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Narratives of interdependence: old and new – Making Connections

“If people can see Earth from up here, see it without those borders, see it without any differences in race or religion, they would have a completely different perspective. Because when you see it from that angle, you cannot think of your home or your country. All you can see is one Earth….” (Anousheh Ansari, Iranian-American space tourist)

This interrelated world is here described by astronauts who have returned from space. When they see Earth from afar, they refer to the view of one Earth – of a beautiful blue and fragile Earth.

Visions of wholeness and interrelatedness have also been expressed in the myths and legends of indigenous peoples who lived in close connection with the Earth and its rhythms. Ross Nepia Himona, a Maori living in Aotearoa New Zealand describes:

“the close affinity of our ancestors with the whole of the Creation; their relationship with the Earth and the skies, the lands and the seas, as well as with all the creatures of the Earth. A people living in and with Nature, rather than against Nature, as we do in these modern times.” (from “The Journey to Aotearoa from Hawaiki to Hawaiki)

In the classically modern relationship that grew out of the rise of international trade and the industrial revolution, humans have come to see nature primarily as a source of resources that they can profitably convert into consumer products or commodities. In its extreme and unbridled forms, this exploitation is oblivious to limits or constraints.

In 1928 the US presidential candidate Herbert Hoover expressed what was soon to became a very widespread version of the “American Dream” when he envisaged homes with “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” (The American Dream, and Hoover’s contribution)

There are many critiques of such modernity – that of the Frankfurt School of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer that began in 1930s Germany being among the most prominent. These cultural theorists depict an aggressive, instrumental dominance of nature which goes hand-in-hand with pervasive socio-political dominance.

One prominent Frankfurt theorist, Herbert Marcuse, traced out in the 1950s and 1970s how popular culture had been developed as a means of social control. He described this culture as an ethos in which the masses of modern industrial societies were kept disciplined by mind-numbing mass production and then, more latterly, with disciplined and mind-numbing mass consumption.

Nonetheless, these theorists still supported many of the ideals of modernity that emerged in the eighteenth century Enlightenment. In this, great thinkers like John Locke, Immanuel Kant and Thomas Paine articulated visions of personal freedom and political democracy that became the basis of the modern democratic culture of the twentieth century.

While the Frankfurt thinkers were generally pessimistic about many modern trends, they saw some hope in the way in which the aesthetics that had become intrinsic to the consumer society could also provide a basis for critique of it.

Now that the human race is caught up in a well acknowledged global ecological, economic and cultural crisis, yes, there is plenty to critique. However, by itself critique can become destructive and actually deprive people of hope and the ability to act constructively.

Some modern theorists are returning afresh to the heritage of the historical Enlightenment and its promise: its democratic Project of social, political and technological innovation that enhances human autonomy. They include notably Scott Lash from the 1990s and Gerard Delanty who goes on to elaborate a very wide-ranging framework around the Promise of the Enlightenment.

We might not like all of the various manifestations of democracy in the modern period, but it is surely the best project to pursue rather than the alternative project of fascism in its various forms (including a looming prospect of some kind of eco-fascist order). One of the greatest challenges facing us today is to develop green societies around democratic ideals.

Is it now time for a new direction, new dreams, and new stories? Can we draw ancient traditions and new technologies together in a new vision of the whole, one to which all of us can relate? There is plenty of material. For instance, the pre-modern Chinese world-view, like that of Polynesians, tends to emphasize relationships and culture and an appreciation of tradition – including a strong interdependence with the natural environment. Can this world-view be brought into productive dialogue with that of the Enlightenment?

We need new and relevant conversations. Could this geographically distant, antipodean Aotearoa/New Zealand – with its unique mixture of cultures (indigenous and Western and Eastern) take a lead in provoking dialogues between traditions and civilizations?

What do you think? Are new stories needed? Can stories include a vision which takes seriously the diverse perspectives of history and modernity, incorporating both critical and the hopeful perspectives into that of the practical?

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