Reply To: Mon 14 Apr: The Perception of the Environment

Author Replies # Posted on April 15, 2014 at 11:02

Reflection on Tim Ingold (2000): Perception of the Environment

Everything is connected, everything is changing and everyone should himself as part of that world. One might summarize Tim Ingold’s ideas in these three short sentences. In chapter eight Ingold compares the genealogical model of life against the relational one, coming to the conclusion that the former is doing harm to indigenous people’s strong connection to land. In chapter eleven the author explains why landscape is always temporal: with activities by all kinds of entities always going on, landscape is under continuous construction. Finally, in chapter thirteen he elaborates his idea that the notion of the “global environment” reflects a major shift from Western self-perception as being out- or onside the world but not inside it. All three reading meet one important point: that modern humans are detached from the conditions of life (land) and the beings who dwell in it (other humans, animals and even inanimate entities), leading to an even further deterioration of both things that make up the world.

Tim Ingold’s writing is challenging but as soon as the reader reaches a certain point and imagines herself outside in a local environment and viewing the world from that perspectives, life gets a new shade, a new colour. Ingold might find such high resonance because a large number of so-called “informed” modern beings feel that something “is going wrong out there” (note the representation of taskscape – “going” and of landscape “out there” in that expression), that we “lost touch with nature” and that the way authorities who produce knowledge in our societies – including universities – explain or even justify our detachment from the world, is deeply discouraging. In contrast, through the Ingold’s lens one can see oneself in a “native” or “original” position as another ecological being. The critical question that arises here is what a person can do from such a starting point.

Everything is connected, everything is changing and everyone should himself as part of that world. It’s so simple – and can be easily in one’s direct environment, let say a garden or forest. It is so difficult however – to transfer the relational model on larger social or even political structures. As I am on the edge between Political Science and Environmental History this point is fundamental for me: to discover basic assumptions about humans and their environment and to analyze how they play into political discourses and consequently social structures. Moreover I see academic work as responsible for offering alternative assumptions that might contribute to a more balanced world. Taking Ingold as an example here, on can ask for the practical application of his alternative conception of indigenousness in chapter eight.

As Ingold highlights, indigenous people have an ontological connection to land. Their identities and survival depends on the land they dwell in, with neighbouring beings – be it relatives or other human or non-human entities – teaching the knowledge on how to do that. National or international policies for the protection of indigenous people which see “descent” as the medium through which distinctive features of being are transmitted is neglecting this connection, according to Ingold. But how should an alternative policy look like that defines indigenousness in such a way? The answer might be to give people the right to dwell in a certain land however it pleases them. It would entail to create autonomous spheres within the nation state and leaving it to the people. But how should be decided who is part of such a group or not? Here we realize that Ingold’s relational model could be implemented for indigenous people in the “classical” sense, that means groups that have not or just recently been in contact with any other modern culture but happen to be within the boundaries of a nation state. The number of these groups might be small – compared to the one who call themselves “indigenous” while living more ore less in the realm of modernity. These people hold a somewhat “hybrid” identity and if society wants to empower these groups than we might rather think of a model that combines the genealogical and the relational one.

To give an example, without being an expert on that issue: the right to herd reindeers in Sweden is exclusively given to Samí and thus more or less depending on descent, as those the right to vote for the Samí parliament. Through this regularities, a boundary is drawn not only between the Samí and the Swedish population but also to the nation state. One can argue that this boundary should be shifted even further to give the Samí more rights and privileges – but that would construct a certain image of Samí as a group that is so much different from the modern Swedish society and state that they cannot coexist. I would rather argue that a dissolving of that boundary would be more favorable to preserve the Samí way of living. By leaving the power on how far that dissolving should go the now-existing Samí population, an exchange of how to dwell in Northern Scandinavia could be triggered, involving “native” Swedes, Norwegians and Fins. The product would be a hybrid identity in the beginning and perhaps a relational one in the end – when the way of living and identities are solely constituted through active interaction with ones’ surroundings. However, this thought experiment has not taken into account the strong aversion of the nation state and several elites against such a resituating of identity – and that’s what every discussion on indigenousness, be it inspired by Ingold or not, should be highly concerned with.