I have been looking for a “way in” into environmentalism. Intellectually, I know it matters tremendously, but I haven’t felt its importance on a tacit moral “why” level that makes its importance immediate and self-evident. I know this is a philosophical failure — something in my worldview (what Judaism would call levavkha, heart) is preventing a reality from being as real to me as it ought to be (“hardness of heart” toward toward the Earth, and physical reality, in general) — so I have been poking around looking for new angles for conceiving and perceiving our situation.
This passage from Gregory Bateson speaks to me:
Formerly we thought of a hierarchy of taxa—individual, family line, subspecies, species, etc.—as units of survival. We now see a different hierarchy of units—gene-in-organism, organism-in-environment, ecosystem, etc. Ecology, in the widest sense, turns out to be the study of the interaction and survival of ideas and programs (i.e., differences, complexes of differences, etc.) in circuits.
Let us now consider what happens when you make the epistemological error of choosing the wrong unit: you end up with the species versus the other species around it or versus the environment in which it operates. Man against nature. You end up, in fact, with Kaneohe Bay polluted, Lake Erie a slimy green mess, and “Let’s build bigger atom bombs to kill off the next-door neighbors.” 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. It branches out like a rooted parasite through the tissues of life, and everything gets into a rather peculiar mess. 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. You decide that you want to get rid of the by-products of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the eco-mental system called Lake Erie is a part of your wider eco-mental system—and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience.
You and I are so deeply acculturated to the idea of “self” and organization and species that it is hard to believe that man might view his relations with the environment in any other way than the way which I have rather unfairly blamed upon the nineteenth-century evolutionists. So I must say a few words about the history of all this.
Anthropologically, it would seem from what we know of the early material, that man in society took clues from the natural world around him and applied those clues in a sort of metaphoric way to the society in which he lived. That is, he identified with or empathized with the natural world around him and took that empathy as a guide for his own social organization and his own theories of his own psychology. This was what is called “totemism.”
In a way, it was all nonsense, but it made more sense than most of what we do today, because the natural world around us really has this general systemic structure and therefore is an appropriate source of metaphor to enable man to understand himself in his social organization.
The next step, seemingly, was to reverse the process and to take clues from himself and apply these to the natural world around him. This was “animism,” extending the notion of personality or mind to mountains, rivers, forests, and such things. This was still not a bad idea in many ways. But the next step was to separate the notion of mind from the natural world, and then you get the notion of gods.
But when you separate mind from the structure in which it is immanent, such as human relationship, the human society, or the ecosystem, you thereby embark, I believe, on fundamental error, which in the end will surely hurt you.
Struggle may be good for your soul up to the moment when to win the battle is easy. When you have an effective enough technology so that you can really act upon your epistemological errors and can create havoc in the world in which you live, then the error is lethal. Epistemological error is all right, it’s fine, up to the point at which you create around yourself a universe in which that error becomes immanent in monstrous changes of the universe that you have created and now try to live in.
Reading this, I am understanding that I have morally deemphasized and neglected one of the dimensions of the threefold present, the present “here”. As with present I (in spirit) and present now (in eternity), present here (in apeiron) is a dimension of reality that is us, while infinitely exceeds us (which, I’ve been told is a theological concept called “panentheism“) within which we are responsible participants.
I’m fresh off this insight, so only time will tell what it does to me and my sense of the world. It feels like a breakthrough.