On April 29th, the deep paradox of our American political moment was on full display. For while Donald Trump held a rally for himself and a few thousand loyalists in Pennsylvania, hundreds of thousands of people in cities throughout the United States and around the world joined together in the People’s Climate March [PCM]. Though Trump’s rally was intentionally situated in coal country and the attendees were galvanized by the divisiveness of Trump’s invective, the purpose of the PCM was to demonstrate the will of the people for clean energy, a fair economy, and a more fully just democratic society.
The paradox in all of this is that although Trump has shown contempt for the institutions and conventions of American democracy and has actively sought to undermine positive advances in health care, civil rights and criminal justice reform, and environmental and climate policy, one of the greatest effects of his first 100 days in office is to have stoked the fire of progressive democrats around the country. As journalist Nadia Prupis puts this, the Trump regime has inadvertently “ushered in a game-changing era of grassroots activism.”
The PCM was a powerful example of such “game-changing” activism. My son and I participated in the march in Washington D.C. with over 200,000 other folks—newborns and elders, brown, black and white, documented and undocumented, people of faith and no faith, able-bodied and disabled, scientists and artists and religious leaders. The highlight for my son was walking a mile or so with the popular scientist, Bill Nye “The Science Guy”. For me, the march was a profound experience of the American motto, E Pluribus Unum (unofficial since 1956, when Congress, amidst the religious fervor of the Red Scare, decided to make “In God We Trust” official). What was striking was that the marchers were not united by a shared identity, national, cultural or otherwise, but by a common commitment to what I would refer to as an ecological conception of justice—a systemic understanding of justice that affirms the mutually enhancing intrarelatedness of social, economic, environmental, and climate justice.
In American Immanence: Democracy for an Uncertain World (Columbia, spring 2018), the book I’ve written for the Enhancing Life Project, I articulate a theory of “resilient democracy” as one way to go about realizing an ecological conception of justice. Spiritually grounded and seeded with insights from systems theory and American pragmatism and process philosophy, resilient democracy is a normative theory of democracy as a form of life. It is about the symbolic and spiritual textures, the political and economic practices, the material and ecological conditions, and the moral purposes of our associational lives. As a normative theory, resilient democracy is morally charged: it is committed to generating, guiding and sustaining efforts to enhance social, economic, and environmental justice. As a “form of life” resilient democracy is not intended as a formal theory of governance. Instead, it is a way of being, valuing and thinking in community shaped by democratic commitments to empathy, equity and emancipation.
Resilient democracy is politically provoked by a concern with vulnerability, and by the fact that, although all life is vulnerable to risks and threats of various kinds, some lives have been made more vulnerable than others. I refer to this distinction as one between “creatural” and “contingent” vulnerability. Climate injustice is a perfect example of the difference between these types of vulnerability.
Although wealthy nations and people have contributed the most to global warming, and have likewise benefited the most from fossil-fueled economic development, poor nations and people are suffering the worst and the most immediate impacts of climate change. There is no getting outside the climate, and so global warming affects all creatural life. But climate change impacts some lives much more negatively and immediately than others, largely as the contingent effect of entrenched social and political policies (e.g. subsidized oil and gas companies, externalized social and environmental costs of production).
American Immanence makes the case for an ecological conception of justice to address the injustices of contingent vulnerability. The theory of resilient democracy argues that empathic, equitable, and emancipatory communities are necessary to generate, guide and sustain an ecological conception of justice.
The work of resilient democracy is critical in our time because our economic, social, environmental and climate crises are mutually amplifying one another. To say that these systems are entangled is one thing; to see that their dysfunctions are compounding one another is another thing; and grassroots efforts to intervene within these reinforcing dysfunctions is the task of resilient democracy.
One of the insights I have discovered in my research is that system breakdown can lead to system renewal—in other words, there can be an upside to down. The upside of renewal is neither automatic nor easy. System renewal requires tremendous energy and experimentation, intelligence, flexibility, and coordination. Resilient democracy is thus not a simple solution to any of the challenges we face. In fact, one of the problems I deal with in my book is how the aim for simple solutions to complex problems often leads to catastrophic consequences. Furthermore, I argue that this aim reflects assumptions about the nature of power that have deep theological roots—the political idealization of unitary, sovereign power reflects the idolization of supreme, divine power. But effective response to wicked problems, like climate injustice, which cross so many spheres of life and impact people and places in so many ways, requires a multiplicity of perspectives and a diffusion of power and agency. Although we certainly need national and international policy scaled to the planetary nature of our challenges, we need grassroots activists and communities to incubate the practices and principles that will constitute the substance of those policies. Resilient democracy provides a theoretical name for the practical work many communities are already doing as they seek to incubate an ecological conception of justice. The People’s Climate March, held on the 100th day of Trump’s presidency, represented the coming of age of a more resilient American democracy.