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Upside-Down Gods

28th November 2016

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By Peter Harries-Jones

It is somewhat unusual for an author to write of a person whose essays and books were difficult to understand while he lived, but whose central ideas became strongly endorsed 30 odd years after his death, all of a sudden, and by very disparate spokesmen. In the following case, my case, the endorsement of my subject’s ideas came within six months of one another—by no less than Pope, the Prince of Wales, and the European Commission. It gives the biographer a strong sense that his subject had remarkable forethought, prescient about a range of ideas among which is the idea that the purposes behind modern methods of industrial production are ‘upside down.’

The biographical subject here is Gregory Bateson (1904-1980). Some of his central ideas appear in Pope Francis Encyclical Letter Laudato Si (18 June 2015). For example, “the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary” said Pope Francis, but our human industrial economy  “has not yet developed the capacity to absorb and re-use waste products” (Laudato Si, para. 22; full quote below). The term ‘capacity’ in this quote appears to reflect state of mind as much as technical inability, and that is the crux of Bateson’s own arguments .

Britain’s Prince Charles (2 July 2015) stated that “The challenge now is to go much further and much faster, progressively eliminating waste by developing a circular economy that mimics nature’s loops and cycles, rather than perpetuating our largely unsustainable and linear way of doing things.”

Of the three sources quoted here supporting a circular economy, the Prince of Wales would, I suspect, acknowledge the influence of Bateson, as the Prince quotes him directly in his own book  Harmony: a new way of looking at the World, as he picks up Bateson’s theme of “nature’s balance.”

Bateson was much more than a naturalist, for he was also an anthropologist who researched together with—and married—Margaret Mead, a film director who produced one of the very first ethnographic films, a person who led the research team at Palo Alto that established systemic family therapy as a profession, and, perhaps most importantly, a theorist in communication studies, who was one of the founders of cybernetics. Hence the reference to loops and cycles in the Prince of Wales quote on the circular economy.

The European Commission declared (2 December 2015) that a maturing circular economy  will usher in “practices such as industrial symbiosis where the waste or by-products of one industry become the inputs for another one.”  Its plans for a circular economy propose rapid intensification of existing recycling practices, such that the concept of recycling no longer indicates simple recycling of material ‘waste’ at the end of a consumer’s period of use, but rather that recycling enters into the very first phases of production. One example supporting this concept is an intensification of the existing practice of discarding blue jeans which then become ‘pre-owned ‘ or ‘hand-me-downs’ in used clothes markets, or even shipped overseas to small urban markets in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere.

Here the idea of recycling would be to anticipate constant re-use by creating blue jeans with fibers that withstand many journeys so that when shared use finally exhausts the product, the blue jean fibers, can be retrieved and used for other purposes. This idea has fostered the term ‘the blue economy.’ Laudato Si makes a more direct statement, declaring that we must put an end to the “throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish.”

Spreading the idea of shared use in many directions is an intrinsic part of the current conception of the European Commission, as multiple sharing will enable countries to “ preserve resources, some of which are increasingly scarce, subject to mounting environmental pressure or volatile prices….”  In recent weeks, one European firm manufacturing bicycles has announced that it will begin building bicycles, specifically children’s bicycles, for rent to the user. Then when they are finished with they will be returned to the factory, refurbished and rented to another rider. The bicycles will be designed so that when they finally reach the end of their lives all raw materials can be separated and reused in order to comply with the conditions of a  “closed loop” or “circular” supply chain. This will prevent precious raw materials going into landfill. The firm anticipates that raw materials will become so precious that businesses and governments will begin mining our landfill sites later this century to recover what was thrown away in the last.

In Gregory Bateson’s terms, an industrial symbiosis can never repeat biological symbiosis because the organic world has a sense of itself that no machine, even the fastest computers, could possibly imitate. He himself studied to be a biologist before he became an anthropologist and argued that there is a necessary unity between humanity and nature in their common loops and cycles. Any biological system would ‘crash’ without recursive loops and cycles of biological information, information with meaning, to maintain it.

His father, William Bateson, the first United Kingdom professor of genetics (a term he coined in 1905), also thought information was a necessary component of the ‘volutionary activity’ of biological systems, but was uncertain at this early date as to how to describe this phenomena.

The son took up his father’s interest in information to struggle against the prevailing dualism of ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ in western science. He inserted ‘cybernetic information,’ as a media between the two concepts of ‘mind’ and ‘matter.’ Cybernetic information is collateral with the movement of matter, he argued, but is not reducible to it. Researchers in physics may bristle at this definition of information as being metaphysical, but cybernetic information ‘triggers’ movement as biological material moves in loops and cycles.

So far the European Commission’s scheme is little more than giving manufacturing incentives o in order to create shifts in market preferences. Gregory Bateson wanted to go much further. He felt the need to develop an ecological aesthetic in order to correct the straight-line, infinite extension of linear causality driving modern production methods. He also wanted the west to fully appreciate the circular aspects of ecosystems. He called his perspective  an ‘ecology of mind,’ that is to say believing in something like the sacredness of ecosystems, recognizing the value of its holistic rhythms, and improving our understanding through science about the timing constraints of sustainability. He once commented on the Cuyahoga River inlet to Lake Erie catching fire as a result of pollution. He remarked that this scale of pollution must drive Lake Erie insane. The lake becomes insane?  Yes, he wrote of that 1969 incident for the fundamental unit of existence is always the organism plus environment so that the lake is not merely water, but is the habit-laden ‘place’ for those many organisms living in the water. They too develop a sense of ‘place.’

One prominent American who is inspired by Bateson’s vision of the recursiveness (circular activity) of human and other organisms is Governor Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown. In his first term as Governor of California appointed the state architect to construct a building in his honor. The Bateson House in Sacramento was one of the very first office buildings in the United States to be warmed and otherwise serviced by passive solar power. Its design and protocols soon became  incorporated into the coding standards for environmental buildings throughout North America. At the building’s dedication ceremony, the architect, Sim van der Ryn, remarked: “We are most alive when we experience subtle cycles of difference in our surroundings. The building itself becomes “the pattern which connects” us to the change and flow of climate, season, sun, and shadow, constantly tuning our awareness of the natural cycles which support all life. Maybe this is what aesthetics and beauty are all about.”

A new biography entitled Upside-Down Gods—Gregory Bateson’s world of difference was published in May by Fordham University Press.  Its author, Peter Harries-Jones, an emeritus professor of anthropology at York University, Ontario, provides further elucidation of Bateson’s ideas, discussing his career and his legacy, showing why he is renowned for being one of the foremost transdisciplinary writers of the 20th century.

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Sources:

Damian Carrington in The Guardian, (2 July 2015) “Prince Charles: Rewire the global economy to stop climate change.”

European Commission, “Closing the loop – An EU action plan for the Circular Economy” (2 December 2015) http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/

(Retrieved 20 October 2016)

Pope Francis,  Laudato Si: On the Care of Our Common Home (18 June 2015).

Paragraph  22 reads as follows: These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. To cite one example, most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled. It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants. But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them. A serious consideration of this issue would be one way of counteracting the throwaway culture which affects the entire planet, but it must be said that only limited progress has been made in this regard.

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