Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness

Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness

Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness

Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness


The anthropologist Gregory Bateson has been called a lost giant of twentieth-century thought. In the years following World War II, Bateson was among the group of mathematicians, engineers, and social scientists who laid the theoretical foundations of the information age. In Palo Alto in 1956, he introduced the double-bind theory of schizophrenia. By the sixties, he was in Hawaii studying dolphin communication. Bateson's discipline hopping made established experts wary, but he found an audience open to his ideas in a generation of rebellious youth. To a gathering of counterculturalists and revolutionaries in 1967 London, Bateson was the first to warn of a "greenhouse effect" that could lead to runaway climate change.

Blending intellectual biography with an ambitious reappraisal of the 1960s, Anthony Chaney uses Bateson's life and work to explore the idea that a postmodern ecological consciousness is the true legacy of the decade. Surrounded by voices calling for liberation of all kinds, Bateson spoke of limitation and dependence. But he also offered an affirming new picture of human beings and their place in the world--as ecologies knit together in a fabric of meaning that, said Bateson, "we might as well call Mind."


In a 1986 interview, the poet Allen Ginsberg was asked to look back on the year 1967. That was the year of psychedelia, the year of the Human Be-In, where San Francisco’s counterculture came out to the American mainstream. It was the year the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released, initiating a season that some called Vietnam Summer and others the Summer of Love. What was the true impact of that fabled year, Ginsberg was asked, and what remained of its spirit?

Ginsberg’s answer may be unexpected. Civilization was conscious now that “the planet as an ecological unity” was in danger, he said. Beyond changes in style and music, in sex and politics, beyond the drugs and liberation, the most significant and “permanent change” had to do with humankind’s relationship with the earth. “Remember,” Ginsberg said, “the notion of Armageddon apocalypse before the Sixties was considered eccentric, whereas now it’s a universal awareness.”

Ginsberg spent a good deal of the summer of 1967 not in San Francisco but in Italy and England. in July he attended a two-week-long London event called the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation. Organized by the “anti-psychiatrist” R. D. Laing and his colleagues, this forum brought together radical writers, artists, social scientists, and political theorists, including Herbert Marcuse of the Frankfort School; Paul Goodman, the author of Growing Up Absurd; and civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, who had spent the previous year stirring up audiences on the topic of Black Power. These voices mixed Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, Gestalt psychology, Frantz Fanon and decolonization, and existentialist philosophy. They set one “down in the mire,” as the novelist Saul Bellow had complained a few . . .

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