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Civic intelligence requires citizen engagement. (Photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

Civic intelligence requires citizen engagement. (Photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

We Are Destroying The One Thing That Could Save Us: Civic Intelligence

Without civic intelligence, our capacity to address problems effectively and equitably, we have no future

Douglas Schuler

Many religious fundamentalists agree: the world is coming to an end!

Some (most?) think it will end in fire. The others think that ice will be the culprit.

After contemplating the smoke-filled skies we're expecting this summer, I'm with the flamers.

Seriously folks, we're screwed. Pandemics. Water wars. Children in cages. Junk culture. Biblical floods. Extinction.

The dangerous, exploitive, and unpredictable world that we've created is headed for oblivion. 

Technology won't save us. Nor clever mantras, MAGA hats, driverless vehicles, or moving to the off-world colonies. We won't be rescued by the marines, billionaires, or digitally rendered superheroes. Not even the last lucky rabbit's foot on earth can help.

We are destroying our most vital resource. 

Without civic intelligence, our capacity to address problems effectively and equitably, we have no future.

Without civic intelligence, our capacity to address problems effectively and equitably, we have no future.

Nobody cares. Probably because caring would mean altering how we'll think and act.

People have bemoaned its decline and publicized its importance, but without a commonly accepted expression, we can't think or talk about it.

John Dewey's "pooled intelligence" is built with the contributions of everybody: We won't make progress fighting racism, economic inequality, environmental degradation, or war without our collective creativity, compassion, and dedication.

Civic intelligence is broad but not ambiguous. Social change is a learning process that adapts to specific situations. Groups of people work both independently and cooperatively: protesting, theorizing, teaching and learning, gardening, building, writing checks, programming, analyzing data, and making music and art.

Civic intelligence is easier to destroy than to create. Countries that recently launched democratic reforms are backsliding into fascism. Sadly this makes sense: Any fool can burn a barn down.

On the other hand, David, the shepherd of biblical fame, successfully deployed his slingshot against the giant Goliath. In other words: David sometimes wins. And not because of luck.

One practices civic intelligence with thought and action, never one without the other. It's directed towards positive social and environmental ends. It's critical, non-dogmatic and provisional.

Civic intelligence requires citizen engagement. One can begin by reading and discussing. Join existing projects, groups, or movements or start something new. Ask questions: Why is this community impoverished? Can health care be more affordable? How can environmental and social aims be tackled simultaneously?

Civic intelligence presumes that paths exist that lead to improved situations even if the paths aren't obvious. It may be difficult to see how an action addresses the problem, but actions help uncover new ideas and opportunities.

It doesn't demonize groups of people or promote violence. Dubious slogans around "purity" or past "greatness" divert attention from real issues and promote civic ignorance.

Civic intelligence doesn't require permission or a degree. Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist, proved that age isn't a barrier. She showed that the appointed stewards are destroying the future of the vulnerable people they're supposed to protect.

Civic intelligence isn't new. Before 1874 it was illegal to beat your dog but legal to beat your child. But after a chilling episode, the issue of child welfare was thrust into the public sphere and the first laws against cruelty to children were passed.

And genocide wasn't a crime until a Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, coined the term and pushed the UN in 1948 to adopt laws against it.

When the media focuses on dynamic leaders and dramatic actions it ignores the daily work, the crucial submerged part of the civic intelligence iceberg, that remains unseen and under appreciated. Civically intelligent actions emerge from everyday life.

Citizens march for science and for women. They design tiny houses for homeless people and read the Mueller Report to learn about irregularities in the 2016 presidential campaign. Senior citizens in the Netherlands get together and repair discarded appliances. Kenyans planted 51 million trees to help reforest their country. People worldwide conduct citizen science, counting nests, testing water for toxins, monitoring factories.

Governments can also engage. In 2015 nearly all of the world's countries agreed on a plan to address climate change. And when a climate change denier in the White House dispersed many of the country's most knowledgeable policy-makers, they landed in state and local governments, foundations, and non-profits, reconfiguring their network to continue the work.

Many of us tell ourselves that solving the world's problems isn't our business. This means passing these problems on to leaders that few believe should be trusted.

Civically ignorant people can't change their minds, ask critical questions, see other perspectives, confront ambiguity, question their premises, or be skeptical of dubious claims. They blame the victim and fear the person who doesn't look, act, or think like they do. They choose "strong men" to lead them, wannabe dictators who promise to solve all their problems, usually by "getting tough" through brutality and marginalization of others. Civic ignorance begets civic ignorance.

People are rightly concerned with their own lives and are caught up in habits of thinking that prevent meaningful action. They've been taught not to think about or question certain things, that they are powerless and things are hopeless. They're anxious, depressed and paralyzed. 

But while civic intelligence is often perilously low it's never zero. And there's no maximum: there can always be more.

Positive strides have been made throughout history even in the bleakest times and not all actions are destined for failure. Civic intelligence requires courage. The struggles will often be protracted and will be met with strong well-resourced opposition.

Anyone can play an active role in our dynamic and evolving civic intelligence. People will see the signs of hope if they look for them. One of my most memorable moments as a teacher was when a student told me her mother was also learning about civic intelligence. Happily they were discussing these ideas after class.

We don't have to kill ourselves. A just and sustainable world is possible. But we may choose to fiddle while the world burns. If, indeed, it's not ice that closes the curtains on the final performance.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Douglas Schuler

Douglas Schuler is professor emeritus at the Evergreen State College where he taught and learned about civic intelligence for 20 years. He's been involved in technology issues for over 30 years with Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and other groups.

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