People Without Frontiers

Every week, it seems, there is some Daily Mail and UKIP-fuelled scare over the number of immigrants streaming into Britain, taking all our jobs and exploiting the NHS. (Hey… we need the doctors!) But I’m not in this post going to debate the merits of the Schengen Agreement, analyse immigration and emigration data, point out the very real needs of asylum seekers and climate/conflict refugees, pontificate over integration and ghetto-isation, or worry over contributions to society and the skills lost to the originating country.

Instead I am reminded of people who seemed or seem determined to ignore the notion of borders and frontiers: of Patrick Leigh Fermor walking through Europe in 1933-35, of mediaeval pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem and modern pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela, Lourdes and Medjugorje, of wandering Celtic saints and mendicant Franciscan friars, of the inspirational Winter Pilgrim and Peace Pilgrim, and of two TEDxExeter talks.

In 2012, Satish Kumar spoke of his peace pilgrimage. From my live summary of his talk: “We have been too focused on our own narrow identities and not enough on society. If Satish had walked on his peace pilgrimage as an Indian, he would have met a Pakistani. If he had walked as a socialist, he would have met a capitalist. But he walked without labels as a human being, and met other human beings. We need diversity, otherwise we will have no unity. But we need to avoid divisions – celebrate our diversity. Tourists always complain – laughter! Pilgrims celebrate. No more living as me me me me, my house, my job, my ego. Let’s be our true selves, and live on the earth as pilgrims. Earth is and you are, therefore I am. We are members of one earth community. That is society, and we are all members.”

Last year, Peter Owen-Jones said, again from my live summary: “How would it be if we were to leave our children no more militarised industrialised complexes that we know as countries? What if we were to acknowledge a basic human right of free movement? Song thrushes and robins have more freedom than we do. Militarised industrialised complexes of countries are not fit for purpose any more. We need to imagine a world without them.”

Imagine a world without countries, borders or frontiers. The trouble is, I then imagine a world which has few means of combating people trafficking or drug running. And this photo of our planet reminds me that the world itself is a frontier.

The frontier mentality says that there will always be new and unexplored territory. When we have used up the resources of our current piece of land, we can load up our wagons and push on west over the next mountain range. It’s the sort of mentality that will dry out the Ogallala aquifer in the name of the free market, or destroy vast areas of boreal forest and miles of water courses to feed our craving for oil. But we have already reached the Pacific; there are no more mountain ranges on the western horizon. In imagination, space is the final frontier, but in reality we are boldly going to have to live within our resources for some years yet.

I’m following my nose in writing a few posts exploring this year’s theme of “Ideas Without Frontiers”. My conclusions so far?

  • We have set frontiers where there should be none, for example around equitable distribution of wealth, income and opportunity.
  • We have not set frontiers where they should be set, for example around one planet living.
  • Physical frontiers are a reality of life beyond our control.

… but even if our lives are physically restricted, whether or not by choice, it does not mean that ideas and imagination are bounded. Nelson Mandela served over 27 years in prison, but his mind was free. Monks and nuns live in enclosure, but the purpose is to free their souls from distraction. Jean-Dominique Bauby was locked in his body, but released a butterfly that has touched millions.