Whilst the devastation wrecked by cyclone Idai barely registers in British news cycles, we should remember that climate change was responsible for around 5000 deaths and millions displaced in 2018. It exacerbated food crises in Ethiopia, Haiti, and Madagascar; civil disaster in Sudan, Chad, and the Philippines, and flash floods in eastern Indonesia.
The destruction caused by climate change is inseparable from the plundering of resources by the global north that makes life in the global south unsustainable. Apart from China, countries whose wealth and power was established by Empire continue to fund fossil-fuel extraction and contribute to carbon emissions the most. But their effects are most felt by countries with the lowest emissions rates.
Wealthy countries like Britain are built on, and sustained by, impoverishing the global south. This means they have the resources to weather the storm whilst others are consigned to fate. With adaptation resources, a significant number of lives taken by Idai could have been saved.
We deal with this divided world by making death for some people seem unavoidable. The economic and technological safety nets for the wealthy are thought to result from a more enlightened approach to development. According to logics justifying colonialism, non-Europeans are subject to natural forces and corruption, whilst Europe is the source of civilisation. These frameworks continue to naturalise the position of racialized people at the frontline of climate-based extinction. Their deaths appear a matter of fate.
These disasters are not “natural”.
In this context, and amidst a sea of inaction, at first, the urgency of Extinction Rebellion (XR) was refreshing. It mobilised mass civil disobedience and drew attention to impending climate collapse: “The science is clear: we are in the sixth mass extinction event and we will face catastrophe if we do not act swiftly and robustly”.
The problem with framing “Extinction” as a moral problem that affects us all equally
But XR doesn’t emphasise crises like Idai or Haiti, and it doesn’t talk about how vulnerabilities to climate change are manufactured by race and Empire. Extinction is framed as a moral problem that affects us all equally. Even the use of the term extinction calls to mind survival-of-the-fittest narratives. And, whilst its activism is spectacular, ultimately it is grand martyrdom and attention-grabbing embarrassment for the respectable middle-classes. XR’s non-political ecology is more fear-mongering than justice-seeking political programme.
However, what primarily concerns me is XR’s tendency towards a kind of “green nationalism”. For example, its “declaration of rebellion” focuses on protecting and reproducing the “nation” against the “destruction of all we hold dear: this nation, its peoples, our ecosystems and the future of generations to come”. XR’s use of apocalyptic imagery leads us to focus upon possible dystopia caused by climate collapse for the global north, rather than the very real apocalyptic present for many in the global south. And, like other populist movements, their pronouncement of a state of emergency mandates the need to tackle climate change outside of the realm of politics. Together, perhaps unwittingly, these leave the movement open to co-option, especially in a context where politics is increasingly centred on the interests of the nation.
The nation as “Fortress Britain”
XRs concept of the nation seems to coincide with the British state. So we need to think about the other narratives that have been used in mainstream politics to think about “Britishness”. Particularly prevalent since the mid-20th Century, and ratcheted-up under the domestic War on Terror, are protectionist narratives that frame migration as an existential threat to the UK.
Even naturalised Britons are never really British enough, inseparable from the “swarm” of migrants outside. Migrants are seen either as passive subjects of British hospitality and toleration who should be forever grateful, or criminals who are deficient according to British values: “belonging is precarious for people of colour in Britain”.
We have become familiar with references to an “aboriginal Britain”, to the stoking of fears about “hyper-ethnic change”, and to obscene stereotyping of Muslims as misogynist, anti-Semitic, and terroristic. These don’t mark out a mythic natural indigeneity, so much as a complicity with the racist British state that frames migration as an existential threat. A unified “Anglo-Britishness” has become the focus of Imperial Britain again – produced through the assertion of its collective identity against fears of racialized populations as both threat and justification for state violence.
Since 2014, the UK has witnessed a Brexit campaign fueled by anti-immigrant rhetoric. Not only symbolic, this led to a surge in hate-crimes – a hostility underpinned by anti-migrant reforms and strategies operating under a “state of exception” as modus operandi. In response, our liberal media complain about the rise of racism and nationalism previously kept at bay by neoliberal globalism. In fact, the UK has long operated a regime of racialized state terrorism, with interior border enforcement changing all society into a checkpoint. We prevent access to health and education for refugees, deport 40,000 people a year, indefinitely incarcerate 25,000 people in removal centres, deprive citizenship for aid workers, and mass surveil and stigmatise communities of colour.
So, whilst climate crises caused by former colonial powers lead to increasing numbers of people needing to migrate for survival, our borders are increasingly securitized. The hostile welcome that migrants receive after risking their lives to enter “Fortress Europe” is coupled with hotspot programmes that stem migrant movements in return for aid and setting up refugee camps, and push migrants towards more deadly routes. Our inaction in stemming emissions is coupled with anti-migrant action that entrenches hierarchies of citizenship, and leads to migrants drowning in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.
Climate crisis and green nationalism
It is in this context that we have witnessed the rise of “green nationalism”. This may be familiar from Paul Kingsnorth and the Dark Mountain project, whose romanticism sees Brexit and Trump as victories against the ills of neoliberal globalization; Marine Le Pen’s emphasis on environmental issues in her presidential campaign; the Gilet Jaunes’ adoption of ecological discourse; or the manifesto justifying the Christchurch massacre stating “green nationalism is the only true nationalism”.
Quite clearly, XRs tendency toward green nationalism does not coincide with these stronger versions. There are also obvious distinctions between public rhetoric and mass movements. And there will be differences in positions held by those involved in the leadership of XR itself. But, the call to explicit nationalism within a mass environmentalist movement is striking. Also, whilst the thousands of us blockading London bridges last November may attract more attention than aspects of its stated declaration, it is undeniable that XR tapped into supposedly “commonsense” views about what protecting the nation might mean in practice.
Quite possibly unintentionally, XR echo protectionist discourse. For example, not only asking us to focus on ecological crises impacting this nation, they also “declare it our duty to act on behalf of the security and well-being of our children”. This is compatible with protectionist narratives that connect together migration, population growth, and sustainability for the nation. We also need to be aware that “Fortress Britain” is the context in which such calls are made. As such, XRs demands can easily look to be based on the bounded nation and its hereditary future, their apocalyptic tone reinforcing a logic of progressive politics for “us”.
Friendly police, ‘left’ nationalism
The complicity between environmental protectionism and securitisation is visible in the collusion between XR and policing. Roger Hallam, co-founder of XR, paints a picture of conviviality with the police – “they’re not going to get pissed off at us”, whilst an arrestee regales how pleasant the transport journey was – their only lesson, “if you plan to get arrested take a book with you, for god’s sake”. Let’s also not forget Hallam’s crude dismissal of activist movements in the global south as simply misdirected violence. Furthermore, that crowding police stations for media spectacle gives primacy to the white-middle classes might be put down to being just be tactically misguided. But, defending the metropolitan police as “one of the most civilized police forces in the world” as Hallam put it, not only erases historical and ongoing racial police discrimination and murder, but also excludes from demonstration anybody more vulnerable to contact with the police.
Similar issues have long-plagued left nationalism. For example, Len McCluskey of Unite argues that the needs of “working people” require the control of labour and stability of communities. Paul Mason has called for a socialist economy that would “save democracy, democratic institutions and values in the developed world” at the “cost of China, India and Brazil”. Wolfgang Streeck argued that open borders would undermine “collective property belonging”, simultaneously fixing race to labour hierarchies and nation-state: “Would you want Nelson Mandela to be a refugee in Germany? No! He’d be a mail carrier bringing Amazon parcels to your house… he was needed somewhere else”.
The ecological sustainability of wealthy nations provides another justification for fixing certain people in place. For example, in 2013, Green Party members called for the expansion of immigration controls because net population growth is antagonistic to economic and ecological sustainability. Similarly, ex-George Bush scriptwriter David Frum has argued that immigration flows into the global north should be stopped since emissions caused by the average American are 4 times that of the average Mexican and 45 times the emissions of the average Bangladeshi.
Put bluntly, the problem is this. If we fail to meet demands from the Global South to limit temperature change to 1.5 degrees, if we continue to pursue technological or degrowth responses that privilege those inside the nation-state, and if we continue the securitisation of our borders, then ultimately we end up with what Garret Hardin called “lifeboat ethics” – the kind of sustainability that saves rich nations at the cost of the poor. As Kingsnorth puts it, “This is a magic island. It knows how to defend itself”.
In fact, the underlying logic of green nationalism is not just that it is inevitable that some people will die. Rather, it is also that only through their extinction that some of us are to survive. For example, as Lumumba Di-Aping (representative for the G77 countries) stated, the much-touted Copenhagen Accord was “asking Africa to sign a suicide pact, an incineration pact in order to maintain the economic dependence of a few countries”. In effect, environmentalism without ending border imperialism and the differential vulnerabilities of the global south, becomes a kind of securitized eugenicism.
This poses a significant challenge to environmental movements. As Labour members launch a green new deal, we should laud plans to decarbonize the economy. But focusing on national changes may just leave intact global vulnerabilities and anti-migrant securitization. We also need to resist the temptation to deploy green nationalism to garner support for change – something commentators are arguing for in the context of U.S. proposals. Otherwise, this is liable to collapse into a kind of progressive imperialism, seen as an acceptable cost for domestic security and social welfare.
Instead, climate politics should begin from the fact that “climate change is a racist crisis”. Rather than evading our colonial histories, securitization, and inequalities, we should start from the demand to the universal right to life. Not an abstract right that is indifferent to circumstance and context, but an insurgent universality, to borrow Massimiliano Tomba’s phrase. Necessarily, this begins with those whose lives are most vulnerable, and our responsibility in making them so.
Since disparities of wealth and power continue to wield control over life and death, foregrounding the universal right to life requires us to reverse practices of authoritarian expulsion and extinction. But it also grounds climate politics in struggles for redistribution and reparation – economically and by opening borders. In this way, lives across the global south will immediately be saved. Only in taking responsibility for how our actions leave certain people more vulnerable to premature death than others can we forge climate justice against green nationalism.