The limits of freedom

The word “freedom” implies “no limits,” the presumption that free will alone constrains human action; but of course, we all know that with freedom comes limitations. Though English philosopher Thomas Hobbes built an entire belief system on the premise of the autonomous individual, he acknowledged that human social experience bears a deep imprint on individual autonomy.

The Reformation elevated the role of the individual in Christian life by rejecting the claim that intercession of a Catholic Pope was required by individuals to establish a relationship to God. We can draw a line connecting the Reformation, the rise of individualism, the Age of Enlightenment and the experiment in American Democracy, all of which incorporated, to greater or lesser degrees, freedom.

Today’s world displays varying degrees of personal, political and religious freedom ranging from very little to quite a lot. We American’s like to think we enjoy quite a lot of freedom, and for those of us who are not occupying the ethnic, religious, racial or gender margins of society, it’s true. And yet, it may be that the degree of personal freedom we enjoy is going to destroy not only human culture, but most life forms on planet Earth. Having conflated individual freedom with the concept of “rights” we now find ourselves in a bind. Our freedom to pollute, poison, and profit from the exploitation of nature has taken an enormous toll on our planet and unless that freedom and the “right” to wreak havoc is constrained, the Earth’s 6th Great Extinction may soon be upon us.

We can see that resistance to constraining our particularly American style of freedom is mighty. Oil companies, agri-business, and global capitalism have never taken the long view in determining the ecological impacts of their quest for profit. Having thoroughly corrupted American politics they suffer few constraints and are working hard to eliminate those remaining; the dismantling of the EPA and its regulations is but one example of the ways in which corporations’ claims to freedom are marched out to muster political and consumer support.

But even on the individual consumer level, constraints on freedom are resisted; such is the unfortunate legacy of liberty. Accordingly, each of us is free to consume beyond our means, produce waste and garbage for which we take no responsibility and bear no appropriate cost, burn fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gasses, and discard endocrine-disrupting plastics that have now entered the global food chain. This is the downside of freedom in America, and a similar ethic has taken hold in the rest of the world.

People are notoriously poor at giving things up, even when such consumption is harmful. The wealthy have enough to give to charity, but it does not translate into their changing their own habits of consumption; giving money away is easier than giving up driving, air-travel or plastic wrap. Consumerism could be the most powerful political weapon on the planet if people were willing to stop consuming particular products en masse, but that would mean changing personal habits, and history indicates consumers won’t do that easily, if at all. Instead, like watching a slow-motion train wreck, America continues to lead the world in consumption and waste while the Earth gets hotter, the ice caps melt, and plant and animal species disappear.

Freedom’s just another word for everything to lose.

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