I often remember the systemic thinking of Gregory Bateson. He has been one of my intellectual heroes since I first read ‘Steps to an Ecology of Mind’ in the early 1970s and struggled to understand what he was saying. It took me years to appreciate his work.
One of my favourite pieces is titled ‘Conscious Purpose versus Nature’. Bateson starts off by exploring how dynamic balance is maintained in natural ecosystems. An undisturbed woodland, for example, contains many different species. To survive, each must be capable of reproducing exponentially, as with the pet mice I kept as a small boy (we bought four and a year later had over 100). The population of each species is maintained by a combination of interdependence and competition. Any species whose activities are unchecked will grow to dominate and overwhelm the ecosystem.
In a balanced ecological system whose underpinnings are of this nature, it is very clear that any monkeying around with the system is likely to disrupt the equilibrium. Then the exponential curves will start to appear. Some plant will become a weed, some creatures will be exterminated, and the system as a balanced system is likely to fall to pieces.
In contrast to this, human awareness and activity is ordered by conscious purpose: we see what we are interested in and go straight for what we want. Conscious purpose cuts across the complex dynamic balance of ecosystems. It has done so since Neolithic farmers began cutting down forest to create farmland. It is particularly destructive when linked with a powerful technology. We humans have for a while overwhelmed our historic predators – infectious bacteria as much as sabre tooth tigers – and draw on the buried energy of millennia to go directly for what we want.
Bateson is challenging: conscious purpose “is a short cut device to enable you to get quickly at what you want” rather than act with wisdom. Wisdom is “knowledge of the larger interactive system” which if disturbed may rapidly degenerate. “Lack of systemic wisdom is always punished”, writes Bateson. Living systems are always “punishing of any species unwise enough to quarrel with its ecology”.
A special screening of a film portrait of Gregory Bateson, produced and directed by his daughter Nora Bateson will take place at the College on 22 February, 2012 at 8 pm. Click here for more details >>
Peter recently retired as Director of Studies of the Postgraduate Programme in Action Research at the University of Bath. He has published widely on co-operative inquiry and action research and has co-edited the Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice. His major contribution has been to the development of participative approaches to action research in the human sciences and in management, approaches variously referred to as “co-operative inquiry”, “participatory action research”, and “action science” or “action inquiry”. In these forms of experiential action research all those involved in the inquiry process are co-researchers, contributing both to the thinking that forms the research endeavour and to the action which is its subject. Peter started this methodological development in 1976 with his PhD dissertation, and is now recognized internationally as one of the leading theorists of this approach.