If Texans are anything, we are free—or, so we presume. The pride and staunch individualism of Texas are unique; I drank this spirit in from the vaulted skies of the Texas Panhandle, where I was born and raised, the sunsets on the painted walls of Palo Duro Canyon—and from the people.
It’s been a long year. It’s been a long winter. And in the middle of that long winter, the people, land, and animals of Texas experienced catastrophic suffering: the freeze, the loss of power, and everything that followed. To understand what happened we need to untangle several different threads. Katharine Hayhoe, a professor with the Climate Center and Department of Political Science at Texas Tech University, in a Dallas Morning News column signed by dozens of other Texas scientists, sketched how this catastrophe unfolded.
First, there was the storm. Definitively demonstrating a causal connection between individual weather events and global climate change can prove difficult; indeed, there have always been severe oscillations in Texas weather. However, severe weather events are occurring with increasing frequency, making droughts hotter, dryer, and longer, and storms more volatile, frequent, and devasting. Winter Storm Uri hit Texas with single-digit temperatures and massive snow and icefall. And despite accurate forecasts by meteorologists, Texas’s infrastructure was profoundly unprepared. As the demand for power across the state skyrocketed to keep buildings warm, Texas’s power grid was taxed beyond capacity. Because Texas’s power grid is independent, it could not draw electricity from power plants elsewhere in the States. Blackouts lasted for days in many places. Temperatures inside homes dropped, and then dropped further. Pipes burst. The ice came inside. Weeks later, access to clean drinking water had still not been restored in many rural communities. The damage from the storm and blackouts was greater than the damage caused in Texas by Hurricanes Harvey and Ike combined. For what it’s worth, the amount of money insurers put on that damage was at least $195 billion. It was the costliest natural disaster recorded in the history of Texas.
What was the real nature of this cost? It was difficult to tally how many people died as a result of this disaster; the latest figure is at least eighty. Freezing to death is a terrifying and miserable way to die. In Abilene, a sixty-year-old man froze to death in his own home. Many homeless people died of hypothermia. People who rely on heart machines and various electrical devices for their health suffered profoundly. A number of children died. Many Texas hospitals suffered water shortages, while having nowhere to transfer patients.
Katherine Hayhoe observes,
Advances in the scientific understanding of extreme events in the face of climate variability and change . . . are necessary for achieving resilience. Upfront investment in resilient infrastructure saves much more money than a do-nothing approach and avoids much of the hardship created by lack of planning. The neglect of recommended weatherization of energy systems that precipitated the present crisis is an unpleasant reminder of the hardship and unnecessary deaths that result from the failure to invest. [But] preparation will save and improve the lives of Texans. Unlike the power outage crisis, climate change will be difficult or near impossible to reverse in the near-term. The state’s leaders need to accept climate science and begin using research to build a more resilient Texas. Texas has always experienced heat and cold, drought and flood. But today, climate change is loading the dice against us. For decades, climate researchers have projected—and are now observing—that extreme climate events (of many kinds) will become more frequent or more intense as our planet continues to warm.
Texans love Texas. Texans love freedom. What is our freedom for?
To be fair to Texan pride, liberty of conscience and the freedoms of the individual are not to be taken for granted—not least in comparison with egregious human rights abuses occurring elsewhere today, from the Uighurs in China to war crimes against children in Yemen. Indeed, we have much to be thankful for in Texas.
Freedom for freedom’s sake can quickly devolve into captivity to appetite.
Yet, freedom for freedom’s sake can quickly devolve into captivity to appetite. Encouraged to do what we will, we become slaves to will; encouraged to choose who we are, the ever-expanding panoply of possible, liquid selves we might cultivate can become its own destabilizing nightmare. Without any sense of the givenness of all things, and a sense of ourselves as participants in something ancient and future within whose strictures we have been shaped with boundaries that limit us for our own good, the world stage becomes a cereal aisle of overwhelming, arbitrary possibilities. And toward others, we can simply and cruelly fail in our obligations. During the storm, the now-former mayor of Colorado City, Texas, posted on Facebook urging people to fend for themselves: “Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish [sic].” It is a message that makes sense in a world in which those in political power bear no responsibility toward those over whom they have authority. It is a message that makes sense in world without duty: a world of beasts.
In Plato’s Republic, the tyrant is a person who confuses the power to gratify base desires at the cost of others with freedom.
In truth, then, and whatever some people may think, a real tyrant is really a slave, compelled to engage in the worst kind of fawning, slavery, and pandering to the worst kind of people. He’s so far from satisfying his desires in any way that it is clear—if one happens to know that one must study his whole soul—that he’s in the greatest need of most things and truly poor. And . . . he’s full of fear, convulsions, and pains throughout his life.
The problem of tyranny masquerading as freedom is well described by Pope Francis in his October 2020 encyclical, Fratteli tutti. According to Francis, a lack of solidarity with one another, amid and across our differences, is at the heart of many pressing challenges of our time. Rampant individualism, consumerism, loneliness, and the isolating echo chambers of digital media collaborate with powerful companies and market forces to foster a “throwaway culture” in which other people—especially vulnerable people, such as the elderly, the young, the poor, and those with disabilities—become disposable in a limitless quest to satisfy the lust for profit and consumption. The earth too becomes disposable. Finally, our own bodies, our own selves, our own souls, become disposable to us. According to Francis,
At a time when everything seems to disintegrate and lose consistency, it is good for us to appeal to the “solidity” born of the consciousness that we are responsible for the fragility of others as we strive to build a common future. Solidarity finds concrete expression in service, which can take a variety of forms in an effort to care for others. And service in great part means “caring for vulnerability, for the vulnerable members of our families, our society, our people.”
Perhaps similarly, in his 1520 treatise on Christian liberty, titled The Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther understood freedom within a dialectic:
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all. These two theses seem to contradict each other. If, however, they should be found to fit together they would serve our purpose beautifully.
Their many differences aside, theologians as different as Pope Francis and Martin Luther join together in solidarity as they criticize the delusions of autonomous freedom that inevitably and always leads us to enslave ourselves to our own self-destructive desires, at merciless and ruthless costs toward others.
I am concerned that far too many Christians—Texans, and those benighted souls who are not Texans as well—have wholeheartedly embraced only the first sentence of Martin Luther’s famous declaration, triumphally boasting of our independence without any serious consideration of our obligations of service and mercy. Now that the power is back on, we have so much. Many of us have gone back to our old ways: to shopping online, to posting about our liberty on Facebook. But, in the spring, we need to not lose this winter’s message: our lives and our deaths are inextricably interconnected with the land, animals, and people of our common home.
During the storm, while his people froze in the dark, one of our state’s senators took a now-infamous jaunt to the warm beaches of Cancun, Mexico. Amid his initial lies and later admission of the debacle, Cruz interestingly described his actions as having wanted to be a “good dad” as his daughters were at home, out of school in the cold and dark during a global pandemic. While the office of United States senator from Texas is not responsible for either the weather or the power grid, the public trust of his office provides an interesting opportunity to reflect on all of the dads of Texas who did not fly to Mexico.
In Houston, a friend of mine clutched his five-week-old baby girl close to his chest throughout a sleepless night in a frozen, dark house. A five-week-old baby is fragile, precious, and tender; children that young cannot endure freezing temperatures. She, with many others, carries with her our hopes and fears for Texas’s future long after we return to dust and our names are forgotten. She needs to be able to live: she needs an inhabitable state. We hold that state in trust for her until she is grown: climate, infrastructure, animals, people, freedom, and all. Thankfully, mercifully, she is alive and well in the spring because her father warmed her with his body through that night in the winter. That household, where a father did that for his daughter, is worth conserving. We need to cultivate a society worth conserving, marked not merely by libertarian possibilities—creating meaningless opportunities for those who lack adequate means to afford the good life of electricity, running water, access to health care, and the ability to care for one’s children—but where the possibility of a life of dignity and justice is a common good.
We need to cultivate a society worth conserving, marked not merely by libertarian possibilities, but where the possibility of a life of dignity and justice is a common good.
Those who are in thrall to fossil-fuel industries will continue to spread misinformation about environmental policies. They will continue to blame renewable energy for this disaster. Where those who build windmills have the foresight to prepare them for extreme temperatures, undertaking smaller costs of preparation to avoid the colossal disaster of devastating power failures, such windmills continue working in the cold without issue, as in the Nordic countries. But in Texas, a number of politicians in the weeks after the storm performed a reenactment of Don Quixote, styling themselves as brave knights tilting at the menacing windmills of the Green New Deal. Whether or not the specific proposals in the Green New Deal are the best or only possible solution to our problems is a question for another time. But something must be done, and urgently. Former governor Rick Perry was so bold as to boast that Texans are willing to endure blackouts to be energy independent from the federal government. What is such independence worth? Why is it desirable? Such brazen disregard for the deaths of vulnerable Texans is a masterful example of a destructive false freedom, whereby here humans serve as peons to an independent energy grid. Shouldn’t our infrastructure, rather, serve a humane and literally empowered common life?
Energy policy is maybe a strange place to look for a Christian vision of human dignity, for allegiance to Christ himself as the mystery and telos for all of creation. But all creation is a theater of his glory: windmills and storms and senators and all. But windmills aren’t enough. As Pope Francis recognized in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’, despite the many benefits and possible solutions afforded by technological advances, we cannot rely on technology alone to solve these problems for us. Francis laments that “at one extreme, we find those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change.” Moreover, while “we must be grateful for the praiseworthy efforts being made by scientists and engineers dedicated to finding solutions to man-made problems,” nonetheless “a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.” To the extent we are perennially in service of some beauty or another, responding to climate change is as much a crisis of human will, aesthetics, and moral agency as it is a political and technological challenge.
We can use our freedom to continue chasing the dehumanizing delusions of ever-expanding growth, productivity, and consumption for short-term profits and political expediency—but we will do so at the cost of our planet, our neighbors, vulnerable human beings who are made in God’s image, and at the cost of our own souls. Or, we can count the cost, and realize that we cannot afford such a course after all.
We can use our freedom to continue chasing the dehumanizing delusions of ever-expanding growth, productivity, and consumption for short-term profits and political expediency—but we will do so at the cost of our planet, our neighbors, vulnerable human beings who are made in God’s image, and at the cost of our own souls.
What is freedom for? This week, the winter seems far away. Spring has come to the Panhandle, and we’re preparing to celebrate Easter. A whole year’s worth of suffering seems soon to be behind us, as those cold, dark days are behind us. We may feel that we can go back to normal: to freedom-posting and to shopping online, to neglecting our planet, our society, the fragile threads that bind us together and that, in a crisis, either hold, or snap. Whether they snap or whether they hold in the winters to come will largely depend on who we serve with our freedom, who we serve in the spring. As Bob Dylan put it,
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.