Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Beyond Rio: Pursuing ‘Ecological Citizenship’ By ANDREW C. REVKIN I’m posting a few final reflections related to the “Rio+20” United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, which marked the 20th anniversary of the first “Earth Summit” and concluded ingloriously in Rio de Janeiro on Friday. If there is to be a 40th anniversary, what approaches or initiatives would you want to see there that weren’t in play this time around? Here’s Ilan Safit, a colleague of mine at Pace University who teaches philosophy and religious studies with a focus on the environment. He sees the focus of Rio and related discussions as too mechanistic, and skirting around the need for fostering a new kind of “ecological citizenship” as a precursor to progress on planet-scale environmental issues: The focus of the United Nations Rio+20 conference was, in a non-derogatory sense, largely technical — on a “green economy” and the Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development. It seems that the U.N. has given up on the role it can play in shaping a global community along the lines of ideas, identity, and identification, rather than restricting such important summits to practicalities, important as they are. I am talking about the ideas that deal with the reshaping of our identities, as both individuals and communities, given what we now know about the changing living conditions on our planet, and of a new sense of identification with, and commitment to, those who will be affected in the future by the way we live right now, by both what we are doing and what we are not doing yet. I am talking about a new notion of citizenship that is called for by the demands of the ecological crisis, an “ecological citizenship” of a global scope, that can best be promoted by, well, the one global body of nations we have. The notion of ecological or environmental citizenship has been theorized in academia for the past decade or so, with British political theorist Andrew Dobson taking a leading role in combing the discourses of political and environmental theory to construct a new concept of citizenship. According to Dobson, who prefers the term ecological to environmental citizenship, this kind of citizenship is centered around an obligation to reduce one’s ecological footprint, an obligation that carries the status of citizenship from the public sphere to the private one. After all, much of our energy consumption and waste production takes place at home. It is — please notice this, U.N. officials — a non-territorial citizenship, departing from the nation-state as the source of citizenship. Yet, Dobson emphasizes, those who reside in the regions of greater negative impact on the ecosystem have a greater obligation to reduce their own ecological impact. A resident of Bangladesh, for example, has very little to reduce in terms of negative impact and everything to lose from the cumulative effects of North Americans’ life styles and habits of energy consumption. Non-territorial, asymmetrical, non-contractual, and couched in obligation, such ecological citizenship bets its stakes on the embracing of virtue, the virtue that dictates that being a good citizen means being a minimal impactor (for one use of this new term, see The Impactors). These are some possible theoretical dimensions within which particular meanings of ecological citizenship can be formed and specific actions and activities could be introduced. In a panel discussion I chaired recently at Pace University’s Center for Ethical Thinking, Dr. Mirele Goldsmith, a New York based environmental psychologist, recounted a case of communal activism as an example of a specific kind of environmental citizenship. This case concerned the coming together of unlikely partners, the affluent communities of southern Westchester County and the pronouncedly less privileged residents of the Northwest Bronx, in a failed attempt to prevent the city’s plan, currently well underway, to build the country’s largest water filtration plant beneath Van Cortlandt Park in order to treat the water flowing into the city from the Croton portion of its system of reservoirs. The action here was political in the old sense, its partnerships new, its instigation human activity in relation to the environment, its source of fear the impact of the transformed environment on the humans residing within it. Laurel Whitney, an energetic environmental activist and blogger who teaches at Pace’s program in Environmental Studies, described a project she assigned her students in which they followed the example of No Impact Man, Colin Beavan, in minimizing their ecological footprint. Showers, laundry, food, electricity usage were all slashed in this two-week experiment. Jessica Lagoutte, a student in Prof. Whitney’s class, survived to tell the audience about her experience and the realizations it triggered. Dr. Rachael Sotos, who teaches philosophy at Pace, contributed philosophical reflections on the notion of environmental citizenship examined through the prophetic political thought of German-American philosopher, Hannah Arendt. So what does this new kind of citizenship mean? Whether named “environmental” or “ecological,” participatory membership in societies whose habits contribute to the deterioration of living conditions on the planet means taking part in a process of transformation. Speaking politically, we live in times of revolution, an ongoing revolution in which the perils of the future dictate the change of everything now. Whether we cycle, recycle, buy local, or write academic papers on the meaning of the environmental crisis, we are already repositioned through these acts and newly acquired habits in a joint effort and in trends of communal change. This makes for change in the meaning of citizenship and the roles of the citizen, now understood as an ecological citizen in the times of environmental crisis and a silent spring of political revolution. Naming this new kind of citizenship, still in search of its full identity, “ecological” seems fit. For it is ecology on both ends of this thinking that refashions citizenship: thinking ecologically leads to a reformulation of citizenship with the specific goal of reducing ecological footprints. But what does it mean to think ecologically? Ecology, which is a relatively new science, offers also a new conceptual paradigm; studying the life of organisms in relation to their environment and to other organisms around them, ecology from the start sees relationships. No entity, living or nonliving, the science of ecology recognized at its inception, exists on its own. The full picture of life in an environment can be produced only through a study of the relationships that constitute each entity in its position and its function within the whole. This model is immediately applicable to citizenship, understood as the participatory, active and reactive, life of individuals in a community residing in a shared space, even as the borders of this space extend globally. Ecological thinking views citizens and citizenship within co-defining relationships from the start, and by doing so it incorporates ecological impact into the picture it draws: as an element in a system, a citizen is both impacted by and has impact on this system. Thinking about citizenship through the ecological paradigm makes it impossible to overlook our ecological impact. But it is the role of ethical thinking—the one that poses the question of responsibility—to unblind us to the impact we have as such citizens, whether we assume this citizenship actively or “passively” (the passive has an impact too!), and to translate the new visibility of ecological impact into obligation. This obligation is not merely a question of individual responsibility, as there are no individual citizens without a community, nor a community without individual citizens. Citizen responsibility, obligation, action all have a meaning, a semantic meaning, only within the set of relationships that reciprocally define citizens and communities. Hence action, too, can only have an impact when larger units, societal systems, transform their practices on a scale larger than the one of the individual. Ecological citizenship is the framework in which we can see both the need for individual responsibility and the absurdity in laying the onus of responsibility on the individual, both the ecology that sustains communities and the sustainability demanded from communities in order to maintain a balanced ecology.

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