Social conservatives have long argued that radical individualism—the essence of modern freedom—is corrosive to family and community life, and, if left unchecked, can even lead to civilizational collapse. But another, perhaps more damning, charge today is that individualism is bad for the environment. This seems paradoxical, as modern man sees himself as the quintessential environmentalist and his modern “freedom-loving” societies as the world’s environmental leaders. Underlying this green rhetoric, there is the simple fact that modern freedoms are ultimately material freedoms. As such, they are dependent on energy and resource flows. The more freedom, the more resources used, and the greater the pressures on the physical environment.
Freedom-loving societies have the highest levels of resource consumption on earth—by far. America is the paragon of individual freedom; she is also the global leader in resource use. We have five percent of the world’s population, yet consume a quarter of the world’s resources. The industrial nations of Europe and Asia, who often see America as the world’s great environmental villain, are not far behind. Together with the United States, all of the world’s freedom-loving nations (the so-called advanced industrial democracies) comprise about 25 percent of the population and consume about 75 percent of the world’s resources.
In addition to powerful states and markets, all freedom-loving societies have strong economies that can channel money and transform resources in amazing ways. This, in turn, also transforms these people’s lives. The “right to choose,” “enlightened self-interest,” “upward mobility,” “opportunity” and all the other noble terms used to describe modern freedoms are made possible by the unprecedented access and control of money and industrial products.
The automobile is the greatest symbol of individual freedom. A sign of status and social mobility, it is also the basis of the entire modern industrial system, intimately connected to the production of steel, glass, rubber, plastic, concrete, asphalt, and, of course, oil and gas. Even if global warming is not real, imminent, or the result of human action, the list of environmental costs associated with automobiles and all their related industries is long. They create air pollution, toxic waste, and sprawling cities that tear up ever more farms and forests so that freedom can spread far and wide. Hybrid cars, which use less fuel, are still dependent on polluting industries and do not slow traffic or urban sprawl in any way.
The desire for “personal space” has dramatically changed the way Americans and other freedom-loving peoples live. Houses are bigger and spread further from work and shopping than ever before. More energy and resources are now consumed per household, even as family size declines. Many freedom-lovers also live alone. Some purposefully eschew children to protect the planet from overpopulation. Yet, individuals living alone consume more resources per capita than people living in families. Homosexuals have some of the highest rates, another reason they have become the darlings of the corporate world; they spend and consume as if there were no tomorrow.
In recent years, high technology has become most synonymous with individual freedom, because its many products—cell phones, iPods, Blackberries, and computers—are so personalized. High-tech gurus also argue they are creating a new and better way of life for everyone, one that is greener than that based on coal, steel, and oil. This, too, is an illusion. The manufacture of silicon chips, the heart of the high-tech revolution, produces enormous amounts of waste, much of it toxic, because they require so much water and acid to process. Despite the promise of a paperless economy, paper use keeps increasing. (People keep printing out those darned e-mails!) Energy use also increases as more people spend time on computers, as does the amount of e-junk because of the rapid obsolescence of electronic gadgets. Most ironic is that the high-tech generation, so proud of being cutting edge in every way, has yet to jettison their automobiles—a 19th-century technology.
The eating habits of freedom-lovers also have high environmental costs. The general disdain for such dirty work as cooking and cleaning has created an enormous food and restaurant industry, which is centered on convenience and variety. The average freedom-lover today eats better than any traditional monarch. This modern food culture has a price, however. To satisfy consumer demands, the average food item in America travels 1,500 miles to its final destination. Fast, frozen, and processed foods further increase resource use as they require more packaging and storage. Despite all the technologies designed to preserve food—refrigeration, freezing, canning, drying, chemical preservatives—half of all food produced in America is never consumed. It goes to waste somewhere in the lengthy production-consumption cycle.
Freedom lovers also demand richer and more exotic foods. Goods such as coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar, and tropical fruits were once specialty items. Meat and fatty foods were eaten sparingly. Today, they are staples. These foods require considerable energy to transport. They also require a lot to produce, because the higher a food’s caloric content, the higher its resource needs. For example, it takes far more water and land to raise a pound of meat than it does a pound of grain. And as demand for these luxury goods increases, so does production. In the case of animals, this leads to factory farms, where thousands of creatures are packed together in inhumane conditions and pumped with growth hormones for quick sale. This large volume of animals creates an equally large volume of waste that constantly threatens water and air quality, not to mention human health.
Even those purists who desire a healthier and more humane diet—vegans and vegetarians—still use considerable energy and resources. Organic produce often travels farther than other foods to satisfy these specialized demands. Much of it winds up at Wal-Mart, which is becoming the number one seller of organic produce in the United States. Soybeans are an important substitute for animal protein. But they are hard on soils, and, as demand for them increases, more forests are cleared, especially in the tropics. Grocery stores now have entire freezer sections dedicated to healthy and organic foods, making electrical utility shareholders especially proud they are helping create both a healthier and a greener planet.
Freedom-lovers also love traveling. But these new globetrotters are far different from those of the past, for whom the enjoyment and study of architecture, language, and geography was an art. Travel is now an industry, and, like all industries, it pollutes on a grand scale. The biggest problem is that freedom-lovers want all their freedoms (air-conditioning, bottled water, rich foods, and technical gadgets) wherever they go. African safari lodges serve spreads that outdo any American luxury hotel. Mount Everest is littered with hundreds of tons of trash, as are countless other tourist “getaways.” Yosemite Valley, once known for its tranquility, is now packed with RVs and cars blaring radios in the name of freedom. What better place to listen to the L.A. Lakers while munching on a bucket of factory-farmed chicken, followed by a Snickers bar, all washed down by a Coke?
Defenders of freedom-loving societies are quick to note that, despite this conspicuous consumption, these industries all create jobs. They will also argue that, thanks to effective political and economic institutions and superior technology, freedom-loving societies have far better environmental records than communist regimes, Muslim theocracies, or Third World dictatorships. They could teach these people a thing or two, not only about freedom, but also about the environment. It is true that freedom-loving societies have progressively improved their environment over the last century. Los Angeles air is cleaner than it was 30 years ago. Ohio has more forests than it did in 1900, and salmon now swim in the Thames. But problems remain.
One problem is that freedom-loving societies have shifted many of their most environmentally destructive industries overseas. In addition to agriculture and raw-material extraction, manufacturing is rapidly being moved to the developing world. This is partly because of cheap labor, but also because there are few or no environmental standards in any of these countries. Newly industrializing countries such as India, China, and Mexico have some of the worst environmental conditions on earth.
And these developing countries are creating their own freedom-loving classes, which raises the question, How many freedom-lovers can the earth sustain? If every person in India consumed as the average American does, it would take several extra planets to provide all the resources. And if poor countries cannot supply freedom quickly and thoroughly enough, those desiring freedom emigrate. Where do they go? To the freedom-loving countries, which must all deal with the problem of their massive material wealth in the face of the destitute who want it. Furthermore, these massive migration movements depend on large energy and resource flows. Trucks, cars, buses, boats, and planes are constantly on the move. Even those traveling on foot, such as the illegal aliens crossing the Southern border of the United States, spread trash, burn things, poach, and trample delicate ecosystems.
The biggest problem lies with the freedom-loving societies and the way they define environment and freedom. Like everything else in their world, these concepts are viewed in abstract and utilitarian terms. The environment is defined as “natural resources,” for human use; or “wilderness,” a place of escape; or an “ecosystem,” a series of complex and interconnected parts. Freedom has simply become “the right to do what one likes,” which is equally problematic. Freedom has been thoroughly individualized, reduced to selfishness and greed—the fulfillment of appetite. And for freedom-lovers, the environment is for immediate use and pleasure without regard for its ecological integrity or value to future generations.
Modern environmental policy is equally flawed because it is built around these same concepts. The government and the marketplace exist to manage man’s freedoms. Paradoxically, they also have to prevent man from becoming too destructive of the environment. So, government spends millions of dollars to protect fragile habitats while simultaneously granting developers tax breaks to destroy them. Industry produces many wonderful green technologies and products while constantly pushing to expand production and consumption.
We need to redefine freedom and the environment. First, freedom must mean something more than the pursuit of material pleasures and products. Material consumption is part of human existence, not the whole of it. Materialism must be balanced by nonmaterial or spiritual pursuits. The importance of tranquility and beauty must be paramount in any environmental discussion. The ideas of reverence and piety toward all living things must also be stressed over purely utilitarian values.
Second, we must realize that the environment is more than just a physical place. It is a living thing as well as something spiritual, a world where humans interact with one another, plants, animals, mountains, valleys, rivers, and seas to create cultures and civilizations. Our distortion of freedom is linked precisely to the fact that the physical world we inhabit is no longer seen in this way. Perhaps, we should jettison the environment entirely and replace it with Creation. As Wendell Berry has noted, Creation is connected to such words as creature, creativity, and Creator. As a creature, every man is duty-bound to add to and maintain that great and mysterious process of Creation through his creativity.
Finally, a more sustainable and livable world requires more than good government and effective markets: It requires greater personal morality and responsibility. Good conservation must be based on stewardship and subsidiarity, which begins with the individual and community and then radiates outward. Families and communities should strive to be as self-reliant as possible. Locally grown and seasonal foods (as well as other products) should be given priority over those shipped long distances and from exotic locales. Smaller homes constructed of local materials should be sought out, preferably within walking or biking distance to work, church, and shopping. Work at home, if possible. A greater focus on local production should be matched with an overall reduction in consumption. In the end, the focus must be on living simply. The simple and virtuous life, that which minimizes personal and immediate satisfaction, is intrinsically beneficial to society and the physical environment. It is also instinctively conservative.
The so-called environmental crisis is really a facet of the broader cultural crisis. Both involve disconnection—in one case, from the surrounding geography and its plant and animal communities; in the other, from the human community and its history and traditions. All of this is really the fruit of modernity. But, as Chesterton once said, the modern world is not wrong; it is crazy. Its technologies and institutions are not necessarily bad, but out of balance. It is up to conservatives to begin to reveal these excesses and contradictions. The conservative way is not a panacea. Rather, it is a corrective—the injection of prudence and wisdom into an unhealthy organism. It is the ability to see nature and culture holistically and to find holistic remedies. If those remedies are not applied soon, we may all perish from too much freedom.