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Interview with Daniele Conversi

Paulina Smolinski / March 25, 2020

The field of nationalism studies has been notoriously behind in addressing climate change. Daniele Conversi has provided a nationalism framework to analyze this boundless, global phenomenon. Our interview with Conversi comes at a time when the world is encountering another boundless issue, the COVID-19 pandemic. We discuss how the same framework he has applied to climate change can be used to understand the global response to the spread of the virus.

ASN: In your opinion, what has been the main stumbling block for nationalism studies in its conceptualization of climate change?

DC: I can identify several possible obstacles: First, we should note the fragmentation of our field into a host of localist, secluded, time-bound, nation-specific case studies. Secondly, despite the interdisciplinary foundations of nationalism studies, the predominance of historians and historical sociologists precludes a fresh look at both contemporary and future trends. Of course, political scientists are also active in the field, but climate change is a recent interest here as well. Third, as in other disciplines, there is the intellectual inertia of following fads, fashions, and mainstream narratives. 

ASN: From a positive perspective, in what way can the nationalism framework be used to mobilize a "building of bridges" to confront climate change? 

DC: To every problem there is a solution, but in our field it's quite complicated. As a first step, I think we need to be aware of the boundary-building aspect of nationalism. Nationalists want to fence people in. Once we are aware of that, we can identify those forms of nationalism which are bridge-building, in opposition to those that are more prone to raising boundaries (considering that all nationalisms are constructed around boundaries).

ASN: You highlight the paradox of nationalist politics when it confronts climate change. Of the ways that you envision nationalism positively responding to climate change, is there a path that you see as more feasible? 

DC: State-led nationalism can hardly play a leading role in tackling climate change. It has constantly acted as a major obstacle in climate negotiations. I do not see how this can change. At the same time, the importance of nationalism cannot be easily dismissed. Some forms of non-state or substate nationalism, as well as Indigenous Peoples movements, have historically revealed a certain propensity to act in defense of the environment and proved able to act multilaterally within international alliances.

ASN: You summarize the state of the field by saying, "Nationalism may have been an appropriate ideology until the late 20th century, but it is becoming increasingly unfit for the new world that is unfolding." Where do you see the field of nationalism moving forward?

DC: Nationalism studies need to connect with fast paced developments in other sciences and, most of all, the constant flux of discoveries in the hard or exact sciences. It cannot insulate itself from emerging trends in a rapidly changing world. Consider the relationship with robotics and automatization, the Internet, fake news, the media, and many other contemporary and future trends. All these developments are having, and will have, an enormous impact on how nationalism is conceived and re-conceived.

With the coronavirus pandemics, robotics and automation have rapidly expanded, [substituting for] the lack of human presence and mobility, as people have remained confined to their homes. Communities are being reimagined as both national and cross-national. 

ASN: In your work you advance the typology of resource nationalism, which provides a framework for understanding a concept as boundless as climate change. As we are currently dealing with a global pandemic, do you believe your framework can be used to understand the response from a nationalism perspective?

DC: Yes. The pandemic is a quintessential example of when the international coordination, simultaneity, and synchronicity I refer to in the article would be needed on a global scale. Instead, the struggle against the virus has been carried out at the ill-coordinated level of the nation state. Even within Europe, states have seized the initiative, and interstate boundaries have been resurrected, along with other boundaries. The emergency didn't find most governments ready to understand the unprecedented size of the challenge. With fake news spiraling out of control, nationalism risks emerging stronger than ever before. Many epidemiologists have warned that a new more lethal pandemic may be unavoidable, indeed imminent. How can we face it without radical and comprehensive international coordination?

On the other hand, many have understood that the existing interconnectivity contains in itself the seeds of a possible universal response to other forthcoming global crises, most notably climate change. 

Another lesson is that crucial political decisions must be made in the light of scientific evidenceDenial and delay has cost thousands of lives with coronavirus and may cost billions of lives with climate change. 

These days have been dominated by online interactions as opposed to face-to-face communication. Our reliance on social forums and platforms has exponentially expanded. This makes the Internet highly vulnerable to all sorts of attacks. One can argue that the diffusion of fake news is the greater threat, than the pandemic itself. Conspiracy theories about the fabricated origins of the virus pervade the Internet and have begun to circulate amongst academics. Fake news should be systematically contrasted with scientific research: epidemiologists, virologists, and geneticists have clearly demonstrated that the genome was not fabricated in laboratory settings, but was the product of zoonotic mutation.

Where denial doesn't prevail, public health becomes far more important than the defense of mass consumption and business as usual, whatever the cost. Boris Johnson’s [initial] position, uncaring about the elderly and the poor, cannot be ethically assumable. The current pandemic has prompted a collapse of anti-environmental CO2-intensive jobs. Unsustainable sectors like mass tourism, the car industry, and aviation have been penalized in this stage. However, these are all represented by powerful lobbies trying to monopolize reconstruction funds to once again dominate the world as they did before the crisis - see Trump's help for the aviation industry and his unwillingness to aid ordinary Americans.

While economic functions need to be boosted, it would be fatal, after so much suffering, to return to the previous lifestyles that we have abandoned for the short time span of a lockdown. The economy will be devastated for years to come, and we would be ill-advised to ignore the recent lesson and return to the same fuels-based consumerism. But the push towards returning to business as usual is already visible, reviving the old ideology of ‘growthism.

We also have the opportunity to experience firsthand what a changing lifestyle means and how difficult it is. 

Perhaps this question can inspire me to explore the greater relationship between nationalism, globalization, climate change, and pandemics: both climate change and COVID-19 are being tackled nationalistically - [states are] rapidly shifting from globalization to autarky - while unavoidably needing greater cooperation.

In a time of crisis, we have realized our dependence on basic sectors like agriculture, and can begin to consider again the vital importance of renewable energies and organic farming -all of which point towards a real opportunity for change.

There is an increasing understanding that existing global inequalities are no longer acceptable. In most countries, there has been a renewed elan toward helping the elderly, the poor, the downtrodden. We have seen an entire generation decimated with its knowledge and wisdom, killed through contagion by the carelessness of their own offspring - shamefully, the very generation responsible for the worst aspects of climate change. 

The curfews and lockdowns have been accepted on the basis of widespread principles of social justice in favor of the most affected, vulnerable, or disadvantaged.  In this situation, cooperation has replaced competition at every level of societyThis unique emergency situation has contributed to create a new sense of community, which nevertheless is under threat by the spread of fake news, scapegoating, moral panics, disinformation and, most of all, nationalism. 

All this makes me think that there are a host of lessons to be learned from the current crisis, many of which can be applied to the most urgent crisis of all time, the climate emergency. 

Read the article here: Daniele Conversi, "The Ultimate Challenge: Nationalism and Climate Change", Nationalities Papers.