Personal freedom & social collapse


For some time we’ve been discussing two interrelated issues: how humans relate to the planet, and how humans relate to each other.

The ecological crisis requires that humanity significantly reduces its impact on the planet, which can only come about through:

  1. top-down control/coercion,
  2. voluntary action,
  3. a combination of economic and population collapse.

The first is highly undesirable and almost certainly unworkable (given the record of previous attempts, e.g. communist regimes). The second is preferable but unrealistic, as governments are most unlikely ever to agree on behalf of their people to the necessary sacrifices (e.g. Rio +20), and groups of citizens working together will never have more than a negligible effect on the overall problem. The third is not a policy option but a plausible and alarming consequence of inaction.

In contrast, the core issue for modern human society is the development of personal freedom. Most of the political argument over the last century or so has been about this, though many of the options have presented this is in language that now seems strange to us. I’m not arguing for historical inevitability, though in the globalised era it does seem to be the case that when people have tasted some measure of freedom or observed it elsewhere, they demand more of it for themselves. Part of the psychological appeal of capitalism and consumerism is that they give some experience of personal choice. The hundreds of millions of the new middle classes in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere will certainly feel that their lives have got better. Greater economic freedom probably leads to an expectation of freedom in other areas of life because it expands the idea of personal sovereignty. We no longer see ourselves as part of the collective in the same way and become less willing to submit to controls and coercion. The “social contract” has been rewritten, and on the whole this is a very good thing.

These two trends are clearly antagonistic. This is the dilemma of contemporary humanity, and I see no means of resolution unless people become radically different from the way they are and are ever likely to be. This is where we’ve got to in the “human beings on planet earth experiment”, and the outcome doesn’t look very hopeful. However, we don’t know how this will play out and over what timescale, so I don’t think we should become overly pessimistic. We are still individually experiencing the miracle of life, and there are endless things we can do to make our lives rewarding and meaningful, including acting on behalf of others and the planet. The point is not to be deluded about this, or fanatical, or coercive.

I have no blueprint to offer. I know I cannot preach to others actions I’m not prepared to take myself. My life is not “sustainable” in planetary terms, and neither is yours. Also, I’m not willing to accept others’ rules about how I should live my life. I am very wary of the collective. I am clearly part of the problem rather than the solution!

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