Of Walls and Drowning

Published February 28, 2019 in Warp & Woof


Of Walls and Drowning

Geopolitics of Climate Change in the 21st Century
William Sundwick
The term “geopolitics” was first used in the 19th century to refer to the influence of geography on political actions of nations. When U.S. Navy Captain Alfred T. Mahan published his seminal work, The Influence of Sea Power on History, 1660-1783, in 1890, imperialism was in full bloom. Great Power rivalry was centered around the part of the world we now know as the global South. It was competition among Britain, France, Germany, and the United States for resources needed by exploding industrial development – and growing populations in those “Northern” countries.
Early in the 20th century, Halford Mackinder introduced his “heartland theory” in The Geographical Pivot of History, published in 1904 in Great Britain. Mackinder emphasized the “world island” instead of Mahan’s “world ocean.” But both fathers of geopolitics had one thing in common: an underlying assumption that Malthusian population growth would outrun resources needed to sustain it, unless countries experiencing that growth could acquire more resources from places that weren’t experiencing such growth. That was the definition of imperialism: organized theft, via military power, from the poor to the rich. Not much changed until late in the century, when the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War, ushering in a “uni-polar” world where one country, the U.S., dominated the new imperial order.
Now, in the 21st century, we are confronted anew by a demographic challenge threatening stability and peace in the world. It is the looming specter of climate change. Just as it’s clear that world power relationships divide those with resources from those without, so is it clear that climate change will affect some countries more than others. Island states expect to be hardest hit, next are nations where the bulk of their population and resources are in low-lying coastal areas, such as India and Bangladesh. Rising sea levels threaten to wipe them out over the next several decades. Drought is also a climate change issue – affecting food supplies for many populations. These factors, along with the consequent disease, potentially will create huge waves of migration away from places most affected, and toward “safer” locations.
Even internal migration can threaten regional stability. Civil wars, like Syria’s, destabilize neighboring countries with secondary migrations of refugees. Weak governments, lacking access to resources, exacerbate the situation. And corruption is always a destabilizing influence.
When the United Nations was formed in the wake of World War II, its founders understood many of these factors. An organization built to promote world peace would need to address all of them to be successful. IPCC(Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is pursuing worldwide commitments from all governments regarding the impending threats of climate change, under the UN charter.
Unfortunately, many governments are still locked into the legacy of 19th– 20th century imperialism. The United Nations and IPCCaren’t imbued with the kind of authority needed to force progress from national, or tribal, loyalties to something approaching the “human family.” Once they acquire resources, nations tend to hoard them, stockpiling and guarding them against potential thieves.
When we hear expressions like “no borders, no country” we are hearing the selfishness of wealthy countries. Poor countries, those most at risk from climate change, don’t need borders. All borders are essentially intended to be fences. And, representative governments are chosen to represent the feelings of those who elect them, including irrational anxieties about “identity” loss. Wealthy countries tend to have more representative governments than poor countries, where corruption and strongmen often hold sway.
A world of “us vs. them” might work if resources were distributed equitably among all players. Cultural identity would then be quaint but wouldn’t carry life-or-death consequences. In the world of climate change and capitalism in the 21st century, that is not the case. Saying “you have your own place, stay there” literally is consigning large numbers of human beings to death.

Aren’t people a resource? Why should migration be a threat? In a full employment economy, especially, additional labor can be a very real growth opportunity. Yet, the hoarding instinct and tribal preservation seem to be too easily ginned up in many Western nations’ political environments.
We’ve been through two or three decades where the promise of globalization seemed to offer a way out of the limitations of nationalism. It looked, for a while, like the world was “flat,” as Thomas Friedman wrote. Perhaps borders could someday be erased.
However, we came to realize, after the worldwide financial crisis of a decade ago, that capital flowed only in one direction — toward the top. It didn’t flow outward or down. The world wasn’t flat, but a suction cup. Hence, issues of tribal identity and scarcity rose once again to prominence. Nations with a great deal of capital at their disposal could maintain powerful military establishments to enforce nationalism (if not expand it beyond their borders), and political expediency allowed capital to maintain its power. The multinational side of globalization began to lose its clout.
What is the meaning of “security” for any nation? If it means keeping its people safe, then meeting their needs should be equally important to countering any threats, real or imagined, from outside. Wars are seldom caused by efforts to meet a population’s economic needs, and there is even a body of opinion (socialist) that says wars originate from capitalism’s need to burn through excess capacity.
If we “follow the money” in international relations, we may be able to identify the real threats to national security and devise strategies to counter them. It’s important to understand boundaries between class, between haves and have-nots, not merely between nation-states. Power elites compete with one another – sometimes within a country, sometimes across borders – but, they compete as businesses do, not as national or cultural entities. Workers, their labor supply, are the pawns in this game. If elites need to import labor, they will – and as cheaply as possible. If they need to keep labor competition low, due to expansion, they will do that.
In order to move beyond the perverse cycle of hoarding and war, cooperation, at some high level, must replace competition. The human family must be exploited but not pitted against itself. Borders should be de-emphasized, not fortified. The United Nations has an admirable 75-year history of promoting world peace. It should be encouraged, not fought.
What has always been desirable, but never achievable, may be due to intrinsic evil in human nature. However, Darwin’s theory of natural selection does note that the most successful species are those that optimize  cooperation, not competition.
Our species deserves to die if it can’t overcome that evil side of competition. But even a dire apocalyptic vision allows for “some” to be saved!

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