Leslie Paul Thiele

 

On his book Indra's Net and the Midas Touch: Living Sustainably in a Connected World

Cover Interview of November 23, 2011

The wide angle

It is perhaps already trite, these days, to observe that we live in a world chiefly defined by interdependencies.  But it wasn’t always so.

Until the “age of ecology,” ushered in by Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, the notion of our living within a web of interdependent relations was foreign, at least to the Western mind.  But as the impact of natural resource depletion, pollution, escalating populations, and technological quick-fixes came back to haunt us in the latter half of the 20th century, perspectives shifted.  We discovered that the natural world was not an inexhaustible pile of resources available for consumption, a pyramid of plenty upon which humankind might safely perch itself.  Rather, we existed—as one among many co-habitant species—in a finite world, within a delicate and complex network of relationships.  Sustaining this web of life took on a new urgency as the effects our overloading, or severing, one strand after another began to hit home.

If environmental threats prepared us to think anew about our place within nature, vast changes in the human world simultaneously reinforced the salience of interdependence as the ubiquitous feature of contemporary life.  Since the end of the Second World War, economic interdependencies grounded in a global economy have proliferated and deepened.  Today, virtually everything we do—and certainly everything we buy—reinforces our status as local links on global supply chains and global chains of demands.  That economic interdependency defines our world today need hardly to be emphasized, as the painful reverberations of the collapse of Wall Street in the fall of 2008, and the Euro zone debt crisis of 2011, still ricochet across the globe.

Likewise, our lives are entwined within vast technological networks.  New media and engineering innovations encircle the globe at lightening speed, gaining footholds, and market share, among widespread publics who are willing, if not eager, ever to adjust their lives to newer, faster, smaller, bigger, cheaper, more complex, and more costly artifacts and capabilities.  We are technologically linked as never before.  The realms of culture, society and politics are no different.  They, too, demonstrate the ever-increasing interdependencies of our lives—evident in such global chain reactions of social and political upheaval as the Arab Spring and the proliferating Occupy Wall Street/We are the 99 movement.

But if the vast and accelerating growth of global interdependencies has become duly acknowledged, the chief repercussion of our ecological, economic, technological, social, political and psychological connectivity has been more routinely ignored.  The stubborn, and tragic truth is that navigating systems defined by interdependence inevitably produces unintended consequences, and the deeper the interdependencies, the more impactful—and potentially devastating—the by-products of action.

I wrote this book because I wanted to have a response to the questions my students were asking about the complex world they are inheriting.  Indra’s Net and the Midas Touch provides an interdisciplinary account of the nested connections that define our lives.