Polluting Lake Erie

The toxic green slime which covers parts of Lake Erie
The “insane” toxic green slime which covers parts of Lake Erie

A few weeks ago, as I was re-reading my extensive notes on Andy Fisher’s book Radical Ecopsychology (my study of which forms the basis of much of the territory this website explores) I came across an intriguing reference to the anthropologist and social scientist Gregory Bateson. Fisher writes that Bateson’s “claim that polluting Lake Erie is to drive it insane is… one way to identify a suffering in the soul of the natural world.”1

This captured my imagination at the time because it struck me that this anthropomorphism was such a peculiar way to conceptualise the impact of environmental pollution – and yet the possibility of beginning to extend our use of the language we use to describe human psychology to the more-than-human world seems to be at the very heart of an ecopsychological project which seeks to redefine our understanding of the intimate relationship which exists between humans and  the natural world.

Recently I got my hands on a copy of Martin Jordan’s new book Nature and Therapy which quotes Bateson’s Lake Erie analogy in full. Reading the full quote I was struck powerfully by the realisation that from the systemic/cybernetic perspective elaborated so persuasively by Bateson, his description of Lake Erie being “driven insane” by polution can be understood much more literally than I had previously appreciated.

There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds

and it is characteristic of the system that the basic error propagates itself. It branches out like a rooted parasite through the tissues of life, and everything gets into a peculiar mess. When you narrow down your epistemology and act on the premise “what interests me is me, or my organisation, 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 into the larger system of your thought and experience.

Gregory Bateson, Pathologies of Epistemology2

I think what the vivid picture that Bateson paints here does so well is to challenge the way in which we understand something that we all, to a lesser or greater extent, take for granted in the modern world: that humans cause pollution which damages the non-human environment. As a species we have seemingly become largely immune to the inconvenient and painful reality of this state of affairs for any number of reasons, one of which is perhaps the language which we have become accustomed to using to describe these ideas. Even our concept of “the environment” somehow acts to separate us from this living, breathing biosphere which we are not only entirely dependant upon for our continuing survival, but are in fact in a profoundly reciprocal relationship with. Just as we breathe in the oxygen the trees breathe out and they in turn breathe in the carbon dioxide we create, we are part of them and they are part of us.

Bateson’s concept of Immanent Mind suitably clarfies where he stands on this matter.

The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It is immanent in pathways and messages outside of the body; and there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a subsystem. This larger Mind… is immanent in the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology.

Gregory Bateson, Form, Substance and Difference3

NB: Here in the UK the sad story of the pollution of Lake Erie is not widely known. However, when Bateson was writing in 1972 it was such a big issue that it was even referred to in The Lorax, Dr. Seuss’ classic children’s book about the burgeoning environmental crisis. For more information about Lake Erie visit great-lakes.net.

References

  1. Fisher, A. (2013). Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life. New York, Albany: SUNY Press. p.5.
  2. Bateson, G. (2000) “Pathologies of Epistemology” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. London: University of Chicago Press. p.492.
  3. Bateson, G. (2000) “Form, Substance and Difference” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. London: University of Chicago Press. p.467.

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