The Interdependence Day project declares the ways in which our fates our bound together, both with distant and future humans, and with the non-human natural world.
It provokes people to acknowledge and respond to the multitude of interconnections in the world: ecological, economic and social. This research and communications initiative throws light on what interconnectedness means for politics, science, technology and culture through a series of events, publications, research initiatives and web/broadcast projects.
All of this work is designed to help us to respond to living in an interdependent world. It aims to invite some new people into the conversation about issues such as climate change and poverty, and to ask new questions of people that are already familiar with these problems. At a time when change in the present seems unlikely, we are working to create conditions that allow people to think creatively about how the world might be.
There is no novelty in proclaiming our interdependence. A few minutes spent casting around a bookshelf would find insights from ecology, theology, psychology, philosophy, economics and more. A web search will throw up numerous ‘declarations of interdependence’ generated through the course of the last few decades by civil rights lawyers and environmental activists. Depictions of interconnectedness and interdependence pervade human culture over millennia.
We see interdependence as a ground condition. What the concept brings into focus is our inescapable reliance on others – other entities, other forces, other places (including, needless to say, human and other-than-human elements).
It might be taken to suggest that no matter how individuated or autonomous we appear (or present ourselves to be) we have been utterly dependent on relations of give and take with others to become who we are, and remain dependent on others to sustain ourselves.
The focus on give and take should also highlight the fact that some of us are more indebted than others, for all manner of historical and structural reasons.
There are reasons why western culture has forgotten this in the course of the twentieth century: progressive subdivision of academic endeavour into ever more narrowly focused disciplines from the late nineteenth century onwards; the diminution of economic and political life into a set of atomized market exchanges, and the reduction of cultural life into a pursuit of personal leisure and pleasure have all played their part.
The other side of interdependence is perhaps less obvious, but no less important. Our openness to and reliance upon others also renders us vulnerable and impressionable. Because of our interdependence we remain susceptible to influences and forces of change that we may modulate but never fully control.
Moreover, interdependencies tend to be complex, and complex systems tend to swing or sway between different states (which reflects the derivation of the word from the Latin pendere – to hang). Interdependence, in other words, implies a condition of radical uncertainty.
The future is always pending, and thus open to how we act on our interdependence. There are some very urgent reasons why we are beginning to remember our state of interdependence at the beginning of the twenty first century.
Knowledge of processes of economic globalization and global environmental change (i.e. climate change and biodiversity loss on a global scale) is emerging at a time when communications technologies have achieved unprecedented speed, reach and availability.
It is not simply that these issues invite us to think in global terms. They demand that we acknowledge long threads of connection between actions and consequences – and we have the capacity to learn and share this knowledge as never before. These issues draw us into an awareness of responses and responsibilities that stretch over great distances.
Climate change caused by the present and historic emissions of the developed world brings consequences to the poorest in the present, to unborn future generations, and to the non-human natural world. Evidence of dramatic loss of biodiversity that has evolved over millennia in the space of just a few decades also stretches the boundaries of the political and the ethical. Knowledge of the human stories that lie behind the material fruits of economic globalization demands that we revise our thinking about where responsibility to others starts and stops. It is not simply that we begin to know about the waste or harm that our lifestyles and economic systems cause: in doing so we are forced to revise our notion of who and what needs to be heard in political discourse. This idea has been expressed in terms of an emergent cosmopolitanism or global civil society, and in notions of ecological citizenship.
There is nothing new about the principle of consequences over distances (historically and geographically). Substantial global trade and imperial expansion in the past saw the creation of extended networks of production and consumption. Historians and geographers have shown how travel, trade, urbanization and industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries saw human societies transform the non-human natural world in substantial ways and over great distances.
But there are some things that are different about the present moment. One novel feature is the irreversibility and scale of some of the changes – specifically the global environmental changes and the interdependent societal changes – we are bringing about.
The circulation of people, knowledge, images – the cultural dimensions of globalization – does not simply press us to think about our responsibilities but also makes us much more aware of the responsiveness of the world to changes we introduce.
Yet, interdependence defies full presentation. We are too entangled within it, too constituted by it, to ever have a vantage point. This is not to deny that certain flows or dependencies can, and should be made accountable. But we also need to be aware that behind these flows, within them, beyond them, there are other forms of give and take that remain unknown, incalculable and unrepresentable. How the known, the yet to be known, and the unknowable dimensions of interdependence relate to each other is one of the challenges that the concept poses.
In particular, it points to the need to `map’ realities that are dynamic –interdependence happens across geographic and temporal scales. This means that if we are to attempt to 'map' interdependencies in some way then we will need to work through and beyond many of the conventions of mapping and representation. Integral to this project of mapping is the realisation that the maps we make create or deny spaces of participation.
Only collaborative working will be able to take account of the fact that our maps will be forever incomplete, vulnerable to the movement of those temporal and geographical scales, as words are to mud. This open ended-ness is an opportunity, to create a space of imagining that is neither resolved, nor completed. It is an invitation to participation, to forge a new language for cultural change that is on the same scale as those changes we are making in the bio and cultural sphere.
Other framings of the world as interdependent demand a simple urgency – NGO campaigners ritually propose specific single solutions that suggest that control over these pressing issues is possible. By contrast others suggest that an interdependent world is one of such dense complexity that designed change in the interests of the poorest, future generations, or the natural world is extremely difficult. It may be more appropriate to acknowledge or intimate interdependence, rather than to declare it. This is because we are always already interdependent, like it or not, prior to or irrespective of any intentions, decisions, deliberations.
The Interdependence Day project is propelled by a hopeful sense that we can dare to rethink the way the world works, but that this will require sustained effort in both intellectual and cultural spheres. We want to help to provoke new thinking, new cultural work, and new spaces for interactions between environment and development policy communities, media producers, museum curators, scientists, theorists, philosophers, performers and artists
Although the grand associations with Declarations of Interdependence are here delivered with a playful revision, none of us can afford to be too shy in asserting that another world is possible.
This article was used to support the OU / New Economics Foundation event - Interdependence Day - held in July 2006.