Sitting on the deck in the dappled shade of a lilac bush, dog at my feet. A beautiful spring day has improbably aligned with an hour of free time. And the dog is tired enough from our walk in the sun to ignore the passersby. I begin to write.
The key is to neither dominate nor be dominated; rather, sustain and create. You can —
The ignition of a lawnmower engine interrupts me from the yard next to mine. I try to ignore it and turn back to my notebook.
You can never be free from nature, from determinants, but you can exercise some agency in the way you are determined by them, as well as the way you determine them (for nature is never free of you —
Another lawnmower starts. I peer across the street; it’s the kind you ride like a tractor, overkill in a city neighborhood. Now I’m annoyed. Noise pollution interfering with my precious moment! But I have a realization and write it down:
Pollution is an incursion on freedom. Depending on the type of pollution, it determines what you breathe, drink, eat, see, hear. Pollution is not just an agent of global warming or ecosystem contamination but also, and primarily, an immediate constraint on the freedom to meet basic needs, even on the capacity to think or rest.
So what to do? The world is full of constraints, consists entirely of them. I have been writing about freedom not as escaping or conquering constraints, but as exercising creativity in one’s relationship to them, creating a sustainable harmony with them.
I begin to hum deeply, matching the tone of one lawn mower, then the next, then alternating between them. I literally harmonize with them, and no longer find the noise pollution I’m subjected to so obnoxious. The tone of my throat-song softens the sharpness of their blaring motors. I resume writing.
Freedom is always an interplay, a dance. Because we always have an effect on nature, we cannot preserve it as is. Nature must be impacted by culture, and thus become culture. Just as nature subsumes culture because culture is part of nature, culture subsumes all parts of nature it touches.
Of course, not all constraints can be so easily turned around. There is no way to harmonize with lead-poisoned water. And the responsibility to deal with pollution should not primarily fall on its victims. Public housing projects should not be built next to airports. Industry should not be allowed to pollute our air and water. Lights should be directed at us, not the stars. Mountains and other shared landscapes should not be marred with houses and towers. Noise ordinances should be enforced. And so on. But even in a well regulated society, we will impose constraints on each other. And nature always constrains us.
We are never free from determination, but we can exercise more or less agency in how we relate to determinants. Exercising this agency requires critique and creativity, so we can see beyond the way things are and imagine a different future, but one in harmony with the way things are so it can be created and sustained without the cycle of domination. Not to evade, destroy, or control constraints, but to engage in a creative interplay with them, to let them create you but also to re-create them — that is freedom.