Barriers and Boundaries

Friday 17th of April 2020
wall with hole and blue sky behind

During the coverage of the coronavirus over the last few weeks, I have been very thoughtful about the virus’ ability to cross the globe. Admittedly, that is not down to any capacity that the virus itself has other than to use human beings as a host. It therefore owes more to how we as human beings choose to organise ourselves than to its own characteristics.
What this has highlighted for me is therefore less to do with the spread of the coronavirus itself and more to do with the role played by boundaries and barriers in human society. Part of my reason for focusing on this in this series of blogs is that one of the issues within climate change is that the phenomena being experienced are no respecters of borders: a rise in temperature or global movements of sea- or air-based currents does not stop at the edge of a particular border or customs jurisdiction. I shall come back to climate change later in this piece.
In one sense, this mirrors some aspects of modern Western society which have become more marked in recent times. One of these is globalisation: the largest companies in the world operate on so many different fronts that, in some senses at least, borders have ceased to be significant for them. This phenomenon is also discussed especially in relation to the Internet. Here too, any geographical boundaries become very much secondary. There is also the physical mobility of people, although I’m not sure that this is necessarily a universal characteristic of our world (whilst some individuals or groups travel easily and widely, this certainly doesn’t apply to everyone).
As human beings, we have a mixed attitude to the need for borders. There is some acknowledgement that there is a value in barriers or boundaries in certain situations, at least to some degree. What most of us would choose to do on a personal level is to put up a barrier in response to a perceived threat, in the hope that this will check the threat. Going back to people suffering from Covid-19 we have had various forms of “lockdown” or quarantine used as at least a partial solution. One of our difficulties is that this goes exactly against the spirit of liberal capitalism, which has very much been about the dismantling of barriers or even checks and balances in setting up the freest of free markets. I wonder whether this mentality leaves us more vulnerable to the spread of a virus because we are so tied to this particular mantra.
If I return to climate change, I have already questioned whether it makes any sense to talk about borders. My belief is that in the past this has meant that the effects of climate change have been discounted, in some quarters at least, because it has not been seen as enough of a threat. I wonder if this sense of threat is implicitly tied up with barriers and boundaries. Because Western society generally sees the growth of global capitalism as a good thing and because of the fact that this has been achieved through bringing down barriers, I think we may struggle to see anything which transcends barriers or which has inherent complexity as a significant threat. To me this provides further food for thought in relation to why the movement to combat climate change has had relatively little effect.
I want to touch briefly on one final link between the coronavirus and climate change here. At least one of the keys of combatting coronavirus has been depriving ourselves of some of the things which we most value as human beings, especially close human contact. Perhaps there is another ironic parallel with climate change. Reducing travel has been a side-effect of social isolation, but it is one of the principles which advocates of reducing climate change espouse. Travelling for work or to see others is something that we have taken for granted, ever more so over recent decades. Is climate change seen as enough of a threat for us to maintain into the future this particular change in lifestyle being adopted currently because of the coronavirus? That remains to be seen, but I do believe we have an opportunity to examine this and other changes of the last few weeks to see what benefits they may have brought, whatever their downsides.