Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Wildfires, Fireworks, and Independence Day

It is Independence Day, and the most destructive wildfires in Colorado's history continue to rage - what's more, more are on their way. Indeed, in Russia, where epic fires caused unprecedented damage two years ago, fires continue to burn. In the U.S., conditions are so dry and volatile this year that fireworks are being banned across the country; the risk of fire is just too high on this Fourth of July. And while it is not surprising that people are supportive of such measures to ban fireworks, the denial of such bans would not be altogether out of character. In a country where measures to slow global warming, and the harms it brings, are generally met with passionate resistance, it is at least a little inconsistent to support the ban of fireworks displays. Why the reasonableness when it comes to banning fireworks, but the complete lack of it when discussing banning, or phasing out, automobiles? After all, automobiles and fossil fuels cause these dry and hot conditions in the first place. It must have to do with causality. While the link between fireworks and wildfires is obvious and uncontested, the link between fossil fuels and global warming is vehemently denied by a veritable denial industry. This denial industry is said to be protected by free speech. However, many types of speech are criminal: defamatory speech is criminal, as is fraudulent speech, false-advertising, and hate speech, among others. For engaging in a type of fraud, which causes these wildfires, toxic air quality, and other harms, the global warming denial industry should be quieted.

It is ironical that, while spreading these harms, the global warming industry paints itself as a freedom-loving creature, enjoying its right to free speech - in truth it represents something closer to the tyranny that the revolutionary colonists sought to overthrow. Indeed, not only does the poison being spewed by these industries comprise an all-pervading harm, the amount of work that is required to pay rent to the owners of the world is excessive and results in a tyranny that rules over everyone's daily life. The dependence of most people on their jobs, and on the caprice of the rich, is in conflict with the notion of independence that we celebrate this day. What was fought for was the ability to practice self-government, to be independent both politically as well as economically.

Some contend that the conflict between dependence and independence is illusory. This position reframes the question, making it about the "pursuit of happiness" and individualism. According to this argument, people are all pretty much greedy individuals, seeking their own best position, and the present political and economic situation reflects all these people pursuing their happiness. In addition to the shallowness of this argument, it gets one important thing wrong. "The pursuit of happiness" does not mean what these people tell us. It was only well after Jefferson's use of the term that the concept of happiness became conflated with mere pleasure. In Jefferson's time the term meant something closer to Aristotle's notion of eudaimonia. Eudaimonia, which literally means good spirit, is a notoriously difficult term to translate. While around Jefferson's time it was translated as happiness, these days it is translated as flourishing. So, the right to the pursuit of happiness meant more than the right to pursue pleasures; it meant something much more like the right to pursue the highest human goods - of which education and health, among other things, are constitutive parts. The conditions that interfere with this pursuit of the highest human good, of human flourishing, represent a type of tyranny that must be overthrown. As more of the world burns, it is becoming more and more clear that, among the forms of tyranny we struggle against, we need to be independent of the tyranny that is not only destroying our ecosystem, but disseminating lies about these practices as well. If the health of the people is the supreme law, all of these trespasses to the health of the biosphere, which we are a part of, are criminal and illegitimate abuses of power.

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