In the early days of June 2012, twenty-two scientists warned that we are approaching a planetary tipping point, beyond which environmental changes will be rapid and unpredictable. According to their calculations, global extinction rates are currently 1,000 times the usual rate, comparable to those experienced during the demise of the dinosaurs and 80% of land in the world is either dominated by humans or affected by us. These scientists expressed their fears that we will enter a new, unknown climate state, one which threatens us all. This shocking news was a precursor to the Rio +20 Environmental Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where representatives from the governments of developed and developing nations gathered to discuss economic treaties regarding global environmental regulations and actions. But, despite the calls for action, the final document agreed upon in the meeting mostly reaffirms statements made at the original summit held twenty years ago, adding only a few extra provisions (Black, R.; Vince, G.).
It is now clear that global progress on environmental issues has stalled out and become laughably ineffective. It is high time to for us all to realize that science and data alone is insufficient when trying to solve such complex problems or attempting to convince the public, or public servants to take necessary action towards ecologically harmonious living. This strictly rational and mechanistic approach has failed, and will continue to fail, because it lacks an essential humanness and is based in an inherently flawed, incomplete epistemology. It mistakenly assumes corrective actions will be taken out of rational self-interest will result and cannot account for ecological phenomena. What we need now, more than ever, is a paradigm shift to systems science and holistic thought. However, ecologists, rooted mostly in scientific disciplines, are woefully ill-equipped to communicate their systemic ideas to the mechanically trained minds of Western Industrialized citizens. Therefore, support and initiation of this cultural shift must originate from the arts, which can provide the highly influential aesthetic learning experiences and guidance necessary for our species while developing the creative problem-solving skills essential to the disciplines of systems science. This very important work can revolve around critical axiomatic theme: This planet is creative, and if we want to keep living on it, so must we be.
The greatest ecological challenge we face is that of paradigm shift, for no significant action can take place unless we frame the issues so that we can collectively see and understand the problem. Rio +20’s failure implies that our current global paradigm does not and cannot possibly understand the problems we face from the epistemological rules it follows. Herein, I will refer to this global paradigm as “mechanistic science” or the “mechanistic paradigm.” Mechanistic science is based on the philosophies of Descartes, Newton, Bacon and others who believed that the functions of all things could be understood in terms of mechanism. In other words, it is a science that operates under the epistemological assumption that the world works like a machine and can be understood through precise and impartial observation and analysis of the repeated behaviors of its independent parts. To attain this supposed impartiality, a scientist must pretend not to be a part of the life before them. I say pretend, because passive observation within its alternative epistemology, systemic thought, is a fallacy (Capra).
This epistemology, as previously mentioned, is insufficient for explaining ecology. At the finest level, nature is too complex to be unraveled by the explanations of mechanical sciences as can be inferred by the tons of data collected about phenomena that don’t fit any mechanically scientific explanation. This is why systems sciences epistemology is what we use to understand ecology (Capra). Nevertheless, mechanistic science remains the dominant paradigm. Themes of mechanical order and separation from nature are reflected throughout industrialized culture, as evidenced in the reliance on technology, medical practices, and the sterility of modern artifacts and cultural norms including everything from office cubicles to hand sanitizers. Many mechanistic behaviors seek a singular goal and endpoint to be accomplished without regard to the costs that will be imposed on other plants or animals. Capitalism as it operates today could therefore be seen as an extension of this epistemological view.
In paradigmatic thinking, both problems and solutions become defined and expected in a certain way, like a Pavlovian dog that salivates every time a bell rings, expecting food. The mechanistic paradigm works in this way as well. When we believe that the world works like a machine and that story is repeated for us ad nauseam, enforced by systems of reward and punishment, we learn to frame all we see in those terms and write-off any observations that violate the paradigm as “anomalies.” Social critic Morris Berman explains: “If you have been raised with an instrumental view of life, you will relate to your social and natural environment in that way. You will test the environment on that basis to obtain positive reinforcement, and if your premises are not validated, you will probably not abandon your worldview, but classify the negative response, or lack of response, as an anomaly. In this way, you remove the threat to your view of reality, which is also your character structure” (217).
In a memorandum circulated to the regents of the University of California in 1978, anthropologist, social scientist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson makes an argument regarding the paradigm’s obsolescence, noting three particular ways in which the paradigm is obsolete. In a pragmatic sense, the “premises and their corollaries lead to greed, monstrous over-growth, war, tyranny, and pollution” (218). Intellectually they are obsolete in that systems theory and systemic sciences “offer demonstrably better ways of understanding the world of biology and behavior” (218). Third, he argues, these “premises became clearly intolerable and therefore obsolete about 100 years ago” (218). He quotes William Blake who saw that these philosophies could only generate “dark Satanic mills”(218).
Truth be told, many other environmentalists and social critics are in agreement with part if not all of these points. Be it Derrick Jensen, vilifying the role of capitalist, corporate empire or Al Gore, sounding the alarms regarding the symptoms of global warming, or the unfolding of environmental disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the Fukushima reactor meltdown, one need not look far to see evidence that suggests the failure of the mechanistic paradigm. Things like electric cars and CFL light bulbs will ultimately do nothing to solve what are larger, ideological and epistemological problems, whose consequences are highly destructive and far-reaching.
Systems’ thinking, rather than mechanistic thinking, is ecology’s solution. In systems, like ecosystems, every single element within the system is in some way related to every other element. Everything is interdependent and often functions synergistically as a result. The same is true of living things within ecosystems. In a given ecosystem, geological, atmospherical, hydrological and biological systems all influence one another. In this respect, no single system can be fully understood without considering the influence of the others. What emerges is an image of the planet as meta-organism, best illustrated by James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory, which uses the organism model to understand our planet’s ecology (Capra; Lovelock).
In his two famous books, Steps to an Ecology of Mind and Mind & Nature, Gregory Bateson applies ecological principles and systemic thinking to the realm of the mind, using what he calls “the pattern which connects” as his meaningful criterion for this comparison. This “pattern which connects” is what, in his view, connects all living things and proves that patterns can be used to make meaningful connections. The ‘pattern which connects’ is an idea which helps prove that our planet is a creative entity. “It is a meta-pattern, meaning it is a pattern of patterns. It is the meta-pattern which defines the vast generalization that, indeed, it is “patterns which connect” (Bateson, M, 11).
Patterns like the Fibonacci Sequence and the Golden Spiral are related to “the pattern which connects,” in that they are all meta-patterns, but ultimately differ from the “pattern which connects,” which is not static. Rather, it is the active, unifying pattern, which gives all other patterns meaning and relevance. It belongs to the most complex of the three orders of connection (or pattern) Bateson uses both to draw relevant connections between the forms of living things and distinguish living things from the non-living. The first order of connection is what biologists refer to as ‘serial homology’: the ‘rhythmic repetition’ of aesthetic form found within one living creature. The bilateral symmetry of Humans or crabs fit into this category. The second order is ‘phylogenic homology’. Here, aesthetic patterns found in one life form are comparable to those of a different one. The noticeable similarities between the claws of crabs and lobsters are examples. The third order is a ‘meta-pattern’ in which a comparison of objects is compared to a comparison of two other objects. For instance, the skeletal similarities of two mammals compared with those of two crustaceans constitutes a meta-pattern. So does the “pattern which connects” (Bateson, M, 11).
Gregory Bateson goes on to explain that this “pattern” functions as a sort of dance between interacting parts, later pegged down by various sorts of physical limits and limits that organisms characteristically impose (Bateson, M, 11). To put it in musical terms, if all of life is an ever-emerging ‘song,’ then each living species is a ‘note’. The “pattern which connects” is its main ‘theme,’ it’s the pattern that ties the entire ‘song’ together. All species of life are the composed ‘variations’ on that ‘theme’. Each individual member of a given species will contain in its form, the ‘pattern which connects’ and the ‘species’ ‘variation’ with further differences or peculiarities based on given conditions and relations. This relates to the way performers will inevitably express each note in a slightly different way depending on how a musical phrase is written, and how they choose to interpret it.
Once Bateson establishes patterns as the framework and criteria for making meaningful connections, he begins assembling patterns between mind and ecology. Bateson finds that a mental system is one with a capacity to process and respond to information in self-corrective ways, a characteristic of all living systems ranging from cells to forests to civilizations. Furthermore, he posited that mental systems include more than single organisms and insisted that the unit of survival is always organism and environment. Other similarities include, both “minds” being definable nonliving elements as well as multiple organisms, and capacities to function for brief as well as extended periods. He also draws comparisons from what is known of mind to arguments for the way ecology functions. He posits that embedded and interacting systems have a capacity to select pattern from random elements, producing novelty (a function of creativity) as happens in evolution and in learning. So in essence, the human mind works much like the ecological mind and vice versa. Therefore, if the derivative piece in the pattern is creative (the human mind), the original piece (the planet) must be as well. Furthermore, the ‘pattern which connects,’ which is a dynamic, ever-changing auto-poetic pattern, may be thought of as the product of the planet’s creativity.
If the ‘pattern which connects’ is a pattern that relates to all life, then it may also be said that species who fail to adapt to this pattern will eventually become extinct. And if the twenty-two scientists who put out June’s report are correct, that pattern is about to change in ways that humans have never before encountered. In this light, our survival as a species depends on our ability to creatively adapt to the the creative changes of the planet, remaining in relation to the ‘pattern which connects’.
And if the reader can agree that ideology and epistemology are indeed the problem, then ecologists, with their powerful, relevant and influential systems-thinking epistemology, find themselves in a very important position. They explain the world through systems, yet have a somewhat respectable standing amongst their mechanics-minded scientific peers. If their ideas are indeed “demonstrably better ways of understanding the world of biology and behavior,” they ought to championing this case, applying the logical conclusions of it towards powerful aesthetic expressions that transcend the bounds of argument between paradigms and reach a higher, ineffable truth. And the only way to do that is through creative expression.
An interdisciplinary, cross-cultural study by Michael Winkleman can back up this assertion with neuro-scientific data. The paper on trance states attempts to create a cross-cultural model of trance states by draw similarities between a vast assortment of cultural trance-induction methods. Among these methods are use of the aesthetic forms of rhythmic drumming and dance (178-181). When evoked by aesthetic or sensory stimuli, a range of effects can arise including but not limited to: a sense of ineffability, alterations in thinking, perceptual distortion, changes in meaning and significance, feelings of rejuvenation, and hypersuggestiblity (Winkleman, 175). These states access the area of the brain responsible for the emotions, and the hippocampal formation which is responsible for creating mental associations and is central to memory acquisition, storage, and recall. Slow wave states in the hippocampal region which are evoked through different aesthetic and ritual means create the optimal levels for brain activity, energy, orienting, learning memory and attention. Relaxed states (such as those created by harmonious aesthetic forms) lead to parasympathetic (ruling automatic nervous system) dominance, while anxiety, arousal, mental effort, and sensory stimulation (as is often the way in which ecological science is presented) cause alpha waves (which signify relaxed states of mind) to be replaced by desynchronized and mixed waves (normalized brain functions) (Winkleman, 175-178) .
Besides its effectiveness in communication and education, creative thinking also helps attune the mind to the skills used in systemic thought. According to cognitive psychologist John Wakefield’s definition, creative thinking is “a meaningful response to any situation which calls for finding a problem and solving it in one’s own way” (13) . It is the cognitive skill humans use in order to solve “open” problems with “open” solutions, both of which are ill defined. By “ill-defined” Wakefield means: “Problems which are difficult to formulate, face few clues for solution procedures, and have less definite criteria for determining a solution than do well-defined problems” (31). These are exactly the problems ecologists face when trying to make sense of an ecological system.
As Wakefield elaborates: “These situations [open problem and solution] can also be involved in test response when the respondent has freedom to create the item, and when the solution is open-ended. Such conditions exist when a subject invents and then responds to his or her own divergent-thinking test item…” (32) This, ultimately, is the process of the ecological thinker. He or she is free to choose from the many observations they have collected and assemble them in a manner that is interesting to them, formulating the question which is then solved in a way they also choose.
Consequently, solving such problems requires not only the cognitive skill of “problem solving,” but also the skill known as “problem finding”. Of the four main types of cognitive skills Wakefield classifies, problem finding is only involved with two of them: Insightful thinking (open problem, closed solution), and creative thinking. The two other types, mostly associated with logical science and technological application are divergent thinking (closed problem, open solution) and logical thinking (closed problem, closed solution) are what sets creative thinking apart from insightful thinking is the capacity to solve problems. This is why I emphasize creative thinking for ecologists over all the other forms of cognitive ability. Without the abilities to both find and solve problems we are unable to both derive and communicate the essential insight from their studies. However, creative thinking may not be enough. According to Wakefield, “Problem finding” is an ability that “may involve more than cognition [knowledge], including conative [impulses, desires, volitions and strivings] and affective [emotional] elements” (9) . Such are the elements and tools of the philosopher and artist.
But what is to stop the ecologist from just making things up that are not true? In other words, what are the criteria? Here too, Wakefield (1992) lends some insight. “One criterion for the solution of an artistic [and therefore creative] problem, then, is not correctness but meaningfulness. Meaningfulness or repleteness is, of course, only one criterion … but it is a necessary criterion.” (32) In my application to the ecologist, this means that ecological solutions must be meaningful in order to be successful. When relating to the world of mechanistic science, this means there must be data and repeatable explanations of natural mechanisms. Conversely, when relating to the general public, the ecologist must (like an artist) appeal to the senses and emotions in order to relate the material to the audience on a tangible level.
The demands of the ecological moment call upon us to shift their own perspectives and communicate those views as effectively as possible to as many people as possible. This process implies artistic and creative expression as well as development of creative thinking skills towards the advancement of systemic science disciplines. It is nothing short of a call to renew our own ‘human-ness”.
I am reminded of the comments by anthropologist and director of Chauvet Cave research project Jean-Michel Geneste. At the conclusion of the documentary film Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011), he was asked to comment on what constitutes human-ness with regard to the cave he oversees which contains some of the oldest-known works of human art known to modern man.
“Human-ness is a very good adaptation in the world. Man’s society needs to (adapt) to the landscape, to the other beings, the animals, to other human groups and to communicate something. To communicate and inscribe the memory on very specific and art(istic) things… To transmit information that is (much) better than language, than oral communication, and this invention is still the same today…”
In conclusion, we the environmentally concerned, must infiltrate the culture if we are to change minds. As long as we continue to live in a world populated by art, artifacts and rituals which reflect the old paradigm, true change will be impossible.
Abram, D. (1997). Spell of the sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world (1st ed.). New York: Vintage Books.
Bateson, G. (c1979). Mind and nature: a necessary unity (1st ed.). New York: Dutton.
Berman, M. (1984). The reenchantment of the world. Bantam Books.
Black, Richard “‘Slow’ Progress on Earth Problems.” BBC 20 June 2012. Web. 1 July 2012.
Capra, F. (1996). Web of life: a new scientific understanding of living systems (1st ed.). New York: Anchor Books.
Herzog, Werner. Cave of Forgotten Dreams. 2011. Film.
Lovelock, J. (c1987). Gaia: a new look at life on earth. New York: Oxford University Press.
Vince, Gaia “Earth: Have We Reached an Environmental Tipping Point?” BBC Future. Web. 1 July 2012.
Wakefield, J. F. (1992). Creative Thinking: Problem Solving Skills and the Arts Orientation. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Pub.
Winkleman, Michael (1986). Trance states: a theoretical model and cross-cultural analysis. Ethos Vol.14, No.2 (Summer, 1986) pp.174-203.
Images by Duane Locke