Yesterday night I attended the London premier of Nora Bateson’s film: An Ecology of Mind: A Daughter’s Portrait of Gregory Bateson. Gregory Bateson has been described as ‘the most important thinker you’ve never heard of‘, an intellectual renegade who contributed to a variety of disciplinary traditions, earning him an array of diverse followers. Bateson fans are always independent thinkers, often ecological thinkers and sometimes critical thinkers. This blog will briefly review some main themes in Bateson’s legacy, its potential and hint at some of the issues that keep ecological thought from achieving its goals.
The event was organised by critical urban ecologist Jon Goodbun and hosted by the University of Westminster. Jon shares my interest in Gregory Bateson’s seminal work on the nature of mind, epistemological challenges to current ways of knowing and the critical importance of ecological thought in addressing contemporary challenges. Jon kindly invited me to sit on the panel with Nora Bateson, Iain Boal, Wendy Wheeler, Ranulph Glanville and Peter Reason after the screening.
The screening was sold out and the room was packed as we watched Nora’s very personal interpretation of her father’s life story. The film featured Nora’s version of her father’s most meaningful lessons.
Gregory Bateson’s work is foundational to ecological thought. His work suggests that ecological learning is not about learning a series of facts but requires an understanding of our relationship to our environment and to each other. An understands of oneself as an part of the environment entails a profound shift in epistemology. This shift in our way of knowing and our perception is described as a movement of mind: a shift out of ‘epistemological error’. Bateson wrote:
I suggest that the last 100 years or so have demonstrated empirically that if an organism or aggregate of organisms sets to work with a focus on its own survival and thinks that is the way to select its adaptive moves, its ‘progress’ end up with a destroyed environment. If an organism ends up destroying its environment, it has in fact destroyed itself (1972:457).
Resolving epistemological error is the means by which we become capable to solving societal problems. This learning involves developing a new understanding of our basic relationship with the natural world and each other. This way of knowing is an acknowlegement of interdependence.
Gregory Bateson describes a process of learning notice to notice patterns, to notice connections and to notice relationships. His work (further developed by his other daughter Mary Catherine Bateson) describes the mailability of attention, i.e. how cultural learned perceptual habits keep us from noticing the complexity and interconnectivity in our relations. Nora expanded on these themes during the evening.
In my Phd I have described Bateson’s epistemological insights are central to resolving current problems across disciplinary traditions – as well as social, economic and ecological crisis conditions. Bateson’s work in the ’60s and ’70s lay the ground for ecological literacy to emerge in the 1990s. Unfortunately, ecological thought has not always been applied in a critical fashion. Critical social theorists far too rarely engage with ecological thought as conceived by Bateson. One of the central problems in the marginalisation of ecological thought is the uncritical manner in which some advocates of Bateson’s work apply his work. This lack of criticality in some streams of ecological thought thereby prevents profound insights from developing a capacity for political transformation based on a more coherent understanding of the ecological commons.
Nora’s film has brought Bateson fans together. The potential create a community of practice is compelling. Building a stronger community of critical ecological thinkers who will put ideas into practice is an imperative. While this is easier said than done, it remains a primary concern.