Sustainability and Freedom

What is the relationship between sustainability and freedom?  Often, people use the word sustainability as if it had a narrow definition, only encompassing environmental issues, and perhaps human rights issues.  An overwhelming majority of people seem to think, write, and act as if sustainability is primarily about environmental issues, and other concerns (such as community, culture, economics, psychology) are secondary.

I think sustainability is a holistic concept, and I think freedom is one aspect of sustainability that is just as important as environmental issues.  I also think that the environmental issues are related to freedom in a way that many lawmakers and activists do not understand.


Four American Flags

The American flag is often seen as a symbol of freedom. But the message it sends is complex and not everyone receives it the same way or feels the same way about what the symbolism of the flag means.

What is freedom, after all?  In America, freedom a buzzword that is often thrown around carelessly.  I like the Free Software Foundation‘s approach to freedom, which makes a distinction between  “free like free speech” (which is the key type of freedom) and “free like free beer”.  A similar idea is expressed by the patriotic ribbons sometimes displayed on cars in America: “Freedom isn’t free”.  This sentiment, often intended to express appreciation for those who serve in the armed forces, is one I find to have deep applicability.  It could just as easily serve to bring attention to any people fighting (including non-violently) for their human rights and independence.  The key idea about freedom though is that true freedom involves some sort of sacrifice.  It’s not a free lunch.

Freedom Includes the Freedom to Make Mistakes, Including Mistakes that Harm Others:

Every parent knows this, and it is terrifying.  A natural part of raising children is the gradual gift of responsibility, allowing your children to make their own decisions, including bad ones, and teaching them how to understand and face the consequences of those decisions.  It is through this process that people (including some parents) eventually become adults.

Sometimes, however, I feel that humanity is only still growing up, that we are a global society of children.  More often than not, we behave like children, and we often treat other full-grown adults like children both by failing to take responsibility for our actions, and by not giving others the room to take responsibility for their actions.  When someone does something wrong, we attempt to punish them (often acting out of anger), and then the person who has done the wrong, rather than taking responsibility for their actions and taking actions to right the wrong, instead hires a lawyer to keep themselves from being punished.  Is this not childish on both ends?

Think of how responsible adults behave in a highly professional workplace when someone makes a mistake that harms the employer in some way.  Someone noticing the mistake promptly points it out, in a respectful manner, to the person who made the mistake; this person takes responsibility and commits extra time and work to undoing whatever damage was done, makes an apology when appropriate to those affected, and makes note of the situation so that it doesn’t happen again.  This gold standard of professionalism is a far cry from the prosecute-and-defend criminal “justice” system that our society works off of.

People Disregard Rules they See as Unjust:

We all know, from when we are children, what happens when an adult tries to give us a rule that we think is unfair.  The minute no one is looking, we go ahead and do what we want, completely disregarding the rule.  As adults, most of us are the same way: we follow most rules because we understand and agree with the rationale behind them.  But the minute there is a law people think is unwarranted, they won’t follow it.  Examples abound among people of all ages: underage drinking, tax evasion, illegal drugs, speeding, illegal use of copyrighted material–which includes music sharing.    Psychologists have studied these phenomena, and firmly established that people are more likely to engage in an activity if it is forbidden.  See Influence: Science and Practice by Robert B. Cialdini, Chapter 7, for a compelling exposition of this phenomenon.

IRS Tax Forms Strewn on a Bed

One year I was required to file no fewer than five tax returns, between state and local ones. The complexity of the tax system in the U.S. encourages people to cheat on their taxes, both because it makes it harder to follow all the rules, and because the complexity makes it easier to avoid getting caught.

If you’re reading this, you’re likely guilty of one of these offences, or of some other similar offense (I know I’m guilty of at least one of the above!).  And, like my example above, when people get caught doing something illegal, they often try as hard as they can to evade responsibility, sometimes by legal wrangling, or other times by hiding behind a position of authority that they hold.

Sustainability Enforced by the Iron Fist:

So what about when “sustainable” practices (such as energy efficiency, protecting the environment, not polluting) are enforced by law, under threat of punishment?  The U.S. government passes mandates for fuel efficiency of cars, and the automobile industry promptly responds by using the SUV loophole, not only to get around these, but even to give tax credits to SUV owners.  States like West Virginia are full of disturbing violations of EPA standards surrounding coal mining.  California residents bribe shops to pass the emissions test–one person posting on an internet forum even boasted: “If (you) want the name of a shop that you can bribe let me know.

Ford SUV with foggy Cleveland Skyline in Background

SUV's like this one utilize a loophole on regulations for emissions and fuel efficiency, so that they use fuel less efficiently and pollute more than normal cars, which must comply with tougher standards.

The bottom line is that you cannot use laws and regulation to achieve sustainability: the change needs to come from the hearts and minds of all the people making decisions.  In other words, you can’t achieve sustainability by taking away freedom.  In terms of the SUV analogy, the root problem is not that gas-guzzling vehicles are legal to manufacture and sell, the real problem is that people want to buy them.

Sustainability and Freedom:

Sustainability and freedom go hand in hand.  If you take away freedom, you take away sustainability.  This freedom must necessarily include the freedom to live unsustainably.  And yet we must ultimately live sustainably, if we are to survive and prosper.  To continue the analogy to children growing up, adults must learn to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet when they have the freedom and money to afford to eat only junk food.  This is the challenge: to balance the freedom to make the wrong decision with the reality of making the right decision.

If we can’t force sustainability to be achieved through law, how can we achieve it?

What do people respond to, if they don’t respond to the law?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Leadership – When people who are respected and liked lead by example, many people will not only voluntarily follow, but will go out of their way to follow the lead, even if it is costly and time-consuming for them to do so.
  • Price Incentives – People like to shop around for a bargain.  If we set up our laws and tax system so that sustainably-produced goods and services are cheaper, and unsustainable goods are more costly, people will naturally choose to live more sustainably in the course of seeking out lowest prices.  Rather than making unsustainable activities illegal, it would be more productive to simply make them more expensive.  This approach results in smaller, simpler government, as tax record keeping, as costly as it is, is much simpler than prosecution and fines.
  • Education and Knowledge – In general, the more people know about the effects their actions have on others and on the environment, the more they will make sustainable life choices.  Most people want to live sustainability, but they just make unsustainable choices because they haven’t ever thought about how these choices impact the greater world.  Rather than attacking or judging these people for their unsustainable choices, it would be more productive to encourage people to learn more, and make it easier for them to learn more about how their actions impact others, so that they naturally choose to live more sustainably.
Plants beginning to change color in early autumn

Just as these plants are only beginning to change colors in early fall, the United States is only beginning to embrace sustainability. You can do your part to advance this goal by being a leader, learning about the relevant issues, and asking tough questions to help find the best political and legal approaches to achieving sustainability.

What can you do?

  • Show your support of use taxes, carbon taxes, and other sustainability-focused taxes, as a replacement for income tax, sales tax, and other taxes that provide disincentives for economic activity.  Argue for using these taxes to replace regulations, fines, and prosecution- and lawsuit-based approaches.  This approach ensures a balance on the mainstream U.S. political spectrum, where conservatives tend to oppose both environmental taxes and regulations, and liberals tend to support both–thus making a bipartisan consensus more likely.
  • Refrain from judging or criticizing others who live less sustainably than you do.  Instead, focus on providing positive encouragement for them to start thinking about sustainability or to try out sustainability-promoting activities.
  • Do your own research about sustainability; learn how your choices and actions affect others.  Becoming more educated yourself is the best way to prepare you to help others to learn more about sustainability.  But don’t let your knowledge stop with yourself: share it in whatever ways you are best equipped to do, through writing, talking with others, through your job or career, or in any other means you find effective.
  • Be a leader in sustainability in your own life.  Make as much of an effort as you can to have a positive impact on the environment and society through your own personal choices and behaviors.  By living more sustainably, you will not only be making a direct difference, but you will be setting a positive example that others are likely to emulate.
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