But it rubs up against a fundamental problem of ecopsychology: even if we can establish that as we move further into an urban, technological future, we move further away from the elemental forces that shaped our minds, how do we get back in touch with them?
That question preoccupied Gregory Bateson, a major influence on ecopsychologists and something of a lost giant of 20th-century intellectual history. Bateson, an anthropologist by training, conducted fieldwork in Bali with Margaret Mead, his wife of 14 years, in the 1930s, but in midcareer he moved away from conventional ethnology and began conducting studies in areas like animal communication, social psychology, comparative anatomy, aesthetics and psychiatry. But what most interested Bateson, as the title of his 1972 book “Steps to an Ecology of Mind” suggests, were complex systems.
It was Bateson’s belief that the tendency to think of mind and nature as separate indicated a flaw at the core of human consciousness. Writing several years after Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” at a time when the budding environmental movement was focused on the practical work of curbing DDT and other chemical pollutants, Bateson argued that the essential environmental crisis of the modern age lay in the realm of ideas. Humankind suffered from an “epistemological fallacy”: we believed, wrongly, that mind and nature operated independently of each other. In fact, nature was a recursive, mindlike system; its 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.
“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,” Bateson wrote. “You decide that you want to get rid of the byproducts of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the ecomental system called Lake Erie is a part of your wider ecomental system — and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience.” Our inability to see this truth, Bateson maintained, was becoming monstrously apparent. Human consciousness evolved to privilege “purposiveness” — to get us what we want, whether what we want is a steak dinner or sex. Expand that tendency on a mass scale, and it is inevitable that you’re going to see some disturbing effects: red tides, vanishing forests, smog, global warming. “There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds,” Bateson wrote, “and it is characteristic of the system that basic error propagates itself.”