09 June 2011

If 'the Earth is full,' is that the end of freedom?

Thomas L. Friedman's latest discovery is an Australian "environmentalist-entrepreneur," Paul Gilding, who's published a book called The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World. That's not a title you expect to see an entrepreneur publishing, but Gilding tells Friedman that resource limits and climate change will inevitably impose social and cultural changes on everyone. In Gilding's words, “the Earth is full. We are now using so many resources and putting out so much waste into the Earth that we have reached some kind of limit, given current technologies. The economy is going to have to get smaller in terms of physical impact.”

To be more specific, Gilding argues that the imminent crisis will oblige everyone to abandon a "consumer-driven growth model," though he softens the expected blow by proposing, as an alternative, "a more happiness-driven growth model, based on people working less and owning less." I guess that's where the entrepreneurship comes in; Gilding intends to link happiness with having less stuff. That's going to be a hard sell in some quarters, particularly in the good old U.S.A., where a smaller economy based on owning less will inevitably be seen as a loss of personal freedom, especially if the shrinkage is mandated by government. In Gilding and Friedman's own scenario, further limitations on "freedom" are implicit. Population growth, for instance, puts increasing pressure on limited food supplies and on an economy that no longer needs the raw manpower it used to. Creating jobs to make work for even more people puts more pressure on the climate. While Friedman doesn't bring up the prospect himself, Gilding may well propose in his book that population control will be part of his great downsizing, a prospect most Americans across the ideological spectrum regard with horror.

Gilding hopes for a future with "a growth model based on giving people more time to enjoy life, but with less stuff." He'll have to overcome generations of raw materialist notions of both happiness and freedom if he expects Americans to embrace this idea. There have always been some whose notion of happiness has been based largely on leisure, but most of us have been trained to base our happiness on what we own and our ability to get more whenever we want. Likewise, many of us identify "freedom" with an ability to earn as much as we can and buy as much as we want with our earnings. The once-popular notion that freedom is linked to frugality, and threatened by luxury, seems ancient and alien to us now. But the idea of freedom once wasn't as materialistic as it is now, so it may grow less so in the future. If Friedman and Gilding are to be believed, that'll have to happen, and Gilding, for one, is optimistic. He tells Friedman, "We may be slow, but we’re not stupid." That remains to be seen, and a world-historical perspective might not be as optimistic. Corruption and decadence may be inevitable and inescapable for our culture as they were for the great cultures of the past. But pessimism will only fulfill a negative prophecy. We remain free in the most essential sense as long as we are able to take part through words and actions in whatever change comes instead of taking orders from self-appointed technocrats. In one sense, freedom has meant not being prevented by arbitrary power from doing what's necessary. The "great disruption" Gilding predicts may challenge all of us to affirm this kind of freedom against an ideology disguised as "freedom" that seems determined to stop us from saving ourselves.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is refreshing to learn that there are at least a couple other people who have come to the same conclusion I reached years ago.

Resources are finite. Space is finite. If we continue to act as though these things are not finite, without planning to get off this planet to make use of resources within the solar system and beyond, we will damn ourselves to an eventual return to primitivism.