What Does It Mean to Be Free?

The question that world wars are made of.

Photo by Juan Medina - Reuters

The post-World War II American dream was a strange, fleeting moment in global history – an opulent and optimistic 50 years when the world was our oyster and individual freedom reigned supreme. Now we’re beginning to realize that this dazzling celebration of individual autonomy begat some very dark consequences. It gave birth to entire generations of hyper-individuals plagued by a bottomless hunger for MORE. Despite footprints five times larger than they should be, they still want MORE. And when they don’t have the money, they turn their backs on reality, max out their cards and get what they want anyway.

Over the space of only 50 years, consumption in America went up by 300 percent and the American dream devolved into an insatiable colony of hungry ghosts. If you scratch just beneath the surface of our ecological and economic crises, you’ll find a crisis at the core of consciousness — a diseased way of life and sense of self — a cultural crisis of freedom-without-responsibility run amok.

Now with the world’s natural capital largely consumed and the climatic tipping point approaching fast, we’re in for a massive reappraisal of what individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness are really all about. Is every person on the planet entitled to glide around in a ton of metal — air conditioning blasting, gasoline burning? Does every human being on Earth have the right to a fridge, a flush toilet, hot running water and a car?


Here’s the $64-billion apocalypse-now question that Copenhagen failed to answer: Should the right to emit greenhouse gases be shared equally by all people on Earth? Known in diplomatic circles as the “per capita principle,” this universal, one-standard-for-all principle has long been insisted upon by China, India, Brazil and most other developing nations. Applying this principle would allow each of the planet’s seven billion people an annual emissions quota of 2.7 tons of carbon dioxide. That’s harsh news for Americans and Canadians, who currently emit 20 tons per person, Europeans who emit 9 tons, Australians who emit 18 tons and Japanese who emit 9 tons.

So will we, the rich and powerful nations, abide by this principle? Do we have the self-discipline and spiritual fortitude to radically shrink our footprints? Will Al Gore move into a hut … will Bill and Melinda Gates move out of their 70,000-square-foot mansion and learn to live frugally? Will a new set of cultural heroes emerge to lead us? Or, as the pain and sacrifice mount, will we suddenly throw down the gauntlet and fight to keep what we have?

That’s the stuff that world wars are made of.