Page 2 – Eco-Republic by Melissa Lane
In the second part of the book, Imagination, Lane introduces Plato’s Republic to “illuminate . . . the structure of his effort at transforming the ethos of his own time, in order that we can appreciate the magnitude of the challenge and the terrain that an solution of our own will have to cover- as well as the junctures at which Plato’s thinking mislead us or is no longer something that we can accept.” Lane approaches this in two chapters about how individuals can imagine the relationship of their “soul(s) to the city”. She first focuses on understanding the “reciprocal interaction” between individual virtue and civic virtue. For Lane, Plato writes to help people realize that as they cultivate virtue, they affect the city around them in virtuous ways. Virtue spreads like a beneficial disease, one that is self-reinforcing, and one that can be spread by any individual. When we realize that our own good is caught up with the good of those around us, we cease to see ourselves as negligible and we become non-negligible producers of the good that we wish to see. Lane suggests that eco-sustainability is a “indispensable part of the common good” because without it no society can even survive. This is “the good” that should animate our imaginations toward solutions to environmental problems. This is the goal that our virtue seeks to embody.
In part three, Initiative, Lane explores how individuals can exercise initiative to enact sustainable change. Lane is quite sure that individuals can make a difference on both large and small scales. In their personal lives through interaction with friends and acquaintances, and in their public lives through the political process and in their jobs, Lane contends that history has shown how individuals have enacted change. She uses the example of Ray C. Anderson, CEO of Interface, an American carpet company, to show how one individual was able to completely reconfigure his company’s orientation to sustainability. She notes that an example of a person in a powerful position such as a CEO affecting change may see a bit “remote” to the average person. She encourages her readers, rather glibly, that even if they make half hearted attempts at sustainability they may be examples to others. The effects of positive and inspirational examples of sustainability have no theoretical ceiling for success, and can indeed go beyond what anyone thought possible.
Thus far I have tried to lay out the broad outlines of Eco-Republic that I found to be informative and useful. Her rather deep and nuanced exploration of the causes and potential cures of the widespread feeling of negligibility was the stand-out feature of the book. Sadly, wading through Eco-Republic’s cumbersome academic style, its constant qualifications and needlessly long, opaque sentences obscured its important message. At times, Lane seemed more concerned about warding off possible objections from Plato specialists rather than presenting a readable and inspiring vision of what reading Plato can do to help us live ethically and sustainably. In light of her preoccupation throughout the book in helping ordinary (albeit educated) people who accept the scientific arguments for climate change overcome their feelings of negligibility, this need to anticipate possible objections from Plato specialists seems unnecessary and slightly disingenuous. Ultimately, if Eco-Republic had spent more time showing us an inspiring vision of the sustainable life, rather that telling us about how we might use Plato to gain a vision for living an sustainable life, then this book would have been very welcome indeed.
Ultimately, Lane does what she says she will do and appropriates Plato in the way that she says she will. In that, her contract with the reader is fulfilled. Unfortunately, the style in which she did this was altogether unimaginative and needlessly opaque. Let me say that this is not a bad book; but it is a difficult one. Lane needs to take her own (and Plato’s) advice and give us a vision of Platonic political action is clear and inspiring. If you are a reader who is both familiar with Plato and interested in how his project in the Republic can be appropriated in the quest for sustainability, then by all means Eco-Republic will be worthwhile. If you are not that type of reader, I would suggest that you go read some Wendell Berry.