Another Politics

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Natural systems have functional limits; human actions have systemic consequenc­es. What part of that don’t we understand?

Not much, actually. In truth, most human be­ings most of the time do understand this in a mul­tiplicity of ways—cognitively, scientifically, expe­rientially, ethically, and emotionally. They do so not only because of the advance of science, litera­cy, and education, but also because it is knowledge deeply ingrained in ordinary human experience itself, our fundamental encounter with the world as metabolic creatures. Anthropological studies of hunting and gathering cultures confirm the power of such knowledge and the essential humanity of ways of life that have been rooted in it. So does im­portant recent work on the ethics and epistemol­ogy of place, some of which is reviewed by Juliana DeVries in this issue.

Our phenomenological understanding of nat­ural limits and the human consequences of ignor­ing them has been enlarged and enhanced in our time by a growing body of research and practice in ecological restoration and in the interdisci­plinary field of conservation biology. Dangerous transformations in atmospheric, ocean, and polar and glacial systems have spurred massive efforts to increase our understanding of what is causing the (mainly deleterious and disruptive) changes, much as the AIDS pandemic prompted over the course of three decades a significant advance in the scientific understanding of the human im­mune system. Other symptoms of planetary ill­ness have also given impetus to the search for an understanding of systemic effects on a large scale; such symptoms include alarming rates of biodiver­sity loss, the build-up of environmental toxins and chemicals with unknown long-term effects, and the depletion or pollution of fresh water sources.

Maybe the metaphors of the human immune system writ large and a kind of ecological acquired immune deficiency syndrome suggest some useful lines of thought. The planetary systems that sup­port life in its most fundamental physical, chemi­cal, and organic manifestations have boundaries and thresholds. And so do the biological and social systems that support flourishing, abun­dant, healthy life, with its ca­pacity for evolutionary adap­tation, its biotic diversity, its resilience.

What’s more, human be­ings do not stand apart from these systems of life by any means. We fully partake of, and depend upon, the systemic preconditions of life for our own survival. Yes. But, short of our very survival being at stake, a less noticed fact is that we also depend upon the sys­temic preconditions of flour­ishing life for our own human­ity. What part of that don’t we understand?

Well, quite a lot, actually. We think of the human realm as set apart from the rest of the world as the only locus of meaning and value. Planetary systems, even when they are scientifically well understood, are seen as things we live off of, not as places we live within. The cultural concepts available to individuals in contemporary America to define a self-iden­tity are growing increasingly thin and impoverished. People with a consumer’s sense of re­lationship and a tourist’s sense of place cannot grasp the no­tion that our humanity de­pends on healthy natural and social systems or that we have responsibility for preserving them. Aren’t most of us con­sumers and tourists now?

But these considerations do not get to the root of the problem for they are ideological and attitu­dinal. I think that the real root of our problem is properly called “political” although like our com­mon parlance for expressing self-identity, our cur­rent language for talking about politics is deeply impoverished. Still, the problem is political in the following, fundamental sense: the problem of pol­itics is not to seek power, but to resist it; and not to deny vulnerability and dependency, but to em­brace them creatively. The problem of politics is to resist the kind of power and domination that ac­tually renders its agents impotent and enthralled. The problem of politics is to accept restraints on behalf of communal agency and relational free­dom. Democratic politics says no to pride, anthropocentric narcissism, and desire, and says yes to the accommodation of natural limits in ways that are just and promote the beauty, health, and in­tegrity of the political community.

In this formulation, I deliberately invoke the land ethic and appropriate it in the cause of what I am here calling democratic politics as the solution to the great challenge of our time. Leopold wanted human beings to think of themselves as, and to act as though they were, “plain members and citizens” of the biotic community. He used this democratic trope, with its classical pedigree and protestant res­onance, to good effect. To be a citizen in fact is to be a plain citizen. And to be a citizen is to be just.

Democracy calls for just, plain citizens. Aristotle well understood, I believe, this notion when he said that human beings were “political animals” (zöon politicon). By this he meant that humans could— and must—live in political communities if they are to live in accordance with their nature. And he defined politics in terms of creating a culture and social or­ganization of individuals with a special kind of self-identity (citizenship), ruling themselves in common with equitable and just laws (isonomia), and seeking to achieve the human good together and the com­mon good for all (politia or res publica). Citizenship for Aristotle was active, not passive. It consisted of ruling and being ruled in turn.

When viewed from this vantage point, it is clear that what we now call “politics” and “democracy” in the Unit­ed States is quite far removed from structures and value sys­tems that can be expected to lead toward governance that is just in its trusteeship over the good of the human and the bi­otic community. Our current politics cannot be the crucible for the reconciliation of hu­mans and natural systems, nor of accommodation to the func­tional limits of those systems, because it offers no counter­point to the broader ethos and worldview of technologi­cal mastery of nature. What we call politics today is not a bridle on the orientation of mastery but a handmaiden or extension of that orientation. And this politics cannot really be a democracy in the norma­tive sense because its values are the values of competition and mastery, not the values of citizenship and ruling and be­ing ruled in turn. I say this de­spite the trappings we do have of democratic procedure, such as free and fair (i.e., purchased at exceedingly great expense and gerrymandered) elections.

What would another poli­tics look like, and can one be devised that will govern us both for living once more with­in the safe operating margins of planetary systems and for controlling the consequences of our actions?

Here is a sketch of two possible answers, two available modes of another democratic politics in an Anthropocene age. The first involves a reori­entation of our culture and worldview; a trans­formation of our “soul” as a political community, turning us from being a people of competitive con­sumption into a people of sustainable ecological responsibility, from “too big to fail” to “small is beautiful” (remember that?).

The second kind of alternative democratic pol­itics is about the institutionalization and empow­erment of participatory and deliberative gover­nance within a diverse and pluralistic society and culture, a “panarchy” as the Resilience Alliance scientists call it. This is the kind of democratic governance that grows directly out of what Han­nah Arendt called “action in concert with others, shaped by debate and deliberation.”

There are some important similarities between these two types of democratic politics. They are both committed to the strategy of creating coun­ter-publics in order to bring about change and to challenge the hegemony of mainstream culture and politics. They often share strategy and tactics and mix in real-world political activism and large-scale protest movements. I am not sure how useful this distinction is for understanding the popular protests that have taken place in many Muslim countries during the past year or recently in Rus­sia. But they do seem to be definite elements of the Occupy movement here in the United States. Another politics does not have to supplant main­stream politics, it just needs to set cultural and social forces in motion that will alter perceptions and change the parameters of what is considered realistic in elite policy circles.

However, there are important differences as well. Worldview democracy strives to bring into being and to express deep cultural and ethical commitments. It offers not just a new direction of governance but a new form of life, a new un­derstanding of human well-being, and a new story concerning nature, its laws, and its meanings. If this is a vision that leaders actually try to instill in the masses of people and if they can do so, then democratic change can bubble up in either the form of direct participa­tory democracy or via electoral mechanisms of representa­tive democracy. If this cultural transformation of hearts and minds does not proceed well, however, leaders will be tempt­ed to assume interpretative and expressive authority for themselves. They will become the guardians of the truths and values of the worldview and the agents of its enactment in the world. Democratic citizenship will become an unneces­sary step in the process.

The temptation to become a transformational leader/prophet in this more authori­tarian sense is particularly strong when circumstances make one pessimistic about the willingness or the capacity of the masses to internalize new values and support change. A recent PEW survey found that 59 percent of Americans believed in global warming in 2010, compared with 79 per­cent in 2006.

The dilemma of delibera­tive democracy is rather dif­ferent. It is designed to thrive on pluralism of belief and difference of opinion. But it must inculcate at least a minimal set of value commitments to the procedures of “debate and de­liberation.” Realism, reason, and integrity preserving com­promise (the genius of media­tion and getting to yes) are its creed. Toleration and diversity are its life-blood. Deliberative demo­cratic governance has been shown to function well on a medium to small scale, in population units of 100,000 or less, and when its political relation­ships are closely embedded in non-political social or civic relationships within the community. Un­der these conditions, it is alert to natural, social, and historical place. It can be attentive to ecologi­cal resiliency and social justice at the same time.

On the other hand, deliberative democracy is extremely vulnerable to forces that disrupt the fabric of communities, are socially divisive, un­dermine trust, and drive people to close ranks into postures of defensive resentment. The global and domestic economic dislocations of the past twenty years, the sharply rising inequality in the distribu­tion of wealth and income, the churning of the job market, and the marginalization of those without marketable skills are some of the many factors that tatter civic society, privatize self-consciousness, and undermine the possibility of the kind of citi­zenship that deliberative democracy in its prop­er form and function requires. Are these factors temporary aberrations, or are they becoming the normal institutionalized patterns of global capital­ism? If they are, then we have a perfect democratic storm: humanity is exceeding the safe operating margins of planetary systems at precisely the his­torical moment when the political economy of the world makes it least likely that democratic gover­nance, especially deliberative democratic gover­nance, will be able to respond.

No one, I think—least of all me—has through-going answers to this dilemma. But many wise and dedicated people are tackling it one step and one bite at a time. A sampling of ideas and new ap­proaches are represented in this issue of MN.

This issue begins with an important statement of principles and values from the Blue River Quo­rum, a distinguished group of engaged conserva­tionists and environmentalists who have thought deeply about another way of living, governing ourselves, and pursuing the human and the natu­ral good more richly than we have been doing of late. Their goal is succinctly and power­fully stated: “a concordance between ecological and moral principles, and . . . an ethic that is of, rather than against, the Earth.” This declaration is re­printed with a brief introduc­tion of background and con­text by one of the members of the Quorum, Michael Nelson.

The Blue River Declara­tion resounds with echoes of the thought and inspiration of Aldo Leopold. Qi Feng Lin, who is currently a fellow work­ing with the Center and based at McGill University, explores the notion of history and be­ing in Leopold’s work. In ad­dition to discussing a dimen­sion of Leopold’s thought that is sometimes overlooked, this article explores a connection with approaches to metaphys­ics and ontology developed by Martin Heidegger, one of the most notable and influential philosophers of the twentieth century.

From the historical na­ture of being, we then turn to the artificial nature of life in Joachim Boldt’s discussion of the ethics and regulation of synthetic biology. Readers will recall that Boldt previously ad­dressed synthetic biology in an essay in Minding Nature 3.1 (April 2010). The question is, Can government regulation control the development and use of scientific technology from an ethical perspective before that technology is fully developed and before problematic social or ecological consequences occur?  Boldt reviews and compares two recent reports—one from the European Union’s Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies, and the other from the U.S. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.  While there is a good deal of overlap between the two documents, the European and American perspectives do differ in some important ways.  For example, while the European report, in Boldt’s words, “contemplates environmental ethics as a possible overarching assessment framework for biotechnology,” the American analysis is much more skeptical of an ecocentric perspective, and basically sets it aside. This is not the first time that American bioethicists have been less critical than their European counterparts when it comes to bio­technology. A similar pattern of response has been evident for many years in the discussion of geneti­cally modified food, for example.

However that may be, the biotechnological worldview concerning agriculture and food stands in sharp contrast to the perspective of “civic agriculture” that my colleague Gavin Van Horn explores in his essay.  His overriding concern is consonant with what I have said about the need for another politics.  The study of civic agriculture is part of a broader reflection on, as he aptly puts it, “both what we are for and what we are against, how we understand our place within the cosmos and in our particular neighborhood,” and it “offer[s] us a way to make sense of the larger systems of which we are a part.”  Accordingly, civic agriculture is not only about healthy food and healthy eating; it is about healthy communities—citizenship and an ethic of place. Drawing on case studies of local practice in the Chicago area—Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, the Academy for Global Citizenship, and the Ex­perimental Station in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chi­cago—Van Horn inaugurates what I expect and hope will be a growing and expanding body of public discourse on the theory and practice of civic ag­riculture, as an important part of the broader movement of civic renewal in America. (For further reading on this general topic, I would recommend Civic Innovation in America: Com­munity Empowerment, Public Policy, and the Movement for Civic Renewal by Carmen Siri­anni and Lewis Friedland.)

Can we find—or fashion— nother economics and anoth­er politics that can take us clos­er to Blue River? We could do worse—and we are. Just as it is imperative to become respon­sible, as Hans Jonas teaches us, so too it is imperative to sustain hope.

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  • Bruce Jennings

    Bruce Jennings is Senior Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature where he engages in research, writing, public speaking, and consulting. He is the editor of the Center’s journal, Minding Nature.

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