Wayward: Between Ecological Citizen and Denizen

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Photo Credit: Memorial to Omagh Bombing, Northern Ireland, 1998

Like many a stowaway species before me, I arrived by boat, oblivious to where I would land.

My parents took me to Ireland as a baby to escape many things, not least the tightening grip of a necrotic political ideology on the other side of the Irish Sea. They hoped to take root in a place that hadn’t been swept by the advancing neoliberal spirit: Thatcherism, privatization, inequality, a tendency toward clone towns and hollowed-out high streets, barbed individualism. Rural, with relatively cheap property and a low population density, Ireland served as a refuge then for the United Kingdom’s outcasts, anarchists, and rebels. To some extent, it still does.

 Celtic tiger mural in Tivoli Car Park, Dublin, Ireland

The Irish economic boom, known as the “Celtic Tiger,” had not yet brought fully fledged aspirations of progress and cosmopolitan prosperity to the Irish psyche. People were still accustomed to emigrating to encounter that, in the buzz of London, Sydney, or New York. In the early 1990s, those most mobile of global citizens—multinational corporations—had only started to be drawn to these green shores by convoluted tax breaks. Over subsequent decades, they would flock here to build their monumental headquarters, town-sized factories, and power-hungry data centers.

During my childhood, Ireland remained a predominantly agricultural country: the rural midlands where I spent that time were a place of turf smoke, lush and luminous grass, line dancing, Gaelic sports, and brown pubs named after the families that had tended them for generations. It was full of who-are-you-related-to questions and a solid dose of Catholic patriarchy. Growing up in such a place, it was impossible to forget that I was different. An invader of sorts.

I had no memory of being connected to anywhere else, but nor, on the road to adulthood, did I feel particularly welcome either. I formed my first words in Ireland, but my accent was not quite right. My name, my English provenance, would be a source of distaste, particularly amongst those my own age, though I doubt they understood why they felt as they did.

It was all inherited and unthinking; the logic of intergenerational conflict. Irish people are supposed to hate the English; my parents were English; therefore, they should hate me. I grew up, after all, just a few miles from where the Irish War of Independence had begun. Seventy years later, it continued to be a heartland of nationalism. Up the Ra.

And why shouldn’t my presence have made them uncomfortable? There was bitter struggle going on in Northern Ireland for civil rights and freedom from British rule. Protestant pitted against Catholic, English against Irish. I was getting off lightly, just feeling the warmth on my face from a more distant, older, life-annihilating blaze.

The early 1990s saw hundreds of Irish Republican Army attacks—attempts to kick against British colonialism, along with the requisite brutality of retaliations. It was a vicious cycle with centuries-old roots. On the day before my third birthday, a one-ton bomb exploded outside the Baltic Exchange building in London. It was the biggest bomb to explode in England since the Second World War. Three died, and ninety-one were injured. An even bigger one destroyed the center of Manchester in 1996, when I was seven. The scene had been evacuated, but such was its power that 212 people were still injured by the debris, which showered down half a mile away. The Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland, when I was nine, is my earliest, cloudiest memory of the Troubles—an incomprehensible horror, watched from afar, on the six o’clock news. Twenty-nine died, and 220 others were injured.

That war is not my story to tell, though the deep-set tensions of belonging that underlie it explain, for instance, why I would sometimes turn up to my Protestant primary school to find a stone had been thrown through the window. The school was small—just two rooms—and attached to the end of a string of Catholic schools as though it was an afterthought. We were different from the other children, with their uniforms and regular bouts of Confession, though I had no great understanding of why. Why did they take part in traditional Irish sports, and we didn’t? Why did we play just meters away from each other during break times, but were never allowed to talk or interact?

A stone, a childhood jibe, institutional separation based on religion; these are not terrors. So I dug in my heels. Looking for belonging, looking for an identity, and looking at my parents, I used to say I was English—whatever that means to a child who had no memory of ever having lived in that country. Then I visited England, and people there said I was Irish.

I am a weed, I suppose—a plant in the wrong place. I am non-native.

Can I still use the word “nature” in these postmodern times?

If so, I would say that nature has an uncanny—almost magical—ability to disrespect any human notion of borders or nationhood. It overruns, evades, floods with abundance. It is relentless.

If a single plant of a particular species can produce millions of wind-dispersed seeds in its lifetime, or if a mushroom can release 31,000 balistospores per second,[1] then human walls and fences become an irrelevance for these beings. Our animal kin, too, like to confound human designs. Spiders have been discovered to sense the Earth’s electric field and harness it to soar vast distances. Arachnid aviators have been encountered miles in the air, even one thousand miles out at sea.[2] The world’s most prolific migrant, the Arctic tern, will fly about 1.5 million miles over its lifetime—equivalent to three round-trips to the moon.[3] I imagine them sometimes, looking down at our gated communities and barbed-wire borders, and laughing.

Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea)

Sometimes—especially when accelerated by human empire and technologies—this abundant disregard causes ecological chaos and destruction. Think, for instance, of the boat-borne rats who arrived to annihilate biodiversity on the Galapagos Archipelago, or the Zebra mussels who clog waterways across Europe and North America. It is normally then that science labels the newcomer a “non-native”—or, more specifically, “invasive”—species.

Sometimes this abundance works in more favorable ways. “Native” species that had long been driven out of a particular region suddenly reappear when the right conditions return for them. The great iconoclast and Native Studies scholar Vine Deloria, Jr., recounted Indigenous beliefs that species never actually become extinct, they simply “go away and do not come back until the location is being treated properly.”[4] The Sioux, furthermore, believed that vast herds of buffalo disappeared underground in wintertime, only to re-emerge from their subterranean sanctuaries in spring.[5]

Such stories cradle an ecological truth. Recent experiences of the remarkably rapid recoveries that result when agricultural land is allowed to regenerate through self-willed processes—(re)wilding—back this up.[6] It is a process being observed time and again, in various areas across Europe where wolves, bison, beavers, and other species are making a hearty comeback, usually in places where civilized land management is forced into decline.

In many cases, however, the line cast between native and non-native is remarkably confused, even arbitrary. In Ireland, for example, the sycamore tree is not native, having been introduced in the seventeenth century. Yet it is culturally accepted as benign in a way that many other non-natives are not.

The civilized mind—the one accustomed to agricultural fences and militarized borders—tends to attach to certain stories of belonging and deals in a confused way with the grayness, the voids, the non-stop churn of natural abundance. The common rhododendron, mandarin ducks, fallow deer, brown hares. Despite all having been present in the British Isles during the last interglacial period, 100,000 years ago, they are no longer counted as native.[7] Yet the brown hare, like the sycamore, is accepted as part of the landscape, in spite of its non-native status. It even has its own Species Action Plan under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.[8]

Like these liminal species, an initial series of events has meant that I am a citizen of a country that I didn’t grow up in and, due to a second unfortunate series of events, the country I grew up in will no longer allow me to “naturalize,” to obtain citizenship, to be seen as one of its own. Forgive me, then, if I am somewhat wary of attempts to renovate the concept of citizenship—in the form of “ecological citizenship.” While it may have gained traction over recent years, the term tends to be used in a myriad of ways, some of which appear to reduce the very possibility of meaningful deviation from the ecocidal machine many of us were born into.

And yet, here is a relatively new term—ecological citizenship—that shows remarkable resilience. Just as the concrete meanings of citizenship—its relation to law, property, individuals, the state—have changed so much over time, it has flourished and spread, tapping into what is evidently fertile ground. It springs up and persists like a weed, and I have long been taught to see weeds as storytellers, not enemies: they do not exist simply to impede human plans, but to speak to us of what the land wants, what it wishes to become.

It may prove fruitful to see ecological citizenship in this way, then, and to harness it, work with it. If I, or the sycamore tree, or the hare, do not officially belong—if we are not truly “naturalized,” or cannot become citizens—then where do we stand? What is our role? However careful we have to be around the blurry edges, belonging to a place, being native to it, surely means something.

I once moved onto a piece of land in the west of Ireland, excited and energetic, only to discover that the previous owner had craftily failed to inform us that it was harboring Japanese knotweed—that most feared of invasive, non-native plants. This invader is so feared, so destructive, that its intentional propagation, planting, or spreading can lead to prosecution.

Stories of a creeping threat that can crack open concrete, undermine house foundations, and is near-impossible to eradicate gave me cold sweats. I waited for its tentacles to creep in through the windows and strangle me in the middle of the night. And, sure enough, knotweed shoots emerged prolifically, in the newly planted herb garden, at the edge of the lawn, in the raised beds.

The battle began: man against plant.

Japanese Knotweed

Frantically, I tore at it, hoping to weaken it, to dent its spirit, only for it to come back, seemingly stronger than ever. It was a foolish act. I knew that. Any attempt to dig it up would just worsen the problem—leaving fragments of root throughout the soil from which the enemy would emerge anew.

It was a losing battle.

Eventually we gave up, deciding to see what would happen if we left the land to fend for itself for a time. Remarkably, a balance was gradually struck. Our non-action gave the soil and existing flora time to weave together again and, over time, a more resilient ecological community formed. We stopped seeing the knotweed so much and, even when we did, we didn’t lose sleep.

Invasives will normally gain a foothold in places that have already been disrupted by human development: it is no coincidence that knotweed normally thrives at the edges of roads and fields and railway tracks and building sites. The problem is not non-native invaders, the problem is not non-citizens, and the problem is not migration. The problem is not the problem, as the phrase goes. Ecological disruption is a symptom of a way of life—an imperial mode of existence that alienates us, that doesn’t allow “us” to find and keep our relationships, that obliterates ecological integrity.

Let me go back a few steps. From the Latin civitas, meaning city, citizenship is something bestowed upon the civilized, signifying belonging within a space of human exceptionalism. With regards to its contested history, it is hardly novel to note that affluent men and property owners were the citizens of ancient Greece, not women, slaves, or the poor. The latter were better categorized as “non-naturalized”—as excluded others—and have been treated as such in most “civilized” societies, often to this day.

Citizenship, furthermore, is an individually held attribute. Citizens can be strangers to each other and, too often, strangers to the land they supposedly belong to. Can humans and non-humans form long-lasting, mutualistic bonds? I would say yes. Can both be citizens? No.

The emergence of citizenship, finally, was profoundly connected to urbanity, hierarchy, and, in recent times, the nation-state—that least ecological of human creations.[9] With borders that slice bioregions apart like a butcher wielding a cleaver, the very philosophical basis of the modern state apparatus—social contract theory—is premised on the idea of humanity as having advanced beyond a brutish “state of nature.” The civilized are thus liberated from the dirt and chaos. Or so they like to think.

Given this liberation, citizens claim that land belongs to them. Indeed, they usually have the papers to prove it. We make a grave mistake, however, when we forget that the opposite is the primary relation: we belong to the land.

Perhaps, then, it is time to expand the lexicon of belonging.

Rather than translating or expanding current understandings of citizenship for a time of ecological breakdown, through the notion of ecological citizenship, the environmental philosopher Mick Smith opts to re-center on the term denizen. This, he says, is less weighed down with anthropocentric baggage than citizen.[10] For the denizen:

Her being is not articulated through a formal order, it is not rule governed but expressive of a more radical form of life. She is one who “comes from within” a place or has become “naturalized” (one might also say acculturated) to a place over time. . . . Denizens might be beings of all kinds, not just human beings.

At present, Smith warns, “Responsibility is, like everything else, being privatized, this time under the rubric of ‘environmental citizenship.’”[11] These new, improved citizens “are first exhorted, and then when this fails, conscripted and compelled, to take responsibility for the state of the same world they find themselves alienated from.”

Not long ago, a good ecological citizen was one who killed wolves or drained wetlands. These were the virtuous activities of the past, however destructive and absurd they may appear in hindsight. Today, we are exhorted to take shorter showers, refrain from pre-heating our ovens, recycle our plastics. None of these activities come from listening to what the land aches for. The underlying system remains destructive and absurd, and if such appeals are beginning to ring hollow, that is because we know in our hearts that they are.

There is truth to the charges of tepid reformism that have been aimed at ecological citizenship as it is often understood. The philosopher Andrew Dobson—who has perhaps done the most to bring the concept to prominence over recent decades—wrote that “environmental citizens have a responsibility to work towards a sustainable society, and this embraces all the activities one might normally think of as relating to good environmental citizenship: recycling, reusing, conserving.”[12]

That “normally” is a sneaky term. A more valid restatement of his words might be: “You have no real control or say over the machinic rhythm, but let’s keep the system ticking over please.” The scale and complexity of technological civilization increasingly preclude the possibility of any truly democratic ecological citizenship. We are consumers, (dis)connected through the market, more often than citizens—whether global, ecological, or otherwise. We are users, not participants.

Proponents of environmental citizenship, including Dobson, have furthermore long held that engagement with ecological citizenship may be best implemented in the school system. If future generations are to learn how to be good citizens during civics class, then surely they can learn to be good ecological citizens while they’re at it?

This all only works if we take the most naïve perspective. The place where we send our children to be molded into good workers, good servants of the machine, where we lock them in a room and discipline out of them all wildness and spontaneity, is surely the worst place to start the journey of becoming a denizen. If it is to be more than a surface dressing on a deeper wound, environmental citizenship must begin in the woods, in the scrubland, in the cracks in the sidewalk, in the self-willed ecosystem, in cultural mythologies, and not in the textbooks and screwed-down rows of the sterile classroom.

Place. Culture. Identity. Belonging. They are entwined things, beautiful things, powerful, deep, and necessary things, toxic things, limiting things, primitive things.

                                                                                                —Paul Kingsnorth[13]

Perhaps we can clarify the route from citizen to denizen by observing, for example, the real differences between an ecological citizen—as a light green, apolitical, or greenwashed concept (akin to tacking the word “sustainable” in front of development)—and an ecological citizen—something less obedient, predictable, and subservient. The latter glows a deeper shade of wild and disobedient green. Perhaps, conceptualized in this way, it can overflow any current understanding of ecological citizenship, which, as we saw above, tends to sidestep the inconvenience of an ecocidal status quo. While the emphasis on citizenship reproduces historical trends of subservient belonging and sees the citizen as a rational individual whose behaviors must be modified, the emphasis on “ecological” is something much closer to Smith’s notion of denizen: always yet-unformed; the rewilding of self, society, and landscape.

We may also be well served by speaking of becoming a denizen as a process of dwelling.[14] Dwelling and citizenship often overlap, but they are certainly not the same. Heidegger said that “to be a human being means to be on the earth as a mortal. It means to dwell. The old word bauen, which says that man is insofar as he dwells, this word bauen however also means at the same time to cherish and protect, to care for, specifically to till the soil, to cultivate the vine.”[15] The dweller is a practiced member of their place; they feel a certain chest-ache when forced into exile, when displaced from the things they may not have even known made them feel at home. This is an animal pain that grows from a place, from shared experiences, belief, practices, mythology, and belonging.

“Naturalization” would be much better used to describe the process of dwelling, of moving from citizen to denizen, and not vice versa, as it currently is. I will admit that these are awkward—albeit necessary—conversations to have in these polarizing times. Less benign versions of nationalism and belonging are on the rise, spreading like knotweed, sullying all around them. We live at a time in which you can be prosecuted for the humanitarian act of leaving caches of water in the desert between the United States and Mexico,[16] or for rescuing refugees adrift in the Mediterranean.[17] The border walls are going up, and it’s clear who will be unwelcome.

The border wall, from the Mexican side, where Mexico, New Mexico, and Texas meet.

It is unfortunate, then, that in response to the border walls, there is an increasingly fashionable strain of green thought that would wash its hands of any discussion like the one I have engaged in above. To these armchair urbanites, even discussing tricky notions of place connection or localism—concepts that have been foundational to environmentalism—is inherently reactionary, harking back to Nazi “blood and soil” rhetoric. The mention of such stuffy old things is to be decried as völkisch or even proto-fascist.[18]

However, it is the very refusal to have those conversations—the failure to recognize growing from within a place as a fundamental aspect of the human condition—that is not just misguided, but dangerous. The alternatives they often propose—grounded in philosophies of flux, rootlessness, and the misuse of ideas like cyborg ecologies—seem like a cop-out. This is merely avoiding the difficult and crucial stuff of human life, the daily work. It will backfire.

And so, here I sit, awaiting a decision from some bureaucrat on whether I can become an Irish citizen or not. After the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, there was a rush for Irish passports. Many of the people applying had never even set foot in Ireland, let alone lived there for most of their lives, as I have. Many openly admitted that they simply want to maintain the convenience of easy access to the rest of Europe. For these people, becoming a citizen of the place I grew up is seen merely as a means to an end—a pernicious modern form of colonialism.

I hold out little hope for sense to prevail in my strange case. My status as a weed feels certain, fixed. Whatever the decision, however, I will know what direction home lies in. I will continue to feel those indescribable feelings of resonance whenever I look out over the fields that I walked across as a child. No paperwork can validate that. No civics class can teach it. I will be a denizen, and that, ultimately, means more to me, and to the Earth, than any form of citizenship.

Image credits:

Celtic Tiger mural in Tivoli Car Park, Dublin, Ireland. Courtesy of cashen (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Memorial to Omagh Bombing, Northern Ireland, 1998. Courtesy of Gordon Dunn (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea). Courtesy of Harold Moses (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica). Courtesy of Hornbeam Arts (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Border Wall from the Mexican side, where Mexico, New Mexico, and Texas meet.Courtesy of Dawn Paley (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

[1] B. Keim, “The Magic of Mushroom Spores,” Wired.com, January 9, 2009, https://www.wired.com/2009/01/mushroommagic/.

[2] E. Yong, “Spiders Can Fly Hundreds of Miles Using Electricity” The Atlantic, July 5, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/07/the-electric-flight-of-spiders/564437/.

[3] M. Inman, “World’s Longest Migration Found—2X Longer Than Thought,” National Geographic, January 12, 2010, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/1/100111-worlds-longest-migration-arctic-tern-bird/.

[4] V. Deloria, Jr., Spirit and Reason: The Vine Deloria, Jr., Reader (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 1999), 58.

[5] D. Jensen, “Where the Buffalo Go: How Science Ignores the Living World—an Interview with Vine Deloria,” The Sun, July 2000, https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/295/where-the-buffalo-go.

[6] I. Tree, Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm (London: Picador, 2018).

[7] Ibid.

[8] People’s Trust for Endangered Species, “Brown Hare,” https://ptes.org/get-informed/facts-figures/brown-hare/, accessed June 2, 2020.

[9] See, for instance, an extensive discussion at An Anarchist FAQ, Vol. 1, Section E, “What Do Anarchists Think Causes Ecological Problems?” https://anarchism.pageabode.com/afaq/secE1.html.

[10] M. Smith, “Citizens, Denizens and the Res Publica: Environmental Ethics, Structures of Feeling and Political Expression,” Environmental Values 14, no. 2 (May 2005): 145-62.

[11] M. Smith, “Ecological Citizenship and Ethical Responsibility: Arendt, Benjamin and Political Activism,” Environments 33, no. 3 (2005): 51-63.

[12] A. Dobson, “Environmental Citizenship: Towards Sustainable Development,” Sustainable Development 15, no. 5 (2007): 276-85.

[13] P. Kingsnorth, Savage Gods (Columbus, OH: Two Dollar Radio, 2018), 69.

[14] I am aware here, and in the discussion that follows, both of the prominence of dwelling in Martin Heidegger’s philosophy and of his problematic politics.

[15] M. Heidegger, “Building, Dwelling, Thinking,” in N. Leach, ed., Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory (London: Routledge, 1997), 94-119.

[16] K. Phillips, “They Left Food and Water for Migrants in the Desert. Now They Might Go To Prison,” Washington Post, January 20, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/01/20/they-left-food-water-migrants-desert-now-they-might-go-prison/.

[17] L. Tondo, “Captain Who Rescued 42 Migrants: I’d Do It Again Despite Jail Threat,” The Guardian, July 5, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/05/captain-who-rescued-42-migrants-id-do-it-again-despite-jail-threat.

[18] They make such links with some historical precedent, of course, See J. Biehl and P. Staudenmaier, Ecofascism Revisited: Lessons from the German Experience (Porsgrunn, Norway: New Compass Press, 2011).

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  • Tom Smith

    Tom Smith is a writer and postdoctoral researcher at Masaryk University, Czech Republic. He has edited or contributed to five Dark Mountain anthologies (dark-mountain.net).

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