Traces of (Un-) Sustainability

Towards a Materially Engaged Ecology of Mind

by Peter Graham (Author)
©2020 Monographs XX, 262 Pages


Persons only develop in relation to environment, much in the same way we develop psychologically in relation to our parents and caregivers. Neither child nor parent is properly conceptualized, modelled, or understood without the inclusion of the other in the map or model of psychological/ecological development. Likewise, we perceive, think, and feel with and not just about environment and material artifacts. The achievement of sustainability then implies making changes to minds that are mediated, extended and distributed across brains, bodies, and the materiality of one’s environment. Our inherited world, however broken, guides our individual and collective becoming much as a parent guides the development of a child.
The traces of (un-) sustainability perspective refutes the economistic conceptual model whereby rational economic actors are misperceived and misunderstood to have the moral right, if not the duty, to actively participate in the destruction of our collective future with ethical immunity. The presumed intelligence and naturalness of the market-based economic system is exposed as primarily a historically inherited culture-based delusion. If values and attitudes can be at least partially transformed by transforming the mundane materiality which is co-constitutive of our social mind, then an important milestone will have been achieved in our understanding of (un-) sustainability.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table Of Contents
  • Illustrations
  • Preface
  • Abbreviations
  • Chapter 1 situating the traces of (un-) sustainability
  • Environment as Parent
  • Mediational Means
  • Yali’s Question
  • Mediated (Un-) Sustainability
  • Positivism
  • Capitalism
  • Situated (Un-) Sustainability
  • A Map of the Book
  • References
  • Chapter 2 the materially engaged (un-) sustainability mind
  • Mediated Action and (Un-) Sustainability
  • The Materiality of (Un-) Sustainability
  • Materially Engaged (Un-) Sustainability
  • Toward a Materially Engaged Partnership Mind
  • The Traces of Sustainability
  • Bodies
  • Tools
  • Place
  • Narrative
  • Process
  • Agency
  • Memory
  • Atmosphere
  • References
  • Chapter 3 let’s go fishing!
  • Bodies
  • Tools
  • Place
  • Narratives
  • Process
  • Agency
  • Memory
  • Atmosphere
  • Sustainability
  • References
  • Chapter 4 economies of mind
  • Bodies
  • Tools
  • Place
  • Narratives
  • Processes
  • Agency
  • Memory
  • Atmospheres
  • Sustainability
  • References
  • Chapter 5 traces of sociocultural anxiety
  • Bodies
  • Tools
  • Places
  • Narratives
  • Processes
  • Agency
  • Memories
  • Atmospheres
  • Sustainability
  • References
  • Chapter 6 the mowed (un-) sustainability mind
  • Mowed Lawn
  • A Naturalized Suburban Garden
  • Bodies
  • Tools
  • Places
  • Processes
  • Agency
  • Memory
  • Narrative
  • Atmosphere
  • References
  • Chapter 7 tracing the absences of sustainability
  • Bodies
  • Tools
  • Process
  • Agency
  • Memory
  • Narrative
  • Atmosphere
  • References
  • Chapter 8 conclusion—tracing ahead
  • Economics
  • Education
  • Reforestation
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Index

←xiv | xv→


The theoretical framework of a materially engaged ecology of mind, as set out in this book, is quite obviously an amalgamation and remixing of many others’ ideas. I have had the very great good fortune to have been able to sample such ideas widely, taking the choicest bits from here and there, integrating, filtering, and synthesizing as I went along. The contributions of some, such as the writings of Gregory Bateson or Lambros Malafouris or the generous conversations with Mick Smith or Rena Upitis, for example, were massive and irreplaceably constitutive of the finished work. Yet, who could say with any degree of certainty that even the turkeys I always looked for, and usually found, from the bus window during my weekly commutes between Pointe Claire and Kingston, were not, in some sense at least, the prerequisite inspiration that caused the final pieces of the puzzle to fall into place for me? Where I grew up, wild turkeys made their incredible comeback during my teenage years. I was walking with Toby, our Brittany spaniel, when I first encountered a wild turkey sometime in the early 1970s. The experience was magical and indelibly set in my psyche ever after. My affection for turkeys in the landscape continues to inspire me, so does an entire world of ideas and material things, some dangerous, to be sure, and others so contagiously vivacious and inspiring that it is difficult to imagine even the possibility of life without them.

←xv | xvi→

In truth, my own creative contribution has been relatively minor, akin to that of a sort of conduit, or a kitchen appliance perhaps with a sort of emulsifying attachment. The world, in some sense, passed through me to call forth this book. The “me” often simply was lost in the process and, of course, as I now realize with the benefit of hindsight, that was exactly the great benefit of the whole exercise. My wish for readers is that you, too, will begin to get lost in a lively and enchanted material world; a world of books, grasses, sparrows, stomachs, eyeballs, trees, teachers, chironomids, kitchen sinks, and so much more. Our own health and liveliness depends primarily upon how skillfully we come to entangle, extend, and distribute ourselves within our lively and beautiful world.

The relationship we have with the world is always reciprocal. Take any book, like any tree or other living thing: the world oozes back out in discernible patterns of words, growth rings, habits, tendencies, or rituals. Sustainability means then that the world seeping back to us through our artifacts, through our designing designs, should be a lively and sustainable world and not simply a store of resources or a potential site for a toxic waste dump, not a paint-by-number project in a story of recovery and rehabilitation after some mythic event resulted in a broken world. Broken-world stories can only break us, as a people unwittingly transmitting brokenness reflexively back upon ourselves. Bateson made the point that “we become what we pretend,” but I would respectfully amend that insightful observation to the following: We become what we ask the world to pretend us to be.

The world generally indulges us, at least to a point. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. If we cut down the trees, for example, the spirits may very well make a home in the roman columns designed for their habitation. Where else could they reside after all? But they will not still then be the same spirits. They will not comport themselves as before. They will not be bound to and intertwined with the same world. Their mood will change, and they may well become restless. The previous bond between peoples and tree spirits may be broken. We will then become the peoples we inadvertently asked the world to make us—peoples without a practiced spiritual connection to a wondrously unknowable world, a world with tree spirits … and trees.

I also humbly acknowledge and wish to express my gratitude for the important wisdom revealed to me in the many examples of Indigenous knowledges I have come across in my studies. I have tried not to misappropriate or misrepresent those knowledges in my following discussions. In this book, I do not seek to become an advocate for the adoption of one Indigenous ←xvi | xvii→knowledge or another. The examples of traditional knowledge I use in this book are intended as examples of individual aspects of complex knowledge systems compared to other individual aspects of other knowledge systems. The examples are in no way intended to reduce Indigenous knowledge to a simple iconic expression. My work also does not seek to put forward an alibi or excuse for the many cruel injustices inflicted in the past and continuing to be inflicted upon Indigenous peoples by settlers and settler cultural tools and meaning systems. I do not presume to have anything to teach Indigenous peoples. Yet, I do hope my work may be helpful to Indigenous peoples and that they might take some comfort in the slow learning on the part of settlers that this book is intended to represent. My goal is to provide healing of some sort to the Cartesian-infected social mind, to turn Western science upon itself, so that the toxicity of that historical people-meaning-system-environment configuration might be reduced. Although this book does not broach the topics, it might provide useful tools for addressing such difficult subjects as collective guilt and reconciliation. Just as the person our children will grow to become remains largely unknowable at birth, my aspirations for what this book will eventually become remain largely, at this point, beyond my control and its origins beyond my understanding.

And so, I want to begin at this starting point by recognizing and honoring where this book really comes from and its many authors, including the turkeys, trout, and strawberries that hopefully seep out from the pages that follow, exercising their own unique forms of agency. I am also especially indebted and grateful to Professor Mick Smith of the Queen’s University School of Environmental Studies, who accompanied me on the whole journey from start to finish. Mick’s empathetic and thoughtful guidance, his confidence in my ability to complete the work, and the many reflective, inspiring, and meaningful conversations we shared have meant the world to me. Special thanks also go to Rena Upitis, who mentored and guided me along the way. Graham Whitelaw also continued to inspire me with his endless generosity and wise counsel. Ingrid Stefanovic, Molly Wallace, and Ryan Danby all provided invaluable feedback on the initial draft, and I deeply appreciate the very thoughtful and constructive criticism they offered. I also want to acknowledge and thank Peter Lang’s anonymous reviewer as well as Ann Dale and John Barry, who agreed to review the manuscript for the record.

I must also express my most sincere appreciation to the entire School of Environmental Studies at Queen’s University. A better home base for my work would be simply unimaginable. Special thanks go to Julie Adams, Paul Bass, ←xvii | xviii→Steven Brown, Karen Depew, Alice Hovorka, Myra Hird, Heather Jamieson, Colin Khan, Cassandra Kuyvenhoven, and Scott Lougheed.

There were simply far too many people who helped me get to the starting line, to mention them all, but people who had an exceptional influence on my formation as a scholar prior to my arrival at Queen’s University include Adeela Arshad-Ayaz, Peter G. Brown, Ailie Cleghorn, Maguerite (Margie) Mendell, Ayaz Naseem, Katja Neves, David Newhouse, Daniel Salé, and Eric Shragge. Authors whose work made an especially deep impression on me include (but are in no way limited to) Gregory Bateson, Nicole Boivin, Kenneth Boulding, Jerome Bruner, Ursula Franklin, Chris Gosden, Jean Lave, Lambros Malafouris, Lev Vygotsky, and James Wertsch.

My students in the classes I teach at Concordia University inspire me, and I want to acknowledge their contribution as well. I am often reminded of my own childhood and my own children by listening to my students. They help and inspire me to keep learning about our shared world. They remind me constantly of the stakes involved. Their comments, their questions, and their tireless striving give me hope. My teaching always focuses on the value (both positive and negative) of the tools transmitted through the normal university experience. My teaching practice, and the academic freedom it requires, has been facilitated by the outstanding assistance of Perry Calce and Rebecca Tittler.

Teri-Ann McDonald deserves special credit for the mediating role she played between the novice writer and the standards of my publisher, Peter Lang. Which is not to diminish in any way the role played by Peter Lang. Michelle Smith, in particular, has been incredibly helpful and supportive throughout the entire publishing process.

Finally, to Shirley, John, and Martha—this book is especially for and about you—thank you.

←xviii | xix→


CBA cost-benefit analysis
MET Material Engagement Theory
PTSD post-traumatic stress disorder
ROI return on investment
TLT transformative learning theory
ZPD zone of proximal development
←xix | xx→

←xx | 1→

· 1 ·

When things go wrong, it is generally important to understand how and why they do so. Our understanding of any given situation forms the basis for any plan to get ourselves back on the tracks. However, it is also important to understand that any such understanding is always incomplete. Not only is it often very difficult, if not impossible, to discern whether things that seem to be going badly are secretly creating the context for things to go much better in future, but our understandings are also always limited to a kind of partial map, or a trace of the actual situation, in the past, present, and future. Ignorance is a normal part of the human condition, regardless of how heroically we struggle to overcome the inadequacy of our maps and our more-or-less (in-) adequate knowledges.

Any given knowledge, like any metaphor, represents the trace we choose as our Ariadne’s thread to guide us forward, but each choice necessarily means forgoing other threads that would guide us in different directions. Some maps are clearly better than others, and they are better because they improve our situation and allow us to get out of the immediate trouble that induced us to seek out a map in the first place. However, maps are not necessarily better because they are more accurate or objective, rational, or evidence based. They are better if they help us get to, and stay in, a better place—if, we might ←1 | 2→say, they can deliver real sustainability. This is not to say that reason, logic, and evidence should be abandoned in designing our explanatory theories or accepting/rejecting conventional wisdoms—quite the contrary. But it is to say that explanatory theories and conventional wisdoms, however “rational” they may seem, can often only lead us further into the labyrinth.

Take, for example, an image of human beings as rational economistic and calculative profit maximizers. That specific model certainly makes a very bad map, in part because it does not reflect the readily available evidence that humans can be extremely cooperative, even when a time and place-specific historical inheritance induces us to pretend otherwise. More importantly, the homo economicus map makes a bad map because the territory (in this case our behavior) always begins to reflect the map. The map is not just a neutral “idea” or description of an external reality; rather, its employment plays a creative role in constituting that reality. It can therefore create more walls, false passages, and dead-ends. It has not been uncommon, throughout the history of Western civilization, for the prescriptions designed to solve a problem to actually make that problem a bigger problem and a more intractable problem. To understand this process, whereby conceptual map and reality are inextricably entwined, and how ideas (and ideologies) emerge from, and feed into, patterns of recurrent material unsustainability, we need, as the passage by Bateson that prepared the ground for this present work to grow and take shape suggests, to think about the material ecology of ideas, the historically specific confluence of peoples, places, mediational means, events, and environments. This requires that we cease thinking of ideas and world as separate realms mapping onto each other and begin to shift our focus toward seeing the social world as an ecology of meaningful material engagement. This introductory chapter will begin to explain what that might entail; Chapter 2 will further develop this topic and introduce a specific theoretical framework, that of Material Engagement Theory (MET).

Environment as Parent

In trying to explain how to get to a better place and stay there—how to nurture sustainability—this book will often employ the metaphor of a parent-child relationship to understand environmental/human relations (whether that environment is considered material, biosemiotic, phenomenological, social, political, psychological, economic, cultural, etc.). This is not to say that ←2 | 3→environment intentionally parents us, only that our experience of environment is often akin to our experience of a parent. This proposal might seem strange, yet our relationship with environment, our models and theoretical frameworks, and our sociocultural action is always based in and informed by one metaphor or another (Ingold, 2000; Weiss, 1995). The value of and human affinity for using such metaphorical tools to enhance our understanding is well established and well explained by others (see, for example, Boivin, 2008; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Lund & Benediktson, 2010; Morgan, 1997). My claim is that the parent-child metaphor could provide better results with respect to sustainability than, say, the currently dominant homo economicus model of isolated individuals competing for natural resources. It is easily demonstrable that the available evidence is on the side of the parent-child metaphor. Parents and environments co-constitute us. They leave indelible traces upon us. Parenting involves active physical/material engagement, and it is through such active engagement, not only with parents but also with the world more generally that human development and identity formation occurs.

Like any metaphor, the usefulness of the environment-is-like-a-parent metaphor has limits. However, the parent-child dyadic metaphor applied to person-environment relations provides important insights even beyond those achieved with other current metaphors such as “Gaia”—environment as living being (Lovelock, 1989)—or human being in “conversation” with environment (Lund & Benediktson, 2010). Lovelock’s Gaia metaphor conjures an image of a solitary God-like being, alone in the universe but colonized by an emergent variety of “parasitic” free loaders, (although admittedly, a few may be better behaved than others and even aspire to become Gaia doctors (Lovelock, 1991). Conversation, likewise, misleads in that it implies a shared language used by two or more separate and more-or-less equal individuals. But the nature of the parent-child relationship does not rely on, nor is it necessarily altered by, the absence of a shared language. First, it does not always matter for the development of the child whether the child verbally understands the parent’s perspective or not. Also, other means of communication between parent and child always emerge, evolve, and carry on before, during, and after the relationship is mediated by language.

When we engage with environment, whether beautiful sunset, laptop computer, or greenhouse gas, we are changed, if only a little, by the experience. The materiality of that experience acts neither like a God nor like the transmission and reception of information that one might associate with the term “conversation.” Rather, our cognitive and emotional processes extend ←3 | 4→into the material, and the material extends into our brain/body. Parents and children enact this type of inter-extending process nearly continuously in the early stages of the child’s life.

Humans are certainly not unique in having a parent-child type of relationship with environment either. Indeed, all life is world-parented and the forms and practices of parental guidance can be almost limitless, often exceeding the limits of the human capacity to comprehend. Light, heat, moisture, semiosis, community, and the diversity of materialities of environment all guide the development of all the world’s various “children.” Although the Neolithic advent of a sedentary and tool-mediated way of being in the world set the humans’ relationship apart from that of other species in some ways, we would do well to not make too much of the distinction. Being different should certainly not be confused with being more evolutionarily fit for survival in some over-arching or teleological sense.

Consider the popular phrase of developmental psychology, that “there is no such thing as a baby: there is a baby and someone” (Winnicott, 1971, p. 70). The developmental psychology literature has been moving increasingly toward a perspective that maintains that the baby can only be properly understood as part of a baby-parent dyad (Bartolo, 1998; Clark, 2002; Fernandes Mendes, 2015; Kim & Kochanska, 2017; Renzi, Romberg, Bolger, & Newman, 2017). The baby develops and the parent develops always and only in a co-constitutive relationship with the other. What is also co-constituted in this process is a set of mediational means, and one important claim I want to begin this book with is that people, in general, can best be understood as person–cultural tool set–environment triads. Minds are always situated and mediated, meaning that human development always entails the two-directional mastery of a set of cultural tools (Wertsch, 1998). Babies, for example, begin to learn how to understand and express themselves using facial expressions. But while some facial expressions (e.g., smiling or crying) and some gestures such as pointing are universal, many others are culture-specific. I also want to make the point that the relationship is not one of equals. There is always a parent-specific role and a child-specific role. Environment is likewise not an equal partner in the person-environment relationship. Environment pre-exists and has an inherently greater capacity to exercise agency and to set the ground rules for the exercise of agency (Bateson & Bateson, 1987, pp. 135–144). Understanding that environment, including material culture, plays a parenting role in our psychological development is a prerequisite for ←4 | 5→establishing a solid foundation for any conceptualization and enactment of meaningful sustainability (Overmann, 2017).


XX, 262
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XX, 262 pp., 5 color ill.

Biographical notes

Peter Graham (Author)

Peter Graham earned his Ph.D. at the Queen’s University School of Environmental Studies in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. He also holds master’s degrees in educational studies and interdisciplinary social sciences as well as a graduate diploma in community economic development from Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. Dr. Graham currently teaches courses on sustainability related subjects at Concordia University.


Title: Traces of (Un-) Sustainability
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284 pages