Steps to an Ecology of Mind

Here's a Voice of America news story on the proposed ban on trade in bluefin tuna being considered this weekend at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference in Doha.

Several countries are already posturing to oppose a ban, apparently willing to exploit the fish to extinction, eyes wide open.

As Gwynne Dyer points out the countries that consume the tuna the most (and one would think might miss it when it's gone) are the same countries who oppose restrictions on the fishery, despite signs of imminent collapse. According to Dyer, a 233-kilo bluefin was recently sold for $175,000 to three sushi restuarants bidding together in Japan and Hong Kong. It seems we'll be ready to put a price on the very last bluefin.

All of this is dumbfounding, but as I'm learning from "Steps to an Ecology of Mind" by Gregory Bateson, we really are dumb and need some edumucating.

When it comes to the ecological crisis, according to Bateson, the roots of our current dysfunction, are a few fundamental errors in Western thought that can be traced back over thousands of years, but that have only recently (last 100 years) become pathological as a result of technological development and population growth, developments that have operationalized our flawed world view on a massive (and unsustainable) scale.

A few excerpts I've found particularly insightful:

"Now we begin to see some of the epistemological fallacies of Occidental (read Western) civilization. In accordance with the general climate of thinking in mid-nineteenth-century England, Darwin proposed a theory of natural selection and evolution in which the unit of survival was either the family line or the species or subspecies or something of the sort. But today it is quite obvious that this is not the unit of survival in the real biological world. The unit of survival is organism plus environment. We are learning by bitter experience that the organism which destroys its environment destroys itself." (P.491).

"There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds, and it is characteristic of the system that basic error propagates itself. It branches out like a rooted parasite through the tissues of life, and everything gets into a rather peculiar mess. When you narrow down your epistemology and act on the premise "What interests me is me, or my organization, or my species," you chop off consideration of other loops of the loop structure. You decide that you want to get rid of the by-products of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the eco-mental system called Lake Erie is part of your wider eco-mental system- and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated with the larger system of your thought and experience." (P.492).

"...I regard the grooves of destiny into which our civilization has entered as a special case of evolutionary cul-de-sac. Courses which offered short-term advantage have been adopted, have become rigidly programmed, and have begun to prove disastrous over longer time. This is the paradigm for extinction by way of loss of flexibility. And this paradigm is more surely lethal when the courses of action are chosen in order to maximize single variables." (p509).

These excerpts and Bateson's ideas for potential remedies are interspersed among several related essays, and I'm going to tackle a summary of those potential solutions over the next few posts.