Post fossil freedom
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“They may take our lives, but they can never take our freedom!”
Many will remember the line immortalised by Mel Gibson in his Braveheart. At the time, the film was much maligned by critics for its projection of 20th-century American ideals onto 13th-century Scots. As a 9-year-old, these attacks made little sense to me: “Surely the cry for freedom resonates with all people?” I thought.
— by Timothy Stacey
In a sense, I was right. Freedom was then and remains one of the most evocative political rallying cries around the world. It is central to the notion of humanitarian intervention, which has dragged Western nations into war since the 18th century.[i] It was successfully mobilised to found the welfare state.[ii] And it is now a buzzword for the nativists being swept to power across the world.[iii]
But I was also being naive. Even if the urge for freedom speaks to something deep within us, what it means changes from place to place, and from one generation to the next.[iv] Both lessons are crucial for those wishing to mobilise environmental action. Those who write the book of freedom gain huge political rewards.
The power of freedom is something those on the right of politics have long understood. It is currently wielded to great effect by climate deniers, who treat emission reduction policies as just another scheme concocted by elites to impose constraints on ordinary working people.[v] The power of this narrative is its intuitive appeal. Just look within yourself. How often do you associate doing right by the environment with placing constraints on yourself? Fly less, eat less meat, buy less clothes, use less electricity. I’m not suggesting this is an illusion. The feeling of being constrained is real. But reality itself is always constructed. In this case, our idea of what is possible and desirable is deeply bound up with the burning of fossil fuels.
Fly less, eat less meat, buy less clothes, use less electricity...The feeling of being constrained is real. But reality itself is always constructed.
The culture industry has spent generations convincing us that freedom means saying, feeling, and doing whatever we want to, whenever we want to, and with whoever we want to. This requires a colossal amount of resources. Having our own private home where we can say what we want to without worrying about the consequences. Ensuring the room is at a temperature that makes us comfortable. Having meals delivered to our door. Escaping from the city on weekends. Escaping the country on holidays. Alongside others, I have been calling this fossil freedom: an imaginary for which the expression of freedom requires the burning of fossil fuels or their green replacements.
Ironically, we work overtime and drive ourselves into debt in service fossil freedom. We hold onto images of blue skies, sandy beaches and table service to push ourselves that extra mile at work. Two weeks of being treated like the master to justify a life of feeling like a slave.
Climate campaigners are understandably loathe to stray into this territory. Far from a source of transformation, they see freedom as part of the problem.[vi] But thinking in this way cedes too much territory to climate deniers, reinforcing the assumption that their image of freedom is the only one available and that, ultimately, we must choose between freedom and doing what’s right.
Freedom could be conceived very differently. For example, Plato spoke about freedom as the ability to take distance from one’s bodily desires in search of truth - in other words, freedom required learning to forgo the very pleasures that so many contemporary Westerners see as epitomising freedom.[vii] His was not a niche idea. Something similar finds expression in a number of the so-called world religions like Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism, as well as in lifestyle trends like minimalism.
The longevity and global spread of this idea alone testifies to the plausibility of post-fossil freedom: an imaginary for which the expression of freedom is not dependent on the burning of fossil fuels or their green replacements. Note that post-fossil freedom is not defined by seeking a fossil-free life. It just means disassociating one’s self-expression needs from the burning of fossil fuels.
Despite the hold of world religions, I suspect that a freedom that asks people to renounce carnal pleasures will have little power today. Consumption is rapidly rising. Instead, much as Mark Fisher suggested for the left more broadly, we need a freedom that celebrates, rather than rejects bodily desire.[vii] With this in mind, I have been toying with the idea of freedom as love.[viii]
When I wake up next to my partner on a Saturday morning, despite the many stresses we face, I experience an abiding calm: I know that I can put the games I play throughout the week on hold. Who I am is enough. I don’t have to be sexier than I am. I don’t have to think cleverer thoughts than I’m capable of. I don’t have to filter my language before it pours out. I’m free to be myself. Crucially, that freedom comes from knowing that, for some absurd reason, this person next to me loves me.This isn’t a labour-free love. I have to work at it. I have to remember the little intricate details that make their life a little more joyous. But I know that whatever mistakes I make, I will be listened to, held, and cared for.
We could extend the same conception to society at large. The underlying principle is that freedom is the feeling of being enough. So understood, freedom is inherently relational. Take freedom of speech as an example. Reconceived through the lens of love, it becomes clear that there’s no point in having the freedom to say what you like if no one cares to listen. Instead of convincing people that they have their own unique truth and needs that must be endlessly explored and serviced, freedom as love means building the kinds of characters who are willing to listen to and meet one another’s yearnings. It’s a society-wide freedom of knowing that what you are is enough. You don’t have to sell books or say something devious on social media to get attention.
Freedom is the feeling of being enough.
Without being defined as fossil-free, this way of thinking has profound implications for the burning of fossil fuels. Instead of seeking out the privacy to explore ourselves, we seek out social spaces in which we can explore one another and the world. Instead of seeking labour-free solutions for our bodily needs, we seek out social means of sourcing and creating what we require. And instead of seeking quick escapes from our instrumental lives, we build a life that doesn’t need escaping. Our colleagues, our neighbours, our more-than-human relations are enough. This doesn’t mean an end to travel or adventure, but a reframing of what these are for and, with this, what form they take.
Of course, this is the pretty part that’s relatively easy to accept. Economically speaking, reconfiguring freedom as love would mean that everyone has access to the basic resources they need to live. It would mean not having to dig your fingernails into the wall to avoid drowning.[ix] People are enough. They are trusted to use their time wisely and generously. Indeed, thinking of freedom as love may even require control of the means of production. But that’s for another post.
[i] Gary J. Bass, Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention (New York, NY, 2009).
[ii] Matthew Jones, “Freedom from Want,” in The Four Freedoms: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Evolution of an American Idea, ed. Jeffrey A. Engel (Oxford University Press, 2015), 0, https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199376216.003.0005.
[iii] Jan Willem Duyvendak, Josip Kešić, and (with) Timothy Stacey, Return of the Native: Can Liberalism Safeguard Us against Nativism? (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022).
[iv] Annelien De Dijn, Freedom: An Unruly History (Harvard University Press, 2020).
[v] Stephan Lewandowsky, “Liberty and the Pursuit of Science Denial,” Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, Human Response to Climate Change: From Neurons to Collective Action, 42 (December 1, 2021): 65–69, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2021.02.024.
[vi] Christopher Shaw, Liberalism and the Challenge of Climate Change, Eerste editie (Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge, 2023).
[vii] R. F. Stalley, “Plato’s Doctrine of Freedom,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 98 (1998): 145–58.
[viii] Mark Fisher, Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures, ed. Matt Colquhoun (London: Repeater, 2021).
[ix] see also David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (London: Allen Lane, 2021), 33.
Climate Confessions is a monthly blog series in which Timothy Stacey reveals the “religious repertoires” associated with sustainability in various sectors. From the myths of great floods that dominate in Dutch politics to the rituals of reconnecting with other humans and the other-than-human found among activists, each month, Tim invites you into the repertoires that lurk beneath the surface, shaping sustainability in an otherwise secular world. For more formal reflections, see Tim’s peer-reviewed research: www.uu.nl/staff/TJStacey/Publications. To discuss how repertoires might transform your practice, get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org