Borders and maps are such a defining feature of modern civilisation that we can’t live without them. At the same time, many of us are subject to the mischievous urge to test, push and redefine them. It’s no coincidence that religious language plays on this tension: sins used to be commonly referred to as ‘transgressions’ (of an invisible line) and ‘trespasses’ (on a forbidden territory). Or, more recently: “I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude. Across this line, you do not …”
Borders are designed to let some people in, and keep some people out. They are not necessarily designed to keep some people in between, but they often do that anyway. Are ‘asylum seekers’ who’ve made it to England in, or out? They might have made it through on to dry land, but everyday life is still lived on a provisional basis, constrained and pushed to the margins.
The immigration debate that’s heated up so dramatically in my own country is about resources, borders and identity. Advocates of more control react against the triple threat of scarcity (jobs, housing, healthcare, money), difference (cultural, religious) and violence. This combination is powerful. It is not just scarcity that matters, but who has a right to the resources in question.
The borders in question are physical, legal, financial and ethical. Addressing one of these aspects on its own doesn’t cut it.
How real are borders?
But despite all the infrastructure around national borders – fences, checkpoints, surveillance, passports, police – borders of all types can be porous.
We don’t always know what to do with border-crossing entities: people, water, information, disease, ideas. Sometimes the need to define borders can achieve a kind of absurdity or seriously hamper normal life. At other times, people react viscerally and violently when boundaries are transgressed. Revealing, defining, questioning and remaking borders, then, can be a painful process.
What is gained from crossing lines, or redrawing them? The politics of resources are also border politics. ‘Resources’ might embrace everything from rainwater to manufactured goods, land, intellectual property, money, ‘carbon’… from things you can hold in your hand, contain, divide and restrict, to ideas and flows which are harder to control. ‘Borders’, an instrument of that control, might mean a razor wire fence, a wall, a biometric passport booth or a treacherous sea crossing.
But less tangible borders are no less real, and no less constructed too: a dotted line on a map, a 2 degree warming line that mustn’t be crossed, a set of planetary boundaries, a tipping point; gender, race, class divides; human and non-human. All of these have a reality in the realm of ideas which affects – and is in turn affected by – the material and human world.
From control to alienation
The material world, though, is increasingly becoming inconvenient even to those of us who are comfortable. The current sense of environmental crisis might make us want to strengthen borders, to lock them down. In response to climate change, should we seek more security and control, or resist that urge? Should humans aim to conserve nature by unshackling ourselves from our “continued dependence… on natural environments”? Can seeking deliberate alienation from ‘nature’ in fact be an “impetus to generate new worlds”?
In fact, I don’t think we should be romantic about being ‘connected to nature’, but instead recognise that our interdependence with nature can always create uncertainty and surprises – good and bad.
What does it mean to maintain a ‘safe operating space’ for humanity, when so much the planet is already spectacularly unsafe? Below the planetary level, can other protective lines be drawn to create ‘refuges’ where people can ‘make kin’ with other creatures? Can we create relationships across borders which expose the lies and omissions of maps and charts? These might be ways in which borders can be made to work for the advantage of less powerful people and groups.
My own instinct is to try to identify where borders exist and whether they are helpful, to whom and why. In the process, resources, borders and identities become entangled. Sometimes, opportunities open up to reveal – and question – the unspoken choices, connections, flows and logics that lie behind them. This revealing and questioning is a political exercise as well as an intellectual one.