Why Don’t Nationalists Love The Planet?

Rather than protecting the abstract notion of “nation”, patriots should care more about the physical environment of their country.

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

On Monday, the world watched as Paris’ iconic cathedral, Notre-Dame, burned. Flames ripping through the roof, toppling the spire, flickering in and out of the towers and smashing stained-glass windows into a multi-colour hail storm. The French press spoke of a “National drama,” politicians said that the country was “struck in its heart,” and businessmen and women pulled €800 million out of thin air — or rather, out of their tax havens — to rebuild such an important French monument.

And yet other French monuments are burning on a slower but ultimately more destructive flame. Alpine glaciers are shrinking. The lavender fields of Provence are drying up. Soon, Bordeaux will be too warm and dry to grow wine. Climate change is destroying the very countryside French culture was born from, and yet those who claim to love their nation don’t care about that.

How can you love your country without loving the physical, geographical sides of it? Surely the jagged peaks of the Alps are just as monumental as the towers and spire of Notre Dame. And yet, nationalist movements cropping up across the world don’t give a damn about the environment — in fact, they are often at the forefront of detrimental politics.

It seems like an absurd contradiction to me, but I suppose it isn’t so surprising, because for a long time, the Western mindset has separated nature and culture, and set the latter decisively at the top of the hierarchy. But cultures are born from the nature which surrounds them — food made from the available produce, architecture adapted to the climatic conditions, paintings depicting iconic landscapes. Culture is defined by climate. Nature itself is a landmark. You can’t really separate the cultural from the climatical.

I mean, how will the French feel when better wine is made in Britain than in Bourgogne?

Think of your favorite place, and imagine it covered in concrete. Is it still your favorite place?

The changing climate puts national cultures at risk throughout the world. Of course, it doesn’t matter that cultures evolve, they always have and always will, and that is a positive thing. Civilisations are living things which take on new influences and are always creating. People shape them to their new needs. So the fact that a change in climate should bring about cultural changes isn’t a problem in and of itself. It becomes a problem when people are forced to evolve, not to live better, but because their way of living is no longer physically possible. Next month, I’ll be travelling to Mongolia to meet former nomads, now crammed into the polluted suburbs of Ulan-Bator, because a shift of two degrees has rendered it impossible to live off livestock. Their way of life is no longer possible.

That is when cultural evolution carries a sense of loss.

You would think that nationalist movements would care about protecting the physical country, as much as they care about protecting an abstract notion of “nation”. It would be good news, because the energy of nationalism seems bottomless, and I only wish it could be canalized into better things than, for example, shooting Muslims as they pray or separating children from their parents.

The thing is, nationalist movements aren’t defending a nation as a dynamic, living thing. The nation they say they are defending is static in time, because it isn’t a nation of living beings, but a social and racial hierarchy that they don’t want to see change. They are protecting a way of dividing the world into “us” and them. It’s basically just high school. They love their country like teenagers love the cool kids, and want to be in the popular clique, but couldn’t necessarily give any objective reasons why they appreciate the people in it.

These nationalist movements aren’t built on a love of humanity and its wonders, but on the hatred of others. They present the arrival of migrants as an existential threat, even though cultures meeting and merging has happened throughout history. Every culture in the Western world is built on these hybrids. They make our traditions deeper, our humanity stronger.

The arrival of immigrants is no real threat to our national cultures and their diversity. What actually imperils our countries is climate change, taking away the natural conditions cultures were built on. And ultimately threatening us with the utter annihilation of humanity.

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