Occupy and the dilemmas of social movements

By Sam Halvorsen, University of Cambridge


Occupy London, 16 October 2011, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Photo credit: Crispin Semmens (Flickr: assembly time) CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. 

You don’t have to look far in 2017 to see people taking to the streets. The election of Donald Trump led to global protests, with January’s “Women’s March” reported as the biggest day of protest in the history of the USA. In March, International Women’s Day saw marches and strikes around the world. While it is too early to say how these protests will unfold and what spatial forms they will take it is likely that they will come up against many of the challenges faced by activists in the past. Learning from the lessons of previous social movements is a useful task.

My recently published paper seeks to draw attention to and understand some of the more challenging and problematic aspects of social movements. It does so not with the intention of undermining them, but in the belief that it is important not to romanticise social movements as inherently good things and to directly confront the internal dilemmas they face.

From my research with Occupy London, part of a global wave of protests that spread across hundreds of cities worldwide in 2011 (see here for a report 5 years on), I argue that decisions that activists make about where to mobilise (e.g. in what places or at which scales) present particular dilemmas that can, at worst, lead to demobilisation. The research was based on my own active involvement and commitment to Occupy London, something I have written about elsewhere (Halvorsen, 2015) and has been explored in a previous blog post on this page.

As geographers have demonstrated for some years now (see Routledge, 1993), social movements don’t just appear ‘on the head of a pin’ (Miller and Martin, 2000) but mobilise in and across space. In this paper I aim to add to recent conversations about how and why geography matters to social movements (e.g. Nicholls et al, 2013) by focusing on the dilemmas and contradictions that arise when mobilising particular spatial strategies: decisions to prioritise spatialities such as the place of the protest camp or a global network of solidarity.

I argue that in the pursuit of particular spatial strategies activists tend to create tensions that, at times, undermine the original aims and goals of a movement. For example, decisions by Occupy London activists to prioritise the building and maintenance of a protest camp meant that less energy was available for building international alliances or solidarity campaigns, creating tensions with Occupy London’s stated aims of building a global movement. This led both to the demobilisation of some activists, concerned with the “fetishisation” of camp, and later to new spatial strategies following eviction.

In making this argument I develop a dialectical analytical framework, an approach that understands change as the result of constantly resolving contradictions, which I integrate with a spatial analysis of social movements. Specifically, I outline spatial dialectics as a means of grappling with the unfolding of contradictions both historically, over time, and geographically, across different moments of space (what Henri Lefebvre referred to as the moments of perceived, conceived and lived space).

Social movements have great potential for social change as history has taught us. Yet social movements, like any other part of society, are not free from contradictions and internal tensions and it is important to both acknowledge and make sense of why this is the case.

This is important because the work of doing activism is unevenly experienced by differently placed people. In Occupy London, for example, I demonstrate divisions of labour based around class and gender, features that are all too common in seemingly “radical” movements.

Grappling with contractions is also important, crucial in fact, for supporting and pushing social movements forward. Exposing and explaining why geography is central to the unfolding of contradictions is thus an important task.

About the author: Dr Sam Halvorsen is a Leverhulme/Newton Trust Early Career Research Fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge. 


60-world2 Broomfield M 2017 Women’s March against Donald Trump is the largest day of protests in US history, say political scientists The Independent Online 23 January 2017

books_icon  Halvorsen S 2015 Creating space for militant research within- against-and-beyond the university: reflections from Occupy London Area 47 466–72

books_icon  Halvorsen S 2017 Spatial dialectics and the geography of social movements: the case of Occupy London. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12179

60-world2 Jamieson A 2016 Occupy Wall Street reunites five years later: ‘I never ended for most of us’ The Guardian Online 18 September 2016

books_icon  Miller BA and Martin BG 2000 ‘Missing Geography’ In Miller BA 2000 Geography and Social Movements: Comparing Antinuclear Activism in the Boston Area University of Minnesota Press, London

books_icon  Nicholls W, Miller B and Beaumont J eds 2013. Spaces of Contention: Spatialities and Social Movements Farnham, Ashgate

60-world2 Rose M 2016 Exploring “Militant Research” and how to research protest protest Geography Directions

books_icon  Routledge P 1993. Terrains of Resistance: Nonviolent social movements and the contestation of place in India Praeger, Westport CT

60-world2 Topping A and Redden M 2017 ‘We are international, we are everywhere’: women unite in global strike The Guardian Online  7 March 2017


Beyond facilitator? The state in global value chains and global production networks

 Rory Horner, University of Manchester, United Kingdom


Donald Trump, quoted in The Financial Times (2017). Image available via Pixabay.

Not so long ago, proposed policies to “repatriate international supply chains” as part of national-oriented initiatives openly marketed as protectionist, would have been quite difficult to imagine. Yet, like in many issue areas, Donald Trump’s approach to trade policy is unconventional. His planned trade policies, including import taxes, have been met with widespread condemnation, with many questioning how they may work in an era of global value chains (GVCs).

The irony of Trump advocating protectionism to support American manufacturing while visiting Boeing, which reportedly draws on parts manufactured in over 60 countries, has been pointed to. Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt has tweeted that: “If Trump wants to close down global value chains he will close down Boeing as well. Among others”.

Meanwhile, in relation to the UK’s planned exit from the European Union, questions have been raised about how the UK’s new proposed trade policies might work in the context of global value chains. Theresa May has advocated sector by sector deals, yet there is scepticism as to the practicalities of how this might work. The automobile industry in the UK, for example, is dependent on products crossing back and forth across borders many times. The effects of any trade barriers are thus magnified.

Such political developments in both the UK and USA are dramatic examples of the increasing empirical relevance of state roles beyond facilitating GVCs (or related global production networks – GPNs). Not so long ago, the dominant emphasis in research on GVCs and GPNs was arguably on how state’s played a facilitator role – whether through choice or seemingly facing little other option – assisting firms (either major global corporations or their suppliers) in relation to the challenges of the global economy.

Indeed, the global organisation of production accelerated greatly over the last two decades during the neoliberal era of market-promotion, falling trade barriers and the belief in limiting state intervention. In this context, research on global value chains and production networks has valuably highlighted the uneven power dynamics in global industries, moving beyond dominant state-centric approaches to understanding economic development.

Yet, increasingly a variety of other state roles beyond facilitator are of increasing prominence, including as regulator, producer (state-owned enterprises) and buyer (public procurement). In a new article in Geography Compass which synthesises a variety of recent research on the role of the state in GVCs and GPNs, I highlight four different such state roles, as indicated in the table below:

Table 1. Typology of state roles within global production networks

Role Definition Examples
Facilitator Assisting firms in GPNs in relation to the challenges of the global economy Tax incentives, subsidies, export processing zones, incentives for R&D, implementing and negotiating favourable trade policies, inter-state lobbying
Regulator Measures that limit and restrict the activities of firms within GPNs State marketing boards, price controls, restrictions on foreign investment, trade policy (tariffs, quotas), patent laws, labour regulation, quality controls, standards implementation
Producer State-owned firms, which compete for market share with other firms within GPNs State-owned companies e.g. in oil, mining.
Buyer State purchases output of a firm Public procurement e.g. of military equipment, pharmaceuticals.

Source: Author’s construction.

While the relevance of roles beyond facilitator is highlighted by, and may get increasing attention with, Donald Trump’s suggested policies and the UK’s planned exit from the European Union and, their relevance is longer-standing. The Economist (2013) highlighted a growth in protectionist measures in 2013, to provide just one example of the relevance of a regulatory role. Meanwhile, state-owned companies are significant actors in the global economy – involving a producer role. Moreover, a buyer role is highlighted through public procurement which has been estimated to comprise an average of between 13% and 20% of GDP worldwide (OECD, 2013).

Future research attention is needed to the influence and viability of the regulator, buyer and producer roles and how they are manifest in a context of a potential retreat from, or even reformulation of, economic globalisation.

Significantly for any current move towards “protectionism”, the location of states within a world of GVCs and GPNs means both that current policy initiatives are likely to vary and to have different implications from earlier eras where states intervened to promote national interests. The implications of growing neo-nationalism for GVCs and GPNs, and vice-versa, are uncertain, but clearly something to watch!

About the author: Rory Horner is a Lecturer in Globalisation and Political Economic, ESRC Future Research Leade,r and Hallworth Research Fellow at the Global Development Institute , University of Manchester.  

books_icon Horner, R. (2017) Beyond facilitator? State roles in global value chains and global production networks, Geography Compass 11(2)

60-world2 OECD (2013). Leading practitioners on public procurement, [Online], Accessed from: http://www.oecd.org/governance/meetingofleadingpractitionersonpublicprocurement.htm (Last accessed 22nd February 2017).

60-world2 The Economist (2013). The gated globe. October 12th. Available from: http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21587785-gated-globe

60-world2 The Financial Times (2017) Trump’s top trade adviser accuses Germany of currency exploitation, January 31 2017. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/57f104d2-e742-11e6-893c-082c54a7f539.

Only connect – the linked lives of the researcher and the researched in a walled village in Hong Kong

By Isabella Ng, The Education University of Hong Kong

In a village in the southernmost province of Hainan, China, women were not compensated when the government decided to remove some of the houses for tourism development; only the men were compensated for the loss. What is more, a new law passed in China in 2011 allowed no split in properties during divorce, but rather the property would be awarded to the person named within the deeds. In another part of China, Hong Kong the former British colony which was returned to China two decades ago, walled village women who lived in the territory were treated unfairly until 2004 when a law was passed that allowed women to have equal inheritance rights as their male counterparts. I was interested to find out how they fared after the old law was revoked and to find out more about gender dynamics in the walled villages. When I entered the field to conduct fieldwork, I soon discovered that studying a group intensively as a researcher is a journey that I needed to walk with the researched in order to produce ethical and fruitful research.

As a nascent ethnographer venturing into the field during my second year of PhD study, I felt anxious but thrilled about my initial pursuit in fieldwork. It seemed ‘cool’ to be an ethnographer—at least that’s what I thought initially—and I liked introducing myself to informants as an ethnographer. That feeling of excitement ended when one of my supervisors reminded me about my field notes, and how I should go about writing them. My notes should not just contain factual accounts and observations, but also my reflections and my state of mind. I should reflect upon the day’s event(s) and how I felt at the time. One important aspect that I failed to consider at that time was my role as an ethnographer. I had the naivety to believe that my work (research) and my personal life were, and could, remain completely separated. I thought that as long as I stayed away from personal involvement (meaning, keeping my private life to myself when conducting my fieldwork), then I could remain professional and avoid being too subjective.

However, it was not until I began my fieldwork that I realised that conducting fieldwork is more complicated than I had thought. Over time, I discovered that field experience is reciprocal, and that the lives of researchers are linked with the lives of the researched. I realised that my multiple positionality, the nuances in my life, and my personal experiences affected my day-to-day interactions with my informants. The way that things evolved in my life during my fieldwork, the way that prolonged interactions and connections with people and the environment intertwined with my personal life, and all the knowledge I acquired through this, could enrich my research and make it multi-dimensional.

In my recent paper, ‘When [Inter-]Personal is Transformational: [Re]examining Life Course Emotion in PhD Research’, recently published in Area, I explore the ways in which different life events I experienced between 2008 and 2013 affected my research as a PhD student. By examining the relationship between these events and my development as a researcher, I consider how the complexity of emotions and affect helped me understand my research participants and helped me produce multi-dimensional, ethical research.

Drawing upon a series of life events that happened to me during the research period—such as my divorce and then a new romance—I examine how these events affected not only my research perspective when looking into gender dynamics in the indigenous villages in Hong Kong, but how they also affected my interactions and connections with my research subjects. I discovered how research is an interactive and dynamic activity. The researchers and the researched are walking through a journey to mutual understanding. The lives of the researcher and those researched are connected, and they affect each other. In this auto-ethnographic account of my fieldwork, I demonstrate how life events happening to the researcher during the research period can affect the researcher’s emotional and affectual state, and how this in turn can enrich a researcher’s study of the subject.

Emotion and affect here play a critical part in my research. As Rose (1997) points out, emotions of researchers are affected by events preceding the fieldwork and during the research process. This alters the researcher’s positionality—defined in terms of gender, age, race, social status, economic status, and marital status. In geography, studies on emotions and affect have examined conscious and expressive factors. These factors are generally understood as emotion—as well as non-cognitive, non-linguistic, and non-representational factors—involving affect (Pile 2010; Thrift 2004). During the research process the discursive, conscious, and cognitive parts work in coordination with the non-cognitive, non-discursive aspects that affect how subjects and objects perceive the world and their relations with the world (Bondi 2005; Narvaro-Yashin 2009; Thrift 2004). In my case, these aspects affected how we saw each other.

In this paper, I argue that as researchers, we need to realise that research is an ongoing, interactive, ever-changing process. Also, we need to recognise the reciprocal relationship between researchers and the researched subjects during the research process in order to create a better understanding of one’s own work and the ways in which the research itself fits within one’s broader life goals.

About the author: Isabella Ng received her doctorate from SOAS, University of London. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Asian and Policy Studies, The Education University of Hong Kong.

books_icon Bondi L 2005 Making connections and thinking through emotions: between geography
and psychotherapy Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 30 433-48

60-world2 Branigan T 2015 For richer, for poorer: how China’s laws put women second The Guardian Online https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/24/chinese-women-equality-laws-land-housing 24 February 2015

books_icon Burton L M and Bengtson V L 1985 Black grandmothers: issues of timing and
continuity of roles in Bengtson V L and Robertson J F eds Grandparenthood Sage, Beverly Hills CA 61-77

books_icon Elder Jr. G H, Johnson M K and Crosnoe R 2004 The emergence and development
of life course theory in Mortimer J T and Shanahan M J eds Handbook of the life course Springer Science + Business Media, New York 3-19

books_icon Haraway D 1988 Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the
privilege of partial perspective Feminist studies 14 575-599

books_icon Navaro-Yashin Y 2009 Affective spaces, melancholic objects: ruination and the
production of anthropological knowledge Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15 1-18

books_icon Ng, I. (2017), When [inter]personal becomes transformational: [re-]examining life course-related emotions in PhD research. Area. doi:10.1111/area.12325

books_icon Pile S 2010 Intimate distance: the unconscious dimensions of the rapport between
researcher and researched The Professional Geographer 62 483-95

books_icon Rose G 1997 Situating knowledges: positionality, reflexivities and other tactics
Progress in Human Geography 21 305-20

books_icon Thrift N 2004 Intensities of feeling: towards a spatial politics of affect Geografiska
Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 86 57-78

By Jillian Smith, University of Birmingham 

Lake Michigan (c) Jillian Smith

Lake Michigan (c) Jillian Smith

The Great Lakes–at the U.S. and Canadian international boundary–are the planet’s largest system of freshwater (Government of Canada, 2016). The five Great Lakes (Lakes Superior, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, Erie) represent more than twenty percent of the world’s freshwater supply (Canadian Geographic, n.d.). This oft-repeated axiom, however, is somewhat misleading. A mere one percent of the waters of the Great Lakes are renewed each year in rain and snow-melt (Government of Canada, 2016). This supply cannot be carelessly utilised without destroying the stock. Freshwater systems are not inherently sustainable; water abundance is a myth.

Recent record low levels in three of the five Great Lakes have leaders to lawmakers to environmentalists sharing the common interest of conservation and restoration in the basin (Boyce, 2016). Nevertheless, a small Wisconsin city narrowly outside the basin is thirsty for Great Lakes water. Waukesha’s 70,000 residents can no longer drink from the city’s depleted aquifer. What little water remains is contaminated with naturally occurring cancer-causing radium. Though Waukesha is outside of the Great Lakes watershed, the city’s engineers can almost taste Lake Michigan’s water – they just need a pipeline or two. Certainly, one small city’s request for water beyond the Great Lakes watershed does not seem significant, but is it? What does this mean for the Great Lakes basin? And perhaps more poignantly, what does this potential test case mean for other thirsty American cities in the context of a changing climate?

More than 35 million people rely on the five Great Lakes (NOAA, n.d). Another 70,000 people drinking from a straw (or rather, a pipeline) seems somewhat inconsequential. The concern, therefore, is not necessarily about Waukesha; the concern is about who might be next. Las Vegas? San Francisco? Nearly all states west of the Rockies have experienced “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought” conditions in recent years (USDA, 2017). It seems Waukesha could be poised to become a precedent-setting test case for moving water beyond the basin.

Water vaulting is nothing new – the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Qaraqum Canal, South-to-North Eastern, and South-to-North Central are just a few very large water diversions that immediately come to mind. Nonetheless, freshwater scarcity is a global problem just beginning to touch North America. Climate change impacts on freshwater supply and quality will undoubtedly intensify in coming years. Changes in precipitation patterns, increases in temperature, evaporation, and sea level rise will continue to threaten lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. While climate scientists are quick to point out that no single event can be attributed to climate change, extreme weather events are increasingly the norm and society will be forced to adapt to these altered patterns.

Understandably, adaptation is difficult. O’Neill and Graham (2016) note that adaptation decisions associated with climatic changes pose challenges to person-place bonds. In an era of changing climate and environmental quandaries, place attachments are at risk. While nobody wants to see Waukesha residents displaced due water travails, nobody wants to see the Great Lakes–one of the world’s most valuable resources–positioned for lackadaisical exploitation. To what degree have conservation efforts or alternate projects been considered in Waukesha?

Despite the deserved reverence for this remarkable resource, and our obvious dependence on it, modern society has proven to be a poor caretaker of the Great Lakes in the recent past. Pollutants, toxins, eutrophication, sewage, wetland loss, invasive species, climate change, and over-extraction are all threatening the Great Lakes and the species who depend on them. Is it fathomable that a large-scale diversion project could be a future threat? Waukesha is just one thirsty city beyond the Great Lakes basin, but it begs the question: who will be next? Waukesha could be precedent setting for water woes and climate travails throughout the parched United States.


books_icon Boyce, C. (2016). Protecting the integrity of the Great Lakes: Past, present, and future. Natural Resources & Environment, 31.2, 36-39.

60-world2 Canadian Geographic. (n.d.). The Great Lakes. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from http://www.canadiangeographic.com/atlas/themes.aspx?id=watersheds&sub=watersheds_flow_thegreatlakes&lang=En

60-world2 Government of Canada. (2016). Great Lakes quickfacts. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from Environment and Climate Change Canada https://www.ec.gc.ca/grandslacs-greatlakes/default.asp?lang=En&n=B4E65F6F-1

60-world2 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). (n.d.). About our Great Lakes: Great Lakes basin facts. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from https://www.glerl.noaa.gov//education/ourlakes/facts.html

books_icon O’Neill, S. J., and Graham, S. (2016). (En)visioning place-based adaptation to sea-level rise. Geo: Geography and Environment, e00028, doi: 10.1002/geo2.28.

60-world2 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (2017). United States Drought Monitor. Retrieved February 26, 2017 from http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Home/RegionalDroughtMonitor.aspx?west

Towards a more ethical geographical praxis: western privilege and postcoloniality

By Mark Griffiths, Northumbria University


Johannes Vermeer The Geographer (1669). Available via United States Public Domain license.

Geographers have never been more acutely aware of the historical and contemporary cleavages of which we – or so many of us – are often both critics and beneficiaries. This year’s RGS-IBG Conference carries the theme of ‘Decolonising Geographical Knowledges’, while the other large conference, the AAG Meeting, is currently reacting to the damage brought by President Trump’s recent anti-Islam Executive Orders. These are worrying times that lay bare the legacies of formal colonialism and the persistence of western privilege. Particularly worrying is that geographers from outside the publishing heartlands – whose work is invaluable if we are to know anything at all about diverse places and people – will, as always, feel the brunt of these neocolonial measures brought by the new Trump Administration.

There is then a renewed focus on the haves and have-nots of people across the globe, geographers very much included. In this heated moment it feels very new, but while it might be true that we have never seen anything like Donald Trump before, it is not novel to have privileges skewed across space. This is not at all to dismiss the deleterious acts we’ve seen recently (and the silent complicity of too many), but it does serve to recall that our discipline has grown out of a history of uneven power relations with post/colonial places and people. As I point out in my recently published paper in Area, part of the privilege of western geographers in terms of ‘mobilities, institutional prestige, access to publishing avenues and so forth’ is owed to the spoils of empire.

We can therefore understand the privilege of western academics and geographers as historically constituted, where, say, the ‘permission to narrate’ (as Edward Said put it) or the ability to cross borders is tied intimately with one’s ancestral position within colonial-era relations. Couple this with important feminist interventions on the situatedness of knowledge and positionality as relational, and the self-reflection (or ‘hyper-self-reflection’ as Gayatri Spivak calls for) incumbent on us all when we embark on fieldwork in a “postcolonial context” can reveal much about how the past bears on the present and the means to carry out research.

For me, a white, British man working at a UK institution, those means are great. I therefore must include myself in a loose category of ‘privileged western researcher’ that has – rightly – brought much introspection from that part of our research community involved in working towards a de- or post-colonial praxis for geography, a work that will continue at this year’s biggest conferences.

In my paper* I consider the label of ‘privileged western researcher’ from a postcolonial and historical perspective. I argue that if “our” (a collective term I seek to pick apart) positionality is historically contingent with colonial-era relations, then the attendant colonial histories within that might be (re)considered through their, following the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty, heterogeneity. More specifically, I seek to bring the politics of class to disrupt the assumption of equivalence between Britishness (or western-ness) and unvariegated privilege.

To this end I turn to positionality as relational and personal and consider my own relationship with Empire, making what I consider an important point: ‘I’m a working class boy from the Industrial North of England, my parents’ parents … did not study at any of our great public schools or prestigious universities … my forebears did not order the passage of knowledge from Africa and the Orient to Kensington Gore and Oxbridge’. The argument I make therefore is that colonial-era relations across space were and are multivalent and histories of domination cannot draw so clearly the contours of researcher privilege in postcolonial settings.

From here I propose an empirical potential for more a more ethical praxis in the field, making the argument that in the business of talking about the unfairness of unequal opportunities, of assigned societal positions and trajectories, to know what it is to be sometimes outside, a working-class background (finally) becomes an academic resource that may just make solidarity with less-privileged Others come that bit more readily. In the article I give a brief example of how I believe this played out in fieldwork in India.

What this brings to these turbulent times is something of nuance to the idea that western geographers always already carry with them the histories of colonial exploration and expansion; just as gender and race can give the lie to this assumption, so can class. I look forward to discussing this further at the RGS-IBG Conference this coming August. As for what this might mean in the context of the ongoing debate around the AAG and travelling to the US, if little else a painstaking process of (communal) introspection might help us better negotiate the dissonant positions of critic and beneficiary of empire and its spoils.

* Mark’s paper inaugurates Area‘s new regular feature, ‘Ethics in/of geographical research’. The Area Editors welcome submissions from across the geographical community that consider diverse, contemporary concerns that fall under the broad remit of ethics.

About the author: Mark Griffiths is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Centre for International Development at Northumbria University. His research is split between two sites: in Palestine he focuses on the political affects of the occupation in West Bank, tracking the embodied aspects of Palestinian activism and resistance. In India his work has focused on NGO and volunteer work on livelihood and sanitation projects in both urban and rural areas.

60-world2 AAG Council 2017 AAG Statement on President Trump’s Executive Order http://news.aag.org/2017/01/aag-statement-on-president-trumps-executive-order/ 

books_icon Chakrabarty D 2007 Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference  Princeton University Press

60-world2 Fenton S 2017 Theresa May ‘very happy’ to host Donald Trump on state visit, despite petition reaching 1m signatures The Independent 30 January 2017 

books_icon Griffiths M 2017 From heterogeneous worlds: western privilege, class and positionality in the South. Area, 49: 2–8. doi:10.1111/area.12277 (free to access)

books_icon Haraway D 1988 Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective Feminist Studies 14, 575-99

books_icon Rose G 1997 Situating knowledges: positionality, reflexivities and other tactics Progress in Human Geography 21, 305-320

books_icon Said E 1984 Permission to Narrate Journal of Palestine Studies 13, 27-48

books_icon Spivak G C 1999 A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present Harvard University Press

Multiple stressors and ecological surprises

Geo: Geography and Environment

The expanding global human population, now about 7.5 billion, is increasing the pressure that we as a species put on the environment.  2016 was the warmest year ever recorded, and temperature records continue to be exceeded. Each year, more natural ecosystems are lost to dam construction, deforestation and urbanisation. Rates of species invasion are increasing, and pollution events continue to pressure native wildlife. Many ecosystems are now threatened simultaneously by these multiple human-caused stressors, yet we still know very little about their combined interactive impacts.

In our paper in Geo (Linking key environmental stressors with the delivery of provisioning ecosystem services in the freshwaters of southern Africa) we review the impacts of multiple stressors on ecosystem services in freshwater ecosystems in southern Africa (e.g. the Okavango Delta; see photo). We chose these systems because freshwaters contribute disproportionately to ecosystem services despite covering less than 1% of the earth’s…

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Boundaries, Borders, and… The Trump Wall?

By Jillian Smith, University of Birmingham 


The towns of Nogales, Arizona, left, and Nogales, Mexico, stand separated by a high concrete and steel fence. Image Credit: Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde.

We have all heard it: “I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively – I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”  Trump’s words from 2015 are once again making headlines and the proposed wall is forcing society to pose some tough questions.  Are walls a knee-jerk protectionist response?  How is globalisation implicated?  Do walls work?

The Great Wall of China, the Western Wall, Hadrian’s Wall, and several more – there is a certain degree of romanticism invoked that somehow makes us believe that protectionist ‘walls’ are from a bygone era.  Nevertheless, it is certainly not difficult for many of us to remember the celebratory tone when East Germans reunited with West Germans as the Berlin Wall was joyously torn down.  Perhaps it is this nostalgia that makes so many reel in repulsion as they ponder Trump’s USA-Mexico border wall?

Romanticism and nostalgia aside, walls are not archaic.  Walls have actually become rather trendy.  Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia all announced new walls in 2015 (Jones, 2016).  Additionally, in 2016, Norway and Pakistan announced plans to fence off Russia and Afghanistan respectively (Jones, 2016).  In fact, there were 15 documented walls in the world in 1989; there were 70 in 2015 (Vallet, 2016).

But do they work? Certainly, walls and fences can serve a purpose: When refugees flood Europe, fences can provide temporary relief to host nations; when warring factions enter peace talks, fences can cordon off cease-fire zones.  In these cases, and others, fences are temporary and justifiable.  In other cases, walls can antagonize relations, stifle trade, and increase disruption along borders.  For example: the UN has declared that Israel’s construction of the West Bank Wall has illegally fuelled tensions with Palestine; a 717 percent increase in illegal arrivals was reported in Bulgaria despite Bulgaria-Turkey border fencing; Calais refugees are desperately jumping lorries in attempts to illegally enter the United Kingdom (Danish Refugee Council, 2016; United Nations, 2016).

Meanwhile, heavily-guarded walls and fencing have been successful in stopping movement between the USA and Mexico (as observed in the 1990s when the USA reinforced border security near San Diego and El Paso).  Many, however, would argue that these reinforcements have not stopped flow; rather, they have shifted flows, increased migrant deaths, and expanded tunnel systems (Cornelius, 2001; Meissner et al., 2013).  In this case, a border wall has, perhaps, managed perceptions more than migration.  In other words, barriers can stem the flow, but desperate people are persistent and resourceful; they will find other means.  The colloquial elephant in the room remains – as long as vast inequality exists in society, there will inevitably be a flow of people.  Until these bigger societal problems are addressed, migration and immigration will occur.

Once upon a time, it seemed that globalisation might spur somewhat of a border-less, wall-less world.  With the reality of Brexit and President Trump, however, we can expect more, not fewer, protectionist policies.  Notions of territorial organisation are becoming more and more relevant as 2017 unfolds.  While migration and trade highlight interdependence, borders still play a significant role in shaping societies and economies (Diener & Hagen, 2009).  History can not tell us to build up or tear down a wall, but history can teach us some valuable lessons.  In the meantime, the legacy of an impending USA-Mexico Wall remains to be seen – the world is waiting with bated breath.


books_icon Cornelius, W. (2001). Death at the border: Efficacy and unintended consequences of US immigration control policy. Population and Development Review, 27: 661–685. doi: 10.1111/j.1728-4457.2001.00661.x

60-world2 Danish Refugee Council. (2016). Tightening borders, dangerous journeys, and shifting routes to Europe: Summary of regional migration trends, Middle East. Retrieved from: https://drc.dk/media/2885691/drc-middle-east-regional-migration-trends-august-september.pdf

books_icon Diener, A. C., Hagen, J. (2009). Theorizing borders in a ‘Borderless World’: Globalization, territory and identity. Geography Compass, 3: 1196–1216. doi:10.1111/j.1749-8198.2009.00230.x

60-world2 Meissner, D., Kerwin, D., Chishti, M., & Bergeron, C. (2013). Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinery. Retrieved from Migration Policy Institute: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/immigration-enforcement-united-states-rise-formidable-machinery

60-world2 United Nations. (2014). Ban says Israel’s construction of West Bank wall violates international law, fuels Mid-East tensions. Retrieved from UN News Centre: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=48236#.WIu0ihiZMhu

books_icon Vallet, E. (Ed.). (2014). Borders, fences and walls: State of insecurity? Border Regions Series. Surrey, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing