dispossessed by it in a way that their interests coalesce and the situation motivates selfless action in the face of it.

This may change as the weather effects get worse. Climate refugees may become climate revolutionaries, carrying out guerilla campaigns against the elites that benefit from the very pollution that caused their dispossession. This will play into the logic of the “global war on terror”, but it will be more difficult for the state to sell this war as “evil” because those fighting it will be “climate patriots”. The idea of the nobel lie may by used to justify massive disinformation on climate change to prevent the people from supporting climate guerillas – insisting their are alarmists and their dispossession was caused by the natural progress of nature, not a rich industrialist in the Western World.

In order to prepare for the conflicts of the future, we should begin to think seriously about what motivates conflict, what sustains conflict, and we should try hard to see the truth in the revolutionary so as not to miss something in our reactionary opposition to “terrorism”. Furthermore, we should re-examine the paradigm of republicanism and think about what it means to be a “sovereign people”, and what collective knowledge and/or collective projects this requires. We should not simply “imagine” a better future, we should think clearly about what forces are likely to emerge in the future, and stand with those forces on the side of freedom and emancipation for all peoples – including the people of the future.


9 thoughts on “Climate Change and Colonization

  1. Couldn’t nationalism itself be seen as an important part of why the climate change problem is so hard to solve? One reason why the general public cares little about the plight of those affected by climate change on the other side of the world is the assumption that people in other countries are quite different from us and responsible for their own affairs.

    Nationalism also reinforces the prisoner’s dilemma problem, because it makes the question “why should we take action when many others are not doing so?” more obvious and politically salient.

    1. You don’t distinguish between colonial nationalism and emancipatory nationalism. You see nationalism correctly from your perspective – as something blocking recognition of people you should stand in solidarity with (i.e. people on the other side of the world). But you fail to see what is revolutionary about nationalism in the republican sense – it is at the base the idea that the country could belong to the people living in it. The form of thinking we need to deal with climate change is nothing less than a global nationalism – the idea that the world belongs to the people living on it, and their children.

      Emancipatory nationalism doesn’t re-enforce the prisoners dilemma, because it calls on individuals to sacrifice themselves precisely when others aren’t doing so, and for a cause which is larger than themselves.

      We live under the dangerous presupposition that things are only as they seem to us. A major justification for travelling is the chance it offers to see things under different lights, so as to judge the continuity and disparity between ideas which fall under the same name.

  2. Perhaps all nationalism is a mistake we’re now stuck with – a further ideological reason to treat ‘outsiders’ as morally unimportant.

    1. Nationalisms are a mistake? I think that’s just way to simple an account. Also, to call nationalisms a historical mistake seems to me to affirm the historical alternative which existed prior to the rise of national identities. And that’s not exactly any nicer – it is, in Europe at least, is the pre-national imperial form of identity, where the common identity of people under a ruler is bound by a feeling of love for the emperor, even if he does not speak your language. Nationalism made possible again the thought of the citizen, the idea that the state belongs to its people rather than to the ruler. Nationalism has two tendencies – the tendency towards civic inclusion on the basis of the community that already exists, of which anyone can become a member (i.e. french republican nationalism), and I think that tendency has a lot of positivity to it. After all, that’s the tradition out of which the marxist idea of universal solidarity came from. The other tendency is the ethnic one, which flourished in Germany and flourishes perhaps most of all today in Israel – where the nation is thought of as something essential, something you are born into, something to do with blood and soil and ancient myths the historical truth of which is not relevant. To understand this kind of nationalism I suggest Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People”, he has several very interesting chapters on nationalism. To understand French nationalism, I suggest Rousseau’s “The Social Contract”.

      Of course, the story is more complex than this because the two senses get blurred. For instance, right now in France you will find the right embracing republicanism (they were anti-republican and in favour of a Catholic-based French nationalism for a long time). They have made this change because today you can use republican values to be anti-Muslim in France, which shows I think how any kind of nationalism can be perverted if you try hard enough.

      So it’s important to understand that what position you take with respect to nationalism is conservative or progressive depending on the context. In France or Britain, attacking religion because it threatens civic nationalism can be racist. But in Israel, advocating civic nationalism is progressive because the dominant group is a religious group, and the state is not a republic but a state “of the Jewish people”.

    2. Another distinction with which you may be more familiar is Micheal Ignatieff’s distinction between civic and ethnic nationalism.

  3. I don’t know if even civic nationalism is especially commendable, given that countries are arbitrary units that are now too small in scale (or poorly organized) to effectively tackle some of our more pressing problems.

    Also, I think the objection about nationalism providing an excuse to behave indifferently (or psychopathically) toward people in other jurisdictions is just as applicable to civic nationalism as to ethnic nationalism.

    1. Ok, so, when you explain and put into force the new shared emotion that will motivate people to think of people who do not live under the same political structure that they should feel an underlying sense of common destiny, I’m totally with you. Thing is, I never thought you were a communist?

      Honestly, I have all the same problems with nationalism as you do. The difference is, I don’t have a better idea. You can’t only see nationalism as a block to more universal forms of solidarity when, in practice, people rarely feel solidarity and a sense of shared destiny outside their small family and friends group.

    2. It’s like I say about the Khmer Rouge – sure, liquidating the entire middle class seems like a bad plan, but what’s your idea? Do you have a better suggestion?

    3. I think the mistake you are making here is to assume civic nationalism is a common phenomenon. If it were we would live in societies set up for the benefit of the general interest, rather than the interest of a small elite. The fact is most voters in most western countries do not act on civic nationalist motivations, but private selfish motivations.They are concerned for themselves, perhaps their families, but they do not care for the needs of strangers.

      Nationalism, if it is worth anything, is about overcoming the social-emotional block that lets us ignore the needs of strangers. You act as if it prevents us from recognizing the needs of people in other countries, but the fact is, we don’t even recognize the needs of the people in our own countries. We are much more selfish than republican nationalists, not less.

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