Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
I cannot think of any better way to start a discussion of another pair of sustainability-related concepts, interconnected vs. autonomous, than John Donne’s memorable words.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.
Donne’s words tell us that there should be no reason to oppose these two words when speaking of the human condition. Our culture today speaks very differently.
I have a pretty good idea of what interconnected means, but less about the word, autonomous, so I did some searching and found this next passage on the Internet. I have no idea of the politics or philosophical outlook of the person whose blog this is from. He is riffing on a common exclamation, “You aren’t the boss of me,” sometimes heard when a child has begun to become conscious of his or her personhood,
“I am a being of undeniable, inescapable ontological autonomy. It is wrong for you to attempt to dominate me, not just because that would be morally wrong but, most importantly, because my nature as a thing forbids it.
“This is a statement of obvious fact — obvious to observation, but, most especially, obvious to self-observation, to introspection. You know that I am a being of undeniable, inescapable ontological autonomy because you know that you yourself are a being of undeniable, inescapable ontological autonomy, and you know we are alike as things.
“This fact is undeniable, which means you can deny it only by being knowingly deceitful or in grievous error.
“This fact is inescapable, since no matter what deceitful or erroneous statements you might make about the idea of human autonomy — volitional conceptuality and concept-driven volitionality — free moral agency — free will — it is nevertheless always the case that we each are never other than and never more than beings of undeniable, inescapable ontological autonomy.
“Therefore, my own autonomy — and hence yours — is an ontological fact — a property of my being as a thing — an inalienable manifestation of my identity as an entity.”
I can’t think of another way of expression that would portray such a completely isolated view. The dictionary doesn’t go to such extremes that would tie such autonomy to the very existence of a person. Here are a few definitions:
Autonomous (of persons) a. free from external control and constraint in e.g. action and judgment, self-directed, self-reliant.
Autonomous (Philosophy) a. acting or able to act in accordance with rules and principles of one’s own choosing. b. (in the moral philosophy of Kant, of an individual’s will) directed to duty rather than to some other end.
There is nothing here to suggest that Homo sapiens is ontologically autonomous. Certainly we are completely dependent on our parents and subject to their rules for quite a period in our lives. Even Kant’s definition presupposes the presence of others to whom we have duties, that is, we have an obligation to care for them according to the specifics of the rules. The rules we choose as our own from the basket offered up to us by the society we inhabit must have been created by others human beings. If we ignore or deny their existence, we must then presume these rules to have come from some transcendent source to which we are also connected. If we were not connected, we would not have any duty to obey those rules we choose for our own or even choose any of them to be our own.
Interconnected has a much simpler definition.
a. mutually joined or related, having internal connections between the parts or elements. b. operating as a unit; coordinated, unified, co-ordinated.
As I write, I retract my statement that these two words are the epitome of polar opposites. Every human being is interconnected to the world; this is undeniable and inescapable unless one is completely solipsistic and believes that they are the only thing that exists and everything else that they perceive is only a mirage created in their minds. A child of five or six may believe something like this, but sooner or later, unless they are very strange, they will accept that there is a world out there. They are connected to it through the soles of their feet, through the interactions with others, the food they eat, and through virtually everything they do. No matter how “autonomous” ones chooses to be, the interconnectedness of the everything in the world remains a fact. Everything is not connected to everything else, but all entities exist in a web. The early native Americans (and other indigenous peoples) called it the web of life.
If you missed the reference to choice in the last paragraph, autonomy is just that. It is a life style choice that has nothing to do with one’s interconnectedness to the world. Only for children can autonomy be ontological, and that is only because they haven’t yet matured enough to appreciate their place in the world. For adults to claim some sort of ontological autonomy is to say that they are still acting and thinking like children. This is obviously a big problem in an adult world. The second part of the above definition relates to how we, all of us, have to act in a world, coordinated with and connected to other people and to the material world. Gravity connects us to the earth. If we ignore it, we will move only at our peril.
The tie of these concepts to sustainability should be pretty clear. Flourishing is more than a state of mind. It is an assessment that all is right with both my own world and the rest of the world. The kind of autonomy pictured above is completely incompatible with flourishing and thus with sustainability as I define it. Sustainability demands that the world be working in such a way so that all the parts are in harmony; there is no place for disconnected pieces. The absence of the conditions for flourishing to emerge can be traced to many factors. One of the most important of which is the presence of actors who behave as if they are autonomous by nature or essence. Their eyes are closed to the world as it is. There is no possibility is this kind of world. When people choose to act as autonomous nodes in an interconnected world, flourishing won’t show up either, but there is possibility in this case. The eyes can open and see that other choices are available. Sustainability is a matter of choice, but the choice must be the right one. Autonomy isn’t it.