Wales beyond borders: nationalism and the climate crisis

(This article was originally published in translation by O’r Pedwar Gwynt in June 2019)

In recent months we have witnessed two distinct-but-overlapping protest movements mobilising throughout Wales and converging on our capital city. First, the Welsh branch of the international Extinction Rebellion movement took to the streets during March and April, in which activists and, most movingly, schoolchildren came to the Senedd to demand that the Welsh Government declare a ‘climate emergency’. This was followed in early May by the ‘All Under One Banner’ March for Independence in central Cardiff, the most visible action the new Welsh independence movement has taken to date. 

Given that both movements have been met with similar observations in terms of racial politics and the efficacy of their tactics, and given that the climate catastrophe will soon necessarily envelope all political movements, such is its scale, it is worth us considering how adept our ‘national movement’ will be at answering the questions that this crisis will ask of us.

First, let’s identify and accept the scale and form of the crises we face. The sensation of catastrophic ‘disaster porn’ is already pervasive in popular discourse surrounding environmental collapse. Melting icecaps; floods; wildfires; extreme weather: in the (post-)industrial Global North, it is these images that capture our immediate imagination and attention. What is perhaps overlooked here – in that it is slower, less spectacular – is the human cost across the globe, much of which is not a prophecy of the distant future, but is happening right now. As Tom Whyman writes, the climate change that affects the Global North:

‘…is by no means the only, or even the dominant, experience of climate change worldwide. Climate change is already ravaging the global south, having been blamed, for instance, for exacerbating conflicts in Darfur, Yemen, and Syria. Climate change is already working to parch and to drown and to starve and to displace.’

So while, as Katy Lederer writes, ‘no single human on this earth, whatever their gender, nationality, color, class, or age, will be untouched by some physical, economic, or other systemic ramification of future warming’, in the short term there will be a racial, national, imperialistic hierarchy when it comes to the human cost across the globe. 

When Black Lives Matter first mobilised in the UK in 2016, they immediately focused on environmental activism. Why? Because, in the words of Alexandra Wanjiku Kelbert:

‘…the climate crisis is a racist crisis. On the one hand Britain is the biggest contributor per capita to global temperature change. It is also one of the least vulnerable to the effects of climate change. On the other hand, seven of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change are in sub-Saharan Africa.’

Thus if we in Wales will be somewhat insulated from the worst of these environmental changes, we have a moral duty to ensure our governments mitigate the effects of climate change not just nationally, but globally as well. This isn’t just an act of decarbonisation, but also of decolonisation: of ensuring that our borders are open to climate refugees from across the world, and that we show internationalist solidarity through whatever means required of us. Likewise, if a national independence movement is to form part of an international process of decolonisation, it must consider the relationship between environmental collapse, population movement and imperialistic border controls. 

Perhaps understandably, the immediate concern of the Welsh independence movement is separating itself from the British state, and thus what is often misguidedly called ‘decolonisation’ or ‘anti-imperialism’ in this country simply means ditching Westminster and demanding “all power to the Senedd”. The underpinning belief-system guiding these demands often oscillates between simply believing that we are best served if we fully and independently managed our own affairs, and a more existential motivation: to preserve historically- and culturally- held notions of ‘Welshness’ that are under perennial threat of extinction at the hands of an increasingly buoyant and insidious British nationalism.

But how do these aims reconcile themselves against this new future? What does cultural and community preservation look like against the backdrop of ‘political destabilization as connected to climate change and mass migration’, as Kate Aronoff puts it. How does our national existentialism convert into a true internationalism that can adapt to seismic shifts in global demography? 

Let there be no doubt: in the twenty-first century our commonly held notions of what constitutes national identity will collapse. The ecological and ethnographical makeup of the planet is going to fundamentally and irreversibly change. Any notion of Welsh independence must organise with this in mind.

How should we measure the Welsh national(ist) movement’s readiness for meeting these challenges? A closer look at the current policy proposals of Plaid Cymru would seem a sensible place to start.

Firstly, it is commendable that they have been pushing the Welsh Labour government to do what they can to mitigate the immediate surface-level contributors to climate change within Wales: most within the party have been critical of the proposed M4 relief road, which the Welsh government still appear reluctant to cancel. Labour’s climate emergency declaration was also met with healthy cynicism, pushing the government to convert its rhetoric into achieving something meaningful. 

However, there is still much reason for pessimism here. Despite realising the true gravity of climate emergency, there is still an apparent commitment to ‘building our economy, creating jobs and supporting our industries’, as their recent party political broadcast states. Worryingly then, traces remain of the destructive politics that have caused this global catastrophe in the first place. Like a lot of the problems Welsh society faces, the Plaid Cymru leadership can identify the causes of crises, but are unable to theorise beyond them. It would be negligent of the party’s progressive intentions if ecological disaster became another ‘niche issue’: a minor cause for concern to be deferred to another day. 

So if the jury is still out on the party’s approach to decarbonisation, what of their approach to the necessarily complementary decolonisation? Hints of their likely approach can be gleaned from their campaign material for the European Parliament elections this month. In a recent article, Jill Evans MEP calls for a ‘Welsh migration system in order to introduce a system that works for the needs of Wales’, with the justification that ‘migrants make a huge contribution to Wales, our communities and our economy, and it’s important that we have a system that works for us, not for Westminster.’ The obvious concern here is that the party is not explicitly calling for a migration system that works for the needs of migrants, with the caveat that their right to cross our borders is contingent upon their economic value rather than a basic act of humanity. While the detail of Plaid’s European election manifesto does reiterate a commitment to a ‘humane approach and show greater solidarity with refugees’, it is concerning that the spirit of this policy pledge is in danger of falling short of the outward-looking internationalist vision we require if we are to meet our moral obligations in tackling the climate crisis.

The national independence movement is, rightly, larger than Plaid Cymru, but much of the wider discourse falls into similar traps of a nationalism without meaningful internationalism. This often stems from what at times seems like a narrow definition of what political forms are constituted as ‘national’ and are thus worthy of incorporation into the national movement. 

The threatened destruction of the Gwent Levels by the proposed M4 relief road is an immediate example of the climate emergency manifesting within the borders of Wales. Yet it is not necessarily within the ideological constituency of the Welsh nationalist movement as an issue of Welsh nationalism, because it is not coded as a threat to Welsh sovereignty, even though it is an existential threat to the planet itself. Worryingly, it is only when the threat of an external ‘other’ migrating across our borders is perceived – in this case the likeliness that the new motorway will facilitate the needs of commuters from south-west England – that such a crisis becomes a nationalist concern, which is not a good sign.

To use another example: last year Mustafa Dawood, a young refugee living in Newport, died as the result of an immigration raid. Although there were some ripples in the national press, and a flurry of localised protests, this incident – with a few notable exceptions, not least Fflur Arwel’s poignant contribution to this publication – did not seem to appear on the radar of those whose politics is centred upon rejecting Westminster rule, even though the death of a Welsh resident due to the actions of British border security must rank as the most egregious instance of an invasion of Welsh sovereignty there could possibly be. Again, this does not bode well if from this event we can infer that, as it stands, the independence movement appears unwilling or ill-equipped to incorporate the needs of migrants, refugees and the international community into its nationalism when required. 

We can see, then, how easy it is for a national movement to inadvertently create a nominally-progressive nationalism that is blind to the needs of the oppressed and endangered in other nations, and these contradictions will come to a head with the climate crisis. In a compelling essay for Open Democracy, James Trafford argues against a form of ‘green nationalism’, in which ‘climate crises caused by former colonial powers’ are ‘[entrenching] hierarchies of citizenship’. Trafford makes clear that a primarily nationalistic discourse can be destructive when facing a global ecological crisis:

‘The underlying logic of green nationalism is not just that it is inevitable that some people will die. Rather, it is also that only through their extinction that some of us are to survive.’

It is this ‘securitized eugenicism’, as Trafford puts it, that we need to be most wary of when mobilising a nationalist discourse at the exact moment in history when a worldwide upheaval of borders and nations is in its nascent stage.

So, where do all these pitfalls and contradictions leave Wales’ fledgling nationalist/independence movement? To negotiate a way out of this ideological impasse, let’s return to the March for Independence. Despite the merited reticence expressed concerning the march’s racial politics and its ‘apolitical’ nature, there is much to be positive about here. At the very least, there is an opening for the ‘collective joy’ of mass protest to be channelled into forging the new forms of solidarity we will need if we are to meet impending crises and future challenges. The potential for marches and protests to exemplify ‘the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy’[1], in the words of Mark Fisher, is a powerful ideological weapon in crystallising a new common sense that gives primacy to comradeliness not just within borders, but across them too.

Several of the speakers at the march also expressed the importance of internationalist solidarity in identifying and overcoming the challenges Wales faces both pre- and post-independence, not least the climate emergency. Sandy Clubb of Undod, in particular, spoke not just of climate change, but of climate justice. It is this concept of justice that is most crucial: we need to take it upon ourselves not just to meet the challenges of environmental disaster within our own borders, but to extend and open our borders up to those under greater threat than ourselves. The gravity of this moral imperative is put starkly by Tommaso Segantini:

‘As climate disruption, economic instability, poverty, and wars propagate global chaos, and as people on the move will increase, there are only two alternatives: solidarity, or else a world of fortresses, walls, and a slow genocide. There is no middle ground.’

It is these sentiments of internationalism that must form the ideological vanguard of this movement if we are to use the cause of independence to imagine new and better ways of living and contributing to the world in a time of great upheaval.

[1]Mark Fisher, ‘Acid Communism’ in K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004–2016)(London: Repeater Books, 2018), p.753.