Q. So global financial institutions tend to be blind to complexity and global interconnectedness when the maximization of profits demands blindness to the interconnections of economic, social, and natural ecologies both on a local and on a global scale. This looks rather paradoxical and quite ironic for a culture that increasingly promotes itself through a glossy image of global connection, of “being connected”.
A. The institutions like the World Bank and the WTO, which talk of a particular kind of globalization, which is an economic globalization, a market globalization, is basically interconnectedness through capital; through markets. But it is in the nature of that kind of interconnectedness to exclude. It can’t really draw everyone in. It draws every eco-system in, but it pushes the local fishermen out, the tribal out, the woman out, the local peasant out. It is a kind of interconnection in which exclusion and apartheid is built the very nature of the system. Both because it is a resource-hungry system, it needs a lot of resources, and also because it is a capital centered and not a nature or people centered system. There are other forms of interconnectedness. One is that the provides us: that we are linked through the web of life. We didn’t design it. It’s there. The atmosphere moves around, the pollution of the United States can my rob my country of its rain, can rob us of our food. We are connected, and the Norway Treaties like the Climate Change Treaty are meant to recognize it, this interconnectedness, and to take responsibility for how you can damage other people and other beings, through irresponsible action. The second kind of interconnectedness is through our water cycle: after all rain pours in certain places, evaporates somewhere else, and keeps this huge hydrological cycle churning on this planet, giving us this very vital element of water. So I would say that the most fundamental level at which we are interconnected is through planetary ecological cycles, and since we are exactly like other beings in the fact that we need the water, in the fact that we need the air, we need land, we need soil, we are ultimately biological beings who are interconnected to other beings in our similarities to them while we are different. I think what went wrong with our human enterprise was it redefined human as separate from other beings, and redefined human as separate from being woman, from being the poor, from being the colored; it redefined human further to being not biological but being an embodiment of capital. And so you got the ultimate alienation built into this chain of separation which then tries to connect separated, alienated embodiments of capital as if that is interconnectedness for us a human species, and I think it is a deep ecological flaw, it’s a deep cosmological flaw, and it leaves too deep ethical and moral flaws in action.
Q. Talking of ethical and moral flaws in political action and ideologies means calling into question the modern notion of universal rights inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment. On this regard, do you see today the conditions for a redefinition of the notion of universal rights on a different basis from the abstract principles of equality, justice, and freedom nurtured by the Enlightenment? What does it mean today to act ethically and to have the moral authority to speak of universal rights?
A. The western liberal notion of universal rights, I believe, went wrong in two ways. The first is, it saw these rights as given by states. It saw states as basically the reservoir of all rights, and so it became politically centered, it became centered on the construction of humanity rather than our being part of the fabric of ecology, of nature, of life-renewal. And the second way in which it went wrong, deliberately wrong, was by further taking this constructed of rights and separating the civil rights from the social economics. Because from social economics that someway we can get a broad thing of saying: “Ok, we all need food, all beings need food. We need water, all beings need water. And then social economic needs would connect us to our biological existence, to our existence as a species, being, as one among many many species. I think the shift that is needed is both a radical new shift but it also taps into the most ancient thinking from very very diverse cultures. Indian civilization over thousand of years, native American, Australian aborigines, Africans, all African tribes in their thousands of forms, Eskimos, no matter where you go. Women, women who do tap into more deeper thinking into what are we as humans, and don’t get so enraptured by human constructs. First of all because they have to live their biological imperatives, in terms of being responsible for sustenance of life, they can’t run away from it. I think that these totally futuristic while being rooted in the most ancient, are two very simple ideas that, I think, can show us a way out of the total dead end we face in economy, in politics, even in ethics; even in seeing what does it mean to be humans today. The first is to recognize that these rights, universal rights, are precisely those rights that we share with other species. That it is just wrong to try to define ourselves as separate from others because we’ll never be fully humans in that separation. So to reconnect to other species, to the earth family, to what in India we call Vasudev-kutumbh, “The family of the earth”.It is not just the family of my kinship, it is not just the family of Indians, it is not just the family of humans. It is the family of the earth, of all living beings. And the second follows the first very clearly, and is redefining our humanity in continuum with our non-human relatives. And once we realize that that’s what we are, then those rights don’t get given by constructions, especially corrupt constructions of today, they are given by creation, they are given by our being born, they’re given by existence, they’re being given just like an earthworm derives their rights from being an earthworm and part of an ecosystem. Humans derive their most fundamental and more universal rights as natural rights. These are not political rights, they are natural rights. And this re-embeds us totally into both our ecological matrix and our ecological responsibility. A consequence of this, of shifting from constructed, political rights, to natural rights is that whereas the alienated form of the not-so universal universal rights was always defined as “taking,” the really fundamental rights derive from natural rights, derive from giving. They are rights that till from responsibility. And that changes things around. Corporations can never be the owners of biodiversity because they can never look after it. States can never be the owners of water because who conserves water? Local communities. You cannot conserve water centrally; you can only conserve it in a decentralized way. And so rights start from responsibility, but responsibility to that larger fabric of which we are a part and from which we derive.
Q. What functions do you see for state governments and other territorial institutions, in this perspective?
A. We need states as derived structures; as structures that are given delegated authority. Not absolute authority. I think that it would be a terrible flaw to treat modern states on the basis of the derived divine right of kings. After all, feudalism was bad because it was based on this crazy notion that kings derive their rights from the divine, and absolute sovereignty of human construction ends up being equivalent to the divine right of kings. I think there is only a divine right, and that is being part of the divinity of life, shared by all beings. It is definitely not exclusively human, and it definitely does not inhere in state formations. States, in my view, are mere trustees, just like parents who act responsibly in the best interest of their children, and the best parents are those who give their children the maximum potential to be themselves. Not being directed by parents is the best form of parenthood. In the same way, States are trustees that are not absolute sovereign, owners of our natural resources and sovereign creators of our rights, which derive from our biological species being. It is interesting just before I was leaving I had a debate with a European Union official in India. They are very scared of the new thinking; they are very scared of the new movements. Their big assertions kept on being: “But we are, we are absolute definers of how society will be.” And I kept reminding them that when society is fed up, their salaries will be withdrawn, their salaries come as public servants. That they are mere public servants, and that they are falling into an illusion of absolute power. But that power is available to them only to the extent society gives them permission to exercise it. So I really think we are in a very critical moment, and the only way to resolve these deep contradictions and conflicts peacefully is to go into a peaceful worldview. You know, a more generous worldview. Anything narrow at this point can only lead to self-annihilation. And when I say self-annihilation I believe that the human species, even when they bomb other parts of the world are bombing themselves. That they are wiping themselves out as a species, that are creating behavior that destroys our future, and at this point there’s every sign that those who are in power, because they don’t think in terms of genuinely human rights and genuinely universal rights derived from our being part of the universal family and a universal standing, are getting into this narrower and narrower and narrower definition of their humanity, that they are human to the extent that they are different from another human, and definitely far away from all other species. They all want to be inhabitants of other planets. Unfortunately they are on this planet, and are not governing it very well. So I think we need very very dramatic shift and the thinking that has brought us to this crisis will not bring us out of it. Fortunately we are not on a blank slate. Even while we have to think the new, we are not on a blank slate. On fundamental issues humanity never begins on a blank slate.
Maria Cristina Iuli is an expert on American literature and a researcher at the Humanities Faculty at the University of Eastern Piedmont. She collaborates with Slow Food as a translator and editor