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A global declaration of interdependence

Joe Smith
18 June 2006

The American Declaration of Independence was ratified on 4 July 1776 by those who had come to "declare the causes which impel them to the separation" from the British state. The Interdependence Day project – an interdisciplinary, multimedia research and communications initiative organised in partnership between the geography discipline of Britain's Open University and the New Economics Foundation – will be launched in London with an all-day event on 1 July 2006.

This "Declaration of Interdependence" affirms the ways in which our fates are 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. No less than 1776, it seeks to announce a form of consciousness that matches the needs and possibilities of the contemporary world. It seeks "new maps for an island planet".

Joe Smith is lecturer in environment in the geography discipline of the Open University.

For more information about the Interdependence Day project, click here

For details of the 1 July 2006 launch of the project in London, click here

This project throws light on what interconnectedness means for politics, science, technology and culture through a series of events, publications, research programmes and web/broadcast media content streams. 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 can seem unlikely, the architects of the 1 July 2006 – Interdependence Day – initiative are working to nurture 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 in the last few decades by civil-rights lawyers and environmental activists. Depictions of interconnectedness and interdependence pervade human culture over millennia.

The ground of reality

In this sense, interdependence is a ground condition – a given – a simple, blunt fact of life. But several trends caused western culture to forget this in the course of the 20th century. Three in particular played their part:

  • progressive subdivision of academic endeavour into ever more narrowly focused disciplines, from the late 19th century onwards
  • the diminution of economic and political life into a set of atomised market exchanges
  • the reduction of cultural life into a pursuit of personal leisure and pleasure.

There are, equally, several urgent reasons why we are beginning to remember our state of interdependence at the beginning of the 21st century.

Knowledge of processes of economic globalisation and global environmental change (most acutely, climate change and biodiversity loss on a global scale) is emerging at a time when communications technologies have achieved unprecedented speed, reach and availability.

These processes invite us to think in global terms. They also demand that we acknowledge long threads of connection between actions and consequences. Moreover, 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 globalisation and global environmental change invite us to extend greatly our notion of who counts in politics. For the drafters of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 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". In our own era, we have arrived at a time that demands change on a similar scale. The carefully marked-out boundaries of political community organised 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 globalisation 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. Global trade in earlier centuries 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 than we sometimes acknowledge.

Environmental historians have shown how travel, trade, urbanisation and industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries saw human societies transform the non-human natural world in substantial ways and over great distances.

A new recognition

But three developments make the present moment different. The first novel feature is the irreversibility of some of the changes – specifically the global environmental changes – we are bringing about. The second is the fact that they are undeniable. The third is that the circulation of people, knowledge, images – the cultural dimensions of globalisation – both pushes us to think about our responsibilities and 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, for example, 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.

The grand associations with the American Declaration of Independence that our title implies is delivered with a thick vein of irony, born of a suitable modesty. But equally, neither should be overdone. None of us, and no one alive, can afford to be too shy in asserting that another world is necessary as well as possible.

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