As America’s body politic cannibalizes itself in Washington, D.C. and assorted state capitols, the concept of Public is in danger of being irreparably savaged in our ideological frenzy. It is now being widely portrayed as an oppression foisted on us by bureaucrats simply out for themselves. And while most of that talk is still the political equivalent of graffiti, such defacement nonetheless carries great risks: In truth, Public provides a substantial underpinning to our well being and we will be hard pressed to weather our future without it.
A large portion of Public’s current disfavor is a case of mistaken identity. Public is not Government, though we too often leave Public to Government to look after with little oversight or transparency. Government is a limited implement of practical management, rooted in functionality and generating its own shortcomings and dilemmas, depending on how refined and efficient its mechanics. Public, on the other hand, is a relative galaxy of phenomena, behaviors, and subjects that dwarfs Government in scope and goes to the very heart of our identity as a people. Government is the sheep dog and Public is the entire life of the herd. To hold the failings of the former against efforts to nourish the latter is out of all proportion and an injustice of the first order, despite the current popularity of doing so. This often hysterical assault also threatens to topple the appropriate balance between our individual and collective selves. We can adjust government any number of ways, but none of those will improve our lot without a vital and valued vision of Public. And that premise of mutuality needs to expand, not shrink.
Public is the sphere of shared being where the lives of everyone combine into a single whole, where we nourish our common denominators, locate ourselves in the first person plural, and take care of each other. We affirm ourselves as a Public in order to secure what we consider “civilization.” When our fates are shared, that sharing is Public; when our needs overlap, that confluence of interests is Public; when danger casts a shadow over us all, that threat is Public; when we affirm our rights, that posture is Public; when we identify ourselves as a species, that common human root is Public; and when our aspirations need help from others, that mutual assistance is Public. Public is implicitly compassionate in its willingness to elevate the common good to a guiding principal. Public identifies, develops, and stewards our mutuality.
And we likely won’t last long without such a Public to rely on. There are at least three obvious aspects of it that will prove central in dealing with the coming disruptions:
Our defining circumstance is Public. Indeed, carbon discharge and its attendant climate change are a textbook Public enterprise. Everyone on the planet contributes and everyone suffers the consequences. And to significantly address our mounting distress, almost everyone on the planet will have to remodel their institutional and individual lives. Such a transformation will require us to identify as a Public far more strongly than we do today and that identity has to be affirmed, widened, and nurtured before it can be effectively exercised. The prospect of disaster and its effects will be intractable without a commitment to mutuality on a scale that matches the scale of our predicament.
The most daunting practical problems we will face in that circumstance are Public. Suffering in massive proportions is one of climate change’s predictable outcomes. Some climate scientists estimate a net human population loss in the billions by the end of the century. The destabilization of climate will generate disruption of sustenance and habitation and foment starvation, disease, and disorder, requiring a revitalized network of assistance and support. Reallocating resources, reworking the social infrastructure, redistributing responsibility, and relocating huge populations will all be required as well. And all of these challenges must be dealt with as a Public. Without such communal solidarity and will, we will not be able to muster the necessary responses. For these dilemmas, Public action or overwhelmed abandonment are the only options.
The social dynamic and personal values that will be required of us by our circumstance are rooted in our Public identity. In the face of our challenged future, our first priority has to be making more out of less. To do that will require us to share with each other in unprecedented ways and proportions. And for that we need to cultivate compassion, mutual respect, communication, charity, understanding, sociability, and cooperation—all of which are values generated by our sense of ourselves as an inclusive plural, bonded to one another by our shared humanness. We each need to be part of a Public in order to be realized and responsible individuals and adapt to the transformation that we have to muster in order to survive and prosper. Indeed, that larger affirmation of who we are is essential to empower ourselves when everything else seems up for grabs.
Fortunately, we already have a grasp of the Public concept:
Examples of it are imbedded all around us. I spent last weekend in Golden Gate Park, full of family picnics, tourists, roller skaters, museum visitors, and people just out for a stroll. Parks are an epitome of Public—though such an accepted part of our lives that we take them for granted—so I randomly interviewed passer-bys about how they felt about them. My favorite response was from Faoud, who came to America as a teen and now pushes a falafel cart in the financial district. He was there with an extended family of sixteen, playing Frisbee on a luxuriant meadow and sometimes napping on the tablecloth they had spread out on the grass.
“Where I come from they don’t have this,” he explained. “This is nice. We all own this place so we can all use it. It’s a way we look out for ourselves. This is a great idea. Something by and for everybody.”
So don’t be so quick to defame Public. It may well all there is to keep us safe when things get dark and ugly.