Just as teams compete to be champions, so states compete for security. And just as the champion is better at playing the game than other teams, so states with more security than other states are better at playing the neorealist version of the ‘game’ of international politics. 1

Political regimes shown on a timeline

In 1048 CE, the Yellow River poured over its banks and out across the Hebei Plain. Its surging waters swept across farming communities, coursing through crops and homes in search of the Pacific Ocean. The riverbank’s breach gave rise to a deltaic system that stretched more than 700 kilometers at its widest point, reshaping the region’s physical and social geography along the way. This event is the focus of Ling Zang’s The River, The State, and The Plain, an environmental history of the Song Dynasty and its role in constructing the Hebei Plain and Yellow River system as we know them today.

The Song Dynasty, formed in 960 CE, was struggling to engage with the then-independent region of Hebei. 2 Early Song emperors viewed the Hebei as a key geopolitical prize—a large, contiguous bloc of fertile farmland that also happened to provide a buffer zone between the Song’s empire and warring factions to their south. They viewed the semi-nomadic residents of Hebei as impediments to such progress and developed the “Hebei Project” aimed at pulling the region’s people into their empire. The Hebei Project, like most imperial campaigns, was multi-faceted. It militarized the region, conscripting Hebei residents into service and “securing” farmland and other resources for the Song. It brought massive investments in infrastructure, including tunnels and roads and water projects throughout the region—including dikes and other flood-control devices aimed at preserving the region’s agrarian lifestyle while mitigating the kinds of seasonal variations that could devastate crop yields. 3 These public works programs included, among other things, channelizing much of the Yellow River and cutting off its various floodways.

Prior to these interventions, the Yellow River served as a natural barrier between the Hebei Plain to the north and the heart of the Song Dynasty in the south, the Henan Province. The river’s hydrology pushed floodwaters to the South, leading Song emperors to propose a series of infrastructural schemes for restructuring the region’s hydrologic systems around flood mitigation. In building out these visions, they went so far as to divert the river to the north when it shifted course during a flood event that threatened to inundate much of the Henan Province. During the flood, most observers believed it was the natural outcome of a large river dealing with a generational storm event. But Zhang punctures this myth, showing through archival work that the severity and frequency of Yellow River floods during this period were made worse, if not created altogether, by the Song Dynasty’s efforts to control and otherwise manipulate the river. 4

For the next eighty years, the Yellow River would resist the various attempts at control led by the Song Dynasty. It still flooded regularly, draining considerable wealth from the Song and triggering a migration crisis in which more than a million Hebei refugees fled the once-autonomous and highly productive agricultural region. 5 The scale of the environmental disaster quickly outgrew the state’s capacity to manage any aspect of it—river, human, or otherwise. Dikes were continuously built and unbuilt in response to seasonal floods—patching and breaking a system of control each time a breach or overflow upended the newly channelized waterway. 6 This reactive, piecemeal approach to managing the Yellow River basin proved difficult to implement and ineffective once constructed. Or, as Zhang writes, “the more the state engaged in regulating the Yellow River-Hebei environmental complex, the less return it gained, and the deeper it sank into a costly dilemma.” 7 As the Yellow River continued to inundate the region, the Song Dynasty also began to drown in the fiscal and humanitarian crises their program of riverine control unleashed in the region.

The strain of managing a fiscal and refugee crisis eventually became overwhelming. It led Song rulers to pursue an often indecisive policy of flood management, resettlement, and economic growth that, by most measures, failed spectacularly. In their attempts to create a secure buffer zone that could limit military conflicts and bolster their food system, the Song rulers treated the Hebei Plain as a sacrifice zone—a place to be flooded and otherwise manipulated in the service of imperial expansion. 8

  • 2Zhang, Ling. “The State's Hebei Project.” Essay. In The River, the Plain, and the State: an Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048-1128, 53–82. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  • 3Zhang, Ling. “The 1040s: On the Eve of the Flood” Essay. In The River, the Plain, and the State: an Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048-1128, 83–106. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  • 4Zhang, Ling. “Creating a Delta Landscape” Essay. In The River, the Plain, and the State: an Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048-1128, 107-138. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  • 5Zhang, Ling. The River, the Plain, and the State: an Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048-1128. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  • 6Zhang, Ling. “Creating a Delta Landscape” Essay. In The River, the Plain, and the State: an Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048-1128, 107-138. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  • 7Zhang, Ling. The River, the Plain, and the State: an Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048-1128. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  • 8Zhang, Ling. “The State's Hebei Project.” Essay. In The River, the Plain, and the State: an Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048-1128, 53–82. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
Map of the globe showing political regimes
Map of the globe showing the distribution of different types of governance

Governance systems are highlighted in pastel colors over a black background. Commonwealth nations, nations that have chosen to remain, at least symbolically under the rule of the British monarchy, are called out with a glow and hatch.

This map shows the distribution of different types of governance across the globe. Our interest, here, is not to make claims of an ideal governmental structure for the globe or to offer a snapshot of the frightening trend towards far-right governments, but to contest the reliance on the nation-state as a means to develop, enact, and fund ventures to dampen the Climate Crisis. National governments, regardless of governmental structure, have sought to ‘win’ climate negotiations, securing their ways of life, and by extension economic supremacy. An obsession with political jockeying will do little to meaningfully benefit the billions of lives subject to the effects of the Climate Crisis. Here, boundaries are removed from the nations to project a world without them, a world focused on lifting up the global citizenry over those found within invented lines on a map. 9

Though this interlude is obviously focused on a particular moment in the Song Dynasty’s rule, it is far from the only example of state-led interventions in political, economic and ecological systems that produced far greater crises than the ones that precipitated their development. Contemporary political regimes, often rooted in nationalistic and autocratic rule, tend to reproduce the dynamics that shaped the Song-Hebei relationship. From the “America First” and “Buy American” rhetoric of Donald Trump and Joe Biden to the “Exceeding the UK, Catching the USA” (超英赶美)of Mao Zedong, the practice of identifying common enemies, deeming certain people and regions as expendable, and delineating a clear and militarized border than can be defended is nearly synonymous with statecraft in the 21st century. Daniel Conversi describes this rise of nationalist politics across the planet as rooted in a need to construct oneself “against another external Self, an outside community lying beyond national boundaries without which the very definition of nations remains challenged and challengeable.” 10 Put another way, these nationalistic programs operate as projects of nation-building, scapegoating (usually of immigrants and enemy nations), and capitalist redevelopment. Invocations of security, and especially national-security, are indicative of what values need to be secured and who they are secured for. 11 These programs also shape domestic policy, with notions of security and protection extending only as far as the ruling power’s racial or ethnic politics allow. In the UK, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rejected the notion of a collectivized society, saying that “There is no such thing as society: there are individual men, women, and there are families.” 12 President Trump and the Republican Party have operationalized an ecofascist approach to migration and climate change, calling for closed borders and an isolationist international and economic agenda. In China, Xi Jingping and leaders of the Chinese Community Party have sanctioned the ongoing genocide of the Uyghur people. 13

These state-led projects of securitization and control—of people, ecological systems, and resources—have also bled into local, national, and global climate politics. Attempts to create global climate plans, such as the Paris Agreement (2016) and the Copenhagen Accord (2009), have thus-far been non-binding, meaning there are no enforcement methods, no stick to the carrot of climate mitigation. 14 President Obama praised the Paris Agreement saying, “It will help other nations ratchet down their emissions over time...all under a strong system of transparency that allows each nation to evaluate the progress of all other nations.” 15 President Obama’s praise of climate emissions transparency is warranted, although significantly undercut due to US climate negotiators weakening the enforcement mechanisms of the Paris Agreement. Fearing it might limit growth, the Obama administration's climate negotiators successfully changed the language of the accord from “shall” to “should” engage in quantifiable emissions reductions in each country's domestic economy. 16 Growth is sacred above all else in the domestic economy, even in the light of endless growth fueling the Climate Crisis: “Nations now face the greatest threat to their survival from without and from within-and will do so even more in the years ahead-yet nationalism stands in the way.” 17

Even plans developed beyond the organs of the state have largely failed to transcend these challenges. The Great Green Wall, meant to stop the continued desertification of sub-Saharan Africa, is perhaps the starkest contemporary example of such a plan—an archetype of what Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, following Doreen Martinez, refers to as climate colonialism. 18 19 As a diagram and a program, it is essentially an infinite field of trees, divorced from local people, knowledge, and practices, and unconcerned with the physical geography and ecology of the region. Its initial formulations resulted in the planting of millions of trees, nearly all of which died, and which contributed to a regional drought and, ironically, due to the water intensive tree species selected, would go on to exacerbate the very desertification processes it was imagined to halt. As scientists working in the region warned before the Great Green Wall moved from plan to reality, such a program would only work if it was attuned to and led by local farming and arboreal practices developed over centuries by farmers in Niger and Burkina Faso. 20

Now geoengineering promises possibilities for providing the conditions that allow the perpetuation of fossil fuel powered neoliberalism further into the future. Or rather it might, if security continues to be formulated in terms of the perpetuation of the existing political order, precisely the order that has generated such dramatic ecological disruption in the first place. 21

Nationalistic climate plans are often poor instruments for addressing any of the issues outlined here. Even in H.R. 109, the non-binding resolution that introduced the American public to the Green New Deal, there is no mention of global or internationalist responsibilities—a particularly striking omission in a nation that has contributed more carbon into the atmosphere than any other on the planet. It, like the other plans outlined here, is a fundamentally domestic proposition with obvious-yet-unacknowledged international implications. Like those other plans, it implies a focus on domestic security and at times tilts toward the kind of eco-nationalism that undermines its otherwise admirable focus on climate and environmental justice. 22

But it is far from the first nationalistic climate program to be organized around notions of security. Claims of ecological security have also been utilized for pro-independence movements, notably by former members of the Soviet Union. 23 It can also be seen in Kongjian Yu’s National Ecological Security Pattern Plan for China, positing that environmental design is an instrumental tool in pursuing national security. The plan consists of a series of maps that stop the ecological growth, and security concerns, at the existing border of China, implying that ecological security is maintained by the state. 24 Calvini identifies projects that incorporate rhetoric of natural resources and their extraction or protection as resource nationalism. 25 Claims of national sovereignty in relation to resources become strained when confronted with the reality that climate and ecology are not bounded by geopolitical borders and that, as the Climate Crisis worsens, the logic of markets and competition do more to prevent than to produce the scale and scope of action that’s required across the planet. By enabling the Climate Crisis to become an issue of “national security”, regardless of the political regime, government style, or political affiliation, the possible solutions immediately become limited to those that reify the state, a mobius strip of endless growth and destruction. There cannot be an internationalist Green New Deal without a radical reimagining of international climate policy.