Towards a distributed model of action in the territory

This text was originally written in Catalan in April 2013 after several week of collaborative building works with a small ecological NGO in an also small village in the rural interior of Alicante, Spain. There, my studio was managing the restoration of an old “mas” (a peasant’s house) whose owner’s were making available for environmental activities of the NGO and also cultural ones. In the restoration works several really small environmentally aware business and professionals participated and also volunteers from the village and others from far away that wanted to learn the techniques of restoration and ecological building we were using there. The atmosphere was great and lunch and dinner rests encouraged people to chat about their contexts and reasons for being there. In the coming and going from the village this text was drafted.

Loads of work, very good company, a lot of joy and really interesting talks. It was evident that all the people participating in the restoration the “Mas del Planet” shared an enjoyment in making and that this making was of one special kind that had to do with materials and craft, caring for the environment and a preference for rural places.

Nevertheless this interesting talks showed up some contexts for this enjoyment I couldn’t share with them. This was very clear with some of the topics brought up at lunchtime: some were very interested in that movement of the “Economy for the common good“. As I wasn’t very excited about it some made me talk and I couldn’t make my point clear to them so, the week after, I sat and wrote this text developing the central idea of not taking any more “the earth” or the environment as a universal common good and what would that mean for our communities. And for that I used the work of Tim Ingold and of David de Ugarte an Juan Urrutia from the Group of Cooperatives “las Indias”.

Universal, again?

I want not to extend myself about this “Economy for the common good” but let me take it as a departing point. I’m not enthusiastic about it because it is universalistic and it’s very curious to me that precisely the people working at local level or in small business are being so easily engaged by its promoters as we are seeing these days in Spain. I mean, Felber, its main advocate, openly explains that what they propose comes from the national founding constitutions of countries. As Anderson (1993) shows nations are imagined communities, but this would not be much of importance if it were only a marketing claim. But it’s not, the logic of their working program is based on this and, as they explain, their idea is that it ends up being a way of measuring the “good” you make for “society” and that’s way they are making pressure to gain tax deductions to the business that adopt their frame of work, also tax incentives, general obligations, etc.

For me it seems just a new kind of rentism, but the worst is that the spokesperson they are searching for are nation states or the big enterprises of the same scale. That’s why it makes no sense that communities, organisations and small businesses that work locally (meaning among real and not imagined people) get so fuzzed about someone that is denying them as valid spokespersons.

A problem of who is the subject that takes action.

And what about the environment, is it universal?

So we kind of agree on this contradiction on the subject their are working with. But what is left then is the sense of despair: “we the small agents will not be able to do anything to save the planet then?”. So the idea of a universal common good remains, specially when talking about nature or the environment. The point I was not able to argue on the moment was this: “we live in a global world and the contamination of a big Chinese enterprise affects us also here, so it would be desirable that bad practices against nature would be taxed (for example) for the goods they make carry the environmental harm costs”.

Here is when Ingold comes…

We live in an spherical, not global, world

In his book The perception of the environment at chapter 12, ‘Globes and spheres
The topology of environmentalism’, Ingold considered the problematic of thinking about the land we live on as a globe. He shows us how this abstraction, which we learn at school and leads politicians to talk about a global environmental change, “far from marking humanity’s reintegration into the world, signals the culmination of a process of separation” (Ingold 2000: 209)

Why is that? I’ll try to resume but the truth is it’s worth reading Ingold who also develops this topic in his late book Being Alive because he speaks about it with very intuitive and enjoyable discourse.

Figura de Ingold para las visiones del entornoHe explains us that when we ar being bombarded with information about the environment, expressing to us a message of change, we’re always shown images. Be us at home in front of a screen, at school or in a conference room we forget that “the environment is, in the first place, a world we live in,
and not a world we look at” (Ingold 2011: 95). Images and videos that are shown to us have a point of view we will never experiment in our quotidian lives. Be it from outside space or planes, the representations of the global environment that are proposed to us convert it in a thing too big to relate to. And, in fact, they expel us from earth turning us into extraterrestrial beings (exhabitants as he calls it) instead of dwellers (inhabitants).

(Figure extracted from Ingold)

I chapter 8 of Being Alive, ‘The shape of the earth’, Ingold reviews several studies run by psychologists in which they asked children and adults to draw the earth, after that people and houses in it and finally the sky. The study pretended to know how children learn earth is round but, revised by Ingold, they turn to be a good show of an essential existential and scientific dilemma: what makes certain kinds of knowledge possible is the “renunciation of the very experience”, in this case, “of inhabiting the earth” (ibid.:101). These are the mental models that were drawn from this study:


Figure extracted from Ingold: Mental models of the earth. Reproduced from Vosniadou and Brewer (1992: 549). Reprinted by permission of Elsevier.

Ingold explains (in a very fun way) how children, and also adults, make evident the absurdity of asking them to draw houses, people and, mostly, the sun, if what they wanted from them is to draw the planet and not the earth where we live in.  He concludes the more coherent models are those that represented earth in a dual way or as a hollow sphere because the earth we live on is not an object we can be detached of and see from above. But, precisely, an environment that envelops or, better, that it reconstructs us constantly at the same time we reconstruct it. That’s why, thinking about earth globally detaches us from it, globally we cannot perceive it nor inhabit it neither rebuild it unless we are intervened by an enormous amount of gadgetry that would take us to a divine action point. That unique divinity is to whom are referred the actions thought of from the global perspective.

What affects us are flows not objects

ingold_inhabitantBut what I think is more pernicious about this global perspective is this understanding of earth as an object external to us and not somewhere we inhabit in. As a surface full of objects (plants, trees, animals, minerals,…) that we can classify, manage and protect. And this is common to those who defend we should protect nature above human interests and and those who defend the contrary. In both positions the problem is to think we could ever be outside. Detached.

(Figure extracted from Ingold)

In the same chapter of Being Alive and in all that section Ingold describes us an environment that is no static or objectual but fluid. Even more, it’s a weather environment not a climatic one again perceived from above.

Objects can be transported from one place to another without problems in a surface and they keep their integrity. We can control them, protecting or exploiting them. Fluids and flows instead are intrinsic to each place. We can interact with them, modify and even recreate them but we cannot delimit them.

And when I talk about flows I mean not only those now well-known of information. Fluids are rivers, air currents and also migrations and even our activities of dwelling.

The dissolution of boundaries

Some time ago I wrote about distributed networks and their effect for organizations. In that text I brood on territoriality and how so many years of decentralized and territorialized have mixed up the experience of environment with imagined ideas about our identity as we tie together subjects to their place of birth. With Ingoldian model, an spheric world surrounding an active person or community that becomes in flows and not hermetic places, I can move a bit forward. Territory is not seen now as an exterior position but “from where I do”.

Let me illustrate how fluids come to action wiping off boundaries and how the external detached perspective works instead with the film The Man Who Would Be King based on Kipling’s tale:

Each Kafiristan tribe the adventurers Dravot and Carnehan meet with is confronted with the tribe upriver because the last one would urinate in the river each time the former is bathing in it. As the English adventurers objective is to become kings of all the tribes as a whole they offer themselves to fight for the first of all tribes downriver and make they way upstream, each tribe at a time, to end up as some kind of Alexander Magnus emperors. The fluxing of the river makes it impossible for the tribes to be separated by a boundary but when they leave their neighbouring problems in the hands of these beings that seem gods for their war tools and skills, they end up having to pay them homage. They have to follow their new rules that, even if they seem to be for the common good, are “extraterrestrial” and are not entangled with the people of the tribes, nor its flows or the other beings they depend on. In fact, that’s the way this adventurers explain their plan before they take off: from outside, with a map.

On the other hand, thanks to Juan Urrutia (2012), we are able to imagine deterretorialized identity communities  that have a transnational economy and can federate with others to assume common problems. Communities that might be thought of as territories for themselves. And have also examples as the Group of Cooperatives “las Indias” or the Business Automattic behind, to name just two contemporary ones. But we can also refer to the peasant communities in south-eastern Spain that have managed water and “acequias” for themselves from middle age until these days (for English descriptions of thes see Ostrom, 1990). This communities show us that the identification of an identity with territorial boundaries is harmful because it can derive in a kind of nation state that:

artificially increases the cost of dissent, slows down the subjectivation process and allows delegation to bloom as a substitute for committment  that it’s not anymore based in mutual trust. Why would this be wrong? one can ask himself. For as long as the delegation in a regulatory body, apparently independent, the generation of differential rents starts and the original memes totter

More or less what happened to the tribes on the film. The establishment of an imagined and external identity (we, those under the rule of this new emperor) distorts the real bonds the fluxing of the river tied together.

Back to action spheres

Then what happens when people want to act physically in the territory? How can they make the most of resources and endure them? When boundaries that enclose our life and economic activities do not exist any more, but there are flows with different scopes, it’s clear an external institution cannot tax us any more unless this institution is very part of the entanglement with us and the things.

Although a question may arise: if we are not delimiting or cutting off flows, how can we devise our rights and responsibilities?. Ingold’s answer is simple: “through our very practices of habitation”(ibid.:114).

Practices of habitation are not consuming practices, but the ones that produce earth and ourselves. Some time ago I wrote about a concept from Otto von Busch, the ‘action space‘, also about Ingold’s taskscapeseveral times (that I have latter translated to Spanish with the beautiful word ‘quehacer‘) and also about ‘meshwork‘. Those are different ways of talking about the space in which we can take action with our abilities, materials and tools, and it’s not necessarily a local space in a geographical sense.

Ingold also explains that talking about local instead of global it’s not only talking about a different scale:

“The difference between them, I contend, is not one of hierarchical degree, in scale or comprehensiveness, but one of kind. In other words, the local is not a more limited or narrowly focused apprehension than the global, it is one that rests on an altogether different mode of apprehension – one based on practical, perceptual engagement with components of a world that is inhabited or dwelt-in, rather than on the
detached, disinterested observation of a world that is merely occupied”(Ingold 2000: 215-216).

This kind of local perspective has an experiential centre that Ingold locates in a particular place but that we, following these examples about deterritorialized communities, may better locate in the community itself. And “different centres will, of course, afford different views, so that while there is only one global perspective, indifferent to place and context, the number of possible local perspectives is potentially infinite.(ibid.:216).

So I finally arrived where I was going: to an environment polytheism.

Polytheism is hard to explain without getting to relativism. And to ‘Nature’ it’s normally applied the monotheism for the same assumptions I’ve been trying to disclose. What do we make them from that famous slogan “Think global, act local”. I think that if we want to be able to take part on the rebuilding of our own environment we should talk from inside our action spheres.

A concrete environment…

Then we would ask ourselves no more “Where do we do?” but “Who do we do with?” and “What do we do?”.

The most important, the starting point to develop this distributed model of action in the world is, for me, to reject the imagined community and the territorial boundaries that it establishes. That means rejecting the idea that we can imagine a common good. As much as we appreciate nature we cannot think of it in an abstract way, we have to name ‘natural things’, just as people (de Ugarte, 2013), with their names and surnames and their place.

We would not wander about our actions being good for forests, rivers, or animals… in an abstract way. We will be thinking if what we do is good for keeping our community in track. A community that includes these natural things themselves as they are places or things with whom we work to physically maintain our community and we should keep them so they can continue to be part of it, giving us what we need but also taking what they need.

That means to stop thinking that our purposes can be inherently good. I mean, cleaning the river margins could may be good for me but not for a neighbouring community. Neighbours being no more only the ones living next door but those with whom we share things because they also are part of their community. As I wrote before, from all those with our action sphere overlaps, we should ally with the ones that consider cleaning the river a good thing to do.

…and full of meaning

I’m not only talking about plants and animals we can extract a direct economical gain. We will also care for those places that explain us as a community, symbolic places.

Ingold explains how the predominance of global perspective marks the triumph of technology over cosmology. I don’t like separating or “blaming” technology, but I recall in the idea of a traditional cosmology that “places the person at the centre of an ordered universe of meaningful relations (…) and enjoins an understanding of these relations as a foundation for proper conduct towards the environment” (ibid.:216).

I’ve also written elsewhere about stories and their meanings and it’s also on the foundation of the work of Urrutia and de Ugarte. With this understanding of the environment: fluid, spherical and concrete we can now include things in these stories for their own merits, thay share our stories and are meaningful too.

Towards a distributed model of action in the territory

If there are no boundaries any more but action spheres marked out for our action space and the scope of affection of flows… Then for every different activity, the action sphere of a community will have a different scale. And for every activity this space will be shared with different communities or organizations and institutions.

So lets imagine a central node, that’s not any more a geographical place but a community, a group of people that live and work together with things. Around it there are different spheres with different radius, one for each activity we do as we produce our world. For each activity different tools, skills and resources are used from those within their physical reach. The radius of these spheres is not measured with a physical scale that has the measure of the globe as a referent, nor with an institutional scale whose reference is size (in population or influence) of countries. This radius is measured with the community’s own scale in which those things more important for their living are bigger in resources and time dedicated.

If we now imagine several nodes, several communities, these will overlap for sure. Sometimes crashing sometimes melting. The resulting drawing is alive, always changing and, in fact, it may no be drawn as these spheres are, if not gaseous, at least fluid.

But that’s just a model, and we know it’s not predominant, there are more other organizations that rely on boundaries.

That’s precisely why, when I hear that something has to be done, that we should fight for, I think that the fight is precisely in having better tools, skills and stories to work with the things that are part of our communities beyond this boundaries so we can keep them (us) on.


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