The exhibit, “Interdependence,” consists of a group of magnets glued to the bottom ends of a number of stiff wires that are suspended by their top ends so that the magnets are free to move like pendulums. The magnets are oriented so that they mutually repel, causing them to space themselves apart from one-another. A rubber squeeze bulb and air hose are situated so that you can direct a jet of air at the suspended magnets. The result is that the movement of one or more magnets causes all the others in the field to move in response. None of them can move independently from any of the others.
“Interdependence” relates to ecology, which is at the core of environmentalism. Ecological studies inform us that everything under the face of the sun is affected by and affects everything else, directly or indirectly, more or less.
Instead of maintaining an awareness of interdependence and the truths of ecology, we Americans typically focus on its opposite, independence. In fact, our whole traditional style of scientific research involves arbitrarily separating the subject or process being studied from its natural surroundings, then drawing conclusion about it as an isolated object or function. This can be a useful strategy at times, but more often than not, the conclusions derived from such study are misleading.
The idea of independence is a myth entwined in the roots of America's beliefs about itself. It's likely that many of the observable differences, say, between the Canadian character and the character of Americans goes back to the fact that we “won” our independence, while Canada maintained its membership in a commonwealth. To Americans, “commonwealth” smacks of socialism and we certainly want no part of that. . . unless it's socialism for the lords of banking and Wall street. We also are in love with the mythology of the West; the idea of the independent settler, and the myth of the self-made man. The fact that the frontier closed long ago, and we live in close contact with many of our fellows has yet to dawn on us. And no man is self-made these days. Anyone who manages to rise in the social/economic ladder does so either with the active help of others, or by acting at their expense.
I believe blindness to the importance of interdependence in nature and all social systems is at the root of the terrible predicament in which we find ourselves, economically, environmentally, and socially. We humans were not always so oblivious to this principle as we appear to be nowadays. Henry Ford historically realized that he must pay his employees well enough that they could purchase his cars if he wanted a market for them, a bit of wisdom that seems to have been forgotten. Most indigenous peoples realized that if they destroyed the environment that supported their lives, they would destroy their ability to survive. Many of us have abandoned traditional notions of civility and consideration, forgetting that ignoring our neighbors or treating them badly will sooner or later result in unpleasant forms of “blow-back.”
Ignorance, willful or not, of the principle of interdependence is a force behind all the ecological disasters that are currently afflicting us. We've barely acknowledged that if you clear cut all the forests, not only do you eliminate one possible sink for excess carbon dioxide, but the mountainsides turn to sliding mud, the salmon spawning grounds are destroyed, and the evaporative cooling supplied by living trees is eliminated, one more factor contributing to climate change.
Socially, certain members of society, who have managed to sequester a great deal of power, in the phantom form of money, remain oblivious to the fact that if they impoverish the “99%”, inevitably the value of money will decline, and the masses will likely turn on them, a sad lesson that has been repeated (and ignored) many times in history.
Perhaps the views elaborated here on interdependence will lend insight as to the thoughts that inspired the creation of its namesake exhibit pictured above. Despite the seeming non-assertiveness of its presence, the exhibit expresses an idea whose importance is such that if we ignore it, the continued survival of human beings on this planet is doubtful.