Climate change, citizenship, and the global caste system

Also published on Resilience.org

Suppose humanity survives through the 21st century. Our descendants may shudder to realize their own grandparents blithely accepted, perhaps even praised, a rigid caste system that offered rich opportunities to a minority while consigning the vast majority to a brutal struggle for mere existence.

This week hundreds of millions of people in North America will celebrate their citizenships as both Canada and the United States mark national holidays. But citizenship has always been primarily about who is excluded from the vaunted rights and privileges, writes Dimitry Kochenov.

In his superb and sobering essay Citizenship: The Great Extinguisher of Hope, Kochenov argues that 

“Citizenship’s connection to ‘freedom’ and ‘self-determination’ usually stops making any sense at the boundaries of the most affluent Western states. Citizenship, for most of the world’s population, is thus an empty rhetorical shell deployed to perpetuate abuse, dispossession, and exclusion. … Citizenship, as one of the key tools for locking the poorest populations within the confines of their dysfunctional states, thus perpetuates and reinforces global inequality ….”

His 2019 book Citizenship (MIT Press) allows Kochenov to explore the character of citizenship at greater length. He traces the concept back to Aristotle’s Athens, where inequality and the erasure of individuality were at the very core of citizenship. He explores the changing rationale for citizenship in settler colonialism, and points out the explicit sexism in most countries’ citizenship rules right into the second half of the 20th century. He argues that the concept of universal human rights, increasingly influential in the post World War II era, conflicts squarely with the exclusionary privileges of citizenship.

Other than noting that the citizenship system will face continued challenges in the future, however, Kochenov’s book and essay stick with what has been true in the past and what is true today. Nevertheless in reading his work it’s hard not to think about an increasingly urgent issue for our global future.

The effects of climate change, caused overwhelmingly by the cumulative carbon emissions in wealthy and privileged countries, are threatening the homelands of hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people. Already the number of persons displaced by war, famine and climate change – tangled phenomena whose roots can’t always be separated – is at a 75-year high of about 65 million people (Vox, Jan 30, 2017). Yet just another 20 or 30 years of an unchecked fossil-fuel economy is expected to boost the numbers of climate refugees into the hundreds of millions, as low-lying coastal areas flood, and vast areas close to the equator become too hot for the survival of food crops or indeed for the humans that depend on those crops.

Can there be any ethical justification for an international legal edifice that awards millions nothing better than the “right” to be a citizen of a land that increasingly cannot support human life? The ethical crisis in our global caste system, described so bitingly and in such detail by Kochenov, will become even less conscionable as the climate crisis worsens.

‘Super-citizenships’ and the long reach of colonialism

Kochenov writes that “The status of citizenship traditionally has been absolute and irrevocable” (Citizenship, p. 81), but there are cracks in the legal framework today. Changes have happened partly to satisfy the wishes of settler colonial societies who wanted immigrants from certain countries (and just as strongly, did not want immigrants from other countries). In recent decades other changes have come about through decisions by the European Court of Human Rights.

It is possible and indeed attractive to imagine (if you hold a favored and desired citizenship) that this status is freely chosen. Yet Kochenov writes that “all the cases of naturalization [acquiring a citizenship other than the one originally assigned] in the world combined would still amount to less than 2 percent of the world’s population” (Citizenship, p. 2).

Compounding the injustice of assigning drastically varying life opportunities at birth through citizenship, the process of naturalization also tends to be difficult or impossible for those with the least desirable citizenships, and easiest for those who are already privileged.

Citizens of impoverished countries typically wait for months or years simply to acquire travel visas, wait even longer for the uncertain decisions on foreign work permits, and even after that may or may not be given a chance at citizenship in a country that offers a minimally acceptable standard of living. For those who won the birth lottery and thus were granted citizenship in a wealthy country, it tends to be far easier to gain a second or third citizenship in an equally or even more prosperous nation.

Full disclosure: I hold two of what Kochenov terms “super-citizenships” – which come with the right to travel in dozens of other wealthy countries without pre-clearance – and I haven’t always been aware of this wholly unearned degree of privilege. In the first instance, I was lifted up by my still wet heels, spanked on my ass, and from my very first cry I was a citizen of the United States. In another solemn ceremony many years later, I became a citizen of the sovereign nation of Canada by affirming true allegiance to the Queen of England.

But while the rules governing the assignment of both original citizenships and naturalizations are diverse and sometimes absurd, the effects of the granting and especially of the denial of citizenship are deadly serious.

Kochenov details the racist provisions in both Canadian and US law for much of their histories – but perhaps more significantly he describes the systemic racism of citizenship law and practice throughout the contemporary world:

“Decolonization and its aftermath have in fact upgraded the racial divide in the area of citizenship by confining the majority of the former colonial inferiors to ‘their own states,’ which are behind impenetrable visa walls ….” (Citizenship, p. 97)

Refugees aside – and refugees must risk their very lives simply to ask to be considered for a new citizenship – the relative few who dramatically upgrade their citizenship status tend to have some other advantage, such as exceptional talent, a rare and sought-after skill, or enough money to buy property or start a business.

There is a great deal more of value in Kochenov’s Citizenship: for example, the way the concept of citizenship is used to urge, persuade, or compel acceptance of the political status quo. I heartily recommend the book to anyone interested in human rights, the law, the history and future of inequality – or essential issues of global justice in a world ravaged by climate change.

And this week, as Canadian and American citizens take time off for national holidays, we will do well to keep Kochenov’s summation in mind:

“Distributed like prizes in a lottery where four-fifths of the world’s population loses, citizenship is clothed in the language of self-determination and freedom, elevating hypocrisy as one of the status’s core features. … Citizenship’s connection to ‘freedom’ and ‘self-determination’ usually stops making any sense at the boundaries of the most affluent Western states. Citizenship, for most of the world’s population, is thus an empty rhetorical shell deployed to perpetuate abuse, dispossession, and exclusion.” (Citizenship, p. 240)


Photo at top of page: Layers of Concertina are added to existing barrier infrastructure along the U.S. – Mexico border near Nogales, AZ, February 4, 2019. Photo: Robert Bushell. Photo taken for United States Department of Homeland Security. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

pairings

PHOTO POST

If you want to see some scary exotic creatures on the hunt, you could buy yourself a camera with a lens as long as its price tag, then book an even more expensive safari to the far side of the world.

Or, you could pick up a half-decent magnifying glass, lie down in your backyard or in a weedy vacant lot, and take a close look at the passing pageant of insects.

For this post I ventured no further than my yard, at most about 30 meters from the house.

The great thing about looking closely for small insects is that you will also see more of the beautiful detail in leaves, grasses and flowers.

Red and Green (click images for larger views)

Above, the tiny leaves of a new shrub willow catch the morning sun. Below, one of many varieties of grass now going to seed.

Seeds of Grass

While I studied grass seed a bright beetle came in for a landing.

Pinnacle

The same creature landed on an Alfalfa plant a few minutes later.

Eye Spy

Since I’m not sure what kind of beetle this is (perhaps a Longhorn Beetle?), I can’t be sure if it was chewing the holes in the leaves, or waiting to chew on the bug who was chewing on the leaves.

There was no such ambiguity in another scene of combat.

Candy Stripe Cobweb Weaver

Some wasps eat spiders and some spiders eat wasps, but in this case a Candy Stripe Cobweb Weaver was methodically wrapping up what appeared to be a Blackjacket Wasp, who soon gave up struggling.

The wild Yellow Salsify flowers attract early-rising pollinators – but they gradually close up when the sun gets hot in mid-morning.

Salsification

Daisy Fleabane, on the other hand, takes a few hours to unfurl in the morning and its purple-pink petals gradually take on a bleached appearance by mid-afternoon. Like the Salsify it makes a great photo backdrop for many insects, in this case the beautiful Musca Domestica.

Wings of Pink

The Calligrapha beetle is named for the distinctive patterns on its shiny shell. The Calligrapha Amator, below, is popularly known as the Ontario Calligrapha though it is also reported in Quebec.

Calligrapha Amator

Perhaps the flashiest bug in our yard is the Green Metallic Sweat Bee, here photographed on a chive bloom.

All That Glitters Is Green

But this unidentified spider, spotted on the same alium, is awfully photogenic too.

Pink and Gold

keeping watch

PHOTO POST

From the least of the sandpipers to the greatest of the owls, today’s post is all birds.

Even while they’re out looking for food – whether seeds, bugs or fish – the birds around the marshes also need to look out for other birds who are looking for food. There’s always a chance that a bigger bird might swoop down and make a meal of a smaller bird.

Goslings are now roaming the marshes, shorelines and meadows in great numbers.

Soft Focus (click photos for larger views)

The Eastern Kingbird waits on high perches where it can spot its primary prey – flying insects.

Flycatcher

On the mudflats in Westside Marsh or on the rocky lakeshore, Least Sandpipers and Spotted Sandpipers can often be spotted probing for insects.

Least Sandpipers

The Least Sandpiper (above) has the distinction of being the world’s smallest shorebird, with an adult weighing in at about one ounce (28 grams). The Spotted Sandpiper (below) is the most widespread sandpiper in North America.

Spotted Sandpiper, Early Summer Evening

The Green Heron is much harder to find as it tends to hide in the shadows along wooded creeks.

Green Heron in the Shadows

You can’t help but wonder how this bird got its name. I imagine it went like this:

After the Great Blue Heron began to attract so much attention, their smaller cousins decided it was time to hire their own branding consultant. They advised this professional, “You’ve got to know we’re secretive birds, not at all flashy. We like to keep a low profile, so we need a modest, low-key name.”

After a thorough round of focus groups the naming consultant unveiled the new brand: “I propose you are henceforth known as the Green Herons!” And when the grateful clients had stopped laughing, they responded, “Brilliant! If people are out looking for a Green Heron, they are very unlikely to spot us.”

“And yet there’s a smidgen of truth to the name – if you see one of us in the bright sunlight and you squint just right, there is a green-ish tinge on a few feathers.”

Green Heron by Morning Sun

Branding trivia aside, however, the Green Heron along with all the smaller marsh birds have good reasons to keep under cover and keep watching the skies. Only seconds after I photographed the Green Heron, I caught a glimpse of huge wings gliding through the canopy above. Moments later I spotted a large predator gazing down through the branches: the Great Horned Owl.

Great Horned Owl

The Great Horned Owl is the largest owl that resides in this area. The Great Horned Owl also has the most varied diet of all the raptors – from mice to rabbits to waterfowl to other raptors.

Whoever you may be in the marsh, you’d best look out for those who are looking for you.


Photo at top of page: Young Green Heron Takes the Sun (click here for larger image)

bloomin’ weeds

PHOTO POST

Full disclosure: not all the plants pictured here are wildflowers strictly speaking. Some have been introduced to the area, have escaped from gardens, and now roam the countryside, feral.

The Wood Anemone at the top of the post grows across North America, including local meadows and at the edges of some marshes.

A beautiful Flowering Cherry, on the other hand, may well have been brought in by a long-gone nearby nursery.

Flowering Cherry

Another flowering shrub, which I believe is a Nannyberry (a type of viburnum), also grows near the former nursery.

Nannyberry

The Barberry is much closer to home, having taken a post in our yard. Though most people grow it for its foliage its flowers are spectacular too – though at just a few millimeters in diameter you need to get really close to appreciate them.

Barberry in Flower

The beautiful Speedwell is just a wee bit bigger. If you google it you may learn as I did that this flower thrives in some lawns, giving fits to those determined to eliminate botanical diversity from their expanses of grass.

Speed Thee Well

And let us not forget the noble Dandelion, here looking resplendent after a morning dew.

Tall Dandelion Syndrome

On our marshes, a very different bloom often happens – an algal bloom. According to NOAA, the vast majority of algal blooms do not produce toxins. This patch of vivid green appeared at one end of Bowmanville Marsh and disappeared just as quickly a few days later. It may or may not be a reflection of ecosystem health, but it did not appear to concern the muskrats.

Muskrat Quest

Very few other aquatic blooms have appeared so far this summer, but these grasses and water catch the evening light as beautifully as any flower.

Spectrum

In wet woodlands beside the marsh, the Starry False Solomon’s Seal is widespread. (It should hire a spin doctor – surely it deserves a name of its own rather than being named by what it is not.)

What’s Solomon Got To Do With It?

At sunset in a meadow, you can savour the delicate colours of the Wood Anemone, which will soon be submerged in waist-high vegetation.

Wood Anemone Two


Photo at top of page: Wood Anemone One (click here for larger image)