Sustainable Belonging in a Migratory World

BLOG: Climate Confessions

colour wood blockprint of two boats sailing on high waves
Chōshi in Shimosha province, from Oceans of Wisdom - Katsushika Hokusai (1833)

In the early hours of Christmas Day, 2018, in “complete darkness”, Zainab waded into the choppy sea at Calais to board the inflatable boat that would take her to England. After a perilous three-hour journey in which she “was throwing up the whole way”, drenched by waves, Zainab arrived on the shores of Folkestone, Kent.

— by Timothy Stacey

Zainab’s story is not unique. So common have these deadly rides become that the first pledge of the UK’s purportedly centre-right government is to “Stop the Boats”.

I want to offer a thought experiment. What if, in that moment, prior to a citizenship exam, prior even to the processing of her refugee application, Zainab belonged to England more truly than she ever would again and, in a sense, also more than some of the flag-waving, anti-immigrant voters living in the town in which she landed?

How could this possibly be the case? From most people’s gut perspective, belonging is rooted in a kind of from-ness. Like a tree, you are rooted in a place. Though it’s not easily admitted in liberal society, one’s rootedness is usually detected by skin colour and facial features. Even amongst the most welcoming of insiders, there is an unspoken assumption that those here first get to decide how things ought to be. On a secondary level, cultural behaviour confers belonging. “Okay, their grandparents aren’t from here, but at least they get our way of life.”

Unspoken agreements about who “we” are,
appear to be collapsing. The fight for our moral future is underway

Oil painting of a woman, together with three kids playing inside a conservatory filled with plants
The Family of Mr. Westphal in the Conservatory - Eduard Gaertner (1836)

But what is this “our” anyway? Many people today feel deeply concerned by rampant polarisation. Brexit, climate change, Ukraine, Gaza. All have partly revealed underlying tensions, partly allowed cynical people to create new ones. Our ability to identify with those we look like and live alongside is waning. Suspicion reigns. But if there’s a silver lining, perhaps it’s the recognition that there is no “our” way of life. Unspoken agreements about who “we” are, appear to be collapsing. The fight for our moral future is underway. For all the talk of isolationism, what we seem to see emerging, even among the nationalist right, is divisions within countries bolstered by global moral coalitions. What better time to reconsider what it means to belong?

A more sustainable belonging

There is another way of thinking about belonging that unsettles assumptions about rootedness - that perhaps will leave readers feeling stranded in choppy waters. Ironically, it comes from scholars of indigenous lifeways - those often called “first peoples”. It is an idea of belonging as living through a landscape rather than in it: Feeling its waters on your skin. Feeling its soil beneath your feet. Feeling its air in your lungs.

From this perspective, very few of us live lives of real belonging. We are deeply alienated from our own sources of sustenance. Unless we are out on leisure walks, our lives are characterised by taming, controlling, and sheltering from the landscape, rather than allowing it to shape us. In the most extreme cases, whole towns are built in places that are virtually uninhabitable by humans without mechanically changing the air temperature and humidity. Phoenix Arizona comes to mind. As the desert city expands, verdant designer suburbs are popping up with fully air-conditioned homes and seemingly endless supplies of water fed from distant reservoires.[i] Such extremes rarely present themselves as absurd because everyday life elsewhere follows the same logic.

When we stop engaging with our surroundings,
we stop belonging to them too.

We heat our homes to 21 degrees in the winter and cool them in the summer, treat a daily hot shower like a right, and consume evermore processed hand-delivered food. And, of course, the cruellest irony is that it is this mode of belonging and the ways of living that grew up with it that are causing climate change and, with that, mass migration from the South to the North.

Conversely, among the Aborigines of Australia, belonging is conferred by attachment to and engagement with a place. “Land does not belong to people, people belong to the land”.[ii] Land and people are co-created. This is accompanied by a far more sustainable way of living.[iii] When one sees oneself as entangled in a network of mutual respect with land and animals, it becomes second nature not to take more than is required. When we stop engaging with our surroundings, we stop belonging to them too.

Red Sunset - Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi (1905)

Taking back belonging

Do I intend that migrants belong more than those already here (wherever the reader’s “here” is)? Of course not. I imagine that Zainab now lives a life similar to many other Brits.

But I do intend to unsettle the notion that being in a place first automatically confers belonging. What if, instead, one’s belonging was derived from the part played in a wider, more-than-human web of mutual responsibility? So framed, new arrivals would not belong more than those already here, but nor would those already here all belong to the same degree. It is not how long you have been in a place, but how you engage with it, that counts.

Obviously, far more than a shift in meaning is required before conceiving belonging in this way could be considered feasible or fair: our lost connection to the land, and probably our nervousness about new arrivals too, stems in part from its having been robbed from us many generations ago. In most of the world, the 17th and 18th centuries saw common land stolen or appropriated by the wealthiest and most powerful to the exclusion of the poor, “racially inferior”, or weak. This brutal process is widely recognised as part and parcel of the Global North’s ongoing colonization of the world.[iv] But less appreciated is the way that wealthy Europeans used the same techniques to dispossess the poor within their own countries.[v] Most of us now have no choice but to sell our labour to survive, and to purchase food in whatever form it is offered. Contemporary ideas of belonging-as-ownership evolved conterminously with this dispossession. Ironically, it is predominantly those in positions of great wealth and power that are now encouraging us to turn our hostility towards Zainab. Perhaps our hostility should be aimed elsewhere.

Before we question whether Zainab belongs, we need to experiment with deeper forms of belonging to the land. But before that can happen, we need our land back.

[i] Joanna Walters, "Plight of Phoenix: how long can the world’s ‘least sustainable’ city survive",

[ii] Sanna Valkonen and Jarno Valkonen, “On Local Knowledge,” in Knowing from the Indigenous North: Sámi Approaches to History, Politics and Belonging, ed. Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Sanna Valkonen, and Jarno Valkonen, Eerste editie (London: Routledge, 2020).

[iii] Clement Tisdell, “The Sustainability and Desirability of the Traditional Economies of Australian Aborigines: Controversial Issues,” Economic Analysis and Policy 57 (March 1, 2018): 1–8,

[iv] Stefano Liberti, Land Grabbing: Journeys In The New Colonialism (Verso Books, 2013).

[v] Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, 1st edition (New York, NY: Autonomedia, 2004).

Climate Confessions is a monthly blog series in which Timothy Stacey reveals the “religious repertoires” associated with sustainability in various sectors. From the myths of great floods that dominate in Dutch politics to the rituals of reconnecting with other humans and the other-than-human found among activists, each month, Tim invites you into the repertoires that lurk beneath the surface, shaping sustainability in an otherwise secular world. For more formal reflections, see Tim’s peer-reviewed research: To discuss how repertoires might transform your practice, get in touch