Do we need to limit our autonomy for sustainability?

posted in: Critical Reflection | 0

Being free is to do and not do as you want, to speak, and to preserve silence, as you will. In Western countries, we value autonomy very much.

But doing what you want, also has its downside, especially for sustainability. If you can do what you want, you can keep your heating thermostat as high as you want; you can choose to take the car whenever you want; you can go on a holiday by airplane; you can buy clothes which were processed with polluting chemicals; you may buy inorganic vegetables or fish that is threatened with extinction.

The government doesn’t have any strict rules on this, because we value autonomy so much. The freedom of citizens is important and the freedom of other countries with which we do business and trade with, is important. The government does try to impose restrictions on certain behaviors through taxes, and tries to encourage sustainable behavior through subsidies.

Until now, social and environmental entrepreneurs and non profits had to move citizens to attain a sustainable lifestyle by appealing to their values. To encourage sustainable lifestyles campaigns focus on raising awareness of the consequences of unsustainable lifestyles and they appeal to values such as health, empathy for others and respect for nature. It is only when citizens themselves value fellow humans, animals and the environment, that they will restrict their autonomy, that they will leave certain things alone. They do what’s right for environment or animals, but they are sometimes more limited in their action. (But they choose to be limited).

Autonomy limit sustainabilityWhat I increasingly hear though, is not an appealing to their values. I hear the word must a lot.

People must buy more organic food.
People must travel more by public transport.
People must not make travel by plane.
People must live and think sustainable!

But then I think: should there be a dictatorial state that dictates sustainable living and thinking, and which limits our autonomy?

I’m sure the people who talk about “sustainably living and thinking” don’t want a dictatorship, but they might be overlooking the fact that we value autonomy greatly. Wanting to convert people to sustainability is counterproductive.

In the past hundreds of years we fought hard for obtaining autonomy. So taking that away generates an enormous resistance. Sustainability will get a nasty aftertaste and people will not want to cooperate.

If you would like to achieve a particular goal in sustainability, it is wise to realize that this could conflict with the freedom of people to do what they want.

Ask yourself how much your plans, ideas or wishes harm the autonomy of others. And reflect on how important you find autonomy in the context of sustainability.

These are difficult questions to answer, but in my opinion they are important to think about, because I don’t want a dictatorial sustainability. Do you?


Do you want discover where the value autonomy is being limited? In the Intensive Engage Ethically to Attract Alliances I can help you map out different values, including autonomy, so you prevent that your plan gets blocked by people who don’t feel their values are seen _______________________________________________________________________________

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