online: 31 july 2002
modified: 1 aug 02, 3 aug

31 july 2002 the ecology of mind

It is in our power, with our technology, to create insanity in the larger system of which we are a part.

We are not outside the ecology for which we plan - we are always and inevitably part of it.

Gregory Bateson in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Paladin, Granada Publishing, London 1973. pages 442 and 480.

These quotations, from a book that I thought I had assimilated twenty years ago, are parts of what I noticed in re-reading much of it today, in a new fascination with, and a new awareness of, what Gregory Bateson was saying and writing.

I abandoned everything else except the washing-up and some shopping and cooking and eating...

What I began to understand from his book is that how anyone thinks and speaks about 'the environment', is perhaps the most powerful and dangerous part of what threatens us. The words and ideas through which we variously describe this new predicament, words such as ecology, pollution, globalisaton, greenhouse gases, climate change, world problems, the planet, recycling, population growth, economic migrants, are not defences to keep external dangers at a safe distance but the very means by and through which we create these problems and lock the once natural and flexible eco-systems into destructive imbalance... I think that's the gist of what I gathered, lying on my bed all day long as I read of all this - with both sadness and excitement - for I feel that, even now, thirty years or fifty years later, that Gregory Bateson's cybernetic and ecological vision is not only timely but shows us a far wiser path which we, or our perhaps unfortunate descendents, will be both obliged and able to rediscover.

I remember hearing Gregory Bateson addressing a large audience in London, like a modern Goethe, exhibiting great awareness of us as well as of his subject... He was describing interactions between ideas and people and biological circumstance when a baby in the audience started to make baby-cries... He immediately broke off what he was saying to address the baby alone, making baby-sounds himself through the microphone so that what, in the old order, was just noise or distraction became instantly the centre around which he re-arranged his talk... Each time the baby 'spoke' he replied in an approximation to its language and the rest of us became spectators to a profound demonstration of an idea and its enactment as one.

Around that time I experienced, with a hundred or so futurologists, an audience with the Pope - at which a baby also kept making baby-cries. But unfortunately he had not the sensitivity to acknowledge the baby's existence. Despite Jesus' 'suffer little children to come unto me' he took it as environmental noise and continued reading his address. What a disappointment - hierarchy exhibiting its single-mindedness and its inability to improvise. But a useful lesson: don't trust a hierarchy, even if it is inspired by divinity and good motives!

...But to return if I can to these thoughts of Gregory Bateson:

How exactly does he say we should speak of the ecology etc if we are not, by our language and assumptions, to create or to worsen the problem?... I've not yet found a more informative quotation than the two brief ones I began with, so I'll try, in my own words, to answer this question:

We have to find ways to speak and think about 'the environment' not as if it were an objective 'thing', detached from ourselves or any other species, but to think and say and see ourselves and our technologies and other creatures and plants and rocks and oceans and the sun and the macrocosmos and the microcosmos as parts of a single entity that can operate rightly (what is 'rightly'?) only if we and they its parts are sensitive to the various evolutions and changes that are taking form because of what we say and do and how we speak... which I remember that it was Edwin Schlossberg's essay addressed to Gregory Bateson, but entitled For my father(in About Bateson,edited by John Brockman, E P Dutton, New York 1977),which taught me much about this question and from which I've often quoted... So now I fetch that much-read essay and it opens on a page where there is a slip of paper with the figures 152.59 - I presume from some earlier chance-process of mine. I read around that point on page 152 and find the following:

...the reader is willing to pay attention to how the words are coming out and not only to what they "say". For instance the word no lies after word which compells attention to every level of its composition. It is a metacommunication in with the content communication and therefore throwing the whole process into consideration...
...which tells me to end this note (it's just past midnight) with this reminder from Edwin, and indirectly from Gregory, that it is the art of communication (about communication) that can enable us to undo the inflexibility that led our recent ancestors to unintentionally fix the ecology and consequences of human thoughts and actions on a course that is deadly if u and i do not change the way of speaking and of being the only power that can worsen or improve the situation... that can alter the dynamics of what is happening and the boundaries of self!

(What's in this font I added later.)

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© 2002 john chris jones

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