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)

hiding in plain sight

PHOTO POST

Depending on your life style, there are times you might stand out a little more than is good for you. But the creatures of our marshes and woodlands generally know how to stay out of sight when that’s important.

The Osprey may seem to have nothing to worry about – beyond the challenge of bringing home enough fish to feed rapidly growing chicks. Yet Osprey eggs and chicks would be welcome meals for foxes, skunks and raccoons. Building their nests at the top of dead trees or on human-constructed platforms helps protect Ospreys, especially when the trees or poles are surrounded by water.

X Marks the Osprey (click images for larger views)

Mute swans, too, are big enough to take on most potential enemies other than malicious or stupid humans. Newly hatched cygnets quickly begin to roam the open waters of the marsh – with the advantage that when they get tired, they can climb aboard and rest.

Cygnet Trio

Cygnet Rides

Things are a little trickier for ducks. Adult Mallards can escape predators with their explosive speed – they go from watery hideaways to full flight in a split second. The young ones don’t have this skill. But they do have both the colouring and the instinct to hide. As they feed near marsh edge or creek bank, they can disappear into the reeds or the shadows from overhanging trees within a few seconds.

Make For The Shadows

Another recent sighting comes from away – and they won’t have their young until they reach the coastlines of the central arctic. Kayaking on the lake one morning, I spotted a clump of geese that were acting strangely – Canada Geese don’t usually hang out in groups like this at this time of year. Approaching slowly for a closer look, I could see they were Brants, a smaller (and to my eye more elegant) cousin of the Canada Goose.

Brants On a Stopover

Going down the size scale a step farther, the Sora does nest in this marsh. Its flexible wide feet enable it to walk on floating reeds where it feeds on insects, snails, and aquatic seeds. Sora usual stay out of sight but the low rays of the setting sun sometimes cast a spotlight.

Feat of Flotation

One of the brightest birds in local woods and at marsh edge is the Yellow Warbler. Though it typically darts from branch to branch in dense thickets, on this evening it was singing from the top of a tall wild apple tree.

Yellow Warbler, Warbling

Slightly smaller still – but with a large voice – is the Marsh Wren. The songs of dozens of Marsh Wrens echo through each reedy section of our marshes. But they are much harder to see than to hear, and getting a clear and unobstructed view takes patience and/or luck. (In my case, many attempts over several years.)

Marsh Wren

On a quiet note, we’ll soon be blessed with multitudes of wild flowers. One of the earliest and most splendid is the Red Trillium, scattered among the far more numerous White Trilliums and Mayapples.

Red Trillium

Along the Waterfront Trail in early summer, one is treated to a feast of perfumes as whole thickets burst into blossom. The earliest of these flowers have arrived.

Sunset in the Thicket

The Mossy Stonecrop Sedum has yet to flower but it is fantastically colourful nonetheless. Yet it is seldom noticed, growing as it does in scrubby patches of grass. To really appreciate its forms and colours, you need to get right down on the ground and gaze nose-to-nose at this sedum, which at full growth is only a few centimeters high.

Stonecrop Sparkles


Photo at top of page: Party of Seven (click here for larger view) 

the right beak for the job

PHOTO POST

The birds now nesting, hanging out, or just passing through the marsh carry beaks ideally suited to their ways of life.

Many have a sort of “Goldilocks” facial protuberance – not too long, not too short, strong enough, but not so big as to be unwieldy.

Nestbuilder (click images for larger view)

The Red-Wing Blackbirds (female above, male below) eat a varied diet – small insects pried from the fleshy stalks of aquatic plants, small seeds, even larger grains from farm fields or bird-feeders – and their strong but slender beaks are great for this range of foraging.

Redwing Symmetry

The Grackle also grabs many meals in the marsh, and as many as possible from bird-feeders. They readily eat animals as large as grasshoppers, frogs, even mice – and their larger beak has a specialized hard keel that can crack acorns.

Willow Grackle

The reclusive but talkative Sora gathers its food from floating vegetation in the interior of reedy areas – Smartweed seeds, snails, dragonflies and other insects on the marsh surface.

Sora at Twilight

The Turkey Vulture looks for larger fare, spotting dead animals while it soars over meadow, marsh or beach. Its unusually keen nose sniffs out “freshly dead” food even in thickets or under a forest canopy. Its beak can tear through the scales and skin of fish, the fur of rabbits, and the bones of other birds.

Just Wait

This time of year the Double-Breasted Cormorant spends a lot of time catching fresh fish in the marsh. With its heavy body the cormorant launches into flight awkwardly – but it dives with ease, propelling itself underwater with huge webbed feet, and its long beak is great for grabbing the squirming fish that make up nearly its entire diet.

On a Scale of 1 to 10

Canada Geese also get a lot of their food underwater – but they eat vegetation, not fish, and in shallow water only so they don’t need to dive. Their medium-size beaks, AKA bills, are ideally suited to a vegetarian diet that includes grasses and seeds as large as corn or wheat.

New Line of Geese

A visitor with an exceptionally large bill dropped by last week. The Northern Shoveler’s bill is lined with scores of fine projections that form a sieve, allowing it to swim with its open mouth in the water catching tiny aquatic animals as well as seeds.

Northern Shoveler

The shovel-filter is a clever adaptation – but the Greater Yellowlegs takes a different tack. This slender shorebird wades in shallow waters in the northern boreal forests. Its long, skinny, pointy and lightweight beak is just right for probing mudflats for aquatic insects, or occasionally grabbing a small frog or a minnow.

Six Yellow Legs

The Swallow species really go for beak minimalism. These superb flyers seem never to stop moving, swooping down low over the marsh surface or circling over the tops of trees. As they fly they are gobbling tiny winged insects one after another. A big beak would be pointless extra weight.

Flying Light

Composite photo at top: The Right Beak (click here for larger view). Clockwise from top left: Greater Yellowlegs, Turkey Vulture, Northern Shoveler, Sora.

 

brushes with light

PHOTO POST

A chilly month of April has slowed the appearance of most green leaves and flowers – but the blooming that has begun seems all the more colourful for its scarcity.

On savannah and at forest’s edge, trees and shrubs were budding out even on frosty mornings.

Red Elbow

Dogwood, Early Morning, Early Spring

Specklebranch

Muddy creek banks took longer to warm but small trees soon sent out leaves.

Curlicue

In the deep forest Mayapples were ready with their parasol-leaves fully formed underground, poking up and unfurling to catch the sun before the tree canopy envelopes them in shadow.

Mayapple Shadow

On a creek bank a showy willow bursts into flower before forming its first leaves.

Willow Light One

Willow Light Two

A fresh willow twig is beautiful, yes … but tasty? The beavers think so, and it’s not hard to find clusters of willow with each stem neatly chewed off. Here our Castor canadensis is coming home with groceries.

Long Lunch

The Muskrat, too, enjoys fresh salad in the spring. Though the marsh vegetation still looks dry and lifeless, beneath the waterline the cattails are sending up new shoots. You’ve got to wonder – how does someone who forages in the mud at the bottom of a swamp keep such beautifully clean nails?

Dainty Eater

The Mute Swans who have moved into the marsh also spend a lot of time pulling vegetation from beneath the water. But this time of year they’re busy sorting out nesting sites and territories. During the daytime there are frequent bursts of thunder as determined swans chase others away, huge feet slapping the water and the whoosh of wings audible for hundreds of meters.

Full Tilt

Before sunset peace returns, while nesting pairs circle one another in their slow spin dance.

Light and Lighter


Photo at top of page: Brush With Light (click here for larger view)

the forest beneath the forest

PHOTO POST

A southern Ontario forest in early April might seem a bleak habitation, especially on a grey day. Few birds sing their songs, few green shoots have poked out of the ground, and only a few trees have begun to bud out.

Blanket (click images for larger views)

Yet the floor of the forest can be colourful on a damp day and riotously so on a sunny day.

Craquelure

Turning to Gold

The mosses and lichens shine out in their profuse diversity – sometimes illuminated with the memory of a passing bird.

Mixed Media

Gathering

Forest for the Trees

Though the mosses are the first “flowers” of spring, they are quickly followed by other woodland natives eager to catch a growth spurt before the leafing trees above can capture the sunlight.

Under the G

Purple Greens

At the edge of the forest, dogwoods provide a reliable splash of colour right through the winter.

Red Thickets

And by mid-April, young Red maples at forest’s edge steal the show with their flowering.

Mapleflower

 

Photo at top of page: Circular Triangle (click here for full-size view)

 

merganser mating party

PHOTO POST

The Red-breasted Merganser is one of the most striking birds that passes through this area but they don’t stick around for long. For several years I’ve been hoping to get some good photos but I only managed a few fleeting glimpses. So the last week has been special, with a half-dozen or more of these visitors hanging out on Lake Ontario each day on calm waters.

To get out to launch the kayak, though, I first had to get through the yard, where spring beauties are also calling for attention. On a sunny morning it’s hard not to notice the Siberian Squill coming up in the yard, though the blue flowers are just a few centimeters above the soil.

Siberian squill

A recently returned Song Sparrow, too, wants to be noticed – and it helps when a well-timed gust of north wind lays on a deluxe coiffure.

Crested Song Sparrow

A cute Grey Squirrel has been known to distract a photographer as well.

Tall Dark & Handsome

At the waterline Canada Geese are enjoying the fresh water and warm air.

Tempest

In Westside Marsh a Belted Kingfisher has made it back before the Ospreys, and uses an empty Osprey platform to practice its dives.

Kingfisher Form One

Kingfisher Form Two

But when I make it out to open water on the big lake I find the mergansers, several days in a row.

Dawn’s Early Lights

They are excellent divers, but sometimes in shallow water they seem happy to stay on the surface while scanning for fish.

Focused Gaze

At other times they splash past each other with wings and feet churning the water.

Madly Off in Two Directions

And then comes the move that really baffles me. Is this a class clown pretending to be pulled under by a fearsome sea monster and calling for help?

Never Mind Him

But no – the indispensable allaboutbirds.org fills me in: “Males dunk their chests and raise their heads and rears in a ‘curtsey’ display for females.” And in this case, the response seems clear enough: “Better luck next time.”

 

Photo at top of post: Your Attention Please (click here for larger view)

 

reaching for spring

PHOTO POST

The first growth of the season is just beginning to emerge in the plant realm, but in the avian world spring moves are well underway.

Many of the visiting waterfowl – Long-Tailed Ducks, Scaups – have apparently ended their sojourns in our marsh to carry on north. A few Ring-Necked Ducks and more numerous Buffleheads are sticking around for now.

Ring-Necked Ducks (click images for larger views)

These ducks tend not to be noisy types, which is more than you can say about the Grackles who make sure to announce their presence.

Crackle Grackle

The Grackle is also famous for its iridescent splendour – but the black-and-white Buffleheads can play with the spectrum of sunlight just as beautifully.

Low-Profile Flash

When the Buffleheads begin their playful skitterings across the marsh surface they splash the evening light in all directions at once.

Buffleheads Three By Three

Nesting waterfowl, meanwhile, are getting serious about staking out spots to build this year’s homes. Mute Swans have started their thunderous stampedes across the water to warn interloping Swans, as well as Canada Geese, to keep their distance.

Pursuit

Muskrats appear more placid but they too can cause a hubbub, thrashing about in the reeds, perhaps all in good fun? Whatever their motives, they were actively exploring the whole marsh through the past week.

Swimming To Home

On Closer Examination

The ranks of Red-Wing Blackbirds grow by the day and so their calls fill the air.

From This Lofty Perch

But when it comes to reaching for the sky, a mere lack of wings is no reason to stay earth-bound. As the first fresh fruits of the spring emerge, Gray Squirrels climb to the tops of the tallest trees at the edge of marsh to savour the choicest buds.

Treetop Garden


Photo at top of page: Three Plus One (click here for larger view)