Tag Archives: interdependence

Interdependence Day

Image: John Fowler, CC 2.0

Image credit: John Fowler, CC 2.0

The Fourth of July tends to spark a number of alternative ideas of independence. One of the most prevalent, to pick a not so arbitrary example, is independence from foreign energy sources, meaning, of course, oil. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a perfectly good addition to the many reasons to support energy efficiency and renewables.

From an ecological point of view, however, it’s not independence but interdependence that we should be celebrating. The obvious type of interdependence that we are dependent on is that of ecological systems which include such necessities as the provision of oxygen by plants. Unlike the 18th century colonial dependence on the British Kingdom, our relationship – an interrelationship really — to the plant kingdom should be celebrated. It’s not a dependency we want to – or can — break.

Desirable interdependence has other forms as well. Our interdependence on each other via family and community is a basic characteristic of humanity. Very few people would either want to or be able to live in isolation from the give and take of others. Try to imagine it in terms of food or shelter or, moving upward in Maslov’s hierarchy of needs, self-esteem or love.

Our pinnacle of independence, the Declaration of Independence, is itself a declaration of interdependence. Joe Romm at Climate Progress addresses this when he rereads the text of the Declaration of Independence, adding specific emphasis at points, and concludes “By saying that it is a self-evident truth that all humans are created equal and that our inalienable rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, our Founding Fathers were telling us that we are all in this together, that we are interdependent, that we have a moral duty to protect these inalienable rights for all humans.”

In my own post, “Stealing from the Future,” I wrote of a related point that Romm also explores: “intergenerational remote tyranny.” The concept, Romm and others explain, derives from a passage in a 1789 letter written by Thomas Jefferson to James Madison: “the earth belongs to the living……..no man may by natural right oblige the land he owns or occupies to debts greater than those that may be paid during his own lifetime.”

Though I referenced it in my post, I’ve always thought that it was a bit of a logical leap to jump from that line to intergenerational responsibilities. The missing link, it turns out, is also in that letter, which begins: “The question [w]hether one generation of men has a right to bind another … is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also among the fundamental principles of every government…. I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self-evident, ‘that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’ ….”

It’s a fascinating letter, worth reading in full as I did this Fourth of July. At points, he seems to invalidate the inheritance of both debts and assets to succeeding generations (“The 2d. generation receives it clear of the debts and incumberances of the 1st.”) and seems to advocate that no law or constitution should run in perpetuity. Both points have fundamental implications regarding the rights of the currently living versus those not yet on board.

Romm goes on to focus on a specific word, “usufruct,” in the opening passage of the letter. The word is a combination of the roots for use and fruit, and refers to the usage of the fruits, as in the output or products, of something. The Constitutional Law Foundation (CLF), quoted by Romm, writes: “In Jefferson’s time, as now, “usufruct” referred to “the right to make all the use and profit of a thing that can be made without injuring the substance of the thing itself.” It was a term used to describe the rights and responsibilities of tenants, trustees, or other parties temporarily entrusted with the use of an asset — usually land.”

Read that way, the definition appears to refer to the fruits of land being a right of whoever owns or rents the land. But other definitions add a crucial meaning. Miriam Webster Online defines usufruct: “the legal right of using and enjoying the fruits or profits of something belonging to another” [emphasis added]. Other dictionaries have a similar definition.

This would, among other things, be in accordance with Jefferson’s argument that the Earth belongs to the living, not merely to those with artificial “legal rights” to land. That would upset the entire basis of property rights, something I pondered in my post, “Lines in the Earth.”

It ain’t easy finding an image to represent a word like usufruct. Credit for this find goes to a site called Eurozine in an article called “From abuse to usufruct.”

It ain’t easy finding an image to represent a word like usufruct. Credit for this find goes to a site called Eurozine in an article called “From abuse to usufruct.”

But there’s a still more interesting and environmentally relevant (as well as more practicable) aspect to look at. The CLF elaborates: “Jefferson’s philosophy that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living at least partially reiterates the biblical/Lockean paradigm of the earth as intergenerational commons, the fruits and benefits of which should be accessible to every member of every generation.” This is tricky stuff for one such as me, untrained in philosophy or law, to decipher. One reading of “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living,” I think, might be interpretable in the biblical sense of man’s dominion over the Earth.  Were it not for the second part of the sentence referring to “every generation,” that interpretation would be antithetical to any environmentalist as it could provide justification for simply living in the present, with no regard for anything but our own interests.

When we start thinking in terms of “intergenerational commons,” however, the picture changes entirely. It pulls together several of the themes that have been running through this blog. One is the concept, well employed by any ecological economist, of externalities. The other, of course, is the responsibility of any generation to its descendants.

But how would we truly represent the interests of those who do not yet exist? The fact that they’re not (yet) here is a pretty basic problem. Mark Bittman, in a New York Times column on climate disruption, presents a slightly science fictional concept and then suggests its potentially less hypothetical outcome:

Imagine a democracy across space, time and class, where legislative bodies represented not only those living in the world’s low-lying areas but their great-grandchildren — and ours. Or imagine that our elected representatives were proxies for those people. Imagine those representatives determining our current energy policy. Is there any doubt that things would change more rapidly?

It would be neat if a solution could be that simple. The future could send their votes back in time. Not likely unfortunately. The best we can hope for is legislative bodies that, along with their living constituents, are willing to act as those proxies, and our track record on politicians favoring the greater good over their campaign-financing interests is pretty dismal.

This brings to mind, though, another disenfranchised group – a group I discussed in yet another post: “Planets are People, My Friends.” In that post I conjectured how the interests of nature (or the Earth, if you prefer) could be represented in human decision making, how that oxygen-providing plant kingdom, for instance might have rights and votes. As with Bittman’s imagined intertemporal government, it would require proxy voting;  a proxy, though, merely delegates one “person’s” vote to another. It doesn’t necessarily mean voting against your own interests when they conflict with the person you’re representing. What we’re talking about here is putting yourself in someone or something else’s shoes. An ability that most of us are not very good at.

As befits a post on interdependence, there are a lot of intertwined tentacles here: property rights, voting rights, future generations, our relationship to nature. Just a few ethical and existential questions.

No pressure though. It’s the future, not the present, we’re talking about.


Falling Forward

Political slogans are, almost of necessity, excruciatingly bland and generic, typically with a cap of whatever you’d call the Muzak’d version of patriotism.

I won’t spend time on the recent Republican convention slogan “We Built It,” particularly as it’s built, as it were, on several fallacies. The DNC’s slogan, too, was marvelously vague, with “Forward” replacing “Yes We Can.” It is, presumably, a good way to point out that the Republican Party’s direction, as hijacked by the Tea Party, is somewhere between sideways and backwards.









This question of directionality came to mind as I was perusing Andy Revkin’s blog where, in the “about” sidebar he quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Let us draw a lesson from nature, which always works by short ways. When the fruit is ripe, it falls. When the fruit is despatched, the leaf falls. The circuit of the waters is mere falling. The walking of man and all animals is a falling forward.

Revkin then concludes “The human trick in this century is to foster practices and policies that result in us FALLING FORWARD without falling down.”

Now I’m not sure how far the metaphor of nature falling and “always work[ing] by short ways” holds up. Many of nature’s systems are highly complex and, furthermore, often battle gravity. Before that fruit that Emerson refers to can fall, its tree has to grow. Before water can fall, it has to evaporate upward into the atmosphere.

But “falling forward” is still an apt way of looking at EcoOptimism. I proposed the term EcoOptimism because we seem to be in such a depressed and pessimistic state – a state of falling. The “trick,” as Revkin terms it, is to use that falling motion, the energy of that movement, to transport us in a better direction. In other words, don’t fall back.

Another way to put it is with the old and overused (and perhaps inaccurate) statement that the Chinese character for crisis is the same as the character for opportunity. Putting translation issues aside, the idea that opportunity can arise from crisis is a powerful one. Crises shock us and allow us to look for answers in places that complacency either kept us away from or blocked our view of. It could also be termed “throwing caution to the wind” (so long as we’re casting idioms about), but I prefer to think of it in terms of seeing things that were not visible before.

Perhaps even more significantly, crises can jolt us into questioning our assumptions. I stress this questioning process with my design students – and I hope to write about it some more. Bringing the point back to EcoOptimism, it can involve wondering about the things that we take for granted and asking whether these things really are our values. How, for instance, did single-family suburban homes become the “American way of life?”










A family in Pearland, Texas, 1993 with their belongings. Image from Material World: A Global Family Portrait.

(In the post “The Story of Change/Changing the Story,” I wrote “The irony of the vaunted ‘American way of life’ of commuting from detached houses in suburbia is that it was created by exactly the kind of government intervention and social policy that conservatives now decry. Without tax deductions for mortgages and without the massive investment in highways and bridges (accompanied by disinvestment in mass transit), the great suburban exodus would not have occurred.” How were we unwittingly maneuvered into thinking that a lifestyle of car commuting, child ferrying and lawn mowing is what we yearn for?)

The thesis of EcoOptimism is that we can solve our interdependent crises and end up in a better place. It doesn’t say there won’t be areas of painful changes such as industries that no longer make sense, but there will be greater new ones to take their place. And if we do this right, the new jobs will be more satisfying and healthier.

I don’t mean to imply one-size-fits-all solutions here. I fully realize, for instance, that my love of urban living is not everyone’s cup of tea. But let’s look at our choices clearly rather than through the lens of, if I may borrow a term usually applied differently, the nanny state. Some complain that the government has become a nanny state in which it tells us what’s best for us. (Wear your seat belt, don’t drink too much sugary soda, don’t do this or that or you’ll get a ticket.) But that assumes that we live the way we do now by our own unmanipulated choice. And that simply ain’t true.

The subtitle of EcoOptimism is “Finding the Future We Want.” It has meaning, for me, on at least two levels. The first is that we shouldn’t let our future be determined by default. We have the unique ability to change things, to play an active role in events.

It also, though, means we shouldn’t let our future be determined by forces or groups that don’t necessarily have our best interests in mind. In today’s politicorporate (dang, I thought I’d just created a new term, but Google says otherwise) reality, what that translates into is whether those with deep pockets will maneuver us (again) in directions in their favor. Because, you see, we are indeed falling. What we haven’t determined is whether we will fall martial arts style, guiding the momentum of the fall so that instead of injuring ourselves, we roll out into an advantageous position.

Damn, I think I just used a sports metaphor.