Nature, Citizenship and Democracy as Co-emergent: The Time is Now

Jan Stanley | July 11, 2019 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Ísafjörður coast

Each time I leave Ísafjörður for Reykjavík and then my home in Arizona, I gaze across a blue or gray or green sea the night before I go. Waves roll gently toward the shore or crash onto rocks at my feet, leaving behind the foam of whitecaps whipped by Iceland’s sometimes fierce wind. I recall expanses of open land dressed in summer green, autumn gold or blue-tinged winter white; made majestic by steep mountains, deep fjords and long-drop waterfalls or dramatic by steam vents, mud pots and long-cooled lava flows. Standing beside the sea, I am aware of the village behind me and its history of people and place grown and growing together, co-emergent over time. I wonder again what makes it so hard for me to leave this place. I understand that it is more than the country’s spectacular natural beauty.

Looking back, I remember the many times that Icelanders, young and old, said to me, “No one controls nature,” and, also, the respect for earth, sea and weather that accompany this statement. This respect threads through an extended community of human and other-than-human animals, plants, earth and sea. The unique contribution of each individual, species, and geography is acknowledged tacitly in the still-present habits of care-taking, inclusion and conversation that have made life good across millennia in a remote and often harsh place. The system that supports this is complex, open and inclusive. Democracy and sustainability succeed in on-going co-creation of people and place.

What I miss most when I leave this place is the prevalence, especially in the West Fjords, of such respect, tolerance and inclusion and the sense of agency and responsibility that these engender in individuals and communities. Both are important in the practice of citizenship as Harry C. Boyte defines it in his recent book, Awakening Democracy through Public Work: Pedagogies of Empowerment (Vanderbilt University Press, 2018):

Citizenship itself—not legal status but action for the general welfare, which can include the action of undocumented citizens and refugees who develop capacities and undertake work to build communities—can seem like an echo from the distant past.

Boyte discusses the importance of such public work in creating and maintaining strong, functional democracies. Like many often small and distant places globally, the West Fjords’ remoteness has buffered the manipulative profit motivations and centralized power groups that spread globally with imported or imposed capitalism as practiced by the world’s super powers. For now, a can-and-will-do attitude is still apparent in villages and individuals of the region tempered by the humility and commitment to community that stem from history and placement in a larger, more powerful natural context.

Ísafjörður from the hillside
Ísafjörður from the hillside

As I remember these attitudes from my 1950s, small town Kansas childhood, I am aware also of their gradual diminishment when economic, political and policy changes shifted understandings of both citizenship and government. Boyte describes this shift as “a loss of civic muscle [that] has been accompanied by the narrowing of government’s role” away from government “of the people, by the people” to government “for the people,” which he defines as delivering services and benefits. He notes that governments are failing under these new responsibilities. Concurrently, people have lost not only political skills, habits and civic concepts but also the institutions and community settings where those capacities develop.

When such capacities and human agency erode, governments and democracies begin to fail. Like Boyte, I have witnessed this across decades of living in a society of dominating capitalism and centralized power centers that gain strength in a largely closed feedback loop. Donella Meadows (Thinking in Systems: A Primer, D. Wright ed., Chelsea Green, 2008) demonstrated that failure is written into such closed systems, and Boyte understands today’s weakening democracies as symptoms of systems failure in government. So, there is another reason that leaving Ísafjörður is hard for me: I know the probability that the same creeping system of one style of capitalism will reach this place as it has so many others globally with disastrous effects for nature, climate, cultures and the human experience. (See Ghosh and Klein.)

Through citizenship expressed as public work, Boyte offers a remedy, a starting point, for reversing this trend; he provides examples and strategies for re-establishing civic action for the greater good. He is careful to point out that there are no final, one-size-fits all solutions. Effective public achievement through citizen action proceeds through acts of co-creation that are open-ended, relational and iterative. Each community, however large or small, must achieve its own solution to the issue(s) of concern within their sphere—whether that results, for example, in school children working with local government agencies and funding sources to build a new playground or Boyte and Public Achievement co-founder, Marie Ström, working with major non-profit funding sources to establish Public Achievement education centers across the United States.

Active in this work since he joined Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights work in the mid-1900s, Boyte is Senior Scholar of Public Work Philosophy at Augsburg College as well as a co-founder of the Public Work Academy. His scholarship in the humanities and his long experience in civic action are apparent in his insights and delineation of processes necessary to public achievement. Rather than divisive public demonstrations and canvassing approaches that pit one group against another, Boyte promotes and practices processes of public achievement that look conflicting goals and priorities squarely in the eye in order to understand central issues and politics behind them. His strategies include gathering facts and details about issues and possible solutions; engaging all sides in civil discourse within intellectual and emotional spaces that are held open for safe, respectful airing of differences; and using such processes to arrive eventually at co-created solutions that either work for all or that all understand as the best resolution for the time being. In the learning of these processes, budding citizens of any age learn or relearn the skills of citizenship in a functional democracy.

Ísafjörður coast
Ísafjörður coast

From my time in Iceland, I understand that nature (earth and other-than-human animal systems) can be admitted as a fellow citizen in Boyte’s approach to public achievement and, in fact, is consistent with his belief that sustainability and democracy must be linked and strengthened as one culture (“Public Universities, Democracy and the Citizen,” public lecture, Arizona State University, March 20, 2019). Recent weather events, coastal erosion and species extinction demonstrate nature’s agency. We are learning that nature will speak louder and longer until we include her voice as a contributor to citizens’ public work and governments’ responsiveness to this work. When individuals and communities regain and exercise the skills and commitments of citizenship and when all affected parties (including those, like nature, who speak in diverse voices) are included in public work around critical issues, we are positioned for a future characterized by the co-emergence (continuing co-evolution) of nature, citizenship and democracy toward a more sustainable, resilient future that is, in Boyte’s words, open-ended, relational and iterative. Co-creation that admits divergences, honors difference and affords dignity to all members of a community supports this co-emergence.

The present urgency of this is underscored in Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration as quoted by Boyte: 

The point of political equality is not merely to secure spaces free from domination but also to engage all members of a community equally in the work of creating and constantly recreating that community…

The best way to avoid being dominated is to help build the world…to help, like an architect, determine its pattern and structure.

The time to join with others and start is now; the place is as near and far as your reach extends.

Jan Stanley is a senior sustainability fellow in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. She holds the Doctor of Philosophy degree in counseling psychology with an emphasis on collective and individual human development in socio-historical and ecological context. Her current ethnographic research, initiated in 2013, investigates human affinity with natural place in Iceland’s West Fjords and extends to include the many contextual changes in Iceland that accompanied the rapid expansion of tourism during the research period.


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  • Didem Aydurmus

    I really do not get, where the assetment “for the people” comes into place. And green citizenship is utopic.

    Btw, you can find my dissertation on why democracy can never be sustainable until it is way too late here:

  • trilemmaman

    While this analysis of human government failings is mostly correct and the author’s intent to fix things is admirable, honorable and unquestionable… it is also doomed to fail. (See Einstein’s definition of insanity and the need to find another means of solving the problems we have created.)
    The one thing that everyone agrees on – and, is the foundation of every religion – and the product of all rational thinking – is the need for justice. Not democracy! I can provide dozens of quotes from philosophers, political experts, and wise souls over thousands of years who unanimously agree that democracy has never worked.
    Architecture is the key! But, a functional, safe, and sustainable architecture (engineering any system, structure, or government) is NOT a democratic process. It is a process of design and construction based on fundamental principles (laws of nature). Not human concepts like democracy. The self-evident truths offered clearly in the Declaration of Independence were based on “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God”. The human principles of government that gave us the US Constitution and international law have only given us endless wars, genocides, uncontrolled capitalism, and other unsustainable religious/cultural/economic/ practices that no democracy has been unable to stem to this day.
    Putting all your eggs (efforts to save nature and humanity from itself) in the basket of democracy without understanding democracies fundamental flaws will only waste more time and resources, that we and nature do NOT have.
    Human arrogance combined with our unique creativity has yield human laws that have persistently violated BOTH the laws of nature and the fundamental laws of nature’s God (the Golden Rule…liberty and justice for all).
    Boyte’s assertion that “there are no final, one-size-fits all solutions.” misses this profound immutable fact. The fact is no human civilization, political institution, culture or religion has ever tried it. Talked about it…yes! Enforced it? Never.

    “The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.” – Paul Johnson
    The evidence against democracy is overwhelming. ‘Confirmation bias’ and ‘cognitive dissidence’ may be the greatest barriers to people changing their minds about this flawed political system/principle. If you have any delusions about ‘democracy’ being a flawed principle the quotes below should cure you. Unlike ‘democracy’, ‘Justice’ remains a fundamental principle that if universally codified would do more to ensure maximum freedom and security than any form of democracy yet invented.

    “Democracy is two wolves and a sheep, voting on what to eat for dinner;
    Liberty is a well-armed sheep contesting the vote.” Thomas Jefferson

  • I admire the writers’ empathy and affinity for Nature as well as her and Boyte’s emphasis on community solutions to problems. But this article is too soothing and smooths over the realities of modern industrial society, urbanization and globalization. Large cities with tens of millions of people do not have the institutions or relationships needed to fully participate in decision making, and when they are located in countries not accustomed to or having access to true democratic institutions, the domination of the wealthy and politically connected is guaranteed indefinitely. This raises the crucial issue of SCALE. Small remote communities like those she discusses are not (yet) being devoured by transnational resource extraction corporations or foreign investment for private profit and foreign benefit. However, small communities in large developed industrial nation-states are trapped in the
    global economy that seeks endless economic growth at any cost. This is precisely why we have a global climate crisis: because fossil fuels enabled the growth and expansion of the consumer society
    without consideration for either Nature or the human victims of such growth. It is all very well for people living in tiny remote communities more or less removed from the global economy, living in settlements where local town meetings and gatherings are possible and a desirable part of civil society. Protecting nature in those areas does not place economic hardship on the residents. This is a kind of Utopia. But it does not reflect most of the world today. Second, with regard to refugees and immigrants, it is completely irrational to imagine that all of them (none of whom have undergone the Enlightenment or come from a country with democracy and personal freedom and secular society) will happily sit down with atheists, skeptics, libertarians and others and readily agree to abide by the Enlightenment values of equality, dissent, freedom of inquiry, separation of religion and state, gender parity, freedom of speech and the press. Had they been willing to do this they would have already done so. Instead they have demanded privileges and concessions from those offering them refuge and financial sustenance and all the rights of the rest of the citizenry. I am of course referring to Muslims and Arabs who have had no experience (or expectations) of democracy and who themselves harbor the same violent prejudices and execrable social practices (FGM, honor killings, child marriage, polygamy, suppression of foreign publications, etc.) If people are surprised by the resurgence of populism and nationalism, and continue to ignore the evolution-based tendencies of human societies to protect their own culture and traditions, and if they really think that the vast overbreeding of these countries in Africa and Asia can and should be accommodated in a finite world already suffering from possibly terminal ecological problems, then human civilization is truly
    lost. It is the ignorance and blindness of the humane and well intention people that leads us on the path of an environmental hell.

  • Beautifully written piece. I love the quote at the end from Harry Boyte: “The point of political equality is not merely to secure spaces free from domination but also to engage all members of a community equally in the work of creating and constantly recreating that community…” This, I believe, is the point of being human. It is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

  • Steven Earl Salmony

    Wonderful perspective. Thank you.