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The Earth

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


The Earth is both our home and our provider. It’s meaning for us depends on how we interpret our human, social, and civic relationships with it. All humans exist as participants in the earth’s dynamics, from breathing its air to consuming its provisions. Our social relations with the Earth span the range from indigenous groups who see the Earth as sacred to some modern groups who see it as a commodity. We are dwellers on the Earth and our dwellings exist as homes in a natural and urban environment and yet they can be treated as nothing but real estate. Still, since Earth Day in 1972, there have been “environmental victories” in preserving the Earth’s vitality, and yet today as citizens we face a stark alternative between a stable or “hot house” Earth. Making the right choice depends on breaking through the climate of injustice that now prevents us from both repairing our relationships with each other and from restoring the Earth as a habitat for all living things.


  • Habitat
  • Environment
  • Indigenous peoples
  • Living systems
  • Dwelling
  • Global warming
  • Hothouse earth

2.1 Introduction

If you grew up on a farm, as I did, you would know the Earth as where you plant crops, plow and weed, and test for moisture. I have seen the big sky, the white clouds, the hot sun, the tornado, the hailstorm, and the rainbow. I heard the grass blowing in the wind. I breathed the morning fog, the afternoon heat, and the evening cool. I have seen seeds become plants. I have seen plants mowed down by hail. I know all of this through my senses—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. I would say that the Earth pulled me into its beauty. I participated, in other words, in the Earth. I now live close to the Hayward earthquake fault in the San Francisco Bay Area. Someday this living system will cause people here billions of dollars of damage and much human suffering. If we know anything about the Earth from this location, we know that it is not a respecter of persons. True, the earthquake will probably cause more suffering for poor people than others, but this is because of our social relations.

In fact, our understanding of the Earth depends largely on our social location and position, as well as our understanding of ourselves as human beings. To cover more of the significance of the Earth, we will examine how we see its relationship to our humanity, our social worlds, and then how we can honor and change those relationships in the realm of the civic. The Earth, our humanity, social worlds, and the civic constitute a quadradic interpretive framework that allows us to highlight not only where we have failed to protect the Earth, but also what is necessary to create a more honorable relationship with it.

2.2 The Earth and Our Humanity

A basic principle in this book is that humans are participants . We actually become human through participation—in the biosphere, in our family, in language, and in various social worlds. When air enters our body, we begin living our life as a human being. Like fish in water, we inhale and exhale in an ocean of air. We live in air, we are air-born—and we die when air no longer flows in and out of us. We did not create air or buy it. It is a commons, something we share with other forms of life. From birth to death, we belong to the biosphere and participate in its life.

That we depend on participation in the biosphere has been provocatively affirmed by the “I can’t breathe” protests after the killing of George Floyd by police officers in 2020. We need to breathe to stay alive. In fact, we stay alive because we participate in the biosphere as its air moves in and out of our bodies. Breathing allows us to release the energy we have within ourselves. Energy, of course, is not any individual’s creation. Our source of energy is the sun. The sun makes our planet habitable and provides us with the energy to live. The oxygen from the air and the energy from the sun belong to the planet, and as participants in planetary life, we enjoy living.

Breathing happens within the context of time. As each of us moves toward our own end-of-time, we live in human time. We also live in social and technological time—dinner time and internet time. Human time can be measured. It takes nine months from conception to birth. It takes about a year to learn to walk, and maybe a bit longer to speak. Puberty comes in time. In some societies it comes earlier than in others, as we witness the continual mismatching of Earth and social time. The Earth rotates around the sun in its time, which gives us daylight and night times. Time to work and time to sleep. Electricity allows us to keep the lights on, prolonging social time and sometimes it seems like erasing our awareness of the Earth’s time. As we witness continued global warming, melting glaciers, rising oceans, stronger hurricanes, tornadoes, and increased flooding, it seems like it’s time to take time to re-connect with the time of the Earth.

Our knowledge of the Earth ultimately rests on our knowledge of ourselves as living, natural beings. How we treat our body and the body of others parallels how we treat the Earth. Just as the story of the enslavement and exploitation of others’ bodies makes it painful to tell the true story of Western history, so does the story of the appropriation and degradation of the Earth make it difficult to tell the true story of the Earth. What have we done: to the soil, to the forests, to the oceans, to the streams and rivers, and the wetlands? This is a difficult question; not because we cannot answer it, but rather because the answer involves reflection not only on the meaning of the Earth, but also on us.

We need to remember that we belong to the animal kingdom. We share more than 99% of our DNA with other primates. Like other primates, we have an intuitive sense that we are worthwhile. Every newborn warmly held by a caring parent experiences the joy of being loved. This is true of other primates as well. There is a pleasure in being alive that our techno-society has largely erased from our collective memory. No one has written more thoughtfully and clearly about humans as sensuous beings than the philosopher David Abrams. In his book, The Spell of the Sensuous, he writes:

The breathing, sensing body draws its sustenance and it’s very substance from the soils, plants, and elements that surround it; it continually contributes itself, in turn, to the air, to the composing Earth to the nourishment of insects and oak trees and squirrels, ceaselessly spreading out of itself as well as breathing the world into itself, so that is it very difficult to discern, at any moment, precisely where this living body begins and where it ends (1997, pp. 46–47).

For Abrams, we know the Earth through our senses. As he writes in his book’s Preface:

Humans are tuned for relationship. The eyes, the skin, the tongue, ears, and nostrils—all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness. . . For the largest part of our species’ existence, humans have negotiated relationships with every aspect as the sensuous surroundings, exchanging possibilities with every flapping form, with each textured surface and shivering entity that we happened to focus upon. . .. And from all of these relationships our collective sensibilities were nourished (p. ix).

If we look at the Earth from Abram’s perspective, our knowledge of the Earth depends a lot on our awareness of our body’s sensuous participation in its aliveness. While we have such a capacity, our access to it largely depends on the social worlds in which we live. For the most part, we experience our humanity as a social phenomenon—the third element of the interpretive framework.

2.3 The Earth and the Social

Our social worlds are composed by the stories told to us and that we tell, and the patterns of interaction that provide social order. Changing stories and patterns of interaction can also change our social worlds, but before changing the social, we have to know something about why the stories were constructed as they were—a reoccurring theme throughout the book. One could see the stories we have learned as answers to various questions, such as the question: “How should we live together on the Earth?” Is there a “correct” answer to this question? Some answers are probably better than others. One answer comes from a collection of “original instructions” by Indigenous peoples.

2.3.1 Indigenous Peoples’ “Original Instructions”

Indigenous people have been gathering for over 18 years at the annual Bioneers conference in Northern California to share their wisdom about living with the Earth. A non-profit environmental organization, Bioneers published the presentations of the Indigenousness speakers in the book, Original Instructions : Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future. In the Introduction, Malissa Nelson writes about the volume:

Original Instructions refer to the many diverse teachings, lessons, and ethics expressed in the origin stories and oral traditions of Indigenous Peoples. They are the literal and metaphorical instructions passed on orally from generation to generation, for how to be a good human being living in reciprocal relations with all of our seen and unseen relations. They are natural laws that, when ignored, have natural consequences (2008, pp. 2–3).

As you would expect, Original Instructions contains many challenging voices for us descendants of settler colonialists. Should we try to establish similar relationships with the Earth?. In this regard, I think Nelson’s distinction between “literal and metaphorical instructions” is quite instructive. Would you read the following passage from the book literally or metaphorically?

We, the two-legged species, the humans, are not alone here; we share this Mother Earth with many life forms, animate and inanimate. From the waters of the great oceans to the smallest rock, and from the smallest organism to the biggest animals, we are related to each other. The relationship to the sacredness of our Mother Earth and all her children defines our spiritual, our cultural, our social. our economic, and even the political relationships that we have with each other in all life (p. 221).

Is the Earth literally or metaphorically sacred? Is it “really” sacred? Or, is it “like” sacred? It depends on the social worlds from which we interpret its meaning. We should not forget that for most of human history most human communities lived with something like these “original instructions.” This is no longer the case for those of us who live in “modern society.” We need modern instructions.

2.3.2 Modern Instructions

For Earth’s sake, our modern instructions must not be based on assumptions that turn the Earth into our property: as a thing that people can manipulate to serve their wishes. We now know this was a mistake for several reasons: it ignored the Earth’s own system dynamics and its finite carrying capacity, it overlooked the Earth’s intrinsic value as a living system, and it has allowed immeasurable violence to the Earth’s vitality.

One could say that the culprit was Gunter’s chain, at least in the settler’s acquisition of American soil. Invented by the English mathematician, Edmund Gunter (1581–1635) the chain allowed one to map out a plot of land with clear boundaries. The Earth was transformed into parcels of land—acres, half-acres, sections, and so on. Instead of measuring different types of Earth by what was needed to grow corps, the Earth was measured by size, and went on the market as a piece of land worth so much per acre or plot. In his fascinating book on the history of land sales in the United States, Andro Linklater summarizes the impact of Gunter’s chain:

Once the earth could be measured by a unit that did not vary, supply and demand would determine the price, and it could be treated as a commodity. This was not Gunter’s intention, but it was a consequence of the accuracy that was built into his means of measurement (2003, p. 20).

This tool, of course, did not create the perception of the Earth as something one could treat as property, but rather allowed the perception to become practical. In another book, Owning the Earth, Linklater describes the emergence of this perception of the Earth in the European early modern period.

The disruption of this pattern [communal ownership] is the great revolution of the last 200 years. The idea of individual, exclusive ownership, not just of what can be carried or occupied, but of the immovable, near-eternal Earth has proved to be the most destructive and creative force in written history (2015, p. 5).

This “great revolution” as Linklater calls it, or “the great transformation” to use Karl Polanyi’s title, changed the meaning of land from a communal shared habitat to a piece of property that one could buy and sell, a commodity (1971).

In the modern world view, the Earth became a thing that could be manipulated to produce more by increasing the use of fertilizer and pesticides, destroying its vegetation, clear-cutting its forests, sterilizing it, and covering it with concrete. Its value was essentially its market value. How contrary to the notion of the Earth as sacred. This modern social world may not have the capacity to treat the Earth as sacred, but if we want to protect the Earth for future generations, we can no longer treat is as only a thing. We need a different story about our relationship with the Earth; one that protects it from abuse and recognizes its intrinsic value. One such story could be a story of the Earth as a living provider.

2.3.3 Earth as a Living Provider

In my book, Civilizing the Economy , I tried to tell a story of our relationship with the Earth as a story of various human providers transforming the Earth’s provisions into provisions for our families and communities (2010). As an alternative to the modern story of treating land as a commodity, this view saw the Earth as a living system. This allowed us to see our relationship with the Earth in the connections between natural and social systems, like the natural system of photosynthesis and the social systems of providing food and shelter.

Most of our systems of provision today do not exist in reciprocal relations with the Earth. We take much more than we restore. The natural and social systems are not in-balance. All too often, the Earth is not treated as a living provider of goods, but rather as a thing that can be coerced into providing goods not for the sake of making provisions, but for the sake of wealth. To restore some balance between the Earth and the social, we will need to design systems of provision that protect the providers as well as those who are provided for. Since many of us dwell in cities and urban areas today, exploring the various dimensions of a dwelling may help us understand the relationship between the Earth and social life.

2.4 A Modern Dwelling

As the accompanying picture demonstrates, a dwelling, at least an urban dwelling, has several dimensions—a home, a house or building, and part of an urban and natural environment. The house or building consists of various materials, perhaps wood, a renewable product, or cement, not renewable. The building also provides its inhabitants protection from what we euphemistically call “the elements” (Fig. 2.1).

Fig. 2.1
figure 1

A modern dwelling. (Original to the author)

The dwelling is also a home that provides the privacy necessary for exercising one’s own autonomy and for developing one’s life-plans. It should also be a place that’s safe for vulnerability and engaging in intimate relations. The tragedy of homelessness in the United States is that homeless people are deprived of a place where their personal lives are protected. Homelessness, in other words, is not just about shelter, although that is certainly a basic human right, but even more importantly, it is about not being at home in the world.

Shelter, of course, is not trivial. We not only live with nature, but we also protect ourselves from nature. With changes in global climate patterns, we see the atmosphere becoming warmer, sea levels rising, storms intensifying, oceans acidifying, polar caps melting, and natural ecosystems deteriorating. In recent decades, many know the Earth only too well though hurricanes, heat waves, tornadoes, floods, fires and volcanoes. These trends raise new challenges for urban planners as they must retrofit their housing stock for a changing world

In response to global warming, some governments are passing regulations that require new homes to be self-sustainable. Advances in technology have made such requirements quite reasonable. Other technological developments, however, have created new problems such as the growing use of air-conditioning.

In her recent article on air-conditioning, Rachel Kyte writes that increases in temperatures in such countries as Pakistan (128.3 F), Iran (129.2 F) and the state of Arizona (118 F) have made air-conditioning more of a necessity than a luxury (2017). Growing populations in countries such as India have also increased the need for air-conditioning. Air-conditioning, however, not only takes electricity (there are still over 1 billion people world-wide without electricity), but also, in most cases, uses hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) that cause global warming. As Kyte says, air-conditioning is both a lifesaver and a potential disaster. On the one hand, the trend of global warming has made hot zones even hotter, which could be managed by increasing the use of air-conditioning, but then air-conditioning increases the demand for electricity and HFCs in the atmosphere. On the other hand, if there is so much sun, then why not simply install solar panels and let the heat create electricity to cool things off? Solar power could be an essential part of the answer but finding the materials for the technology and the right incentives and regulations to persuade people to ensure its adoption—not so easy. We need to remember that this dilemma of increasing the use of air-conditioning belongs to a much larger issue of how to make life livable on our one planet (Fig. 2.2).

Fig. 2.2
figure 2

A modern dwelling as real estate. (Original to the author)

For some, seeing a dwelling only as a house, a home, and belonging to natural and urban dimensions totally misses what many homeowners and investors see as the most significant aspect of a modern dwelling—its real-estate value. Financial investors would argue that the property’s financial value makes possible the other values of the dwelling—as a home, a shelter, and a part of urban and environmental environments. For them, the only real question is “Is this a good investment?” Asking such a question, of course, assumes a different interpretive framework. Seeing a dwelling as something one can “buy low and sell high” dismisses the significance of what it means for humans to dwell on the Earth.

How we interpret the meaning of a building, or course, reveals how we see ourselves. If we see a house as nothing but an investment, then we become investors. This has consequences not only for us, but also for others. This is especially relevant for modern urban environments.

“If you owned your home, would you have the right to burn it down?” I have posed this question to students in my ethics classes and most of them answer that you do. After all, they reason, you own it. Then I ask them what the owner owns; it’s the property. As we have seen, however, this “property” belongs to an urban and natural environment. It’s real-estate value, in fact, depends almost entirely on its location in the urban environment. A similar building’s real estate value may vary from almost zero to millions of dollars depending on its location. Also, most houses have had a past and potential future as a family’s home and shelter. The significance of the house, in other words, is lost when its real-estate value blocks out everything else. That is not only true of our homes, of course, but also of the Earth itself. Recognizing and protecting the meaning of “things” does not prevent home ownership, but it does define ownership much more as a kind of stewardship of our dwellings.

Stewardship rests on the recognition of an entity’s value not only for its owner, but also for others and even for itself. To practice stewardship does not require a sacrifice of one’s holdings, but rather an awareness of a relationship with what is being held. In a climate of justice, the relationship would be based on reciprocity where relationships of giving and receiving are balanced. Reciprocity is possible, of course, between living things that share value and meaning. In our current climate of injustice, on the other hand, we are witnessing the further imbalance of our earthly existence. Increased global warming, resource depletion, and waste dumping continue to degrade the Earth’s viability. Also, the growing number of vulnerable refugees and the decreasing provisions for them rely and perpetuate a climate of injustice. Changing these trends requires that we change the social climate to a climate of justice which will require some heavy lifting on the part of all citizens. This brings us to the relationship between the Earth and the Civic.

2.5 The Earth and the Civic

The first definition of the Civic here is that it is a space where citizens (who have resources) and civilians (who need protection and provisions) work together to repair social relationships and to change the social climate to a climate of justice. This definition brings together two elements of the book’s quadradic framework: our humanity and our social worlds. Our shared humanity serves as a foundation for confronting our social differences and separations and calls for citizens to protect civilians. Civilians have a right to such protection because they too have human dignity and deserve the protection of the rule of law. The Earth has some similarities with civilians. Like civilians, the earth is vulnerable to exploitation and violence and needs the protection of laws that recognize the dignity of the Earth as a living system. It’s true that the United States has a long history of exploiting the Earth, but it also has a more recent history of people working to protect it. Their legacy offers us a trajectory into the future that we can join.

Since Earth Day in 1972, a host of activist groups and policy makers have been struggling to protect the Earth and its inhabitants. Some corporations and businesses have also been involved in decreasing their ecological footprint and increasing their use of sustainable energy and materials. Interface Inc., a global carpet corporation, for example, has taken on the task of becoming completely sustainable (2009). In fact, there is a rich legacy of persons and organizations working together to protect our Earth. Brian Howard has created an impressive list of such “environmental victories”

2.5.1 Environmental Victories

On Earth Day in 2018, National Geographic published Howard’s list of 48 environmental victories since the first Earth Day in 1972 (2017). Although these victories have not by themselves completed the task of preserving the planet for our children and grandchildren, they do give us a legacy and a movement that can give us hope for continuing their work. I have edited Howard’s list below to provide us with the rich history of people’s work in caring for the Earth.

  1. 1.

    The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 began the era of requiring environmental impact statements.

  2. 2.

    In 1972, the Notorious Toxic Chemical DDT was Banned.

  3. 3.

    In 1972, the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act was passed, updating a 1910 law that had required truth in advertising for pesticides.

  4. 4.

    In 1972, the Clean Water Act passed.

  5. 5.

    In 1972, the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act started the country’s system of marine sanctuaries.

  6. 6.

    In 1973; the landmark Endangered Species Act.

  7. 7.

    1975; Global Agreement on Endangered Species.

  8. 8.

    The 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species was drafted for signatures in 1973 and went into effect in 1975.

  9. 9.

    The 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act set quality standards for all U.S. drinking water systems.

  10. 10.

    In 1974, the EPA began a phaseout of lead from gasoline in the U.S., a process completed in 1995.

  11. 11.

    1976 The Toxic Substances Control Act oversees the introduction of new chemicals into the marketplace. A notable example was the banning of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) after 1978.

  12. 12.

    1978 Love Canal Causes National Outcry.

  13. 13.

    1980 Superfund Program Launched.

  14. 14.

    The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, commonly known as Superfund.

  15. 15.

    The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in late 1980.

  16. 16.

    In 1982, the International Whaling Commission finally adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling.

  17. 17.

    In 1986, McDonalds started using biodegradable packaging.

  18. 18.

    In 1986, the sprawling Woburn, Massachusetts pollution case was decided in court. The case was depicted in the 1995 book (and later movie) A Civil Action.

  19. 19.

    1987 Saving Condors action grew population from only 27 to over 400.

  20. 20.

    In 1987, the Montreal Protocol outlawed a series of chemicals that had been destroying the Earth’s protective ozone layer.

  21. 21.

    The Water Quality Act of 1987 created the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which helped finance the upgrade of water systems across the country.

  22. 22.

    The 1988 Medical Waste Tracking Act compelled healthcare providers to treat their waste seriously and make sure it is disposed of properly.

  23. 23.

    In 1989 the U.S. began a phaseout of asbestos from many products.

  24. 24.

    1990 update of the 1963 Clean Air Act.

  25. 25.

    1992 Rio Earth Summit. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.

  26. 26.

    In 1991, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists began reintroducing black-footed ferrets to the American West. The species was declared extinct in 1979. Now, there are an estimated 1000 of the animals in several populations in the wild.

  27. 27.

    1993 Erin Brokovich’s wins lawsuit against Masry & Vititoe for poisoning people’s groundwater with a toxic chemical.

  28. 28.

    In 1993, the U.S. Green Building Council was founded, helping kick off a revolution in environmentally friendly design that continues to grow each year.

  29. 29.

    In 1993, the Convention on Biological Diversity went into effect after being ratified by enough countries.

  30. 30.

    1995 Gray Wolves Reintroduced to Yellowstone.

  31. 31.

    1995 Bald Eagle Recovery.

  32. 32.

    In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was adopted by some countries (although not the U.S).

  33. 33.

    In January 2001, the U.S. Forest Service adopted the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which protected 58.5 million acres of pristine forests and grasslands from most road construction and logging.

  34. 34.

    In 2002, California passed an aggressive Renewable Portfolio Standard in order to help stimulate the clean energy industry.

  35. 35.

    2006 Al Gore’s Movie, An Inconvenient Truth, helped raise public awareness around the threat of climate change.

  36. 36.

    In 2006 the U.S. started regulating the commercial fishing industry through catch shares, in an attempt to make fishermen partners in conservation instead of adversaries.

  37. 37.

    The Energy Independence and Security Act resulted in tougher new fuel economy standards.

  38. 38.

    Walk Score was founded in 2007, rating cities, neighborhoods, and more for how pedestrian friendly they are.

  39. 39.

    The 2009 Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument protects some of the most pristine waters in the ocean. The monument was expanded by Barack Obama to nearly 490,000 square miles.

  40. 40.

    In 2010, the Department of the Interior announced a ban on oil and gas drilling in federal waters off the Atlantic Coast until 2017.

  41. 41.

    In 2012, Washington’ s Elwha dams were removed, restoring a wild river to Olympic National Park.

  42. 42.

    In late 2015, nations came together in Paris and agreed to a new plan to limit global warming .

  43. 43.

    2017 Tougher Ozone Standards.

  44. 44.

    In April, the lesser long-nosed bat became the first bat to be taken off the Endangered Species List. Yellowstone’s grizzly bears were also removed from the endangered list, as well as the American wood stork in 2014.

We could add to this list the Paris Accords of 2016, where many nations agreed to make a concerted effort to decrease carbon emissions, and more importantly, for developed nations to create a fund to assist developing nations in a global effort to preserve the Earth for future generations. This agreement, unfortunately, has not led to actions that are proportionate with the continual increases in carbon emissions and global warming. Recent research appears to confirm the dire predictions of those who have argued for more urgent action than many nations have been willing to take.

A consensus of opinion about our current situation has recently been published by the National Academy of Science entitled: “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene.” The essay presents two options for our future: a Stable Earth or a Hothouse Earth.

2.5.2 A Stable Earth or a Hothouse Earth

The time of the Anthropocene, as you may know, is the epoch in geologic history when Earth systems no longer follow their natural course but instead are directed by humans. That’s our time. The fate of the Earth depends on our choices (Steffen et al. 2018). We now have a choice between a “hothouse Earth” and a “Stabilized Earth.” Without a rather drastic change in current social. Economic, and cultural patterns, increased warming will soon reach what the researchers call a “Planetary threshold” which is a kind of tipping point where global warming creates its own positive feedback loops, which further increase global warming and chaotic conditions.

Hothouse Earth is likely to be uncontrollable and dangerous to many, particularly if we transition into it in only a century or two, and it poses severe risks for health, economies, political stability (especially for the most climate vulnerable, and ultimately, the habitability of the planet for humans (p. 11).

To avoid the likely future of something like “Hothouse Earth,” we must find ways to coordinate international actions that drastically reduce carbon emissions and other causes of global warming. Not an easy assignment.

Ultimately, the transformations necessary to achieve the Stabilized Earth pathway require a fundamental reorientation and restructuring of national and international institutions toward more effective governance at the Earth System Level, with a much stronger emphasis on planetary concerns in economic governance, global trade, investments and finance, and technological development (p.13).

Are we ready for “a fundamental reorientation and restructuring of national and international institutions”? I doubt it. True, there are more organizations working on the issue of climate change than ever before. The US Climate Action Network, for example, lists over 185 such organizations and there are surely more than those on their list (USCAN), It’s also true that governments and non-governmental organizations are developing policies aimed at moving us toward a sustainable future. One question, of course, is whether the policies are bold enough to match the current environmental crisis. Another question is whether it will be possible to actually implement bold environmental policies in our current climate of injustice.

We need to remember that making policies always occurs in a social context, and any group’s capacity to implement policies depends on what their context allows. The “success” of the “environmental victories” have not brought us to a sustainable future, I suggest, because their social context remained a climate of injustice that allowed some progress, but not too much: not enough to threaten American Prosperity. Continuing the work in the wake of the “environmental victories” requires that we not only carefully examine our relationship with the Earth but also our social relationships with each other.

2.6 Continuing the Work

Although the list of victories doesn’t show it, environmental progress since Earth Day in 1972 has not been sustained. The election of Ronald Reagan choked most of the 1970s momentum for saving the Earth and after the Trump administration, the Earth is at risk as never before. This legacy of struggles to repair and restore the Earth has countered “powers and principalities” that have blocked them from changing the course of Western, and now global, planetary devastation. Maintaining the status quo means continuing to insist on economic growth, increased consumption, no matter the cost to the planet. Even though there is mounting evidence of the deteriorating condition of the planet—higher sea levels, melting glaciers, stronger hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and fires—we continue to think in terms of growth and the American Dream ensuring that the protection of the planet does not endanger American prosperity.

The Earth as we know it flows through our bodies. It is not a foreign object or a piece of property, and neither are we. Our treatment of ourselves and of others parallels our treatment of the Earth. Too often the environmental movement has separated the violations of the planet’s living systems from the violations of our shared humanity. We now need to recognize that the environmental movement needs the same ethical foundation as current social movements: a climate of justice.

As was pointed out earlier, we participate in the biosphere. We take in oxygen and send out carbon dioxide. Plants do the opposite. Through the process of photosynthesis, the atmosphere remains balanced, or at least it had remained balanced until we began pouring more carbon into the biosphere than it could absorb. For all of human history, until the recent modern period, humans have played their part in the life of the biosphere. Now we face a planetary crisis as global warming puts all of us—human and non-human communities—at risk. The crisis, one can hope, will remind us that we are only part of the planet, and must now consciously learn how to play our part.

So, what is our part? How should we relate to the Earth? A climate of justice favors the idea of reciprocity—of balanced relations between us and the Earth. On the one hand, balanced relations would entail some proportionality between what the Earth provides and our response. In Richard Powers’ novel, The Overstory, the character, Patricia, gives us an idea of what this might entail. She is standing in a forest:

Thank you for the baskets and the boxes. Thank you for the capes and hats and skirts. Thank you for the cradles. The Beds. The diapers, Canoes, Paddles, harpoons, and nets. Poles, logs, posts. The rot-proof shakes and shingles. The kindling that will always light. . . .Thank you for the tools, The chests. The decking. The clothes closets. The Paneling. I forget . . . Thank you” she says, following the ancient formula. “For all these gifts that you have given.” And still not knowing how to stop, she adds, “We’re sorry. We didn’t know how hard it is for you to grow back (2018, p. 135).

This expression of gratitude brings urgency to another aspect of our relationship with the Earth; we need to protect it. A basic premise of this book is that the destruction of the natural world and the violations of our common humanity come from the same source: white supremacy and arrogance toward human and non-human communities. A leader in environmental justice, Carl Anthony has spent years asking us to take this fact seriously. He writes:

The dehumanization required to enslave people rests upon the same arrogance that allows the dominators to use, abuse, and pollute Earth’s living ecosystem. This dehumanization continues when the contributions of people of color are missing from the history of the modern world. Humanity cannot develop a radically new ecological conscience until we re-tell its story to include the various histories and perspectives of people of color. Attempting to solve the problem of ecosystem exploitation will never work without facing up to its companion—waste and human exploitation caused by racism (2017, pp. 17–18).

If we are to create a climate of justice, it will not only change our perception of our relationship with the Earth but also with each other. The ethical term is reciprocity. Reciprocal relations are relations where the participants receive in proportion to what they have given or in some cases in proportion to what has been taken from them—to what they have lost. Achieving reciprocal relationships, however, requires some repair of the relationships between those who have lived in privileged social worlds at the expense of others, as well as restoring the balance among the Earth’s different systems. So, we should be grateful for those who have worked to protect the Earth and at the same time, follow the direction laid out by our interpretive framework that connects the Earth as a living system with our humanity, our social worlds, and the civic.


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Brown, M.T. (2022). The Earth. 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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