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How Green Was My Virtue

Can civic republicanism help save the planet?

Hannah Arendt in 1944. Fred Stein Archive/Archive Photos/Getty

Whatever its other legacies may prove to be, classical liberalism—the public philosophy that organizes social relations around the principles of individualist market exchange—is looking more and more like a recipe for environmental catastrophe, as reports of accelerating climate change become steadily more dire. Can the civic republican tradition succeed where market individualism seems to be failing so miserably?

In a suggestive article called “Civic Republicanism and Green Politics,” John Barry and Kimberly Smith argue that the answer is at least a qualified “yes.” Barry and Smith consider the republican tradition “the more fundamental and therefore more robust and enduring dimension of western democracies.”

Green politics, like civic republicanism, occupies a much more expansive historical frame of reference than the rival liberal tradition, animated as it is by the urgent imperative of bringing modern industrial civilization into harmony with the natural order, so as to preserve a habitable planet. Barry and Smith argue that civic republicanism and green politics share the same basic view of the human condition, one mostly missing from the liberal canon: a sense of human vulnerability—either to climate change or to the vagaries of random political chance, which Machiavelli famously called fortuna. In both frameworks, the existential condition of extreme vulnerability makes humans clearly dependent on one another—or more precisely, interdependent, as Aristotle, the first great philosopher of republicanism, insisted so strongly.

Operating from this shared sense of human fragility, both ideologies exhibit an intense concern with long-term sustainability. Machiavelli, who introduced republican thinking to the modern world, viewed political time as cyclical, and also ironic: The stronger a republic grew, the more susceptible it became to corruption and decay. The key to sustaining republican life against the corrosive influence of luxury, vice, and moral decline rested in the steady cultivation of civic virtue among citizens and leaders alike. And the essence of civic virtue is the willingness, in matters of state, to put the interests of the community ahead of one’s personal interest—an impossible demand, as green and republican thinkers jointly concede, amid the conditions of acute wealth inequality in civically imperiled societies like today’s America.

Barry and Smith report that civic republicanism’s overarching concern with political leadership is woefully absent from green theory. Green activists have grown myopic when it comes to the cultivation of leadership, they argue, because they tend to be ideologically committed to the false sense that forceful leadership is incompatible with the green ideal of participatory, grassroots democracy. Barry and Smith counter that a viable green politics can only succeed if “inspiring political leadership” helps navigate the unworkable status quo toward a sustainable socioeconomic order.

This is not to say, however, that green republicanism is a top-down exercise in political persuasion; quite the contrary. Political scientist Jason Lambacher insists that an environmentally robust republican tradition can only arise out of an ethos of expansive political participation.

Lambacher reaches this conclusion through a nuanced study of parallels between republican and green philosophy, as he extrapolates them from the writings of Hannah Arendt, the twentieth century’s most brilliant exponent of republican ideals. Arendt was tormented by what she perceived as the loss of “political freedom” in the modern world—by which she meant the ability to act politically, that is, in the best interests of the community as a whole, or the “common good.” This atrophy of a modern politics of virtue arose via the gradual enclosure of the political sphere by the economic one, Arendt argued. Contemporary political action is focused on fueling the dynamics of an individualistic, consumerist economy; and green economics likewise holds consumer capitalism responsible both for the creation of a grossly unequal society, and for a concomitant despoliation of the natural environment.

Lambacher nourishes the hope, as Arendt did, that a participatory dialogue allowing for the expression of pluralistic points of view—which would inevitably become, in Arendt’s phrase, a site of agonistic contestation—might produce broad agreement on how an ecologically balanced society could function. In a 2009 article, Georgetown University Law Professor Hope M. Babcock introduces the concept of the “environmental republican moment”—the interval when, due to growing awareness of looming ecological catastrophe, citizens might be open to changing their behavior in relation to environmental challenges, through “a process that is essentially a dialogue” but also, as in Arendt, more clamorous than consensual.

Where exactly would such an interlocutory process take place? As per republican ideology, in local communities—where, Babcock avers, “citizens can ‘practice’ the art of citizenship.” Actually, given the present tenor of American political debate, “clamorous” and “agonistic contestation” might be understated descriptions of how such dialogues could well turn out. Is this cause for despair? We will consider that question next time around.