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The Environmental Republic

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.

LONDON – 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.

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