Today, we honor the day American independence was declared, and the fact that our independent republic still stands 243 years later. We pride ourselves on being a democratic society, where the value of human freedom and dignity carries more weight than the whims of those who wield power.
There are many reasons we must remain vigilant, to guard against the rise of acts, or institutions, of tyranny. Many of these have to do with the procedural and legal checks on executive power—designed to ensure no individual or faction can seize high office and use it to degrade or discount the humanity of any person.
Safeguarding Freedom and Dignity
There is also an existential demand that we guard against surreptitious degradations of our freedom and dignity.
- First, let’s define dignity as: being treated always as fully human, sovereign over our own personhood, equal in the right to opportunity, to education, and to equal protection of the law.
- Next, let’s recognize that freedom means the ability to enjoy the benefits of such equal and dignified treatment without interference or abuse of any kind.
Without full access to education, we are less free. Without a guarantee that our health will be protected, we are less free. If the cost of education is lifelong debt that limits our choices, our freedom and dignity are interfered with comprehensively. If the cost of protecting our health is personal bankruptcy, the very right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is degraded and denied.
Duty to Protect
Beyond this, we must recognize that structural biases can rob us of freedom and dignity in ways that are so comprehensive, we may find ourselves without institutions to protect us from harm.
- Read the First and Ninth Amendments, and the Fourteenth Amendment, along with the Preamble and Articles I, II, and III of the Constitution.
- The Constitution requires our public servants to avoid preventable harm, protect against predatory actions, and redress grievances in defense of basic rights.
When we think about the people who have sacrificed their lives in defense of a nation of laws, governed by its own people, where the most powerful are the most constrained and the rights of all are protected, always, we must also recognize that they sacrificed for a deeper principle:
An imaginative and free people, whose dignity is protected and humanity empowered, as a routine matter of life lived without direct or structural forms of tyranny, should not suffer predatory or accidental injustice, and where there is injustice, it should be set right so that human freedom and dignity prevail over adversity.
Environmental degradation is injustice; it flows from pollution—a one-sided delivery of harm, which can only occur if there is an expectation of impunity. That is the opposite of democracy and self-government.
Our Social Contract
In the United States, contracts must meet a ‘reasonable person’ test of good-faith exchange of value. That means if one party surreptitiously secures an agreement that the other party suffer unreasonable harm or burden, then the contract was not agreed in good faith and can be nullified by a court of law. Our social contract is, by necessity, rooted in this same principle.
We take money at face value, assuming $5 is $5, but this is not so. Money is a general purpose contract that changes signatories. It moves from person to person, tracing a history of human activity, and carrying with it embedded influences and consequences:
- The $5 bill in your hand carries embedded interest paid by banks, who then charge fees, which causes merchants to raise prices in your community.
- When you add up and balance out all of the taxes, fees, pass-through costs, and benefits available to you, it may be worth only $4.88 to you.
- That same bill might be worth $4.44 to someone with a less optimal allocation of resources.
- It might be worth $5.28 to someone with the right investment strategy and significant wealth holdings.
The exchange relationships embedded in money affect our freedom. This system works only if resources are allocated optimally, and that requires some transparency, some ability of people to say yes or no to harm, cost, and risk.
We have long operated on the assumption that the Earth’s natural systems are so vast, so far greater than we are, that we could not disrupt what sustains life in any quantifiable way. Now, we see every day visible evidence that what sustains life is being disrupted. The climate breakdown we are witnessing calls our social contract into question.
Embedded Climate Intelligence
New financial instruments are emerging that will record the truth about air pollution, land degradation, water contamination, ecosystem degradation, climate disruption, and ocean impacts. The climate-smart financial sector has the potential to liberate all of us from a long, dark night of indifference to avoidable environmental damage.
When every dollar spent carries the right amount of embedded climate intelligence, we will be freer and safer and closer to the dignity we all aspire to. Our institutions will be more trusted, more legitimate, and better representations of the social contract we already demand be embedded in the world around us.
Environmental security is freedom. That value should be embedded in the wider societal structure of all our shared investments and ambitions.