A world-renewing ecological commonwealth

How long will we live like this before we have trouble remembering how things used to be?[1] When that happens maybe we’ll know we’re living through systemic change.

Obama said we’re the change we’ve been waiting for. Lately, many are suggesting that the pandemic has brought an opportunity for change if we can master the moment. When old ways seem to be falling apart and the future is uncertain, hope is found in the notion that we have some say in what’s comes next.

And it begins with saying, doesn’t it? With articulating what we value and what kind of society we want. Can we take pause, find some silence, and imagine the kind of society we aspire to—imagine it and put it into words?

purdy coverThis is what Jedidiah Purdy does in his 2019 book, This Land is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth. He describes a place where everyone has “a share of the world, dignity in their work or in the condition that keeps them from working, the respect of officials and the law, the expectation that they can walk without fear or shame in any public place, [and] confidence that they will get care when they are sick or hurt.” Purdy expands upon these familiar ideals, associated in this country with the concept of freedom, with insights derived from the ecological imagination. In his commonwealth, “no one gets their living by degrading someone else, nor by degrading the health of the land or the larger living world.” “Deep equality” is balanced with “deep reciprocity” so that the freedom afforded “would not be freedom from dependence on others, or from responsibility for them.”[2]

In this “world-renewing, ecological commonwealth”—a phrase Purdy uses in the last pages of his book, “the flourishing of everyone and everything would sustain the flourishing of each person.” He aims for a fine balance between the individual and the collective.[3]

I say, yes, by all means, but how do we get there? What stands in our way?

We’re in conflict, we’re divided. That’s the main thing. Purdy’s focus is on the land—“the thing we share which holds us apart.”[4] The fights over Bears Ears National Monument and over coal mining in the Appalachians are particular demonstrations of this conflict. But in a broader sense, the conflict is between the way we answer the sort of questions Purdy asks and answers in his book. What is the meaning of land, of wealth? How do we value life?

For a couple of years now, I’ve been reading about systemic transformation. I’ve read many calls for it and a few theories about how it comes about. I’ve had to navigate through a lot of vocabulary that seems to mean the same thing: worldviews, mindsets, paradigms, imaginaries. I’ve needed to confront the problem of how these immaterial complexes of word and image take shape in the material world. Purdy lays it out pretty plainly. “I teach law,” he writes,

which always leaves me thinking that words and material power, narrative and force, have the closest of relations. No story or picture of the world matters much if it floats too far from what people do with one another’s bodies and with soil and weapons and other tools; but also and by the same token, no material change in power will go forward without ideas and images that give it shape and a horizon to aim for.[5]

Words and material power, narrative and force. The experience of systemic change, which we appear to be going through presently, is about the friction between narratives, between imaginaries, the urgent concerns of which are not, as Purdy puts it, “tractable” in each other’s term.[6]

The fearsome obstacle standing in the way of the world-renewing, ecological narrative is the dominant narrative that it challenges, the dominant imaginary which it criticizes and to which it offers an alternative. The obstacle is fearsome because the dominant narrative has the built world behind it, to embody it, to give it force.

While sheltering in place, my family and I streamed the recent movie, Knives Out. It’s a contemporary Agatha Christie-like who-done-it. A renowned detective is required to solve a murder set in a house with many rooms and many eccentric suspects. At about the film’s midpoint, the detective makes a speech that riffs on the title of Gravity’s Rainbow. Solving a mystery is for him is as simple as that of determining a rocket’s trajectory. He observes “the facts without biases of head or heart,” calculates the “arc’s path,” strolls “leisurely to the terminus,” and waits for the truth to land at his feet.

This is his method. It’s as reliable as a “machine.”

The scene pokes fun at the mechanistic worldview, its scientific method, its faith that the world can be perceived just as it is, without bias of the head or heart. This Land is Our Land contains a critique of a similar faith. Any “theory of value” was inherently totalitarian, the neoliberal economists believed. Better to leave the question of value to the market. The market was neutral, merely a multitude of persons and their rational choices. The market was the world as it is.

“But there is a deep mistake here,” Purdy writes. By trying to avoid a theory of value–and any claim on “freedom and equality” it would inevitably entail—they wound up with a “totalitarian system of value” after all, one “imposed through the mechanics of price.” This mechanics now tells “the value of our own lives, and the value of life itself, of the living world.”[7]

Blame has long been cast on ‘economic man’ and his so-called rationality. What’s interests me is the reflexive dynamic described here, the way our ideas about the world become our world’s conditions. In an unfinished 1966 essay, systems theorist Gregory Bateson identified several theories of value—he called them “justifications”— for scientific work. One justification was that science was useful and led to progress; another was that it was simply the objective pursuit of truth. His point was that these justifications, whether sound or unsound, reflected back on the justifiers, shaped their society and what they expected of it, shaped the way they saw themselves.

Bateson was talking about relations between words and material power, narrative, and force. He’d struck a similar note in an essay a few years earlier. “There is much connection certainly between scientific truth, on the one hand, and beauty and morality on the other: that if a man entertain false opinions regarding his own nature, he will be led thereby to courses of action which will be in some profound sense immoral or ugly.”[8]

What Bateson meant by “false opinion,” Purdy means by “deep mistake.” There is no perception without a shaping narrative, without a theory of value. There is no evading the claims that come from being embedded in the web of life. The point of friction between the competing narratives is that one recognizes and the other evades a moral claim.

Resistance to this evasion is widespread, amorphous, ever-present, many-streamed. But evasion is the “common sense of our times,” and that sense has shaped our institutions, our habitats, our cityscapes, our systems of transport and communication, our filtered atmospheres, our cultivated soils. Purdy cites a measurement of this built world—the global “technosphere”—at thirty trillion tons. Every movement we make (especially those of us most complicit) is mobilized within and by that world.[9]

People have used the word sin to describe this predicament. In one or two affecting passages, Purdy acknowledges this. “In some sense, everything we do is a choice,” he writes, “but in another sense, we do not choose the terrible ecological terms in which these choices have their costs.” We’re caught up in our “technological exoskeleton,” no matter how differently we may want or think.[10]

Does this dilemma change in a time when it is precisely the built world that feels so much in flux? Purdy was writing a year ago, a time which, I must say, is growing a little fuzzy in my memory. What he wrote then, he’d probably write again: “What we lack is the faith that understanding can help us.” I think he’s talking about understanding, most of all, the relations between narrative and force. “If the problem is the world we have built, then it is in our power to build another.” [11]

This Land is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth comes in at 150 pages. It can be read in a single, quarantined day.

A version of this essay appeared in The Society for US Intellectual History blog


[1] This question was inspired by an April 4 tweet by writer and filmmaker Nora Bateson: “This crisis that has revealed the fragility of the institutions has the possibility of cracking the perceptions that uphold the existing system. Only when the perception changes will there be a longing to live differently. Do you still crave the normalcy of 6 weeks ago?”

[2] Purdy, Jedidiah. This Land is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth, (Princeton UP, 2019), xii-xiii.

[3] Ibid., 148, xiii.

[4] Ibid., x.

[5] Ibid., 3.

[6] Ibid., 143.

[7] Ibid., 142-145.

[8] Chaney, Anthony. Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness, (UNC Press, 2017), 128, 131.

[9] Purdy, 143-144, 21-22.

[10] Ibid., 144.

[11] Ibid., 149.