Since the dawn of agricultural societies, humans have been developing institutions and technologies to master the natural world and harness its power. The big question for the age of climate change is whether this defining political and institutional challenge can continue to be met democratically.
President Joe Biden’s administration is working hard to reclaim America’s role as a global leader in sustainable development. But success will depend on whether it can lay the political foundation for a new relationship between society and the environment.
Activists and policymakers alike are demanding more investment in technologies to reduce the environmental footprint of economic activities, limit extraction of finite resources, and curb pollution. There is a long list of “solutions” on offer — from new energy sources and carbon capture and sequestration to the oldest technology of all: trees. But the biggest challenge is not the technology; it is political institutions.
Despite its flaws, America is still the most successful example of self-government in recorded history. But as a model republic, it faces the challenge of accommodating and reconciling the wide diversity of its citizens’ imagined futures. Finding common ground between the poles of progressive techno-utopianism and reactionary rural romanticism will not be easy. The key is to produce a synthesis that can sustain a civic contract strong enough to survive both another industrial revolution and environmental changes on a scale beyond anything human civilizations have experienced since becoming sedentary 10,000 years ago.
In this quest for a new settlement, our relationship with water offers a useful guide. Ever since the shift from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural settlements — when people effectively chose to stand still in a world of moving water — human institutions have evolved in a dialectical relationship with the environment. While nature brought floods, storms, and droughts, we devised ways to weather those conditions, extracting surpluses from parched landscapes and harnessing rivers for transportation and power.
The modern republican project emerged from this older dialectic between human civilization and nature. It has been mediated by medieval jurists, re-interpreted by early-modern humanists, and disrupted by generations of radicals — from the eighteenth-century revolutionaries to the twentieth-century anti-imperialists — demanding enfranchisement.
As Thomas Paine observed, a central concern of the newly independent American republic was always going to be its unique territory and physical landscape. Bestriding an entire continent, the United States has had to learn to manage a wide array of geographic conditions, all while striking a balance between individual liberty and collective agency.
In 1784, for example, George Washington incorporated the Potomac Company to pursue inland navigation beyond the Appalachians, thereby preventing those territories from becoming too dependent on the port of Spanish-controlled New Orleans. But this response to a geographical problem created a political one. Shipping on the Potomac routed commerce across state lines, and thus required freedom of navigation. But the deeply libertarian Articles of Confederation contained no provision to arbitrate commercial disputes.
To settle the matter, Washington convened a meeting at his estate on the banks of the Potomac, where those in attendance produced the eponymous Mount Vernon Compact. Then, James Madison organized a similar conference of all the states in Annapolis, where delegates concluded that a constitutional convention should be held in Philadelphia. A problem of navigation had turned into one of governance and, ultimately, of constitutional settlement.
Over time, and through judicial review, inland navigation became a fully federal matter, especially as the young country began to wrestle with its physical features to sustain its economic development. In the early nineteenth century, countless canal companies emerged along the Eastern Seaboard. Most did not have the capital to maintain the hundreds of locks needed to overcome steep gradients. But because they connected the country, they were too important to lose, and thus came to be financed with state bonds.
By the 1830s, these canal and river works accounted for over half of states’ debt. And when the panic of 1837 hit, many of these companies went bankrupt, dragging state treasuries with them (a precursor to the “doom loops” witnessed in more recent financial crises).
Following these earlier experiments, the US federal government’s role in regulating, financing, and developing large water infrastructure grew substantially, especially during the twentieth century. In the Progressive Era, and then under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, a new modernist republic evolved, featuring a greatly expanded role for the state. Rivers became blueprints for electrification and economic development more broadly, offering a counterpoint to the centrally managed industrialization of the Soviet Union.
In the event, America’s model looked so successful that it convinced most of the rest of the world also to build thousands of dams, reservoirs, and canals, ultimately replumbing the global landscape. As a result, most of us in wealthy industrialized countries have been able to forget that the planet is subject to extraordinary climate variability.
After all, our daily experience is almost entirely artificial, the product of republican institutions that underwrote a vast stock of water infrastructure designed to control nature and bend it to our needs. Contemporary, urbanized, technological life would be impossible if people still had to worry about flooding or finding the next bucket of water (concerns that still burden billions of people).
The twentieth-century conquest of nature is the legacy of a republican project that adapted to the conditions of industrial modernity. What corresponding political project will the age of climate change bring? At a time of resurgent authoritarianism around the world, it is crucial to show why a democratic republic is still the best vehicle to balance individual agency and collective action in confronting existential challenges.
Much will depend on whether the US is capable of another “constitutional moment,” defined by the Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman as a historical event that elicits elevated and sustained popular attention to the role of the state in a country’s economic and social life. Biden’s efforts to transform America in pursuit of a net-zero economy may well become a constitutional moment. But the task calls for more than supporting new technologies and drawing up clever plans. Biden must shepherd through a new civic contract that reflects a representative synthesis of the commonwealth’s diverse aspirations and values.
The stakes could not be higher. America’s great challenge — and its opportunity — is to usher in the first environmental republic.