Human World

The world without edges …

Kai Lee talks about global connections.

Kai N. Lee is the Rosenburg Professor of Environmental Studies at Williams College. In April of 2005, Dr. Lee talked with EarthSky’s Mark Airhart about living in what Lee calls a ‘world without edges.’

Kai Lee: What I mean by the world without edges has to do with the idea that 200 years ago, nearly everybody lived in a place whether they wanted to or not. That is, their water and their food, a lot of their information, the people that they knew, the people that they would marry or they would meet on the street everyday – they were all local. And in that sense, they all lived in a world that we would now call bounded, that people in Afghanistan lived in a world that was about as bounded as the people who lived in the south of France.

And as global forces that have linked together distant places have become stronger and stronger, we now in effect live lives that are connected to distant places so pervasively and so routinely that we don’t even think about it. You and I might think the fact that we live in different time zones is something we have to plan around when talking on the telephone. But other than that, there’s very little reason to take into account the fact that you and I are speaking from very different time zones.

And that’s true of the clothing that I wear, which may be manufactured around the world, or the food that I purchase in the supermarket, not to mention the information that I’m getting from the mass media each day.

I live in a world unlike my grandfather who was a peasant in China, who lived a very bounded life, probably never moved much farther than 50 miles from his village. I live in a world in which I’m routinely connected to people thousands of miles away. And that’s the world without edges. That’s the reality.

Now psychologically, however, I think we still think of ourselves in psychological and cultural terms that are inherited from this much more place-bound world with edges. And so the world without edges is particularly treacherous because we don’t appreciate the way in which we are in fact connected to different places and we don’t even think about them.

Why is that a problem?

Kai Lee: Well, mostly it is not a problem. Because our lives are made much more convenient, we can do many more things because of a world without edges. But people in wealthy countries like the United States and western Europe and Japan, all of us are engaged in forcing changes in the world at large far away from ourselves. And we’re unaware that we’re doing it. We have no concept of our contribution to this and how we might alter our contribution.

Now this is obvious in an environmental sense. All of us driving around burning oil from Saudi Arabia and Venezuela and other places and releasing carbon dioxide into the global atmosphere, that has an effect cumulatively in distant places all over the world. But we pay no attention to it or we are simply unaware that that is going on. But as the example of petroleum shows, there’s much more going on than environmental impacts, there’s also the question of these vast flows of revenue that are going to these different countries Most people who are consuming gasoline and diesel oil have no understanding of what’s going on in those countries. They’re more aware now because of 9/11 and a different kind of engagement of the United States in the world. But still, there’s a great ignorance. You know, I pumped gas into my car this morning. The thought didn’t cross my mind, gee I wonder how much of what I’m paying today will go to Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, both countries with which the U.S. has difficult relationships. And it just didn’t occur to me.

The world without edges gives us this sense of great independence. I can hop in my car, I can drive wherever I want to. I can sit down in a restaurant, order all kinds of food from distant places. So we have this great independence. But the independence is actually an illusion. The independence is actually created by a very large web of interdependence.

And that web of interdependence is a two-way street. There are suppliers that will deliver mushrooms from France to my dinner plate and information to my computer screen. They are dependent on me as a consumer and I am dependent on them as suppliers. And in all of that there is very little awareness because of the world without edges. We are roped into this great web of interaction back and forth.

So how do we live in this kind of world?

Kai Lee: Now the paradox is that the way I’ve been talking, you would assume that the right answer is for everybody to take responsibility. That, sure, I should be thinking about the labor conditions under which my pants were sown or the amount of pollution that was generated to grow my morning coffee or the banana I ate how many pesticides were used and which peasants might have been exposed to those pesticides and so forth.

But I think that a moment’s reflection reveals that taking personal responsibility as many of my students try to do, is a Herculean task. It’s beyond the capability of any of us. Even if you were to spend full time focusing on your connections to the world without edges, I think it would be impossible to live this way, to make your individual choices of consumption and how you interact with the economy and trying to figure out all the indirect connections. So I don’t think that really works.

I think one of the great dilemmas we face is acknowledging this interdependence in a way which also enables us to live our lives. We don’t want to be encumbered all the time with thinking about all the indirect consequences of what we’re doing in the world. And I think that’s a dilemma that we don’t even recognize is a dilemma yet. And I think when we recognize it, the response is to cause people to feel guilty. But I don’t think guilt is the point. I think the point is governance. How do we turn the corner so that we can in fact behave in responsible ways when we live in this world where we can not know the connections that link us to the rest of the world?

That makes me as an individual feel pretty powerless…

Kai Lee: I would agree that individuals feel powerless and that they are right to do that, that that’s a correct appraisal of the situation.

The right way of thinking about the challenge of the world without edges, in my mind, is not to think of this as an individual moral question only, but as an institutional question. So that one way that people react to this challenge is they say, ‘I’m going to buy more organic food.’ And organic food is a kind of, it’s a sort of ideology. When you buy organic food, what do you know about it? Well, the answer in specific about the organic bananas in the grocery store is that I don’t know any more about them than I do about the conventional bananas, except that they have this label ‘organic.’ So somebody else is standing as guardian of what is organic about organic food. So when you say, okay, I’m going to become an organic food consumer what you’re saying is, ‘I affiliate with the party of no pesticides.’ When you buy fair trade coffee, ‘I affiliate with the party that says they want more profits to go back to the growers.’ So those are institutional responses. And I think we’re still struggling to figure out how to do that in a way which is satisfying and can be sustained over time.

But I don’t think that individuals are completely powerless. I think that there are ways of connecting individual responsibility to a larger social outcome. For example, there are now, with rising gasoline prices, more and more people who are seriously considering buying hybrid vehicles. There are more and more people who are hesitating to buy low miles per gallon vehicles. And this is one of the contributing factors to the difficulties being faced by General Motors and other auto manufacturers. Those are changes that are forcing a shift in the technology of automobiles in this country. And that’s individuals. That’s a case in which an individual who does decide to buy a hybrid car may end up feeling pretty good about himself or herself. Because now instead of getting ten miles to the gallon, you can get 35 or 55.

Those kinds of changes are very real changes, but they aren’t political changes. They’re cultural, economic changes. It’s important to bring those kinds of things out and to say to people that this is a way of taking responsibility for the world that doesn’t require exhaustive study. But on the other hand, it does require some reflection. You shouldn’t unhesitatingly say, Oh, I’m going to go buy a hybrid car or I’m going to buy organic food or I’m going to take a particular position for or against any political position.’ I think it’s important for people to be aware that this is a dimension of living a responsible life that is a serious one. You wouldn’t want to suggest that people go in and cast ballots on election day without thinking about whom they’re voting for.

So I think there is a responsibility that people should shoulder. At the same time, it’s not an impossible responsibility. Before the Florida election in 2000, people might have thought that the act of casting a ballot that seemed as fruitless as choosing whether to buy a cup of fair trade coffee at the coffee shop. But many people now recognize that voting does matter. And you see that in Iraq and Afghanistan and Mexico as well as in Florida.

Our thanks to:
Kai N. Lee
Rosenburg Professor of Environmental Studies
Williams College

September 30, 2006
Human World

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