“In the end, more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life and they lost it all, security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society, but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free.” – Sir Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)
What better sentiment for the Fourth of July?
So in the spirit of the day, as we venture out to the baseball game, fire up the grill, get together with family and friends, and look forward to an evening of fireworks, it might profit us to do two other things. To start, we can remember with gratitude those occasions where Americans before us met their freedom to be responsible… by defending democracy, free religion and speech, and other basic liberties and values in myriad ways, often at great cost. And then, we might reflect on some of the areas where our generation can exercise our own freedom to be responsible, for the benefit of those who’ll follow us.
Here’s a short, entirely notional, and admittedly incomplete list, to stimulate thought, offered in the hope that you’ll comment/make your more salient additions for the rest of us to consider.
The freedom to build responsibly in the face of hazards. As hurricane Arthur roars up the east coast, we can breath a sigh of relief that it hasn’t proven more intense and that it’s struck only a glancing blow. But we don’t have to look back far, to Katrina or Ike or Irene or Sandy, to remember that our historic land use and building codes have given us a freedom to build irresponsibly… in the wrong places and in the wrong ways. And it’s not just hurricanes: earthquakes, flood, drought also reveal additional vulnerabilities. We know how to do better. We’re free to do so.
The freedom to maintain our basic critical infrastructure. The July 4th weekend provides occasion for travel by road and air. The June 28 print edition of The Economist notes that America is underinvesting in infrastructure for both these forms of transportation. Interestingly, it highlights the responsibility of states as well as the federal government to make these investments.
The Economist article makes no mention of the critical infrastructure supporting Earth observations, science, and services, but Hurricane Arthur reminds us that it could have. Evacuate the coast ahead of the storm? Or stay to see the wild, chaotic beauty it will bring? Such decisions hinge on an ability to observe, forecast and warn, including getting right the risks – all the impacts and the uncertainties. The same logic applies to what policies we should be adopting in the face of the current drought in the west. How long will it endure? How severe and widespread will it be? And what about the threats posed by climate variability and change? Michael Bloomberg, Henry Paulson and Tom Steyer’s recent Risky Business report reminds us that the economic costs of doing nothing will likely prove substantial. On another front, new data show increases in earthquake frequency associated with fracking. What should our response be to that? America has gotten off the farm. We now live in virtual, air-conditioned climates provided by urban centers; in the process we’ve lost our visceral feel for the state of food and water supplies, and environmental conditions. Our information on these matters is now at best second or third hand. In place of that hands-on experience, Earth observations, science, and services have become critical to navigating these issues. We assume this information is adequate and reliable, just as we take highways and air travel for granted. But in both respects, this confidence is unwarranted.
The freedom to innovate. Each generation has both the freedom and responsibility to not only maintain but also reinvent America. The challenge is to preserve those attributes that match our deepest human yearnings while remaking and refreshing them to accommodate history and changed social context. In that regard, both public and higher education need complete makeovers. They should be more affordable, more accessible, more adaptive, and more able to equip large numbers of individuals and nations for the jobs that will be available and for the profound decisions that future publics must make. Health care needs continued reworking. So do our ideas on immigration, as well as our basic understanding of what makes for national security in the face of threats as diverse as the conflicts raging across the middle East, Africa, and the Crimea and other risks such as those posed by public health; food, water, and energy shortages; or even that represented by globalization of commerce and markets occurring against a patchwork quilt of national regulations and policies.
Finally, the freedom to love and respect one another. Happily, Americans come in all flavors. On this July 4th we have both the freedom and responsibility to accept and accommodate each other, and to balance our independence with our interdependence. We have the freedom to celebrate diversity; our culture and heritage doesn’t limit or confine us to any single, monochromatic, narrow, stultifying group. We have the freedom to give love rather than simply expect or demand it from others – starting within our own families, and extending to the larger society.
Cue some music? For July 4th, how about this number… Land of Dreams, composed by Rosanne Cash (Johnny’s eldest daughter) and John Leventhal, and performed by Ms. Cash with a little help from their friends.
 Thinking you’ve seen this quote before? Perhaps it was from the LOTRW Independence Day post of 2011.