Credit: Markus Spiske for Unsplash

In his latest book, A Climate of Justice, Marvin T. Brown examines the racial and environmental barriers to developing a more sustainable future. During a recent interview for Shareable, Brown sat down with Nancy Southern to discuss the book’s key focus. 

Some questions and answers have been edited for clarity.

Nancy: You make the case that the belief in American Prosperity promoted slavery in the early years of our country and at this time keeps us from making the changes needed to protect our planet. How can we move away from this force toward economic growth and turn our attention to addressing climate change?  

Marvin: The first thing to say is that we must change our current system of economic growth if we want a livable planet for future generations, So, how do we change the direction of social forces that are moving us in an unsustainable direction? 

I addressed this issue in my previous book, Civilizing the Economy, where I argued that we need an economy based on civic relations rather than property relations. In my view, the economy’s purpose is the making of provisions rather than the making of money. Making these changes would be difficult, but not impossible, if we could work together to make such a change. Instead of working together, however, we are moving further apart, which raises two questions: What is preventing us from making the necessary changes? And, how do we overcome this resistance? A Climate of Justice addresses these questions. 

A just social climate, in my view, is the ethical foundation for environmentalism. — A Climate of Justice author, Marvin T. Brown 

I propose that we have not moved toward a sustainable economy because we live in a climate of injustice. This social climate of injustice has its origin in the Atlantic trade of people and land between Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and it has never been repaired. Some people benefited from this injustice, of course, especially land speculators, enslavers, and bankers, mostly white people. Others suffered from enslavement and other crimes against humanity. 

The question we face now is whether we can create sustainable systems of provision in this climate of injustice or whether we must first change the social climate. A just social climate, in my view, is the ethical foundation for environmentalism.  

Nancy: How do climate justice and a Climate of Justice differ? 

Marvin: Climate justice programs seek to correct injustices caused by the uneven distribution of the negative impacts of the climate crisis. A climate of justice seeks to transform the unjust social context in which such policies have been made. Whereas climate justice sees the unequal distribution of environmental harms as a cause of the injustices, a climate of justice highlights the history of our unjust social context. Both approaches are important, but also different.

Nancy: You state that in a climate of justice, people expect social relationships, when damaged, to be repaired. Can you share your thinking on what this looks like at a systemic level? What would we see taking place around us if we lived in a climate of justice? 

Marvin: The expectation is that even in relations among different groups, no group is exploited for the benefit of others, and when this has happened, repairs are made. Also, people would be included rather than excluded in policy making and evaluation. Because we live in situations where some are vulnerable and need protection, something like the civilian review boards that already exist would be much more common. 

Nancy: In these difficult times, given the pandemic, climate change, concerns about our democracy, how do we support people in moving from fear of others to trusting and embracing others in a way that is needed to create a climate of justice? 

Marvin: A major theme in A Climate of Justice is the difference between our personal and our social identity. If we grew up in a heterosexual social world, for example, then an LGBTQ social world may appear quite threatening. Such social worlds can define how we see ourselves. However, once I recognize that I am a person not fully defined by my social world, other social worlds will not be threatening to me. “Worlds of fear,” in other words, would not control my capacity to listen and learn from others. In fact, we can even join with others in exploring how such worlds are constructed and maintained.   

Nancy: You speak to the importance of storytelling, and I agree it is a powerful way to bring people together and help them see their commonalities. However, in telling stories of the past, we seem to have a large percentage of Americans who don’t want to acknowledge the stories of injustice. Telling those stories appears to foster greater divisions. Do you see a way to overcome the desire many have to avoid the stories of incivilities that make up the American story?   

Marvin: The stories we tell shape our social worlds, but we as persons are not the same as our social worlds. Once I see myself as a person connected with other persons, I can create a distance between myself and my nation’s stories. A cruel story does not make me a cruel person. In fact, as I see that we all share a basic humanity, I can care about them as I would want them to care about me. Telling our nation’s stories of its crimes against humanity gives me a chance to become more rather than less of a person.

Nancy: So, it seems at the root of the changes you have discussed is the need for Americans to redefine what American Prosperity means. How would you describe it within the climate of justice you envision?        

Marvin: The book’s interpretative framework will be helpful in answering this question. The framework includes the earth, our humanity, the social and the civic. Here is the chart from the book.

Briefly, in a climate of justice, the earth is treated as a habitat for all living things. All humans respect each other’s dignity, the stories that create our social worlds do not leave out others, and the civic is a place of civilian empowerment rather than military power. These very general visions, of course, would be achieved through policies that emerge from conversations among participants who care for justice. 

Nancy: What have we not considered in this interview that you would like to add to give readers hope in our ability to create a just and sustainable future?   

Marvin: Some would argue that the most significant data that influences our national mood today are changing demographics. In a few decades, the US will no longer have a white majority. For white individuals who identify with their white social identity, one can understand why they find this fact troubling. The individualism of American Prosperity forces people to either deny their social identity or to see their social identity as their personal identity.  

As I have said earlier, the interpretative framework of A Climate of Justice makes a distinction between personal identity and social identity. Once we create this distance between ourselves and our social world, we can engage in conversations with others about how to repair and restore our social relationships for the sake of future generations. When vulnerable people invite us to engage in a conversation with them, in other words, we can take this opportunity to create a climate of justice.

A Climate of Justice is an open access e-book. Download a free copy here