Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Just Cities

(Adapted from Minding Nature Vol. 7. No. 1 (January 2014). Available at:
The city is a Janus-faced enigma, at least in the Western political tradition. According to the book of Genesis (4:17), the first city was established by Cain, and all cities partake of the problematical character of this original founder. Archeologists agree that the appearance of cities marked a fundamental transition in the history of human culture as a sedentary society of agriculture came to dominate over the more nomadic existence of hunting and gathering and pastoral husbandry. In historical time, the city has taken on two fundamental, coexisting identities. It is a space of market transactions and the birthplace of individualistic self-identity. It is also the birthplace of politics in the West—in particular the fifth century BCE Greek city-state—which offered a setting of political community, democratic citizenship, and civic virtue. Again, the ancient legacy endures: the city remains democracy’s only and best hope for renewal and its worst enemy, its moral antithesis. Hadley Arkes captures these two faces of the city in a striking way in his book The Philosopher and the City:

All about us today urban life is celebrated, but largely for the wrong reasons. When the city is valued, it is valued as the theater of diversity, the center of a cosmopolitan culture, the breeding ground of freedom and tolerance. …But these virtues are the virtues of the marketplace or of the city as “hotel.” What they leave out, conspicuously, is any sense of the city as a source of obligation—not an arena for pursuing wants, a place for indulging tastes of literally any description, with no governing sense of character, but a place where people learn the lessons of propriety and self-control. …What is lost, then, in this vision of the city as a shopping center is the sense of a people joined together in a perception of common ends; who found their common life on procedures they regard, by and large, as just, and who cultivate an understanding of justice as morals in one another through the things they hold up to the community with the force of law. What is lost, in a word, is the sense of the city as a polity. (p. 3)

In a similar vein I broach the question of the role of the city in the future patterns of relationship between humans and nature. Some in the environmental and conservation movements have tended to view the world of the city as the antithesis of the natural and sustainable world, a viewpoint understandable in the industrial era of the nineteenth century and not altogether without merit today. But we are living in the midst of one of the most rapid and massive migrations in human history and are headed toward a time when cities—always powerful and influential—will define the terms of experience for the vast majority of people. That may be the key to a human future of justice and responsibility—Arkes’ city as a polity, or what I shall refer to below as “the civic”— or it may bring about a destabilization of meaning (a radical break with traditions of social justice and democratic citizenship), as dire in its own way as the cognate bio-physical destabilization brought about by climate change.
From Fritz Lang’s silent classic, “Metropolis,” to contemporary analyses of the so-called OverCity and UnderCity, the prospect of a dehumanizing urban future of elite technocratic autocracy and extreme social stratification awaits those who follow the logical implications of the city under current conditions of global capitalism and neoliberal market ideology. It is essential, then, to rethink the concept of the city, as well as to understand its emerging sociological, economic, and political possibilities. What does the city promise ecologically and morally? What are the potential structures of relationship and places or modes of cohabitation that cities can offer?
Taking the city seriously means focusing on it not only as a “space”—a physical location, a population, a cluster of buildings and streets, or a statistical construct (a Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area [SMSA])—but also as a “place”—a way of seeing, thinking, and acting, and a particular form of the human moral and political imagination. The idea of the city denotes a form of life, a state of mind, and a way of being in the world; and the actual lived experience of the city is no less imaginative than it is social and material.
As Fustel de Coulanges points out in his classic book The Ancient City, in both Greek and Latin the idea of the city is given two distinct meanings marked by different words. In classical Greek, the terms are asty and polis; in Latin the parallel terms are urbs and civitas. Indeed, the concept of the city in the West does offer two imaginative possibilities that are heuristically and conceptually distinct but are in reality often intertwined. These are a market society of competitors and exchangers (urbs or the urban) and a moral and political community of equality under law and active pursuit of shared purpose.
An urbs is an area of mass assembly: originally a site of religious gathering and ritual, and later a center for commercial transactions and exchange. As it lost its association with the religious or ritual center of the society, the urbs became the center of commerce and economic exchange; the urbs is where everything and everybody has its price, is for sale, is a commodity. An urbs is a market, and the forms of life there consist primarily in the pursuit of material self-interest and the gratification of desire. In the early modern period the urbs also became a new and virtually unprecedented space of individuation, privacy, and anonymity; the city as urbs is the dwelling place of strangers; cooperative strangers, to be sure, but strangers nonetheless. The city generically is also the theater for the invention and reinvention of the self. In the urbs one’s persona is negotiated through instrumental relationships or transactions with others who are engaged in equally calculating strategies of selfhood.

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:
one that builds on thousands of years of thinking about and making good cities, one that recognizes a radically reconfigured urban situation as its inescapable site, one that takes the survival and happiness of the species as its predicates, one that finds and defends numerous routes to meaningful difference, and one that advances the project of freedom. There is intense need for research and speculation into what the forms and agencies of these cities might be. (p. 375)
That needed research is philosophical as well as architectural and sociological. Theories of community and justice do not always embrace these aspects of the city as civitas. Community can press the values of stability and conformity rather than dynamism and experiments in living. Justice can emphasize a rational distributional pattern and paternalistic planning from the top down rather than the praxis of democratic discourse and participation. But through community that is alive and justice that is a practice, the contemporary city provides a ground for a dynamic, differentiated, and democratic political and moral sensibility. Can this be precisely the sensibility we need in order to motivate a new kind of human relationship to the natural world?

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.[1]

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.
First, can we achieve global justice? It is those of us in the developed parts of the world (North America, Europe, and now India and China), who have brought about—and are now bringing about—the carbon emissions leading to destabilizing global warming, while those in the less developed areas are going to bear the brunt of the dislocations. The distribution of these benefits and burdens is clearly unjust, and this injustice piles on top of the long-standing injustice of the distribution of global wealth and income and of health and welfare. The old paradigm of development economics—growth through the dissemination of carbon-intensive energy use and technology—won’t work. That rising tide will swamp all boats. Can we find a way to share wealth and power more equitably in a world of lower growth?

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.
I believe that if these questions can be answered in cities, indeed if they can be answered anyplace, they will require the imagination of the civitas not the imagination of the urbs. In saying that, I realize that I may be pressing this distinction too hard and too far. I have done so in order to push back against the dominant, ubiquitous discourse of our time in which voices trumpeting the urban market mentality shout while civic democratic voices whisper. Of course, actual cities are both civic and urban; civitas and urbs coexist and intertwine as they always have.

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. 

[1] Thanks to unprecedented climate forcing largely due to human activity, the Earth is in a state of serious energy imbalance, and this has many severe consequences, including the triggering of slow, but irreversible climate change due to the phenomenon of thermal inertia in the oceans. Permitting global temperature to rise by 2° C by the end of the century, once considered a reasonable goal, is not an acceptable option. It appears to be still technically possible to avoid that or higher levels, but not for much longer. See J. Hansen, P. Kharecha, M. Sato, V. Masson-Delmotte, F. Ackerman, et al., “Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change’: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature,” PLoS ONE 8, no.12 (2013): e81648, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081648J.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Degrowth and Regovernance

Adapted from Minding Nature Vol. 6. No. 2 (May 2013). Available at:
Yves-Marie Abraham of the Université de Montréal, who was one of the organizers of the Third International Degrowth Conference held in Montreal on May 13-19, 2011, has written that “. . . degrowth is a call for a radical break from traditional growth-based models of society, no matter if these models are ‘left’ or ‘right,’ to invent new ways of living together in a true democracy, respectful of the values of equality and freedom, based on sharing and cooperation, and with sufficiently moderate consumption so as to be sustainable.” [1]
The concept of degrowth (le décroissance; decrecimiento; decrescita) is currently being used in a way that is imprecise, deliberately so.[2] I take it to be related to, but distinct from, economic ideals such as steady-state economics, social ideas such as decentralization and localization, and cultural ideas such as the contemporary agrarian movement. Rhetorically one aim of degrowth is defamiliarization, the shock of “making strange” (ostranenie), as promoted by the Russian Formalists of the early twentieth century.[3] By directly and outrageously confronting the central reification and unquestionable assumption of the OverCity of contemporary globalization, endless growth, and material consumption, the notion of degrowth aims to open a new space for critique and utopian imagination. Thinking otherwise is a precondition for living and doing otherwise. Emotionally, the degrowth idea conveys a widespread sense of exhaustion and frustration with excess of all kinds—consumptive, technological, financial—and with the aspiration of mastery, which is not treated as a narcissistic fantasy but as an accomplished fact that has reached the point of cultural satiation and disgust. Ideologically, degrowth turns the tables on the emancipation project of the Enlightenment. Economic growth and human mastery over natural limits is not a sign of our freedom or our spiritual election, as Max Weber suggested, but a sign of our domination and entrapment, as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno maintained.[4] The metaphor of the day here is “addiction,” a slippery and polysemic trope that one ought to be careful of deploying in social critique, but that is striking and vivid in its capacity to motivate aversive and interventionist social and political responses. Those who believe themselves to be free are in fact being controlled and manipulated by those with opposing interests or by an impersonal system and symbolic order that reduces acting human subjects to responding objects.
In short, the notion of degrowth connotes a particular normative vision of an entire society. That said, the question arises concerning the kind of political economy and governance that would be most fitting and best suited to a degrowth society.
The reality of the ecological limits and planetary boundaries to major forms of human economic and technological activity—especially to those actions that are conventionally counted as economic growth—poses a normative and practical challenge to governance on national, regional, and global levels. We must countenance the possibility that liberal democracy, as we know it, will not be able to meet that challenge and so must give way to a new structure of governance.
It remains to be seen whether this transition to a post-growth governance will be done incrementally and in an orderly way, or chaotically in response to significant ecological crisis. It also remains to be seen what general form new regimes of governance can take—how representative and accountable governing officials and bodies will be; how limited their power and authority will be by constitutional and institutional mechanisms and by norms regarding due process of law, justice, and human rights; how democratic they will be and in what sense of the term.
Governance is not the same thing as government. Governance is the overall process of coordinating, shaping, and directing individual and collective agency. Governance is inherently normative, and at its best explicitly ethical. It sets parameters around the means and forms of human agency, excluding some practices (such as genocide, murder, torture, slavery, rape, bigotry, and racism) from the sphere of social life as intrinsically illicit. Governance also defines the telos, the ends, of collective agency; stipulating worthy ideals and placing parameters around the objectives to be intended and sought, again excluding some types of objectives as wasteful or unworthy. Finally, governance embodies the character of the collectivity, representing the kind of society an association of people aspires to be or become. Governance both rests upon, and enacts anew, the understanding of solidarity that holds individuals together in shared meaning and common purpose and mutual endeavor. Governance is an enabling act of mind that creates communities; its work is the construction of institutionalized normative practice and symbolic orders of meaning.
So conceived, governance is a process that involves many institutions—in the economy, civil society, and religious and cultural organizations—in addition to the government legally defined. Governance is even more ubiquitous than the entity, also not identical with the government, called the state. Questions about the form that governance in a degrowth society should take are therefore not limited to structural questions about the location of authority, the distribution and interaction of powers, the selection of individuals to fulfill specialized roles, or the enactment and enforcement of common rules, as vital as these matters are. Glancing toward Montesquieu, I would say that governance is not only about the letter of the laws, but also about their spirit; not about the body of law, but about its mind.
Heretofore in human history the shaping and directing of human agency has not approached (except on local scales) the boundaries set by the biophysical fact that the earth is an open system as regards energy, but virtually a closed system in regard to matter. Until recently, such boundaries did not matter and the horizons of governance were limited only by human social organization, and the mobilization of collective will. Today natural boundaries do matter as much, or more, than political ones; at any rate, they should. Population, technology, and the concerted mobilization of human ingenuity and economic activity have produced a global exploitation of biophysical “resources” with historically unprecedented pace, volume, and consequence. Humankind has entered the zone of planetary boundaries and effects. That has been the journey of growth governance.
Moving beyond growth governance toward a new sense of normative responsibility and political accountability consonant with the ecologically destructive power of humanity is the challenge of the future. Will we discover how to circumvent those boundaries, or will we learn how to live within them and accommodate our aspirations and our activities to them? No doubt the temptation to find technological means to overcome natural limits will be alluring; witness the incipient discourse of geo-engineering as a response to climate change, or the various innovations in extractive techniques, such as natural gas fracking or tar sands oil recovery, designed to stave off the closing of the fossil fuel era. I have nothing to contribute to that discourse, and I will not place my wager upon it. I explore instead the articulation of a discourse of natural accommodation and cultural innovation. I explore a discourse in which growth governance is replaced by another governance.
            At the Montreal Degrowth Conference last year, the Center for Humans and Nature organized a panel on these issues, asking: Can liberal democracy lead the way to a change in consciousness concerning economic interests and well-being, and concerning their obligations to civic communities and natural ecosystems both nationally and globally? Speakers on the panel were Lisa Eckenwiler of George Mason University, Stephen Latham of Yale University, Jack Manno of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and myself. Latham’s paper will appear in a later issue of Minding Nature; the other papers growing out of this panel comprise a special Symposium on Ecological Governance featured in this issue (May 2013). Eckenwiler presents a conception of ecological personhood and ecological citizenship, and discusses the implications for democratic participation by drawing on feminist theory and theories of place. Jack Manno reflects on what can be learned about ecological governance from North American First Nation sources, particularly the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). My own essay offers a typology of three modes of governance that could fulfill ecological imperatives in the years ahead—ecological authoritarianism, ecological discursive democracy, and ecological constitutionalism. These are alternatives to a failing form of interest group democracy, and I offer my assessment of some of the strengths and weaknesses of each type.

[1] Y-M. Abraham, “Little Vade Mecum for the Growth Objector,” May 2011, at
[2] S. Latouche, Farewell To Growth (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2009) and “Degrowth,” Journal of Cleaner Production 18 (2010): 519-522; G. Kallis, “In Defense of Degrowth,” Ecological Economics 70, no. 5 (March 15, 2011): 873-880. J. U. Martinez-Alier, F-D. Vivien Pascual, and E. Zaccai, “Sustainable De-growth: Mapping the Context, Criticisms, and Future Prospects of an Emergent Paradigm,” Ecological Economics 69 (2010): 1741-1747.
[3] F. Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 373-4.
[4] M. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. T. Parsons (New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1958); M. Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. J. Cumming (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972).

Thursday, March 14, 2013

An Ecological Public Philosophy

Adapted from Minding Nature Vol. 6 No. 1 (January 2013). Available at

Our entire economic system is fundamentally dependent upon the functional integrity of natural and living systems that are losing patience with us. That is to say, these systems have a limited capacity to tolerate human extraction from them and excretion of waste products and byproducts into them, and human economic activity worldwide is colliding with those limits.
Why? The reasons are many, but one key factor is our deep ontological misprision. A hallmark of the modern era is that we think of the human realm as set apart from the rest of the world and that we can manipulate it, engineer it, as we see fit in accordance with what we find meaningful and valuable. We are still wedded to that worldview and seem blindly determined to pursue it to its logical extremes. Biophysical systems, even when they are scientifically well understood, are mistakenly seen as things we live off of, not as places we live within.
It is essential to change our way of thinking about economics. In the past, the main contention has been between those who emphasize efficiency and those who emphasize equity; or between those who stress growth and those who stress just redistribution of existing wealth; or between those who own and control capital and those who own mainly their own labor and skills. These arguments are not passé, by any means; the struggle for fairness and equality has not been won.
But a new struggle must be, and is being, added to it. A new perspective is emerging to infuse and inform our normative discourse about economics, power, and justice. Let us call this perspective the new “ecological political economy.” It places economic activity in the context of the operation of physical and biological systems. It includes the important subfield of economics known as ecological economics, but is broader in the way it brings ethical and governance issues together with economic ones, hence the return to the traditional phrase, political economy.
Ecological political economy calls us to take into account the fact that the planetary systems that support life in its most fundamental physical, chemical, and organic manifestations have boundaries, tolerances, and thresholds. These boundaries should—and ultimately will—constrain the extractive and the excretory activity of human individuals and societies. What individuals do one at a time is important, but the social, institutional level is an essential focus here because the effects of human action are greatly magnified by the collective capacity of institutionally structured economies and technologies. As planetary boundaries are approached (or exceeded), ecosystem functions are undermined and overwhelmed, thereby rendering them—and the social systems that depend upon them—less able to support either human or natural communities that are flourishing and healthy, diverse and resilient. No longer are only justice and dignity at stake, now minimally decent survival is in question, as well.
There can be only one conclusion. Our accelerating, global extractive assault on planetary resources and ecosystems, as well as the unprecedented extensions of our technologic reach, do not truly represent progress and the triumph of human freedom or the human destiny. Why not? For one thing, as is by now familiar, they are not sustainable or viable as a road to the future. No less important, but less often noted, is the fact that technological advance and extractive assault contain an inner contradiction. While seeming to extend human freedom, they are laying the groundwork for its repression; while seemingly representing the advanced expression of human capability, they are actually undermining what is most precious in humanness.
To find a healed relationship between humans and nature, how then should we think about humanness? I suggest that two ideas help lead us in a fruitful direction: First, the intertwined notions of innovative human agency and developmental capability—humans are remarkably good at doing new things, and they can improve or get better at what they do. Second, the normative imperative to treat the individual human being as a person—it is of great ethical value to be (and to be allowed to be) an acting, doing subject, rather than merely living as an object that is acted upon and done to. In short, humans are able to comprehend themselves as beings who become, as purposive agents who can live—and should live—without external domination. From this follows the awareness that the world can be otherwise than it has been in the past and is now. One might say that the concepts of freedom and human rights were invented to take the moral measure of such a being, once humankind had discovered (or reinvented) itself it this way.
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt developed an anatomy of our humanness along these lines, using a suggestive but rather idiosyncratic terminology. According to Arendt, human beings are (1) creatures of “labor” who are subject to the biological rhythms of their organic needs; (2) practitioners of “work” who are subject to the creative encounter between natural materials and imaginative form; and (3) performers of “action,” especially speech acts or communicative acts, through participation in the deliberative process of shaping common meanings in the public, symbolic order.
The failure to live within planetary boundaries and limits—thereby turning our back on our interdependency with the earth and our own earthly, creaturely condition—will fundamentally threaten and transform the dimensions of labor, work, and action. Labor will produce illness rather than health. Creative work will become increasingly unavailable and unavailing. Action will devolve into bargaining and positioning for strategic advantage. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, precisely those baleful transformations in the human condition, this hobbling of human possibility, seem well advanced.
So we would do well not to underestimate the task facing ecological political economy. It is both an ontological reorientation and an ethical innovation. It goes beyond the physical and life sciences in a descriptive sense and implicates the normative foundations of social order and human agency. Ecological political economics is a new story and a new conceptual framework within which we must make public policy and reform in the major structures of our society. It is the narrative of a journey of discovery concerning how to imagine, construct, comprehend, and govern a new form of social order that will achieve justice and empower flourishing life and living.
Ecological political economy, in other words, is a search for a “public philosophy” suitable to the unprecedented challenges of our time. A public philosophy provides normative guidance and a context for the legitimation of governance and public policy. It can also provide a framework for the formation of democratic consensus through participatory deliberation. Grounded in solid natural and social scientific knowledge, as it ideally should be, a public philosophy is emergent and dynamic, not dogmatic. It reflects an ethical vision of what the ends of economic agency and democratic citizenship should be. All economies, including a future ecological one, will appropriate natural matter and energy and, through labor, transform them into products for human use and exchange. And for this the coordination and organization of very large numbers of people, a vast massing of human agency, will be required in agriculture, mining and manufacturing, science and technology, transportation, construction, and the like. Such coordination requires a sense of common purpose, and a public philosophy is essential in the imagination and discovery of what that purpose should be.
A public philosophy also holds a moral mirror up to each one of us. It is not only a narrative of discovering a new form of social order, it is also a narrative of discovering a new self-identity and a new way to live. In the market-oriented public philosophy dominant in the world today, the individual must live out the following narrative, the ideal of selfhood of homo economicus: To survive and flourish, the economic self must fulfill (biological and psychological) needs. To meet your needs, you must compete successfully to extract value from the labor of others or to secure access to positions in which your own labor can provide the necessary income. To compete, you must understand and come to dominate the natural and social systems you inhabit. In this narrative, the desire to acquire and consume is taken to be psychologically unlimited. The individual then is compelled by its inner nature and external circumstance to appropriate and strive to dominate both its social and its natural environment. As a result, growth in the activities of extraction and excretion knows no bounds and perforce overcomes all other considerations.
We hurtle toward barriers ahead and apply the accelerator rather than the brakes. In this we have been taught to understand ourselves as free and responsible members of society. We provide for ourselves and our families. We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and stand on our own two feet. This story of selfhood is hollow and self-defeating. It is a cathedral with no alter.
In contrast, the kind of self called forth in an ecological political economy has a quite different narrative. We don’t quite know yet how to foster the psycho-social development of such selves or write their collective biography on a large scale. How may homo economicus (the self as gaming, calculating maximizer of personal utility) be transformed into homo faber (the self as craftsman, responsible for and respectful of his materials)? How can selves be nurtured so as to become deliberative democratic citizens attentive to the common good and obligations of trusteeship for the natural world? How can the current neoliberal world of extractive liberty and possessive individualism be transformed into a world of relational or communal liberty, solidarity, mutual compassion and respect?
From these questions follow equally searching ones about governance. How can an open, liberal society—one in which each individual has a wide range of freedom and opportunity to live his or her own life in their own way—also be an objectively sustainable, healthy society that respects ecological boundaries and limits? How can state power be kept to a minimum if each person is to be protected against collective hazards over which he or she has virtually no control and only a paltry defense? (The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy comes to mind, and even conservative, anti-government politicians were calling for the federal government, that is the American people as a whole, to be active and directive then.) These questions indicate the dilemma of reconciling personal autonomy with the common good. This dilemma has long been at the heart of modern politics, but today arises in a new, unprecedented global form. It will be at the core of politics in the transition from a neoliberal market political economy to an ecological political economy, and then will remain in the ongoing governance of the ecological political economy of the future.
Ecological political economy demands a regime of social control that is not compatible with the life narrative of homo economicus and with the wide scope of individual and corporate freedom from (state) interference in the use of extractive power that has been widespread among the affluent of the developed world in the last century. What is the best way to frame this issue—As a balancing or trade-off of conflicting values? As a regrettable but necessary contraction of the sphere of individual freedom of choice made necessary by ecosystemic limits? Or perhaps as a refinement—itself morally positive and progressive—of our understanding of freedom? That is, a refinement in our moral sensibility such that ecologically destructive behavior would not be seen as a manifestation of freedom at all, but rather would come to be repudiated as a manifestation of ignorance, irresponsibility, and alienation. If we frame this problem as one of balancing values, then who controls the scales? If we frame it as a devolution of freedom for the sake of survival, then what level of coercion will be used against the recalcitrant, self-destructive among us?
I believe that it will not be through fear and the desire for security in an ecologically altered and disrupted world (“global weirdness,” as Climate Central calls it) that the public philosophy of ecological economics will be able to succeed. It will succeed primarily through the positive inspiration and promise of a new kind of freedom, meaning, and flourishing, The message of planetary boundaries is not the bad news of less liberty and more sharp elbows, but the promise of a new, more humanly fulfilling kind of liberty and mutuality. This new freedom and a sense of solidarity can justify and motivate the kinds of social change needed nationally and globally in the next generation.
In practice, this means that the story line of a new public philosophy of ecological political economy must have recourse to values and purposes that the members of these societies will understand if they think and act like interdependent and relational selves—“ecological selves,” and “ecological citizens,” if you please. Part of the task of a new public philosophy, remember, is to shape this self-identity and foster a moral imagination that can see the good and freedom in relational terms. Its task is to re-member us. The present mainstream public philosophy over the years has helped to build a population of possessive individualists through its doctrines and through the institutions it has legitimated. Now we must be no less intentional about the task of educating a new generation of social persons. The time has come for economic knowledge and discourse to show all of us, specialists and ordinary citizens alike, that our personal flourishing is inextricably linked to the flourishing of others (justice) and to the flourishing of the natural world (trusteeship). A new public philosophy and democratic governance will have to appeal to a motivational structure that is informed by what has been traditionally called “civic virtue,” and what today might better be called civic trusteeship. For now, like it or not, we are each entrusted with the well-being of the commonwealth. Ecological civic trusteeship is not so much a role, or a legal status, as it is an orientation and a disposition of living that is grounded in a sense of responsibility for promoting and sustaining the common good of the human and biotic community as a whole and its essential biophysical ground.
In order to tell a new story, a new public philosophy will need a vocabulary of relational concepts, metaphors, and images—solidarity, mutuality, reciprocity, community, care, place, resilience—with which to map the journey to an ecological economy, democracy, and self. This is a narrative to fashion and nurture an ecology of the mind and of the heart.