Ingold’s Sustainability of Everything


Sustainability is an overused word.  It is much diminished by its occurrence in too many documents purporting to suggest that transport, local government or how anything is sustainable following the end of grant funding.  But we know that sustainability matters and thinking out of the current construction doesn’t happen nearly enough.

Tim Ingold’s lecture at the Centre for Human Ecology (Pearce Institute, Govan) on Saturday 10 September was entitled ‘The Sustainability of Everything’.  This provocative phrase came from an invitation to talk at a previous event about sustainability in relation to art and science, citizenship and democracy, love and friendship.

Ingold used ‘everything’ including qualities and processes as a way to open up a trenchant criticism of not merely the usage of sustainability but more widely the turn in science to data and the atomisation of everything.

Tim Ingold is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen.  He is known for his distinctive, arts and humanities inflected approach to anthropology.  He is currently leading ‘Knowing from the Inside’, a major European Research Council funded project involving anthropologists, archaeologists, architects and artists.

For Ingold the question of sustainability is not “How can we carry on doing what we are doing but with a bit less waste and impact?” but rather “What kind of world has a place for us and future generations?” “What does carrying on mean?” and more practically speaking “How do we make it happen?”

The key point is that everything in Ingold’s sense is not the collection of all the individual bits, but something different.  His problem with current science and current constructions of sustainability are their reliance on isolating something to analyse it.  Ingold comes at things looking for movement and entanglement rather than boundary.  To make this point he uses examples where either you don’t know where one thing ends and another starts, or examples of things in motion.  So he asks for instance whether the bird’s nest is part of the tree?  Or whether the wind that has made the tree grow bent over is part of the tree?  He asks if you can tell which part of the eddy in the stream is the ‘inside’ and which is the ‘outside’?

The importance of this approach is that it opens up new ways of experiencing and knowing which are more process oriented rather than object oriented.  Artists in particular respond enthusiastically to this way of knowing.

Ingold further developed this through Lucretius’ idea that everything is in motion and when things bump into each other they form knots – clouds are knots of water and temperature and wind.  Trees are complex knots.  Ingold evolves the idea of knots by pointing out that rope stays together through a combination of twist and friction.  He notes that harmony (eg polyphonic music) is exactly the same – a combination of elements that in themselves might initially appear to be in conflict but in relationship with each other are beautiful.  Again he’s nodding to artists ways of knowing.  In his terms everything is a “correspondence of parts” – not a totality but rather a carrying on.

Having set up this alternative way of understanding Ingold highlighted how current formulations of sustainability are underpinned by an assumption that the “entire earth is a standing reserve” and that we need to protect the earth in the way that a company protects its profits.  He drew attention to the underlying corporate or management language implicit in these descriptions of sustainability and how this is true of conservation organisations as much as corporations and governments. Furthermore of course Paulo Friere provided a deep critique of the ‘banking’ model of education which is closely aligned with this accounting version of sustainability.

Having established what he meant by ‘everything’, Ingold went on to construct an idea of ‘carrying on’.  To do this he referred to traditional ways of forestry in Japan where there is a dynamic relationship between the forester, the forest and the building of a house articulated in a 30 year cycle – trees take 30 years to grow and a house needs renewed every 30 years.  Trees are planted, foresters learn to build houses, trees are cut to build houses, trees are planted.  It is very different from the forms of plantation forestry and clear felling we experience across much of Scotland.

In conclusion Ingold came back to the themes of art and science, citizenship and democracy, peace and friendship.  He suggested that science has reneged on its commitment to understanding the world in ways that are useful for life, and that in his view environmental arts do this more effectively now.  He talked about the need for a politics of difference and the importance of embracing tension and agonism.

Reflecting on this talk there are a few key points that are worth teasing out of Ingold’s valuable line of argument.

Firstly, the construction of sustainability currently offered in ‘sustainable development’ and ‘ecosystems services’ is fundamentally human-centric and has lost any connection with the ‘existence value’ of the non-human as constructed by the likes of Arne Naess, Gregory Bateson and many others which were early inspirations of the environmental movement (and remain very influential on environmental arts). Ingold’s focus on entanglement and movement is a useful counter to ‘banking’ approaches. *

Secondly, we need to recognise that our current construction of sustainability is only one possible construction.  It is in terms of conventional ethics basically a form of Utilitarianism – the greatest good for the greatest number.  And in this respect it suffers from all the criticisms of Utilitarianism in being fundamentally subjective and in environmental terms challenging – if more than half the world’s population lives in cities then what is good for cities must be good for humans – that is a bizarre thought (although one often promoted by architects and urban planners)!  But the point is that Ingold is providing an underpinning articulation of ‘being’ that asks for a different ethics – one which accepts the conflicts but accords value to the connectedness of everything and its motion.  So he positively argued against the conservation of trees and in favour of the carrying on of planting and growing, felling and building as a cycle. Perhaps Ingold doesn’t go far enough – Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, eminent ecological artists, argue that we need to ‘put more back into ecological systems than we take out’ in our carrying on. By this they mean that our cycles need to be weighted to greater biodiversity and strengthening ecological cycles.

Finally Ingold’s construction, particularly of ‘knots’ is useful if we recognise that we humans are arch constructors of knots.  Everything we make is some sort of knot whether it’s food or paths or roads or houses or nuclear power stations or mustard gas or satellites.  And if we can imagine a knot then we will make it.  If its been imagined then someone is trying to make it, somewhere.  That’s an interesting problem.  It’s prompted discussions around what ‘responsible innovation’ might be. How can we create knots that make for healthier places for all living things.


* I’m indebted to Dave Pritchard for elucidating this evolution through the sequence of major environmental summits starting in Stockholm in 1972 and progressing in 10 yearly intervals through to Rio+20 in 2012.  He correlated this with the shift from an environmentalism of ‘existence value’ through to ‘ecosystems services’ and ‘sustainable development’.  Each Summit sought to achieve greater policy impact and as a result reframed in terms of acceptable (human-centric) policy.


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5 Responses to “Ingold’s Sustainability of Everything”

  1. | artdotearth Says:

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    […] a side note, see Chris Fremantle’s recent blog on Tim Ingold’s lecture ‘The Sustainability of Everything’ for further consideration of how […]

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