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Traces of (Un-) Sustainability

Towards a Materially Engaged Ecology of Mind

Peter Graham

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.

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Chapter 4 economies of mind


Bourgeois political economy—child of eighteenth-century thought—articulated a view of nature as “resource” and attributed to itself the prime theoretical task of determining the rational allocation of resources that were scarce. To this end it appealed to the theory of markets, to the goals of maximizing utility, and to the centrality of money as the common means to measure heterogeneities of human desires, of use values and of elements and processes “in nature.” (Harvey, 1996, p. 150)

A fishing excursion, a walk in the woods, shopping at Bloomingdale’s on 59th Street, or shopping at Bloomingdale’s via the Internet in your pajamas, picking though trash bins for bottles and tins to exchange for money, planting milkweed seeds in the back alleyway while thinking of butterflies—these are all examples of activities that cannot be accomplished without culturally transmitted, mastered and mastering, mediational means. Ever since hominids began banging two rocks together to make tools, and through that practice becoming person-and-tool assemblages, the possibility of an unmediated experience of the world has effectively been foreclosed. The next two chapters focus on the origins, development, and consequences of the two dominant organizing characteristics of the Western-Cartesian historical inheritance, namely, an implicit cognitive and emotional focus based on economism and anxiety. Economism and anxiety form the basis of a tool set that transforms ←117 | 118→us into a cultural organism unsuited for sustainability and potentially unfit for longer term survival.

The banging of two rocks together was not a...

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