In this essay I challenge our celebration of freedom of choice and offer a case for choosing restraint, instead. I argue that we need to rediscover appreciation. Because, in the words Abraham Joshua Heschel, “humankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation.”
It also contains stories about living in the wild, banning advertisements, being threatened with a gun, pollinating flowers, saying grace, and herding goats.
I spent a long time writing and thinking about it, and I think it has turned pretty well. I hope you will take the time to read it.
It is somewhat longer than my usual blog posts, so I’ve split it up into six parts, which I’ll post here one by one to get people interested. You’ll find the first part below.
We celebrate our freedom of choice. But in fact it is our options that control us ― not the other way around. There are so many options available to us all the time, inviting us to choose them.
Go to any convenience store or supermarket. Go down any shopping street. Sit at your computer or take out your smartphone. Watch TV or go to the movies. In all of these places your attention will be guided. You will be reminded of all the options at hand, offering instant gratification:
These ever-present reminders of these options reinforce our use of them. They become habits. And so we indulge ourselves all the time: Why not have a sugar boost? A coffee fix? Check out the latest news or gossip? Or how about a quick look to see if your latest status update has received any likes?
The wealth of options available to us ― choices to consume various products, mostly ― all but paralyse us. For instance, the average American supermarket stocks 30-40 different kinds of breakfast cereal. And almost just as many different kinds of peanut butter: Do you want smooth or chunky? Or extra chunky? Or do you prefer creamy? Or crunchy? Do you want regular, natural or organic? Or perhaps a reduced fat variety? And what if your preferred combination of natural and creamy isn’t available? What is your second preferred option?
As we become unable to analyse all of the options on offer, we come to suffer from what psychologists call “decision fatigue” — as we have more decisions to make, our decisions become progressively worse. We can either agonise over every single choice we make to ensure that we pick the right option (and generally feel less satisfied because we are now acutely aware of all the options we didn’t choose), or we can just pick the options that we have some sort of emotional or habitual connection to.
These are typically the options that address our weaknesses and vices rather than our strengths. These are the options that appeal to us on a habitual, subconscious level. And whenever there is a lapse in our awareness. Whenever the barrage of options overwhelm us and opens a chink in our mental armour, we follow the habitual impulse to give into these small temptations. And so we find ourselves choosing to buy things and do things that we know are bad for us. We pick options that we don’t really want, but which are so alluringly easy to choose.
These options tempt us in ways that are so hard to avoid. They make us smaller and weaker than we really are. Than we can be.
And yet with every choice we make, we are constantly reminded that these are our own choices. And that we only have ourselves to blame when we make choices that are bad for us. It is our fault. Our weakness. Our addiction.
But that is a lie.
When everything we see is highlighting a certain set of options, urging and cajoling us to choose between them, it becomes fiercely difficult to choose something else.
It’s very difficult to avoid having your train of thought hi-jacked by billboards and advertisements when you enter a public space. Most of us are probably so used to it by now that we don’t really consider how ridiculously violating it is to have your personal, mental space flooded with unsolicited messages reminding you of your own weaknesses. The street artist Banksy said it best:
People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it.
But it gets even worse if you make a conscious decision to avoid some of the things that talk to your weaknesses. For instance if you choose
That you don’t want to watch TV because it makes you spend your time slouched, entertained and unaltered.
That you don’t want to eat fast food because it makes you tired, fat and lazy.
That you don’t want to use Facebook because it makes you care way too much about imaginary internet points and not enough about meeting people face to face.
No matter what reasons you offer, you will soon find yourself to be considered (and feeling) preachy and holier-than-thou.
Because if you choose to refuse something for reasons like this, then what does it say about the people who haven’t made the same choice? Does it mean that they’re choosing to be slouched, fat and unable to engage with other people face to face?
Of course not.
It just means that they are not willing to give up those options entirely. Either because they genuinely like them, and don’t see them as all that problematic (there is always a balance to strike, it seems. Soul food, for instance, is supposedly good for the soul, but not necessarily good for the body). Or because they don’t want to be seen as preachy and holy. Because they don’t want to be forced to explain why they’ve opted out every time the topic is touched upon. As the carnivore joke goes:
- “How do you know if someone is a vegetarian?”
- “Don’t worry, she’ll make sure to tell you.”
We don’t like anybody else to remind us of our own weaknesses. We all fight that fight every day. And similarly, most of us don’t like to remind others of their weaknesses. It’s their choice, after all. We are all adults. We should be able to make our own decisions. We are all free to choose who we want to be.
But we only have freedom of choice to the extent that we are free to define our options. And we rarely consider all of the options that are available to us. Instead, the options we tend to consider are guided by the norms and expectations of the society of which we are part. For instance, we don’t really consider a life without advertisements — simply because of the vast social consequences that such a choice would entail. We would have to opt out of society altogether to avoid them.
And so, when we celebrate our freedom of choice, we gloss over the fact that this freedom of choice is shaped, to a large extent, by products, services and retailers that invite overindulgence, even addiction. That some options are indeed a lot easier to choose than others.
This raises the question: Which options are being left out? Which options do we come to ignore as our attention is guided towards indulgence?
We don’t see the option that says “None of the above.” We don’t consider that we always have the option to withhold our choice or even pick something not on the list of available options. In this way, what is at stake here is more than the personal freedom to be who you want to be. It is an ideologically driven celebration of choice. And it doesn’t allow us not to choose. Because at its very core is what the farmer and author Wes Jackson calls a refusal to practice restraint.
See, we have never had to worry about restraint before. As hunter-gatherers, we hunted and gathered as much as we could and as much as we needed. It is speculated that the first people in Northern America and Australia killed off all of the megafauna there within a few hundred years of their arrival ― because they couldn’t restrain themselves. It was just too easy pickings.
With the advent of agriculture, we have begun a trajectory of exploitation, where our only restraint has been the technology at our disposal. At present, we have optimised our technological exploitation of the Earth’s resources in a way that seems certain to lead to the brink of depletion.
Simply put, we are running out of the stuff that is necessary to sustain us. It is a tragedy of the commons at a global scale. We cannot sustain infinite growth, infinite options, infinite freedom of choice on a finite planet. And so, it seems certain that the only way that we can prevent collapse is if we can learn restraint. We have to acknowledge the limits of the planet that we all share and depend upon.
We don’t like to acknowledge these limits because that will force us to limit our freedom of choice. It will force us to recognize the fact that we can’t have it all. We don’t want to be told “No”. Because, in the broad scale of history, we have never taken no for an answer.
That is why Wes Jackson sees this moment as the most important moment in human history, including our walk out of Africa: It is the moment where we have to learn restraint. Where we have to start living within our means — hopefully while retaining the knowledge that allowed human civilization and the exploitation of all those resources in first place.
In this way, we are faced with a fundamental challenge to the way we have come to see ourselves: Of all the options available to us, are we able to choose restraint?