Traces of (Un-) Sustainability: Towards a Materially Engaged Ecology of Mind
Discussions of sustainability are usually framed within a dominant Cartesian dualistic paradigm as something that requires material changes in the world, for example, a new technological invention, or alternatively, new ideas guiding human behaviours. Yet many environmental philosophers have long recognized that this same Cartesian inheritance also underlies the ecological problems that beset us. The need to recognize the cultural specificity and delusional nature of this divide was, for example, the core argument of Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Here the claim is that our thoughts are themselves always part of, and party to, the material ecologies of the world we inhabit. This thesis draws on Bateson’s insights, together with approaches derived from phenomenology, theories of materially extended mind (Clarke) and notions of ‘mediated action’ in sociocultural analysis (Wertsch) and social psychology, to offer an alternative model of the conditions of (un)sustainability. In particular, it argues for the novel employment of what has come to be known (following Malafouris) as Material Engagement Theory (MET). As the term suggests, MET, originally developed in archaeological accounts of the emergence of human minds through tool use, emphasizes that thought is not separable from its material context and the tools deployed in its operations. Thought and agency are materially distributed. Through detailed examples, such as the mown lawn, this approach is also shown to apply to our current environmental predicament, where the material qualities of environments co-constitute the collective perceptual, emotional, and cognitive processes we employ to bring forth an entire world as an unsustainable artifact. Important implications of this approach for enacting sustainability are discussed.