We bring forth a civic realm with the mutual recognition of our shared humanity that allows us to repair violations of human dignity and to restore social coherence. Given our social inequalities, this takes the form of those who have resources (citizens) responding to the rightful demands of those do not (civilians). The paradigmatic model for civic engagement is the Civilian Review Board, where citizens listen and respond to civilian claims for justice and limits of the use of force. The civilian call for limits can be applied to the other three parts of the four-part framework: the Earth, humanity, and the social. This gives us permission to recognize that we have only one Earth, that death is a natural limit to human life, and that social trends, such as American Prosperity, should not be treated as limitless. Acknowledging these limitations is a necessary condition for creating a climate of justice.
- Geneva protocol on protection of civilians
- Civilian review boards
- Rule of Law
- Earth’s limits
- Human limits
The first premise of justice is to treat equals equally, and unequals unequally. Justice does not mean treating everyone the same. It means that treating people differently must be based on a valid distinction. Treating everyone the same, when there is a valid difference, in other worlds, is unjust. If the events of 2020 has made anything obvious, it is that some are vulnerable and need protection and others have a responsibility to provide it. In the civic realm, this distinction can be expressed as a distinction between civilians and citizens: civilians who do not have the means to protect themselves from undue harm from others and citizens who have access to such means. We do not need to attach this distinction to different persons, but rather to the civic relationship itself between those seeking protection and those who could, at least in some cases, provide it. If this is a significant difference—an inequality—then the civic would not be a place where everyone is treated the same, but where some receive more than others because some are in greater peril and risk than others.
True, we are all participants in the Earth’s living systems and depend on its provisions. We also share a human capacity to thrive that serves as a location for human dignity. However, we have very different social experiences and locations and exist in social trends that provide privileges for some and misery for others. The civic realm does not extract us from these aspects of our existence, but rather brings them together under the rubric of citizen and civilian, which recognizes spheres of equality—the Earth and our humanity—and spheres of inequality—our social legacy. The distinction between citizens and civilians, in other words, translates the social history of racism and sexism into a language that allows the inequality to be rectified—the past repaired.
The type of civic meeting where civilians and citizens do the work of protecting civilian rights looks something like a Civilian Review Board. These boards usually handle complaints about police misconduct from civilians, but they can also consider other issues. In contrast to the more traditional model of democracy—the Town Hall Meeting—the Civilian Review Board does not treat everyone equally, but rather gives more time and care to those who are more vulnerable and perhaps less skilled in argumentation . The Civilian Review Board should not replace the Town Hall Meeting, but we should recognize that in many cases the Town Hall Meeting usually favors the privileged over the vulnerable.
The distinction between civilian and citizen reflects the difference between the privileged and the vulnerable in our society and indicates their intertwined relationship. It assumes, in other words, that the enjoyment of American prosperity is significantly connected to the suffering it causes. That’s the basis for the climate of injustice. Privileged people may not be conscious of this connection. Just the opposite. Privileged people easily disassociate themselves from those who suffer from their privilege. They can simply blocked out from consciousness any type of social relation; we call that social amnesia.
Excluding social history from one’s interpretive framework is not that unusual. Look at the futurist Buckminster Fuller’s famous saying: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” This seems to overlook that this “existing reality” exists in a climate of injustice that doesn’t go away by ignoring it. Until one changes the climate, the “new model’ continues to exist in the same climate.
If we were dealing with a worn-out bicycle, we could simply get a new one, but we are not fixing bicycles. We are trying to change the climate from a climate of injustice to a climate of justice, which will not happen without addressing the actions and policies that created the injustices. Reviewing our history would demonstrate patterns that have maintained the original climate of injustice. Changing these patterns requires a look at deeper connections than social relationships, which could become available if we remember (re-member) our shared humanity. As was said earlier, the civic realm not only includes social relationships—our inequalities—but also our shared humanity—a fundamental equality. The power of the civic, when such power exists, resides in the mutual awareness of our shared humanity, which not only serves as the basis for the civic inclusion of differences and disagreements, but also the adaption of civic perceptions and expectations of our relationship with the other parts of our interpretive framework: the Earth, our humanity, and the social.
Although our current focus has been on black/white and settler/indigenous relationships, anyone or any group that is vulnerable and needs protection counts as a civilian, not simply because they are in social danger, but also because they have human rights. The development of this understanding of the rights of civilians is fairly recent. Because honoring the rights of civilians plays such an important part in moving from a climate of injustice to a climate of justice, the following section traces its recent development and explores its relationship to the military and veterans, and then to the rule of law.
2 The Recognition of Civilian Rights
Civilians have existed since the beginning of warfare, sometimes as those who are not included in the conduct of war, and sometimes as weapons of war. After the massive killing of civilians in the two World Wars, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) began work on a proposal to protect civilians in times of war. The Committee had already developed standards for the treatment of prisoners of war and wounded soldiers. In 1949, seventeen States signed the Red Cross’s draft proposal in Geneva for the protection of civilians. Over 190 States have now signed the Geneva Protocol and its additions, including the 1997 “Draft Rules for the Limitation of the Dangers incurred by The Civilian Population in Time of War.”
2.1 The Protection of Civilians in International Humanitarian Law
For the first time, as Helen Kinsella points out, the status of the civilian relied not only on public conscience (the civilized man), but on the dictates of law (2011, p. 113). Amanda Alexander gives the following description of the Protocol:
The basic principle of Protocol I, and of the laws of war generally, is that the civilian population and individual civilians shall enjoy general protection against dangers arising from military operations. This turns in large part on the requirement that attackers must distinguish between civilians and combatants and between military objectives and civilian objects. They must take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize harm to civilians, and to this end may not attack civilians exclusively, or combatants and civilians indiscriminately (2015).
Central to this Protocol was the ability to make a distinction between civilians and combatants, which in recent years has become difficult, not because everyone is a fighter, but because civilians have been used as instruments of war. While the war on terrorism certainly makes the distinction more difficult, it also makes the distinction more necessary than ever. As Hugo Slim has argued:
The doctrine of the civilian needs to be as generous and forgiving as possible, for three main reasons. Practically, because we cannot be sure that we have the precise means to separate the innocent from the guilty as we attack people and places. Ethically, because many of the brutal things done to civilians (like rape, torture, murder, pillage, and starvation) are done without good reason and are terribly wrong. Personally, we need the civilian label for ourselves and for our children when we too become involved in wars that may be just or unjust and are usually beyond our control (2016).
Another reason, at least for us, is that the treatment of civilians can serve as a kind of litmus test for distinguishing between a climate of injustice and a climate of justice. We have some organizations today, such as the United Nations or the Human Rights Watch, that try to enforce the legal basis for civilian protection. As Jean-Marie Guehenno points out, more than 90% of the United Nations peacekeepers are deployed protecting civilians (2016, p. 257). Their influence is quite limited, of course, and yet, their endeavors demonstrate that the international community has recognized a legal obligation to protect civilians by trying to limit war. At the same time, we have a history of our government using the military not to protect civilians, but rather to protect American prosperity, even when that has resulted in the killing of civilians. Our understanding of the relationship between civilians and the military has usually been more of a quandary than a settled matter.
2.2 The Civilian/Military Quandary
As has been pointed out before, the formation of our government occurred in a climate of injustice. Instead of a civilian government that used the military to protect people from harm, they used it to protect the owners of property--enslaved people and land—for the sake of American prosperity. Still, this civic-military relationship was not that of a military dictatorship. True, laws legitimized the institution of slavery and the displacement of Indigenous people. Over time, however, Congress changed these laws, especially after the Civil War. For a brief time, in fact, the military was used to protect citizens. During the period of Reconstruction, the Federal government sent troops South to protect the civic rights of freed African Americans. When they were later withdrawn, white southerners regained control of the South through terrorism and lynchings, which continued during the Jim Crow era until the 1950s.
There was a similar, if smaller event almost 100 years later, in 1965, when President Johnson called up the National Guard to protect protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery Alabama. I remember walking in this march to the State capitol building in Montgomery with troops lining both sides of the street. They were there to protect us. This seems to have been an exception rather than the rule. If one reviews the changing view of the military in the twentieth century, it’s the military itself, not civilians, that has moved to center stage. No better illustration of this change than the increased status of veterans.
2.3 Civilians and Veterans
World War I ended—“the war to end all wars”—with an agreement to end the killing—an armistice. When the US Congress officially recognized the end of the war on June 4, 1926, it passed the following resolution:
Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed, and
Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations; and
Whereas the legislatures of twenty-seven of our States have already declared November 11 to be a legal holiday: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), that the President of the United States is requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on November 11 and inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples. (US Department of Veterans Affairs 2015).
Notice that this resolution does not mention veterans. It is, if I might say so, a civilian holiday. This changed after World War II and the Korean War. In 1954, the word “Armistice” was replaced with “Veterans,” and November 11 became a national holiday to honor the American Veterans of all wars. The purpose of creating “appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples” had been deleted.
The fact is that soldiers are not the only ones who die during wars. When Armistice Day became Veterans Day, this seems to have been forgotten, at least in the United States. Not so in Germany. Their more complicated experience with the World Wars gives us an alternative perspective. After World War I, Germany, like other European nations, observed the end of fighting or the armistice, with a “Volkstrauertag,” which means in English, “people’s day of mourning.” When Hitler came to power, the name was changed to “Heldengedenktag” (commemoration of heroes), which the government used for Nazi propaganda. A few years after the Second World War, the German government returned to their Volkstrauertag, with the purpose of remembering all who were killed in war: both soldiers and civilians. At the same time, German veterans of more recent conflicts, such as the war in Afghanistan, have not received the same recognition as veterans in the United States.
Perhaps one could explain the difference between the German and American view of veterans and civilians here by pointing out that the war left Germany defeated and remorseful for what its military had done, while America was victorious in defeating the Nazi. If that makes sense, then one wonders what could have been the consequence of the US losing the Vietnam War.
In a sense, the Vietnam War became a domestic battle between the government that wanted to continue the war and citizens who protested against it. The citizens won. When the war ended, however, instead of honoring the citizens that had taken to the streets to protect Vietnam civilians, as well as American soldiers, the national conversation became a lament on the absence of a hero’s welcome for soldiers and veterans. The critics of the war were accused of being disrespectful of veterans and un-American. Instead of using the humiliation of defeat to correct what William Fulbright had call, “the arrogance of power,” protestors were shamed for being unpatriotic (1966). The protestors were seen as “deviant,” to use Boehm’s term in his story of the rise of morality, only this time the “morality” was unjust. Our government not only turned away from the plight of civilians and the acknowledgement of limits, but also turned toward a stronger identification as a global military force.
Today, we have military bases in 80 different countries, with an annual military budget of over 70 billion dollars. During the 15 years between the invasion of Iraq and 2018, as Stephanie Savell figures it, we spend $32 million an hour on war (2018). Add to government military spending the selling of around $40 billions of arms to foreign governments, it’s clear that hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses depend on military contracts for supplying everything from socks for soldiers to new guidance systems (Mehta 2017).
Remember President Eisenhower’s famous warning about the “military industrial complex”? I wonder if he could have imagined how intertwined military spending and economic growth have become. Today, the military gets 60% of the government’s total budget. The military not only protects American prosperity by maintaining a climate of injustice, but also has become an integral part of the economy by providing a livelihood for millions of people. As the military plays a larger and larger role in American prosperity, civilian control of the government becomes even more difficult and at the same time, even more necessary for the protection of civilians and the planet. For the civilian government not to lose complete control, it must protect and honor the rule of law.
2.4 The Rule of Law
Remember that Martin Luther King Jr. and others led a civil rights movement trying to persuade the government to enforce the laws that protected their civil rights. King stands today on the National Mall not because he was a “fighter” or “hero,” but rather because he served as a messenger for others whose civic rights had been denied. He was, if I may say so, a leader of civilians—vulnerable people who rely on governments to enforce the rule of law.
From a civilian perspective, it’s hard to exaggerate the importance of the rule of law.. At the same time, laws have been used for nefarious purposes. In Fritjof Capra and Ugo Mattei’s recent book, The Ecology of Law, the rule of law is closely associated with modern laws of property rights. Following the French philosopher, Michael Foucault, they present the rule of law as an instrument of government control (2015). Without a doubt, governments have used the legal system to control its citizens. What Capra and Mattei give little attention to, however, is how the rule of law has also protected people.
The World Justice Project takes a very different perspective on the rule of law. They define it as four universal principles of accountability, just laws, open government, and accessible & impartial dispute resolution (World Justice Project a). Here is their vision statement:
Effective rule of law reduces corruption, combats poverty and disease, and protects people from injustices large and small. It is the foundation for communities of justice, opportunity, and peace—underpinning development, accountable government, and respect for fundamental rights (World Justice Project b.)
It seems fair to say that the rule of law has been used to both control and to protect people, and it continues this double function today. As John A. Power, the author of Racing to Justice, has written, law is a social institution, and reflects the social world in which it exits.
Because our courts and supporting institutions are a social system, interpersonal and structural biases are at play in lawmaking, court procedures, and decisions, even when the legal system is unwilling or unable to acknowledge them (2012, p. 121).
If we assume that the social world Powell has in mind exists in a climate of injustice, then the observation that laws belong to a social system would have negative connotations. Those who benefit from unjust relationships use the law to their advantage. True enough. Still, there is a significant difference between the corrupt use of the rule of law and its demise or absence.
The difference between a military dictatorship and a civilian government of laws should not be minimized. Written laws can be violated or ignored, but without the law, such acts would simply be instances where might makes right. Laws limit what might can do. We now have some laws that do this. As we have seen, international laws now limit what might can do to civilians.
If we take a civilian perspective, we can expand this notion of limits to the other parts of the interpretive framework. Just as we brought living on the Earth, our humanity, and social incoherence into the civic sphere to deal with inequality, we can apply the civic demand for limits to our relationship with the Earth, our humanity, and our social life. As members of the civic, in other words, we can set forth the requirement for a world of limits.
3 A World of Limits
There are limitations that should be recognized for each element of our interpretive framework; limits concerning the Earth, our humanity, our social relations, and the civic. The next section of this Chapter explores the limits on each one, beginning with the limits we face concerning the Earth.
3.1 The Earth’s Limitations
The recent article on the “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” has given evidence that our life on Earth has become extremely fragile (Steffen et al. 2018), The planet, for the first time in human history, could be on the way to becoming a “hothouse.” Current trends of increased global warming, rising ocean levels and changing weather patterns are threatening the habitat of human and non-human communities. The Earth no longer can be taken for granted as an endless resource for economic development but must be seen as a finite system. For everyone on the Earth to live like those of us in developed societies, we would need three to five Earths. We only have one. To maintain a viable future, we must learn how to limit ourselves to match the limitations of the planet.
Some would disagree. They would argue that instead of changing course, we need to stay the course of continual growth and let science and technology solve the problems of climate change. Geo-engineering, they say, can reverse global warming and advances in food production can feed everyone. Yes, these people might say, some species are endangered, and some human habitats are threatened, but we should not let the Earth’s limitations deter the clamor for prosperity.
In spite of all the evidence of global warming, and the continued increase of carbon emissions, the talk continues to be about economic growth—increased production and consumption. It does not seem to make a difference that the sources for capital extraction are limited, as is the biosphere’s carrying capacity. In 1971, over 45 years ago, the Club of Rome, an international organization of scientists and system thinkers, published its findings on the “limits of growth.” So far, its prediction that the current rate of growth could not sustain itself beyond the year 2100 have been on track (Club of Rome Report 1972). And yet, at the most, we try to improve our current economic system, rather than to change it.
Since the denial of the Earth’s vulnerability seems so dumb, if I may say so, it makes sense to imagine that the source of this denial does not depend on evidence, but on something much deeper. Is there some similarity here between this denial of the Earth’s limits and our assumptions about human limits? If there is one part of our interpretive framework that controls our assumptions about the others, it is probably our assumptions about human limitations.
3.2 Human Limitations
The ultimate human limitation, of course, is death. Death is as natural as birth. Animals, even human animals, live and die. The question is not whether such a limitation exists, but how we understand and respond to it. Our assumptions about our death and the death of those close to us may play a more decisive role than anything else in our dealing with a world of limits. One view of death that seems especially relevant in applying the notion of limits to our humanity has been articulated by the psychoanalyst, Ernst Becker, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Denial of Death (1997). Because the notion of human limitations—the limits of our humanity—seems so central for really connecting with the notion of limits, I will spend a bit more time exploring Becker’s view that facing death is the stuff of heroes.
3.3 Ernst Becker’s Heroism
Written in 1997, The Denial of Death appeared not long after the first half of the twentieth century, which included two world wars and the Holocaust. Although Becker lived in the United States, the book does not show any signs of the author’s awareness of the various civil rights movements in the 60s and 70s, or the tragedy of the Vietnam war. In the second half of the twentieth century, economic growth depended on consumer consumption, just as economic optimism depended on continued dissociation from the misery of those who actually paid the price for affordable goods and services. Becker does not mention this collective denial of exploitative social relations, but as we shall see, he does criticize consumer society.
From the title, one would think the book is about the “denial of death.” Indeed, as he writes in the Preface: “the fear of death is indeed an universal in the human condition.” Still, that human animals die, like other animals, is not that interesting for Becker. What grabs his attention is what he calls the heroic response to it. It turns out that the book is really about the heroic, as is evidenced by the titles of the book’s three parts: “The Depth Psychology of Heroism,” “The Failures of Heroism,” and “The Dilemmas of Heroism.” One reads already in the Introduction that “our central calling, our main task on this planet, is the heroic” (p. 1).
Becker’s individual has similar characteristics to a common notion of the individual—a person standing up for himself, separated from family relations and alone in the world. Becker adds to this picture the terror of death. We first experience this “terror of death,” according to Becker, as children. The experience has two stages. Children first experience themselves as having a “sense of magical omnipotence” (p/22). They live as though they were immortal. Then, the second step: they see they are like other animals and will die. Here is Becker’s description of the child:
In their tortured interiors radiate complex symbols of many inadmissible realities--terror of the world, the horror of one’s own wishes, the fear of vengeance by the parents, the disappearance of things, the lack of control over everything, really (pp. 20-21).
You might find this description of the child quite strange, as I do. Still, one’s picture of childhood says a lot about their basic assumptions. I have often asked my students how they think children should be “disciplined,” and their answers are usually a good indicator of their assumptions about themselves and others. For Becker, each of us harbors a basic duality.
Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with (p. 26).
On the one hand, “man is a worm and food for worms,” and on the other hand, man has the status of a “small god in nature.” According to Becker, most of us, most of the time, escape this paradox by living in the world of culture, or we could say the world of the social. For Becker, culture functions as an escape from the fear of death. Culture tames our fears. People find little triumphs or heroics in their everyday lives to get by. Participating in culture, in other words, allows us to deny the terror of our death.
In the more passive masses of mediocre men it [heroism] is disguised as they humbly and complainingly follow out the roles that society provides for their heroics and try to earn their promotions within the system: wearing the standard uniforms— but allowing themselves to stick out, but ever so little and so safely, with a little ribbon or a red boutonniere, but not with head and shoulders (p. 6).
Becker contrasts this type of social heroism with what he calls the “divine” or “cosmic’ hero, Incorporating the ideas of the nineteenth century existential theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, Becker draws a picture of the cosmic hero as someone who squarely faces the limitation of death and then moves beyond it.
The self must be destroyed, brought down to nothing, in order for self-transcendence to begin. Then the self can begin to relate to powers beyond itself. It has to thrash around in its finitude, it has to “die” in order to question that finitude, in order to see beyond it (p. 89).
In a sense, Kierkegaard’s “cosmic hero” rebels against human limitations and in this rebellion or defiance, is moved beyond the finite to “the brink of infinity” (p. 91). Becker’s hero does not necessarily experience Kierkegaard’s spiritual infinity, but he does have a similar defiance of the limits of human existence. Perhaps it helps to remember that both Kierkegaard and Becker are white male Europeans engaged in imagining the meaning of human limitations and how to make sense of it. Many people, of course, live in very different circumstances.
Think about the civilians walking from El Salvador to the United States, the civilian families in Aleppo, civilian teenagers in our cities, or civilian veterans on the streets; they experience the limitations of existence without any problem. They do not need to imagine their death to know about human finitude. They experience it daily as they live in situations beyond their control. Unlike people of privilege, they do not have the luxury of living unaware of their limits. They cannot escape them. Does Becker’s framework have a place for such experiences? Or, would he say that regardless of one’s situation, an individual can overcome their situation by a heroic endeavor? If you don’t engage in such an endeavor, you are just part of the crowd, the mass of people who live lives that do not matter.
Becker’s text seems to argue that our social life functions as a façade to shield us from the terror of death. This dismissal of meaning in our social relations doesn’t fit with contemporary Attachment Theory, which sees secure attachments not as a barrier, but a foundation for personal maturity (Bowlby 1988), The human and the social are not separate realms as Becker proposes. Our social history is recorded in our DNA, and our biological emotions stir our feelings and thinking. We are a part of nature, not apart from it. Nature is not a “brutal bitch,” as San Keen writes in his Forward to The Denial of Death (Keen 1973. p. xii.). In fact, this attitude toward nature prevents us from valuing the living systems that give us life. The fact is that nature is not our enemy, but our Mother—if I may use a metaphor here.
The privileging of the isolated hero over the social person is a Western illusion. We become ourselves in relationships with others. We do have a body and mind, but these are always developed in social relations. Our understanding of our human limitations, for the most part, depends on our interpretive framework and specially on our understanding of the relationship between our humanity and the limits of the social.
3.4 Social Limits
Christopher Boehm’s research on early human communities demonstrated that to maintain their capacity to hunt big game, they had to protect themselves from deviants and bullies (2012). There were other dangers as well. The need for protection, it turns out, has characterized human communities from the beginning. At least that is the conclusion of anthropologists Donna Hart and Robert Sussman who discovered that our earliest ancestors were gatherers and scavengers, not aggressive hunters, and they spent much of their energy protecting themselves from predators, such as saber tooth tigers and pythons.
Were our ancestors gentle savages or bloodthirsty brutes? They were social animals; they were primates; they were complex beings in their own right who were not necessarily headed in a foreordained direction. They were trying to adapt to their environment and reproduce successfully. Most primate societies and individuals exhibit cooperation as a social tool, not aggression. Success is not synonymous with brutality; it comes through finesse and friendship (2005, p. 117).
From Hart and Sussman’s portrait of our ancestors, the story begins with our ancestors acting much like other primates. But they were different because they had moved to the edge of the forests, where they became bipedal (walking on two legs) and began to speak (probably at first to warn family members of approaching predators). As one would suspect, they spent most of their time making provisions for their everyday life and watching out to make sure they were not someone’s dinner.
Today, of course, there are multiple communities or social worlds in which people have very different experiences of vulnerability and limitations. One can sort some of this out by distinguishing three different levels of the social: social systems, organizations, and persons.
Unlike planetary systems that are cyclical and balanced, social systems are trends that continue to move in one direction as though there were no limits, until they run off the cliff, so to speak. Social systems are guided by feedback loops that either are positive and increase a systems’ expansion or negative and resist it. The problem is that a system can acquire such momentum before negative feedback loops can create enough resistance to stop it. The only way to effectively decrease the damage of social systems is through human intervention. They have to be managed.
Perhaps the biggest mistake in understanding social systems is the idea of the “invisible hand,” that assumes that social systems will balance themselves. They don’t. The rich just get richer and the poor get poorer without human intervention, which has become clear for everyone to see. Because business organizations function in the market system, they face similar dangers of overreaching and exceeding their grasp. To prevent such unlimited growth, citizens need to design systems that meet people’s needs rather than meet the desires of owners and investors.
In Civilizing the Economy , I proposed that the economy would be based on civic relations rather than property relations, and that its purpose was the making of provisions rather than the making of money (2010). An economy designed as systems of provision would involve the whole process of provisioning, from the farm to the table in terms of the food system. This would enable us to design systems of provision that were fair and sustainable, Each system of provision would have a specific purpose, such as the housing system of provision would have the purpose of providing housing for all. Instead of imagining an unlimited and totally open future, as is the case with a market driven economy, the future would be determined or limited to doing what needs to be done. Instead of the mantra of “economic growth,” the economy would be measured by its capacity to make provisions for all with limited resources. How we live together in these systems of provision, of course, depends on our recognition of the limits in our personal relations with each other.
Instead of assuming that everyone belongs to the same social world and therefore has similar feelings and perceptions, seeing another person as belonging to a different social world reveals the limits of one’s social existence. In this case, no one knows it all because others have knowledge from their own experiences. Social awareness of the other and other social worlds entails the experience of limits, which arises from the encounter of social differences and social conflict.
Some people experience social limitations very differently than others. Think of the experience of an African American in a car who is pulled over by a white police officer. Think of the female employee who is harassed at work by her male supervisor. Those who suffer such injustices must shield themselves from harm as best they can. At the same time, encountering another with an equal right to exist, even when our social location and position may be quite different, are experiences of human limitation, and in many cases, of mutual vulnerability.
Today, the Earth, our humanity, and the social are defined by the tailwinds of American prosperity that has been accompanied by a climate of injustice. To avoid the tragedy in store for us, the illusion of limitless growth and opportunity must be exposed, and the truth of the matter revealed. A gathering of civilians could do this, if they demand from governments protection of their civil rights, enforcement of the rule of law, and what Jean-Marie Guehenno, President of the International Crisis Group, call “a civilian protective environment.”
Civilians can be said to be protected when they can be confident that there is a body of law that makes the government trustworthy, the security forces predictable and accountable, non-government militia deactivated and brought to justice, and a working judicial system in place (2016, p. 271).
Such an environment could arise and if it did, the civic would become a place from which to set limits for the protection of people and the planet. Working together to implement this world of limits could move us toward a climate of justice.
4 Moving Toward a Climate of Justice
My argument is that recognizing and responding to the vulnerability of civilians can create a climate of justice that will enable us all to repair relationships, rebuild trust, and shift the current course of our social systems. This work, of course, needs to happen on many different levels. Sometimes monuments of the vulnerability and the resilience of civilians can help us understand the kind of responses that are necessary. One such case for me was encountering the monument in Congo Square in New Orleans.
When the French and Spanish controlled New Orleans. enslaved people were given Sundays to themselves. They gathered at Congo Square to trade their produce from their gardens, and more importantly, to dance and sing. Doesn’t this look like a gathering of civilians?
This is not a monument of heroes or warriors. They seem powerful and yet also vulnerable. So, what does it mean to be a white or a black civilian in New Orleans today? Or in any other place? How should we gather together now? Who will invite me to join them in the civic realm, and what do I need to do to enter? Can our understanding of this monument help us create a climate of justice for moving forward? Will it enable us to care about our relationships with each other enough to make the repairs necessary so we can move toward what is possible—a future that protects human and non-human communities and provides for everyone?
When a white man, like myself, stands in front of this memorial, several thoughts come to mind. I recognize their vitality. I see their aliveness. I feel sad about their condition. I think of the violation of their human rights. But there is something else. I sense the injustice of my relationship with them. What is the injustice? They were enslaved, and I was not. Is that it? Their forced labor created the trends of American prosperity in which I have prospered. Is that it? I am left with a feeling of a grave injustice.
It is not death, in other words, that brings me to an awareness of my limits, but the experience of living in relationships with others. At this point, I have a choice. I can ignore these relationships. That’s what white privilege means. Or, I can acknowledge the injustice. If I do this in conversation with others, a climate of justice may emerge as a context for figuring out how we can create balanced and fair relationships with each other, and with the Earth.
Alexander, A. 2015. A Short History of International Humanitarian Law. European Journal of International Law 26 (1): 109–138.
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Brown, M.T. (2022). The Civic. In: A Climate of Justice: An Ethical Foundation for Environmentalism. Library of Public Policy and Public Administration, vol 16. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-77363-2_5
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