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Climate change: transitions to sustainability
Climate change: transitions to sustainability

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3.3.1 Too late for the nation state?

Nation states have long been thought of as comprising citizens who ‘share the same fate’. For a long time it made sense to think in terms of the shared fate of members of a nation state (although different social classes would generally have experienced different versions of this fate). However, the global economic, political and social flows described in this section, and the global environmental changes charted throughout this course, make it much more difficult to think in terms of clearly bounded societies and of governments that can or will act in the confined interests of its citizens. Although we might be losing some of our cohesion as well-ordered groups of citizens, marked out by national boundaries, there are also signs that many people are thinking of themselves as global, or cosmopolitan citizens. The following factors are driving this.

  • People are moving around the world in search of work, security, leisure or new experiences.

  • Increasing flows of cultural goods (such as film, music, fashion, food).

  • Strengthening and deepening of supranational bodies, such as the EU or the UN, which often advance more international or universal political values.

  • Emerging awareness of transboundary and global risks, of which environmental risks are prominent.

  • Many people have ambiguous feelings about dependence on expert systems (for physical security, environmental protection, safe food and travel, etc.), which people rely on but may not trust because the systems contradict their daily experiences and lay knowledge.

  • There are many more media products, and a variety of ways of accessing them. Unlike national broadcasters such as the BBC of the mid-20th century, these are more diverse, made up of subjects, images and techniques from around the globe (Urry, 1999).

Global environmental changes imply that citizens will constantly be dealing with transboundary issues and processes that will bind them closer together or, in the words of one political scientist, create ‘overlapping communities of fate’ (Held et al., 1999). The main currents of policy debate that have responded to these changes put citizens at the centre. They assume, at a rhetorical level at least, that citizens will be engaged in the democratic regulation of local, national, regional and global environmental governance. In other words, they will practise all sorts of citizenship.

Activity 4 The citizen shopper

This activity invites you to think about how the personal becomes political. How much ‘citizenship’ is involved when you fill your shopping basket? Many people reflect not just their tastes but also their values – you could say their politics – in the products they buy. Look at a recent shopping list and try to find items that do, or could, reflect a kind of exercise of citizenship in their selection. It takes a little imagination to see a few bags of shopping as a site of political action and debate, but the following questions might help guide your thinking.

  • a.Do you buy Fairtrade or organic products?

  • b.Do you buy local products? Think in terms of where and how products are produced and the conditions the producers live in, or the impact on the environment.

  • c.Are there any ways in which the journey the products make down the supply chain can be monitored or impacted on?


One of the authors responded to this activity as follows.

My own shopping in the last week or so included: fairly traded bananas, honey and tea; organic milk and cheese; organic seasonal fruit and vegetables from a local smallholder. Industrial food giants didn't lose out completely; I ignored the green global citizen in me to buy my family's favourite chocolate and cereal, and some very good coffee whose labelling tells me nothing of its origins or governance. It's difficult for me personally to follow the ‘story’ of these products from their origin to the shopping basket, but I do trust, for example, organic and Fairtrade marks. Someone else is doing the checking all the way along the supply chain for me.

In the activity you were asked to look at long chains of connection between consumers and producers, and similarly long chains of environmental impact. Many people (although far from a majority) have become much more aware of how their consumer choices have significant environmental and social impacts, and have sought to make choices that reduce these, or even contribute to social and environmental goods. They could be said to be putting notions of cosmopolitan or ecological citizenship into practice. Some choose Fairtrademarked products (Figure 7 and Figure 8) which make guarantees to the growers in less-developed countries about pay and welfare conditions. Other people look for organic foods from around the world that carry a certification of high environmental and animal welfare standards. Others, again, would choose to buy mainly locally produced foods, maybe from a home-delivery organic box scheme or farmers market. This reduces the ‘food miles’ (the energy used to transport the food to the household) and supports small local producers as opposed to multinational companies. All these choices are different ways of practising a new kind of citizenship. They are ways of challenging the places and forms of economic globalisation that threaten environmental or social sustainability. Democratic and ecological values are brought into play without the involvement of the nation state.

Figure 7
Figure 7 The Fairtrade mark. (Source: Fairtrade Foundation)
Figure 8
Figure 8 Sales of Fairtrade banana are rocketing. People are increasingly exercising citizenship via their shopping basket. (Photo: Joe Smith)