Author Archives: jsbsmith

Decolonising Geographical Knowledges in Settler States

By Jillian Smith, University of Birmingham 

rupertsland

Rupert’s Land

Is decolonising geographical knowledges actually reproducing coloniality? Geographers have recently been posed this question for consideration; in fact, the 2017 RGS-IBG chair’s theme states that debating decoloniality might be a good starting point towards decolonisation (Esson et al., 2017). This statement complements Tuck and Yang’s earlier notion that the recent proliferation of decolonial language by non-Indigenous scholars can have the effect of reproducing coloniality (2012). Esson et al. (2017) assert that as we open geography out to the world in an effort at decolonisation, we actually “run the risk of speaking instead of those eager and equipped to speak for themselves.”

I took this last statement as an invitation to offer up my own unsolicited version of what prompted my interest in geography ­– my Indigenous forefathers. At the risk of romanticizing my Métis heritage, I often think of my Indigenous ancestors as early geographers. As Indigenous trappers, fur traders, and Voyageurs on the Great Lakes of Turtle Island (now North America), my ancestors undoubtedly had vast geographical knowledge of their territory. But like so many things in the colonial era, it did not last. The quasi-nomadic lifestyle ended as new settlers arrived and the First nations and Métis people living in Canada were assigned parcels of land under new colonial structures. By 1840, my 4th great-grandfather had signed a petition (with all the makings of an early treaty) requesting traditional land back from the Crown.  Though his petition was unsuccessful, I am a proud that my grandfather was not only an early geographer, but an aspiring decoloniser.

Indisputably, one of colonisation’s earliest effects was Indigenous land dispossession; as such, it is imperative that any discussion of decolonisation must include programming to reconnect Indigenous peoples to the land that was lost, and the knowledge, languages, and relations associated with the land (Wildcat et al., 2014). Tuck and Yang (2012) go further to suggest that decolonisation must go beyond repatriation of land; they infer that decolonisation is also about deconstructing colonial institutions.

Meanwhile, Matsunaga (2016) notes that governments and academics are expanding transitional justice theory to harms inflicted to Indigenous peoples in settler states such as Australia, Canada, and the United States. Matsunaga adds that two faces of transitional justice will need to be examined if decolonisation is to occur: an internal focus on reconciliation, and an external focus on the expertise required to heal a fragile state.  The use of the term ‘fragile state’ here is significant. Recall that fragile states have traditionally been regarded as post-conflict states. Australia, Canada, and the United States are certainly not ‘fragile’ in this context. Nonetheless, a historical injustice has occurred in each of these nations, and as Teital (2003) astutely notes, the paradoxical goal in transition is to undo history. The mechanism in which transitional justice will contribute to decolonisation in Canada, or in any settler state, remains to be seen (Park, 2015).

Esson et al. (2017) concur with Tuck and Yang (2012) and explain that the decolonisation of geographical knowledges cannot occur while structures inherited from geography’s colonial past are upheld. It is, however, still possible (and indeed, desirable) that geographers engage in discussions about Indigenous worldviews. Without Indigenous involvement in these discussions, however, they are moot. For example: the reputable British journal, Third World Quarterly (an egregious 40-year-old journal name itself), recently published a piece entitled, “The case for colonialism.” Astoundingly, the author, Bruce Gilley, states that colonisation has been wrongly vilified and that it is time to re-colonise parts of the world (2017). Would my Indigenous ancestors, friends, and relatives of Turtle Island believe that re-colonisation is a good idea? Assuredly not. A petition asking for the article’s retraction has been signed many thousands of times and fifteen of the journal’s thirty-four editorial board members have resigned in protest (Flaherty, 2017). Though the outrage over the piece has been swift and ferocious, the fact that the article was published at all illustrates a point that Western notions of ideology still exist in academia.

Resistance, reconciliation, repatriation, storytelling, deconstruction, transitional justice – decolonisation means different things to different people in different parts of the world.  Perhaps it should be less about what decolonisation is, and more about who is unlocking their voice in the discussion. Indigenous voices have been silenced for hundreds of years. If we collectively spend more time listening, and less time proselytising, perhaps those of us attempting to decolonise knowledges will have a better chance at avoiding any reproduction of coloniality.

References

Esson, J., Noxolo, P., Baxter, R., Daley, P., & Byron, M. (2017). The 2017 RGS-IBG chair’s theme: decolonising geographical knowledges, or reproducing coloniality? Area, 49:384-388. doi:10.1111/area.12371

Flaherty, C. (2017). Resignations at ‘Third World Quarterly’. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/09/20/much-third-world-quarterlys-editorial-board-resigns-saying-controversial-article

Gilley, B. (2017). The case for colonialism. Third World Quarterly, 1-17.

Matsunaga, J. (2016). Two faces of transitional justice: Theorizing the incommensurability of transitional justice and decolonization in Canada. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 5(1), 22-24. Retrieved from: http://decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/view/26530/19735

Park, A. S. (2015). Settler Colonialism and the Politics of Grief: Theorising a Decolonising Transitional Justice for Indian Residential Schools. Human Rights Review, 16(3), 279– 293.

Teitel, R. G. (2003). Transitional Justice Genealogy. Harvard Human Rights Journal, 16, 69.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 1–40. Retrieved from: http://decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/view/18630/15554

Wildcat, M., McDonald, M., Irlbacher-Fox, S., Coultard, G. (2014). Learning from the land: Indigenous land based pedagogy and decolonization. Decolonization: Indigneity, Education & Society, 3(3).

 

 

 

 

 

“Ethical Oil”: Does geography matter?

By Jillian Smith, University of Birmingham

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Photo Credit: Peter Essick

The phrase “ethical oil” went mainstream in Canada in 2010 after a national bestseller of the same name.  The book, written by Ezra Levant, a right-wing political activist and lawyer, gave this simplified primer: Canada is a friendly, secure petro state; Saudi Arabia and OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) are conflicted and undemocratic.  In other words, the opinion is that Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and climate change aside, Canada’s oil is “ethical”.  Opinions aside, the International Energy Agency – a Parisian-based intergovernmental organization – states that depending on the region, Canadian oil is 5-10 per cent more GHG intensive than U.S. conventional fuel from extraction to combustion (well-to-wheel) (IEA, 2011).  Bradshaw (2010) recognises that globalisation, climate change, and energy security are intricately linked; he strives to explain why geography complicates the interaction of climate change and energy security. Bradshaw dubs this the ‘global dilemma’.  While the momentum of Levant and his ‘ethical oil’ campaign may have become distant memories, given the scope of climate change and energy security, it is worth reflecting on why it was paradoxical to rebrand Canadian oil, or any oil, as “ethical” in the first place.

Oil sands development constitutes Canada’s fastest growing source of CO2 because of the large amount of energy required to extract bitumen from sand.  Additionally, after accounting for the natural gas that powers the process of converting bitumen to crude and the removal of Boreal forest (a large carbon storehouse), Canadian tar sands oil can emit up to three times more GHG’s than conventional oil (Hatch and Price, 2008).  Despite plans to reduce emissions per barrel, with development scheduled to proceed, overall emissions will inevitably rise and the global issue of climate change could weigh heavily on Canada’s shoulders.

In March of 2017, President Trump gave an enthusiastic green light to the “incredible” Keystone pipeline.  This 1400 kilometre mile pipeline will transport up to 830,000 barrels of Canadian crude to Texas.  The State department said it considered foreign policy and energy security in making the approval.  This aligns with Levant’s argument that the world has a choice: embrace Canada’s peaceful, democratic oil or continue its dependence on OPEC’s dictatorship, conflict oil.  Levant, however, went further to suggest that the question of morality must encompass human rights issues independent of environmental costs.  In his mind, reliance on oil from dictatorships to “save modestly on greenhouse gases” was a misguided notion.  Many Americans and Canadians, however, would beg to differ – environmental costs do matter.

Levant, however, is no stranger to controversy and libel.  A former tobacco lobbyist, he is adept at weaving intricate webs.  His favourite spin in the oil debate was lambasting Saudi oil. Certainly a healthy dose of skeptisim and a critical eye is healthy in any society, yet when skeptics are given the same airtime as legitimate researchers, facts become blurred.

With Canada’s oil being celebrated and extolled, while simultaneously being criticized and decried, it is not surprising that Canadians can be confused about the dizzying array of incongruous oil sands reports.  As such, decisions and reformations must first be based on sound scientific assessments of the facts.  Consequently, the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) – Canada’s most prominent group of scholars and scientists, experts in their fields whom are peer-elected to receive this highest academic accolade and fellowship – published a peer-reviewed, comprehensive, 437-page evidence-based study of the oil sands in late 2010.

The report, while not as blasphemous as environmentalists would have liked, is certainly proof that Canada’s oil needs more than a rebranding makeover to be considered “ethical”.  The report concludes that “carbon capture and storage (CCS) does not appear to be a feasible option” and that increasing GHG emissions will create a major challenge for Canada to meet international commitments for overall emission reductions (Gosselin et al., 2010).

Fossil fuels, though intrinsically unsustainable, are the crown jewel of Canada’s multi-billion dollar energy sector.  But virtuous, ethical societies must aim to ultimately reduce oil consumption and pave the way for cleaner, renewable energy developments around the globe.  Additionally, ethical societies must conscientiously manage the resources they are entrusted with and devise coherent energy policies.  To date, North America lags behind the rest of the world in terms of energy efficiency and innovation.  Canada, with its enhanced regulatory oversight, can choose to perform ethically by embracing intergenerational thinking of a world beyond mere decades of oil.  Could some of Canada’s oil proceeds help pave the way toward a more sustainable future?  Regardless, it seems the words “ethical” and “oil”, though a clever marketing pitch, are not to be metaphorically mixed in the long-term interests of the planet or its people.

 

References

books_icon Bradshaw, M. J. (2010). Global energy dilemmas: a geographical perspective. The Geographical Journal176(4), 275-290.

60-world2 Gosselin, P., Hrudey, S. E., Naeth, M. A., Plourde, A., Therrien, R., Van Der Kraak, G., et al. (2010, December). Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry. Retrieved September 21, 2016, from The Royal Society of Canada: http://www.rsc.ca/documents/RSCreportcompletesecured9Mb_Mar28_11_000.pdf

books_icon Hatch, C., & Price, M. (2008). Canada’s Toxic Tar Sands: The Most Destructive Project on Earth. Toronto: Environmental Defence of Canada.

60-world2 IEA. (2011, April 13). Oil in the global energy mix: Climate policies can drive an early peak in oil demand. Retrieved July 2, 2017, from International Energy Agency: http://www.iea.org

books_icon Levant, E. (2010). Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart Ltd.

Climate Change: Politics and Perception in the United States

By Jillian Smith, University of Birmingham 

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Donald Trump. Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

It has been a battle worthy of Cervantes, had he been alive in this era of anthropogenic climate change.  Simply mentioning the terms ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ can elicit impassioned, often divisive, rejoinders from an audience.  Invariably, belief and cultural systems drive the discourse of climate change opinion and news reportage; it is a complex chicken and egg scenario.  There does, however, appear to be an esoteric climate change–political nexus that also, perhaps deplorably at times, influences public opinion.  Nowhere does this egregious unification seem more prevalent than in the United States.  How do the politics around climate change influence the narratives and public perception?

Astoundingly, when a group of researchers set out to examine seventy-four American public opinion polls between 2002 and 2010, they discovered that neither extreme weather events nor scientific stories affected public perception of climate change (Brulle et al., 2011).  News reports – but more importantly, the politicians framed in the reports – were the biggest influences (Brulle, et al., 2011).  The two strongest events driving public concern in the United States at the time were the Democratic Congressional action statements and the Republican roll-call votes (Brulle, et al., 2011).  Indeed, most studies indicate that American views of climate change are strongly influenced by partisan politics.  Worldwide, however, educational attainment is generally regarded as the single biggest predictor of climate change awareness.

Interestingly, while Americans and Canadians share a border and enjoy similar lifestyles, a 2010 cross-border poll revealed fewer Americans claim solid evidence of global warming “based on what they have read or heard” (Borick et al., 2011).  Remarkably, 58 percent of Americans and 80 percent of Canadians answered affirmatively to the evidence of global warming (Borick et al., 2011).  A more recent opinion poll suggests that while 70 percent of American adults believe global warming is happening, only 53 percent think it is caused by human activities (Marlon et al., 2016).

To delve into the cultural and worldview disparities between the United States and Canada would be an exhaustive endeavor.  Still, it remains striking that Canada, within reach of America’s massive media kingdom, consistently reports and frames anthropogenic climate change differently than the United States.  While American reports continue to debate the science behind global warming, Canadian reports tend to frame the mitigation of anthropogenic climate change  (Good, 2008).

Novelty, controversy, geographic proximity, and relevance are all important frames in scientific stories (Caravalho, 2007).  Experts employ frames to simplify technical jargon; journalists use frames to craft appealing news reports; and audiences rely on frames to envisage an issue (Nisbet, 2009).  When climate change basics are framed as scientifically tenable positions, audiences must choose to question or quarantine their comfortably held beliefs.  In documenting Arctic ice edge narratives, Veland and Lynch (2016) state that we tend to rely on narratives that provide comfort to us.  The authors add that ontological insecurity can be a major challenge in making sound environmental decisions.

Once upon a time, scientists were informers and people listened.  Today, because the average citizen does not read peer-reviewed scientific literature, many rely on media and opinion pieces to educate themselves on newsworthy science stories.  Disparagement between petulant politicians and scientists often overshadows the science.  But climate change is a science; it does not require belief.  In that sense, public opinion matters little.

Moreover, the post-modernist notion that all ideas are worthy of expression can become unfavorable in the realm of climate science.  Science is indeed stronger with scrutiny; but those scrutinizing it are often politicians, journalists, and bloggers, not scientists.  It is not difficult to weave scandalous narratives about anthropogenic climate change: one side includes ‘alarmists’ and ‘manipulators of science’ who say the earth is doomed; the other claims global warming is an ‘elaborate hoax’.  This ‘experts in conflict’ narrative is a popular practice used predominantly in the United States.  International research demonstrates this custom is not widely used outside of America (Young & Dugas, 2011).

Undoubtedly, the path to re-engineering society will require a reorganization of thought – perceptions without politics, notions detached from debates, narratives with new frames.  Veland and Lynch (2016) assert that the Anthropocene narrative warns that stories–and the networks that make them–must change.  As Cervantes said through Quixote, “he who walks much and reads much knows much and sees much.”  The path forward surely involves assembling this collective knowledge and having discussions, not debates.

References

Borick, C., Lachapelle, E., & Rabe, B. (2011, February 23). Climate Compared: Public Opinion on Climate Change in the United States and Canada. (The University of Michigan; The Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion) Retrieved from Public Policy Forum/Sustainable Prosperity: http://www.sustainableprosperity.ca/article911

Brulle, R. J., Carmichael, J., & Jenkins, J. C. (2011). Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the US, 2002-2010. Climatic Change.

Carvahlo, A. (2007). Ideological cultures and media discourses on scientific knowledge: re-reading news on climate change. (S. Publications, Producer) Retrieved from Public Understanding of Science: http://www.pus.sagepub.com

Good, J. E. (2008). The Framing of Climate Change in Canadian, American, and International Newspapers; A Media Propaganda Model Analysis. (C. J. Communication, Ed.) Retrieved from http://www.cjc-online.ca/index.php/journal/article/view/2017/2006

Marlon, J., Howe, P., Mildenberger, M., & Leiserowitz, A. (2016). Yale Climate Opinion Maps – U.S. 2016. Retrieved from http://www.climatecommunication.yale.edu

Nisbet, M. (2009). Communicating climate change: Why frames matter for public engagement. Environment, 51 (2).

Veland, S., & Lynch, A. (2016). Arctic ice edge narratives: scale, discourse and ontological security. Area, 49.1, 9–17 doi: 10.1111/area.12270

Young, N., & Dugas, E. (2011). (C. S. Association, Producer, & University of Ottawa) Representations of Climate Change in Canadian National Print Media: The Banalization of Global Warming: http://www.ebscohost.com

Power (Solar Power) in Paradise

By Jillian Smith, University of Birmingham 

Island

Island of Kaua’i. (c) Jillian Smith

Popular culture portrays island living as a bucolic dream. For most, however, it is a dream fulfilled only during fleeting vacations. Island destinations often appeal to eco-tourists, and many islands are in a race to become desirable, sustainable, and carbon-neutral destinations. Nevertheless, Grydehoj and Kelman (2017) state that conspicuous sustainability as a development strategy, while strengthening ecotourism, can detract from islands’ more pressing environmental issues. The pair assert that it is not difficult to find ‘eco-islands’ that have invested in inefficient renewable energy projects. Hawai’i, however, and the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i in particular, is making headlines about the new future of renewables in island energy.

The state of Hawai’i plans to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045 – the most aggressive target in the United States (HEI, 2016). Kaua’i – Hawai’i’s fourth largest island with a population of 67,000 – has an even more aggressive energy policy. The Kaua’i Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) has the goal to reach 50 percent clean energy by 2023; it is well on its way (Fehrenbacher, 2017). Tesla recently completed a solar-plus-battery storage system on the island. Storage has always been the challenge with renewables – the niggling question of how to keep the lights on when the sun does not shine or when the wind does not blow. Tesla’s battery packs solve this conundrum and will assuredly keep Kauai’s lights on after dark.

The island’s new solar plant is comprised of 54,978 solar panels, 13 megawatts of solar generation capacity, alongside Tesla’s large commercial 52 MWh Powerpack batteries (KIUC, 2017). Tesla is contracted to sell the energy to KIUC for 13.9 cents a kilowatt-hour over the next 20 years (KIUC, 2017). Importantly, this price is below the island’s current energy cost, which tends to be very high due to reliance of fossil fuels shipped and stored from the mainland. This dependence has also kept the island vulnerable to outages during shipping interruptions.

While Tesla’s solar plant will reduce fossil fuel use on the island (thereby reducing carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions) greenhouse gases emitted in transporting eco-tourists to and from these destinations may preclude them from ever becoming true ‘eco-destinations’. Nevertheless, residents are excited about no longer paying the highest utility prices in the nation, and visitors and residents alike have one less concern – secure energy. Though island destinations may still form an elusive dream in our collective psyche, renewable island energy is swiftly catapulting from dream to reality.

References

60-world2 Fahrenbacher, K. (2016). An exclusive look at Tesla & SolarCity’s battery solar farm in paradise. Fortune. Retrieved March, 2017, from http://fortune.com/tesla-solarcity-battery-solar-farm/

books_icon Grydehøj, A. and Kelman, I. (2017), The eco-island trap: climate change mitigation and conspicuous sustainability. Area, 49: 106–113. doi:10.1111/area.12300

60-world2 Hawaiian Electric Industries (HEI). (2017). Our Vision. Retrieved March, 2017, from https://www.hawaiianelectric.com/about-us/our-vision/100-percent-renewable-energy

60-world2 Kaua’i Island Utilities Cooperative (KIUC). (2017). Hawai’i’s first utility scale solar-plus-battery storgage system is energized on Kaui’i. Retrieved March, 2017, from http://kiuc.coopwebbuilder2.com/sites/kiuc/files/PDF/pr/pr2017-0308-KIUC%20Tesla%20plant%20energized.pdf

 

 

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.

References

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

Boundaries, Borders, and… The Trump Wall?

By Jillian Smith, University of Birmingham 

800px-Mexican-American_border_at_Nogales

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.

References

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