The border is in large part just an epistemology performed and materialized, a way of seeing and sorting that’s also, simultaneously, a mode of governing. 1

boundary creation timeline

Today, there are 156,001 miles (251,060 km) of terrestrial transnational borders; enough distance to lasso the earth six times over. 2 The world’s current configuration of borders is naturalized through nation-state discourses, providing a tenuous system for geographic parceling of global resource control. This focus on the relations of resources, economics, and political systems hide a deeper function of borders, which, in the words of Shannon Mattern, is to draw “a line that distinguishes us from them.” 3 These lines on the map (try to) follow rivers, longitudinal and latitudinal lines of geolocation, international and subnational treaties, military zones, shorelines, and mountain ranges. While the lines themselves offer clean demarcations of imagined places and nations, these borders fail to convey the psycho-geographic violence that their own creation inflicts on peoples, 4 lands, 5 animals, 6 and ways of life. Global finance often operates independent of borders; humans, cultures, and ecosystems are rarely able to do so.

  • Map of the globe showing areas without borders in color
    Map of the globe showing areas without borders in color
  • Map of the Globe showing national borders and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) boundary, along with militarized borders in red
    Map of the Globe showing national borders and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) boundary, along with militarized borders in red

The map shows national borders and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) boundary, along with militarized borders in red. Countries are shaded according to their economic zone trading partners. In the alternate map, only the parts of the globe unburdened by borders, almost exclusively ocean, are shown in color while the land mass is highlighted by grey topography. The diptych highlights how borders shape the land and sea, but it also marks a moment in time, as borders are constantly in flux. The EEZ was only established in 1982, while South Sudan, the world’s newest country, was created in 2011. This image freezes in time the borders and boundaries that define this project’s scope of research. Part of capturing this moment in cartographic time, is recognizing, and mapping, places where claims of sovereignty are being made in an attempt to redraw existing boundaries, irrespective of their wider geopolitical recognition, including Palestine, Taiwan, Western Sahara, and unnamed disputed territories between several nations. 7

Border-making is central to the formation and maintenance of States, a notion that continues to undermine the effectiveness of global climate policy as each state jockeys for economic and resource dominance in the global political landscape. Currently, nation-state borders are defined by a state’s sovereign territorial hold, while nations with an ocean border are granted a 12-mile Economic Exclusive Zone. 8 For areas without a sovereign claim, such as the Arctic and the Antarctic, rights are not as easily conferred, especially when various countries are vying for speculative mineral resources, trade routes, and other commercial interests. 9 Borders between nations are separated into two general categories: hard and soft. Hard borders are segments that feature permanent infrastructure meant to prevent border crossing (walls and fencing are the primary types). Soft borders are segments of border which do not feature physical, dividing infrastructure and as such are the most common type of international border. These definitions are not applied unilaterally to an international border, but rather serve to categorize segments along a border. The US-Mexico border has both walled and fenced hard border segments and soft borders along sections of the Rio Grande. The Berlin Wall was a hard border overlapped with military occupation and heavy police presence, combining infrastructural and military might as displays of State power. These types of borders, when imposed upon otherwise similar groups, like Berlin during the Cold War, can create economic and ideological disparities as a result of different socio-political regimes operating on either side of the border. The act of border making, itself, can create differences. As global population distributions change throughout the 21st century due to the effects of shifting climatic zones, meaningful and just climate policy will have to confront borders as sites of climate injustice and as sites for future climate activism. An ‘Us’ and a ‘Them’ have no place in the fight for global climate justice. 

  • 8Territorial expansion into surrounding oceanic waters are guaranteed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
  • 9Link to Polar regions text.

The discreteness of the nation-state as container may be a potent fiction...Almost in spite of ourselves, the state continues to hold our collective political imagination. 10

Despite the considerable resources that go into border maintenance and militarization, the naturalness of borders, and the artificial distinctions they draw, borders are always sites of contestation. For a nation to have a contested border disputes is the international norm. 11 Historically, the act of border-making has meant expanding territory through military conquest, or imbuing natural features with symbolic meaning. The trick of the State is in convincing it’s people that natural boundaries (rivers, mountains, oceans, deserts, etc.) and invented boundaries are meaningful geographical markers of difference, that they are enough to necessitate different socio-political configurations, and most insidiously, that they are effective and just boundaries of so-called green policy decisions and benefits. Climate policy will have to work against the naturalizing effect of national borders, thinking across global territories, supply matrices, and populations to meaningfully address and mitigate the worst version of the Climate Crisis.

Mattern’s borderlands scholarship underscores two key insights for denaturalizing borders. First, borders are sites of social difference and contestation for an imagined ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ as defined by the State generally, and the nation state in our current political configurations. This line is etched into maps –and sometimes made physical in and on the earth–declaring definitively, according to the state, who belongs on this land. International attention is hyper focused on borders momentarily when the imposed differences bubble to the surface. Trump’s xenophobic and racist fixation with the US-Mexican border wall and his administration’s abhorrent treatment of asylum-seeking migrants highlight borders as explicit places of division, and as sites that can be leveraged to cause immense pain. Through the display of potential military force, hard infrastructural development, and xenophobic policy States are sending messages to foreign citizens and other States about their territorial power.

Secondly, borders are consistently remade and reconstituted through local conditions into different configurations of an ‘Us’ and a ‘Them’. Britain’s recent exit from the European Union and the pursuant closing of once open borders is one recent example. The countries within the European Union operate under an open border policy: given E.U. Citizenship, or the right stamps, people and goods can travel freely across the same line that would otherwise impede their movement throughout the European continent. These open borders expand notions of citizenship beyond the nation-state into larger coalitions that exclude at the continental rather than the national scale. This creates geographically nested identities tied to different scales of borders: someone can be both European and Italian. For Chenchen Zhang, borders are projects where open differences still arise in identity through the specific relations governing the whole and the individual members. In open border conditions, infrastructure often plays a key role in crossing these borders and in maintaining the identity of subgroups. As Zhang concludes, in her study of the Channel Tunnel connecting mainland Europe and the United Kingdom that, “the rationales, discourse, and organizing logics of bordering are also characterized by heterogeneity and contingency.” 12 Even as nations and territories form (economic) coalitions, people’s identities within this larger formation are still dictated by their national, regional, or local formations; boundaries still map onto an ‘Us’ and a ‘Them’. For example, the US interstate highway system overlaps a national network of roads with state-level vehicle registration; free travel across state borders is still marked by state-labeled license plates. Open border conditions still manufacture and highlight differences even as ease of movement for people and goods is increased within the coalition of countries, states, or territories. 

  • 11Galka, Max. “Every Disputed Territory in the World [Interactive Map].” Every Disputed Territory in the World [Interactive Map], n.d.
  • 12Chenchen Zhang, Mobile Borders and Turbulent Mobilities: Mapping the Geopolitics of the Channel Tunnel

The Climate Crisis, as an atmospherically mediated condition, confronts the traditional terrestrial notion of borders. Carbon burned anywhere and at any time on the planet directly contributes to the accumulative global effects of the warming planet, creating cascading effects that ignore drawn borders. Border making is a cartographic project, with lines drawn via international agreements and projection systems slipping and crawling awkwardly over real places. Increasingly flooding watersheds, stronger storms, wildfires, and droughts are real phenomena that are not bound by political treaties and geolocation frameworks. Border-crossing climatological events pose a serious risk to the traditional goals of establishing borders. Increasingly strong weather events damage property, disrupt livelihoods, and “waste” natural resources. These challenges alone have caused some nations to adopt the language of climate change as a threat multiplier, enfolding national security and militarization into responses to the Climate Crisis. 13 China in their, National Ecological Security Pattern Plan, stops their planning at the border: in the dominant logics of statecraft, ecological security is still a national concern, not an international one. 14 The US is not responding any better. Under the Biden Administration, addressing the Climate Crisis is framed as a fight to be won against China. 15 International Climate Policy remains a zero-sum game of “Us” versus “Them”.

It is with this border-preserving logic that Field Notes begins its critique. Green policies that seek to wrestle the most benefits for a single nation is not Climate policy, it is domestic policy with the word green slapped on. The Climate Crisis is a global concern and Climate policy must strive to achieve global climate justice for all residents. 16 195 nation-bound Green New Deals will not meaningfully address the Climate Crisis, it will only serve to further entrench the ‘Us’/‘Them’ divisions maintained by existing borders. The effects of the Climate Crisis do not recognize the socially constructed sets of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, it will blanket the planet, terraforming the conditions of everyday life for us, them, and everyone in between. An internationalist Green New Deal does not need borders; it needs to transform the conditions by which the abritrary categories of belonging (us and them) are produced.