Written by Sami Grover
Let’s get one thing out of the way—I am an environmentalist, and I do not believe in personal freedom as an absolute. I can already hear the cries of “I told you so!” coming from the radical anti-sustainability fringe, “these guys really are a UN-run conspiracy to turn us all into fruitarian vegans living in tiny houses/strawbale prisons.”
But first let me explain.
It’s not that I don’t believe that freedom is a crucial part of any democracy. It’s just that protecting that freedom is a complex, delicate balancing act that involves understanding what is really meant by “freedom” in the first place.
Your Freedoms Impact Mine
When Agenda 21 conspiracy theorists decry “smart growth” as an attack on personal freedom, they ignore the fact that my freedoms are restricted every single day by policies designed to promote car- and oil-centric development. When free market neoliberals cite corporate personhood as an issue of freedom of speech, they reenforce a political system where influence is not based on one person, one vote – but rather how much money you have to bend the system to your will. And when the Right Wing press decries “forcing” employees into Chevy Volts that are a perk, not a right, then they pursue about as bizarre a definition of freedom as I can imagine.
To truly defend “freedom”, we must first accept that it is not simply about getting to do whatever you please, and that one person’s freedoms can easily impinge on those of another. That’s a lesson that most of us should have learned in pre-school. Teaching your child independence does not mean letting them do what they want, but rather giving them the tools they need to negotiate increasingly complex interactions over who gets to play with which toy; whose turn it is on the swing etc.
A Difficult Balancing Act
And before the rhetoric turns to “nanny state treehuggers” once more, let’s acknowledge that these truths are hardly controversial statements, nor are they applicable only to toddlers. The issue of balancing conflicting “freedoms” is precisely why we have traffic rules, and why we don’t allow the sale of crack cocaine. We are simply in a constant dance between freedom and responsibility; regulation and empowerment. And there are no easy answers to any of it.
Our Interconnectedness is Undeniable
Even the anti-environmental crowd can be quick to call for limits to freedom when it suits them. Without discussing the rights and wrongs of the specific case, Donald Trump’s tantrum over wind turbines is a classic example that what happens on one parcel of land/ocean can have a direct impact on the interests or well-being of the people who surround it. And in a globalized world where even Conservative economists believe fossil fuels are having a ruinous impact on our economic well-being, it is time we accept our interconnectedness as an inherent component of any discussion about what freedom really means.
“Car” Is Not a Synonym for Freedom
Are Americans who find themselves trapped by high gas prices and urban sprawl any more free than Danes who are able to bike or walk without fear of imminent death? Are poor communities who live without sidewalks any more free than residents of Curitiba, Brazil who live with exceptional public transit and a real sense of community well-being? And are Germans who own their renewable energy sources less free than I am when I pay my bills to Duke Energy?
I am not suggesting we all need to become Denmark, nor that regulation can fix everything. (We don’t, and it cannot.) But to break down an exceedingly complex, challenging and important discussion about how we want to see our communities develop into a simple battle between “good” and “evil” and “freedom” versus “control” is as childish as it is ineffective.
So yes, I do want to restrict some of your freedoms. But only because you are trampling all over mine every single day.
This post was originally published by TreeHugger.
Photo from Gavin Anderson via flickr