In decades to come, we will probably not recall that 2011 was the International Year of Forests and Chemistry. We will likely forget that India and Bangladesh ended a decades-long border dispute; like much else that happened in the past 12 months, this was a momentous event that will nevertheless be relegated to a footnote in history.
For many of us, 2011 will be marked by the convergence of two “events,” both ongoing. In late October, the population surged past seven billion, with projections that we will reach nine billion by 2050. Meanwhile, the question of the “occupation” of our shared world fires the collective imagination.
In 2008, Arjun Appadurai, one of the most distinguished Indian-born academics in the United States, currently professor of media, culture, and communication at NYU, posed a provocative rhetorical question at a conference in Lisbon: “Can there be life without the Other?” Three years later, Appadurai’s question seems more urgent than ever.
Granted, “the Other” is a capital-O formulation that perhaps only appeals to academics. “The Other” sounds rather abstract, perhaps even a theoretical indulgence. But “otherness” and “the Other” are not simply problems for philosophy and anthropology. Otherness is also the prism through which politicians, policymakers, and pundits think about the terms on which we inhabit and regulate the world. Otherness is a question about the governance of diverse citizen-subjects and communities who live together under one law. Thinking about Others means thinking about international alliances, relations to different cultures and religions, and the difficult issues of social stratification and polarization.
Since Oct. 31, which the United Nations declared “Seven Billion Day,” many have asked whether there can continue to be life with the Other—with seven billion others, to be exact. Appadurai’s question gives the issue of wildly increasing population a different force. Can there be life without the Other? If we abdicate our responsibility to others, can we live? Can there be life for the one, without the other? Can there be life for the 1 percent, without the 99?
Living with others, to invoke Rohinton Mistry’s devastating novelistic account of the Emergency in India, requires “a fine balance.” Other people present both our greatest occasions for happiness and fulfillment and the most significant threats to our security and peace. We love some, and we fear others. We protect some, and we forsake others. We recognize some, and we refuse to see others.
Of course, there are risks in living among others, as is painfully evident in any consideration of our fraught human history of genocide, oppression, poverty, capitalist exploitation, and terror. In the war zone, in the sweatshop, and even in the brutality of the everyday lay-off, we subject each other to hell. We endanger one another. We build bombs. We profit from the misfortune of others. We waste what others need.
In the United States, the categorization and management of resident and non-resident aliens, illegal immigrants, and so-called enemy combatants reveals not only our systemic xenophobia, but also the limits of our capacity to live with other human beings.
And yet, if we are ever to be moved, loved, changed, transformed, and educated, it will be because of our openness to the other people with whom we share our lives in the world. At the risk of overstatement, we are each related in time and space to every one of the seven billion-plus people who now inhabit the earth. Yes, we are strangers in the eyes of others. We do not “know” all others; they will never “meet” us. It is nearly impossible to conceive of the material conditions of the day-to-day lives of the seven billion others out there. Still, we daily relate to the strangers in our lives.
The American pragmatist John Dewey argued that before we can ever come together with others to form a public, we must perceive that our actions have consequences for these others. Every day, we have the opportunity to make ethical choices that implicate others: not littering the sidewalks or soiling public buses because of consideration for the right of others to shared space and infrastructure; responding with care to the plight of distant others suffering the ravages of war, famine, or natural disaster; not skimming off the top of the economy and the labor of others with parasitic “day trades” and other value depleting activities.
The Occupy movements—which now far exceed the terms of the opposition to “Wall Street,” as well as the limitations of the singular form (the “movement” is clearly manifest in plural “movements”)—provide the occasion for us to think very seriously about the choices we make with respect to the existence of other people. This much we know: We have to live among others. Some of us have to live with more others than others—over one billion others in India, 300 million in the United States. What are the ethical demands of being one subject among one billion? What are the ethical demands of being one subject among seven billion? What are the ethical demands of being in the 1 percent?
In the words of Immanuel Kant, “No one originally has any greater right than anyone else to occupy any particular portion of the earth.” There are seven billion occupiers now. Can we build lives for us all? Can there be life without the Other?
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.