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Introduction: Three Kinds of Engagement

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Part of the Library of Public Policy and Public Administration book series (LPPP,volume 16)


To change the course of the unsustainable trends of American Prosperity, we must change the social climate of injustice that allows it to continue. This change entails three operations: create an interpretive framework that covers the key components of our living systems, tell coherent stories that include past injustices and places to repair them, and create a civic space that enables us to create a climate of justice. The four components of the interpretive framework are the Earth, our humanity, the social, and the civic. The historical narratives are stories guided by the principle of coherence, which reveal opportunities to change the current course of history. Making such changes involves civilians entering civic spaces where they can invite citizens to care for justice and for future generations.


  • Climate of justice
  • Interpretive framework
  • American prosperity
  • Coherent stories
  • Civilians and citizens
  • Civilian review boards

1.1 Introduction

If we were to visit the National Mall and surroundings in Washington, DC, we might first visit the Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt monuments, and then visit the monuments to men and women who were killed in our wars including World War I and II, the Korean and Vietnam War. We might also visit sacred national sites: the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Arlington Cemetery. All of these places belong to a story of national heroes who have protected the freedoms many of us enjoy.

We could also walk to the National Museum of the American Indian. What are we to make of what happened to them? Then we could walk to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. His stern look seems a bit strange for me. The look did not seem to represent his famous “I have a Dream” speech at the Mall in 1963, but maybe it does represent his call for justice in an unjust world. The cry for justice, of course, cannot be ignored in the Museum of African American History and Culture, the last stop of our visit.

The Museum has six floors, and most people start their visit, as I did, by taking an elevator down three floors that brings you to the beginning of the African American experience of living in America. You then walk from the ground floor to the third floor through multiple exhibits from the Atlantic slave trade, through the horrors of slavery, the Jim Crow era, to the civil rights movements. The top three floors above the ground floor are exhibits of African American contributions to the arts and letters, culture and sports. These exhibits erase any line that would separate contemporary American culture from the creativity of African Americans. At the same time, at least for me, these exhibits did not erase my memory of the violations of humanity exhibited on the lower three floors.

The Museum of African American History and Culture belongs on the National Mall like the Holocaust memorial belongs in the center of Berlin. They tell a truth about a nation’s crimes against humanity. The African American Museum also makes us wonder about its place among the other monuments. We have to remember that Washington and Jefferson bought and sold enslaved human beings. They participated in crimes against humanity. Why? Not because they saw themselves as enslavers. No, because our national prosperity had depended and continued to depend on cheap land and cheap labor.

We need to acknowledge that our civic government came about in a climate of injustice, caused by the enslavement of Africans and the displacement and genocide of Native Americans. Although the early Federal government resisted having a standing army, in time that was not possible, because injustice is not a steady state, but a disequilibrium—an imbalance of things. Injustice always requires force to maintain it. In our case, State militia protected the enslavement of over four million people and Federal troops carried out the appropriation of Indian lands for American expansion. At the same time, white male national leaders could only tolerate living in such a climate of injustice by denying it and imagining a nation that followed the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The gig is over. Too many people know too much to put the truth back into the bottle. Also, more and more of us know this climate of injustice prevents us from taking the steps necessary to provide a viable planet for our children and grandchildren. Furthermore, making the necessary international agreements for saving human civilization requires a government actually standing up for justice. If we cannot change the social climate, we will never restore the planet’s climate to again support a habitat for all living things.

A climate of justice is not something you can take off the shelf. Nor does it come into being by wishing for it. It’s also not a substitute for the hard, difficult work of developing polices that take into account different voices and probable consequences. It is the context for policy formation. While reading and reflecting on the social climate that needs changing, I wrote a poem that seemed to express my hope for change. I’ll call it “The Tailwinds of American prosperity.” There is nothing wrong with prosperity, of course, but the particular character of American prosperity. and its dependence on a climate of injustice, pushes us toward an unsustainable future.

figure a

The weather, of course, is no longer simple. It is actually moving toward chaos. If we want to stabilize it, we must change the current course of American Prosperity. And to do that, we must change our social climate from a climate of injustice to a climate of justice. It’s not only our natural environment that needs changing, in other words, but also our social environment. They are co-dependent. To change the current climate of injustice to a climate of justice, I think we have to do three things: First, we need a deeper analysis of American Prosperity. What are its key components? The answer to that question depends on our interpretive framework—the lens we use to see and to talk about what is going on. Secondly, once we have some understanding of what needs changing (and the resistance to it) we can take the next step of figuring out how to change it. Since “American Prosperity” belongs to American history, changing it means changing history. We “change history” by telling stories about the past in such a way that we see how we got to where we are and what we can change to move in a different direction.

These two kinds of engagement—creating an interpretive framework and telling “telling” stories—will result in an awareness of the climate of injustice that needs changing, but not the power to do it. That involves a different type of work: the empowerment of people. Let’s call the place where this type of engagement happens a “civic space.” It is a space not dominated by the tailwinds of American Prosperity nor military force, but by the power of reconciliation and mutual belonging. The three parts of the book cover these three kinds of engagement: (1) presenting an interpretive framework, (2) telling “telling” stories, and (3) empowering the civic.

Behind these three kinds of engagement lies a particular theory of change. First of all, the theory assumes that our perception of things depends on our interpretive framework. We don’t talk about things we don’t see, and we don’t see things we don’t talk about. Secondly, the theory assumes that what needs changing is the course of history. In our case, this involves changing the current direction of the tailwinds of American Prosperity by repairing past violations of humanity. There are theories that ignore the past and act as though the future is totally undetermined. “Anything is possible.” I don’t think so. We live in complex systemic trends that will shape our real future possibilities, until and unless we do the work of changing their direction. Finally, my theory of change assumes that those who have been and are vulnerable to injustice can help the rest of us grasp what is necessary to transform the social climate from a climate of injustice to one of justice. The following sections in this chapter give more details about the three type of engagement necessary for developing a sustainable future and provide an outline of the book’s three parts.

1.2 Developing an Interpretive Framework

A framework functions like a radar screen for observing and analyzing the drama of everyday life. It creates a field-of-vision that allows some things to appear and other things to disappear. It also divides things into different parts and keeps them apart from each other. Many widely used interpretive framework are triadic. They sees things in threes. There is the “good, bad and the ugly.” Right? Likewise, we think about the economy, government, and civil society. Modern economics uses this triad a lot. The market controls the economy, bureaucracy controls government, and civil society hosts what doesn’t fit in the other two spheres: non-profit and non-government agencies. Like most frameworks, this triadic framework has its strengths and weaknesses. It turns out that it is no more “natural” than the English language is “natural.”

As the anthropologist Georges Dumezil discovered; Indo-European languages, such as English, tend toward triadic formulations (Littleton 1973). In fact, when we think something through in an Indo-European language, we will probably end up with some sort of triad. This chapter, for example, has three kinds of engagement. True, there are other structures in Western thinking. The Greeks, for example, thought of four fundamental elements—air, water, wind, and Earth. Still, triadic thinking, from Plato’s triadic structure of society—ruler, guardians, and peasants—to the Christian trinity—Father, Son and Spirit—clearly has first place in Indo-European languages.

The Christian trinity is an especially interesting case, since the three “persons” were first articulated in Semitic languages—Hebrew and Aramaic. The members of the Jewish Christian community believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and even though they had the concepts of Father, Son, and Spirit, they never formulated a triadic theory of “Three in One” (Hobbs and Porter 1999). For Greek theologians, on the other hand, this probably seemed quite logical. That doesn’t mean that Greeks could not think in fours. Aristotle is famous for his four, not three, causes: material, efficient, formal, and final. If he had been totally bound to triadic thinking, one of these four would have been omitted. I think we are in a similar situation today: triadic thinking prevents us from seeing what we need to see, so I have developed a quadradic interpretive framework that includes the Earth, humanity, the social, and the civic (Fig. 1.1).

Fig. 1.1
figure 1

Quadradic interpretive framework. (Original to the author)

In contrast to some triadic frameworks that draw a picture of three spheres that overlap each other, like a Venn diagram, this framework takes a contextual approach. The outside circle is the broadest. We are Earthlings. And we live on the Earth as primates. We are homo sapiens. We belong to the Earth, existing in human communities that develop and inhabit different social worlds. We are social beings. The social is ubiquitous. All of us live all of the time in some social world, Our most remarkable characteristic is that we design and re-design how we live together. We do that in what I want to call the civic realm. While the social separates us into different groups, the civic draws on our shared humanity to unite us at deeper level without erasing our social difference.

Instead of using the old triadic framework that separates civil society from the moral complexity of the economy and government, this framework would see civil society as part of the larger social world. We never totally escape our social position and location. The fourth element, the civic, does not erase our social differences and conflicts, but rather gives us a space to deal with them. Because we live today in a climate of injustice, the civic involves two groups—vulnerable social groups (civilians) and secure social groups (citizens). Members of the civic may belong to one or another of these groups at different times. How these two groups work together can change the social climate from a climate of injustice to a climate of justice.

So, what are the advantages of this interpretive framework over the traditional Western triadic framework? There are several:

  • It places our treatment of the earth on the agenda, which means we cannot avoid the issue of sustainability.

  • It recognizes the humanity that we all share, which enables us to consider the violations of our humanity and how to respond.

  • It allows us to acknowledge social location and position and to understand our social relationships.

  • The civic realm allows us to address the legacy of social violence through the cooperative endeavors of civilians and citizens.

Right now, the tailwinds of American prosperity are distorting the meaning of each part of the framework.

  • The Earth is understood as land: a commodity with a market price, which ignores it as a living system.

  • Our humanity is sub-divided into a hierarchy with white males on top, which violates our shared humanity.

  • The social is incoherent with individualists who dismiss the fact that we always exist in social relations with others.

  • The civic is militarized to protect the injustices of America prosperity.

These descriptions of American Prosperity demonstrate why we are in the mess we are in, but not how to get out of it. We need not only analysis, but also a vision: a vision of prosperity that is sustainable for all of us as well as for the Earth. Once we create such a vision, then we know what we need to do—move from where we are to where we want to go, which would entail the following transformations (Fig. 1.2).

Fig. 1.2
figure 2

Transforming American prosperity to sustainable prosperity. (Original to the author)

While this chart outlines the necessary transformation to move toward a sustainable future, the transformations themselves involve a different kind of engagement than conceptual analysis. As we will see in Part II, making such a transition requires nothing less than re-writing history, of telling “telling” stories that reveal the incoherence of the “official” stories of American history and create coherent stories that show us how things could be different. Once we see a different historical future as a possibility, then we will need to govern with civilian power rather than military force—a civilian power that can shift the social climate to a climate of justice.

Part I covers these four elements of our interpretive framework in Chaps. 2, 3, 4, and 5. Chapter 2 on the Earth highlights the relationship between the Earth and our humanity and describes social relations with the Earth from the perspectives of Indigenous Peoples and modern Europeans. The chapter then reviews efforts since Earth Day in 1972 to protect the Earth, and proposes that we continue this tradition, with a new urgency as we face the options of either a stable or a hothouse planet.

Chapter 3 on our humanity avoids some of the philosophical controversies about human nature by drawing on the science of neurobiology, especially the works of Antonio Damasio and Daniel Siegel. Neurobiology focuses on common experiences of emotions, feelings, consciousness, aspirations, and attachments to others. As the self emerges from these dynamics, one can even recognize the existence of human dignity as a relational entity. Whether we recognize this dignity or not depends a lot on the social worlds in which we live.

Chapter 4 explores the Social in terms of social worlds and social trends. American Prosperity is presented as a social trend that splits off the misery it causes and focuses on its optimistic future. It then turns to the important distinction between what is natural or normal (biological or social) in regard to issues of gender, skin color, and ancestry, as a way of highlighting our social existence. To further explore our experiences of the social, the chapter outlines a continuum of different social encounters from diversity, social conflict, to social amnesia. These social differences also show up in current social trends such as increasing wealth inequality and increasing paternalistic philanthropy, which take us further away from examining our social climate of injustice.

Chapter 5 details the character of the civic space in which a civic consciousness emerges when we connect our disparate social lives with our shared humanity. On the one hand, a deep awareness of the existence of the Other limits my horizon of possibilities, and on the other hand, engaging with others offers possibilities for fair and just relations. In the civic realm itself, this existence of limits is best illustrated by the status of civilians who are vulnerable and rely on the rule of law to limit military aggression. This civic principle of limits is then applied to the other parts of the interpretive framework—the Earth, our humanity and the social. It turns out that the recognition of limits functions something like a canary in the coal mine to alert us to our social climate and to the prospects for moving toward sustainable prosperity.

The four elements explored in Chaps. 2, 3, 4, and 5 highlight major dimensions of our everyday lives, and they become even more resourceful when we begin relating them to each other. How do we see the relationship between the earth and our humanity? What about our natural and social selves? Where can we reconcile our social differences except in a place where we acknowledge our shared humanity? Can we create such a place, which I name the civic space in the framework? These and other questions will guide us in the second and third parts of this book: telling coherent stories and empowering the civic. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 use this framework in various ways to tell stories that tell us what we need to know about the challenges we face.

1.3 Telling “Telling” Stories

For years, I asked students in my Ethics classes to write a one-page history of the United States. After they understood that whatever they wrote was OK, they actually wrote quite a variety of stories. One cannot write a lot on one page, so some stories never got past the history of the Americas before the European take-over. A popular story was the war story—Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I and II, Korean War, Vietnam, and now Iraq and more generally the Middle East. Some wrote what you could call the occupation story—the original colonies, the expansion Westward, the Indian Wars, and on to California. Some stories included slavery. A few included the story of the struggles of women for suffrage and equality. Most of the stories were true in terms of what they said. They differed a lot in terms of what they didn’t say. The story told depended a lot on who was telling it, and the social worlds in which they lived.

So, how do you know if you are telling the right story? For us, the right story will be as broad and deep as our interpretive framework. Among all the things that happened, we want to know something about the story of the Earth, our humanity, social relations, and civic engagements. We also want to make connections among these four elements and use the fields of inquiry they open to tell stories that are guided by the principle of coherence.

The principle of coherence states that if A cannot be understood without B, then B cannot be understood without A. Here is an example of the principle:

Just as you cannot understand black America without understanding white America, you cannot understand white America without understanding black America.

Or, what about this version: “Just as you cannot understand Africa without understanding Europe, you cannot understand Europe without understanding Africa.” The first part of these statements makes sense. Does the second part? I think it does. Doesn’t the European/African version make just as much sense as the black/white American version? Isn’t it true that if you tell the story of Europe without any word about Africa, you have the same half-truth as you would have when telling the story of white America without any inclusion of black America?

Instead of telling a white American story or a black American story, we need to tell an American story. This story has its beginning on the Atlantic Ocean—relations among Europeans, Africans, and Americans. I know there are also stories about human relations around the Pacific Ocean, but the trends that are taking us toward a chaotic future have their origin in the Atlantic ocean. Beginning there, I will employ the four-part interpretive framework—the Earth. humanity, the social, and the civic—to search for and connect selected events that tell telling stories. The principle of coherence, after all, not only brings together events and experiences that have been separated, but also reveals how the climate of injustice haws been denied rather than rectified.

Modern American stories begin on the Atlantic shores, but our starting points belong more to the Atlantic ocean than the American continent. Now that we “own” the land from sea to sea, that is not always acknowledged. Our story begins with the Atlantic commerce of enslaved people and cheap land. There are stories within stories, of course, and the focus here is on telling coherent stories about the European settlers, the Africans they enslaved, the Native Americans they eliminated and the “land” they took. Europeans and Africans may find the stories edifying because they also endured and are enduring the Atlantic climate of injustice.

The first chapter in Part II tells a story of how the “success” of American prosperity began with a series of national compromises between Northern and Southern white men to allow the enslavement of millions of people. These compromises must have seemed “reasonable” to many, but we must remember that the colonies had already lived in a climate of injustice since the beginning of the Atlantic commerce. This social climate did not stop them from writing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but, at the same time, these documents that stated that “all men are created equal” did not correct the climate of injustice. The disruption of the Civil War did threaten the compromise, but as this telling reveals, white men reinstated it with the institution of Jim Crow, segregation, and the terror of lynching. The disruption of the 1960s opened the possibility of a coherent future for all, but this has certainly not happened yet, as we witnessed with the insurrection on January 6.

Chapter 7 tells a story of one good white man, at least by most accounts, who practiced social ethics during the time of racial oppression between the 1920s and the 1960s. The social ethicist and theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, confronted white bigotry as few did during his time, but also failed to create coherent stories of race relations. Niebuhr provides a good mirror for other whites to evaluate our work in striving for a climate of justice. Chapters 6 and 7 both demonstrate how deeply white supremacy runs throughout the story of American prosperity, and has influenced our understanding of the Earth, our humanity, the social, and the civic.

Chapter 8 takes up the challenge of carving out a viable future from our compromised past, by first focusing on different interpretations of the Earth from a “Mother” to private property, and then drawing attention to the experiences of sharecropping after the Civil War. The sharecroppers desire for sharing prosperity and security can serve as an entry to the development of an ethics of reciprocity, reparation, and restoration. Responding to the sharecroppers’ dream, in other words, and acknowledging what prevented it from becoming reality, gives us an opportunity to not only repair the past, but also to create a viable future for all. Engaging in such a process requires that we move beyond our social differences and estrangements to our shared humanity, which is possible through the empowering of the civic.

1.4 Empowering the Civic

The book’s third part (Chaps. 9, 10, and 11) constructs a definition of the civic that affirms the possibilities of our shared humanity serving as the basis for healing our broken social relationships. The book focuses on restoring relationships between those who have suffered from American Prosperity and those of us who have benefited from it. Most of the time, American stories about these groups are about relationships between white people and people of color. In the civic realm, such stories are translated into relationships between civilians and citizens. By definition, civilians are groups who are vulnerable, need protection, and rely on the rule of law. Citizens are those who have access to resources to respond to rightful civilian claims. The civilian call for justice gives citizens the opportunity and a civic duty to join them in the repair of broken relationships. That’s the kind of work that allows us to recognize the climate of injustice and transform it to a climate of justice.

Think of American Prosperity as a boat in a bottle, and the bottle is the climate of injustice. We cannot change the boat until you break the bottle, and those of us who are the boat’s privileged passengers are very unlikely to break the bottle and may not even be aware of it. Those who have suffered from American Prosperity, on the other hand, know only too well we exist in a bottle, and that we have to break it if we want to change the boat.

One lesson we learned from the Covid Pandemic is that we are or can be both civilians and citizens. Many were vulnerable and many died. They could not protect themselves and depended on government policies, which in this instance, failed a lot of us. The courageous health care workers, doctors, nurses, and others who acted as citizens and as dedicated public servants did not fail us, but it’s clear now that the Federal government and some State governments did. Perhaps the death count could have been half as large if public officials had developed and enforced policies of protection. In any case, in some sense, we were all in the same boat, and yet it is also true that one end of the boat was much more dangerous than the other.

The definition of civilian used here does have its origin in the traditional view of civilians as non-combatants. They are not in the fight, so to speak. It doesn’t take much reflection to see that civilians are those who cannot defend themselves and are vulnerable to the actions of others. In the language of International Humanitarian Law, civilians have a right to not be harmed. They are vulnerable and deserve protection.

The term is used quite often in domestic situations concerning the relationships of vulnerable communities with the police. During the protests in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, for example, a black teenager told a reporter that the police approached black males as “suspects, first, civilians second” (Cobbina and Henion 2016). Instead of being approached as a criminal, the teenager deserved to be seen by the police as needing protection. We could also see our children and grandchildren as civilians, because they are vulnerable to our decisions about what kind of world we pass on to them.

I am not a civilian like the teenager in Ferguson, but rather a white male heterosexual citizen—a citizen who has had and continues to have privileges that many do not have. At the same time, I am not a warrior or a hero. I know about my vulnerability and limited capacity for making a difference. My bet is that an awareness of civilian vulnerability provides a good starting point for moving from a climate of injustice to a climate of justice.

Many of us have had experiences of human vulnerability and needing protection, but some of us may feel that we can and should protect ourselves. I remember this feeling when I spent an evening in 1965 learning non-violent techniques before traveling to Montgomery, Alabama, to join in the second civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. We learned how to curl up to protect ourselves from police batons. Before that evening, I had seen myself as a fighter. In school, in sports, and even in church, I tried to excel. In my own way, I wanted to be a hero. I learned that night that most civilians are not heroes. Civilians need protection and when it doesn’t seem likely, they need to protect themselves as best they can. At the same time, we met that evening to prepare for a civil rights march. We were not only needing personal protection but also demanding protection of civic rights.

The fact is that any one of us could be a civilian as well as a citizen. Civilian identity does not depend on nationality, class, gender, ethnicity, skin color, religion, or loyalty to this or that group. It is a civic identity that arises from the recognition of vulnerability and the right to be protected from harm. One image that captures this distinction between civilians and citizens is the Civilian Review Board.

Civilian Review Boards often mediate between local residents and police departments. The groups in the meetings include those who are asking for help or civilians, and those who have resources to help or citizens. If we assume that anyone could belong to either group, then the difference between civilians and citizens does not depend on personal identity, but rather on their social identity and civic role. The civic then becomes a gathering of civilians and citizens working together to promote environmental justice and to protect civic rights.

Remember the earlier figure (Fig. 1.2) that displayed the transformations necessary to move from American Prosperity to Sustainable Prosperity. That figure displayed what needs to happen, now we know where and how it could happen. It could happen in the civic realm where we meet one another as sharing a common humanity. Recognizing our humanity could bring those who have the resources to respond to those who need them, and in doing this work, create a climate of justice. Then the figure looks like this (Fig. 1.3):

Fig. 1.3
figure 3

From American prosperity to natural prosperity

Since this change has not yet happened, no one knows what the changes will entail. We do know that a climate of justice will encourage balanced relations (reciprocity) with each other and with the Earth. We also can say that sharing the expectation of such relationships requires substantial transformation of current social relationships. The three chapters in Part III examine what such a transformation would involve.

Chapter 9 explores the source for the empowerment of civilians from a theological perspective. Since the talk about the gods can easily be taken as talk about power, a theological inquiry should allow us to see how talk about god (in this case Christian theology) actually exposes our human capacity for creating purposeful communities. The empowerment of the civic, of course, requires more than empowering civilians. Citizens have to be responsive to the civilian’s claims. Not as straightforward as it seems, at least for some of us.

Chapter 10 examines three options for citizens to relate to civilians: empathy, becoming commoners, and an ethics of care. Empathy for others certainly creates some kind of connection between people. One could argue that it is necessary for a good connection between citizens and civilians, but is it sufficient? Empathy may help us understand another, but does it help us understand our social differences and the relationship between our social worlds?

Another option is for all of us to become “commoners,” sharing the production and distribution of resources. This option raises other questions about the very meaning of a citizen/civilian relationship. While both of these options appear tempting, in fact, following their directions prevents us from appreciating the difficulty of establishing trust in relationships that have been formed in a context of injustice. An ethics of care, the third option, at least turns our heads in the right direction: toward repairing broken relationships and restoring a human habitat for all.

People of privilege, especially white males who exist in white male worlds, may be surprised that their caring about relationships is not enough to join with vulnerable civilians in creating a viable future for all. One has to be invited. Chapter 10 takes up the invitation issue by first presenting vivid contrasts between American monuments that invite us to consider our history. The Chapter explores how citizens could respond to different types of civilian invitations: invitations from future generations (our children and grandchildren); extended relations, such as Syrian refugees; shared relations, such as refugees at our southern border; and personal invitations from people of color, where we may engage in a creative dialogue.

As a member of the white male social world, I offer recommendations for white males to prepare for such dialogues. How we all participate in these dialogues, of course, determines whether we can break out of the climate of injustice into a climate of justice. If we can, then we will have created an ethical foundation for environmentalism that functions as a springboard for collective action to secure a habitat for future generations.


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Brown, M.T. (2022). Introduction: Three Kinds of Engagement. In: A Climate of Justice: An Ethical Foundation for Environmentalism. Library of Public Policy and Public Administration, vol 16. Springer, Cham.

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