Are nations obsolete?

camerico_flag.pngMuch of the political discourse we hear these days, on environmental as well as other topics, all the Byzantine complexity of geopolitical machinations and jockeying for position among countries at the UN or in Bali or wherever, calls to mind Shakespeare’s “sound and fury, signifying nothing”.  One wonders whether there might be a better way. 

Richard Black of the BBC has hit this nail on the head, and encapsulated a key characteristic of Natural Patriotism: we have come to a point in human history where solving the world’s problems is hindered rather than helped by our cherished, but perhaps anachronistic, concept of geographically circumscribed nations:

“When the primary threats to human health and livelihoods came through wars and invasions, basing the global power system around nation states had a logic to it. But you have to ask if it still has any logic when, as Tony Blair among others has argued, environmental concerns may be the biggest long-term threats to our civilisation. Rising seas will not stop at borders, nor crops magically continue to grow within countries that have cast their votes a certain way in the UN climate convention. The atmosphere does not care whether a carbon dioxide molecule comes from Warsaw or Wellington or Ouagadougou; tuna stocks are affected no differently if ravaged by Libyan or French or Chinese ships.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself (although I took a stab at it a year ago).  Now that’s what I call thinkiing outside the box.  Probably too far outside the box insofar as, obviously, it’s a non-starter in practice.  And overly simplistic in principle too — if democracy works only marginally well in a nation like ours that makes up a small fraction of earth’s population and is pretty well endowed with natural resources and human capital, how could we make it work on a unified planetary scale (the dreaded “one-world-gummint” conspiracy boogeyman that the far-right likes to trot out to rile up the voting base)?  The numerous comments on the BBC site after Black’s essay illustrate the difficulty of this rocky territory.

Still. For the sake of argument, it’s refreshing to hear someone with the courage to go back to first principles and ask whether the basic foundation of how we do things needs reconsideration — to drill through the accreted layers of historical artifact and arbitrary structure that have hardened into the quasi-sacred traditions that we spend so much time and energy and resources killing each other over.  Is there a better way?  Does humanity have the strength and foresight to take control of its destiny?  To fix things that are the way we’ve always done them but are nonetheless transparently counter-productive?  Getting rid of nations sounds radical and over the top.  But isn’t that, in effect, what the European Union is doing, gradually and without much fanfare?  It is becoming a federal system of states much like the USA is, or was at its beginning. And I can’t shake the sense from nearly every news article I read these days that the EU is decades ahead of the USA in progressiveness and forward-thinking policy.  Maybe there is a lesson for us yanks here.


About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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4 Responses to Are nations obsolete?

  1. Mr. R says:

    Oh my. I just finished reading this disturbing post; I’ve spent the past several days in mourning over Mitt Romney’s decision to let Democrat John McCain or the less-than-ideal Huckabee serve as the Republican presidential candidate. Oh Mitt, I miss thee so.

    In any case, this idea of global uni-government is absurd. (I know you didn’t advocate that per se, but it’s the logical extension of this piece.) And by absurd I mean absolutely, fundamentally, entirely absurd, with an order of oh-hells-no on the side. The person who proposed the idea of the out-moded nation was clearly just after publicity, playing the tired game of let’s-take-things-one-step-further-and-shock-everyone. Indeed, let’s hand control over to a single, centralized power that makes and enforces the decisions that please it. Today it’s stopping greenhouse gases, and perhaps tomorrow it’s genocide or forced population control or anything else deemed good for the world.

    Ain’t nothin’ anachronistic about the concept of the nation. They’re the only thing standing in the way of centralized global power and decision-making.

  2. Emmett Duffy says:

    Welcome back Mr. R — I’ve been waiting for you to take the bait on this one! Yes, the extreme version of one-world-government is unworkable and in fact undesirable for many reasons. But the opposite extreme is pretty crazy too — tiny sovereign units so numerous that the wheels of world progress are hopelessly jammed (witness that great scapegoat of conservatives – the U.N.). Surely, there is a middle way that maintains and extends democratic principles, while more effectively fostering collaboration across borders.

  3. Mr. R says:

    “Surely, there is a middle way that maintains and extends democratic principles, while more effectively fostering collaboration across borders.”

    Surely you jest! Here, as in other matters, I cannot approve of your irrational desire to reason through issues and take the middle ground. Start moving in the direction of more global control (even something as seemingly innocuous as setting carbon caps) and you give a dangerous amount of momentum to economic and political interests that would like to see more consolidation of power and less of it held by individual states.

    Lots of people have tackled this problem–Jihad vs. McWorld is my favorite phrasing, I think–and I think that, when in doubt, we need to side with independence. As for your desire to see more effective cooperation to tackle global issues, I think the present system is fine. We sign treaties every once in a while, schmooze, etc…, and everbody’s happy–well, except you and that British guy.

    Truly multi-national and/or U.N. controlled entities always end up attracting corruption. Just think of the World Bank.

    In short, I think it would be silly to take any steps towards non-autonomous rule of nations. When people are told what to do by a central authority, they either (1)do it, so long as it’s in their interest, or (2)rebel when they’re told to do something against their interests. That seems counterproductive to me.

  4. The important take-home here is that we have historically put so much of our resources into killing each other, which is unfortunate. John Lennon hit on the same point in his song Imagine, and it does boggle the mind. If we could all work together, we’d already have outposts on Mars. We’d be able to eradicate world poverty, hunger, environmental problems, probably cancer, and who knows what. We’d also be able to better deal with larger threats to the planet, think bolide. Not to get too squishy here, but despite our veneer of differences we’re all siblings. See this:
    Maybe we fight so much because of the inbreeding?