Live Free—Do It Yourself

As the powerful continue to lead toward war, poverty, and eco-shock, people around the world create enclaves of freedom and the seeds of a new era.


Graffiti on a London wall by street artist Banksy. Photo by Kevin Flemen. Flickr: Kfxposure
Graffiti on a London wall by street artist Banksy.
Photo by Kevin Flemen. Flickr: Kfxposure

For all the freedom we claim in the United States, we lead lives that are mapped out for us from the beginning. We go to school and, if we're fortunate, to college; then to a job to pay for all we and our families need and want. We teach our kids to do the same.

This path once served at least some of us well. But today, it is tied to a system of institutions, habits, and beliefs that is leading us all to an ecological and human train wreck.

What if we got off the train? What if we walked out on this tangled web of businesses, laws, freeways, drugs, television-addiction, dead-end jobs or no jobs, strip malls, prisons, and war?

There are places where people are doing that. Those who need homes claim space and work together to build them. People go to universities where they find their own teachers, or teach each other the skills to make their communities work better for everyone. Artists do their work unconstrained by the profit-seeking of corporations and middlemen. Bicycles rule the streets, making cars take second place, at least some of the time.

In short, people are creating spaces for community, for learning, for fulfilling their own dreams while supporting the aspirations of others.

What happens when we throw off the invisible chains that keep us from realizing the world we want—when we, as they say in the global south, decolonize our minds?

You may want to find these free spaces. For now, they flash into being in a few places, at a few times, and in a few minds. But they are available to anyone who wants to find or create them.

The Game of Go
This issue asks what happens when we throw off the invisible chains that keep us from realizing the world we want—when we, as they say in the global south, decolonize our minds.

Suppose that, instead of waiting for the whole world to change so we can live as we would like, we remake spaces where we can live that way now.

Think of the game of Go. Unlike chess, where you confront and defeat an enemy, in Go you win by taking over spaces. You simply surround territory and make it yours.

Illustration based on street artist Banksy's famous Flower Bomber graffiti.
Illustration based on street artist Banksy's famous Flower Bomber graffiti

Instead of asking someone in power for policy changes or the right job, why not take over streets for bikes and parks, build our own cooperatives, create cultural events that nurture our souls and community spirit, build our own homes? Why not live the lives we want, along with others, without waiting for permission from the authorities?

This is the approach of the autonomists, the street artists, the tent city dwellers. In our society, people on the fringes have the most skill at this. They have been excluded because they are poor, a minority, or undocumented, and they make their own space both of necessity and as a declaration of power. Those who have succeeded within the power structure and become accustomed or even addicted to the rewards of obedience may find the transition difficult. But it can be done.

An Antidote to Fear
Does seeking freedom mean sacrificing family and friends and striking out alone? Quite the contrary. Getting free of debt, addiction to shopping, and corporate television can open up space for the authentic relationships we crave. Getting free of the burden of paying for and taking care of the excess stuff frees up time to notice where we live—the natural and human communities that need our stewardship.

The best antidote to the fear, helplessness, and isolation that drives people into apathy is community and joy. That is reason enough to create free spaces. Individually, people are extraordinarily intelligent and capable. But together—in settings that encourage each person's full potential and open us to our own wisdom and that of others—we can be geniuses.

Does this mean turning our backs on the dire challenges facing the world? It may, in fact, be the best tool we have to face them.

Our individual liberation and the liberation of our society are interconnected. The United States claims to set the gold standard for “the good life,” and around the world, billions are doing their best to imitate us. Our way of living drains the life from the planet, but our leaders say we insist on it. Do we? If we can free ourselves of the advertising-induced stupor of consumer society, maybe we can help release the whole world from the American dream-turned-nightmare.

Let's get off that train, and with the clarity that comes with our freedom, we can begin inventing the world we want—and ways of life that might leave a livable world for our children and grandchildren.

If we believe there is nothing more urgent than building a just and sustainable world, maybe we simply need to start building it, beginning wherever we are.

This is the leadership we need today. Not the lone heroic leader, who is so easy to corrupt or shoot down, but the leadership of ordinary people who are both the creators and the beneficiaries of free spaces, and who use those spaces to claim more freedom for everyone.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world,” and less famously, “I believe it to be perfectly possible for an individual to adopt the way of life of the future …without having to wait for others to do so.”

So who's done waiting?

Sarah van Gelder and Doug Pibel wrote this article as part of Liberate Your Space, the Winter 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah and Doug are, respectively, the Executive Editor and Managing Editor of YES! Magazine. Photos of Sarah van Gelder and Doug Pibel
No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.