Vision of Ecological Democracy
By J. Ronald Engel
In the 1930s, the philosopher
Alfred North Whitehead predicted that the one place where
another great flowering of modern culture might come is
in the American Middle West, "where the start could
be fresh and from the ground up." He gave two reasons.
Good climate, soil, and food those three preconditions
for a flourishing civilization are present here.
And the Midwest also has a "human soil favorable to
a new civilization" persons still in "contact
with the elemental processes of nature."
Beginning in 1908, the Prairie Club sought
to make nature and forest preserves a part of
this region's emerging culture. Photo from
Prairie Club of Chicago by Cathy Jean Maloney.
Courtesy of Arcadia Publishing, ©2001.
Chicago Wilderness seeks a renewed,
knowledgeable, caring relationship with the land for
all the citizens of our region. We speak not only of
biodiversity, climate, and soil, but also of food, mass
transit, and rooftop gardens. We lament the fact that
our population is no longer in contact with the elemental
processes of nature. But our vision is essentially the
same vision that grasped Whitehead: a great democratic
civilization at home on the Earth a self-governing
republic of free, equal, and responsible citizens living
in a mutually sustaining relationship with a flourishing
ecology here in the Mississippi Basin, the Garden of
the New World.
In his book Nature's
Metropolis, William Cronon has spelled out in
detail what kind of vision actually determined the settlement
of the Chicago glacial plain and built the imperial
technological civilization we live in today the
belief that Providence ordained the vast natural wealth
of the midcontinent for the exclusive use of human beings,
in order that we might engineer a world apart from and
superior to nature.
But there is another way to conceive
"Nature's Metropolis" and another history
that many are trying to write in this place. Significant
elements point to Chicago as the birthplace of an alternative
American environmental movement committed to the transformation
of the urban industrial order. From Alice Hamilton
a medical doctor and Hull House resident who was the
first person in the United States to connect human health,
the environment, and politics in the workplace
we can trace a line to the first People of Color Environmental
Leadership Summit of 1991, and the contemporary environmental
justice movement, which believes a healthy environment
is essential to a healthy democracy. Much that we value
environmentally and socially in this region we owe to
this extraordinary community of citizens who over generations
clung to the dream of ecological democracy.
What kind of dream is this, that
turns the world upside down and flies so abruptly in
the face of the dominant trends of modernity; that puts
together what are usually divided humanity and
nature, justice and ecology and insists that
they belong together, indeed, draw strength from one
I believe the vision that inspires
Chicago Wilderness is at root a religious vision. I
use the word "religious" in the broadest sense
to point to a people's sense of the wholeness
of the world and of themselves in that world. I refer
to an evaluation of the world so encompassing that out
of it all other evaluations directly or indirectly grow.
The word "religious"
carries a cartload of baggage some of us would rather
not carry today. Please substitute "faith,"
"world view," "paradigm," "system
of values," or "the good life"
these can also convey a sense of ultimate orientation
to the world. Others may prefer a more traditional metaphor
such as "Kingdom of God." What difference
does it make what we call this vision? Why not simply
a civic ideal?
Unless we acknowledge the religious
or deep value-based dimension of our vision, we will
lack consciousness of the size of our enterprise. We
will not see that what we are seeking to achieve in
all our good works throughout this metropolitan region
is more than good public policy, or even good ethics,
but a new kind of salvation for humanity one
that is global in reach and inseparable from the salvation
of the planet. How can we overcome our tragic alienation
from one another and the rest of nature and restore
our relationship to the whole of which we are a part?
Unless we are conscious of the religious
dimension of our vision, we will fail to grasp the radical
novelty of what we are seeking or recognize the new
answers we have already found. As I look back over the
many years of struggle to make Chicago just and sustainable
and think about what so many remarkable groups and individuals
have been about, I conclude that we have been given
intimations of a new understanding of immortality. We
are finding new meanings for the sacramental and prophetic
dimensions of human experience.
What drives our thirst for firsthand
experience of the natural world? What drives our eagerness
to participate with others in the great drama of the
out-of-doors, our desire to learn the natural history
of this place and to work with our hands for its restoration?
What drives our struggle to know the evolutionary story
of our planet and to bring our ways of life into keeping
with its limits and potential? I believe it is our joyous
discovery that these are ways of overcoming our alienation
and finding a new sacramental relationship with one
another and the Earth. They are new ways of communion
with the creative powers inherent in matter, protoplasm,
flesh and blood, water, soil, plants, and birds on the
wing. Chicago-area literary naturalist Donald Culross
Peattie wrote that a person is touched to learn that
"his blood is sea water, his tears are salt, that
the seed of his loins is scarcely different from the
same cells in a seaweed, and that of stuff like his
bones are coral made."
And what drives our efforts to bring
under critical examination our most fundamental assumptions,
to hold not only one another but our institutions
indeed, our very social order accountable to
universal ethical norms, but the voice of our conscience
telling us we have large and unprecedented responsibilities
for this grace-filled world?
And so we dare to ask questions:
What kinds of growth are good and what kinds are not?
Why not expect of our citizens a sense of loyalty and
obligation to the region as a whole, to the well-being
of all of its people and creatures, and to future generations?
How can every citizen experience contact with the "elemental
processes of nature" and participate meaningfully
in the governance of the region? Do we not, as one of
the most powerful urban societies on Earth, have duties
to the rest of the world? Wherein lies our true security:
in the militarization of our society or in a healthy
biosphere, international law, and respect for universal
Our courage for dissent may fail
us, but we are at a turning point in history. Only a
prophetic attitude that places everything under the
judgment of the whole, that affirms a greater covenant
to which we are accountable a covenant inclusive
of humanity and nature will free us from our
dogmas, sectarianism, and greed and enable us to rejoin
the sacred adventure of life. We call it "democratic
ecological citizenship." What we mean is citizenship
as a spiritual vocation, a way of healing the world.