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Expired · 7th March 2010
Ray Grigg
One of our most puzzling behaviours is our continued destruction of the natural environment that sustains us. When the consequences are so obviously disastrous and self-defeating, why don't we stop? The answer to this perplexing question seems to be hidden deeply within our human psyche, buried somewhere beneath genes and character until it expresses itself in culture. Exploring this inner territory in search of answers is challenging.

One substantial clue is in the so-called body-mind split. We perceive the body as natural, growing out of the biochemistry of the Earth. It is material, corporeal and ephemeral. We watch it suffer the same fate as all the natural things surrounding us. We perceive the mind, however, as an instrument that is capable of detachment and abstraction. It invents ideas, organizes concepts, constructs imaginary systems, anticipates the future and believes in created realms that may bear little or no relationship to the actual reality containing us.

Consider the mathematician Bertrand Russell and the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead who wrote their great 20th century opus, Principia Mathematica, to prove that 1 + 1 = 2. While their work was ostensibly about numbers, its real objective was to verify that we can make sense of the world we perceive. Their brief and barely successful effort was undone by Kurt Gödel who proved that no system is internally consistent ‹ we can't make abstract constructs valid because they ultimately contradict themselves. Relativity and quantum physics have further complicated our ability to correlate the mind's thoughts with the body's world.

This irreconcilable split between body and mind creates problems when we try to impose one on the other. The systems we invent to explain things are not only internally inconsistent but they don't necessarily correlate to the world where we apply them. Since we cannot understand, we cannot manage or control. Everything is more complicated than we think it is. Philosophically, we are always facing a condition that Thomas Homer-Dixon calls an "ingenuity gap". As long as we lack the humility to yield to the natural world that contains us, we will cause environmental problems.

This body-mind split of ours creates another complication. We think that our inner thoughts are different from the outer world that contains them. Our conceptual model of reality is that the two are separate. But what if they are not? This is a question explored by Gregory Bateson, one of the most interesting and original thinkers of the 20th century.

Bateson, an anthropologist who left ethnology to consider "animal communication, social psychology, comparative anatomy, aesthetics and psychiatry" (Daniel B. Smith, New York Times, Jan. 31/10), also became interested in "complex systems". In his 1972 book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, and in subsequent work, he argued that "the tendency to think of mind and nature as separate indicated a flaw at the core of human consciousness" (Ibid.). "We believed, wrongly, that mind and nature operated independently of each other." Nature, in fact, was a "mind-like system" whose "unit of exchange wasn't energy, as most ecologists argued, but information. The way we thought about the world could change that world, and the world could in turn change us" (Ibid.).

When we conceive of ourselves as separate from nature, Bateson argued, we break the connective loop that has made us into one "ecomental" system. There is no "away" to discard the wasteful byproducts of our lives because there is no "other" that is outside ourselves. Ecosystems are ourselves. To think of them as different is delusional, a form of insanity. When we abuse ecosystems, we create in them the same kind of disorder that characterizes our insanity. Once we have upset nature's ecological order then the interconnecting loop returns the insanity to us. This explains why environmental collapse and social collapse are so closely linked.

So it is not a coincidence that Haiti, the most politically and economically dysfunctional country in the Western Hemisphere even before its recent earthquake, was also the most environmentally damaged. If the sanity or insanity between humanity and nature are intimately related, then in Haiti's case, which caused which? As Bateson suggests, they cause each other. We know from history that social collapse is directly correlated to environmental deterioration – note Easter Island, Mayan Central America, ancient Persia, Mediterranean Rome and elsewhere. We can't have healthy human societies without healthy natural environments. The human behaviour that causes ecological deterioration also accelerates social deterioration, then the two collapse together in a process of mutual destruction. If we drive ecologies "insane" then their "insanity is incorporated in the larger system of [our] thought and experience," Bateson wrote (Ibid.). Or, as he notes more metaphorically, "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."

Such a "basic error" is beginning to concern those thinkers who are assessing our collective behaviour and the state of our planet's environment. Are we poised on the edge of chaos, that uncertain place where ordered balance tips and neither our remedial efforts nor nature's resilience can stop a descending slide into chaos? No one knows. But the evidence suggests we are moving inexorably toward such a critical point. And some thinkers are beginning to get the uncomfortable impression that our collective human behaviour is delusional, founded on inherently dysfunctional assumptions that are incompatible with the way nature operates.

The task, however, of convincing the insane that they are insane is formidable, requiring more of the penetrating powers of the therapist than the persuasive arguments of the philosopher.