We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.
– Shoghi Effendi, 1933
Ideas are important. In individual human thought and shared human culture, it is through words and language that ideas take shape. It is also through words and language that these shapes can become clear and mere ideas become concepts. Our ideas and concepts influence what values we hold, what questions we ask, and what solutions we consider. This is particularly true of our concepts about the fundamental nature of reality. Lately, I’ve been thinking about one concept in particular: interconnectedness.
About a decade ago, I was part of a project that involved some of the Nuu-chah-nulth indigenous communities of Vancouver Island in Canada. In both public discourse and internal dialogue, people from these communities often refer to a set of concepts that constitute the heart of their worldview. Among these is hishuk-ish tsawalk, “everything is connected”.
Over time, many non-indigenous people living and working in the area—“settlers” as they are increasingly referred to in Canada—had begun to make use of this concept, using hishuk-ish tsawalk in conversation, referring to it in their work, and thinking about its implications for their relation to the wider world. One person explained it to me like this: “There’s a reason that people from the settler culture are latching on to this concept. It’s not some airy-fairy, New Age cultural appropriation. It’s because we recognize it. It’s because it’s true. Deep down, people recognize it as true.”
The concept appears again and again in different religions and cultures. In Buddhism, for instance, interconnectedness appears in the teaching of dependent origination, the idea that all beings, all phenomena, all things are dependent on other things. In the Abrahamic religions, human interconnectedness traces back to the origin of all human beings from an original man and woman. In Islam, it is asserted that God created humanity as one single people or nation[i]. The Bahá’í Faith refers to “the primal oneness deposited at the heart of all created things”[ii]. It is not an accident that the idea is found in cultures from around the globe—hishuk-ish tsawalk is a truth that these different cultures have each observed in the world. I want to explore four implications that this truth has for how we think about environmental governance.
Justice and the interconnectedness of human beings
Interconnectedness within human systems can be understood through the analogy of humanity as a single living body. Individual human beings are the cells in that body. They come together in communities and nations that are the organs and limbs of that body, and together they form a whole that is humanity. This doesn’t deny individual identity. Each cell is an entity unto itself that is different from other cells. Each limb and organ has its own existence that is distinct from other limbs and organs. But all are embedded within a system that is the body as a whole. The same applies to the human race: we are all part of a larger whole that is humanity. The fact that some cells don’t know they’re part of a single body, or don’t care, or exploit or starve other cells in that body doesn’t mean the body isn’t real.
This has implications for how we conceptualize justice. It implies that every human being has a right to life, knowledge and opportunity not only because they are endowed with innate dignity and worth as individuals, but also because we are all connected: for the whole body to thrive, each cell must thrive. Failure to recognize this interconnectedness, failure to see ourselves as a single, interconnected body is, I believe, at the heart of the world’s injustices. Justice then is not simply a label that apply to a situation when each cell, limb, and organ of the body is being treated fairly—justice is the means by which the body and all its component parts are made healthy. As such, justice should be the primary aim of all governance processes.
Diversity of perspectives and the interconnectedness of humans and nature
We are also interconnected—as individual human beings, as communities, as nations and as a global society—with the natural world. I don’t need to say much about our tangible dependence on the natural world: ecosystems provide our food, the water we drink and the air we breathe. However, there are also connections that are less tangible. The biophysical environments in which different peoples live shape their diverse cultures. I alluded to this in an earlier post: our connections as individuals to larger entities—to communities, to cultures, to landscapes and to ecosystems—shape our ideas and our values. The cultural and cognitive connections also flow the other way: our ideas and values impact on ecosystems through the economies, institutions and other human practices and systems that we create.
One result of all these different facets of interconnectedness is complexity. This is embedded in the idea of social-ecological systems: the connections between the social and the ecological run so deep that it makes little sense to think of either social systems or ecological systems existing independently of the other. Social-ecological systems are complex in that the interconnections among the parts of the system result in emergent phenomena and characteristics such as self-organization, resilience, and threshold effects, and these emergent features result in the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Moreover, these interconnections are too many, too intricate, too subtle and their outcomes too unpredictable for any single theory, mental model or narrative to definitively describe them all. For a complex system, therefore, there can be no single perspective that adequately encapsulates it. There can be diverse understandings and perspectives that may all be valid. Therefore, it behooves those of us involved in environmental governance to seek out diverse perspectives and ensure that ignored perspectives are enabled to claim a seat at the table.
Adaptive responses and the unpredictability that arises from interconnectedness
Complexity also implies uncertainty and unpredictability. In making decisions for our landscapes and social-ecological systems, we can attempt to anticipate the complex causality, try our best to see where unintended consequences of our actions may arise. Science provides some tools such as simulation modeling that can help. Ultimately, however, interconnectedness and complexity mean that we can never anticipate everything, and we can never know if we have found the right technologies, the right investments and interventions, and the right policies.
Instead, the deeper implication is that we need approaches to management and governance that are adaptive. This means that learning needs to be at the heart of environmental governance processes. Interconnectedness and complexity compel an approach to governance design in which monitoring, reflection, and deliberation are at the heart of how decisions are made.
The web of interconnectedness includes our ideas (so then what is governance for?)
The interconnectedness of human beings with each other and of humanity with nature implies something else for governance that is different from the perspective in which every human being, every resource, and every plant and animal are seen as autonomous entities. It is common to think of governance as the way that we balance the competing interests of different autonomous actors. The people upstream want different things than the people downstream. The pastoralists want different things than the farmers. In a particular landscape, someone may want to farm it, someone else wants to pave it, and someone else wants to use it for hiking and fishing. Governance, in this way of thinking, is about managing these competing interests. Questions about why people have the interests that they do or what circumstances might lead their interests to change, if they are asked at all, are treated as issues for social scientists—they are not questions that the processes and institutions of governance themselves address. Interests are essentially fixed and they are treated as given.
However, interconnectedness and the importance of ideas suggests that governance could and should also be about something else. If we are connected with all other human beings as the cells in a body; if our ideas, values, interests and cultures shape and are shaped by the social-ecological environments in which live; and if our “inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it”, then we should not assume that interests are fixed. Our governance systems should not simply accept pre-existing ideas, values, concepts, perceptions, and interests and attempt to find some accommodation amongst them; our governance systems should aim at guiding interactions that help to reveal interconnectedness and to manifest it, and through dialogue and collective learning to shape collective ideas, values and interests.
[i] Quran 5:48.
[ii] Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, no. 207.