The new republicanism, part 2: The green republic

As I described in my previous post, republicanism is founded on key concepts such as public politics and self-government. In an article published in The Good Society in 2008, John Barry notes that this “language of civic republicanism has been largely absent from debates within green politics” and from discussions of the politics of sustainability (p.5). In his article, Barry sets out to do something about that omission.

Drawing on ideas from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Barry notes that “humans’ relative weakness, our vulnerability to natural dangers, makes us not just dependent creatures, but interdependent.” The republic, he continues, is therefore founded on the desire to build “an enduring home for human lives in a world ruled by contingency and filled with potentially hostile agents, both human and non-human.” This is in stark contrast to the widely accepted individualistic and “optimistic view of humans’ ability to transcend their limits” (p.6).

Thus, in many respects, the republican understanding of the human condition is much the same as the green understanding. Republicanism has both a realistic understanding of “human’s complex relations of dependence on natural forces outside our control” and an appreciation of the importance of sustainable living (p.6).

Republicanism’s focus on public politics and self-government means it is also deeply concerned about the ways in which under post-war liberal democracy, the identity and practices of the public, political citizen have been eroded and replaced by those of the private, economic consumer. In fact, for John Barry, republicanism goes further and “regards luxury and material wealth with some suspicion” owing to its corrosive potential to undermine the solidarity – and interdependence – of citizens (p.7).

It is also clear that this republican analysis rejects the idea that “simply ‘correcting’ individual behaviour through becoming greener consumers” will provide a satisfactory solution to unsustainability (p.7). Quoting Michael Maniates, John Barry resists “the individualization of responsibility” of green consumption because it leaves

little room to ponder institutions, the nature and exercise of political power, or ways of collectively changing the distribution of power and influence in society.

It follows from all of this theorising that what we might call ‘green republicanism’ regards the ecological crisis as a “collective, cultural and political crisis, and therefore to do with political power, institutions, policy-making and political economy” (p.7).

Since the economy forms the most significant (physical) link in the relationship between human society and the ecosystem, it must be the central focus of green politics. Barry expresses the reason why with precision:

The capitalist free market organisation of the human economy does not recognise environmental/biophysical external and relatively non-negotiable ‘limits to growth,’ in the same way it is blind to the demands of human rights or any other non-economic objective or principle. Both in practice and in neo-classical economic theory, a capitalist economy … is structurally oriented to exponential growth which is impossible to sustain within the fixed limits of a larger ecological system.

A green republican economy would therefore be regulated to ensure that it does not undermine its own ecological base, effectively re-embedding the economy into the ecosystem.

As Barry indicates, for this to happen, the economy must also be re-embedded “within society and social norms” (p.8). Thus, as part of a green republican programme addressing the ecological crisis, Barry emphasises the reassertion of political regulation and the imposition of restrictions “for the sake of preserving liberty as non-domination, equality between citizens and the promotion of the common good” (p.8). The republican rationale for an active citizenry working towards such goals supports and strengthens the green rationale for doing so.

One final point is also worth highlighting. In his article, Barry describes green republicanism as a genuine and pragmatic politics of hope: neither a misanthropic scare-mongering nor a deep green naive ‘naturalism’. The frugal, tough and often austere character of the republican tradition is grounded in an unromantic realpolitik – “a realistic and empirically informed view of the challenges facing human societies.” But republicanism also embraces “the possibilities for progressive social transformation” towards sustainable societies. This vision, accepting as it does the unavoidable ‘hard facts’ of social-environmental relations” is what green politics should be striving for.

Using a fascinating and thought-provoking phrase from the philosopher Ernst Bloch, John Barry refers to this green republican vision as a “concrete utopia” (p.7).

John Barry (2008) Towards a green republicanism: Constitutionalism, political economy, and the green state. The Good Society, 17(2), 1-11.

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