Last November, Simon Kofe, the foreign minister of Tuvalu – a nation formed out of a series of low-lying atolls in the South Pacific – addressed the Glasgow climate conference from a wooden lecture. Exactly what you’d expect at an international summit. Except that the lectern, and Kofe in his suit and tie, were part-submerged by several feet of ocean. In his speech, which had been pre-recorded on location in Tuvalu, he told delegates that his nation was “living the reality” of climate change. “When the sea is rising around us all the time,” he said, “climate mobility must come to the forefront.”
Tuvalu has long been viewed as a kind of laboratory for climate change – the first nation in history likely to be consumed by sea level rise, its population of 12,000 set to be among the earliest climate refugees. Many Tuvaluans bristle at this portrayal, which can fetishize their plight as the inhabitants of a drowning world. They don’t want to be classed this way because it makes them feel less than fully human. Instead, they are developing a different approach to the physical disappearance of their dry land. Kofe’s phrase “climate mobility” is shorthand for a radical notion in international law: that a country can retain its statehood, even as it loses its physical territory.
Although the idea of borders is thousands of years old, our current system is relatively recent: the product of a devastating, decades-long European religious war, which ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia. This settlement established a whole new political order, led by the principle of cuius regio, eius religio – “whose realm, their religion”, or the right of a monarch to impose their own religion on their subjects. But, rather more than that, it placed this exclusive authority – which was also over government, taxation, law and the military – within a specific geographical area.
This notion of sovereignty needed lines. Political dominion in feudal Europe – a complex mix of rights to collect taxes, bonds of fealty and hierarchies of vassals and lords – was impossible to map in any real sense. Now subjects were to be corralled by cartography. Over time, this process evolved to include a preference not just for a common religion, but also language, culture and ethnicity – and a need for stories that spoke to the shared identity of those inside the lines. Nations would emerge from this as clearly defined territories, with discrete populations and resources.
Even so, in the 300 years since we actively began plotting borders on the ground, (with a whole new degree of specificity as a result of the scientific advancements of the Enlightenment) they have shown resistance to staying put. The idea that borders are somehow fixed or immutable is fiction, and in the present moment they are struggling to cope with a range of challenges, from globalization and the internet to mass migration and climate change.
We now see the far right pivoting away from climate denial and towards notions of “climate nationalism” – putting an emphasis on the danger climate change poses to national interests. Austria’s Freedom party (FPÖ) has stated that “climate change must never become a recognized justification for asylum”. If it did, it says, “the dams will finally break, and Europe and Austria will also be flooded with millions of climate refugees.” Italy’s Lega have called for “national climate adaptation”, or what the FPÖ wraps up in the concept of Heimattreue (“being true to your homeland”). According to this logic borders will not fracture, but rise, higher and stronger – as if you could section off your slice of the Earth entirely, from the crust to the stratosphere. It is a dystopian vision. Is there an alternative?
In fact, there are various precedents for nationhood without borders. Sápmi, in Scandinavia, is the “nation” of northern Europe’s last remaining indigenous people, the Sami. It exists within and across Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. It has a defined population and a parliament, but no bordered territory of its own. Rather, the Sami – some of whom still pursue a semi-nomadic existence as reindeer herders – rely on rights of use to practice their culture in their far northern homeland. This doesn’t come without conflict. Increasingly, Scandinavian governments are looking to exploit the tundra to harness wind power, mine copper deposits, and even build a high-speed railway line. But the Sami have established legal powers to contest these developments and maintain their way of life – and the territory that is central to it. Connected to this is a fast-emerging legal-ecological movement which looks to extend rights and protections beyond humans to the land itself (last year, a lake in Florida filed a lawsuit against a housing developer that was threatening to destroy it).
Elsewhere, environmental initiatives have attempted to cross political borders, or subvert them. Africa’s ambitious “Great Green Wall” is a plan to create an ecological boundary, not between nations, but between the Sahel and the Sahara. Conceived originally as a 15km-wide, 8,000km-long belt of trees running from coast to coast, it has evolved into what is described as a “borderless mosaic” of landscape interventions, including the planting of crops and trees in a region scarred by desertification and soil erosion. As Camilla Nordheim-Larsen, program co-ordinator for the wall at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) told me, this is the first wall designed to bring people together rather than keep them apart. “I’d love to see great green walls everywhere,” she said. “In Latin America, Central America or across Central Asia.”
Do projects such as these provide a glimpse of a new model for the nations of the future, in the face of the unprecedented upheaval to come? Not ownership of an allotted portion of the earth, not lines around territory, but “corridors” across it? It might seem outlandish (quite literally). But borders have always been restless. Westphalia gave us the name for the system that has dominated the last three centuries. Might a “Tuvaluan Settlement”, embracing the concepts of climate mobility and sovereignty without territory, define the centuries to come?
The Edge of the Plain: How Borders Make and Break Our World by James Crawford is published by Canongate (£20) .
A Moving Border: Alpine Cartographies of Climate Change by Marco Ferrari, Elisa Pasqual and Andrea Bagnato (Columbia)
Migratory Birds by Mariana Oliver, translated by Julia Sanches (Transit)
Eleven Within Borders: Territories of Power, Wealth, and Belonging Since 1500 by Charles S Maier (Harvard)
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism