We need to explode the myth that humans — especially Americans — naturally hate rules and love freedom. For that, we have to find the best ways to coerce people to do the right thing to save our planet.
By Frances Moore Lappé
Humans Love Rules
But wait, isn’t it widely accepted that little kids need rules to feel safe and loved? Perhaps it’s also true for the rest of us. It could be that unboundedness — having endless choice — is what really makes us a little nuts.
Rules and boundaries, spoken and unspoken, give our lives shape, structure, and meaning -- think of the Ten Commandments or the Bill of Rights or wedding vows. Writing this on a Sunday morning, I flipped on the radio as a church service was ending: “You can take comfort in God’s rules,” said the minister, “because there are no exceptions.”
Every sort of human activity — from marriage to mergers, from driving to dancing, from bed making to baseball — involves rules. Even little tikes are sensitive to playing by the rules — and the need to punish those who don’t. “Toddlers,” found a recent study, “selectively avoid helping those who cause or even intend [turns out they can tell!] to cause others harm.”
So, in many ways, perhaps all humans, even Americans, love rules. If true, the challenge of reversing our planetary downward spin is not to overcome the American character or human nature but to build on the natural human love of rules. In any case, whether we love ‘em or hate ‘em, rules are part of life:
All systems, biological or social, operate by principles that determine what choices are possible for any participant in the system.
Aligning Social Rules with Nature’s Rules
From this perspective, we realize that new social rules — aligned both with nature’s non-arbitrary laws and with our own nature — can take shape and spread quickly if they make sense to people, if new rules and norms ring true to us and, especially, if we feel engaged in shaping them.
What’s an example of speedy takeoff in response to new rules?
Partly in response to the state’s rebate incentives, the number of California’s solar-powered rooftop installations grew from 500 to 50,000 — that’s one hundredfold — in the last decade alone. Ten states doubled their rooftop solar capacity in just one year, 2008.
Mayors Sign Pledge To Reduce Greenhouse Gases, Plastic Bags
Another sign of people’s willingness — even eagerness — for structures guiding and amplifying their action is the response to a 2005 campaign by former Seattle mayor Greg Nickels.
Frustrated by the Kyoto Protocol–resistant Bush administration, he began reaching out to other mayors to entice them to pledge to greenhouse gas emissions reductions faithful to the protocol. Nickels hoped that, maybe, he could bring 141 cities on board—his magic number because it is how many countries had signed on to Kyoto.
But six years out, over 1,000 mayors from the fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have signed on to the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement.
After Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi in San Francisco sponsored a 2008 bill banning plastic bags from supermarkets and drug stores, he got calls from city officials all over the country wanting to follow suit. Mirkarimi exclaimed, “I think we ignited a wildfire of common sense!”
Making Rules That "Care for the Commons"
Rules can, however, be merely reactive, failing to cut to the root of the problem. Although dramatically improving our lives, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts are examples of reaction. To protect what we love, we can dig deeper. We can dig to the underlying ground rules that shape our behavior and economic life more broadly. As we strive for a truly publicly held government, accountable to us, we can work to avoid harm, not just limit it.
One approach is the framework I think of as “care for the commons” — those precious, indivisible goods such as air, water, soil, forests, oceans, and diverse species that we inherit, share, and yearn to pass on unharmed or enriched to our children. Rules for commons care involve a lot more than treaties and nature reserves.
Caring For The Commons In India
In India, for example, it’s what neighbors take on together. Since the 1990s, villagers have been cooperating to ensure their forests’ regrowth. Today about 10 million rural households take part in roughly 100,000 “forest-management groups.” Each creates and enforces rules to prevent overuse of nearby woodlands.
Motivation is high, especially for women, because firewood still provides three-fourths of the energy they use for cooking. So, groups with a larger proportion of women – a quarter or more – “have done particularly well in improving forest condition,” reports economist and environmentalist Dr. Bina Agarwal.
The forest-management groups, working in collaboration with the Indian government, cover a fifth of India’s forests. They’re likely a reason that India is one of the few countries in the world to enjoy an increase in forest cover since 2005.
An Ecology of Democracy
As long as we think of freedom as the absence of rules, we can’t know freedom, for we position ourselves outside of nature — including our very own. So the question for humanity is not about more or fewer rules. It is whether we can together create rules that serve life because they align with all we know about what makes us thrive.
In part, that means envisioning economic life as just one dimension of an “ecology of democracy” in which rules keep the market open and fair, and the corporation returns to its original function in the service of community well-being. We can then experience real freedom: not freedom from rules but freedom with power — freedom to participate in creating rules that promote life.
Thought Trap 4: We Must Overcome Human Nature to Save the Planet
Thought Trap 3: We’ve Hit the Limits of a Finite Earth
Thought Trap 2: "Consumer Society" Is the Problem
Thought Trap/Leap 1: Growth vs. No Growth?
Introduction: Our Challenge – Developing an Eco-Mind
Ready, Set, Re-Frame! A Conversation with Frances Moore Lappé about EcoMind