Nationalism and Patriotism in the Fight to Save Our Planet

Nationalism and Patriotism in the Fight to Save Our Planet

Nationalism and patriotism are two significantly divisive concepts. They call to mind histories of revolution, terrors of populist politics (ahem, Trump) and constant arguments pitting racism against pride in one’s country.

But what role do nationalism and patriotism play in global efforts to save our planet? Do they have a place in helping us solve urgent issues of global warming and climate change, or are they a hindrance to a more collaborative approach?

In this post, I’ll first explain what I mean by nationalism and patriotism, before delving deep into their role in the fight to save our planet.

As ever, I promise to do my utmost best in remaining critical and balanced, before giving my own personal conclusion. I do, of course, welcome the opinions of others, so do feel free to leave any comments or feedback at the end!

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Understanding Nationalism and Patriotism


Nationalism and patriotism are two extremely similar concepts, often used interchangeably. They do, however, have their subtle differences, though admittedly these are mostly in connotation.

Each ideology attempts to promote and celebrate the interests of an individual nation and its population.

Patriotism, the older of the two words, refers to “devoted love, support and defense of one’s country”. It often holds connotations of bravery, heroism and loyalty, which is why it’s a label often given to soldiers, diplomats or public display of pride such as the raising of flags or erection of statues.

Nationalism came to the English language around 150 years later than “patriotism” and is sometimes defined as a simple synonym. Other definitions expand the idea of nationalism to include a more aspirational aspect, where nationalist ambition is that for the entire nation, often including desire for political independence.

Nationalism also holds the extra definition of asserting the interests of one’s nations over and above the interests of others, or above common goals between nations.

This distinction between nationalism and patriotism has only gained significant usage since the late 19th Century.

This is when nationalism started to adopt its extra connotations of prioritisation and exclusion. Where patriotism has always been about duty, devotion and sacrifice, nationalism has taken a more political meaning, being used to describe various uprisings, revolutions and hate groups.

When seeking to understand nationalism and patriotism, its important that we question the meaning of nations themselves.

They are, after all, a construct of society. Nations were established by humans and are consistently changing. There are nations which existed in previous generations that have now been renamed, or re-divided. Of course, their space, heritage and populations still remain – they have simply taken on new interpretation.

The idea of national boundaries is steeped in socio-cultural history.

In humanity’s most ancient times, sophisticated civilisations arose as people moved around, fighting and conquering, inventing and creating their rules. From our earliest beginning, we see patterns of kinship, clan loyalty and the prioritisation of common identity over others.

In the pre-1500s, European communities were made up of small villages, ruled over by feudal landlords. People didn’t travel and had little idea of what went on outside of their village. In 1485, Henry VII won the War of the Roses and began developing England as a nation-state.

Within a short period, Spain, Russia and France emerged through various wars, governance and establishment of monarchy.

The intellectual discoveries of the ‘enlightenment era’ contributed to the growth of political economies, capitalism, industry, transportation and, significantly, map-making allowed these early states to travel the world, to dominate and exploit, and to violently carve it up among themselves. 

Of course, the highly questionable justification was that Europeans had discovered the ‘right’ path of national development, and were simply doing other lands and population a favour by allowing them to embrace this change at the expense of their own traditions and knowledges.

From this incredibly brief historical summary, what becomes particularly evident is the violence, oppression and ideology of superiority entrenched within the construction of nations. Also clear is the complete and utter arbitrariness of it all.

The essential features of a nation are its defined territory and governance/ruling. Both of these are socially constructed, poorly defined and open to fluctuation. Patriotism and nationalism rely on sentiment towards one’s nation, and so we can see them as equally unstable concepts.

In essence, nationalism and patriotism are ways in which we identify ourselves, just as we do by gender, ethnicity, age, religion, political standpoint, sexuality, and a whole host of other categorized divisions.

Benedict Anderson developed the concept of ‘imagined communities’ in his seminal works, ‘Imagined Communities’, published in 1983.

Anderson perceived nations as a form of group identity which was based on nothing more than a social label.

He noted that nationality provided citizens with some notion of community, despite the fact that none of us will ever meet, know or interact with every other person within this community.

Nationalism and patriotism depend on a feeling that we share something with everyone else of our nationality.

But, given the arbitrariness of nations, this becomes pretty difficult to argue.

We are not homogenised by our nationality, just as we are not by any other factor. We all have our individual features, experiences and personalities.

When understanding nationalism and patriotism, its important to have this grounded awareness and remain cautiously aware of the idealistic, unstable logic and often hideously violent history lie beneath.

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Are Nationalism and Patriotism Good or Bad?


Well, this is the ultimate question.

Some people argue that patriotism is a righteous, valuable position while nationalism is its more devious and selfish counterpart. Others suggest that these concepts are somehow layered, being perfectly acceptable and respected to a certain level before becoming ‘extreme’.

Those claiming a balanced approach recognise positives and negatives within patriotism and nationalism.

On the one hand, patriotism and nationalism can unite a country and mobilise large groups towards a certain goal.

They provide a label of identity through which people can form their sense of identity and gain feelings of community and solidarity. They can motivate us towards goals, and, as widespread as they are, can introduce us to people who share our attitude.

In some cases, nationalism and patriotism may promote values of freedom and justice among ‘our’ people, which can integrate with our common expectation of rights for all people.

These concepts can be critical in the protection of populations against legitimate threats, and in investing in the development of social welfare through boosting national economies, creating jobs and establishing systematic healthcare, financial benefits and so on.

It could also be argued that patriotic or nationalistic support of independence allows governance to define itself according to more contextualised and specific methods of meeting its people’s needs.

On the other hand, patriotism and nationalism often lead to the exclusion of minorities.

The solidarity of common identity naturally depends on an ‘alternative’, an ‘other’ who is too often demonised, stereotyped or marginalised and violently discriminated against.

They can promote arrogance, selfishness and a contrived superiority complex. This in turn contributes to inhumane activities, where those that aren’t seen to fit the shared identity are somehow made deserving of exploitation, oppression and other forms of cruelty.

An obsession with one’s own nation allows competition to quickly become greed, or ignorance to alternative perspectives, often leading to conflict, abandonment or resentment between nations.

Zealous pride in one’s country turns a blind eye to the issues faced by individuals within that society.

While emphasising perceived differences between our fellow nationals and those who are new or external to our imagined community, nationalism and patriotism can also contribute to oversight of the intricate differences between individuals within that community, allowing various forms of inequality to go unacknowledged, unaddressed and, in the worst cases, perpetuated.

This blind eye is cast again when it comes to recognising and addressing the faults of one’s nation.

Whether past, present, or even future, an unquestioned nationalism or patriotism supports or ignores destructive activities so long as they are in the interest of (or represented as being in the interest of…) the country.

So, are nationalism and patriotism good or bad?

Well, I can only give my opinion, but here it is.

I don’t believe that either concept can be inherently beneficial nor evil, because I don’t believe they are static or clearly defined. What I do believe is that they are powerful and, as with any form of power, that means they have the potential to be used for either good or bad.

In my favourite of Seth Godin’s books, Tribes, he makes the distinction between religion and faith.

Godin’s argument is that faith is something we all have, it’s a set of beliefs that provides hope, motivation and moral guidance. Meanwhile religion is the definition of faith, it’s the labels, institutions and rules that categorise faith as a point of identity and give it its structure and power.

In my mind, I wonder whether a similar theory could be applied to nationalism and patriotism, whereby ‘home’ is something the majority of us have which evokes feelings of safety, nostalgia, protectiveness and contribute towards our sense of self.

‘Nation’ could then be to home as religion is to faith, its definition, boundaries, governance and institutions.

Its these systems and terminology which give notions of patriotism and nationalism their power.

That power can be used for good, as a way to unite and mobilise a large number of people, or it can be marginalising, oppressive and ignorant.

With all that said, I’ll finally get into the actual point of this post (sorry…) and take a long hard look at the role of nationalism and patriotism in saving our planet.

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Nationalism and Patriotism in Climate Change Mitigation


Climate change mitigation efforts are those planet-saving initiatives which seek to reduce or eliminate negative environmental impact, such as through reducing or offsetting greenhouse gas emissions, eliminating waste or preventing the destruction of natural resources and their ecosystems.

Anatol Lieven wrote in his esteemed book ‘Climate Change and the Nation State’ that while people recognise their individual mortality, they presume that their nation will live on forever.

He proposes that nationalism “seeks to prolong the life of the nation” and persuades people to make some level of sacrifice to protect the longer lifetime of their nation against threats such as climate change.

Drawing from his research in countries where governance is heavily contested, namely Afghanistan and Pakistan, Lieven goes on to argue that the lack of clear national solidarity supports a more individualistic, short-term perspective where people are more likely to focus on their own short-term prosperity and less likely to engage in protecting against future dangers.

While Lieven then proposes military-centric ideas for how this situation be resolved (which, frankly, I cannot get on board with), he might have a fair point in these initial claims.

As citizens across the World come to see and acknowledge the effect that climate change is having, many of them are inspired by the need to adjust their habits for the protection of their home and its future generations.

Our experience of the places we call home builds nostalgic connection, and our loyalty to those places may be what it takes for us to make sacrifices in our own lives for their survival.

It could be argued that this loyalty doesn’t necessarily have to come tied to one’s nation, but in naming and establishing boundaries for the places we seek to protect, we can better articulate our cause and gain the support of those who share this sense of connection.

Nationalism and patriotism can also construct a sense of competition between countries.

In terms of climate mitigation, this can be somewhat useful.

Since the Paris Climate Agreement, we’ve witnessed many nations across the world making seemingly bold pledges towards mitigating their negative impact on the environment. And they’ve done so with an air of competition.

Take the UK for example, who just recently pledged to cut carbon emissions by 68% by the year 2050. In his announcement, Boris Johnson boasted of how this was a groundbreaking ambition which would allow Britain to ‘lead the way’ in tackling climate change.

Such terminology, this idea of paving a new way forward brings to mind a history of national ‘firsts’, like, for example, the race to land on the moon. In some ways, such nationalistic competition could be viewed as inspiring more ambitious targets to be set as each nation seeks to outdo the rest so they may experience some glorious, patriotic pride.

On the other hand, any success coming from this competition relies on targets actually being met. Planet-saving efforts can only be brought to fruition by action – big words and bold pledges hold little worth in the long run.

Of course, this competition also risks the neglect of more collaborative options. Climate change knows no national boundaries, so why should its solution? If nations are overly committed to a competitive race for reputational glory, they may lose sight of where they can work together and help one another out.

The nationalist spirit of competition could also be a hinderance to climate change mitigation when there is a perception of loss or risk involved.

Where states fear they may lose out by engaging in climate change mitigation, being ‘overtaken’ in industrial or economic development, they become less and less likely to put their best foot forward.

There comes this sense of ‘but they’re not doing it, so why should I?’, leading nations to hold back on investing in climate change mitigation due to their concern that they might fall behind the rest of the pack.

Furthermore, the enthusiasm for competition proves dangerous when suggestions are made that wealthier countries may have to take on extra responsibilities, compensating those less powerful by making greater sacrifices in their own cultural lifestyles.

When competitiveness is hyped up by intense nationalist patriotism, governments may see it as counter-productive and unfair that they are subject to such penalties.

I thought about this carefully when titling this post. Normally, I prefer not to use violent terminology when referring to environmental issues (for reasons I expand upon in this post), but in this case, given the competition between nations, the ‘fight to save our planet’ seemed  sadly appropriate.

Its widely agreed that many of the disastrous environmental issues we face have been significantly contributed to by capitalism.

This capitalism has been shown by events such as the 2008 financial crisis, the Volkswagen emissions scandal or the hideous case of water pollution by DuPont, as being unable to regulate itself.

This is the grounding for one significant argument promoting nationalism, as it is claimed that strong State governance is the solution to managing destructive capitalism.

Therefore, if States are able to foster loyal relationships with their citizens, they can encourage an urge to protect the nation which makes regulation of capitalism more palatable to the public.

While this is a fair point, I’d argue that context must be critically considered.

For one thing, it relies on governments acknowledging the importance of environmental regulation.

While this is a growing trend, the fact remains that many nation states are more focused on economic prosperity and, particularly in cases of corruption and lobbying, are willing to turn a blind eye to damage taking place if it means a little growth in personal or national finances.

For another, it risks disempowering the many corporations who are attempting to reduce their environmental impact and, importantly, the consumer movements who are establishing these pressures already.

I don’t doubt that support of national regulation can, in some cases, be critical in holding other powerful bodies accountable for their environmental impact.

But, I would argue that individuals may choose to demand this accountability out of a morality altogether separate from their sense of nationalism or patriotism.

What concerns me is the thought that an over dependence on the nation and its government to take charge of regulation might discourage public citizens from engaging in their own critical perspective, from making their own calls for transparency and accountability.

Similarly, I worry that corporations could become reliant on governance to tell them what to do, and so would be less dedicated and innovative in refining their own practice.

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Nationalism and Patriotism in Climate Change Adaptation


Of course, for all this talk of saving the planet, we must also acknowledge the problems already at hand – those we cannot now avoid.

As the climate changes, we’re seeing consistent increase in adverse weather conditions, rising sea levels and unbearable temperatures. Crop failure, flooding, land degradation are displacing millions of global citizens from their homes and livelihoods each year – a trend predicted to grow over coming decades.

These climate-related issues also contribute to resource scarcity, which can go on to provoke further problems of conflict and inequality which act as further force or motivation to relocate.

In January of 2020, the UN marked a landmark case which made it officially illegal to send home individuals who have fled their home due to climate change. This was a groundbreaking moment in a long-term movement demanding that climate migrants be granted refugee status.

Of course, its also critical to remember that many people leaving their homes for climate-related reasons only move within their country.

Furthermore, in cases where there is anything less than a significant one-off disaster, questions could be raised as to when climate migration becomes ‘forced’, or when environmental factors can be isolated among other reasons for moving.

Whether climate migration is of its own legal grounding, managed by other human rights/humanitarian legislation, or simply a matter of autonomous choice, the fact remains that migrants in any circumstance often receive a less than warm welcome.

In recent years, several countries have shown increasing intolerance towards migration. UK’s Brexit gives one example, but similar trends towards limiting migration can be seen in other powerful nations including the US and Australia.

In adapting to the context of climate change, the rights and protection of all people must be identified and distributed equitably.

Restriction of, or poor reception to, migration is often founded on tenets of zealous nationalism or patriotism as states and their citizens claim to be preserving their culture, jobs, economy etc.

In this way, I would argue that nationalism and patriotism place us in poor standing in this significant aspect of climate change adaptation.

In addition to the flow of human beings, we can also consider the flow of goods and services.

Crop failure, flooding, land degradation not only put people’s homes and lives in danger; they also cause major disruption within supply chains.

Globalisation has led to an interdependence between nations like never seen before. In today’s world, few nations could accurately claim to be self-sufficient. As climate change poses severe problems to long-term relationships in trade between states, we will all have to adapt.

In some ways, nationalism and patriotism could assist this adaptation. Prioritisation of and pride in one’s country could facilitate the relearning of skills, rebuilding of industries and reinvestment in industry that reduces dependence on at-risk supply chains. This could simultaneously reduce exploitative labour practices so common in outsourcing.

On the other hand, however, we have to consider the livelihoods of those who are dependent on exporting industries.

Currently, the majority of garment workers, agricultural workers etc. are based in vulnerable nations where they depend solely upon income generated by the demand of more powerful countries. Admittedly, this income is too often pitiful and unprotected, but in many cases its all that’s on offer.

So, as we adapt to climate change, perhaps the answer doesn’t lie in individual nations and their capacity to become self-sufficient, but in a broader, collaborative approach which seeks to ensure the wellbeing of individuals throughout international supply chains.

Perhaps globalisation has gone too far to be reversed without causing further damage. But would we really want to reverse it? Have we not benefitted from the exchange of resources, skills and culture?

Rather than pull back in order to protect our home nations, I would argue that any move towards climate change adaptation must progress forwards in developing equitable solutions regarding aid, disaster response and trade relations on a global level.

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Nationalism and Patriotism in Sustainable Innovation


Writing of progressive development brings me naturally to the subject of innovation.

Many ideas and attempts towards saving our planet call for innovative programmes and technologies which aim to help us avoid, reverse or altogether transcend our environmental impact.

So where do nationalism and patriotism fit into this innovation?

Throughout the world, individual countries take great pride in the innovation they’ve been involved in. We see statues of famous inventors and images of respected scientists represented on national currency.

In one study which collated over 20 years worth of data, it was found that a strong sense of national solidarity and pride allowed certain countries to be more innovative.

The study suggested that countries where cultural loyalty is directed towards institutions, such as governmental or educational organisations, had far higher rates of innovation than those where loyalty was reserved for closer relationships of family, friends and local community.

This suggests that fostering nationalism and patriotism, as dedication to and pride in home country, could be drawn upon in advancing sustainable innovation.

However, the study also identified individual freedom as a driver of innovation. Cultures where people are able and encouraged to go it alone and build their own future, the classic ‘American Dream’ style ideology, reported higher rates of patents and intellectual property being established.

While this supports the idea of competition and pride in facilitating innovation, it contradicts the notion that this must necessarily stem from nationalism or patriotism.

So, though loyalty to one’s country may help motivate future break-throughs, it seems that the same effect can be generated through any source of pride or prioritisation. Perhaps considering our own race as a whole and the responsibility and necessity of protecting our planet is significant enough to generate sustainable innovation.

Of course, state governments do have unique power when it comes to incentivising sustainable innovation. They can hold competitions or support of new business ventures on a scale and scope that would otherwise be difficult to organise.

Perhaps nationalism and patriotism can be worked into future innovation, but reliance on these mechanisms exposes their darker side.

The past few years have seen the rise in the new concept of ‘techno-nationalism’. Technology has become intricately intertwined with national security, economic stability and social wellbeing.

Nations are competing to innovate technology which will bring them economic prosperity and geopolitical power, while establishing boundaries against external inventions and their perceived risks such as those related to privacy, censorship, surveillance, data security, digital currencies or rights to intellectual property.

Evidenced by incidents such as the bans and discouragement of Huawei and their 5G technology or the banning of foreign made computers and software for use by public or governmental organisations in Beijing, techno-nationalism seems to have reinstated a nasty animosity between Eastern and Western powers.

Whether such events are grounded in genuine, necessary concern for citizens or in overly patriotic political pride is not for me to judge, however it is concerning to think that any breakthrough in sustainable innovation may struggle to be distributed and utilized for its fullest potential in this new age of techno-nationalism.

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As I mentioned in the introduction to this post, I do strive to write critical, balanced posts which consider a variety of perspectives and concerns. That said, I do, quite naturally I think, form my own opinions.

I find nationalism and patriotism a sticky subject to be perfectly honest. On the one hand, I find it extremely difficult to dredge up any sentiment of pride when it comes to being British. No two words make me cringe more than ‘Great Britain’.

I find our colonial history (and present) truly horrific and, while I agree that the past can be forgiven, what I cannot forgive is the ongoing refusal to acknowledge the hideousness through which this country developed nor the perpetual repetition of the same idealisation within our social structures and institutions.

Its shameful to me that I wasn’t taught about colonialism from the moment I entered the education system. Its abhorrent to me that friends from India, Australia and Africa had these subjects introduced to them so early on while I lived in naivety. And, it disgusts me to see the way systemic oppression continues today.

Strangely, and perhaps hypocritically, I do feel more proud of my Scottishness.

Particularly since moving to England, I have genuine pride in those small but significant differences between the two regions.

I suppose this boils down to various, complex layers of identity. The flare of pride I felt when Scotland was the first region to trial 100% green hydrogen in homes somehow doesn’t match my ambivalence (even skepticism) towards the UK’s ambitious emissions reduction targets.

Logically I know that these communities I do or don’t identify with fall under the idea of ‘imagined communities’ mentioned previously.

When I think of my loyalties, if it really came down to it, they go first to the ones I know and love, but beyond that I see no levels between them and my fellow citizens across the globe.

The only sense of patriotism I have is my slight pride in Scotland, but it remains fluid as times change. Concerning nationalism, I suppose I do think Scotland would benefit from independence, but I certainly wouldn’t prioritise it if I believed it came at the expense of other nations.

My personal contributions towards living sustainabily come through solidarity not with my nation, but with the planet itself and all its people.

That said, I only really have significant power over my own efforts, and perhaps if I had a country to take care of I’d do all I could to foster solidarity among my citizens if it meant expanding my influence to meet bigger, planet-saving goals.

I guess it comes down to constraints and reality. If we can realistically hope for global solidarity, that seems to me the optimum way to go. In our current World though, I’m not sure how likely that is, so perhaps nationalised efforts are the logical option.

That said, I strongly believe that any nationalism or patriotism is a falsity.

Any country, any nationality, is experienced differently by all the diverse individuals within it. We each define our identity by ethnicity, faith, class, political standpoint, gender, age and countless other categorized features which layer upon one another to form our self and our situation.

We can come together through nationalism and patriotism, but the cracks begin to show when that imagined community becomes too big and homogenous and our societies make their decisions as to who deserves and who doesn’t.

It seems that humanity is doomed to always be separatist, while always having the capacity for solidarity. On the one hand, we can do our best as individuals, and on the other we can contribute to wider efforts.

Nationalism and patriotism may be able to play some role in saving our planet, and if pride in your country is what motivates you then by all means grasp it firmly with both hands.

But when it comes at the rejection of other options, whether beyond or within national boundaries, then we have a problem.

To me, its about being critical and open minded.

Protection and development of one’s nation is grand, but we have to be critical of how we do it and how it affects those both within and outwith state boundaries.

Pride in one’s home is great, but should not be ignorant, blind or in denial of fault.

This conclusion has become slightly more long-winded than I first planned, but I suppose my final comments would be as follows:

The one thing that truly unites us all is our home planet. I personally will devote my solidarity towards the best attempts to save it, whether they come on an individual, local, national or global level. My pride and my priorities are based on my values. While I hope to find and support them within my own country, I see no reason to define that as my boundary.

Having had this lengthy debate with myself, I’m pretty tired of my own thoughts. Give us a break and post your own in the comments below!

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