Talk at the Centre for Human Ecology, Glasgow, announced at http://www.che.ac.uk/tim-ingold-talks-about-the-sustainability-of-everything-10th-sept-2016/
This digest was created by editing the text transcript generated by Youtube. View the video yourself for a more authentic reproduction. Lapses, grammatical errors, and typing mistakes may not have been corrected. The digest has been made available for purposes of scholarship, posted by David Ing.
[00m39s] This talk actually began life as the conversation I had a few months ago with Claudia Zeiske, who’s the director of Deveron Arts which is a us a local arts based organization in the town of Huntly in Aberdeenshiare, and she was planning an event to celebrate the planting of new woodland, and whe wanted me to talk about the principles of sustainability as they bear on friendship and peace, on grassroots democracy, on art, ecology, and culture.
[01m15s] “You mean you want me to talk about the sustainability of everything”, I said. Well, it seemed to be a pretty impossible thing to do but the more I thought about it the more it seemed to me that sustainability is either of everything, or it is nothing. Because it can’t be of some things and not others. It can’t be a sustainability that has boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. So that we will say we’ll sustained some things but it doesn’t matter if we throw away the others.
[01m46s] So the questions it it left me with are three-fold.
[01m53s] First is in what kind of a world has a place for us and for everything else hboth now and for future generations?
[02m05s] Then secondly what does it mean for such a world to carry on, because I think that’s what sustainability is about carrying on?
[02m12s] And thirdly of course how can we make it happen?
[02m16s] And to answer these questions I think we have to take a closer look at the meanings of our two keywords, that is, sustainability and everything, And I’m afraid being an academic and I’m obsessed with the meanings of words — all academics are — but I happen to think, actually, the words a terribly important. Then it is important to be clear about their meanings because we can’t have sensible debate about things like sustainability unless we have some clarity on what we’re talking about. [….]
[02m56s] I want to start with everything. This is one of those words we use all the time but often don’t think about very much what it means.
<< A huge section is omitted here, as the content is rather consistent with earlier Tim Ingold talks and publications >>
[31m17s] So much for everything. We’ve got an idea about what everything is.
[31m21s] It’s a movement. It’s uncountable. It’s made up of folds. And it is carrying on through time.
[31m40s] But then the question is, if if you agree that everything is a correspondence of parts, in that sense, then what’s the meaning of sustainability? What does it mean to talk about sustainability?
[31m46s] If we imagine a world like that — that the trouble at the moment is that — most of the rhetoric about sustainability is numerical. It’s done in terms of data accounting and statistics, and this numerical calculation calculus of sustainability tends to treat entire tracks of the earth’s surface and the resources they harbor as standing reserves for the continuing benefit of a globally distributed humanity, much as one might administer a trust fund for future generations.
[32m32s] So to protect the Earth — in a way within the numerical rhetoric of the sustainability — is to protect the Earth in rather the same way that the company protects its profits, and that’s not a question of personal care based on familiarity and experience, but of bookkeeping and rational management that is balancing recruitment and loss in renewables, as one might balance monetary income and expenditure.
[33m04s] Of people thinking — about well — you know the way we hold the earth as a trust fund for future generations, and therefore we’ve got to make sure that we don’t take out faster than we put back, or that we don’t take stuff out faster than it’s capable of renewing itself.
[33m23s] So thinking in terms is of these quantitative terms of management.
[33m26s] But it seems to me that, if we say that the world is something that is fundamentally Lucretian, if we say the world is fundamentally given in movement, then sustainability is actually about carrying on.
[33m42s] It’s about keeping things going, not about maintaining some sort of numerical steady state, or making sure that you’ve got a balance of accounts in your books.
[33m52s] It’s about about allowing the movement that generates things, that is life, to carry on.
[34m02s] So, it’s somehow about lasting, about making things last.
[34m10s] But again, when we talk about making things last, this is not in the sense of a preservation of form, as we tend to do in the museum.
[34m18s] In the museum you might be a museum curator, and you’ve got these objects to look after, and the thing you’re most concerned about is it they should maintain their form for as long as possible. They shouldn’t change. They shouldn’t decay, They shouldn’t decompose.
[34m35s] But that’s not what lasting means, here. We need to think of lasting in terms perhaps, in the sense of the life cycle.
[34m44s] So, if you ask for example, “how long does a person last?”, you wouldn’t say well how long did they seem to stay exactly the same and will have they changed. You would say, for example, well, how long have they live? When were they born? Whether they die. Okay, they lived for 80 years, 90 years, 55 years, whatever it is. That’s how long they lasted, and we’re thinking of lasting there in terms of the life cycle of a person, not in terms of the preservation of their particular form.
[35m17s] We don’t put people in museums in the way we put objects in museums.
[35m20s] So, if sustainability is really about carrying on, then there’s no real — not really — any opposition between preservation and change.
[35m35s] I may may give you another example which I like very much. It comes from a study by an anthropologist called John Knight, who worked with foresters in a mountainous region of Japan, and was looking at their traditional practices of forestry and then what had happened to them in in recent decades.
[35m55s] The traditional practice was this — that the forester would plant, and grow, and look after the trees for generations. Something like 30 years went from the conifers, so you planted the tree, you attended, you looked after it to make sure things well with it. And once a suitable period had elapsed you would cut it down. And then having cut it down, you would use those trees to make timbers for your house. And then, so, during the first 30 years of the growth of the tree, you’re looking after the tree. In the next 30 years the tree has become a house timber and it’s looking after you. You and your family living inside the house. And they call this the second life of trees.
[36m41s] So, the first life is when the tree is growing in the ground, and when and you’re looking after it.
[36m47s] The second life is when the tree is in your house and it’s looking after you.
[36m52s] That also lasts about 30 years during which time you’ve planted a new set of trees. They’ll be harvested and they’ll replace the old timbers as they begin to go rotten.
[37m01s] Perhaps, by that stage — and so that way — you gotta a perfect interlocking of tree lasting and human lasting — that is, tree life cycles, and human life cycles — that are kind of in phase with one another, and carrying on indefinitely through time.
[37m17s] That was all fine, until the conservationists came along and said you can’t cut those trees! These trees are part of nature! We need to preserve nature! So they denied the trees the possibility of their second life. They just stood there getting older and older in the ground, until they eventually drew out, as conifers do, sort of died down. They died on their legs, and died in their roots, and became dead trees standing in the ground.
[37m47s] And the foresters didn’t have the raw materials to build and restore their houses. So what happens now is we have ancient trees and concrete houses, in the name of preservation, and thinking of sustainability in terms of the preservation of form, rather than the continuation of life cycles.
[38m12s] So, that’s what I mean, in terms of, that if we compare a way of thinking of the world, which the Japanese foresters had. Something that is in movement, that is continually evolving over time, or whether we think of the world as some sort of steady state.
[38m30s] So, what that example reveals, I think, is a difference in ways of thinking about the future. And, of course, that’s precisely what sustainability is about. How do we how do we think of the future? And one way which — in this case one would associate with the conservationists — is in terms of projection; and the other way is in terms of anticipation.
[39m01s] One way to think about the future is, as in many of climate change scenarios, what will the world — we try to think — what will the world be like in 2050 or 2102? Trying to project the future. Project what we do want. What we don’t want and try and take steps that will produce the kind of future we want. That is thinking about the future in terms of projection.
[39m25s] Thinking about the future in terms of anticipation — as again John Ruskin put it — is not about predicting the future, but about knowing the ways things are going. Being able to be sensitive enough to one surroundings to see. To have a sense of the ways in which things are going, and then perhaps enter into those ways and modify them. Bend them this way and that, to suit your purposes but not to project or impose an anticipated or — sorry — a projected future state imagined in the present
[40m01s] And so, again, I would want to say — it would have to be sustainability of everything — sustainability has to be about anticipation, not about projection, in terms of that distinction.
[40m152] Now, I just wanted to finish with a few words about what the implications of this notion of the sustainability of everything would be, on: firstly for science and art; secondly for democracy and citizenship; and thirdly for peace and friendship.
[40m35s] And, so far as science being a big issues that I can only just touch on, then …. But so far as science and art is concerned — and it’s a personal thing for me, because I started off very much — I actually started off as a natural scientist — and before moving into anthropology — and so I started off in a primary science-based approach. And now find myself talking mostly to artists and in many ways feeling deeply uneasy about the present state of of the scientific project
[41m08s] And what strikes me is that … in many ways in science — and particularly the science of ecology — has lost its original sense of environmental sustainability — environmental responsibility — and that art — environmental art in particular — has taken on that responsibility that science is lost. In other words, that is, if you think who it was — that who are the people — who are really arguing for some form of environmental sustainability, it’s not the scientists but the artists.
[41m53s] And this is something that’s happened, I think, over the last two or three decades. And I’ve been rather curious as to understand, what exactly has happened to science?
[42m09s] And I do feel — worry — that, been particularly fueled by the digital revolution — sciences –well, it’s very hard to generalize about science, it’s a big thing and so messy and full of so many different approaches, but — mainstream science is, anyway that — the mainstream science that has the big funding, seems to have turned into some immense data processing exercise, in which living beings, including us human beings, have more or less disappeared.
[42m46s] That it often seems that the global science, in collusion with the multinational corporations that it more and more serves, treats the rest of the world — and in including the vast majority of its increasing the impoverished and apparently disposable human population as standing reserves of data to feed the insatiable demands of the knowledge economy.
[43m10s] So, I feel in many ways, that science has reneged on its original environmental sensibility, and has left art in some senses to pick up the pieces.
[43m33s] The implications for democracy and citizenship are, I think, that we do have to find a different way of thinking about what these are. That we have we have to realize that sustainable citizenship is not some sort of a priority entitlement, as though you’re a citizen of your country or the world, simply by virtue of the fact that you were born in a particular place and then just got it along with your passport and birth certificate and everything else. But it’s something that you actually have to work at. And that this work involves a process of what I want to call commoning.
[44m13s] And, by commoning, I don’t mean working back to find, or what is it that all human beings have in common? Or what was this human nature? Maybe we can use what we all have in common as a baseline on which to build a democracy.
[44m27s] It is rather to suppose that, actually, we’re all different and that each of us speaks with our own particular voice, and we are different because we are part of this life process because it’s that process that the generates difference.
[44m46s] But, at the same time, we are committed to getting along together. And getting along together means not looking back to see what we have in common, but looking forward to see how, through a stretch of imagination, I can begin to see how my experience can join with and respond to yours, so that we can, so to speak, get along together,
[45m10s] And, that’s a different sense of democracy. It’s not thinking of democracy in terms of the identity of interests. It’s thinking of democracy in terms of the the differentiation and commoning of life trajectories.
[45m26s] So, I think, what we need then, is a politics of difference rather than the politics of identity. Not trying to gang together on the basis of common interests but to recognize difference, celebrate it, and show how, because we are different, we can actually work together.
[45m52s] Because in the end, similarity divides us like beans in a sack, but difference is what brings us together.
[46m00s] And the implications for peace and friendship, well, we have to go back to the etymology of the word harmony. I mentioned earlier that for Greeks — for the ancient Greeks who developed the term harmony — one of the epitome of harmony was the rope with its twist in opposite directions which hold it together. And recognize that harmony includes tension and agonism, as well as resolution and — sorry — as well as and resolution and conviviality.
[46m35s] But it’s the tension of differentiation, as for example, the knots of the tree that hold things together. So we actually need tension. We need agonism. We need, what we might sometimes called conflict, in order to create a world in which we can carry on together. The top-down enforcing of common interests, or the trying to pretend that we’re all the same, is not going to produce a coherent, and form, of sustainability.
[47m12s] That’s what I have to say. Thank you very much
<< long commentary from audience member >>
[50m47s] I think, well, this is a question about hope and … a question what we can do. Because it won’t help anybody to be fatalistic, and it won’t help anybody to lose hope. So, the risks of of a global catastrophe, whatever form it takes, whether it’s a nuclear holocaust or or a climatic and total disaster, or the extermination of the bee population and the food crisis — whatever it is. We have to recognize that — I suppose that these possibilities are there and another thing could happen. There could be a …. Yellowstone might blow up. There could be a cold era, which has got nothing whatever to do with us, but could nevertheless render the earth uninhabitable, and that could happen anytime.
[52m00s] What we do in those circumstances? In a way, it’s not a question of just shutting our minds out and saying, we don’t want to think about it. It doesn’t help. I think we’ve got to — how to put it — we’ve got to be hopeful, and we’ve got to be hopeful for …. Because otherwise, it’s not fair on our children. It’s not fair on our children to tell them, every day, actually the world that were passing on to you is going to blow up and you’re going to be dead or going to have a miserable life.
[52m50s] Surely it’s our responsibility to to our next generations to invest as much hope in them as we can.
<< response from audience member >>
[54m03s] The thing is, you see, that there are parts of the world — we don’t often realize this but — some of the most polluted, and now, because of pollution, uninhabitable parts of the planet, are in the far north. I think the most polluted part of the planet is the Kola Peninsula, which used to be inhabited by by Saami people and some others. Most of it is now uninhabitable, because of the extraction of heavy metals and nuclear weapons testing, mostly during the 1950s. And, it’s going to take thousands of years before that environment — which looks like an unspoiled wilderness actually, it’s impossible to live there — it is going to take the thousands of years before that is inhabitable again.
[55m05s] So, for that people who … for whom that was their homeland, this catastrophe that you’re worrying about has already happened. And in a sense they’re living in the aftermath of it. And across the world, a lot of people are living in in those sorts of circumstances. Think of Bhopal. Think of some of these industrial disasters that have already killed large numbers of people, quite apart from Nagasaki and Hiroshima which was with throughout conflict.
[55m44s] So in a way …. What what strikes me is that the really intractable problem is: how one can deal with those parts of the earth which have already been rendered, and uninhabitable, for a very large, very long periods of time. After all, there’s a records of weapons testing in the Pacific Islands in the1950s, when nobody really understood just how harmful radiation was.
<< audience responses off mic >>
[57m30s] Yes, because that way, you’ve got a system that can, in principle carry on as long as you like.
<< audience responses off mic about sustainability>>
[58m40s] It actually depends on how you do it, …
[58m45s] The way it is mostly done is by — for example in clear felling — you clear fell an area and plow it up and then plant not a lot. And the results are usually disastrous because for the trees to thrive, they’re usually different species of the growing together, and they depend on one another. So …
[59m08s] So, if you destroy all that, and mono crop with a particular variety of trees, it’s not going to work. But what these Japanese foresters are doing traditionally was much less drastic. Individual trees, here and there, they would know the ones that are ready, they would cut those in a mixed forest and and replant. You’re not destroying. You’re not plowing anything up. They’re not destroying the fungal vegetation. You’re not destroying the species diversity. In that situation, you can replant and it’s okay. It’s not by clear felling and mono cropping and at a pace that doesn’t work. So, it depends how you do it.
<< audience off mic concern on sustainability, going back to original >>
[61m01s] What you said is right, and a lot of the problem is lighting other engineering type systems thinking, where the systems are supposed to be somehow closed, and tight, and therefore predictable, when when actually they’re not.
[61m15s] But, take the case of — I know a bit about it — climate change in the north, where we know that they’re there are huge changes taking place, for example, in Greenland. The ice is melting. New areas of land being exposed, and so on, and and this is forcing people who live there to make, or fairly radical, adjustments to their livelihoods of fishing and hunting and and so on.
[61m44s] But, so far as they’re concerned, they’re not particularly concerned about the whole climate change thing, because their view is that there never has been such a thing as a stable climate.
[61m54s] If they look back through their own oral traditions and so on, there have been periods of warming, periods of cooling, there was a little ice age, there was one here after the little ice age.
[62m02s] And the critical thing was that people had the flexibility, and the experience and knowledge, to be able to respond to whatever was happening with their environment. And they would do that simply by using a good deal of common sense and knowing knowing the place well.
[62m26s] But they never supposed that there was some sort of steady initial state, from which things had diverged. So the notion of change climate doesn’t make sense, if you’d never thought that it was stable to begin with. But the key thing is this ability to respond and to have that ability to respond. Then people have to know … not only do people have to know their environment well, but they also have to be allowed to use that knowledge rather than being told that all that’s just their folk wisdom and what you really need to bring in is the scientific experts who will tell you what to do. That’s the problem, or that they’ll send the experts who will say to the local people “you can’t hunt there” when people know that you can.
[63m11s] So, it’s that ability to care for and respond to one’s own environment that you know really well, that we have to respect. And that’s why I just get so fed up with big science because …. and this cult of expertise.
[63m36s] There’s nothing wrong with experts, so long as they don’t reckon or suppose that there’s some kind of global experts have come in and tell everybody else what to do. And, they usually get it wrong.
<< audience off mic on threads and knots, we’re good at making them, moderate them >>
[65m51s] There’s some truth in that. But the catch in what you’re saying is the we, as the who actually we are. Because …. And that’s where the politics comes. Because knots that some of us are creating are then making life impossible for other people. So … actually causing other people to be excluded.
[66m29s] The classic example of that is in wildlife conservation, in so many areas of the world, where people have been pushed off their land, which they used to live on, in order to make way for conservation of gorillas or elephants or whatever it might be.
[66m51s] And so, you might think that the conservationists are creating knots of their own, yes. But those are knots that are also creating boundaries and the that the distinction want to make there. A knot itself doesn’t have boundaries. If you think of a knot as this tangle of threads, and they’re going off this way and that way, it’s not wrapped up in itself.
[67m25s] The problem comes when one person’s line is another person’s cut. So, when in Namibia, the military, the South African military constructed roads to take its military hardware from A to B through the Kalahari Desert they cut through the parts of local hunter gatherers. And if they came out onto the road, they were in danger of getting shot at. So, that one very powerful actor’s highway is another’s less powerful barrier that is very dangerous to cross.
[68m12s] And I think that’s actually where the problem comes. Maybe not in the knotting itself, but in the way in which one person’s line, can be another person’s line of life, can be another person’s wall of death. I mean literally sometimes.
<< audience off mic, inaudible >>
[68m40s] Andm even if we did, who would be able to who could get up, and tell the rest of the world this is what you’re supposed to do? This is a real problem.
<< audience off mic, our paths, culture, relating the world, how to benefit the whole world? >>
[69m55s] Well, I think that we we need to learn from others. My own sort of little local protest — and because I work in the university and I’m an academic and an academic anthropologist — I get annoyed by the way in which even in my own discipline, which has a fairly good record on the whole, but still wants to collect material on other people in order ultimately to analyze them and to turn them into objects of knowledge.
[70m39s] Whereas the important thing, I think — although maybe that’s all right up to a point — what we need to do is to actually learn from what people are telling us, and and see how what we can learn from them might help to form our thinking.
[70m57s] That’s in … in this world, basically we need all the help we can get And, therefore we need to be prepared to listen to and learn from anybody. It doesn’t mean we have to agree with them, and in fact, they might be awful people and have terrible ideas, but but at least we need to engage with — as much as possible — to get some sort of sense about where to go next.
[71m22s] And to do that I think we need a different attitude within the academy itself. So this is actually in some sense of a problem for the university. There’s something that’s exercising, quite at the moment, because where we are.
[71m39s] But the thing is that we have had universities, and they’re at the moment … I think … have reached a crisis point because across the world universities are being taken over by corporations as basically research institutes for generating profit. And that is manifestly unsustainable.
[72m00s] Universities will either disappear — or at least disappear in any sense that we recognize them — and therefore we have to have another …. We have to be clear about what the alternative is, what a university should be.
[72m13] And, I think in in a world where we can no longer claim, as the academy used to claim, that as academics and scientists researchers we can deliver a superior account, or an authoritative account, of the way the world works. Like we know and we can tell everybody else.
[72m33s] In the post-colonial, world that’s no longer the case. But it seems to me that the university is a place where ideas matter and where people with different ideas can meet and talk in safety and in an ecumenical spirit. And we need to we need institutions where that can happen. And for me the university is that institution.
[72m57s] So, part of the answer to your question, I think, is how we reform the universities, or, if we can’t reform them how do we build an alternative university system in its place.
<< audience off mic, religions with nations, natural philosophy, Tao, physics >>
[74m10s] I hope there is hope in science, and what you say is true. I have no problem with individual scientists. Any … most any of the scientists I know, they’re wonderful people, and thoughtful people, and considerate and caring people. The problem is almost entirely with the institutionalization of science. It’s almost as though … There’s the scientists i talk to, and say “of course I agree with everything you say but how am I going to get my papers published, and how am I going to get my job, unless i do what is expected? Published in this kind of way. Collect my data in that kind of way. Do this experiment. I know it’s wrong. I know it’s unethical. I know it know that it’s all fabrication”. But that’s where they find themselves.
[75m07s] I mean, actually the reason why I jumped ship from science, was because I found the whole institutionalized, institutional machine so constricting, and so rigid, and so opposed, actually, to real thinking, that I thought this is not the place for me to work in.
[75m28s] So, there is perhaps an increasing disjunction between between institutionalized mainstream science and what many scientists themselves are doing and thinking. And, I find that scientists I talk to are themselves deeply concerned about that — they at least they find it a source of a very considerable frustration and and often talk to me is that they’re envious. They say, if only we could have the freedom that you have in anthropology to think in ways that are different from required patterns.
[76m18s] And in … just a case in point of that, in biology, there is this tradition of Gothean science that goes back to the ideas of Goethe and how one should study plants. I really getting to know them very deeply, and the way in which that is treated by mainstream science is is is utterly appalling.
[76m46s] I mean that it blows apart the myth that science is an open system of knowledge. And there have been other traditions where in mainstream science has virtually come to book burning, and saying we won’t allow any of this nonsense. So, we have is curious situation in which science, in principle is a very open-ended enterprise, but where because of the way it’s been taken up — perhaps because of the way it’s been tied to the ambitions of the state — it’s become very rigid in its structures, I think. But there’s hope. Yeah, there’s always hope.
<< audience last question, coming from the art world, shifting this conversation into the mainstream >>
[78m33s] I don’t know, but, perhaps, strategically we shouldn’t even be trying to get into the mainstream. I sometimes wonder so I think about my own discipline of anthropology, which is sort of, by most accounts, a bit marginal and/or regarded as a bit way out compared with the mainstream subject. And people sometimes say you know if only anthropology had the clout, the power, the numbers, the funding, the popular appeal of some discipline like psychology …. I believe there are more psychologist in psychology than there are practitioners of any other disciplines. Enormous.
[79m15s] And then you think, would you really want anthropology to become like that? What would you actually want this subject to become mainstream? And I think, probably not, because it would become normalized. It would lose its critical edge. So, maybe I just don’t know how to answer it, but maybe that’s the wrong ambition, to say “I want to be mainstream”, and that the right ambition is to think “I want to change the world” and leave it at that, and not worry about whether you’re on the margins or on the mainstream. And then see, once the world’s changed, where it’s landed up.
[80m06s] But, I appreciate the difficulty and and and know that people are compromised on both sides of the art/science fence. That I am struck by the extent to which this really, some really good, challenging interrogating work that’s going on in the environmental arts, however you want to categorize them. Much more now than 30 years ago.
[80m36s] And I’m struck, at the same time, by how the sort of ecology that was really strong in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, which was field ecology mostly, with people working very closely with certain landscapes, environments, animals …. how that has become sidelined in current bioscience. That the two things seem to be somehow … Well, they’ve happened at the same time and they seem to be somehow connected.