When I was given the challenge of thinking about a metaphor for sustainability, I realized I didn’t really know what it was, other than the idea that maybe you shouldn’t do quite so much of something so that you could do things again in the future. But then I got to thinking about the underlying questions. What do we need to sustain? What’s the idea of sustainability? It’s linked to current discourses against consumption and to ideas about austerity and about doing less.
What could you replace sustainability with as a metaphor that would allow you to do something as opposed to just not doing something? I was thinking about things like conversation and reciprocity and some kind of interaction with your environment that didn’t deny the pleasures of exchange and of use. I eventually arrived at the term ‘symbiosis’ and symbiotic thinking.
What’s interesting about the term ‘symbiosis’, is that as a metaphor it takes us away from the ‘nature versus culture’ idea or ‘human benefit versus benefit for nature or the environment’, and rather asks us to think about how there might be certain kinds of human symbiotic interactions and at the same time benefits for the environment.
The symbol for this kind of activity are bees, and bee-keeping. There can be a human relationship to these kinds of symbiotic practices that happen in the environment already – such as the spreading of pollen and the creating of honey.
And around that word ‘symbiosis’, there’s a whole series of other underlying terms or thoughts that could be replaced. Instead of thinking about ‘austerity’ – which is a negative thinking towards the future – that we can always only do less and life isn’t going to be as good – you might replace that with ‘ingenuity’. This celebrates invention and entrepreneurialism and thinks about what’s at hand and what possible in what may be limited circumstance but treats those circumstances as a pleasureable challenge.
Part of the problem with austerity is that it makes you want to rebel. I have occasional bouts of recycling rebellion – I go ‘fuck it’ and throw it away. ‘I want to waste, I don’t want to be sensible’.
This is something to do with the moral imperative around the idea of austerity – it’s just not fun. Part of the idea about ‘symbiosis’, is that you don’t have that same kind of moral anxiety around all of your actions. You’re directed to a positive action instead of endlessly thinking about the negative – which just makes you want to be naughty and not do it.
“ashdenizen blog and twitter are consistently among the best sources for information and reflection on developments in the field of arts and climate change in the UK” (2020 Network)
The editors are Robert Butler and Wallace Heim. The associate editor is Kellie Gutman. The editorial adviser is Patricia Morison.
Robert Butler’s most recent publication is The Alchemist Exposed (Oberon 2006). From 1995-2000 he was drama critic of the Independent on Sunday. See www.robertbutler.info
Wallace Heim has written on social practice art and the work of PLATFORM, Basia Irland and Shelley Sacks. Her doctorate in philosophy investigated nature and performance. Her previous career was as a set designer for theatre and television/film.
Kellie Gutman worked with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture for twenty years, producing video programmes and slide presentations for both the Aga Khan Foundation and the Award for Architecture.
Patricia Morison is an executive officer of the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts, a group of grant-making trusts of which the Ashden Trust is one.