Make Sure Your Own Mask Is Fitted Before Helping Anyone Else

Okay, I always found this cartoon a bit harsh...what if you want to help others before throwing on your mask? What if you hold your breath? Of course the basic idea here is that you need to have your shit together before helping others, and it's mostly true. Gregory Bateson thinks so.

In my last post I talked about Gregory Bateson and his collection of essays, "Steps to an Ecology of Mind." In one of his essays titled, "The Roots of the Ecological Crisis," he makes a concise summation of the causes of the pickle we're in:

"...all of the many current threats to man's survival are traceable to three root causes:

a) technological progress b) population increase c) certain errors in the thinking and attitudes of Western culture. Our 'values' are wrong."

That's his summation, and in the remainder of the essay, as well as in others, he suggests some solutions which I attempt to summarize here, again organized along the three root causes:

a) While technological progress is inevitable, we should steer it in appropriate directions (think renewable energy, potentially cleaner

uses of non-renewable energy sources, sustainable aquaculture

, permaculture, new contraceptives etc.)

b) "Stop at two." This one is pretty basic. If you're going to have a family, two (or fewer) children is considered the magic sustainable number (balancing earth's birth and death rates). Reproducing is the largest environmental impact you'll make in your lifetime. Also, having two kids will allow you to cash in on all those family vacation specials.

c) Certain errors in the thinking and attitudes of Western culture...this is the trickier one, because of course it deals with how we think - how we make sense of the world right now. Bateson actually names some of the ideas he thinks are most dangerous and false (I reproduce them here verbatim, including outdated gender references):

a) It's us against the environment. b) It's us against other men. c) It's the individual (or the individual company, or the individual nation) that matters. d) We can have unilateral control over the environment and must strive for that control. e) We live within an infinitely expanding "frontier." f) Economic determinism is common sense. g) Technology will do it for us.

The creature that wins against its environment destroys itself.

Bateson obviously felt these ideas needed to change, and ultimately he says our consciousness will change to reflect the new limits and re-balancing that will take place within the eco-mental environment - basically Bateson's idea that the entire system that is the universe in its totality is a "mind" of its own...of which we are smaller cogs (or neurons if you like). How many people and species we lose during that transition is another story and up to us. During these changes he hoped the world would be a "wise" where violence or fear of violence was kept to a minimum.

Tending our own plots of consciousness, being honest and clear with ourselves and our ideas is an important part of making the change wisely. Bateson felt that it was incumbent upon each of us to achieve clarity in ourselves and to then look for every sign of clarity in others and to implement and reinforce "whatever is sane in them." He considered the concept of "power" to be a myth (although often made into a self-fulfilling prophecy by our own acquiescence to the idea), and in various ways encouraged citizens to understand that those in "power" are entirely dependent on everyone else. The exercise of not only our rights as citizens, but also our capacity as creative parts of society, pieces that interact with one another and that can create new forms of social reality, he saw as being vitally important. We shouldn't wait for others to encroach on our rights, but rather we should exercise them. Practically, from an ecological stand-point, I think this includes creating new value around natural places that matter to us, whether that be building a trail in the wilderness or organizing social events around ecological areas or values. It's difficult to encroach on something that is vibrant and valued by others in society.

In creating that aforementioned wisdom, he saw value in what he called "sensitivity groups" - groups that increase our "sensitivity" as a society to any given issue. This could include everything from humanizing elements within corporations (say corporate social responsibility and human resource departments) to environmental and other issue groups, working to channel and amplify social concerns and values and to pressure and affect change from governments and corporations with respect to social and environmental impacts and policy making.

As for other age-old conflicts, say the conflict in Palestine, he saw the need to change the rules of the game...he drew direct lines of causation from the Treaty of Versailles that "concluded" World War I, right through to the hatred between Israelies and the Arab world that still defines that part (and parts further away) of the world today. He felt the most important moments in history were those moments when attitudes were changed, when the "thermostat" or bias of the system was set differently. With this criteria, treaties and key moments in writing the "rules" of the game are paramount, whereas events like the dropping of the Atomic bomb, while enormous and awful are still part of business as usual. Being mindful of opportunities to engender new attitudes is critical to prevent future generations from being born into the "insanity" put in motion by previous generations.

While I've read Bateson's ideas a millions times before as expressed by other authors (before and after him), I found his particular treatment of these issues refreshing, and I hope I'm distilling them in a useful manner for others here.