Climate change, ghost states and conceptual territory

Paul Raven @ 02-10-2009

Tuvalu - here today, gone tomorrow?Warren Ellis flagged up a Guardian article about another of my perennial obsessions, the shaky future of nation-states. What happens to a nation-state when the territory it occupies disappears?

Francois Gemenne, of the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations in Paris, said the likely loss of small island states such as Tuvalu and the Maldives raised profound questions over nationality and territory.

What would happen if a state was to physically disappear but people want to keep their nationalities? It could continue as a virtual state even though it is a rock under the ocean and its people no longer live on that piece of land.

Gemenne said there was more at stake than cultural and sentimental attachments to swamped countries. Tuvalu makes millions of pounds each year from the sale of its assigned internet suffix .tv to television companies. As a nation state, the Polynesian island also has a vote on the international stage through the UN.

“As independent nations they receive certain rights and privileges that they will not want to lose. Instead they could become like ghost states,” he said. “This is a pressing issue for small island states, but in the case of physical disappearance there is a void in international law.”

I’d suggest it’s not just climate change that could cause ghost-states – surely the Tibetan government-in-exile is something of a ghost-state, also, and conflicts like the Russian invasion of Georgia could lead to glove-puppet states whose citizens are pretty much disenfranchised by political machinations beyond their control.

As the old saying goes, the map is not the territory – and this will become more true as time goes by. Will corporations offer a more attractive package of rights to ghost-state citizens than other nations? As climate change refugeeism increases (and on the assumption that the consequential increase in immigration and asylum-seeking will tend to make richer nations raise their borders rather than lower them, unless they see immigration as a solution to a greying population), I think it’s safe to assume that they might. [image by mrlins]

The proliferation of pirate micronations (like smaller versions of the Raft from Snow Crash, perhaps, bypassing the need for physical territory by way of mobility and/or the colonisation of interstitial territories, be they land- or ocean-based) seems inevitable.

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3 Responses to “Climate change, ghost states and conceptual territory”

  1. Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) says:

    I’d say the Palestinian people are an excellent example of a ghost people, and an object lesson that realpolitik trumps religious and cultural ties.

    There are numerous instances in history of countries being occupied by others, and diplomatic staff forming governments in exile in countries not friendly to the occupier. For instance, the late science fiction writer Algis Budrys was the son of the Lithuanian ambassador to the US at the end of the Second World War; the ambassador became the President-in-Exile when the Russians occupied Lithuania. Budrys grew up in an environment in which some of his father’s colleagues expected him to take on the office when he was old enough, and eventually take Lithuania away from Russia and become its rightful President. There were similar, if less organized, sentiments among the exiled White Russians after the 1917 revolution.

    It may be that the internet will enable some ghost peoples to survive as coherent nations even without having land on which to gather. Considering the states of Darfur and Palestine, they might be safer that way.

  2. jon says:

    I think, simply, if you lose your country then you automatically lose all the privileges that country had. You can call yourself whatever you want but you’re going to need to become officially a citizen of another country, or live underwater (which won’t be recognized as your ‘territory’ anyway… that’s why Japan builds concrete stacks on submerged reefs to assert its claim to them).

    That’s the legal side of it. Peoples have shown that you can have a sense of nationality even without a country (like the Kurds). And Poland has disappeared and reappeared a few times in its history. Often not in the same place as before.

  3. Robert K. Brashear says:

    Regardless of the cause the one point that most people miss when talking about climate is that we have to be prepared for change. It is pure human fantasy to assume that the Earth today is some sort of steady state system that is supposed to remain exactly as it is. Ocean levels will change and coastlines along with it. Rain belts will shift (North Africa used to be the bread basket of the Roman Empire before the Sahara ate it) and glaciers will flow and retreat. Nearly all the ideas in the climate debate are built on the false supposition that the climate that supports the current geopolitical state is the norm. Let’s quit trying to find someone to blame and figure out how to deal with change that will come regardless of whose fault it is.