Thoughts on the Fourth of July

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Being an American on the Fourth, I can't but think about the symbolism and meaning of our Independence Day. Two things come to mind: one is historic and one is contemporary. The historic dwells on the meaning of independence. 234 years ago, it was a call for freedom from the domination of a hegemonic nation. Along with the reaction to the British tyranny felt by the people as a whole, the colonists expressed a new kind individual freedom with its roots in the very spirit of being human. That spirit, as expressed in a myriad of journalistic pieces celebrating this day, has propelled the US to an unparalleled place in the modern world, long the envy of other nations aspiring to the material and existential richness available to most of our citizens.

But while the spirit may still exist, the world has changed dramatically. In the simplest of terms, it has become too small to accommodate today's demands on both humans and the world itself. This is the backdrop to the concerns about sustainability that are now juxtaposed against these demands for more and more. We must ask ourselves whether the ringing words of the Declaration of Independence are literally true for us today. Science has brought us much knowledge about how the world, including the human species, works, and has spawned the many technological marvels of modernity. The cost of that kind of knowledge, however, comes in a diminishing of our understanding of how the world really does work.

We still believe as a society that freedom and choice are one and the same, but fail to see the connections between one person's choices and others' freedom and well-being. The connection may have been of no or little consequence in 1776. Today we have begun to appreciate and elevate the recognition that we are all connected not only to one another but also to the world that supports our very being. That we have forgotten or never learned this "irreducible and stubborn fact" (A. N. Whitehead) is all too evident in the inequalities present and growing in the US, and in the pressure put on the planetary system to the point where that engine of life sputters and threatens to stop working.

Is anyone really free when so many on the Earth cling precariously to life? In the terms I use to define sustainability, can anyone flourish when others, considering all life, do not. Can I flourish at the same time my (yes, my) actions destroy a large and once vibrant Gulf of Mexico and all the life that was to found there? Can our Nation survive yet another attempt at ripping it asunder as our current political talk suggests? We can all arise to the occasion of the Fourth by making sure that whenever we express our freedom through the choices we make that we acknowledge that we are bound to everyone and everything affected by our actions. We can no longer act as if we have the independence to do act as we please.

The second thought I have today is related to the first. Recently, I read several pieces commenting on the country's mood, which is generally down in the mouth. People are looking to "get their life back." But what if the old way of life cannot be sustained in spite of the great spirit of America. We seem both on a collective and individual sense, to be ignoring the understanding I mentioned above that we are all connected in the wonderful, but complex Earth system. What I do no longer remains an isolated action leaving the rest of the system more or less in the same state. Like Lorenz's butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil and setting off a tornado in Texas?, my purchase of a latte in Brunswick, Maine has an impact on the lives of farmers in South America and on the forests there.

Getting my life back presupposes that the old way was sustainable except for something that was not working but could be fixed. A stimulus here and there to get the economy rolling so everyone could exercise all those choices. A little tax (maybe) here and there to shift consumption towards a greener state. Companies that would keep me on the job my whole life. All of these and other wishes certainly have merit, but fail to acknowledge that the world of the prior "good" life just isn't around any more and, even if it ever was, couldn't have kept producing the life that we thought was due to us as an inalienable right. We all must learn to rethink the Declaration of Independence in the context of a finite, complex world and stop reaching back for the good life. The challenge of sustainability lies ahead: to redefine critical terms, like freedom, happiness, or flourishing in new ways, ways that bring forth the human spirit but in keeping with our unfolding understanding of how the world really works.

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1 Comments

David M Carter said:

Lovely essay! It should be published in the NY Times.