So, Gregory Bateson was one of them fearsomely smart polymath kinda guys. Here’s a couple of clips from a recent-ish journal article.
The art of the cognitive war to save the planet
Miklos Antal and Janne HukkinenEcological Economics 69 (2010) p 937-943
The human dilemma in complex societies can in cognitive terms be nicely summarized with Gregory Bateson’s concept of the double bind. In a double bind, a primary injunction is contradicted by a secondary injunction at a different logical level, which affects the interpretation of the primary injunction, while there is no possibility of resolution or withdrawal from the problem. A child, who wants to hug her mother but is sent away with “You are very tired, go to bed – mother loves you and wants you to have a rest!” is trapped in a double bind. Love is expressed toward him in words, but the real message at another logical level is “Go away; I don’t wnat to hug you!” If he goes away, he admits that he is tired when in fact he is not and that he believes the lie of his mother. If he goes on to hug his mother, he will be rejected. Moreover, there is no escape from the dilemma: if he identifies the problem and speaks about it, his emotional security will be affected but the mother will deny the truth and no solution will follow. So, it is better not to be aware of what’s happening and permanently repress the tension into the subconscious, whereby a build-up of psychological pathology is rendered possible.
In the case of human-environment interaction, an individual’s belief that her independence increases with expanding use of natural resources (primary injunction) is contradicted by feedback from the broader socio-ecological system indicating diminished options and increasing systemic dependence for the individual (secondary injunction). As in our earlier example, we may accept a lie or lose the false feeling of security. And once again, it is psychologically risky to identify the problem, because the truth may interfere with a host of different opinions and practices relating to short-term economic well-being. The current state of our natural environment gives sad evidence of the pathological relationship arising from the permanently unresolved problems
…each step in the complex thinking process is vulnerable to external attacks: contradicting statements may be linked to the nodes to eliminate them from t he network and thus people may not reach environmentally appropriate conclusions. The hubris of new technologies can veil the environmental preconditions of our existence, industrial groups with vested interests may misinform the public about the impacys of harmful activities, and spatial or temporal remoteness of environmental impacts can insert a node of uncertainty (“nobody knows what will happen before repercussions reach us”) in the network to hinder unambiguous concern for the human predicament with the environment).
Preventing the development of belief structures that stem from system level safety considerations and enhance environmentally sound behaviour is not only in the interest of powerful groups in complex societies. It can also be psychologically preferable for individuals who can avoid a stressful double bind when there are no contradicting injunctions from different subnetworks … It is comforting to maintain consistent beliefs and belong to an imperturbable group of people. All we have to do is ignore part of reality – we will be assisted by numerous other actors trapped in problems of collective action on common pool environmental resources. Psychologically comforting denial can lead to extremely persistent environmental dilemmas such as global climate change or the decades-old and still unresolved issue agricultural drainage containing salts and potentially toxic trace elements in Western US.
As a species we* lack the emotional courage and maturity to help us cope with our rickety but relatively turbo-charged wiring. It’s like establishing gag in that early 80s TV show “The Greatest American Hero“; the benevolent aliens give this school teacher a superhero costume but then he goes and loses the instruction manual… hijinks ensue.
*That is, most of us all of the time, and all of us most of the time