Tuesday, October 31, 2023
The End of the Good Life
In July 2023, twenty environmental law professors gathered beside the Hood River in Oregon to discuss patterns of consumption and how humanity can move forward in this time of polycrisis to have the benefits of “living the good life.” Among friends and enjoying beautiful views and delicious food, there was no question that those of us gathered were enjoying the good life. As the world boils and environmental and social problems proliferate, can we envision a healthy future where such enjoyment continues? Is it a life that will be accessible in times to come? And who will it be accessible to?
In our discussions, we quickly realized that we all have different ideas of what the good life is. We all agreed that everyone should have access to basic needs: food, water, and shelter. But when most of us hear about “the good life,” we envision something beyond basic needs. We envision comfort, indulgences, and autonomy. The last on that list in fact might be the most important to some. Once again, when we dug into that idea, we saw different envisionings of freedom and autonomy.
In the context of environmental and natural resources law, there seems to be a lot of pushback on laws that people perceive to restrict their freedom of choice. We may applaud people who bring their reusable bags to the supermarket, but do we feel the same way about a law that requires us to use them? Agriculturalists bristle at being required to adopt particular techniques or approaches but want to emphasize (and receive praise for) the environmental improvements they make without being required to. Studies show that farmers see themselves as more concerned with environmental issues than urban activists. Farmers and pastoralists have longed viewed themselves as stewards of the land and more attuned to environmental concerns than others.
The good life, then, is about autonomy and control. Even when policymakers and scientists know what actions we should take to prevent environmental collapse, there is a worry that we can’t tell people what to do. People want to feel powerful. We want to feel in charge of our decisions, but we shouldn’t forget that our choices are being constantly manipulated by commercial and regulatory forces. People (perhaps particularly on the right but not exclusively so) seek freedom from government regulation—we don’t want them to tell us what to eat, what to buy, how to farm, etc.—but we let big corporations do exactly that. We want freedom to make choices, but the choices before us are limited and the options are constrained. Fighting for freedom of choice to make environmentally bad/good decisions only makes sense if we aren’t fighting a constant battle against big oil, big pharma, and big ag on our tvs, social media feeds, and in our grocery stores. Without government intervention, our choices would likely be even more limited.
And there is a tension between basic needs and desired states. Is it morally or ecologically appropriate for anyone to live a life of comfort and ease when others don’t have enough? Studies of planetary boundaries provide answers of what levels of consumption are sustainable, yet we don’t turn to those studies for policymaking. The COVID crisis alongside worsening environmental disasters suggests that in hard times we don’t even demand as much from our governments, which seem complacent if not content in continuing our current power structures and patterns of development.
For example, the American Heritage Foundation agrees that Americans should aim for “a cleaner, healthier, and safer environment” while “protecting people and their liberty.” But in their view our environmental laws fail not because of their goals but because of their methods, which “empower and enlarge ineffective bureaucracies, infringe on private property rights, and confound the dynamics of the free market” and in so doing “stifl[e] individual freedoms.” Putting aside claims about government inefficiencies (if indeed that is really the Heritage Foundation’s point), notice the prominent goals of protecting private property rights and the “free” market.
Is the market a source for human flourishing?
The American Heritage Foundation would easily define the good life as “essential to a flourishing society.” Is the market more value neutral than government? Somehow, we feel differently about market mechanisms that lead to change than about government restrictions that do so. If the cost of producing renewable energy goes down and the coal industry becomes less viable, this generation shift seems more palatable than one where the government requires a phase-out of coal. But is the market any more of an external dictating force than the government is? Why do market-based changes feel less obtrusive than regulatory ones? As Camille Pannu pointed out in our Hood River conversation, “Capitalism is not a belief system, it is a description of an economic system.”
Are private property rights essential for the good life? Do private property rights equal freedom?
Private property rights have become a core part of the conservative agenda. Those benefiting from the legal outcomes dictated by such an approach are rarely individuals and more likely to be corporations. Reduced regulation benefits corporate bottom lines and desires for development. These interests have successfully convinced voters that our personal desires for freedom and property ownership align with this agenda. In doing so, we fight for the corporations. We push back on the rules about draining the muddy part of our backyard, and they get the benefit of fear of regulations and permission to convert millions of acres of areas providing key ecosystem services. We can’t all be millionaires, but we are so enticed by that possibility that we vote against our interests. We endorse rules that benefit the billionaires in the hopes that we will become them and also receive those benefits.
-- Jessica Owley