Saturday, May 26, 2007

Freedom and Life

Are we really free? When we here politicians talk about defending and protecting our freedom, are they talking about the kind of freedom Derrick Jensen talks about in the essay below?

One of the primary fictions that governs our lives is that we are in any meaningful sense free. Our way of life is predicated on freedom, and is freer than any other way of life that has ever existed, we tell ourselves endlessly, drearily, compulsively, as sleep-deprived we look out the window at the concrete walls of a subway tunnel, on a cattle car carrying us too slow yet too fast toward a job we do not love to make money to buy things we do not want, in a life carrying us too slow yet too fast toward an end—death—for which we are not prepared, having never really lived.

We are slaves who know next to nothing of freedom. Sure, there are endless diversions available for those who have the money to afford them, and there are, for example, endless varieties of sugar-laden drinks to give us energy and make us fat: recognizing that us in this case is the very rich, and recognizing also that these sugar-laden drinks come at the cost of destroyed aquifers below those whose water is stolen (and we could of course perform the same exercise for our endless varieties of toothpaste, cars, electronic devices, and so on). We have the freedom to consume, and then consume, and then consume some more. We have the freedom to exploit and to be exploited, and then to exploit and to be exploited some more.

But we do not have the freedom to not live under an exploitative, hierarchical system that is killing the planet. This culture systematically destroys non-exploitative, non-hierarchical, sustainable cultures. That’s what it does. It systematically destroys all alternatives (try living as a hunter-gatherer as part of a functioning natural community on Manhattan Island), which means it destroys the ability to say no to participating in it, which means that participation in it is not voluntary, not free. It systematically destroys real freedoms. It systematically destroys landbases. And this renders the “freedoms” we do have—which should in all reality be called “freedoms™”—pointless, because the freedom to live on a planet not being killed is the most important freedom of all. It is, in fact, the only one that really matters: without a living planet, you have no freedom, because you have no life at all. It doesn’t matter how many freedoms™ you claim—even the freedom to change jobs you hate, even the freedom to vote among corporate-owned representatives—if you can’t breathe the air and can’t drink the water (except the water they sell you).


The “answer” to the problem of us having few real freedoms is not to demand more freedoms from those who are enslaving us in the first place. Unless we have the power to back up these demands and force change, the demands™ are really nothing more than begging. Rather instead we need to take so-called freedoms away from those in power. We need to deprive the rich of their freedom (and ability) to steal from the poor, and to deprive the powerful of their freedom (and capacity) to destroy the planet.

Here’s how I came to understand that. I often give talks, at universities and elsewhere. Just before I walked on stage for one such talk, the person who brought me there whispered, “I forgot to tell you, but I publicized this as a speech about human rights and freedoms. Can you make sure to talk about that?”

I nodded agreement, although I had no idea what to say. Everything that came to me was tepid, along the lines of “Human rights and freedoms are good.” I may as well say I’m for apple pie and the girl next door. As I walked on stage, however, I suddenly knew what I had to say. “Most people,” I said, “who care about human rights and freedoms and who talk about them in a meaningful fashion, as opposed to those who use them as a smokescreen to facilitate production and implement policies harmful to humans and nonhumans, usually spend a lot of energy demanding the realization of rights and freedoms those in power give lip service to. Sometimes they expand their demands to include things—like a livable planet—people don’t often associate with human rights and freedoms. People have a right to clean air, we say, and clean water. We have a right to food. We have a right to bodily integrity. Women (and men) have the right to not be raped. Some even go so far as to say that nonhumans, too, have the right to clean air and water. They have the right to habitat. They have the right to continued existence.”

People nodded. Who but a sociopath or a capitalist—insofar as there is a difference—could disagree with any of these?

“But,” I continued, “I’m not sure that’s the right approach. I think that instead of adding rights and freedoms we need to subtract them.”

Silence. Frowns. The narrowing of eyes.

“No one,” I said, “has the right to toxify a river. No one should be free to do that. No one has the right to pollute the air. No one has the right to drive a creature to extinction, nor destroy a species’ habitat. No one has the right to profit from the labor or misery of another. No one has the right to steal resources from another. No one has these freedoms.”

They seemed to get it.

I continued, “The first thing to do is recognize in our own hearts and minds that no one has any of these rights or freedoms, because clearly on some level we do perceive others as having them, or we wouldn’t allow rivers to be toxified, oceans to be vacuumed, and so on. Having become clear ourselves, we then need to let those in power know we’re taking back our permission, that they have no right to wield this power the way they do—they do not have that freedom—because clearly on some level they, too, perceive themselves as having the right to kill the planet, or they wouldn’t do it. Of course they have entire philosophical, theological, and judicial systems in place to buttress their perceptions. As well as, of course, bombs, guns, and prisons. And then, if our clear statement that they have no right fails to convince them—and I wouldn’t hold my breath here—we’ll be faced with a decision: how do we stop them?”
A lot of people seemed to agree. Then after the talk someone asked me, “Aren’t these just different ways of saying the same thing?”

I wasn’t sure what she meant.

“What’s the difference between saying I have the right to not be raped, and saying to some man, ‘You have no right to rape me’?”

I was stumped. But then I realized there’s an experiential difference between these two ways of putting it. A big one. Pretend you’re in an abusive relationship. Picture yourself saying to this other person, “I have the right to be treated with respect.” Now, that may developmentally be important for you to say, but there comes a point when it’s no longer appropriate to keep the focus on you—you’re not the problem. Contrast how that former statement feels with how it feels to say: “You have no right to treat me this way.” The former is almost a supplication, the latter almost a command. And its focus is on the perpetrator.

For too long we’ve been supplicants. For too long the focus has been on us. It’s time we simply set out to stop those who are doing wrong.


I used to teach at a university. My primary task as I saw it was to simply accept, cherish, and praise my students into becoming who they really were. I didn’t so much need to teach them as I needed to provide a safe and supportive environment where with my encouragement they could learn. Many felt a freedom—there’s that word—they had never felt before. And they flourished under that freedom.

I often wondered what I would do if I had the same students for not one but two quarters. And I always came up with the same answer. If this first quarter was about liberation, the second would be about responsibility. Every person needs to learn and experience—incorporate, that is, take into the body—both. And they’re inseparable. Either without the other becomes a parody, and leads to inappropriate and self- and other-destructive behaviors generally characteristic of unconscious or unintentional parodies. Responsibility without freedom is slavery. As we see. Freedom without responsibility is immaturity. As we also see. Put them together and you’ve got an entire culture consisting of immature slaves. As we see as well, unfortunately both for us and for those we meet. These parodies may be very good if you’re interested in growing the economy, but they’re very bad if you’re interested in life.


What, then, does it mean to be responsible? How can one become responsible?
Maybe it will help to know what the word means. Let’s take a walk through a dictionary. “Responsible: liable to be called upon to answer.”

Now, let’s follow back the etymology. “Responsible: 1599, ‘answerable (to another, for something),’ from Fr. responsable, from L. responsus, pp. of respondere ‘to respond’ (see respond).” Let’s keep going back. “Respond: c.1300, respound, from O.Fr. respondere ‘respond, correspond,’ from L. respondere ‘respond, answer to, promise in return,’ from re- ‘back’ + spondere ‘to pledge.’ Modern spelling and pronunciation is from c.1600.”[i]
To be responsible is to promise in return. The questions become: to whom is this promise made?

And in return for what?

This goes to the heart of the “problem” of our lack of freedom, and more deeply to the heart of what is wrong with this culture.


Who feeds you?

What is the source of your life?

To whom do you owe your life?

If your experience—far deeper than belief or perception—is that your food comes from the grocery store (and your water from the tap), from the economic system, from the social system we call civilization, it is to this you will pledge back your life. If you experience this social system as the source of your life, you will be responsible to this social system. You will defend this social system to your very death.

If your experience—far deeper than belief or perception—is that food and water come from your landbase, or more broadly from the living earth, you will make and keep promises to your landbase in exchange for this food. You will honor and keep and participate in the fundamental predator/prey relationship. You will be responsible to the community that supplies you with food and water. You will defend this community to your very death.

When the social system into which you’ve been enculturated is destroying the landbases on which all life depends, that question of who you are responsible to—to whom you make and keep your promises—makes all the difference in the world.


My dictionary defines freedom as “the condition of being free of restraints.” That is not possible. It’s not even desirable. We all have restraints. The absolutely crucial questions include: What are those restraints? Who restrains us (us or someone else)? Why are these restraints in place? and, Whom do these restraints serve? Another way to put this is: we all serve someone or something. Whom or what do you serve?


Here are some more questions. To whom will you be called upon to answer? By whom do you wish to be called upon to answer?

With every word I write—especially when what I write scares me—I think about these questions. And here are my answers I come to every day. I write for the salmon, and for the trees, and for the soil beneath my feet. I write for the bees, frogs, and salamanders. I write for bats and owls. I write for sharks and grizzly bears. When I find myself wanting to not tell the truth as I understand it to be—when I find the truth too scary, too threatening—I think of them, and I think of what I owe them: my life. I will not—cannot—disappoint them.

And I consider myself answerable to—responsible to—the humans who will come after, who will inherit the wreckage our generation is leaving to them. When I want to lie, to turn my face away from the horrors, to understate the magnitude of what we must do and what we must unmake, to give answers that are not as deep and clear and real as I can possibly comprehend and articulate, I picture myself standing before humans a hundred years from now, and I picture myself answering to them for my actions and inactions. Them, too, I will not—cannot—disappoint.

I can sometimes lie to myself. I could probably even lie to you. But to them—to all of those to whom I hold myself responsible—I could never lie. To them, and for them, I give my brightest, deepest truth.

I do this so that they will be free from the restraints of this awful culture, so that they will be free to be truly responsible to themselves, to the land where they live, and to those who come after them.

[i] “Online Etymology Dictionary.

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