Sita, our Australian shepherd, wants to go for a walk along the lake. She doesn’t give a hoot about the pandemic, global economy, or publishing deadlines. I explain to her that I’m working, and she looks at me as if I’ve lost all reason.
While everything seems to have changed, some things remain the same.
With the coronavirus pandemic far from over, and with economies reeling, we still witness acts of common decency – sharing, helping, comforting – and simultaneously, evidence of political dysfunction – bickering, boasting, posing, lying, snooping, and profiteering.
As I write this, nations have reported over 370,000 deaths from COVID-19. Every news source on Earth is covering the pandemic. All the while, some nine million people starve to death every year, with almost no media attention. Perhaps this is due to the fact that rich people can catch the virus, but rich people can’t catch poverty. Thousands of species disappear forever each year, and that doesn’t attract much media attention either.
Plenty of observers, such as Dae-oup Chang in The Ecologist, have discouraged a return to “normal” because “normal was the problem.” In the Solutions Journal, ecologist William Rees writes, “Rampant disease and looming recession are genuine immediate concerns,” but he points out that the COVID pandemic “is merely one symptom of gross human ecological dysfunction.”
Sita’s been patient, and I finally give in. Along the forest trail, I admire the goslings born near the unseasonably quiet lake and contemplate wolves returning to the closed parks. A barred owl has moved into a cedar tree near our home.
Life in our island community almost appears reenchanted. Yet I know that billions of humans are suffering from the pandemic’s social and economic impact, compounding generations of injustice. I suspect that if humanity attempts a return to pre-pandemic normalcy, we will have missed the lesson, an opportunity to awaken to that looming ecological dysfunction.
I’ve decided to ignore trolls. I won’t nitpick with the growth cheerleaders, the Forbes crowd, the profiteers, the believers that ingenuity can exempt us from nature’s demands. I won’t quibble with those who claim that there are no ecological limits and that human cleverness can overcome the pesky Ecological Imperatives. The sanctioned voices of the industrial Titanic sound to me like 16th century Papal henchmen, who laughed at the new cosmology, who squealed “heresy!” and burned common sense at the stake.
Just as Copernicus showed that Earth is not the centre of the universe, ecology teaches us that human preference is not the centre of life on Earth. I have no time for the new Papal henchmen. I serve Mother Nature, Boss of Bosses, Queen of Kings, She who Bats Last. The trolls are dribbling down their shirts, and will soon be put to bed.
I rely on grown-up conversations with ecologists, researchers, and scientists all over the world, and with homesteaders, farmers, teachers, healthcare workers, and people with common sense and modesty.
Crisis? What crisis?
I first met anthropologist and ecologist Gregory Bateson, in 1969. He had developed the idea of the “double bind” in psychology, society, and natural sciences. This current pandemic challenge provides a good example of the double bind.
The coronavirus pandemic has revealed certain vulnerabilities in the modern human story, including spurious economics, shoddy governance, and misplaced priorities. Humanity now faces at least two classic double binds:
1. Do we crash the economy, or risk an uncertain health crisis? If we favour one, the other gets worse. That’s the nature of a classic double bind. Or, should we try to avoid both by printing more money, bailing out desperate corporations, and postponing the inevitable economic karma?
2. For the long-run, we are in a deeper double bind: The very nature of our economy — growth, consumption, disparity, money conjured from thin air — serves as the fundamental driver of ecological collapse. This pandemic is just one symptom of many; species loss, global heating, toxic waste, drained aquifers, acidic oceans, depleted soils, and so forth.
Double binds are not solved by the linear, engineering, or planning solutions that we are used to. Double binds exist in a subsystem that is blind to the larger context, the larger system of which it is a part. To discover the appropriate action in a double bind, one must expand awareness to the larger complex system.
In our case, as a human family, we must learn to think the way that the greater living system – Earth’s biosphere – works.
For example, to restore and preserve Earth’s ecosystems, we need to reduce human impact, but to achieve that, we need to slow down and reverse the growth of human numbers and consumption. This is an Ecological Imperative. Humans have overshot Earth’s capacity. In nature, overshoot is common; wolves in a watershed, vines in the forest, algae in a lake. Most successful species overshoot their habitat until they reach natural limits. At that point, all paths out of overshoot involve contraction. Mother nature does not negotiate on this point.
In any living habitat, materials and energy are limited. Social abstractions – “infinite free energy,” “sustainable growth,” or “decoupled consumption” – do not exist in nature. In nature, all growth stops and typically reverses. No human ingenuity will change this imperative. Cleverness can kick the can down the road, for a while. But even the cleverest civilizations have collapsed throughout history. None believed it was possible, until it became inevitable.
To admit and follow this Ecological Imperative, to slow human growth, violates every survival and social instinct of humanity. Evolution taught us, like all animals, to reproduce and consume, but nature did not teach us when to stop. Few people, almost no one, wants to restrict our freedom to reproduce and consume, just to save Earth’s ecosystems. However, Earth’s ecosystems are what sustains us. And there remains the rub; the double bind.
There must be another way, we presume, so we conjure up “sustainable growth.” We embrace technological “solutions” that might free us from nature’s limits. Whenever progress appears slow, we claim “the technology is improving,” but we fail to notice that technology has been improving for over two million years, since the earliest human hand tool, and Earth’s ecosystems have been in decline ever since.
Species were going extinct due to human expansion 50,000 years ago. Forests were leveled and grasslands turned to desert with hand-axes and goats millennia ago. It is not technology’s fault, per se, but the natural effect of growth and overshoot. To willfully slow down, we need to overcome our natural instincts and desires to expand. Otherwise – Gaia forbid! – we will slow down through further depletion of our habitat and social collapse.
We’re in this double bind because our economic system and our beliefs about our special exemption from nature’s limits stand in direct contradiction to the imperatives of biology, ecology, physics, evolution, thermodynamics, and the way the universe actually works. When we kick the can down the road – bail ourselves out with printed money or stop-gap technology – we create the conditions for an even larger collapse. We make the double bind worse.
In the meta-system, of which we are a part, all growth meets its limits and ends. This is not negotiable. Mom says so.
Symptom versus system
Gregory Bateson’s daughter, Nora Bateson, made a film about her father’s work, An Ecology of Mind, and wrote Small Arcs of Larger Circles about her own investigations into systems thinking. In a recent conversation, Nora described our challenge this way: “You cannot really have a plan to change a complex living system. The problem with almost all plans is that the plan is already part of the existing sub-system from which it arises. The beliefs and values woven into our social system, get woven into the plan.” Nora’s father, Gregory, had written in A Sacred Unity, that we “Treat the symptom to make the world safe for the pathology” 30 years earlier.
The better we are at navigating political obstacles, the deeper we become absorbed by the dominant social paradigm. Nora suggests, “What we need instead of a plan is a sensitivity to the values and relationships of the system in question.” The system in question is our natural world; Earth’s biosphere, her limits, her requirements, and her imperatives.
However, in typical human planning sessions, the biosphere never gets a seat at the table. Human social preferences inevitably demand priority. Over the last 40 years, we have convened 33 international climate meetings, while our carbon emissions have doubled. This can be depressing, but the way to not be disillusioned is to not be illusioned in the first place.
When one sets out to change a complex living system – an ecosystem, a society – one has to accept that complex systems typically yield unintended consequences, simply because of conflicting, often contradictory, inputs. Grand plans go astray. Empires crumble. Entropy never sleeps.
Values in an ecosystem do not operate like values in a political party or a social movement. For example, an ecosystem prospers if it is simultaneously stable and flexible, conservative and progressive. Diversity remains a value in an ecosystem because diversity enhances stability. The ecosystem does not have to campaign or argue for conservativism, progressivism, or diversity. When diversity expands, an ecosystem gains endurance, when diversity declines, an ecosystem tends toward instability.
Historically, we have lacked the deep ecological awareness that could help us think the way nature works, to avoid these double binds, to fit our economic and political trajectories into the patterns of nature. It is possible that the pandemic might help us make some tough choices to change our cultural habits.
Evolution doesn’t care
Of course, we want to know: So what is the solution? What actions can we take? Two years ago, I wrote an essay “What can we do?” including what seem to me the obvious actions: We need to localize our necessities, recycle our waste, we need to trust nature, and take personal stock. We need to accept there is no one single solution and address wealth disparity, unnatural economics, frivolous consumption, energy systems, human population, and militarism.
However, we also need to step beyond the obvious and rethink how we think. Every social movement in history has to re-invent itself occasionally, and perhaps the ecology movement needs a reexamination. Movements such as Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion encouraged that shift, but perhaps we need to go even deeper, to invite Mother Nature herself to the table more often.
It’s not enough to just learn about nature; we have to learn with nature. We need to learn about resonance and reciprocity in living systems. These qualities of nature imply a relationship. Learning in nature is always mutual learning, and life counts on diversity to offer options as conditions change.
Evolution doesn’t have a plan.
Perhaps, rather than make a plan to save and manage the natural world, we need to create the conditions for resilience within our human community, so that we have flexible options when Earth’s conditions change. This flexibility is a hallmark of localization. In a real community, we have to work with people who think differently than we think. In a strong wind, if a tree has no strength, it topples, and if it has no flexibility, it shatters. If the trees argued for one or the other, they’d end up in a double bind.
Social change typically follows a change of collective consciousness, a merging of individual consciousness. If people have not already had the change of mind, then any imposed plan is just another double bind. Social change, or ecological change are about shifting patterns of relationship, resonances among the living participants.
My hope for the post-pandemic world is that we slow down, seek answers by observing nature, learn about mutual learning, deepen our respect for the wild and unmanaged world, and give Mother Earth herself a permanent seat at our tables.
Our dog, Sita, is waiting for me again. She is named after the heroine of the Ramayana. At the end of that magnificent tale, Mother Earth, Bhumi, rises up to take Sita, her daughter, back from Rama, who had succumbed to rumours and failed to fully appreciate her. The text explains that Bhumi is patient, but not infinitely so.
Dae-oup Chang, “Coronavirus: normal was the problem,” The Ecologist, 17 April, 2020
Rees, William, “Coping With CoViD-19, Acknowledging The Real Plague,” Solutions Journal, May 2020.
Jeff Turrentine, “We Can’t Go Back to Normal. We Have to Get to Someplace Better,” NRDC, May 01, 2020. Nora Bateson: film An Ecology of Mind; book Small Arcs of Larger Circles, Triarchy Press, 2016; and my review: “Small Arcs of Larger Circles: a new approach to changing the world,” Greenpeace International, 2018.
Gregory Bateson, Sacred Unity, Harper-Collins, 1991; and Double Bind theory, Bateson, G., Jackson, D., Haley, J. & Weakland, J., 1956, “Toward a theory of schizophrenia,” Behavioral Science, Vol. 1; explained here: Double Bind.
“The Problem Is Systemic: Over 200 Artists and Scientists Dare World to Envision a Different Post-Covid Future,” Eoin Higgins, Common Dreams, May 7, 2020; original full statement: Le Monde.
Overshoot and response: Earth Overshoot Day and the Global Footprint Network.