Carlotta Terhorst
17.10.2022 | reading time: 5 minutes

CHANGING CULTURES MAGAZINE > MINDSET2030 > Are we consuming freedom?

Are we consuming freedom?

The new IPCC climate report shows: We are likely to miss the 1.5 degree target. Meanwhile, economic actors continue to focus on green technology. However, technological innovations and efficiency alone seem not to save our planet. Instead we could also consider to practice renunciation, reduce consumption, and sustainably downscale production. But reducing consumption doesn't seem to be a reasonable option for many yet. Why is that? Why can we imagine the craziest technological inventions, but are not able to imagine a scenario in which we simply consume less? A possible explanation: Our freedom gets in the way.


To understand the relationship between freedom and renunciation in our world today, we must first look at how freedom is understood today. If I ask the question to people, "What does it actually mean to be free?" The answer is often, "I'm free when I have enough money, when I can decide what to wear, where to live, how to lead my life." In other words, our understanding of freedom is tied to money, to consumption and to self-determination.

And there's a reason for that: in the neoliberal phase of capitalism we're living in right now, the term freedom is often used in public debates around political and economic dogmas of free markets and economic growth. Neoliberal theory states that we humans can only be free if we are allowed to interact and consume in a free market without government intervention. So free markets make us free. That's the principle. And not only that. The more options we are offered in the market, the greater our freedom. Whereas I used to be able to choose between exactly two different types of toothpaste in the past, today there are at least 20 little tubes in the supermarket that promise to polish my teeth brilliantly white. Today, I can decide which of the 500 dresses on an online shopping portal I want to buy and whether I want to wear white, black, green or pink shoes. I am free. Free to consume what I want.


But I only possess the freedom to consume if I have money. And that is the first problem with this neoliberal concept of freedom. Someone who only receives minimum wage is not free to choose what he or she wants to consume. Take a single father with a German minimum wage of 1,664 euros gross or the Portuguese waitress with 740 euros gross a month. They can probably hardly decide what car they want to drive, where they want to travel, and are maybe not even able to choose what toothpaste to buy. And that is reality for many people. So following this logic and equating freedom with the freedom to consume - as is common in capitalist societies - means that the rich have the most freedom. Economic inequality therefore not only creates a gap between the realities of people's lives, but also - and this sounds much more dramatic - determines how free they feel.


But this is not the only problem associated with the neoliberal concept of freedom. In a society in which freedom is equated with freedom of consumption, renunciation always means giving up something. Economic growth, that is, the production of new consumer goods, is seen as the driver of freedom under this particular concept of freedom. Conversely, however, every obstacle to growth and consumption is also an obstacle to individual freedom. Thus, in capitalist societies, any kind of renunciation is seen as giving up individual freedom. This has dramatic consequences for the environment. Consuming less, which, as Pope Francis and the degrowth movement impressively note, could counteract the environmental crisis. But it becomes a distant prospect if we adhere to this neoliberal understanding of freedom. Every climate directive that is associated with less consumption, such as a limit on C02 emissions or a ban on private vehicles in inner cities, is thus fundamentally seen as robbing people of their freedom. The fact that we are reticent when it comes to sacrificing and consuming less could thus be due to the prevailing concept of freedom in our modern societies. If individual freedom is diminished by any kind of reduction in consumption, renunciation becomes impossible in people's minds.


In order to save the world as much as possible from further environmental catastrophes, we should continue the discussion about alternatives to constant growth and unrestrained consumption. Such a discussion, however, can only be held if we do not directly exclude the thought of renunciation.  In Europe, we all seem to share the conviction that freedom, in whatever form, is the central value for human well-being and happiness. However, if our understanding of freedom is closely linked to unlimited opportunities and consumption, it is difficult to engage in a discussion about ecological limits and consuming less. Therefore, our task now is to rethink the idea of freedom.

A first approach to a new conceptualization of freedom for the modern world is proposed by Phillip Pettit, an Irish philosopher and political scientist. He deals with the republican concept of freedom and places the idea of the "non-dominant life" at the center of his work. To be free, according to Pettit, is not to have more and more options and possibilities, but to be one's own master and to participate freely in the shaping of society. If the majority of society understood freedom in this way, environmental policies would probably be more feasible to enforce. After all, if freedom means being actively involved in shaping society, collectively agreed upon climate guidelines would no longer be perceived as taking away freedom. But Pettit's proposal is also just one of many ways to rethink freedom. It's important that we begin to reflect and ask ourselves questions about our own understanding of freedom. To start, think of a moment in which you felt completely free: when was that? Were you alone or with people? Why did you feel free? And now think further: what do you really need to be free?


*This text was first published in issue no. 5 of TEMA magazine on the subject of consumption.

Related Links:

IPCC Bericht 2022: Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Verfügbar auf: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg3/
Pettit, P. (1997). Republicanism - A theory of Freedom and Goverment. Clarendon Press. Oxford.
Pettit, P. (2014). Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World. WW Norton & Company.

Image references Header // Freedom // Tree // Parasol

Author: Carlotta Terhorst

Carlotta Terhorst is a political science graduate, project assistant at NELA – Next Economy Lab and co-founder of TEMA Magazine. TEMA is a pan-European magazine for pop journalism and photography. Every two months, an issue is published in which an international team of writers and photographers responds to an overarching question posed by the editorial team. In this way, TEMA creates a space for the exchange of ideas and images across national borders.


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