We are so used to the idea that we must each have the freedom to choose, well, just about everything in our lives. We imagine that we are independently constructing a “life of our own.” We have, in our minds at least, an inalienable right to choose and to live our own unique “lifestyle.” That privilege is seen from within the American consumer culture as a fundamental, even constitutional, right of every “consumer.” With the development of consumerism, the idea of “the consumer,” seems to have replaced the concept of citizen. Many people’s understanding of freedom has narrowed considerably as a result.
Democracy, on the other hand, is an inherently social concept; it refers to a people fully engaged in the decisions that affect their collective lives. Humans, like all other living species, are interdependent for their survival and well-being. As individuals become more dependent on the corporate state, the freedom that is made possible by democracy begins to fade.
Freedom to Consume
Our concept of lifestyle is closely related to our consumer behavior; in fact, each seems to embody the other. Our consumer behavior is our lifestyle. The pursuit of consumer lifestyles has itself become the defining element of our “freedom.” It is hard to imagine that this is exactly what the founding fathers had in mind in shaping the Bill of Rights. Political freedom seems to have receded into a background abstraction – another consequence of the ascendency of the corporate state.
Of course, much of our so called “freedom” is actually conformity to some mass-media generated image of our personal uniqueness and “individuality.” Any potential authenticity in that image is transformed by the corporate mass media to maximize consumption, profit, and, incidentally, waste and pollution.
Thorsten Veblen described the status-enhancing behavior of the “leisure class” of the booming U.S. industrial society at the end of the nineteenth century as “conspicuous consumption.”[i] Today, conspicuous consumption is no longer limited to displays of excess by the very wealthy. The ever growing productivity of the industrial system requires mass consumption to generate enough demand for its ever-growing supply of products. The desire for consumption beyond need has to be stimulated for demand to keep up with production. The consumer culture is driven by the need of capital investment to expand production and sales so that principle and interest can be paid back and a profit made. The agent of that culture is mass-media propaganda.
Ultimately, in an endless-growth economy, demand cannot keep up. Nor can the supply of raw materials for ever more efficient production.
Illusions of Freedom, Denial of Necessity
The debt and growth driven economy has no viable boundaries within its own operating model. It admits to no natural or environmental boundaries to its growth. But there are limits to growth on this finite planet and they have been known for decades.[ii] The contemporary dilemma of political economy is of an entirely different order than that framed by conventional economics. We are faced with two directly related imperatives, one economic, the other physical-environmental. The growth economy has reached its natural limit and the expanding consumption of earth’s resources is surpassing the carrying capacity of the planet. Together these two elements of industrial society have come a long way in destabilizing the living earth systems upon which we depend, as well as the climate system upon which their stability depends.
Put aside for a moment the climate deniers — a good idea in itself. Fundamentalist deniers would dead-head us into an earth-bound “end times” in order to retain their faith that only God controls the weather. The more secular deniers won’t give up the corporate largess they enjoy or seek; they are not going to be convinced of scientific facts by rational argument. They want the economic growth of the industrial era to continue forever, or at least while they grab all they can. However, neither the material facts of resource depletion, pollution and waste, nor the climate disruption caused by industrial society will allow continuation on this path. magical thinking cannot overcome the laws of physics nor the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate disruption. Science is not a matter of political opinion or religious fervor.
Ironies of Democracy and Science
The more important issues are found in questions of how to respond to the scientifically verified facts of impending human crisis, knowing their truth. Those facts include a rapidly destabilizing climate, an increasingly unstable overly integrated world financial system, a debt-driven overproducing intolerably unfair corporate dominated economy, and growing cultural chaos and political violence.
Climate destabilization involves an incredibly wide range of variables in an extremely complex system over which humans have had very little control. Diverse human actions, all involving the burning of carbon, inadvertently disrupted that system for two hundred years until the consequences became obvious to those who observed, measured, and analyzed them.
The first major evidence of an impending climate crisis was hidden by the petroleum industry, enabling it to grab a couple more decades of undue profit while the problem grew far worse and now threatens humanity itself. Along the way, it funded large scale climate denying propaganda using the same marketing that the tobacco industry used to delay acceptance of the facts of damaged health from smoking cigarettes. The damage done, however, is global, not just to a single sector of the population.
The scientific ethic of accepting socially verified evidence in the face of prior contrary beliefs has led to countless advances in knowledge and technological innovation. The ability of NASA to land a man on the moon, etc., resulted from the same basic scientific processes that produced the findings of climate science.
Once clear trends from vast amounts of data are confirmed, “theory” is no longer a matter of opinion. The math of verified laws of physics and the evidence of repeated observation that produced aerospace program success were never subject to denial propaganda. And they involved a very focused goal and the development of very specific technologies to achieve it. This allowed an incredibly high degree of control over a very narrow range of variables with highly predictable outcomes. In that respect, climate science is very different. Any attempt to achieve climate restabilization will require the mobilization of entire populations to change their institutions and behavior.
The democratic processes of science have produced knowledge verified by countless data sets and analyses.[iii] Unlike the behavior of nations, those facts are not negotiable. Physics, in that sense, is objective. It is up to humans to respond to reality in a way that improves our chances as the chaos grows. But the formally democratic institutions of the industrial societies have completely failed to take actions to counter the deadly trends we know are occurring. The only chance to overcome the moribund political institutions and achieve the necessary will come from the diverse social movements now building around the world, demanding climate action that goes far beyond COP21 platitudes and international empty promises.
Freedom is Survival
How do we retain our consumerist illusion of unbounded personal “lifestyle” freedom in a new situation that calls for massive social change? We do not. We simply do not have that luxury, even though the corporate state would have you believe you do. If we want to survive without global extreme climate chaos and collapse of society along with the failed-growth economy and climate-destabilized agriculture, we must act collectively and quickly.
Despite the claims that technological innovation within the industrial system can reduce carbon emissions enough to thwart climate catastrophe and all the chaos that entails, only major constraint of industrial production and consumption themselves will be enough. That is not a welcome fact. The power elites are still in denial about the necessity of transformative change, as they seek piecemeal profitable technological fixes. But another way is not only possible, it is undeniably necessary. It must come from people and communities organizing themselves for the change that the large institutions deem impossible. Reorganizing society from the bottom up must happen because the top-down institutions are strangling any serious initiative from the top. This is not a lifestyle choice. Rather, it is the necessity of collectively choosing complex and massive social actions to improve the chances for the survival of our species.
[i] Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure class. (1899) New York: Penguin Books, 1979.
[ii] Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis L. Meadows, Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update (New York: Chelsea Green, 3rd ed., 2004), confirms the projections of the 1972 book, Limits to Growth, based on computer models of resource depletion by MIT scientists. Simply put, humanity has overshot the environment’s ability to physically and biologically sustain human life at the scale to which it has grown. This will lead to the collapse of civilization unless radical changes are instituted to reduce the human load on the planet’s carrying capacity.
[iii] The scientific consensus on climate change, while continually being refined, includes some very clear and uncontested trends. Many of these have accelerated faster than predicted. The intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made up of scientists from around the world, has consistently under-predicted changes. Perhaps that is because its reports are mediated by the nation states that it reports to. The trends are nevertheless clear and increasingly disturbing. Any mitigation efforts that hope to be adequate must also be comprehensive and complex, resulting in significant “lifestyle” changes, mostly in fully industrialized nations where carbon emissions continue to be vastly larger than in non-industrialized regions.