The American Declaration of Independence was drafted to ‘declare the causes which impel them to the separation’ from the British state. The Interdependence Day project declares the ways in which our fates are 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 cope with living in an interdependent world.
It aims to invite 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 – a given – a simple blunt fact of life.
But 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.
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.
Both globalization and global environmental change invite us to extend greatly our notion of who counts in politics. For the drafters of the Declaration of Independence the drastic revision of political sovereignty they proposed seemed natural: the time had come for change wherein governments would be ‘deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed’. We have arrived at a time that demands change on a similar scale. The carefully marked out boundaries of political community organized around the human members of nation states have begun to break down.
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. Substantial global trade in the past, such as the trade in porcelain in the 18th century, saw the creation of extended networks of production and consumption. These interactions had widely distributed consequences for taste, ideas, life chances and more. Neither is there anything new about attempts to intervene in these chains of consequences: one strand of the campaigns against slavery was a sugar boycott that saw sales of one of the most economically and socially important goods in Britain drop by a third. Ecological change brought about by humans also has a longer history that we sometimes acknowledge. Environmental historians 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 of some of the changes – specifically the global environmental changes – we are bringing about. Another is the fact that they are undeniable. 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.
Some framings of the world as interdependent demand a simple urgency – NGO campaigners ritually propose specific single solutions that suggest control over these pressing issues is possible. By contrast others suggest that an interdependent world is one of such dense complexity that wilful, purposeful, designed change in the interests of the poorest, future generations or the natural world is an impossibility.
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 the American Declaration of Independence that our title implies is delivered with a thick vein of irony - born of modesty - none of us can afford to be too shy in asserting that another world is possible.