The Land That Could Be: Environmentalism and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century

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Overview

In this book environmentalist and lawyer William Shutkin describes a new kind of environmental and social activism spreading across the nation, one that joins the pursuit of environmental quality with that of civic health and sustainable local economies. In the face of challenges posed by often corrosive market forces and widespread social disaffection, this civic environmentalism is creating nothing less than a new public discourse and dynamic social vision grounded in environmental action.

Shutkin points the way to vibrant, sustainable communities through four inspiring examples of civic environmentalism: the redevelopment of contaminated urban land for agriculture in inner-city Boston, mass transit-based development and waterfront restoration in Oakland, protection of open space and conservation-based development in rural Colorado, and smart growth and sustainability strategies in suburban New Jersey. The book's underlying message is that the nation's environmental health is a critical factor in its success as a vital democracy.

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What People Are Saying

Bill McKibben
The Land That Could Be offers a road map...make that a trail guide...for the next journey environmentalism needs to make. These stories are powerful; they get under your skin, and make you wonder what you could be doing in your town.
— Bill McKibben author of The End of Nature
Paul Hawken
The Land that Could Be is a shining work that grasps with clarity and conviction the mutually reinforcing relationship between environmental and social deterioration. Shutkin's work reveals how two hitherto distinct movements, social justice and environmental reform, are merging in our inner cities and deracinated rural communities to reforge an America we have lost and long for.
— Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce and coauthor of Natural Capitalism
From the Publisher
"An important and powerful statement." Mark Dowie, author of Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century

" The Land That Could Be offers a road map —make that a trail guide—for the next journey environmentalism needs to make. These stories are powerful; they get under your skin, and make you wonder what you could be doing inyour town."Bill McKibben , author of The End of Nature

"An important and powerful statement." Mark Dowie , author ofLosing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the TwentiethCentury

" The Land That Could Be offers a road map—make that a trail guide—for thenext journey environmentalism needs to make. These stories are powerful;they get under your skin, and make you wonder what you could be doing inyour town."Bill McKibben , author of The End of Nature

" The Land That Could Be is a shining work that grasps with clarity andconviction the mutually reinforcing relationship between environmentaland social deterioration. Shutkin"s work reveals how two hithertodistinct movements, social justice and environmental reform, aremerging in our inner cities and deracinated rural communities toreforge anAmerica we have lost and long for." Paul Hawken , author of The Ecology of Commerce and coauthor of Natural Capitalism

" The Land That Could Be offers a road map make that a trail guide for the next journey environmentalism needs to make. These stories are powerful; they get under your skin, and make you wonder what you could be doing inyour town." Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature

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Product Details

Meet the Author

William Shutkin is President and CEO of the Orton Family Foundation and a Research Affiliate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

All Things Merge into One: Making the Connection Between Environmentalism and Civic Life


Let America be America again
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free
. . .
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine—the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our might dream again.
. . .
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
—Langston Hughes, "Let America Be America Again"


Democracy is not an alternative to other principles of associated life. It is the idea of community life itself. . . . It is a name for a life of free and enriching communion.
—John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems


The Historical and Ideological Roots of Civic Environmentalism


At the heart of environmentalism is the belief in the interconnectedness of all things and life systems. At bottom, environmentalism is the expression of the inexorable faith in the wholeness of nature, the faith embodied,for instance, in Aldo Leopold's land ethic, which holds that all life is integrated in a unified, cyclical "biotic community," or in John Muir's oft-quoted observation, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." Perhaps the author Norman MacLean said it best: "Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it." This cardinal environmental ethic underlies the basic argument of this book: that the best kind of American environmentalism fundamentally entails a holistic approach to environmental problems in that those problems and their solutions are seen as inextricably linked to social, political, and economic issues—what I collectively refer to as civic issues because each is directly associated with the quality of life of civil society, of community life in its totality.

    This approach to environmentalism is akin to the systems approach to public policy developed by social scientists earlier in the twentieth century, which emphasizes an interdisciplinary focus, an appreciation of context, and an understanding of human values. Systems theory originated from the work of natural scientists who studied "organized complexity"— the capability of complex systems to organize, regulate, and direct themselves. The essence of a systems approach is the understanding that the variety of components that comprise a system interact in many ways, and these components are then influenced by the new order that emerges from these interactions.

    A central paradox of life in the late twentieth century is that just as modern societies have become highly specialized and compartmentalized in terms of occupations and categories of knowledge, they have increasingly come to recognize, owing to the availability of vast amounts of information and the ability to process and disseminate that information easily and rapidly, the fundamental interrelatedness of all forms of knowledge and social life. Systems thinking has become a widely embraced concept, not just in academic circles and the arena of public policy, but among community activists seeking comprehensive solutions to social problems. Civic environmentalism embodies a systems approach. It holds that in order to be effective in preventing environmental damage, environmentalists must explore issues that at first might seem unrelated or marginal but that influence environmental outcomes. All things are connected.

    The connection between environmental and civic issues goes beyond theory. Our ideas about nature and the environment are themselves constructed by human values, are formed by political, social, and economic factors—by human history. As Raymond Williams has written, "the idea of nature contains, though often unnoticed, an extraordinary amount of human history." The environmental historian William Cronon puts it more bluntly: "If we wish to understand the values and motivations that shape our own actions toward the natural world, if we hope for an environmentalism capable of explaining why people use and abuse the earth as they do, then the nature we study must become less natural and more cultural."

    Cronon, a pioneer in the field of environmental history, has documented in rich detail the ways in which human cultures shape and are shaped by ecological conditions. Cronon argues that we cannot assume that cultures, even primitive or indigenous societies, tend toward ecological stability. In explaining ecological change, Cronon urges that we see the instability of human relations with the environment as the norm. "An ecological history," he writes, "begins by assuming a dynamic and changing relationship between environment and culture, one as apt to produce contradictions as continuities. Moreover, it assumes that the interactions of the two are dialectical. The environment may initially shape the range of choices available to a people at a given moment, but the culture reshapes the environment in responding to those choices." In describing the changes to New England's environment that occurred between 1650 and 1800, Cronon points to the economic forces of market capitalism, the legal regime of private property, the religious and cultural practices of puritanism, and the physical conquest and dislocation of Native Americans as the determinative factors underlying environmental change.

    Another noted environmental historian, Carolyn Merchant, adopts a similar approach in explicating the causes of what she calls "ecological revolutions." Merchant argues that the course of environmental change may be understood through a description of each society's ecology, production, reproduction, and forms of consciousness. By ecology, she means the relations among animals, plants, minerals, and climatic forces; by production, the extraction, processing, and exchange of resources for subsistence or profit (these are human actions with direct impact on nonhuman nature); by reproduction, the biological and social factors that influence production (for example, the size of a given human population affects the amount of resources needed to sustain that population; similarly a community's legal system or social structure influences the ways in which resources are managed and distributed); by forms of consciousness, Merchant means the modes by which societies know and explain the natural world, such as science, religion, and myth. She defines consciousness as the "totality of ones's thoughts, feelings, and impressions, [and] the awareness of one's acts and volitions." According to Merchant, environmental change in American history has been dictated by the dynamic market economy developed in the eighteenth century, the European idea that civilized societies are morally superior to wild nature and indigenous cultures, and the rise of science and technology, which has enabled and justified environmental depredation.

    Cronon and Merchant thus set forth the historical basis by which the environment and environmentalism should be viewed as inseparable from and embedded within a political, social, and economic matrix, a civic structure. They demonstrate that as a matter of history, environmental issues cannot be examined in isolation from the larger context from which they arise.

    Beyond historical fact, however, American environmentalism is intricately tied to civic issues by the political ideology conceived by Thomas Jefferson known as agrarian republicanism. Jefferson, the American leader who, according to the journalist Brent Staples, "gave the nation its basic shape . . . and the ideas that stand as its most enduring legacy," transformed the pastoral ideal of ancient and romantic literature into a political theory based on the idea that America's landscape, its expansive environment, would itself produce a new kind of citizen who, in the words of the historian Thomas Bender, "would make the republican experiment possible." Central to the concept of agrarian republicanism is the notion that good citizens live and work in the country rather than the city. Jefferson held that civic virtue, moral responsibility, and industriousness—the cornerstones of republican community and freedom—were habits born and nurtured exclusively on small farms and in rural villages, like the ones he experienced in Virginia. "Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens," he declared. "They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests, by the most lasting bonds." The very existence of fertile land, and the use of that land for agricultural purposes, Jefferson believed, enabled American republicanism to develop and thrive.

    In counterpoint to Jefferson's agrarian republic were the cities of Europe. For Jefferson, as for his younger contemporary, the French aristocrat and student of politics Alexis de Tocqueville, the urban centers of the Old World were responsible for the fall of Europe from a state of preeminence and grace to one of decadence. "The mobs of great cities," he declared, "add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores to the strength of the human body." Tocqueville explained America's exceptionalism in less graphic terms. The absence of great cities, he claimed, was "one of the first causes of the maintenance of republican institutions in the United States." The momentous Louisiana Purchase of 1803, an effort Jefferson spearheaded, was nothing more than an attempt to ensure that, through acquisition of a vast territory stretching from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast, American cities would be kept invisible. Jefferson believed that the American people would "remain virtuous for many centuries, as long as they are chiefly agricultural. . . . When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe."

    Having laid down the foundational political philosophy of America based on a decidedly antiurban environmental vision, and woefully limited and partial when viewed from a more modern, multicultural perspective, Jefferson forever linked Americans' political identity with their relation to the land. Of course, others after Jefferson and Tocqueville associated the vastness and beauty of the American environment, unblemished by urban sprawl, with the uniqueness and exceptionalism of the American democratic experience. In the mid-nineteenth century, the journalist Horace Greeley portrayed the great natural monuments of the West, such as the ancient redwood groves of the Pacific coast, as unique icons of democratic civilization far grander than any built monument of ancient Greece or Rome. For Greeley, these environmental monuments signified the superiority of American civilization as compared to contemporary Europe.

    Later, in the 1890s, the eminent American historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented his famous frontier hypothesis. This historiographical tour de force held that the frontier, which Turner defined as the meeting point of civilization and savagery, was the primary source of core democratic values such as individual freedom and responsibility. Turner argued that "American democracy was born of no theorist's dream [but] . . . came stark and strong and full of life out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched the frontier." According to Turner's view, the unsettled, undeveloped American environment made democracy possible. Never mind that Native Americans had inhabited the land later to be known as the United States for tens of thousands of years. For Turner, the historian Gordon Wood writes, "the New World that the Europeans came to in the seventeenth century was 'virgin soil,' and 'unexploited wilderness' out of which American distinctiveness was born." "The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development," Turner argued. Accordingly, he envisaged that with the closing of the frontier in the 1890s would come a crisis for American democracy.

    Even the avowed city dweller Walt Whitman, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, put most of his democratic stock in the natural environment. The preeminent American poet of the city and of nature, Whitman saw the environment as a critical source of democratic freedom and a perfect antidote to Europe's feudal past. He believed America represented a brand new social order founded upon nature: "I swear there is no greatness or power that does not emulate those of the earth!/I swear there can be no theory of any account, unless it corroborates the theory of the earth."

    Yet with the emergence of industrialism and sprawling urban centers in America in the mid- and late-nineteenth century, Jeffersonian agrarianism and the ideology of the American environment inevitably produced a tension between inherited cultural ideals and everyday experience—the same tension Turner predicted—which led to the creation of new ideologies and a more complex, less antiurban environmental vision. This vision is embodied, for example, in the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, whose urban parks, built in the last several decades of the nineteenth century, sought to integrate the freedom- and virtue-sustaining properties of rural areas with the civilizing influence of cities.


The Civics of Environmentalism


The historical and ideological connections between the environment and civic issues are rich and complex. Despite the inadequacy of America's early environmental vision, with its antiurban, nativist, and racist cast, the nation's social and environmental conditions were nevertheless joined as one. As a matter of both social change and national identity (ideology and mythology), the environment has played a central role in shaping American history, just as American society itself has dramatically altered the environment. American environmentalism is more than simply about nature; it is also about culture and the manifold civic issues culture comprises. Yet, not unlike Jefferson's own limited vision, and in part because of it, traditional environmentalism has concerned itself with a narrow set of issues, failing to embrace a larger civic or social agenda. For example, American environmentalism has typically focused exclusively on wilderness preservation and the protection of endangered species. This is not surprising, especially in the light of the ideological significance of the American environment: the American environment was conceived as the sine qua non of the American democratic experience. "To protect wilderness," Cronon writes, was for the environmental movement "in a very real sense to protect the nation's most sacred myth of origin."

    At the same time, American environmentalism has traditionally failed to address issues such as economic and racial equality, political participation, and economic development—civic matters that fundamentally, though sometimes indirectly, affect environmental quality. For instance, lower-income and minority communities in the United States typically have less political and economic clout than more affluent white communities. Consequently, they tend to bear the brunt of environmental harms, which often follow the path of least resistance, and they receive fewer environmental benefits, like aggressive enforcement of environmental laws or well-maintained parks or swift cleanup of contaminated land. Environmentalism, I suggest, must address the civic health of communities and not just the health of ecosystems if it is to achieve lasting results that benefit all Americans.

    Indicators of civic health in a community include the strength of social networks and associations, rates of employment and poverty, the degree of participation in political and civic affairs, and the income gap between professionals and managers and wage earners. Because of the link between civic and environmental health, such civic issues also serve as potential measures of environmental quality in that they can serve as a useful proxy for more traditional environmental indicators such as the Toxic Release Inventory, the number of ozone alert days in a year, or the level of pollutants in fish tissue. They are a touchstone by which environmental progress can be measured.

    Having spelled out the critical historical and ideological links between environmentalism and civic issues, I discuss the core civic matters that affect and are affected by environmental change and thus must be reckoned with by civic environmentalism. First, I set forth a working definition of democracy to ground my discussion of civic issues and environmentalism in a specific theory of democratic society. Environmentalism, like any other American social movement, must articulate a public philosophy by which its goals and strategies can be evaluated and its successes measured. A public philosophy is, as political scientist Michael Sandel explains, nothing more than the political theory implicit in our political practices and assumptions about citizenship and freedom that inform public life. In the absence of an explicit and widely shared public philosophy, environmentalism may tend to drift, loosed from the principles that would otherwise direct it. Democracy, or what I call civic democracy, is that set of principles and practices that ground American environmentalism and that it must comply with in order to be true to and consistent with the aspirations of the society at large.

    Next, I look at a number of issues that are indicators of civic health and explain how these indicators are related to key environmental issues.


An Environmentalist Theory of Democracy: Civic Democracy

An environmentalist theory of democracy is a civic theory of democracy. I call it "civic democracy" because it embraces the Western tradition of civic humanism or civic republicanism, which holds that the summum bonum of society is the full participation of equal citizens, including resident aliens and immigrants, in decisions that affect their lives. In its most basic form, a civic democracy provides for the regular participation of citizens in political decisions so that the making of policy and law is a shared function of the many: the ruled and the rulers are one. The political scientist Benjamin Barber calls this "strong democracy." For Barber, strong democracy, or civic democracy, is that form of government in which all of the people govern themselves in at least some public matters some of the time. In a strong democracy, as in a civic democracy, individuals cannot become individuals if they do not participate in public life in that the legal rights and protections afforded individuals exist only because participatory politics have made them possible. The central virtues of Barber's strong democracy are participation, citizenship, and political activity, each based on the idea of self-governing communities. In other words, real democracy, as the social justice activist Linda Stout explains, is by definition "grass roots" in its origin and orientation.

    Civic democracy accepts liberalism's core concept that there exists an autonomous sphere of public life where people govern themselves and treat each other fairly without promoting any particular person's or association's good; then it ratchets it up a few notches. In a civic democracy, equals come together voluntarily to promote the diverse interests of the group as a whole. As the historian Christopher Lasch describes, "self-governing communities, not individuals, are the basic units of democratic society." For the pragmatist John Dewey, "democracy is not an alternative to other principles of associated life. It is the idea of community life itself. . . . It is a name for a life of free and enriching communion." Democracy is what results when all people have the opportunity to develop and use their capacities to the fullest extent possible; it fails when the privileged "shut out some from the conditions which direct and evoke their capacities." For Dewey, democracy empowers people to work together, initiate action, experiment, learn facts, and solve problems.

    In the spirit of Jefferson and Dewey, the philosopher Richard Rorty explains, institutions in a civic democracy must be viewed as experiments in "cooperation rather than as attempts to embody a universal and ahistorical order." As Rorty describes, key measures of success in a civic democracy include the openness and responsiveness of its decision-making procedures and its sensitivity to outsiders and those who are suffering.

    Michael Sandel expands on the idea of civic democracy by explaining that civic republicanism promotes liberty not simply through the fair procedures that liberalism exclusively supports, but through the act of sharing in self-government and deliberating with fellow citizens about the common good. Democratic freedom, Sandel argues, requires more than just due process; it demands "multiple sites" of civic formation where a sense of community and common purpose can be inspired. These sites are the essence of a civic democracy because they are where citizens convene, listen and talk to each other, plan, and make decisions; they are the bedrock of civil society and civic engagement.

    Civil society is the musculature of democracy. It is the schools, workplaces, trade unions, churches and synagogues, and associations that, in addition to local government and municipal institutions, are the public spaces and activities that "gather citizens together, enable them to interpret their conditions, and cultivate solidarity and civic engagement." Frederick Law Olmsted called civil society "common place civilization." Civil society also includes the neighborhood pubs, bookstores, and coffeehouses that Ray Oldenburg describes as the "third places" of society—the places where people can meet as equals, without regard to race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, or national origin. They are the places that encourage, in the words of Jane Jacobs, "casual public trust" and link neighborhoods to the larger, more impersonal world. In turn, civil society consolidates democratic life by ensuring successful outcomes in education, poverty, employment, crime and drug abuse, and health.

    The strength of civil society is itself a function of yet another element of civic democracy: social capital. Social capital, a term first employed by Jacobs in her landmark book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, denotes the networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation among people for mutual benefit. These rudimentary features of social organization broaden one's sense of self, developing, as the political scientist Robert Putnam explains, the "I" into "We." Interpersonal and interorganizational networks foster "sturdy" norms of reciprocity and promote social trust; they facilitate cooperation and reduce incentives for opportunism. "Life is easier," Putnam declares, "in a community blessed with a substantial stock of social capital."

    Civic democracy thus rests on what the philosopher Cornel West describes as the ability of ordinary people, and especially the dispossessed, to participate meaningfully in the decision-making procedures of institutions that fundamentally regulate their lives, and to engage daily in discourse, planning, and coordinated action with their fellow citizens to promote the pubic interest. It is the ongoing process of democratic discussion in which citizens engage in public thinking and political judgment aimed at building a community of common purpose and vision. Civic democracy is more than just community participation and conversation; it is rooted in a place, a physical environment conducive to collective action and community building. "Communities . . . are as much results as they are causes of their own environments," cultural theorists Laurie Anne Whitt and Jennifer Daryl Slack explain, and the relation between a particular community and its environment 'is not simply one of interaction of internal and external factors, but of a dialectical development' . . . of community and environment in response to one another." In a civic democracy, place and community are mutually constitutive and reinforcing.

    For Aristotle, the polis—the small, geographic unit of the city-state whose boundaries were never more than a day's walk away—was the physical setting most beneficial to democracy. For Jefferson and Tocqueville, it was the wards and townships of early America, the small-scale communities that permitted direct political participation, albeit by landed white males only. For Benjamin Barber and Jane Jacobs, real democracy thrives only in a well-designed, well-planned community that ensures access for people to local institutions, whether a park, community center, or city hall, so they can be involved in at least some of the decisions that affect the community as a whole. Thus, Barber exhorts, "Strong democratic community will have to find new forms of physical dwelling if it is to thrive in large cities or suburban landscapes."

    One of the great travesties of the urban renewal programs of the 1950s and 1960s, Robert Putnam explains, was that the slum clearance policy renovated physical infrastructure "at a very high cost to existing social capital." From the standpoint of civic democracy, the public housing developments and other major building projects of the urban renewal era were a dismal failure; they shunted groups of people off from the larger community through imposing an impersonal architecture and crude planning. Place plays an essential role in a civic democracy because it is the physical infrastructure out of which neighborhoods, associations, and local politics develop. Perhaps this is one reason that Tip O'Neil, the avuncular career Massachusetts congressman, always insisted that "all politics is local."

    Civic democracy is thus the amalgam of civil society, social capital, and the local environment. It is the framework within which all aspects of society must be evaluated and the yardstick by which they must be measured.


Core Indicators of Civic Health

With a public philosophy of civic environmentalism at hand, we can now examine some of the social, political, and economic factors that inhibit or enable the achievement of a civic democracy and, in turn, a healthy, sustainable environment. Each factor has a corresponding set of environmental effects, all of which must be accounted for in a civic environmental program, within the framework of civic democratic principles. Such factors are indicators of civic health that serve as the main feedback loop to local planning and policy decisions and help define the problems or opportunities that community members, professionals, policymakers, and politicians seek to address.

    Environmental success can be measured, at least in part, by viewing the overall state of civic democracy through a lens of a series of indicators of civic health. As in a system, civic and environmental conditions interact in often complex and subtle ways. Therefore, environmentalists must engage civic issues when it comes to devising solutions to environmental problems. This is the basic premise of civic environmentalism. In chapter 2, I spell out the environmental issues that correspond to the civic indicators described below.

Social Capital A recent study on social health conducted by the Fordham University Institute for Innovation in Social Policy found that "of the eight worst years since 1970, six have been in this decade [the 1990s]. The social health of the nation has not kept up with the recovery of the economy." The study looked at sixteen indicators of social health, including the percentage of children and elderly in poverty, unemployment rates, homicides, health insurance coverage, access to affordable housing, and infant mortality. The report noted that the United States is the only industrialized nation that does not officially monitor overall social progress.

    Robert Putnam's research corroborates the Fordham study. He claims "there is striking evidence . . . that the vibrancy of American civil society has notably declined over the past several decades." The number of Americans who reported that in the past year they attended a public meeting on municipal or school affairs dropped from 22 percent in 1973 to 13 percent in 1993. "By almost every measure," Putnam declares, "Americans' direct engagement in politics and government has fallen steadily and sharply over the last generation."

    Documenting membership in civic organizations like the Red Cross, Lions, Elks, League of Women Voters, Boy Scouts, and bowling leagues, Putnam finds that despite steady increases throughout most of the twentieth century, many major civic organizations—what Putnam calls "secondary associations"—"have experienced a sudden, substantial, and nearly simultaneous decline in membership over the last decade or two." While mass membership organizations such as the Sierra Club, the National Organization for Women, and the American Association of Retired Persons remain strong, Putnam points out that these are very different from the civic associations on which the development of social capital depends. These organizations—what he calls "tertiary organizations"—do not foster interpersonal ties or social cohesion. Rather, membership is tied to a cause or issue. Even the growing prominence of nonprofit organizations that are not secondary associations, so-called third-sector organizations, does not affect the amount of social capital in a community. They are just not the same as bowling leagues, Putnam notes. Informal kinds of social capital, such as family ties, neighborliness, and trust, are also lacking.

    Putnam points to four principal factors responsible for the decline in social capital, the feedstock of civic democracy: the movement of women from civic associations into the workforce; the mobility of workers in modern society, which means less residential stability and rootedness in a place; the recent changes in economic scale, from the mom-and-pop grocery to the superstore, from the local to global market, which have undermined the material and physical basis for civic engagement; and the technological transformation of leisure from group activities, such as bowling leagues and community theater, to private, individualized pursuits like television and VCRs. Each of these factors, Putnam argues, has contributed to the decline in social capital that marks the last two decades of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, he cautions, we must not view this decline as purely negative or indiscriminately romanticize small town, middle-class life of the past. For example, likely salutary effects of the decline in social capital are less intolerance and overt discrimination and the advancement of women in the workplace.

    Nonetheless, despite significant improvement in the quality of life for many Americans over recent decades, something fundamental has been lost. As the sociologist Robert Bellah suggests, American democracy in the postindustrial age is characterized largely by selfishness and apathy, behaviors that are the antithesis of what Tocqueville called the "habits of the heart" essential to maintaining the American democratic system. Even the salutary tolerance and live-and-let-live attitude embraced by much of the middle class, warns the sociologist Alan Wolfe in his book One Nation, After All, can be taken as evidence that most Americans do not care what their neighbors do or what happens in their communities. The diminution of social capital has resulted in a social vacuum, seemingly to be filled not by innovative surrogates but by the vices born of excessive individualism and privatization.


Political Participation Closely linked to the decline of social capital are the alarmingly low rates of political participation in American society. Political participation is a strong indicator of civic health because it demonstrates unambiguously the willingness of citizens to engage in the political process and thereby to affect public policy outcomes. In a civic democracy, the quality of life of individuals is de facto a function of the quality and quantity of public participation in every facet of social life, including politics. As Benjamin Barber explains, "Without participating in the common life that defines them and the decisionmaking that shapes their social habitat, people can't become individuals. . . . Our most deeply cherished values are all gifts of law and of the politics that make law possible."

    That American society has become more democratic over time cannot be disputed. Since the end of the Civil War and through much struggle and hardship, new groups such as blacks and women have won the franchise; schemes to deny voting rights like poll taxes, literacy tests, and malapportioned voting districts have been abolished; and greater numbers of minorities have gained political office.

    Yet as many observers of today's political scene have noted, something is terribly wrong with American politics. In the age of global democratization, it is fair to say that the world's leading democracy suffers from too little democracy. Since the end of World War II, the mean voter turnout rate has hovered around 50 percent, lower than every other noncompulsory democracy in the West. Less than one-third of voters who are not upper-income professionals participate in American elections. With each election year, the American electorate seems to fall to new lows in voter turnout. In a recent Boston City Council election, only 16 percent of the residents of the populous Roxbury neighborhood bothered to vote. Such statistics are not unique.

    As recent debates about campaign finance reform reveal, money is a major factor in American elections. The financing of political campaigns by wealthy individual donors or candidates themselves has exerted an undue influence on the political process and inhibited participation by all but the wealthy and powerful. As cultural critic Michael Lind explains, "Campaign financing is by far the most important mechanism for overclass influence in government."

    Voting rights attorney John Bonifaz, director of the National Voting Rights Institute, calls this mechanism the "wealth primary." Because the wealth primary system is controlled by "large blocks of private wealth," voters from lower-income or working-class backgrounds are effectively denied "the opportunity to affect the political programs and positions of candidates in the race. Citizens without money to give are totally excluded from participation in the wealth primary." The bottom line of the wealth primary, and thus of American politics, is that the candidate with the most money wins.

    Money in politics has thus had a profoundly corrosive effect on Americans' willingness to vote and, consequently, to influence the decision making that fundamentally affects their lives. That social capital should be declining at the same time that political participation wanes is to be expected. Social capital and political participation are mutually reinforcing elements of civic democracy. Without them, civic democracy cannot be sustained.


Racial Equality Despite the heroic efforts since midcentury, full racial integration and equality still elude American society. Most white Americans, and especially the elite, inhabit communities composed almost exclusively of people who look and act as they do. Since the racially turbulent decade of the 1960s, when whites began fleeing mixed-income urban neighborhoods for the security of the suburbs, America has remained racially polarized. In most major American cities, the central neighborhoods and public schools are still populated largely by people of color; the outlying suburban communities are overwhelmingly white. Nearly 60 percent of all African Americans and close to half of the Hispanic and Asian populations live in America's central cities; only a quarter of the white population lives in urban centers. Despite real gains in the diversification of the workplace and higher education over the past three decades, residential segregation, brought about by both discrimination (outright and aversive) and lack of economic power, persists.

    The economic gap between whites and nonwhites is startling. In the nation's one hundred largest cities, where most black Americans and other minorities live, one in seven census tracts is at least 40 percent poor. Twenty-six percent of all black families and nearly 42 percent of black children are trapped in poverty. Rates of poverty among Latinos and Native Americans are equally disturbing. For example, the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home to the Oglala Lakota tribe, is consistently among the poorest communities in the nation. "The poorest of the poor—by far—," the author Peter Mathiessen laments, "are the Indian people." Notwithstanding the recent call for an end to affirmative action, based on the belief that blacks, Latinos, and other minorities have achieved a level playing field on which to compete with whites, most social scientists agree that racial inequality is as problematic today as it was fifty years ago. The sociologist Orlando Patterson, who is quick to point out that blacks and other minorities have made extraordinary progress in overcoming racism and integrating society, blames pervasive income inequality among racial groups as the real threat to American democracy while acknowledging that 20 percent of whites are still at least mildly racist.

    In their pathbreaking study, Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality, sociologists Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro report that African Americans have not shared equally in the nation's overall prosperity. White Americans, they document, possess nearly twelve times as much median net worth as blacks while black households retain no net financial assets as compared to approximately $7,000 per white household.

    Even the Internet, the much-touted tool of digital democracy, is afflicted by racial inequality. A recent study by Vanderbilt University professor Donna Hoffman showed that black Americans are far less likely to use the information highway than whites. In households with annual incomes below $40,000, whites were six times as likely as blacks to have used the World Wide Web. Lower-income white households were also twice as likely to own a computer as black households. Among households of all income levels, 44.3 percent of whites own a home computer compared with only 29 percent of blacks. While 73 percent of white high school and college students had access to a computer at home, only 32 percent of black students had access to one. In the light of the growing importance of the Internet for communication, business, and education, the study found, the racial divide on the Internet might well exacerbate existing social and economic disparities among racial groups.

    The eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson, in his 1996 book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, declares that "for the first time in the twentieth century most adults in many inner-city ghetto neighborhoods are not working in a typical week." Pointing to inequities in the society at large to explain the economic and social marginality of inner-city residents, Wilson sees the decline in formal and informal community institutions (churches, political parties, block associations, parent-teacher organizations) and social networks (workers, family, friends) as largely responsible for the economic crisis in inner-city neighborhoods. Any explanation of the plight of the urban poor, Wilson argues, must account not simply for race but culture and social psychology as well. Nonetheless, he suggests, urban poverty is still mainly associated with racial minorities and must be dealt with accordingly.

    Thus, in spite of significant progress toward a racially integrated society, pernicious barriers remain. Physical segregation between whites and people of color and substantial economic disparities reveal that we have yet to achieve the kind of democracy that most of us claim to want.


Socioeconomic Equality Linked to the problem of persistent racial inequality in America is the ever-growing gap between wealthy and less affluent Americans. To the extent that political power derives in large part from wealth and economic status, as the wealth primary example shows, the size of the disparity between income groups is a good measure of the relative success or failure of civic democracy in providing a level playing field on which citizens can participate as equals in decision making. Notwithstanding the unparalleled economic prosperity of the past several years, with historically low unemployment rates and a skyrocketing stock market, there remains a nagging sense among many Americans that the only real beneficiaries of the strong economy are those who are already financially secure.

    The data bear this out. In 1997 the income of the top 1 percent of Americans, or about 2.6 million people, equaled that of the bottom one-third of the population, or 88 million people. Income inequality was greater in the 1990s than it has been since the era of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Today the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans control over 50 percent of wealth in the United States. Moreover, the average American chief executive officer makes roughly 109 times as much as the average American blue-collar worker. In the 1980s, worker pay increased 53 percent; CEO compensation soared a whopping 212 percent.

    The rift between the haves and have-nots is driven by two main forces: professionalism and global capitalism. Professionalism is a modern phenomenon that arose out of the nineteenth century, when industrialism and science created new economic conditions. Whereas in preindustrialized economies, producers and consumers were essentially one and the same, as in colonial America, increasingly complex industrialized economies, made possible in the 1800s by rapid advances in science and technology, eventually required a cadre of educated individuals whose job it was to protect the autonomy of skilled producers while ensuring the quality of services and public safety. By definition, professionals are credentialed or licensed experts whose power and legitimacy derive from their ability to render objective opinions based on rationality and scientific knowledge. Unlike purely economic actors motivated by profit and self-interest, professionals are supposed to be disinterested and quality driven. Their power is based not on labor or capital, the traditional bases of capitalist wealth, but on knowledge. The nontransferability of that knowledge and expertise is meant to ensure that the well educated do not make exaggerated claims to power.

    With the rise of universities and professional journals early in the 1900s, and the parallel ascendancy of progressive ideology that stressed the importance of expertise and rational decision making, the number of professionals also increased. In 1890, there were fewer than 1 million professionals in the United States. By 1986, professionals accounted for over 13 percent of the labor force. As the cultural critic Louis Menand states, the rise of professionalism has engendered "resentment on the part of people whose employment is relatively insecure and whose incomes are stagnant or in decline. Professionalism has started to look like a racket."

    The success of professionalism has come at a high cost to democracy. "Professionalism erodes the right of those not certified as experts, bringing its own threat to democracy and equality," sociologists Charles Derber, William Schwartz, and Yale Magrass claim. "The shadow side of professionalism is the creation of a new dispossessed majority: the uncredentialed." Professionals are in fact a kind of "overclass," in the words of Michael Lind, who spend most of their waking hours as lawyers, real estate developers, investment bankers, software designers, and other credentialed players as intent on preserving their professional fiefs as they are on "perpetuating the conditions that make it possible for them to ignore the views of ordinary people." Professionals live out their days largely isolated from ordinary Americans, in office towers or exclusive suburbs, preoccupied with the abstract concepts and symbols that are their stock and trade: stock market quotations, the visual images of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, computer software, and the like. Stronger than ever, today's professional class, fortified by the information economy, is "switched-on [and] plugged-in . . . with a seemingly insatiable appetite for talking to itself."

    Professionals tend to be migratory and cosmopolitan in their disposition, hopping from metropolis to metropolis with barely an opportunity along the way to become attached to a particular place. According to Christopher Lasch, professionals possess a "tourist's view of the world—not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy." Professionals are thus detached from the destiny of wage-earning Americans, their fate hitched to the forces of modern capitalism and their lives ensconced within exclusive work, residential, and leisure environments.

    Another leading contributor to the growing gap between haves and have-nots is global capitalism. Linked to the rise of the professional-managerial class in the last several decades and the recent spread of market-based economies to formerly communist countries throughout the world, global capitalism is the economic juggernaut of the end of the millennium. Aided by major international trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, multinational firms from the United States and other industrialized economies have seen their profits soar as they have tapped into massive new markets and cheaper sources of labor. From high tech to financial and legal services to manufacturing and retail, the manifold sectors of the American economy, and especially upper-level management and professionals, have benefited significantly from the globalization of commerce and capitalism.

    Bolstered by their international reach, the interests and aims of American multinationals have, according to Cornel West, "disproportionately" shaped American society, resulting in "vast disparities in resources, wealth and income." Global capitalism, like capitalism generally, has very different core values from democracy. As economist Lester Thurow writes, "Democracy believes in radical equality. . . . Capitalism believes in radical inequality." These words echo those of political scientist Charles Lindblom, who declared in his 1977 book, Politics and Markets, "The large private corporation fits oddly into democratic theory and vision. Indeed, it does not fit." Big, global businesses, it appears, increasingly regulate the lives and livelihoods of most American workers, whose fate is now subject to control by competition from foreign workers whose wages and work environment give them a competitive advantage in the race-to-the-bottom world of global commerce. Many American workers, their wages having stagnated over two decades, are at constant risk of losing their jobs as corporate executives continue to gravitate to the cheaper labor markets of undeveloped foreign countries.

    In sum, the growing gap between rich and poor is a function of the significant physical and social separation of professionals and corporate executives from ordinary Americans. "The elite," law professor Charles Reich observes, "live in a different country than the rest of America." With a direct pipeline to the vast profits derived from a strong stock market and ever expanding global markets, the wealthiest Americans enjoy a social reality that is increasingly independent of the goings on on Main Street, the inner city, or impoverished rural communities.

    In addition, more often than not, professionals and corporate managers tend to act as if only one thing matters: greater accumulation of wealth. Most do not even purport to serve the public interest or take responsibility for the larger social problems that surround them and to which they contribute, whether it is destruction of natural resources in the name of economic growth, or laying off hundreds of workers because of global competition. The yawning gulf separating the haves and have-nots is thus like a great vacuum, sucking up Americans' public spirit and willingness to solve social problems.


Public Investment and Privatization Civic democracy, by virtue of the priority it gives to participatory politics and civic engagement, rests on a social and physical infrastructure capitalized largely by public investment. In the light of the free market's tendency to pursue short-term, individual gains over longer-term, public benefits, social investment in public goods like law enforcement, education, research and training, transportation, housing, and the environment are essential to ensuring civic health. Social investment in education and other public goods historically has served to reconcile capitalism's values with democracy's, as exemplified by the reforms of the New Deal era. Without such investment, civic democracy inevitably languishes, eventually succumbing to a minimalist liberal state where individuals pursue their own ends without regard for social consequences and where the economically fit dominate the economically disadvantaged, as happened in the nineteenth-century Gilded Age, when robber barons made their fortunes literally on the backs of impoverished immigrants and migrant workers.

    At the heart of privatization and social disinvestment is liberal political theory and the private property system that is its most powerful instrument. Liberalism lends itself to privatization; its core precept is the priority of the individual to the state and the notion that the state must remain neutral among competing conceptions of the good held by its citizens. Liberalism sanctifies individual choice and value, allowing each person to pursue her particular ends relatively unfettered and oblivious to the social consequences of her actions. The private is thus superior to the public; the individual, to amend Protagoras's maxim, is the measure of all things.

    Not that such a political philosophy has no benefits for democratic life and civil liberties. Minimal state encroachment preserves an exclusive realm of private affairs that can enhance individual freedom by providing opportunities for individuals to lead their lives according to their own preferences and principles. Nevertheless, liberalism's thrust is inevitably toward the private, typically at the expense of public life.

    Liberal political theory embraces private property as the key to individual liberty. The link between liberalism and property was forged by the father of modern liberalism, the English philosopher John Locke, who held that the appropriation and use of land defines property and gives rise to rights in it. In other words, property and property rights do not exist unless and until property is appropriated by individuals. The German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel went a step further. He maintained that all people have a basic right to possess property; without it, they are not capable of full ethical development.

    Liberalism rests on the ability of individuals to own and use property, with minimal regulation by the state. In a liberal society, property ownership enables individuals to achieve their full potential. On a more practical level, property rights provide owners and potential owners with the security they need to invest in their property and to engage in exchange. These are the foundational elements of a capitalist system that create the economic framework within which a liberal society can operate.

    Liberalism and private property are the necessary precursors to capitalism and the free market. The pursuit of profit and economic growth are made possible by liberalism's minimalist state and the ability of individuals to amass great quantities of property or capital. The American public, through legislation and the common law, has always played a part in controlling the market for the sake of the public interest. From constitutional measures like the interstate commerce clause and the civil rights amendments, to the imposition of income taxes, to the regulation of securities and banks, Americans have wielded considerable authority over the market. Even during the heyday of the nineteenth-century American economy—the so-called laissez-faire era—market forces were subject to legislative control. The eminent domain power that railroad companies and utilities exercised in the mid-1800s, for example, was the result of legislative action devolving this public right to private actors. Still, there was, and is, no other country in the world where capitalism has enjoyed so much free rein as in the United States. Is it any wonder that among our most celebrated examples of public architecture are our banks?

    In the last twenty-five years, social investments have been cut in half. In the 1980s, when the Republican mantra of less government and more free market first took hold of Americans' political imagination, federal and state spending for law enforcement declined by 42 percent, for education and training by 40 percent, for transportation infrastructure by 32 percent. Since the mid-1970s, many of the social programs and worker protections afforded by the New Deal and the American labor movement have been dissolved. At the same time, more and more public matters are being relegated to the private sector, among them education, welfare, and transportation.

    According to Alan Wolfe, most middle-class Americans acknowledge that many social problems exist yet are disinclined to address them. Most Americans, Wolfe bemoans, "refuse to accept the responsibilities of national citizenship. They seem to want the benefits of being American without the obligations of paying taxes or paying attention." As in the halcyon era of the 1950s, Americans today appear to prefer the "pleasures of private success to the rewards and frustrations of public involvement."

    Meanwhile, affluent Americans have effectively seceded altogether from the civic life of their communities. Through private schools and country clubs, private security services, gated communities, and the like, the wealthy have "[bought] their way out of reliance on public services," eroding the "formative, civic resources of American life." Moreover, as the wealthy and poor have grown further apart economically and physically, affluent Americans' sense of shared fate has diminished along with their willingness to invest, through taxes and charitable contributions, in the education and welfare of their less fortunate fellow citizens. The privatization of American culture has resulted in a politics that reformulates public goods in terms of private advantage and fails to nurture a sense of genuine public interest or inspire affirmative community action in the pursuit of common goals.

    With the advent of fax machines, the Internet, modems, and cellular phones, privatization has been buttressed and accelerated by a regime of products that allows individuals to work full time in the privacy of their home or automobile. Although some, like the writer Michael Pollan, try to explain that these digital devices enable workers to engage in more civic activities than they normally would because, having been cooped up at home all day, they are more inclined to attend community meetings at night, there is little doubt that the digital age increasingly has isolated individuals, who seek community not with their neighbors but with the virtual communities of the Internet. Just as new technologies have empowered and enriched countless professionals and businesspeople, they have accelerated the disabling of public life by consuming the time once available for face- to-face, communal interaction and replacing it with on-demand, on-line correspondence, as placeless as it often is anonymous and transient.

    Increased privatization has come at the expense of public institutions, the places where citizens can meet as equals, and has insulated the rich from the lives of ordinary Americans. The noted economist John Kenneth Galbraith predicted as much over forty years ago in his book, The Affluent Society. Galbraith warned that private sector wealth would inevitably undermine the viability of the public sector, resulting in "public poverty" reflected in inadequate public services, environmental degradation, and failing public schools. Today, the power of the market has penetrated almost every sector of social life, enshrining money, private property, and technology, while devaluing basic public goods like education, health care, and physical infrastructure such as parks and mass transit. "Civic life," Christopher Lasch explains, "requires settings in which people meet as equals, without regard to race, class, or national origin." Such settings, it appears, are no longer open to the public.

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Table of Contents

Foreword ix
Preface xiii
Acknowledgments xix
Introduction 1
1 All Things Merge into One: Environmentalism and Civic Life 21
2 The Physics of Civics, or The Environmental Consequences of Civic Decline 45
3 The Land That Could Be: American Environmentalism and the Pursuit of Sustainable Communities 89
4 Urban Agriculture in Boston's Dudley Neighborhood: A Modern Twist on Jefferson's Dream 143
5 Oakland's Fruitvale Transit Village: Building an Environmentally Sound Vehicle for Neighborhood Revitalization 167
6 Community-Based Conservation and Conservation-Based Development in Rural Colorado 189
7 Smart Growth, Community Planning, and Cooperation in Suburban New Jersey 209
8 Coming Full Circle: An Emerging Model of Environmentalism and Democracy 237
Notes 245
Index 263
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