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Sustainability from ecological anthropology: the second life of trees

What might a non-anthropocentric view of sustainability look like?  This would probably include regeneration of species alongside others in the ecosystem.  With some recent presentations, an idea that resonates with audiences is the “The Second Life of Trees”, credited by Tim Ingold (2002) to John Knight (1998).  Ingold sees continuity of life not only of each species, but in the co-respondences of species alongside each over many lifelines.

As background, Gilberto Gallopin (2003) is helpful in describing what sustainability might NOT be about.  Firstly, an extreme anthropocentric position.

Sustainability of the human system only. This position, if taken to the extreme, could result in the Earth becoming a totally artificialized planet if total substitutability of natural resources and services were possible. The classical economicist view, for instance, regards the economy as the relevant system, and relegates nature to the role of provider of natural resources and services and of a sink for the wastes produced by human activities (Figure 3).

The Extreme Anthropocentric Position
Figure 3: The Extreme Anthropocentric Position

This is consistent with the notion of “very weak sustainability” 10 (Turner 1993). The very weak sustainability approach asserts that natural and manufactured capital can substitute perfectly for one another.

Then, there’s an extreme biocentric position.

Sustainability of the ecological system primarily, even if it means elimination or displacement of the human component (Figure 4).

The Extreme Anthropocentric Position
Figure 4: The Extreme Anthropocentric Position

Those who would value ecological sustainability above and beyond, rather than equal or subordinate to, economic and social sustainability represent an extreme “deep green” position in opposition to the anthropocentric one. This perspective is consistent with the concept of “very strong sustainability”.

The very strong sustainability position asserts that natural resources cannot be substituted by human-made capital; they cannot be depleted, therefore, without an irreversible loss in social welfare. Very strong sustainability favors a more fundamentalist mode of ecological solidarity with the Earth and all forms of life. This view is most compatible with a steady-state economy. Here, the preservation of the environment — a biocentric viewpoint — is the ethical precondition for sustainability. Pursuing ecological sustainability by way of diminishing social and economic concerns, even to the point of excluding humans or increasing human poverty, is not acceptable for the majority of us. 13

  • 13 There are those who would hold that this position could be well-justified in some very specific, localized situations such as keeping people out of national parks; there is room for debate on this issue.

Gallopin proposes sustainability of a socio-ecological system as a whole.

Sustainability of the whole socio-ecological system. The only option that makes sense in the long-term is to seek the sustainability of the whole socio-ecological system. The rationale for considering the whole system is based upon the existence of important interlinkages between society and nature. A socio-ecological system (Gallopín et al., 1989) is defined as any system composed of a societal (or human) component (subsystem) in interaction with an ecological (or biophysical) component. It can be either urban or rural, and it may be defined at different scales from local to global.14

  • 14Local may be a household and its interactions with its immediate surroundings, and global is understood as the whole of humankind and its interactions with the natural world or biosphere.

Sounds good. But then what would “interlinkages between and society and nature” really mean?  I had previously written a digest about 2016/09/10 Tim Ingold, “The Sustainability of Everything” (web video) where John Knight is mentioned about 35 minutes in.

This was later formally published by Tim Ingold as a chapter in 2022.

In a study of upland forestry in Japan, anthropologist John Knight (1998) offers a cautionary tale of what can go wrong if the axis of development takes precedence over the axis of continuity.

Traditionally, Japanese foresters would look after trees for a generation, and then cut them for use as house timbers. In the house, the timbers enjoy what the foresters call a second life. In this phase the direction of care is reversed. For where foresters had nurtured trees in their first life, it is now the trees that nurture the foresters and their families in the second, by furnishing the warmth, shelter, and comfort of the dwelling. During this time, the foresters are looking after a new generation of growing trees, which will eventually, in their turn, become replacement house timbers. And so it would continue, generation after generation.

Here, the lives of foresters and their trees go along together, responding to one another in a cycle of mutual care that, in principle, can continue indefinitely. But today, as Knight shows, the cycle has been broken. Conservationists demand that old trees be preserved and not cut. These arboreal veterans are hence denied their second life. And the people, left without timbers to replace old ones as they rot, have taken to building their houses out of concrete instead. Development, here, has trumped continuity. [pp. 330-331, editorial paragraphing added]

This story leads to a richer read of John Knight’s writing.  For a taste, here’s the introduction.

Trees have long been important to human livelihoods in the mountain villages of the Kii Peninsula.

  • In earlier centuries forest trees were the source of food , fuel, green fertiliser and shelter for villagers.
  • More recently, the mountains have been turned into extensive timber plantations where villagers earn their living through planting, weeding, branch-cutting and a range of other silvicultural tasks , as well as felling , transporting and sawmilling.

Regenerative timber forestry has come to occupy a central place in the economy of upland Japan. However, the trees in the forest have never been simply an economic resource for the people in the village. To the trees are attached a rich set of ideas, beliefs and associations. They are a site of spirits and a source of supernatural assistance, as well as a symbolic medium for human lives . [p. 197, editorial paragraphing added]

Evidence for the symbolic importance of trees in Japan is to be found, in the first instance, in a great deal of Japanese folkloric data, often applying to particular tree stands or tree species. But the modern timber plantations too, I shall argue, are an important medium through which many contemporary Japanese mountain villagers represent and understand their own lives. In the wake of the accelerated economic modernisation of upland Japan in the postwar period, a central feature of which has been the replacement of the earlier botanical diversity of the mountains by a coniferous uniformity, mountain villagers continue to associate their lives with the lives of trees. This occurs most prominently through family forestry, directed at growing timber to be used in the building industry. [p. 197-198]

In what follows, two relationships are taken up:

  • that between trees and people, and
  • that between trees and wood.

Ideas of tree-growth among foresters, sawmillers and carpenters are associated with a number of different social relationships including marriage, the continuity of the stem family and, related to this, ties between ancestors and descendants. While the long life-span of tree stands is one feature of trees put to use in this symbolic association, an even more pivotal feature is that of the continuity between trees and wood. Timber-growers raise trees with an eye to their eventual usage as building wood. If foresters often become emotionally attached to the trees they have grown for decades, they are normally mindful that the measure of their achievement is the wood quality of the trees, and that the value of the trees is something realised after they have been felled. [p. 198, editorial paragraphing added]

Sections in the chapter that are worth reading in the full include:

  • Upbringing
  • Marriage
  • Maturity
  • The Tree’s Second Life

Here’s the conclusion:

The continuity, overlap, and even identity between trees and wood forms the basis of the importance of timber forests to local families. The two phases of the life of ki — as tree and then as timberwood — are associated with the phases of dependency and then independent nurturance among family members in the context of the enduring house.

  • First, tree-growing is anthropomorphically defined. Tree-growing is imagined in terms of raising children (indeed as an ideal form of child-rearing). The growth of timber trees is mediated both by the actual human labour applied to them and by (anthropomorphic) ideas about their normative growth that inform this labour process.
  • Secondly, the growth of trees in turn forms a medium through which the human life-course is imagined, but in a way that exceeds the biological lives of family members in favour of a more enduring sense of the family. This is materially expressed, on the one hand, in advanced growth forests and, on the other, in durable wooden houses.

There is, therefore, a symbiosis (anthropocentrically defined) between human lives and the lives of trees. Human beings enable trees to grow straight and to live a second life as wooden houses. The trees both enrich their growers and shelter them. Family continuity is imagined in terms of the durability of wood. Wood is thus a medium through which people can imagine transcendence. [p. 214, editorial paragraphing added]

The skewed pattern of forest landholding has meant that the conversion of ancestral forests into family houses has never been generalised among upland dwellers, and tends to be something confined to larger landowners. Nonetheless, the ideal itself would seem to have an appeal beyond those actually able to realise it. It should also be stressed that even where plantation trees do not attain a second life as family timber — the inevitable fate, of course, of most plantation timber on an estate of any appreciable size — the trees may still be seen as contributing to the family, and therefore as having a second life through the continuing family line, the descendants themselves and the worldly success they achieve. [pp. 214-215]

Yet this is an age of heirlessness. Most rural families find themselves without an heir to continue the family line.

  • Reacting to the effects of urban outmigration on villages in the 1900s, the famous Japanese folklorist Yanagita Kunio pointed to the emerging phenomenon of what he called iegoroshi (‘domicide’, or the killing of the family) in which migrants would cease to be aware of their ancestral roots (lrokawa 1985: 288-9). Families continue to die at the end of the century, just as they did at the beginning.
  • In many mountain villages today discontinued ‘dead’ families greatly exceed living ones. But heirlessness means the failure not just of one sort of succession, but also of that of the trees.
  • The normative cycle of forests-houses-forests is interrupted. Discontinued family lines are matched — indeed expressed — by decrepit family forests (if not the actual selling off of family forests). A whole generation of trees have been grown for a maturity they will never attain. Japanese sawmillers increasingly opt for foreign timber — foreign brides — and Japanese timber stands are, as a result, condemned to a wretched spinsterhood.
  • The trees of the forest have increasingly ceased to become the wood of the village. Instead, village houses are ferroconcrete or are made from cheaper foreign timber. Dependent trees have not become nurturant houses.

In this respect the forest trees recall the village parents whose children have left for the city, and who are therefore redundant as parents. They have been rejected by those they should be parenting.

  • In the case of empty houses (akiya), this abandonment is literal. The nurturant second life of trees — as the supporting beams of sheltering houses — has not come about or materialised. The plantation conifers are not living the second lives they should be, they are living first lives which are too long.
  • What might appear an impressive longevity is actually an overextended adolescence. They are suffering from an excessive tree longevity, which is ultimately false because real longevity is secured through a transformative felling, and the prospect of a kind of near-immortality.

The condition of upland Japan today is a morbid one, made up as it is of mountain villages of ‘dead’, displaced families surrounded by conifer forests of once loved but now forgotten trees. [p. 215, editorial paragraphing added]

Those who enjoy these excerpts may look into the writings of Tim Ingold and John Knight in full!


Gallopín, Gilberto. 2003. A Systems Approach to Sustainability and Sustainable Development. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean 64. United Nations Publications.

Ingold, Tim. 2022. “The Sustainability of Everything.” In Imagining for Real, 325–36. New York, NY: Routledge.

Knight, John. 1998. “The Second Life of Trees: Family Forestry in Upland Japan.” In The Social Life of Trees: Anthropological Perspectives on Tree Symbolism, edited by Laura M. Rival, 197–218. Oxford, UK: Berg.

Tim Ingold (2016) The Sustainability of Everything

1 Comment

  • Thank you for this post David, a beautifully expressed connection between the life of trees and the family which i enjoyed reading. A similar socio-ecological relationship exists in Europe: the traditional management of coppice woodland for products for making charcoal for iron smelting and poles for tool handles, fencing, chairs etc. One of the oldest woodlands of this type has “coppice stools’ thought to be over 1000 years old The intricate relationship between families, rural communities, coppice woodland and biodiversity has been broken since the industrial revolution but there are still many working coppice woodlands in Europe, but my guess is they are not as intimately tied in to community as they once were. Similarly, the traditionally rural skills of hedgelaying (hedgerow management) which is close to my heart exhibits what can only be described as a a ‘speciation’ of styles across the UK and Europe and is a child of long and rich association of people with the land, despite being implicated in the Enclosure Acts of the 17-18th Cs. I am encouraged that our disconnection with land is only about 200 years old, and there are many signs that a reconnection-either through choice or through social collapse- is on the cards in the future. Also wrt ‘Deep Green’ position, are you familiar with the work of the Deep Ecologist philosopher Arne Naess?

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