From time immemorial managing difference has meant creating borders. Borders separate, borders differentiate. The most visible, at least in our age of modern nations, are the geographical borders. The lines they trace are indicated by posts and guarded by armies, determining an inside and an outside. Inside, we have our fellow citizens. Outside are the foreigners. Along with this geographical frontier come all the elements that for our countries form ‘national identity’: lifestyle and symbols that differentiate and by the same token separate human beings into different groups, often into long-standing enemies. Crossing a border requires procedures that vary with time and transportation means, as well as politics. Some borders are closed and practically impossible to cross, others are open and continue opening up. But when one looks at the earth from the moon, or looks at a satellite photo of it, these borders don’t show up; proof, if any is needed, that the idea of ‘national borders’ should be stored with other outdated items.
At a fundamental level the idea of a nation, or a border that divides geographical space into two distinct entities, is a divisive concept. It separates humanity into one and ‘the other’, on a cultural, political and social basis. It is a doctrine of structural inequality of the human race. Historically, it has been the cause of many violent encounters between people, rooted in an animalistic urge to claim, withhold and defend territory, and more recently rooted in economics and jingoism. Today nations urge each other into rapid and lope-sided development through the competitive constructs of growth and GDP, which aren’t sustainable in a planet of finite resources. International tariffs provide the shelter of competitive advantage to domestic firms, which allows lower quality, often unsustainable products to win in the market. This again is unsustainable in a world of 7 billion citizens and modern global supply chains. With the rise of the digital age and hyper-connectivity, as well as advances in transportation technology, people have become global citizens, implicitly outdating nation constructs and its tools. Further, the old national states defined by language and ethnicity are in steep decline. Each of the world’s three most populous countries, China, India and the United States, defies conventional definition in their own ways. In order to psychologically evolve, let alone secure our collective future on earth, the idea of a nation and national identity must be put to rest. It must slowly warp into a global identity with myriad local community-level identities (based on Gandhian themes which are centred around non-violence), thereby enabling a greater responsibility on every individual towards our planet’s overall well-being, and the well-being of those in our immediate vicinity.
At the root of nations is the idea of the ‘other’. Encountering ‘the other’ has always been a universal experience for our species. Archaeologists tell us the earliest human groups were small family-tribes numbering 30 to 50 individuals. A larger community wouldn’t move as quickly and efficiently and a smaller one would find it hard to defend itself effectively to survive. So here is our little family-tribe going along searching for nourishment, when it suddenly comes across another family-tribe. What a significant movement in history! Until then, members of these primal groups could live in the conviction, in the company of 30-50 others, that they knew all the people in the world! But how should they behave in the face of such a revelation? Should they throw themselves in fury on the other people? Or walk past dismissively and keep going? Build a boundary around themselves? Or rather try to get to know and understand the other? History shows us we’ve tried each of these reactions, ending sometimes in conflict on countless battlefields, sometimes in structures like the Great Wall of China or the towers and gates of Babylon, but also sometimes in cooperation, the remnants of which can be seen in marketplaces, ports, universities and even the Silk Road, the Amber Route and the Trans-Saharan caravan route. Thus on a social level, separation and conflict have manifested and evolved into the ‘nation’, whereas points of contact and agreement have arisen in global structures and smaller institutional structures. We must therefore banish national identity in favour of new global and local identities. These new identities will play a large part in eradicating cultural elitism and even racism, which also arise with the duality of the ‘other’.
Ofcourse countries are more than geographical boundaries that denote a specific location, they also have their own customs, histories and beliefs that are often regionally specific. Removing borders overnight will not blur these differences. If one country says sex before marriage is okay but another says it is punishable by death, which of the two does one choose today? The West may be liberal and progressive, but the general beliefs of those in places like China, India and Africa, who make up over half the worlds population, is otherwise. So if the world voted, I think its safe to say we would lose a lot of the things we take for granted. Furthermore, we experience the global economy on a much more tangible level then someone in inner Mongolia, for example. This disparity must be bridged into an equal footing through education and sustainable development before a truly global society can be realised. Infra-structurally, roads, sea and air routes as well as the design of urban centres must be readapted keeping in mind new technologies such as the self-driving car, but also keeping in mind the limitations of geography and climate, not political boundaries. The shift would realistically take place over the span of centuries, and assuming humanity becomes space-faring, living on multiple planets will catalyse the existence of not only one, but multiple global or planetary identities.
If we look back at earlier attempts of a unified earth, such as the Roman and Mughal Empires, there is an eventual stagnation that follows unification. Lack of competition led to economic disintegration and a vacuum of power which led to a handful of new, smaller kingdoms ensuring the empire’s demise. Today a unified one world government will surely devolve into a totalitarian nightmare or a lack of decisive leadership. In order to prevent these happenings, we must transition slowly into a unifying law system under which everyone is accountable. This can happen by strengthening existing world structures such as the United Nations, which at the moment are weak proxies of international authority and accountability. A new ‘world constitution’ will ensure that socially and culturally outdated laws would be abolished and for every new law relating to a particular issue, an older law will be scratched, thereby replacing rather than complicating centuries-old legislations. The global identity could also arise by simply moving all power structures ‘one step up’, by redefining the earth as one ‘nation’, countries as ‘regional states and governments’, states as ‘districts or cities’ and so on. Indeed the process of creating a unified global identity has already begun. On a hands on level, the European Union is already dissolving the national identities of its various constituents without destroying its varied cultural identities. Geographical borders are becoming progressively more elastic in order to enable the advent of the zone, but cultural differences such as language are perpetuated. Since its vain imagining unifying Europe by imposing a common language, as in the United States, other solutions become necessary. An individual was either this or that, French, German or Italian. Now an individual is a citizen possessing multiple memberships. The lines and procedures to cross borders still exist, but henceforward the outcome of dialogue that shapes Europe’s politics and culture is not predetermined by the history of violence between its powers.
In the words of Donald Worster, “In some ultimate sense the earth may be a single living whole, but we as humans do not normally see it as such nor agree on a single united response”. In order to survive the coming centuries without facing an apocalyptic extinction, we will have to agree on a single, sustainable response.