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Chapter 7: Nationalism (21 Lessons for the 21st Century)

Chapter 7: Nationalism

Global problems need global answers

Despite sharing a single civilization, some people resort to their nationalistic identities, isolating themselves from the rest of the world. Is this a form of escapism, or does a return to nationalism offer real solutions?

To answer this question, it is important to recognize that nationalism is not a natural part of the human psyche. It is not rooted in human biology. While humans are social animals, for most of our history, we lived in small intimate communities consisting of less than a few dozen people. It is easy to develop a loyalty towards a tribe or family, but difficult to be loyal to millions of people who have never met. This requires considerable efforts of social construction.

The reason national collectives exist is to solve problems that were otherwise unsolvable. For example, the Egyptian tribes united their efforts in managing the Nile river by building canals and dams, since the river was an unpredictable ally. Too much rain caused the river to overflow and damage the village, while too little meant that people starved to death. The need to take more control over the river, their lifeblood, they managed to cooperate in larger groups. Despite the advantages of coordination, transforming tribes into a nation was never easy in human history.

That isn’t to say that there is anything wrong with national bonds, it can be very useful, and it is inaccurate to think that discarding nationalism would result in a liberal paradise.

Peaceful, prosperous and liberal countries such as Sweden, Germany and Switzerland all enjoy a strong sense of nationalism. The list of countries lacking robust national bonds includes Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo and most other failed states.

The problem is when benign patriotism mutates into ultra-nationalism – this is the belief that your nation is superior to all other nations, not only unique. This is fertile ground for conflict. But despite the atrocities that happened in the name of nationalism, it was still tolerated, until 1945 when everything changed.

Nuclear weapons made people think differently about nationalism. After Hiroshima, people were now afraid of a nuclear holocaust rather than war between nations. Total annihilation forced people to wake up, and the nationalist dream was suspended. And during the Cold War, nationalism took a back seat to globalist politics. While some thought nationalism was now a relic of the past, recent years have showed that it is making a comeback, even in Europe, the U.S, and Russia.

The Nuclear Challenge

After the Cold War, an era of peace and prosperity followed. Wars were an anomaly rather than the norm. Few borders have been redrawn since 1945. And despite wars in Syria and the Ukraine and other areas, more people died from obesity, car accidents, or suicide than they did from war. This may be the greatest political achievement of our time, but we have taken it for granted. The Russians and Americans have embarked on a new arms race that puts the world on the brink of nuclear annihilation.

Meanwhile the public have learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (as suggested in Dr Strangelove), or have just forgotten about its existence.

The Ecological Challenge

On top of nuclear war, in the coming decades humankind will face a new existential threat that hardly registered on the political radars in 1964: ecological collapse. Humans are destabilising the global biosphere on multiple fronts. We are taking more and more resources out of the environment, while pumping back into it enormous quantities of waste and poison, thereby changing the composition of the soil, the water and the atmosphere.

Habitats have degraded. Plants and animals are becoming extinct. Entire ecosystems such as the Amazon rain-forest may be destroyed. For thousands of years Homo sapiens was an ecological serial killer, now we have become an ecological mass murderer. Climate change is one of the main dangers facing us today.

The melting of ice caps, and expansion of desserts, in addition to the volatility of weather events may be too much to absorb for the billions of human beings on the planet. We are taking part in a dangerous experiment, and unlike nuclear war which may or may not happen, climate change is a present problem.

Nobody knows exactly how much carbon dioxide we can continue to pump into the atmosphere without triggering an irreversible cataclysm. But our best scientific estimates indicate that unless we dramatically cut the emission of greenhouse gasses in the next twenty years, average global temperatures will increase by more than 2°C, resulting in expanding deserts, disappearing ice caps, rising oceans and more frequent extreme weather events such as hurricanes and typhoons.

These changes will disrupt agriculture and make the world uninhabitable, sending hundreds of millions of people searching for new places to live. And as of 2018, instead of mitigating the problem, we have exacerbated it. The global emission rate is still on the rise.

Humanity has very little time left to wean itself from fossil fuels. We need to enter rehab today. Not next year or next month, but today. ‘Hello, I am Homo sapiens, and I am a fossil-fuel addict.’

This problem will not be solved without a global effort. Resorting to Nationalism will likely make things worse. Some countries clearly benefit from replacing fossil fuels, such as China, Japan, and South Korea, who are all major importers of oil and gas. Other countries will be harmed economically, such as Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia – their economies would collapse without the ability to export oil and gas.

The Technological Challenge

Nationalism is also not the answer to the technological challenge. If even a single country chooses a high-risk, high-gain technological path, other nations will be forced to do the same – nobody can afford to be left behind. A globally unified approach is necessary. Nationalists think about territorial conflicts, but the technological revolutions of this century should be understood in cosmic terms. Homo sapiens itself may have to make way for a new kind of species. Human beings have emerged from organisms, but for the first time in history, we may soon give rise to inorganic intelligent life.

Harari shows us that these are three threats that human beings will inevitably face, and we are destined to sacrifice one for another. For example, technological disruption cannot be halted in a time when ecological disasters are causing millions to immigrate to new living areas. In previous centuries, national identities were cultivated because humans shared problems that went beyond their local tribes.

In the 21st century, we find ourselves in the same situation as those tribes, national identities are too limited to handle the challenges of our age. A global ecology, economy, and science cannot be managed by nationalist politics.

This mismatch prevents the political system from effectively countering our main problems. To have effective politics, we must either de-globalise the ecology, the economy and the march of science – or we must globalise our politics. Since it is impossible to de-globalise the ecology and the march of science, and since the cost of de-globalising the economy would probably be prohibitive, the only real solution is to globalise politics. This does not mean establishing a global government – a doubtful and unrealistic vision. Rather, to globalise politics means that political dynamics within countries and even cities should give far more weight to global problems and interests.

Read 21 Lessons For The 21st Century

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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