By contrast, the notion of civitas or polis (“city state”) and politeia (“constitution” or “political form”) grows out of the political theory of the ancient Greek oligarchies and democracies and the classical Roman republic. In the civitas the persona is shaped by a mutuality of common good and civic virtue. Private individuals reinvent themselves—at least periodically and for important occasions—as public citizens. If the urbs is a market of entrepreneurial and strategic endeavor, civitas connotes a political and legal community created for the purpose of pursuing the common good. This civic notion of the good is not necessarily essentialist, as in natural law theories, nor equivalent to the notion of aggregate net benefit, as in utilitarianism and modern economic theory. Properly understood today, the civic good is a developmental conception—it is not given by a unchanging core of traits or dispositions, but rather is an active life of diverse and resilient flourishing lived in an environment that permits the realization of multi-faceted capabilities and “functionings” or activities. The civic is a structure of citizenship ordered by reciprocity, equity, and just and proportionate laws. It is not content merely to protect the security and person of its citizens (important as those negative rights are) but also seeks to extend positive rights of equal voice, mutual assistance, and a setting conducive to the realization of a broad range of capabilities and a reasonably open future.
The distinction between the civic and the urban provides a vocabulary for comprehending the ethical and practical difference between commonality and cooperation—that is to say, the difference between a genuine mutuality of, and commitment to, common rules and restraints and a strategically self-interested acceptance of rules and restraints, sometimes called “enlightened self-interest” or “self-interest, rightly understood.” Commonality is a shared self-governance that has intrinsic meaning and value to its participants because it is rooted in an appreciation of underlying interdependency. Cooperation, as I am using it here, is a self-governance that has instrumental meaning and value to its participants, which is always calculated and provisional because it is rooted in an aspiration of individual interest and control.
What we might call a just ecological city will revitalize the sense of civic place and return us to founding roots of the city, which are communal in ways that embrace diversity, mobility, and self-discovery, and just in ways that empower parity of participation and voice. In his book All Over the Map, urban designer Michael Sorkin argues that we need to invent a new kind of city:
It is essential not to let this opportunity for ethical and political reconstruction in the city as civitas slip by. Why? Because the strategic pursuit of competitive interests in the urban marketplace has corroded community, and the rational persons who are supposed to design and run institutions governed by principles of impartiality, merit, and fairness are nowhere to be found among the leadership elites of nations and international affairs today. New senses of community and interdependence can emerge from a recognition of our dire ecological and planetary situation, and new forms of just democracy can emerge in the context of cities (even very large ones) more readily than in the context of the nation state. These fundamental possibilities are explored by thinkers such as Susan Fainstein in The Just City and Benjamin Barber in If Mayors Ruled the World. For Barber cities are well positioned to articulate global community with local participation—to be “glocal,” as he puts it. Finally, the city as civitas may prove to be a place equal to the task of transforming justice and democracy still further into an ecological democracy that respects the integrity and resilience of nature and that respects and preserves, as matters of solidarity, justice, and right, the capabilities of future generations of human beings.
As I read our current predicament, we need to seek out a new consciousness and will to curb humankind’s destructive economic and ecological behavior in a city of civic commonality rather than in a city of urban self-interested cooperation. Heaven knows, there are powerful reasons of enlightened self-interest that by their own logic should lead to the steps required to limit the damage we are doing to the climate system and the other fundamental planetary systems of life (biodiversity, nitrogen load, fresh water, and so on). And yet look at what is happening and what seems likely to happen. Consider, for instance, a recent report from an interdisciplinary team of leading scientists providing evidence that further delay in drastically reducing atmospheric carbon (through both reducing emissions and enhancing natural sinks) will have long-term lag effects that are much more severe than previously recognized.
Hence, self-interest rightly understood is not cutting it. Apparently, the reasons of enlightened self-interest are weaker than the logic of competitive advantage in market economics and market politics, and our institutions of governance are so constructed that they are overwhelmed by more short-term, short-sighted forces. As dangerous as flirting with Ecotopia may be, embracing the ideal of the city as a civic commons and enacting shared rules and restraints based on an understanding of the good of human and natural flourishing may be the only way out. The good news is that we don’t have to make this stuff up as we go along. These alternative understandings have been available for centuries, and the history of their interpretation and philosophical refinement is there to guide us. The city as a place of civic democracy—a place beyond the market society—is very old, but that antiquity can also be its novelty, its vitality, its future relevance.
No one should underestimate the stakes or the difficulty of the conceptual and the practical work—the moral and the political work—ahead. In his important book on climate change A Perfect Moral Storm, Stephen Gardiner outlines three significant challenges that the city of the future will have to meet if it is to be the institutional venue to overcome the monumental ethical failure of our time.
Second, as difficult as the challenge of practically meeting the requirements of contemporaneous global justice may be, the problem of intergenerational justice is even more perplexing. The task of getting the rich to recognize the rights and common humanity of the poor is common to both problems of justice, but it is complicated in intergenerational justice by the issue of the moral standing of persons who only exist statistically and probabilistically, not individually and concretely. Can we find a place for those yet unborn in a new global social contract of justice and governance?
Third, can we overcome the temptations of self-deception that are reinforced by powerful reasons of interest and powerful emotions of denial? This is a challenge that goes beyond the ethical recognition of obligations and what we owe others, to an altered worldview or an ontological recognition of relationships and interdependency. This ontological recognition is what allows ethical recognition to take hold. All individuals living in a particular place at a particular time—a here and now—have a relationship of interdependency with the natural world both locally and globally currently and in the future—in other words, both here and now and there and then. The same is true for the solidarity of each individual and all other human beings—both others here and now and others there and then.
We must beware of having a market without a polis, but we don’t need to go to the other extreme of having a polis without a market at all. Integration and synthesis, proper proportion and balance between the aspirations of competitive self-interest and communal solidarity—entrepreneurialism and citizenship—are what is needed. In a variety of ways and in interestingly different registers, the essays in this issue of Minding Nature each explore such a synthetic vision.
What can save us? Just cities.