Nationalism Is an Environmental Disaster

Blind nationalism is the enemy of the environment and the climate, and it's about much more than a border wall.
Nationalism Is an Environmental Disaster
Image: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Blind nationalism is the enemy of the environment.

Consider President Donald Trump's infamous expanding border wall, a physical manifestation of the current administration's xenophobic, blatantly racist nationalism.

The wall's intended purpose—to exclude people from Latin America from this country—likely won’t be achieved. Many undocumented immigrants are already in this country, and a wall won't solve the problems that xenophobes claim they're worried about. It also won’t keep out the majority of undocumented immigrants, those who overstay work visas rather than hop the border.


What it will do, besides serve as a monument to cruelty, is divide populations of animal species, fragment and degrade ecosystems, and bulldoze landmark environmental measures in the name of national security. A 2005 law called the Real ID Act gives U.S. Customs and Border Protection the authority to waive pretty much any law at the border in the name of national security. It's through this law that environmental protections are ignored to build Trump's wall.

“Science has generated enough information to say beyond doubt that the wall has, will have, and has had a negative effect on wildlife and ecosystems,” said Mexican conservation biologist Rurik List. List was one of the signatories of a 2018 BioScience article decrying the wall. The article had more than 2,000 scientist signatures, including well-known biologists E.O. Wilson and Michael Soulé.

Blind nationalism’s harm to the environment doesn’t stop at the wall: It can incite conflict with serious environmental side effects, hinder global climate action, spell doom for wildlife, and facilitates eco-fasicsm—the marriage of extreme racism with paltry environmentalism.

“Usually when something impacts the environment, there’s a large chunk of mitigation money to restore habitats or protect alternative habitat. Those mitigation dollars [are] drying up or not being offered at all,” said Dan Millis, an organizer with the Sierra Club Borderlands group. “People are treating the most vibrant areas of our country like a sacrifice zone.”


Disrupting borderlands research

By building a wall and straining international relations, blind nationalism stymies research in the borderlands.

The basic function of science is knowledge sharing, a tradition that scientists from the U.S. and Mexico have long taken part in to achieve environmental goals; scientists have collaborated across the borderlands, and lawmakers in the U.S., Mexico, Canada, and other nations have signed joint treaties to protect migratory species. Our countries are inextricably physically connected, divided only by an arbitrary border that no animal, plant, or ecosystem respects.

The borderlands form the bridge between the Rockies above and the tropics below. Erecting a wall could functionally end much of the cooperation—or, at least, make collaboration much more difficult—to understand this transition zone, where many different species and ecosystems meet.

“Scientists are encountering real challenges doing research near the border because there’s so much security,” said Jennie Miller, a senior scientist at the conservation non-profit Defenders of Wildlife and another signatory of the BioScience border wall article. “If they can’t do research, we won’t be able to document what the border wall is doing to the ecosystem.”

Having data on such a unique ecosystem is particularly important when facing the climate crisis, where understanding ecosystem response to climate change is pivotal in further protecting nature. Climate change is forcing many species to move to find more suitable habitats, which is far more difficult with a wall in the way.


Stopping international climate action

Nationalism’s potential for environmental hazard scales all the way up to planet-wide existential risk. Climate change is a global problem that affects every aspect of our world. Disputes over water rights, endangered species, natural disasters, land development, changing weather patterns: these could lead to wars, displace millions of people, and cause mass extinction of species.

Having neighboring countries with contradictory and self-serving environmental protections can spell trouble for addressing the climate crisis. Many countries still see reducing emissions as an economic sacrifice, one they don’t want to make if any other countries aren't following the program.

That’s why the 2015 Paris Agreement was so pivotal—every major world power agreed to work on climate action together. Trump’s decision to pull out of the deal in the name of putting "America first" is exactly the kind of blind nationalism that acts against every major environmental goal.

“Nationalistic views are pure ignorance,” List said. “We must act globally because climate change affects the whole world.”

Nationalism, war, and eco-fascism

Yet another facet of nationalism's negative environmental effects is war.

Nationalism breeds conflict, and conflict is bad for the environment. Conflict requires intensive resource extraction, can degrade ecosystems, and can contaminate the environment. Military vehicles contaminate both the air and water of warzones, for example, impacting the local region and feeding climate change. Environmental destruction has also been used as a war tactic. For example, from 1965 to 1971, the US sprayed nearly 4,000 kilometres squared of Vietnamese land with herbicides. If nuclear weapons get involved, radiation contamination can severely degrade ecosystem health, threatening the lives of humans and other animals.


Already, some far-right groups have chosen to marry violence and xenophobia with a kind of warped environmentalism. Two recent mass shooters have espoused eco-fascism, an ideology that essentially uses the impending climate catastrophe as a backdrop to spread extreme racism. Eco-fascism scapegoats immigrants for environmental degradation while letting profiteering corporations and the governments that prop them up off the hook.

This is hardly environmentalism’s first brush with racism, but eco-fascism’s growing strength and capacity to incite violence cast those oft-overlooked prejudices in a fresh light. Not only is this marriage between environmentalism, nationalism, and violence destructive and disturbing, it’s also misguided.

Environmentalism necessitates that humans act as part of ecosystems and international networks, while nationalism and eco-fascism entrench anthropocentrism and strengthen borders. As we begin to feel the effects of climate change more acutely, relocating people out of potential disaster zones is critical. If every border becomes a wall, these planned retreats will be a logistical and human rights nightmare.

Our world is simultaneously more connected and more divided than it ever has been. Those divisions, if weaponized, will continue to drive us towards climate crisis and human misery. That connectivity, if utilized, is our best shot at a livable world.