The climate change crisis highlights a profound, yet often underappreciated truth: the unequivocal interdependent nature of life.
We share this planet with billions of people, and vastly more non-human animal species, plants and natural resources, all of us relying on a symphony of synergistic relationships for daily function. While scientists have been sounding the alarm on humanity’s impact on the environment for decades, only recently has the gravity of the situation really taken hold, as evidenced by the nearly 8 million people who participated in the recent global climate strike– the largest of its kind in history.
The concept of “independence” is cherished in many circles, often times for good reason. But, it’s also misleading, as it implies a kind of autonomous functioning that doesn’t really exist in nature or anywhere for that matter. Its opposite, “dependence,” is an equally confusing term.
“Interdependence,” on the other hand, seems to more accurately describe the multitude of relationships of which we’re all a part – including to other people, animals and the planet as a whole. It speaks to both a reality and an aspiration.
Pause for a moment to reflect on the food we eat, as one example of our vast interdependence. Think about the many necessary elements in getting it from farm to table: healthy soil, seeds, sunshine, water, growers, pickers, packers, drivers (traveling on engineered roads, car, ships, or planes) and retailers to name a few, all work together to ensure that we in the industrialized world have an ample supply of food available for purchase. Alter one ingredient and the system can become imbalanced and falter.
“Humans merely share the Earth. We can only protect the land, not own it.” –Chief Seattle
Sadly, this faltering is happening with the environment and our unhealthy relationship to it appears to be the cause, with nearly 100% of climate scientists agreeing that global warming is “extremely likely due to human activities.” While the extensive burning of fossil fuels that started with the Industrial Revolution is largely to blame, the concomitant deforestation of land and big agriculture are also contributing factors.
One doesn’t have to look far to see the disastrous impacts of climate change around the world in the form of lost lives, communities and natural resources. Studies also show that climate change is quite costly in other ways, with more than $350 billion being paid out in related costs by US taxpayers over the past decade. Experts predict more droughts and heat waves, stronger hurricanes, and flooding and rising sea levels due to polar ice caps melting, among other calamities, unless we do more to change our ways.
Whether you believe in human induced climate change or not, we can all (hopefully) agree that it makes sense to: A.) do everything we can to preserve our natural resources; and B.) acknowledge our interdependence from a general standpoint.
Interdependence: Me + We = MWe
The field of Interpersonal Neurobiology is discovering more evidence all the time of how much we influence one another’s well-being through our interactions, recognizing the individual “mind” as not only an embodied process, but also a relational one. When our personal relationships are going well, we tend to feel good, and when they’re struggling, not so much. (This applies to interspecific bonds as well, as any adoring pet owner can attest to the meaning and comfort provided by these relations.)
Macro level relationships also have an impact. When a government policy changes, or a blessing or tragedy falls on a community, there’s a ripple effect that touches all.
Accordingly, Dr. Dan Siegel, neuroscientist and leader in this field, has suggested that rather than seeing ourselves as simply an independent self or “me”, it’s more accurate for us humans to identify as “MWE’s” – reflecting a combination of “Me” + “We”. The term is not only cute, but also seriously scientific, speaking to our interdependence on an interpersonal level.
Granted, “co-dependency” describes this dynamic at an unhealthy extreme, whereby one loses a sense of their own feelings, wants and needs. Interdependence, on the other hand, supports healthy boundaries, but also doesn’t forget the inherent mutuality that exists in relationship.
“Our highest happiness is connected with the well-being of others.” – Jack Kornfield, PhD.
Interdependence > Independence
Just like “me”, the term “independence” can foster a dualistic, “us vs. them” view of the world. Our cultural leanings and institutions in the United States, steeped in a history of self-determination as a defining feature, along with norms of competition (and conquering, as with Native Americans, slavery and imperialism abroad), reinforce this sense of “me”, leaving many feeling at least somewhat alone and separate.
Of course, freedom and (true) democracy are both desirable and healthy, and capitalism appears to be an improvement over prior, even more oppressive economic conditions. However, our current socio-economic system still has much room for improvement, as it tends to place a higher value on productivity over connection, and competition over cooperation, contributing further to the sense of isolation and despair that many feel today.
This system also runs on heavy consumption of natural resources, creating an addictive quality to material gain and creature comforts. This inevitably has its costs, including tendencies toward greed and excess; misuse of the environment; and a type of disconnection to the things that matter most in life.
By contrast, a mindset of interdependence – the “MWe” perspective – provides a healthier, more collaborative framework from which to navigate the world and solve existing challenges like those related to climate change.
Since Linguistic relativity theory suggests that language can shape perception (which logically then informs action), we believe it’s time for a declaration of interdependence!
Having this sense of “MWe” front and center can promote greater harmony, equality and sustainability by reminding us that our actions (or lack thereof) do have a ripple effect.
And, perhaps most importantly, this mindset speaks to the deep truth that we’re not alone and we/all belong – critical factors not only for our wellbeing, but also survival, as a species and planet as a whole.
“Our most fundamental sense of well-being is derived from the conscious experience of belonging.” –Tara Brach, PhD.
Practices to Foster Our Sense of Interdependence
We hope that this post has been useful food for thought. Below are 6 ways to further explore our sense of interdependence, whether in relation to people, other non-human animals or the broader natural environment that holds us all. Experiment with these and share them with others.
1.) Pay attention and be curious about the vast web of interdependence. How do you influence and benefit from relationships with other people and the natural world and vice versa? Take a deeper dive into the systems of which you’re a part by learning more about them. Seek out scholarly sources of information and then form your own opinion. Try to do all of this with the relaxed, nonjudgmental, openness of mindfulness.
2.) Slow down: as the adage goes, you often need to “slow down to go fast” (i.e., to be wise in thought and action). Regularly take time to step back and see the bigger picture. Yes, some problems require swift solutions, but it’s hard to be clear when urgent and there’s much value in pausing and reflecting.
3.) Connect: the more we connect (with people, non-human animals and nature in general), the more we see the ways in which we’re alike and linked. Healthy relationships and a sense of belonging are the cornerstones of well-being. Data on the power of micro-moments of connection with others bears this out as well, showing that even brief, positive encounters contribute greatly to our wellbeing. Whether introverted or extroverted, shy or confident, seek out ways to both notice and foster connections in a way that feels right to you.
4.) Appreciate: carve out a little time each day to notice the positive. Maybe it’s a pleasant encounter with a friend, a tasty meal, or beautiful summer day. You can soak up how amazing it is to be able to watch a sunset, ride a bike, swim in the sea, read a book, listen to the birds sing, create a painting, or look at them in a museum. Think of the evolutionary mechanisms and all the people involved, going back in time, that contribute to the countless number of enriching activities available in nature as well as the human-influenced world. Consider sharing your appreciations or writing them in a journal via a regular gratitude practice, as research shows this offers many benefits.
5.) Take yourself and your power seriously; small things DO make a difference. Granted, there are many things beyond our control or influence. However, it’s important to trust that good intentions and regular, positive practices do have an impact. From an environmental perspective, maybe it’s about experimenting with less consumption: sending a thoughtful note instead of purchasing superfluous gifts; fixing your old car instead of buying new; turning off the water in the shower while you suds up; or drying your hands on your clothing, rather than using paper towels when out. Yes, we need broad, sound environmental policy to reverse climate change, but the achievement of this is an “all-hands-on-deck” job. Pursue macro-level initiatives and participate in activism if drawn to do so. All of it makes a difference.
6.) Strive for excellence, not perfection. Even the best intentioned sometimes contribute to suffering and waste without knowing it. We all have a role to play in environmental misuse and its repair and interpersonally, there’s much room for better treatment of others and ourselves. Seek out ways to let go of the self-centered nature of ego and to unlearn the social conditioning that can make us think and act in ways less than fully human and life sustaining. Reflect and learn from your slips and strive for excellence over perfection. While many feel guilt, overwhelm and anger about things like climate change and social injustice, don’t let that stop you from trying to “right the ship” in a thoughtful and compassionate manner. After all, we’re all in this together.
What thoughts do you have about interdependence? Please join our community by sharing below!
Climate change facts & analysis from NASA
Sustaining All Life Project from Re-Evaluation Counseling
Systems Theory & Therapy from GoodTherapy.org
Do Not Despair from Meditation Teacher Jack Kornfield, PhD.
20 Ways to Let Go of Ego, from David Richo, PhD.
Awakening from the Trance of Unworthiness, by Tara Brach, PhD.
Source: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/6-ways-to-prepare-your-finances-for-climate-change-2016-12-20; https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-17-720
 Some, like Yuval Noah Harari (https://www.ynharari.com/book/sapiens/), would make the case that hunter-gatherer lifestyles may have offered a higher quality of life than modern day capitalism.
Although, with regards to environmental misuse, I would argue that a minority of individuals and institutions around the world wield a disproportionate amount of power that shapes the policies and systems that contribute the most to human made climate change (e.g., industrialized nations: their leaders and greatest benefactors). See this article, for example, which highlights the need for all people to exercise their power by voting in elections and the need for major campaign finance reform to level the playing field.