the woodpecker’s tongue 

PHOTO POST

If I hadn’t gone grocery shopping on bicycle, I probably would have missed the oversized woodpecker checking out some local trees. But as I pedaled down the street towards home I heard a bird speaking a language I didn’t recognize, and I turned my head just in time to spot the flashy red crest of Dryocopus pileatus.

The colourful sight was a welcome treat given that nearly all migratory birds have left, vegetation is now mostly faded, and the sun’s glancing rays are often dulled by clouds. The views across marsh and lake often present in a nearly black and white palate.

Light Curves (click images for full-size views)

The Lesser Yellowlegs was one of the last traveling birds to come through from shores far to the north. On a cloudy evening the shallow muddy water made an austere background for this wader.

Dotted Lines

But in the afternoon sun the waters picked up reflected colour from surrounding plants.

Soft Splash

And a nearby stand of sumach turned the surface to crimson.

Red Dive

Warm days soon gave way to chillier mornings and the welcome sight of steam rising off the lake.

Sunrise Parade

The autumn still held a surprise, though, for the spectacular Pileated Woodpecker made a sudden appearance just a few days ago. Since this is not a migratory species, perhaps she has moved in nearby.

Listen Here

A bird this large needs to carve a deep hole for a nest, and the Pileated Woodpecker is up to the task. “Pileated Woodpeckers use their long necks to pull far back from the tree, then make powerful strikes with their heavy bills, pulling with their feet to increase the strength of the blow.” (allaboutbirds.org)

It’s convenient that some of the tastiest food lives in trees: “The birds also use their long, barbed tongues to extract woodboring beetle larvae.” (allaboutbirds.org)

Woodpecker’s Tongue


Photo at top of page: Exploration (click here for full-size image)

 

october’s glow

PHOTO POST

It’s the time of year when the afternoon sun feels as warm as summer – and then darkness sets in when the evening has barely begun.

One last ray of light steals into the secluded cove where mallards are settling for the night.

Light from the Horizon (click images for full-screen views)

Just minutes of subdued light remain as a Great Blue Heron flies high across the sky.

Sunset Arrow

The Night Heron crouches in the shadows, quietly awake.

Ready For Night

This low light suits a small shorebird – but makes positive identification difficult.

Solitary Stroll

My best guess is that this is an olive-legged Solitary Sandpiper, though it also looks much like a Lesser Yellowlegs. (And truly, if a Yellowlegs is walking in the mud after dark, does it still have yellow legs?)

Solitary Double

While most bright flowers have long since faded, bursts of New England Asters (aka Michaelmas Daisies) still decorate roadsides.

Purple Daisy

Out in the marsh, fall colours are deepening with the occasional lily pad turning to red.

Structure of Colour

A lily pad, an overnight shower, and the early morning sunshine work together to create a collection of liquid rubies.

Rubies

In October the photographer’s “golden hour” – when a low-shining sun bathes everything in a warm glow – lasts a good bit more than an hour each morning and again at the end of the afternoon.

It’s a great time to slow down and behold one of the smallest birds in the marsh, the Swamp Sparrow.

Swamp Sparrow Two

Working the rich mud where roots meet water, the Swamp Sparrow darts from one tiny insect to another. 

Swamp Sparrow One

A muskrat’s siesta ends and it’s time to open those eyes.

Siesta’s Over

A Night Heron moves into hunting territory at water’s edge.

Sunset in Green

And for a brief moment the Wood Ducks put on a light show that rivals any sunset.

Iridescent Autumn


Photo at top of page: Belted Kingfisher, Touched by Colour (click here for full-size image)

 

summer’s flight

PHOTO POST

In the shadowy woods autumn has already arrived, while sunshine on the marsh still reflects summer’s heat.

One More Fruit (click images for full-screen views)

The striped berries of Starry False Solomon’s Seal – if that’s too much of a mouthful, just say Smilacina stellata – make good food for birds, mice, and perhaps for a plump-cheeked chipmunk.

Facing Fall

Migratory birds are already passing through from the far north. Both the Greater and the Lesser Yellowlegs are likely to pass through here, and I can only guess that the bird below is a “yellowlegs, more or less”.

Pointed South

We are right on the edge of year-round habitat for Wood Ducks, so this female could be planning a short flight south or getting ready for winter here.

One Gold Ring

The young ones that were born here this summer are now full-grown. One of them appears to have done fine so far in spite of missing an eye.  

Three birds, two eyes

The Black-Crowned Night Herons are much easier to find lately, now that their young ones are just as big as the adults and no longer so vulnerable.

Great Hair Day

Green Herons are also easier to spot, as they stalk along the marsh edges for a quick meal.

Slowstep

Swift and Swifter

As summer gives way to fall, the damselflies and dragonflies are growing scarce. A damselfly, below, is warmed by the morning light while resting on a hydrangea paniculata leaf.

Balancing Light

The Green Darner, too, moves only slowly in the early morning cool. But unlike most other dragonflies, this species can migrate as far south as the West Indies to prolong summer.

Green Darner on Hosta


Photo at top of page: Trending Orange – a Pearl Crescent butterfly on yellow echinacea flower (click here for full-screen view)

putting your best foot forward

PHOTO POST

If you were a beautiful Mallard you’d probably be happy to stand on a pair of coral-orange webbed feet …

Art of Contemplation (click images for larger views)

and perhaps you’d take care to keep them clean.

Pedicure

A mallard’s webbed feet are great for swimming along the surface of a pond. But if you eat by beating fish at their own game – diving down and out-swimming your catch – you’d like the even bigger flippers at the end of a Double-crested Cormorant’s legs. Never mind that they only come in basic black.

Ready to Dive

For walking in the muck of a marsh, though, you need something altogether different – footwear that spreads out effectively, but that you can just as easily lift out of the sticky goo if you need to move in a hurry.

And so it is that many birds in Bowmanville Marsh have long slender toes, like those of the Virginia Rail and the Least Sandpiper.

Mudwalker I

Mudwalker II

Whether you are the smallest of the sandpipers or the largest of the herons, it’s great to be able to walk through deep mud – but lift into flight in an instant.

Mudwalker III

Clean Getaway

Each of our local heron species have similar feet. The short and stocky Night Heron, below, has long, strong toes that propel it from its perch fast – whether that’s to strike at a fish or frog in the water or burst into flight.

Striking Distance

The Green Heron is even more versatile, with long toes that allow it to patrol the shoreline one minute, and make like a squirrel the next, grabbing slender twigs and swaying in the breeze at the top of trees.

Get a Grip I

Treetop Heron

Get a Grip II


Composite at top of page, clockwise from left: Green Heron, Mallard, and Virginia Rail. All photos taken in Bowmanville Marsh during the last six weeks.

The Hundred Years’ War for Safe Streets

Also published on Resilience.org

Should safety standards for new vehicles take into account the safety only of the inside passengers, or also the safety of others on the streets?

Right of Way, by Angie Schmitt, published by Island Press

When economic circumstances force large numbers of people who can’t afford cars to move into suburbs, should traffic policy on suburban streets still prioritize the unimpeded movement of the car owners? 

In urban areas where the population is predominantly from racialized communities, should mostly white, male engineering associations still set traffic rules?

These are some of the life-and-death questions explored in Angie Schmitt’s essential new book Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America (Island Press, August 2020). Although the focus is on the US, Schmitt also explains how and why other industrial countries have achieved far better safety records on urban streets.‡

Schmitt begins by outlining a sudden and rapid increase in traffic violence. Since 2009, Schmitt notes, there has been a 10% increase in total driving miles by Americans – but a 50% increase in pedestrian deaths. (Right of Way, page 7)

The reasons for the rise in fatalities are complex but there are obvious clues:

“There are patterns in who is killed: older people, men, and people of color are disproportionately at risk. We know what kinds of vehicles are most likely to kill: large trucks and SUVs.” (Right of Way, page 3)

Unravelling what she calls an epidemic, Schmitt visits cities around the country and explores issues of mobility justice, racial justice, economic justice and environmental justice. While most of the book deals with events of the past 30 years, she does look at key developments from a hundred years ago.

Victim-blaming and the invention of jaywalking

“In the United Kingdom,” Schmitt writes, “there is no equivalent violation to jaywalking, but the pedestrian safety record there puts the US data to shame.” (Right of Way, page 67)

Defining and prosecuting an offense called “jaywalking”, as it turns out, is not a way to protect the safety of pedestrians, but rather a way to turn street space into the privileged domain of dangerous vehicles and their drivers.

For nearly all of history, people simply crossed the road when they wanted to get to the other side. Now, however, they are expected to walk down the road, wait for permission from a traffic light, scurry across, and then walk back to their destination; they face the risk of summary execution by car if they simply cross the road when and where they’d prefer.

How did this come about? Schmitt draws on the work of historian Peter Norton (see Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City). During the 1920s – an era when car ownership was still relatively rare – about 200,000 Americans lost their lives to cars, and the victims were disproportionately children.

“In contrast to modern media accounts,” Schmitt writes, “the news at the time was unflinching about where to lay the blame: on drivers.” (Right of Way, page 69) Cities across the nation began to discuss serious restrictions or even bans on the passage of cars through city streets. The dominance of car culture was in doubt, and the response was a combination of political muscle by the largest industries, plus a concerted public relations campaign. The path to progress, the car companies and their spin doctors insisted, was not to restrict the movement of cars but to restrict the rights of walkers to safely cross the streets.

“One of motordom’s most critical victories was the introduction and eventual acceptance of the concept of jaywalking,” Schmitt writes. (Right of Way, page 70) She goes on to illustrate how, 100 years later, “the ideology of flow” continues to kill people, especially in economically disadvantaged and radicalized communities.

Take, for example, the important issue of installing signalized crosswalks that might give pedestrians a margin of safety at the cost of some inconvenience to drivers. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, Schmitt writes, 

“instructs engineers that a crosswalk with a traffic signal is only “warranted” if ninety-three pedestrians per hour are crossing at the location in question. Failing that, the MUTCD states that a crosswalk with a traffic signal can be warranted if five pedestrians are struck by cars at the location in a single year.” (Right of Way, page 101)

A recent intensifying factor is the “suburbanization of poverty.” In the post-WWII era a road-building boom promoted “white flight” from US urban centers to suburbs where nearly everyone relied on cars. But in the last generation the trend has reversed. Many urban areas have gentrified and poorer residents – disproportionately black, latino and indigenous – have had to find cheaper housing in the suburbs. For example, Schmitt writes that in 1980 just 47 percent of Atlanta’s black population lived in the suburbs, but in 2010 the figure was 87 percent.

High-speed suburban arterial roads are especially deadly for people who must walk to work, walk to the grocery store, or walk to catch a bus. They are deadly for elderly people who have difficulty crossing several wide traffic lanes in the time allowed by signals programmed to minimize interruption to drivers. And these roads are especially deadly today, with a majority of new passenger vehicles that are far more dangerous to pedestrians than the cars of just 20 years ago.

Mean machines

Most environmentalists would agree that fossil fuel executives rank high on the corporate villainy scale, due to their role in sowing climate change confusion while their own scientists were secretly documenting the devastating effects of carbon emissions. But auto company executives deserve their own special place in hell. Not only did they respond to the climate crisis with a decades-long push to sell ever bigger, heavier, and therefore less fuel-efficient passenger vehicles, but they did so even as the evidence mounted that their products are far more dangerous to pedestrians.

Whereas an old-style sedan with a low front end would hit an average-height pedestrian in the legs, an SUV or recent model pick-up truck, with a much higher front end, will hit the same pedestrian in the abdomen, chest, head – or all three at once. It shouldn’t take an emergency room doctor to understand that being hit by a much taller vehicle is likely to cause much more serious internal injuries. Add to that the fact that whereas a pedestrian hit by a sedan will typically fall onto the hood of the sedan, a pedestrian hit by a much taller vehicle is likely to be literally run over, suffering more severe injuries or death even if the initial impact is survivable.

Ah, but think of the profit margin! Schmitt cites a Kelley Blue Book analysis: while even a small crossover SUV in 2017 sold for almost $9,000 more than an average midsized sedan, the production costs are almost the same. You can guess which kind of vehicle the auto industry is eager to sell.

In recent years the US auto industry has been the biggest buyer of advertising – more than $30 billion annually – and Schmitt reports that nine of the top ten advertised vehicles were SUVs or pick-ups.

The ad campaigns worked. While 83 percent of vehicles sold in the US in 2012 were sedans, Schmitt writes, by 2018 crossover SUVs had become the top-selling vehicle type.

As the sales of SUVs climbed, so did the pedestrian deaths. In the period 2010 to 2015, the odds of a pedestrian dying when hit by a vehicle jumped 29 percent.

Was this deadly trend just an unfortunate co-incidence? Not according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA); they estimated that “pedestrians struck by an SUV are two to three times more likely to be killed than those struck by a car.” (Right of Way, page 84)

The trend was also seen as causation, not mere correlation, by European lawmakers.

Schmitt writes that since 2004, the United Nations has recommended the imposition of “standards on automakers specifically to protect people outside the vehicles: pedestrians or cyclists.” In response, “the European Union imposed rules to protect pedestrians beginning in 2010.” (Right of Way, page 90)

These rules are already improving pedestrian safety in more advanced countries. In contrast to the high walls of steel at the front end of American SUVs and pickups, new European cars earning the best safety ratings have “active hood systems” which cushion the blow in a collision with a pedestrian. The result, Schmitt reports, is that pedestrians are 35 percent more likely to survive a collision.

Back to basics

Auto design, though, is just one aspect of traffic safety, and not necessarily the most important. Limiting speed is critical, since the force imparted in a collision increases non-linearly – doubling the speed quadruples the kinetic energy. Lowering vehicle speeds where pedestrians are present is thus an obvious response, if we are to believe that pedestrian lives matter.

Many cities are now lowering speed limits, especially in residential areas, and introducing other traffic calming measures. And while many tech boosters believe that autonomous vehicles will someday deliver us from traffic violence, there is already technology that can ensure that posted speed limits are effective:

“In 2019, the European Parliament ruled that by 2022, all new cars will come equipped with speed governors that physically limit the cars from exceeding the posted speed limit.” (Right of Way, page 137)

A transportation revolution must clearly be a big component of a Green New Deal. For anyone interested in exploring the many aspects of mobility justice, Right of Way is a must-read.


‡Schmitt writes that “On a population-adjusted basis, Canada, for example, loses less than half as many people on the roads every year as the United States” – which may be explained by the fact that the transit ridership share in Canada is about twice that of the US. But many issues in the book – the suburbanization of poverty, the recent predominance of high-front-end SUVs and pick-ups, the traffic policies reflected in high-speed suburban arterial roads – apply equally in Canada.

Illustration at top: The “Fearless Girl” statue stands her ground on a New York street against a Cadillac Escalade, one of the tallest of the current SUVs. This illustration was also inspired by a photo in Right of Way of a Tanzanian child who protested by sitting down in the middle of a busy street in Dar es Salaam, after a classmate was struck trying to cross that road.

gazing into the reeds

PHOTO POST

On an evening in late April as I walked along the road, my eye was drawn to a bird swimming across the marsh in a peculiar, herky-jerky fashion.

Gallinule the First (click images for full-screen views)

When I zoomed in with my camera and saw the distinctive black and white markings plus the brilliant red beak, it was clear that this bird was hitherto unknown to yours truly.

Upon learning the bird is called a Common Gallinule, and it is indeed a common, summer-long resident in marshes throughout North America, I felt like a particularly inept amateur ornithologist. If it’s so common why had I never spotted one in five summers of prowling this marsh?

Thus began a long quest to learn the habits of the gallinule. Before long I’d caught many fleeting glimpses, in all corners of the marsh, and I learned to recognize some of its extensive vocal repertoire when it was lurking out of sight. Months went by without my ever capturing a reasonably good picture.

But this frustration was such fun! While I peered into the reeds where the gallinules dwell, I saw many other birds including several that I had never known before.

The nimble Marsh Wren is a good bit more numerous than the gallinule, but is likewise hard to catch in a still photo.

Slanted Perch

Somewhat bigger are the various sandpipers that feed on the mudflats and occasionally walk across lily pads.

Piper Two

I can’t be sure of the identity of this piper spotted just this week. To me it looks like a Greater Yellowlegs, which typically move through here only on their way to and from nesting areas far to the north. I’d be grateful to any reader who can identify this bird; please send me a note here.

Piper Three

Gazing into the reeds, you might also spot a juvenile Green Heron, like this one seen in the bright light of the setting sun.

Sunset in Green

The Great Blue Heron is not typically shy, but even they will sometimes hide in the tall reeds.

Great Blue Sky

A Great Blue Heron inadvertently played a key role in allowing me to finally get a good close look at the gallinules. As I watched this heron swoop down on a convenient log and nail the landing, we both had a surprise.

Don’t Scare Me Like That

The heron’s landing startled a female Wood Duck, tucked almost out of sight at the left end of the log. The Duck gave a loud quack, which prompted a louder squawk from the Heron, who re-launched from the log with great comic effect.

And all this high drama distracted a gallinule family who hang out behind this log, as they didn’t notice a photographer slowly drifting closer.

Walking Home

For once I got more than a fleeting glimpse, and I was thrilled to see an adult with two chicks. Clearly, feet which can straddle floating sticks or reeds are essential equipment, as the young ones had already grown toes nearly as long as their downy bodies.

Little Bigfoot

When I’d had time to take several photos my presence was duly noted. The birds disappeared into the shadowy reeds and left me with their squeaky serenade.

Who You Calling Common?


Photo at top of page: Piper One (click here for full-screen image)

 

Transition to a Low-Energy Future

One project has taken the lion’s share of my work time for the past year, and it has been a project close to my heart.

As long-time readers will have noted, my writings frequently concern the intersection between energy and economics. I was honored and grateful, therefore, to be asked to serve as guest editor of an issue of The American Journal of Economics and Sociology.

After a year’s work this issue is now published, under the title “Transition to a Low-Energy Future”. An issue overview and all individual articles can be found here.

I am now working on the next phase of this project – seeing this published as a generally-available print book. Inquiries and comments on this project are most welcome; please get in touch through the Contact page on this website.

watching the web

PHOTO POST

The onrushing summer engulfs us with new blooms, hot winds, welcome rains, and a procession of insects that each play their role in the march of seasons.

Milkweed leaves, above, may soon be eaten to shreds by monarch caterpillars. Meanwhile a Black & Yellow Mud Dauber Wasp uses the vantage point to look for any unwary spiders who might soon be food for wasp larvae.

Some plants are as beautiful while they bud as when in full bloom. Below, a Bergamot flower begins to open; it will soon attract not only bees but hummingbirds.

Two Story Bergamot (click images for larger views)

For many long days we feared the dry heat was so intense that many plants might falter. Few sights were so precious as raindrops on foliage.

Variegated Rain

One of the minor pleasures of rain, to a photographer, is that a drop of water can serve as a free magnifier lens, highlighting details in leaf structures.

Such trivia aside, you might well ask how the underside of a poppy leaf, below, managed to capture rain drops and reflect the morning sunshine.

Wet Leaf

Fortunately a gentle breeze had turned one floppy leaf down-side-up.

An early morning mist brought out otherworldly colours and shapes of a poppy bud.

Strange Dream

The rains did come when most needed, and many flowers have grown to their showiest. Below, a Red Soldier Beetle (aka Hogweed Bonking Beetle) prepares for launch from a feral Daisy.

Upward Spiral

Evening Primrose flowers and Green Metallic Sweat Bees are spectacular in their own rights and doubly so together.

Double Flash

A Bumblebee sitting on a raspberry leaf looks as prickly as the canes beneath the canopy.

Bramblebee

Many flowers, of course, are working towards the production of seeds. A Chipmunk is enjoying the bounty of a previous year, in the shape of a sunflower seed.

Seedy Side of Town

Few seed heads are quite so intricate as that of the Yellow Salsify, below. Did spiders get the idea to weave their mesmerizingly symmetrical webs from watching the formation of Salsify seeds – or was it the other way around?

Salsify’s Web

And then there are the wings of the Dragonflies. These graceful denizens of the marsh don’t often land in our gardens, but perhaps the hot pink Hollyhock was an irresistible draw.

Patterns on Pink


Photo at top of page: Yellow & Black Mud Dauber on Milkweed (click here for full image)

 

regarding the ways of the marsh

PHOTO POST

A long period of hot dry weather has hastened the fullness of summer in the marsh. Where you and I might see a smelly mess, many creatures are seeing a fertile, fecund, bountiful bouquet of life.

The dropping water levels have exposed squishy mudflats – great dining areas for pipers including the Killdeer.

Killdeer Goes to Dinner (click images for full-screen view)

Turtles both Painted and Snapper can frequently be seen floating near the surface with just their heads sticking up.

I’ve Got Time

Flies, mosquitos, water boatmen, and many other insects are flying just over the water or propelling themselves across the surface. They help feed hungry frogs, birds, fish, turtles – and larger insects such as dragonflies.

On a hot summer evening, the dragonflies are also busy laying their eggs just below the surface.

Dragonfly Arch

When a dragonfly pauses its rapid zig-zag flights an emerging water lily also makes a good perch.

Observation Post

The White Water Lily is one of the showiest plants in the marsh. But in full sun its white is so blinding that you may choose to see this flower through dark glasses.

Shadow Play

Another beautiful flowering plant, alas, contributes little but colour to the marsh. The Bitter Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), introduced from Eurasia more than 150 years ago, is poisonous to almost every local animal. With nothing to keep it in check it has spread widely throughout the Great Lakes area, and has become the dominant vegetation in sizable sections of Bowmanville Marsh.

Bitter Nightshade

For the time being, though, there is enough other tasty foliage to feed a thriving population of muskrats.

Reflections in Green

On a warm evening this beaver couldn’t be bothered to take supper home to the lodge.

Finger Food

One of the Great Blue Herons, perched at the edge of the reeds, caught sight of a Mudcat in striking distance.

Mudcat Special

Early in the spring I had two sightings of the gaudily spectacular male Wood Duck – but then concluded that this bird had just carried on in its migration. To my surprise, though, I spotted this Wood Duck hen and duckling swimming to cover in the reeds just before sunset earlier this week.

Swimming to Shelter

There is more to know in the marsh than can be learned in a few years, or even in a few human lifetimes. After six summers here there are still birds I’ve rarely or never glimpsed. The Virginia Rail has a reputation for being heard much more than seen, as it moves slowly and carefully through the shadows where the reeds meet the water. With patience and luck you may get your first sighting – and with extra luck I hope to get a second sighting some day soon.

Virginia Rail

There are few marsh dwellers as beautiful as this Green Frog1 – especially as frogs are known as Marsh Canaries, who are so sensitive to pollutants that they provide a warning system of unhealthy conditions. Frogs have been scarce in this marsh, but in recent years they seem to have made a bit of a comeback. May the bright yellow flash and the deep twangy call of the Green Frog be seen and heard through the coming days and eons.

Five O’clock Frog


Photo at top of page: Close-Up, Five O’clock Frog (click here for full-screen view)


1This helpful name distinguishes true Green Frogs from mere green frogs. The website naturewatch.ca explains that a Green Frog may also be bronze or brown, with a white belly, and the males have a bright yellow throat.

 

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.