Correcting Gregory Bateson

Forty-five years ago the late Gregory Bateson [1904 – 1980] wrote these ominous words:

If you put God outside and set him vis-à-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you.  And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration.  The environment will seem to be yours to exploit.  Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables.

If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell.  You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or, simply, of overpopulation and overgrazing.  The raw materials of the world are finite.1

Although Bateson was prescient in asserting that the “likelihood of survival” of our species is “that of a snowball in hell,” his statement needs to be corrected/updated in several ways:

  1. When some humans began conceiving deity as transcendent—i.e., as existing apart from Earth System—(rather than immanent), this “advance” was not the beginning of our problems as humans.
  2. Although conceiving deity as transcendent did play a role in the downward path that our species has been on since the Neolithic, many other factors have come into play since that time.
  3. Bateson’s “overpopulation and overgrazing” causes are in need of updating.

Let me next, then, address each of these three points.

Our “Apartness”

During the Neolithic agriculture began to replace foraging as the source of sustenance; the groups affected began to grow in population size, and the erosion of bonds that had connected one member of the group with other members fostered the development of societal changes—most notably the development of social classes, and the beginning of exploitation.

One way to express what was occurring is to say that a Discrepancy was beginning to develop between:

  1. The way of life for which humans had become “designed” prior to the Neolithic.
  2. The way of life that those involved in these changes were now beginning to actually have.

Put still another way, those involved in the “revolution” were beginning to have a way of life that was increasingly “unnatural”—with some being affected more adversely by this change (i.e., those now being exploited) than others (i.e., the “exploitees”).  As a part of this “revolution,” the change in way of life fostered a gradual abandonment of thinking of oneself as a part of Earth System in favor of thinking of oneself as apart from it—which thinking also helped precipitate the creation of a series of transcendent Beings, created for explaining various features of the world within which they were living.

In ancient Israel some individuals sensed the “wrongness” of the exploitation that was occurring, and spoke out about it.  Someone among them “recognized” that his pronouncements of “wrongness” might gain more “force” if attributed to one of the transcendent deities then existing in the society, and Yahweh was “recruited” for this task.  We have come to call these individuals “prophets.”

The prophets likely had some measure of success, but basically failed in their “goal” of returning their fellows to a more “natural” way of life.  The priestly element in the society, however, perceived it desirable to retain Yahweh as the society’s principal Deity, but “tame” Him—e.g., by giving Him other jobs, such as being a Creator.

As a transcendent Being this Deity helped contribute to feeling—and thinking about—ourselves as apart from Earth System; and Bateson was correct to point this out.  However:

  1. The “apartness” matter developed as a consequence of the prior growing Discrepancy—one consequence of which was the emergence of the concept of Deity as transcendent.
  2. That Discrepancy resulted in numerous other developments—those developments  all being a part of our downward course, that began with the Neolithic.

Our Downward Path

The conventional view of world history is that it has been a story of virtually continuous progress—with, though, a few “bumps” along the way, such as World War II and the election of Donald Trump.  However, I find the history offered by Eugene Linden in (Affluence and Discontent: The Anatomy of Consumer Societies (1979, p. 63 ff.) much more convincing.  Rather than summarizing Linden’s history2 here, though, I simply give two quotations from it:

  1. “Monotheism effectively decontrolled nature, clearing the way for the identification and exploitation of resources that had previously been protected by the sacred mantle of animism.” (p. 84)
  2. “Just as [p. 87] monotheism allowed the Hebrews to turn the intellect on nature, so this retreat [from nature] cleared the Athenian mind for reason to offer up its account of the marvels of the universe.” Unfortunately, (p. 88), “the shift from [an] animistic to [a] rational world view turned us [humans] into strangers on our own planet.  It has also saddled us with deep-seated psychic disorders:  alienation, schizophrenia, and anomie.”

Linden’s focus was on the environmental implications of the developments that he discussed, and he concluded his book with this statement (p. 178):

We will continue on our present course, and . . the probability of one or another proposed disasters [discussed earlier in the book] will rapidly increase until some small event triggers the apocalypse of the consumer society.

Thus, Linden reached the same conclusion in 1979 that Bateson had reached in 1972—the difference being that Linden provided a fairly elaborate explanation for our eventual demise as a species (that made no reference to the Discrepancy concept, however).

Our Demise as a Species

Bateson believed that our species would be “done in” by “the toxic by-products of  . . . [our] own hate” or “overpopulation and overgrazing,” Today, what appear to be the key factors that will be responsible for our extinction are:

  1. Global warming.
  2. The unleashing of thermonuclear weaponry.

As to global warming, there is, e.g., this statement posted in May of this year:

With little or no action taken on global warming, it appears that the Anthropocene will lead to extinction of the very human beings after which the era is named, with the Anthropocene possibly running from 1950 to 2021; i.e. a mere 71 years and much too short to constitute an era. In that case a better name for the period would be the Sixth Extinction Event. … (Because of a 10° C rise in temperature by 2021.)

This is, admittedly, a rather extreme projection.  However, given that:

  1. Rapid change in the global mean temperature has occurred in the geologic past.3
  2. Global warming is not only occurring now, but is accelerating. (See this graph, e.g.—which shows that except for the early 1940s, the trend has been upward since about 1910.
  3. Our “leaders” seem to lack a serious interest in global warming.

Given those three facts, there is every reason to believe that:

  1. Runaway” will begin soon (assuming that it is now already underway!).
  2. It will then be impossible to halt rapid warming.
  3. Our species will then join the many other species now going extinct, during this period of “the sixth extinction.”

Although “salvation” may be impossible for our species; why don’t we at least change our species name from sapiens (meaning “wise, sensible, judicious”) to idiota! Abraham Lincoln famously said:

You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.

However, enough people (referring here especially to our “leaders”) have been fooled into thinking that global warming is not a serious problem—or not a problem at all!—that some time during this century they will be proved wrong!  That’s not, by any mean, a comforting thought.

  1. Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), p. 468. []
  2. The explanation of which I would attribute to the Discrepancy—a concept of which Linden was unaware when he wrote his book. []
  3. During the PETM, earth’s temperature may have increased by 5° C in a mere 13 years—in response to a doubling of the CO2 level in the atmosphere! The author (Joe Romm) adds: “Note that if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path, we are headed for a tripling or quadrupling of CO2 concentrations from preindustrial levels.” Also, as this article points out:  “… the PETM seems to have been caused by greenhouse gases just like modern-day climate change.” []

Al Thompson retired three years ago from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: Read other articles by Alton.