National borders

First thing that has to be grasped. Fixed borders between countries seem to be a relatively recent development. In ‘olden days’ people would cross from one country, or duchy or whatever, to another as part of daily life, even when the law confined residence to a village. People on the border shifted around and generally ignored it. The borders where whatever could be held by the troops at the time – or when under challenge by other troops. The Roman and Chinese Empires did not have fixed borders as far as I can tell. Borders were fluid although often based on rough geographical features. Borders may be argued over, if they exist at all. In Hunter and Gatherer societies ‘borders’ are matters of respect, and occasionally of what you can defend – other people may wander into your territory all the time. Central sacred sites may be more important than the borders around. Lack of firm borders may not be a problem with the proper requests, or if you don’t meet each other. Borders may be marked by myths or pronounced geographical features. The land owns you, not vice versa.

In the modern world Borders can be so arbitrary they can even be lines on maps drawn on a latitude line, which is purely conceptual and does not correspond to any geographical, or mythical, features at all. These borders are not real other than in the sense that social conventions are real.

Even Islands like Australia do not have clear borders. We have had long term people movement and small trade between Australia, Indonesia, Papua Niugini and the Pacific Islands and this has not stopped, and will probably will not stop without local disruption. In the USA, large sectors of the economy seem to depend on fluid borders, and large parts of Mexico depend on income being sent home from the USA. Cutting that flow off completely may have unintended consequences for both countries.

Taking borders as real and fixed leads to problems, especially in the modern world which, whether we want it to be or not, is global. However, this does not mean that a country has no right to enforce its borders, just that this may be more complex and have more side effects than the people imposing those borders think.

Borders and Climate

Climate change is not local. It does not respect human borders. Our country’s pollution affects people as far away as India or Iceland. We are helping to cause temperatures to rise in Pakistan to 50 degrees C. (122 degrees F). Chinese decisions likewise affect us.

We need to not only work within our borders but across borders. If we make emissions worse, we make it worse for all, including ourselves. We are not safe from the emissions of the coal, gas and oil that we export when they are burnt in other countries – even if these emissions are not counted as being our emissions. Everything we do affects others and ourselves as we live on an interlinked Planet not just in a bordered country. What we do influences how others behave. If we set a bad example, then other people will excuse themselves as well, and that will affect us.

If governments do not understand this, then they have no hope of understanding climate change, or dealing with it.

Borders and Economy

We now live in a global economy. We probably have done so for a long time. However, it is now clear, that economic events in one country affect economic events in other countries. If Russia blocks exports of Ukrainian wheat, that affects the world. If banks in China collapse because of bad local loans, that affects the world. When financial companies in the US tried to defraud home loan owners in large enough quantities – that did affect the world. Money lost in one part of the world effects operations in other parts of the world. If companies go to where the labor is cheapest, and the pollution costs smallest, that affects everyone, and likely puts downward pressure on wages and environmental regulation in other places. If companies can find no tax zones that affects everyone, and lessens money for social spending. Economic crashes may not be confined within borders, especially when companies are not so confined. Inflation and depression are often cross-border events. Neither Biden nor Trump could keep inflation outside the borders of the USA.

Large corporations are commonly cross border institutions. They export something from one country and sell it in another. They make some parts in one country and use them in another. They may generally not be self-supporting in one country – they require many countries, and they ignore borders, except for the advantage that local regulation can give them. Exports and imports between countries can exist within the one company.

Companies have the wealth of small (and sometimes quite large) States, and push States around rather than vice versa. Corporations have the advantage of mobility, which States do not have. They can move from one place to another leaving destruction behind. Consequently, no country has complete control over its economy, and its economy depends on other economies. Economies do not respect borders. If you are going to understand and deal with economies you have to understand this.

Borders and the Military

Military threats also don’t respect borders. Never have. Civil wars are always destructive. It is now easy to smuggle incredibly destructive weapons into countries. The US is probably in as much, or more, danger from internal threats than from external threats. An Atom bomb set off by an internal terrorist is as physically dangerous as a bomb launched by a foreign power, and it is probably more psychologically dangerous. Putin’s Russia is facing a problem, not just because Ukraine is resisting far better than they expected, but also because the economy and resistance to the war is international, and does not respect the borders of the two warring countries. It is also forcing Russia to become dependent on China, and it seems unlikely the Chinese will be long term allies, or do not have some objective here that may not be in Russia’s interest. Ukraine used to be inside Russia’s borders, but it is not anymore. Powerful Russians seem to have thought Ukrainians thought of themselves as Russians, and as living within the Russian border, or within Russian influence, but it seems to have been wrong.

No country is immune to war because of its borders.

Borders and Fences

Borders are long and fragile. It is impossible to entirely fence off the USA from the rest of the world and stop people from crossing the fence, or to stop weather, ecology and climate from knocking the fence down. As plenty of other people have shown this is what has happened with Trump’s famous border wall/fence. It was easy to climb. It collapsed; blown over or swept away by rivers and floods. It stole private land. It was a waste of money and resources, and did not serve to protect the USA from climate problems, economic collapse, migration, or modern military challenges. At best it seems a distraction from the real problems…

Social Categories and Borders

It is generally assumed that social categories have firm borders, and people act as if this is correct, but it is often not correct. A few examples:

‘Racial’ categories, blend into each other. People breed with each other, sometimes by violence, but nevertheless they breed across cultural and racial groups People often seem to have ancestors from all over the world. People breed across borders and then inland from the borders, so the whole group is affected. It is unlikely that any country has ever been pure in ‘race’. Attempts to reinforce racial boundaries attack the reality of the mixtures.

Cultures borrow from each other, and separate from each other. They innovate and change – people are good at having new ideas. Attempts to reinforce cultural boundaries attack reality and creativity.

Class and caste borders are permeable – not only because we breed with each other, but because people do go up and down, people marry in – even in caste societies – wealth gets shared (although people can try and stop this). Attempts to reinforce class and caste borders attack reality and the distributions of talent and ability.

Male and female categories flow into each other, no matter how hard people try to police the boundaries, and punish ‘masculine’ women and ‘feminine’ men. Again, people have different abilities and it seems best if these competencies are recognised and allowed to flourish, so we can adapt to changes in reality.

More obviously, there is a tendency to treat people who identify with political parties, or positions, as if they are all the same, or at best, similar. Even a moments discussion should show people this is not true. Not all ‘right wingers’ think gays or lesbians should be exterminated or excluded. Not many ‘left wingers’ , think that people should be forced to be gay. Not all Conservatives are fans of free markets, or corporate power. Not all left wingers think capitalism and private property should be destroyed. The idea that people who support one thing, will support another is rarely correct. There is far more movement and room for alliance, than many influential people would be prepared to admit. The borders between parties are not as distant as is made out by people in power, and as was shown by the recent Australian election in which right wing candidates who firmly stated that they would promote action on climate change overthrew the established right wing who pretended that they were opposed to climate change. They attracted votes from all sides of politics (possible in the Australian voting system). The category borders appear to stop discussion, stop us from seeing what other people really think and stop the resolution of problems.


While they can be useful to mark differences, borders of all kinds are largely conceptual and conventional. They do not always solve real problems and may even make the problems worse. We need to avoid being distracted by them, or waste energy trying trying to enforce them, and reach across borders, to solve the world’s problems and to involve people in the process.