A robot carries the United States Flag in a parade (Via Wikimedia Commons).
The Independence Day holiday in the United States has people here thinking about fireworks, parades and eating lots of barbequed meat. There will be many speeches on the gift of freedom which America helped to spread across the world. But there will be almost no introspection about what that word means.
Freedom is one of those abstract words that politicians love to use in speeches because doing so allows everyone listening to project their own meaning onto the word (and to identify the politician as someone who shares their values).
To some people freedom might mean freedom of conscience, to live by religious or moral tenets free from coercion by the state or the community. To others it might mean freedom of action to determine what course we want to take in life and to have the freedom to pursue it. But for many it has now become an amorphous rallying cry whenever patriotism is invoked–we are fighting for freedom, aren’t we? But is it the freedom for each to think and act as he or she pleases no matter what?
Economist Herman Daly popularized the idea that we are living in what he calls a "full world." By this he means that the influence of humans in the biosphere has become so large that we can no longer ignore how we are changing it. Perhaps the biggest and most dangerous threat is climate change, the result of human activities that include the burning of fossil fuels, the clearing of land and the use and release of novel man-made gaseous chemicals that in some cases are many thousands of times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.
We know the world is "full" because our actions are noticeably changing the composition of the atmosphere, the oceans and the soil. The effects of our actions are now so large that they risk flipping the planet into a different climate state; are depleting presumably renewable resources such as forests and fish which can no longer replenish themselves as fast as we harvest them; and are poisoning our air, water and food all the way to the poles with made-man toxins produced by the modern chemical industry.
Here I must journey back to a time when slavery was legal and being a free man or woman had a very specific meaning. Being free meant you weren’t owned by somebody else and therefore could not be treated as property. Legally sanctioned slavery no longer exists. So, what does it mean to be free now?
There are political freedoms: the right to choose our leaders, to speak our mind without fear of arrest, to be left alone by the state in our private affairs. There are economic freedoms: the right to choose one’s employment, to engage in commerce with whomever we wish (even those on the other side of the globe), to invest and spend our savings as we wish, to acquire and own property including that used for business purposes. But are these economic freedoms separate from the material prosperity of the modern age, an energy-rich era which is transforming the biosphere in all its aspects?
It seems that political freedoms are possible without the specific economic conditions of our era though those freedoms had been notably absent prior to the modern age. But economic freedoms depend almost entirely on the what we can extract from the physical world and turn to our use. In a world that was not yet "full," humans could essentially take whatever they could get their hands on through ingenuity and hard work. When forests were gone in one area, humans moved onto other areas. When fishing declined in one fishery, they found another. And, while this progressive harvesting of resources sometimes had terrible local effects, it did not threaten every human nor every organism on the planet.
Now that our activities are collectively having effects at the planetary scale, we can no longer just keep moving on, harvesting ever larger quantities of resources without creating even larger effects. The economic freedoms we have enjoyed in the last 500 years are being curtailed–by nature.
So, while many rail against increasing government regulation of human affairs, and they especially rail against doing anything to about climate change, they do not seem to understand that the ultimate regulator of our affairs is nature.
My disagreement with them is not over whether humans as animals on planet Earth should be able to seek their material needs in order to live happy, healthy lives. My disagreement with them is whether nature itself is the regulator of our destiny, whether nature itself defines limits within which we must stay in order to survive and thrive as a species.
The fossil record is littered with creatures who could not adapt quickly enough to changing conditions and thus went extinct. In our case, we are the cause of the quickly changing conditions around us and thus have the power to moderate those changes. Anyone who believes otherwise is being willfully blind or cynical.
It is a cliché to say that with freedom comes responsibility. Yes, we are a free to make whatever choices we can think of and implement. But we are not free from the side effects and unintended consequences of our actions, actions which more and more have global rather than merely local effects. Just how do we take responsibility under these circumstances?
Freedom is often lost by those who do not use it wisely. In this case it is nature itself which will narrow our options as climate change reduces crop yields and alters rain patterns–producing prolonged drought in some places and heavy floods in others. It will strand some cities without water due to drought or due to lack of snowmelt in the mountains that supply them with water. It will narrow our options for nutrition as one fishery after another collapses. It will narrow our options for the treatment of disease as antibiotics–which we’ve overused–can no longer treat formerly trivial infections because the pathogens have become resistant.
Freedom in the modern age has been reinterpreted as the right to grow our economy and maximize our extractions from the biosphere–and ignore the future consequences for Earth’s living systems in whatever we do. We have embraced this growth as the solution to practically every social ill including poverty, disease, pollution (the environmental Kuznets curve), and even overpopulation (demographic transition).
In a full world, that kind of freedom cannot last. And that means we must now find a new definition of freedom that includes the best of the modern world, particularly its political and social freedoms, while correcting the excesses of the freedoms we have enjoyed economically in a world that was previously not full.
After the partying dies down this Independence Day weekend and the fireworks are grounded, try to imagine a new definition of freedom that will allow us to thrive in a full world. If we don’t devise one ourselves, nature will do it for us.
Image: A robot belonging to the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization carries the United States Flag during the 48th Annual City of Torrance Armed Forces Day Parade. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class David McKee (May 19, 2007). Via Wikimedia Commons.