A Re-Introduction to Ecology of Mind

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Gregory Bateson, author of Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Photo by Barry Schwartz.

Gregory Bateson, author of Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Photo courtesy of Barry Schwartz.

If we understand a little bit of what we’re doing, maybe it will help us to find our way out of the maze of hallucinations that we have created around ourselves.

~Gregory Bateson (Bateson, p.475)

Within the last decade, environmental concerns have seized public awareness to a previously unachieved degree. Growing public awareness of Earth’s environment is the one slender benefit of the imminent nature of the ecological crises facing our world’s population. Yet although awareness of the issues is crucial to solving them, it is only the first step toward greater ecological health, and the next step must be action. Before action, however, stands the perplexing question: ‰”How?‰” Many individuals are eager, even desperate, to dive into the fray of the struggle to save our Earth, but even when a desirable course of action is clear (which is rare), how to achieve that goal is often unclear. What can be done to motivate individuals and societies to take action? How can we ensure that those actions are beneficial? One potential source of answers to today’s questions was proposed back in 1972. In that year, Gregory Bateson introduced a theory that proposed the need to change not just our actions, but our thoughts as well—to think about how we think. Bateson called this means of understanding ideas ‰”ecology of mind.‰”

Ecology of mind as Bateson envisioned it, refers to an interdisciplinary approach to probing the way in which consciousness changes and forms patterns, both on a social and individual level. The purpose of such a study is analogous to the purpose of the study of biological ecology. Ecology of mind is based on the model of consciousness, or ‰”mind ‰”, as being like an ecosystem, and ideas as being like the flora and fauna of this system. Like the plants and animals in a tangible ecosystem, ideas are then subject to evolution, extinction, or successful flourishing. In biological ecology, scientists strive to understand biological processes so that we can promote those we deem beneficial and avoid introducing destructive elements into the system. Bateson applied this same belief to his concept ‰”ecology of mind”: if we wish to constructively shape the ideas produced by our society, then we must understand the processes by which ideas interact with one another and why some ideas thrive and others wither. As Bateson discussed in his book Steps to an Ecology of Mind, ‰”science can give us something of a chart‰” to direct our course toward selected goals for social systems (Bateson, p.164).

South Platte River. Photo by E.C. Mulder, 2009

South Platte River. Photo by E.C. Mulder, 2009

For example, in his chapter ‰”Morale and National Character,‰” Bateson suggested that the failure of past political treaties between nations results from motivations and punishments that are not adapted to fit the nations involved. Each nation has certain social norms and accepted modes of operation. If a treaty is crafted with the cultural norms of each nation involved in mind, the treaty is more likely to be effectively followed by those nations. Bateson’s article on national character was published in 1942, and related to the failure of the Treaty of Versailles and the subsequent outbreak of World War II (p.102). His theory, however, can easily be applied to other international agreements: environmental treaties, for example. Although most nations agree that some of the darkest ecological threats looming over our future can only be effectively addressed on an international level, convincing very diverse cultures to all adopt the same measures of response is difficult, to say the least. Were policy makers to spend greater time investigating patterns of successful movements within the countries they most wish to influence, international regulation might be more readily accepted and more efficiently enacted.

But for a movement to successfully take root in any society, individual as well as national character must be taken into account. Legislation and technology are limited in their capacity to address environmental issues; personal consciousness is deeply influential as well. Again, observing consciousness (‰”mind‰”) as an ecosystem provides an opportunity for guidance. As Bateson repeatedly emphasized in his works, no ecological system is completely closed. Think of a river flowing through a forest, or of pollutants carried by wind to high latitudes. Consciousness is not a closed system either.

The images, sounds, and emotions it is exposed to each day have a profound influence on the ideas already inhabiting that consciousness. Art, media, discussion, and education therefore become crucial in any attempt to rectify environmental wrongs. Attempts to steer information flow for any given purpose, however, run the dangerous risk of becoming pedagogical. Who is to decide precisely what the end should be?

Again, Bateson in his description of ecology of mind, provides guidance. Throughout Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Bateson reiterates the idea that rather than trying to shape nature we should first endeavor to learn about how it functions and how we function within it. We would “do well,‰” he remarks, ‰”to hold back our eagerness to control that world which we so imperfectly understand”.Rather, our studies could be inspired by a more ancient, but today less honored, motive: a curiosity about the world of which we are a part. The rewards of such work are not power, but beauty‰ (p. 269.) Bateson’s manner of approaching knowledge might equally be applied to our studies of social thought, too. Trying to inform ourselves of how we think for curiosity’s sake rather than a specific end will help us avoid trying too much to dictate what people believe. Meanwhile, the wisdom we accrue will help us to decide how the changes in attitude that we wish to see may best be achieved.

The final aspect of achieving change, social or personal, is the motive used to instigate change. Incorporating a new analogy, industrial waste and detritus from fallen leaves can both provide nutrients that allow plants to grow, but most people feel that one source is superior to the other. The same could be said of the form in which information is offered to our consciousness. Often, ecological information is offered to the public in the form of fear as the prime motivator. Descriptions of punishments that may result should inadequate action be taken are to provide our impetus. But there is another means of fertilizing our desire to shift our actions. Once again, we can turn to Bateson for inspiration.

‰”we might be kept on our toes by a nameless, shapeless, unlocated hope of achievement‰ ! The achievement need scarcely be defined. All we need to be sure of is that, at any moment, achievement may be just around the corner.” (pp.175-176)

The beauty of this belief, as Bateson points out, is that ‰”true or false, this can never be tested.‰” For the future always remains unknown, and possibility is perpetually there. To carry Bateson’s recommendation one step further, hope is a superior motivator to fear because fear has limited efficacy. If fear is introduced in surplus, then it becomes overwhelming and action becomes difficult. With hope, there is no such limitation.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife

Re-planting Marsh Grass. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife

Over thirty years have passed since Bateson published his introduction to the concept of ecology of mind. During that time, much progress has been made in shifting social awareness to a self-inclusive view of ecosystems, but the progress that has been achieved is only the initial step to the awareness that will be necessary to avoid environmental catastrophe. Perhaps by better understanding our own thought processes, we can make certain that our future steps are in the right direction. If there is one lesson to be learned in considering ecology of mind, it is this: the means of radically changing our approach to the environment is through knowledge, and if we set this knowledge as our goal, pursue it with energy and collaboration, success may indeed ‰”be just around the corner.‰”

Quotations taken from the 1972 edition of Steps to an Ecology of Mind published by Chandler Publishing Company in New York. The book was re-issued in 2000 by the University of Chicago Press with a new foreword by his daughter Mary Katherine Bateson:

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry,

Evolution, and Epistemology. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2000.


Gregory Bateson was born in 1904 in Granchester, England. He completed a bachelor’s degree in natural history (1925) and a master’s degree (1930) in anthropology at St. John’s of Cambridge University. During the 1930s, Bateson conducted anthropological research in New Britain and New Guinea. (The latter studies were carried out in conjunction with his first wife, Margaret Mead.) During his early research, Bateson began to conceptually explore the idea that analogies of form and pattern may exist between apparently diverse fields of thought. In the following years, Bateson continued to investigate relationships between fields, and his work ranged through psychiatry, sociology, anthropology, art, biology, cybernetics, and politics. Bateson’s career expanded to include teaching, lecturing, and publishing numerous books and articles in addition to conducting research. In 1972, Bateson drew from his lectures and papers of the previous three decades to compile Steps to an Ecology of Mind, and the result is a book that exemplifies how ideas can be approached in an interdisciplinary way and the relationship between varied areas of focus. Gregory Bateson continued to explore new ways of approaching science and thought until he died in 1980. He leaves behind a legacy of curiosity and intelligent inquiry.

For further information on Gregory Bateson and work:

The Institute for Intercultural Studies