(This is a chapter from my book Small Arcs of Larger Circles, published by Triarchy Press, 2016)
I would love you as a bird loves flight, as meat loves salt, as a dog loves chase, as water finds its own level.
Or I would not love you at all.
—Jeanette Winterson, Gut Symmetries
In the Galleria Borghese in Rome I wandered into a room with a Bernini statue that rewrote me.
Bernini’s ‘Daphne and Apollo’ is a heartbreakingly beautiful sculpture of an unflinching adoration. It is the depiction of an ancient but suddenly viable map back to the trees, through an eternity of yearning. In an impossible balance of weight-defying marble, Bernini has set even the wind against Daphne and Apollo’s final union. They are carved into a perfection of endless almost-ness…
I did not know the myth well enough to recall the storyline. Greek myths these days are wholly half forgotten, at least. The symbols remain, holding time’s revisions in erasable pencil. Who was Daphne again? What was her story? I remembered who Apollo was.
The statue questioned:
How do you wish to be loved?
And what of the earth?
We will never be out of relationship with the ecologies we live within, so what is the relationship?
For me, I would want conquest to be put aside. Unkind measurements of physical or financial worth should be simply abandoned. We are not here to win one another, nor to be won. Winning has a flawed polarity within it that suggests the possibility of defeat, and presumes the impossibility of being equals. Win a prize, or win a race: I am neither. Whatever the math is of our giving and receiving, it is not to be counted, or compared like taxes, nor contaminated with doubt and manipulation.
One of Apollo’s hands is wound around Daphne’s waist. The statue captures the last minute, when his fingers hover just above her navel, excruciatingly soft, holding her. She is beginning to transform into the laurel tree, Apollo’s touch returns her to her body. In the same moment she is bound to the forest. Bernini delicately sculpts this cold marble into the mythology of the potential of humanity’s engagement to the natural world in verse between beloveds.
We are water. We are air. We grow, we bloom, we seed, we wilt, we die. There is a false separation between humanity and nature. Of course we are nature. But, while the one-ness is enticing, unity is not so useful if it obscures our perception of the aesthetic of our relationship with the world around us. The paradox is good for us; it is medicine against the habit of binaries. We are nature, and we can also be besotted by nature.
Apollo was too late—Daphne’s fingertips had already become leaves. She would not belong to him. She joined the forest just in time. Bernini’s statue is a story of everything alive, and everything lost—a love story of the highest caliber. A signal, written in stone, to remind us always of the never-ending ways we are bound to nature itself.
Slipping from longing to greed is a tiny shift in aperture. The marble remains in the same form that Bernini left it, but the story that is read into it changes.
I entered the room in the Galleria where the statue is kept, and in a flash of recognition of another metaphor of what an impassioned closeness to nature might be, I realized I never wanted to hear the terms ‘resources,’ ‘stewardship,’ or ‘sustainable’ ever again. For all the good intentions those endeavors have on their side, they do not describe any relationship I would want to be in. In those words we see control, possession, objectification, and manipulation. Ache and tenderness are another approach altogether. The story of Daphne and Apollo is an old story, ready for new telling, and perhaps for the reclamation of an original imagining.
A good story has many meanings, and a surprising number of the old ones warn us of the dangers of hubris. Bernini’s retelling pushes past that old trope into the uncertain complexity of consequences that describe life.
Still, hubris is catalyst. Apollo, in a show of arrogance about his own hunting skills, chided Cupid for playing with arrows “like a child.” That was a mistake. Never mess with Cupid. Never chide love. It followed that Cupid set out to teach Apollo a lesson, which thousands of years later we are apparently still learning.
Prior to that day, the gnats buzzed in the fields alongside the swimming holes where Apollo and the lovely Daphne were flirting. She was doing her best to give him an opportunity to pursue her by not seeming overly interested. (But really, he was Apollo forgodsakes, how disinterested could she be?) And he was willing and eager to flatter her, showing off and boasting about his gloriousness. Delicate beginnings were in play; the filigree of invitation was being woven.
Cupid was small and mischievous, wise and difficult. He was not to be one-upped. He shot a golden arrow into Apollo’s heart. As it pierced Apollo a poison of desire was released into his blood, making him lovesick and obsessed with Daphne. Then Cupid shot Daphne in the heart with a leaden arrow, rendering her incapable of loving again. The evolution of their courtship was contaminated by two unecological corrosives; greed and cynicism. Daphne was unjustly written into Apollo’s punishment, you might think. But ask anyone, such is the nature of relationship. We carry each other’s pain. We learn together, or we do not learn.
Wedding rings should not be made of gold. Gold is a symbol for material desire, for ownership, and wealth, for hoarding and possessing. Gold is not lovable. It is the opposite of love. Gold is a stand-in for the sun, but the sun offers itself freely. Gold is money, collecting, stockpiling, claiming, Gold is counting beans with hunched and caved-in chest, it is hoarding the stockpile; it’s a shadowy corner.
Hearts are broken open, but in the time that has passed since the tale was told, this myth of Apollo and Daphne has been gathering dust. In this era, where importance is measured through property and position, the embarrassing breaking open of hearts is irrelevant and unnecessary. Gold won.
Longing is lost in having. It is an art to ache. It requires stoic strength and unshakeable trust matched by equivalent portions of impatience and naked vulnerability. Stretching into the delirious pull of just-out-of-reach love, lights every cell. Apollo is reaching with body and soul in an unresolvable tension. In doing so he engages wholly in the intense effortlessness of the living world. Daphne is alive without measure, without time. The poetry of creation is necessarily incomplete—always unobtainable. It is emerging, dying, defining boundaries, and breaking them, contracting and expanding in controlled chaos, or chaotic control. This is the uncrackable code of evolution.
Gratification is an intruder on this lust; it is a bucket of water on the smoldering coals that bring the laws of attraction to their boiling point. Lust and greed can be easily confused, but when it comes to love and ecology, they stand in dire opposition. Lust, with greenery wound around it in a festival of fecundity, is spirited with a desire of unions, while greed rots rank, desiring only to possess.
People used to write love-letters, and have long courtships with parlor visits. There was a practice of longing, and escapees dashed off to the gardens for a tryst here and there. Do we, can we, yearn in this way for that which we now refer to as ‘resources’?
Daphne’s blood was poisoned by Cupid’s lead. Perhaps in this post-industrial era we have all tasted that poison. The beginning of the end was always in the lead—and then the steel. The first use of the stuff was a cut to the umbilical cord. Cold and hard, immune to the viral bloom of love’s warmth, it sent grey alloy into Daphne’s veins.
The math of love is not good math. The sums have never added up. But we are built to adopt another equation, one in which the shameless vitality of life is given a parallax of its own. Even though fall comes, even though death exists, even though the nature of nature is to change, we set aside eternity for love. Until we are broken. Then we either soften or harden.
With lead in her heart, Daphne was greying inside. Doubt takes desire and mocks it, folding suspicion into attraction until it does a U-turn and becomes repulsion. He said he needed her. She could see now that his attraction to her was for all the wrong reasons, in all the wrong ways. Doubt makes a case for the fact that it is better to run away than toward. What is in the balanceA choice that is not really a choice. A decision made in the undergrowth and overtones. A vision of self in isolation cannot imagine the materials of mending. No healing is conceivable when the heart is faced with a wheel of whirling blades, insincere promises, fickle emotions, and obsessive flattery. So Daphne ran. Possession is not love; it is exploitation waiting to happen. There is nothing but an abyss of pain there. “He is covetous, not ready to love, and incapable of balancing what he is driven by,” she thought. His vision of ownership of her did not allow for either of them to have dignity. His version of her as his own, erased her history, her future, her complexity. So, “He is unsafe. Run, don’t walk.”
Apollo was hopeless. He knew better, but he could not stop himself. The golden arrow he was cursed by was too dazzling, and set alight a craving he could not tame, nor satisfy. He could not leave her alone, he wanted her, wanted her, wanted her. Wanted her for his own. Love? Of course he thought it was love, he was bedazzled. So lovely; bare feet skipping over the roots on the forest floor as she escaped his grasp, how could he not need her? Why could she not just settle her lovely self into his arms where she belonged? Pretty and fair, her limbs would have folded around his arms perfectly. Alone in the forest he found he had stopped chasing her and had his arms outstretched in an imaginary embrace which held nothing but air. Find her, make her his. Explain to her, tell her, convince her, win her, have her. Earn her. Catch her…
Apollo was the world’s original charisma maven. The primary golden boy. Actually, before the Cupid mishap, Daphne liked Apollo. What’s not to like? He made her laugh, he was beautiful and strong. He may have been a bit boastful, but then he had reason to be. She was warming to his affection, letting him in. She could assign him the familiar roles from her tales of love and marriage, giving him the male lead, the part of the lover. She daydreamed. He was highly daydream-able, and they were well suited. She never let on though. Of course not. That would spoil the fun, take away the chase. Now the chase was going to take her.
The lead had woken her up to the hypocrisy of jettisoning self-respect for adoration. Women do that. Maybe men do too. But for Daphne, now that she could see the pattern—never again.
That they were the playthings in Cupid’s mischievous chemistry experiment was not cloaked from them. Both of them understood mentally what was happening. Knowing does not matter. Once the arrows struck there was no way to reason with the runaway emotions and talk sense to them. It never matters with love, or greed, or addiction, or vengefulness, or envy. Understand all you want, the structures and the causations are totally irrelevant next to the dragons that lurk below what we think of as rational.
Cupid only triggered what was already there. He merely turned up the volume on the weaknesses of the heart that Apollo and Daphne each previously harbored. Everyone has a weakness: too stoic, too gushy, too beautiful, too strong, too dependent, too independent, too needy…. It could happen to any of us, at any second. The holes in our armor are the possibilities either for growth or destruction. We know this and, since the risk is horrid, we wear masks over masks to disguise ourselves. Cupid played the symphony that was already there. He just cranked it up to rock concert levels and sat back to enjoy the performance.
Daphne’s feet sought refuge in the contact they made with the forest floor. If they could just hold her up, keep her moving away from him. One eye seemed to make more tears than the other. Half despair. Half destiny. Half of history and she was only half the story. But the tears were coming fast. The heated weight of lead tearing against its own metallic nature made her fragile. The pulled and torn gauze veil of her heart was thin. Transparent, surely it could not withstand the touch of even his breath. She was betrayed by false armor. She wondered, “How can you be filled with lead and still be breaking?”
She turned her head backwards to see how far behind he was. Not very. He was a glow of gold and strength, a beam of determination, ambition, focused on her. Tree trunks seemed to lean out of his path. Unimpeded, he leapt the tangled shrubs, catching the sunlight like fuel. Stunning luck, he was as confident: a gambler with a no-lose bet, he rolled the dice of the irreverent wind to carry him forward.
Daphne was only getting heavier, sinking with sorrow, lost in loss, she began to realize she could not do this alone. But with the cynicism in her now she trusted no one. The metal in her blood oxidized every molecule of belief, as bacteria in a petri dish devour sugar. How could she even cry out? The plea in her voice would carry her delicacy to the outside world.
‘Resistant to corrosion’—that was what she was supposed to be, that was the point of lead, last-forever-lead. Lasting forever in cold isolation without a lingering string of connective warmth.
The grief was too much to drag behind her, in her, through her. She had done the math badly and would face the grade. Better to be something else. Perhaps she could be a door to another realm, she thought to herself: “If you cannot handle the connections, avoid the endpoints and be connectivity itself. Merge.”
To go into a bond, and form linkage with another, is to dangle in the ravaging sea. She could not hold her end of the thread, could not see it, it was not hers. Apollo’s beckonings across the forest were like ice shards stabbing at her bones. The idea of their merging was to her a disaster. It was a cliff to fall off, a non-existent bridge across an immeasurable crevasse for her to fall through. In self-protection her instinct was to reject instead of being rejected.
Her concern for him was minimal. Surely another damsel would catch his eye. Surely it was all a game to him. The alchemy of distrust and self-doubt scared all sweetness away. She ran now, alongside her empty- handed future. She offered no options, even to herself. There were to be no deals, and no way out. Nothing was too much.
With the momentum of a boulder on its way to the bottom-feeders of the Red Sea, she sank. A smooth plummet headed directly to the abyss. Was she standing still, screaming silently? She looked down. No, she was running, she was still running. Her leaded footsteps embossed her despair into the forest floor.
Cynicism, measurement, failure, rejection brought on by pounding poison. She could never have loved. She was emotional lead, melted to form but not to forge a bond. It was not written. Another nymph in another myth could maybe enjoy such mush. For Daphne, it would be better to transform into something that was already woven into the pattern. That way she could be un-partnered and still never be alone, like a tree in the forest.
“Change me,” she called to Peneus, “I cannot be. These limbs will carry only vulnerability, this womb will carry only the seeds of worthlessness, nothing will grow in me, nothing can absorb the nutrients of creation. I cannot be a vessel, let me out, change me… change me. If I cannot be creative, let me rest in the lap of creation, and be of some assistance there.”
The weight of cold lead seared and stripped her veins. She could not run further. Apollo was catching up.
The cold became cool, and the grey in her blood began to feel green. Fingertips first opening into leaves branching into stems. Her toes began rooting into the earth searching the moistness and gritty ground, finding bracing and balancing her against the winds. Her lungs filled for the last time with the breath that passed her lips. From this moment onward she would make oxygen, not inhale it. Her exhale was the flash of heat and the brush of ecstasy that trailed from where his fingertips whispered over her skin…
Apollo, was late. I wondered, as I stood in the corner of the Galleria, why are men always a second too late?
When their bodies touched, the antidote to Cupid’s poisons was scheduled to release them from the cursed arrows. Cupid knew better than to disrupt love. He was just a prankster. Apollo’s fingerprint on her belly sent affection flushing through Daphne’s veins with the scorching of a young woman whose body has just woken to love. But by then other influences were at work—her father’s magic was already in play; bark wrapped itself around her torso, leaves sprang from her hair, but her circulation was storming with the essence of her femininity met in full by Apollo’s love. Those were the last seconds of her life as a woman. Some still say she was one of the lucky ones.
Daphne reaches, marble arms like branches, lifting into the sunlight while I almost merge with her. Her tragedy and her triumph are tightly strung in the harmonizing chord so recklessly rung. This is life itself, it is love, it is yes & no, order & chaos. And it is ringing us all into existence. Invite life as it is—as much grace as disaster. There will be shredded emotional tissue and there will be the floating wisps of infatuated cloud dance. Or, without invitation, it’s just another statue; it’s nothing at all.
There in carved marble in the far western hall of the Galleria Borghese a study of who we are as ecologists is carved into our mythology. But which mythology? Whose version? I had the benefit of blurred vision, a half screwed up understanding of the piece. I read my own story. I know, with heavier stone now, the game of gold and lead and love and humanity and the earth. Longing now, to long again and to touch the belly of my natural nature. Is there a mythology that can release us from the grip of havingness? To adore the world around me as I would be adored, and never find the end of the strings that pull? I will remember Apollo in his reach for Daphne, and retell the story of the trees. Unsolved, unfinished.
And they lived stretched taught in desperate yearning ever after…
Phoebus (Apollo) admired and loved the graceful tree, (For still, though changed, her slender form remained) and with his right hand lingering on the trunk he felt her bosom throbbing in the bark. He clung to trunk and branch as though to twine.
Is there space in the keyboard strokes for the pink of life?
Assembling letters into words into images that reach into feelings, –inviting
memories, things once known, regrets, and touching the purple bruises of this
moment. Is there a chance now to say what we have known and previously tried not
People will demand clarity, accessibility, direct-ness. They will tut-tut and brush off the brushstrokes that do not have the ring of sterility and know-how.
I apologize. I do not mean to be incomprehensible. I am not itching for cleverness, or decorative prose. It is the bruising that is purple, not the words.
So much information is missing in the surgical extraction from context. It is
inevitable that there will be consequences when that decontextualized information is the basis upon which decisions are made. There is no way to respond to the complexity around us without accessing our own complexity.
Thus, variety of new textures of expression and comprehension are needed.
What you cannot hear now is the silence, then a flurry of drumming fingertips,
erratic, stochastic. Time is peeking through thoughts in bursts of tapped out words,in stewed mixtures of eras, some to come. Somewhere there is a ghost of an old typewriter, a feather dipped in ink, stains on bark. Markings.
The weight in me says prose cannot hold the blood of this work. What to write? How to say what needs saying?
Perhaps the confusion frothing now in politics and culture is pushing the thresholds of recognition that more relational information is needed. Not more
decontextualized information, but more Warm Data. The warm data is what is
between the stakeholders, between the organisms in an ecology, between the ideas, cultures, and languages.
Now the fissures in understanding how to fit into a changing world have let in the smog of despair and a tsunami of pharmaceutical meds to soothe it. Perhaps that despair is proof enough to reveal the need for understanding the missing vistas of interaction. Perhaps the innumerable efforts and projects that sought to do-good fixing the world and failed… perhaps those are evidence enough that the way of comprehending society, economics, nature, each other, sex, food, education…was not enough. The studies were trimmed from their larger contexts of life.
I learned recently of a project by SEED to ”End poverty one person at a time”—and thought, oh my… why did they ever think that poverty could be anything less than communal, cross-cultural, international, transcontextual? Millions went into that project, and it was a disaster, of course.
None of what we are faced with can be tackled in isolation. I am learning from the work I have been doing with Warm Data about the nature of interdependency. I
have found that culture, society, economy industry are inextricably saturated into one another. Working with parts and wholes is not so useful in this case. Zooming in and zooming out is insufficient, we have to do both at once. I think of the systemic combining as a kind of broth, instead of linked pieces. The difference is akin to the contrast between that which is interconnected, and that which is interdependent. Interconnected things can be taken apart and fiddled with, fixed and replaced. Interdependency requires another sort of approach. You cannot take the salt out of the broth, or the grapes out of the wine.
The current conditions of socio economic and cultural addiction to exploitation have been brewing and stewing for centuries. The limits of perception are inside the language, inside the infrastructure, inside notions of identity. To create conditions in which new sense can be made is to allow the warm data to reorganize. How are we symmathesizing our world?
The connective tissue repair, the mending of rips in perception—this kind of thing is not accessible in direct language.Warm data requires more of you. More than your job, your expertise, your title, more than you know you have to give.
The connective tissue above—the murky interdependency of nature, society, and all of that is best found in your connective tissue.
You wont find it in the graphs.
Or the stats.
Or the lists of stakeholders.
The gaps between the subjects, objects, verbs, and grammar of tight capsules is a vast lost space, where the most important sensible assessments can drain out.
Have you ever filled a jar with marbles? It was not full. The space between them
could still hold what seems like a full jar of water.
So many isolated institutions, people, ideas, societies—and adjusting them does not seem to fill the jar.
It turns out that systems change is more profound than tweaking a few institutional protocols. It is more profound than branding green goods. It turns out that systemschange is in the way my metabolism looks forward to coffee, or craves proteins.
Systems change is in the connective tissue, and the only way to reach it is indirectly. If that is the project, then that is where the work is… but it must be done carefully, very, very carefully. In that tender liminal realm much resides. The ability to love, the capacity to desire another relationship with each other and the world, a relationship that is vital, not exploitative.
Status— is re-sculpted there.
Let’s go there.
In the Museum of Anthropology in British Columbia this week there was a quote on
the wall that read:
“Everything depends on everything else.” This is a proverb from the Haida Gawaii.
Everything is in infinite responsiveness.
What is the point in averting my eyes to this very obvious realness? Is it
inconvenient? Yes, but only in so much as it will rub against the expectations of planners, and funders in ways they have no existing protocol for. Right now the broth is no one’s responsibility. It is not the educators, or the politicians, or the doctors, or the lawyers, or the scientists, or the business people, or economists, or the artists, (maybe the artists hold a little bit of responsibility)—and it is suicidal for every one to keep doing the jobs they have now. To stay alive in a changing world is to imagine another way of life.
Here is a metaphor for thinking about how difficult it is to discern where you endand your context begins. Systems change is not located in just one context at a time. Try thinking of yourself as a stick-bug in a tree. Or a snow fox in a tundra. You are an extension of the contexts of your life, and they are an extension of you. You do not end with your skin or your tax ID number. You are generations, communities, you are ecologies. Who am I as a stick bug if there is no tree? Who am I as a snow fox if there is no snowy landscape? Wondering why systems change is so tricky? Wondering why there has been so little shift after decades of discourse on how humanity needs to respect the environment, limit growth, stop exploitation?
Living differently is no joke. It is not a refurbishing, or a greener renovation of my current patterns and habits.
The connective tissue is torn, scarred, but still unavoidably there. Alive and
configuring, contorting, responding to the conditions around us.
Go there. No one form of communication is adequate. The contexts of are mixing as they are informing, transferring, melting together cognition.
Go with multiple description into the landscape in which none of the maps apply.
The deep down. Where your health is the health of the next generation, the health of the community, the health of the biosphere… it is not a doctors office visit, a diet, or an exercise regime. Your health is a measurement not of your vitals but of your ability to perceive and give vitality to the overlapping living processes around you, beyond you, within you.
The transcontextual work is there, waiting. Aching for the tourniquet of our
separated perceptions to be untied, so the blood can flow. The grants and funders cannot hear the frequency yet. The politicians are quick to play the chords of emotion, but they do not know what they are tampering with.
But it will not be in the direct language of strategy and authorized leadership.
It is in the intense generosity of contact, and overlap. It is in the wash of emotion, and irrational mythological hangovers. I am sorry, but it just is. No amount of scrubbing the language of change clean off the sticky plasmas of life. Nothing will make the interdependency of the work ahead less messy.
The assembly of words, of ideas of notions and voices combine to form, and to
inform. But they are just words, and some will lead us to lostness.There is work to do, and it is better to know that it is vast and difficult, than to sell it
as easily-fixable or profitable.
Some of this real, tangible, and graspable. Some is not. The spectrum between is where the mutual learning, the renaming, and the finding lies.
Note: thank you to the Transform Series for publishing this.
The work of the coming decades is not the work of manufacturing, of software development, or of retail seduction, it is the work of caring. Caring for each other and the biosphere. In that care there is the hope of finding new ways of making sense of our own vitality. The ‘my’ in my health is not mine; rather it is a consequence of my microbiome, my family, my community, and the biosphere being cared for. The work ahead is not clear or clean. It requires intense integrity, patience in ambiguity, fierce dedication, raw vulnerability, bleeding humility, and the poetry of explorers.
There are sufferings now. Because there is suffering there is the possibility of mutual learning. Non feeling is a non option.
But it is different than before. As it becomes clear that there is a critical need for systems change, fissures are forming in the idea of fitting in.
One suffering is the suffering of being incompatible with the going game, where the grooves and pathways of life others presume normal are impossible, uncrackable, and untenable. The isolation of knowing there is a frequency that others can hear, and not finding it. It is like the instructions are in another language, written in invisible ink. The realm that others occupy, comparing successes, jobs, credibility and status, is mostly abstract, out of reach, and to fit into it requires extreme inner acrobatics.
Another suffering is that of fitting in. This is the suffering of finding oneself so synchronized into the contextual pattern structures that it is impossible to perceive or shift or change the habituated systems of day-to day. This is the suffering of successful compatibility in the dominant socio-cultural assumptions such that every move seems to feed the monster of current institutional insanity. This stuckness is waterproof to knowing the deadly consequences of not-changing both to humanity and countless other organisms. Like a Kafka story, the visceral experience is of recognizing that the logic of the surrounding systems has consumed play and rebellion. You will lose your job, your status, and your credibility if you swerve.
One suffering is the suffering of loving someone who suffering.
This is a terrible time to be normal, (whatever that is) when the mandate for ecological survival is contingent on breaking from the sense making that is entrained.
But to orbit outside the flows of the current systems of modern life is to be excruciatingly isolated.
It does not serve to facilitate numbness to this pain. It hurts because it hurts. The tears are cultural, conceptual, and ecological.
The double bind of this era is that continuance of our species requires discontinuance of current means of survival. Business as usual is a swift endgame. Yet the rent must be paid, and breakfast must be possible. To live through next week is to take part in systems that are destructive to the future.
To get unbroken a breakthrough is needed.
There is need.
Those who are in step and rhythm with the way things are, despite future incompatibility with life.
Those who read the signals and follow the signposts in the map of today.
Those who have fitted infinite capacity for contextual response into one frame of limited contexts.
Those who are hearing another tonality.
Those who make sense in another way
Those who do not fit.
What does it mean to fit into a rapidly changing world?
Any small window of another sensorial experience is more precious than gold now. It is time to listen carefully. It is time to pay attention in wide ways. Let logic unravel into warm complexity.
The fodder for this mutual learning is connections connecting in unexpected ways. Discovering flavors of thought.
Mapping textures of knowing.
Together we are traveling in tenderness through wordless gestures. Offering one another unframed contact. Un-labeling each other is the greatest rigor and the greatest gift.
Allowing multitudes of selves to mingle and form new ecologies of communication.
Abandoning the flatness of analysis that prides itself on non-emotional rationality.
If the interaction is not funny, angry, curious, confused, indignant, and at least a little bit destructive… it is not worth ten minutes now.
In a changing world what is healthy or not healthy, what is it to know yourself in a culture that is unweaving itself? Who are we, now? And who am I in my complexity in relation specifically to you in your complexity?
I am resisting the antiseptic distance, and diving into relationships of mutual learning. Relationships in which there is an acknowledgement that it is a violence to reduce ourselves and each other to definitions, titles and labels. I am not gone, or fragmented, I am real and confused and unscripted. As such I am no source of tricks or easy methodologies. I am not interested in technique. It obscures the unsearched for complexity. Rather I am a sea anemone, all tentacles sensing into our combined vitalities and learnings exploring our mutual dignity. Noticing paradoxes and contradictions, tones and strangenesses. There—in the warm data of our interactions is where entirely unanticipated possibilities are to be found.
*This is a small piece that was written for the document presented for the General Assembly 2019 Global Risk Assessment.
The problems the world is facing now, including ecological damage, natural disasters, poverty, species loss, political upheaval, refugee trauma, and even health epidemics, can all be described as complex, that is, they are born of circumstances that are multi-causal and non-linear. This complexity vexes the traditional problem-solving model of separating the problems into singularly defined parts and solving for the symptoms. The very nature of complexity undermines the familiar mandate to define goals and strategies to achieve pre-envisioned, single sector solutions. None of the issues above can be understood as stand alone issues. These issues are wrapped in contextual interdependencies that require an entirely different approach in assessment, and action.
Warm Data is a Complementary form of Information.
A majority of current scientific research tools and methodologies pull “subjects” from their contexts in order to derive detailed, specialized, quantifiable information. To complement, and yet support, this specialized type of science, a wider practice of science in the future might develop ways to utilize information derived from both detail and interdependency. However, for now, the cultural habit of decontextualizing information, or, reductionism, is the standardized, authorized, and empirical norm.
“Warm Data” can be defined as: Transcontextual information about the interrelationships that integrate a complex system.
For instance, if there is an addiction crisis in a particular community, statistics are not enough information to begin to make a systemic response. Usually addiction is categorized as either a legal or medical issue, and those two groups of experts would be tasked to address the problem. But in truth, more contextual information is needed. The contexts of economics, politics, education systems and culture in community must also be brought into the research. The warm data is then found in the relationships between these institutions. In that sense streams of data from each will only present vast qualities of data, and still not provide the necessary relational content that is generated between the contexts.
Ability to Respond to Wicked Problems
There are several contexts of long term degradation of social, economic, cultural and ecological systems that are now conjoining to form what are sometimes called, “wicked problems”. Timelines of increasing cultural and ecological upheaval as described by the IPCC and multiple other scientific bodies are currently pressuring policy makers to try new approaches to meeting today’s challenges. Those new approaches must be rooted in a more competent understanding of ways in which complex systems behave. To meet those problems, it is not enough to depend on data that addresses single cause and relies on linear solution. The combining of causations of poverty, addiction, racial tension, refugee trauma, people trafficking, political polarity and increasing statistics of mental health issues make events in this era much more complicated than they may have been in the past.
In order to make more appropriate assessment and response to risks arising out of multi causal circumstances observation that can appropriately address the complexity is greatly needed. The decision made around what actions to take, by whom and with what resources, are decisions based upon information of the situation or event. If that information cannot hold the appropriate complexity the decisions will be founded on inadequate knowledge. It is therefore necessary to ask:
What information is being used to assess the risks of today?
How has the research that has delivered that information been conducted?
What is Contextual Information or Warm Data?
Context includes the relational processes that come together to produce a situation. And, most complex situations are in fact trans-contextual, that is there is more than one context in play. This sort of information brings together multiple forms of observation, from multiple perspectives. Recognition that information can and does come in many forms the warm data research team will look for on the ground ‘wisdom’ of locals, art, personal stories, and the voices of many generations. The task of Warm Data is to incorporate not just details, but the relationship between details at many scales.
The reality is that often illness, language barriers, addiction, violence and mental health issues are all present in a given neighborhood or household. Responding to community or ecological emergency in such cases reveals the need for expertise that spans a breadth of contextual conditions. Contextual information in the form of Warm Data, has begun to be used by researchers, governments, and public service professionals. Warm Data is information that can be used to assess a complex situation. It is derived through an approach that seeks to articulate the relational interdependencies.
For example, a natural disaster such as Katrina today would bring more layers of complexity than response teams in 2005 were prepared for. Even task of evacuation now would be exacerbated by increased mistrust of law enforcement in Black and Latino communities, opiate addiction prevalence and the subsequent vulnerability and criminality it brings, as well as trauma of refugees and immigrants making census statistics obsolete, and communication fearful.
Inter-systemic Research and Response.
Crises in complex systems do not stay in one sector at a time. Rapid transformation of ecological patterns, are feeding into systemic risk across all socio-economic structures. This transformation is already beginning to be felt in the detail of people’s lives, in their families and in their communities as well at global levels. Many industries experiencing changes in local economies as trade and other global structures shift, thus upending community stability level in terms of employment, health, and family well-being. Therefore the repercussions, such as domestic violence and increased mental health issues, must be considered within the same inquiry as drought, sea level rise and species depletion. And yet, current institutional structures mitigate these complex issues through the protocols of attending only to what is within their specific jurisdiction. Health crises remain in the realm of health systems, while economic issues are under the attention of finance and employment. Likewise ecological risks overlapping with cultural or political risks must be researched in their relational interdependency.
To prevent further tearing apart of communal resilience a recognition of warm data reveals that supporting the connective tissue that holds the families and community together is a more effective approach. A community that has a mandate across sectors to tend to the families within it will support parents in their support for their children. This is called second order support moves laterally across communities. While it is often not visible in direct linear deliverables, the overall fabric of the community is strengthened and more able to respond in collaborative ways.
It is necessary therefore to develop bridges of research and increased communication across societal systems. This is particularly true of public service systems. Lack of communication and contextual perspective between such systems as education, health, transportation, and communication leave communities vulnerable. By contrast, connection and increased contact between such sectors will make the community more robust and resilient to both long term and sudden emergencies. The development of warm data approaches cultivates the relationship between sectors to strengthen inter-systemic interaction and collaboration.
Changing Patterns of Interaction at Local Levels:
The natural extension of this process is bridge building across systems This is a step toward forming collaborative decision making bodies at local levels. In doing so there is the possibility to bring together people from different, but interdependent fields to explore and restore local community vitality. As these community groups form and exchange knowledge, new communication patterns begin to form linking otherwise separated sectors of experience. The place-based solutions that emerge from the collaborative development of contextual warm data lends itself to self-organizing around actions that are co-created, and local ownership of both data and solutions. Providing a context, (warm data) for the context is a meta shift that generates connection, communication, and action which is able to meet complexity in new ways. Drawing from collective intelligence, and mutual learning local capacity is vastly increased.
When research is done in this way, across contexts, what becomes apparent is the interdependency. Food for example, is not separable from the economic system, nor is it separable from the culture, or agriculture, or even medicine. Food is also an important catalyst for forming bonds between generations. To address the communal needs in terms of food in a systemic way is to have brought to light the insights of the relationships that tie food to the community. In this sense the work of supporting food initiatives is not simply set to distribution or nutrition, but rather to knitting the relationships between the contexts listed above into projects and actions that involve the whole community. The solutions lie in the recognition of collective response. No single response is enough to address a complex problem.
Overlapping Forms of Knowledge to Produce Warm Data Research
While contextual information is certainly multidisciplinary, there are limits to what is sometimes thought of as multidisciplinary information. The practice of listing the stakeholders and applying separated streams of data about each one in an attempt to get an overview of a complex system is becoming more popular, but it has drawbacks as well. While this process is useful to some extent the vital information will continue to elude those trying to make sense of it. The disciplines as such do not have any overlap of jargon or expertise. The warm data is in the overlap, and is produced by teams whose inquiry is practiced in crossing contextual frames, and finding patterns. The lens of contextual inquiry, and transcontextual research is one that brings not only disciplines together, but many other forms of knowledge, including the wisdom of local practitioners and cultural sensitivity.
While the crises of political, ecological or social emergencies are obvious as news stories, the more systemic consequences and consequences of consequences are easily disconnected from their network of causations. When superficial solutions are implemented to provide solutions to problems in complex systems the problems, like heads on the mythological Hydra, grow in number. Whereas, contextual response is far more effective. And, the benefits are felt across multiple sectors simultaneously. Information is needed that presents the contextual interlinking of the impacts as they are felt at the individual level within the larger global contexts. This information will be vital to understanding better how to respond to risks that cannot be contained in a single sector.
Nora Bateson, Filmmaker, writer, educator, lecturer and President of the International Bateson Institute, Sweden, USA
I am very honored to announce that this paper recently received the award for the ARTICLE OF THE YEAR by the Norwegian journal Fokus på Familien. It is now nominated for the larger award given by the group of 55 Scandinavian journals called: Universitetsforlaget. Thank you to all of the people who supported my work.
This is not the version that is in the Fokus På Familien, because that one is under copyright. But it is a close approximation. The exploration in this piece is around using a lens of transcontextual description to expand the way the public discussion is taking place. This subject is too important for binaries. It is, in my opinion, way passed time to open the scope of the conversation. I hope that this “transcontextual” form may bring breadth to the considerations placed on immigration, refugees, displaced people and every one on the move.
As I read through the news today, a year later, my heart breaks to think of the blast radius of dividing families. Each separation is a fissure, unsafe to the future of communities around the world.
As increasing numbers of people are displaced from their homes by war, poverty, and ecological necessity, immigration and the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ have become a heated political topic. The rhetoric has become dualistic and is fueling a polarity of discussion that is locking individuals and communities into stances of either “for” or “against,” pro or anti, incoming refugees. The discourse is consequently dividing communities around the world into ideological groupings of nationalistic or globalized visions of the future. This article seeks to go beyond the binary and expand the conversation by bringing a more complex picture of the issue into view. Introducing the notion of transcontextual description to the immigration and refugee discourse is an attempt to hold back the tendencies of us/them reductionism and reframe the conversation of what the possibilities are for responding. Using a transcontextual approach, this article zooms in on institutional contexts as they relate to immigration, and then zooms out to look at the larger interception of these contexts in a new light. The institutions that form societal and global structures are forming interdependency that is similar to an ecology. These institutions include economics, culture, politics, history, family and more. The implications of this process are not described in concrete instructions on how to solve the refugee crisis, but rather to offer a pattern through which to generate conversation that will lead to an entirely new set of questions. Collaborative inter-institutional research at the community level is suggested to generate possibilities as they are found within the natural complexity of the situation.
The way in which the public and political discourse is built around the narrative of refugee immigration is perhaps one of the most important issues of our time. The liberal argument for the “globalized community” that suggests we are all global citizens, as well as the opposing conservative argument for “entitlement to place,” which suggests the rights of multi-generational land inhabitants over refugees, are both unable to meet the aggregate of circumstances now facing humanity. Efforts to justify or prove “right” either of the arguments in this binary only detract from the more imperative questions of how humanity will fare in the coming decades of ecological, cultural and economic transformation. There are no simple solutions to this crisis and there is no way to rewind to a time when this situation could have been avoided. Now, in order to avert further socio-economic and cultural consequences, the question we need to ask is: “how can we develop and deliver information about this situation that is more respectful of its complexity?”
Right now, there are huge numbers of people relocating in emergency conditions … conditions they cannot stop or fix or rework. These conditions stem from forms of economic, ecological and political destruction that arguably are rooted in two centuries of “globalization measures.” Refugees have walked across continents with nothing but the grief in their hearts of having lost their lands, families, profession, traditions and language. Then, arriving somewhere else, many experience the humiliation of anti-immigrant sentiments. Though unintended, the label of refugee insinuates traumas that are not conducive to supporting people to start a new life in an unfamiliar culture. Yes, it is important to honor the local heritage and identity of the incumbent citizens on the land where refuge is sought, but not at the expense of other human beings and their health, sanity, even their survival. Our conversation must go beyond this polarity if we are to find productive ways to navigate the coming decades.
“A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.”- Wendell Berry
We are facing, simultaneously, ecological, economic, cultural, religious, and political transformation that includes the crucial questions of identity and humanitarianism. To address this complex problem, we must use a lens that can take complexity into account. The immigration issue highlights the importance of finding new ways of approaching complex problems. Specifically, this means that we must look across the board for context, understanding and solutions — to the ecological, economic, cultural, educational, political, and medical — because there is no single sector that we can turn to for a solution. The actions we need to take are ones that are considered across the spectrum of systems. Where is the political and social mandate for this inter-system, and cross-institutional form of interaction?
Language Contributes to Perception and Vice Versa.
The terms “refugee”, “immigrant”, “migration” and “crisis” are used in this paper, but I would encourage a dialogue about how to better describe the processes and people to which these terms refer. The term “emergency relocation” is perhaps an improvement, but the infrastructures in place still require particular language to conform with existing policy. A necessary response to changing situations is adapting communication to reflect more refined understanding.
Refugee: The term refugee, while necessary for governmental agencies to issue immigration rights and assign services, is a term that describes a particular form of victimhood. I would suggest that care be taken in the long-term use of this word and the way it may become an identifying terminology for large numbers of people trying to start new lives despite the weight of economic, physical, and cultural trauma. People need to be identified as people, first and foremost.
Immigrant/migrant: Framed in this terminology, the brunt of the ethical questions and pressure are faced by the immigration authorities. Given the complexity of the conditions both behind and in front of the incoming people, it is clear that immigration law is not broad enough to meet the medical, economic, psychological and intercultural dilemmas that are facing not only the incoming people, but the incumbent locals as well.
Crisis: Although press and governments refer to current movements and cultural upheaval as “The Refugee Crisis”, the multiple historical, economic, and cultural causalities that have combined over centuries to bring this about are more of a slow crash than a crisis. The temporal communication that locates this immediate acute need as a “crisis” dangerously omits the long development of conflicts that have brought this on.
How Can We Best Increase Possibilities for Future Community Life?
The future of social coexistence requires a conversation that includes systems thinking and an understanding of cybernetic patterns. The success of future community living is largely determined now by the tone of the communication with which media and professionals approach the complexity of this conjoinment. The USA, Sweden, France, the UK, Hungary and other countries have witnessed the rise of right-wing political groups that disavow hard-earned civil liberties for people of color, and those with non-hetero-normative lifestyles. Divisions in political ideology around the issue of immigration are growing wider, and more violent, as groups which support receiving refugees and groups which are becoming increasingly nationalistic justify their positions with information that is compartmentalized. Trying to reduce the complexity of the issue is not only distracting the public from the depth of the issue, but is also destructive. However difficult, the description of the refugee crisis must not shy from the rigor of addressing the cross-sector, contextual complexity of this situation. The way in which the refugee crisis is perceived matters, and the constraints on that perception should be taken seriously, especially when the fabric of society is being torn by the vitriol of opposing opinion.
Research data and other information about the refugee crisis is currently weakened by the fact that it is derived through various bodies of governmental, academic, and social service professionals that do not have a common watering hole at which to exchange and compare their findings. This separation reflects our demarcated, mechanistic socio-cultural process of making decisions and taking action. These departments, by definition, require information in streams of specific description, some concentrating on economics, human rights, history, politics, medicine, or culture. While each individuated data stream is vital, there is dangerously little study of the way in which this situation is forming through interdependent institutions.
Structures that run right through our culture contribute to the fragmentation of information, such as healthcare separated from a larger understanding of wellbeing, or banking and legal systems separated from a larger understanding of patterns of criminality in ecological destruction. Awareness of the limits that these structures place on our ability to respond to current crises is the first step toward better research and better solutions. A more comprehensive result will be possible with increased understanding of the knitted tangle of the interrelationship, comparison of patterns, and multiple contextual studies.
The term “Transcontextual” refers to the ways in which multiple contexts come together to form complex systems. It allows for a concentration on the interdependency between contexts that give resilience to both living and non-living systems. Transcontextual description offers insights into where contextual overlap is reinforcing the status quo and where it is loose enough to initiate shifts. In terms of the refugee crisis, I want to use the process of opening perception of the situation in transcontextual terms, so that the polarities now obscuring broader understanding may be reconfigured within another perspective.
The emergency relocation of millions of people into Europe from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq presents a complex collection of causations and ramifications that, when separated from their contextual overlap, spins into polarized ideological rhetoric. But this is a problem that has multi-contextual facets.
When searching for a root cause, or singular rhetorical angle on what has brought on these crises, it is tempting to cast a net around a particular institution and drill down. Some will point to economic causations, others to historical or cultural ones, but the crisis is actually developing and emerging at and between the boundaries of multiple institutions. The root cause is a collection of responses to combined institutional conditions. While it is true that the problem can be identified as either economic, or political, or cultural, or historical, or legal … none of those contexts can actually be disentangled from the others. Likewise, the future of Europe or the US cannot be separated from the rest of the global political upheaval, cultural revolutions or international markets. Our histories are bound together, as are our futures. Responsibility is everywhere, and is necessarily required within and between our institutional frameworks.
While it is challenging enough to require information that contextualizes the refugee crisis, even this exercise underestimates the complexity. One context is not enough: there are many. A listing of the contexts here will be incomplete, but may open the discussion to the multiple and interlocking formations of what is sometimes called a “wicked problem.” While each institution is contributing to the overarching narrative of the refugee crisis, the way in which these institutions mutually generate a container of cultural responses often goes unnoticed.
What follows is a limited, but transcontextual, description of the increasing crises that we face globally in terms of accommodating people who are in the process of emergency relocation. Due to a multi-causal perfect storm of global conditions, millions of people have no choice but to leave their homelands and seek life in other countries. While there are dedicated experts doing their best to assess and respond to the situation from their field of expertise, as of now there are no experts whose job it is to address societal crises with transcontextual responses.
Ecology of Institutions:
Below is a cursory and incomplete illustration of the ecological patterns of interdependency that can be identified between social, political and cultural institutions. It may seem as though these institutions can be isolated, and even altered or fixed individually, but their reinforcing interrelationality makes change at that level nearly impossible. Likewise, the rhetoric that directs blame at any particular institution is a manifestation of our failure to recognize the way in which these institutions are interrelated and stuck together. Stuckness and change will be discussed later in this paper. Here I will attempt to lay out a few familiar narratives next to each other to gain perspective. There is no hierarchy implicit in the listing of these institutional binds, and their circuitry of interaction is non-linear. Of course, none of these listed institutions can be truly separated from one another, and my doing so is an invitation to the reader to notice the patterns that they form collectively and in which we all live and make decisions.
The most familiar line of discussion around the refugee crisis is that the arrival of people in need will disrupt and perhaps destroy existing economies. The social systems of the nations they migrate into cannot afford to pay for their housing, education, employment, and welfare without undermining the situation of citizens already in need. The argument for providing shelter to refugees before existing citizens is rife with injustice that typically puts the lower working classes in competition with incomers for basic needs. People perceive that refugees are expensive, that they arrive with nothing, and that they need care that taxpayers have not agreed to pay for. In this sense, the argument against the economic destabilization that sudden influxes of people will bring is strong. It is an old argument, used time and again around the world in times of transition. The economic discussion crosses into cultural territories in the form of nationalistic sentiment and fuels xenophobia.
Additionally, measures of austerity have revealed reinforced local poverty in harsh contrast to soaring international corporate markets – thereby fueling another level of distrust and anger toward the proponents of “globalization”. The elite shield their funds from taxation in international accounts while national, public systems that support national social care, such as medical, educational, and other infrastructure, struggle to fund local initiatives. When governments are not flush enough to give anyone a “free ride,” there is increasing competition for funding that pits locals against refugees. Bitterness toward refugees increases when people perceive that addressing local citizens’ impoverishment comes second to assisting strangers.
It is easier to blame the refugees for the lack of jobs and social services than to call the larger global corporations to order in terms of being transparent and honest about paying their share of taxes, fees and environmental fines. The constant threat of unemployment and economic volatility is leveraged against citizens while offshore accounts and hidden assets are the norm for the world’s biggest moneymakers.
Colonialism is not a thing of the past. While they may not be explicit, colonial patterns and the epistemological habits flavored by that history are deeply engrained and seep into our perception of the refugee crisis in significant ways. Holdover colonial attitudes surface as a sense of entitlement to assets, democracy and a comfortable lifestyle. Most of the world’s populations do not presume these luxuries to be within reach, while wealthier demographics within wealthier countries take the same luxuries for granted. Countries that have a history of colonizing carry the often-unseen attitude of the victor, and the intrinsic assumptions that confidence of access and ownership of this positioning have generated.
The history of how some nations became wealthy and others have become economically and ecologically vulnerable is largely an extension of the colonial narrative. Across generations in wealthy countries there is an expectation of living standards that require vast resources, both economic and natural. Colonial shadows and holdover attitudes have normalized a sense of entitlement to a particular vision of success, wealth, and way of life that is mathematically impossible to distribute equally across the population of the globe.
Colonial heritage, particularly in wealthy countries, implicitly imposes a responsibility for people in need, especially those who are themselves the descendants of people who lived under colonial rule. As such there is a necessity to address the errors and imperfections of the systems that have increased “progress”. The idea that no problems exist in the richer societies feeds the illusions that the state is more efficient than it is, and that support is available. In turn, underlying conflicting expectations on both sides that spark rivalry gain momentum. Refugees needing succor are led to believe that wealthier countries should and can offer help, while the incumbent citizenry construe the refugees’ needs as drains on existing social service and employment resources.
Mining rights, big banks, cheap labor, resource exploitation and tax evasion have allowed poverty and notions of “underdeveloped” nations to reach across decades and even centuries. The accumulation of wealth and influence that wealthy countries enjoy are the spoils of capitalistic leveraging of inexpensive resources. Exploitation and violent inequality appear to be built into notions of “progress and development”. But colonialism had a shelf life and while its shadows are still looming, the tipping points are being reached all around the world. Again, this history spills into both culture and economics, as ideas of success and economic dominance are inevitably woven into the historical picture.
Some of the same dynamics of exploitation, exclusion, and social hierarchy, which colonial nations and peoples extended outwards towards their external empires, also extend inwards towards non-dominant social classes and regions “at home.” Though it can always be argued that being citizens of a nation or members of its dominant race or group brought and brings privilege, this shouldn’t obscure the fact that similar principles of subordination and privation can apply both externally and within empires. Taking a broader view, the similarity in position of those oppressed at home and abroad could ideally yield solidarity and compassion from one to the other. But, sadly, the internally exploited or excluded can often be manipulated to set themselves against the externally exploited and excluded, for example in the defense of minor advantages in a world they have learned to see as being characterized by scarcity and competition.
Looking back: People have the tendency to naturalize historic events that illustrate the predictability of conflict and impossibility of mixing races, religions, and economic classes peacefully. History is often used to justify inequality with stories of inevitable violent invasions and take-overs around the world with the victors taking the assets of the losers. However, naturalizing this pattern will not serve now. Though there is an historical case for an impulse to fiercely defend territory and wealth, there is also an historical case for coexistence.
World War II is being brought into the collection of metaphors surrounding the refugee crisis, by both the right wing and left wing political parties. While today’s context is not the same as the 1930s, the direct correlation is impossible to ignore. From rapidly emerging Nazi groups to large camps holding millions of refugees in Turkey, the sentiment of hatred toward others matches the imagery and the language of WWII history. One difference in the current context which is important to note is that present generations can bring to mind remembered history of fear, loss and pain that was felt by the world as a result of the twentieth century era of fascism. The identity of the German nation and especially the children and grandchildren of Nazis have carried the shame that was cast on Germany by engaging in anti-humanitarian policies and consequent unthinkable genocide. How this historical mirror will reflect into the coming years is, as yet, unclear. There is collective shock in the hearts of many that this verbal and physical hatred is actually returning to mainstream culture after such inhumane disregard for the lives of others was seemingly shut down after WWII ended, and again in the US with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Looking back further: It cannot be disputed that humanity has always moved around the globe in times of need. The history of Homo sapiens, and in fact all of biological evolution, is a testament to movement, cross-fertilization, and fusions of ideas, forms, environments and cultures.
How has the idea formed over time that we can value some people’s lives more highly than others? Or that the sacred lands of some people are more valuable than the sacred lands of others? Where does this thinking lead if not to violence?
While economics and policy will be important in addressing this process, it is cultural discourse that is framing, limiting, and normalizing ideas about “immigration” and how to respond to this situation. Human beings are creatures of place, and our identity, belonging and well-being are woven into landscapes that house our history. In response to the dream of a world where people are integrated, homogenized, and peaceful, there is no question that the globalized economy has generated a flatness to the earth’s cultural dimensions. Languages and traditions are lost every day as the extinction of human societies parallels the lists of animal species that are disappearing. The same massive spaces and fluorescent lighting of corporations have hijacked the architectural expressions of localities, and designed modernized efficiency has stolen the soul of so many moments in a day.
In contrast, the notion of cultural purity is equally untenable. Language, arts, food, traditions, religions, scientific breakthroughs and skills are all derivations and fusions of multiple cultures. As individuals within larger communities our notions of identity inform our ideas of who we are in relation to the systems we live within. But this era is a time of upheaval; ecosystems and social systems around the globe are in rapid transition. The fear that cultural identity can be taken away, like money or other assets, is contributing to a rising right-wing political fervor to guard and protect violently what is felt to be cultural heritage, and ensure the pre-eminence of certain cultural heritages in “homeland” places. Current instability triggers more stringent attempts to ensure security within ideas of belonging and normalcy.
While change is a constant in living systems, the rate of change in this era is extraordinary. Reaction to the need for rapid adjustment to unfamiliar culture (for refugees and existing citizens) often takes the form of heightened attempts to preserve culture as identity. Nationalism, racism, and protectiveness around perceived boundaries of culture limit the flexibility required for mutual learning. Nothing but loss results from this response, loss of safety for both the refugees and the locals as violence is justified by both sides, loss of trust, loss of political discourse as binaries supersede information about the complexity of the situation, loss of economic security due to the increase of broken ties in communities, and more. We have not begun to see the true cost of animosity between locals and refugees yet. In the decades to come the roots of the toxic seeds sown now will be part of our daily lives. Have we sown community spirit? Collaboration? There is a lot to lose in these early days of this new era of relocation as cultural isolation contaminates the possible upsides of diversity with violence, vengeance and rumor.
It may be useful to ask “who are we in this changing world?” As families, as professionals, as cultures, how is our perception of ourselves changing – and what if it doesn’t? Identity is a personal matter, but it also matters in terms of family, culture, society, ecosystems, and the future. Double binds of identity, and other traps of obsolete fragmentation in our thinking, can be seen with greater clarity through the lens of complexity and systems.
“Making social and cultural identities sustainable in a world where change is unpredictable, frequently exogenous and often resulting in unintended consequences can be compared to rebuilding a ship at sea. It requires flexibility and improvisation, or novel forms of boundary-making.” Thomas Hylland Eriksen
The culture of exploitation that has fed the economic and political domination of wealthier nations is worth questioning not only in terms of human rights in labor and industry, but also the destruction of the global ecology. Demand for increased assets and ownership underpins much of the violence and abuse in poorer nations. Cheaper labor and cheaper resources make for larger profit margins, but the profit does not go to the people at the bottom who need it most. The culture of consumerism is woven into the suffering of the people who are relocating and into the very threats to their survival.
Democracy is under-equipped in its current form to accommodate the complexity of the issues emerging globally. By definition, elected representatives are tasked with the responsibility of serving their communities, states or nations. They are not tasked with a larger responsibility to the ecology or to humanity as a whole. Consequently, they are bound to the well-being of their specific locale. Ironically this promotes nationalism in a moment when the most acute decisions and actions must take into account global concerns.
The past decade has brought a sudden explosion of right-wing political parties around the world that have voiced a fear of losing national culture, racial purity and social services. Racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, fundamentalism and extremism and multiple other forms of humiliation and disrespect for other people have been emboldened by the surge in popularity of right-wing groups. Left and center political parties have found themselves unexpectedly in dialogue with previously extremist positions on proposed or actual policies, such as the government making lists of Muslim immigrants (US), the removal of personal jewelry from incoming refugees (Denmark), or the sending of children with no parents back to Afghanistan (Sweden). The EU decision to house three million refugees (some say that number could be doubled) in Turkey was a political decision that many argue was illegal under the UN Human Rights Convention. Political discourse has been hijacked by the populist struggles between right and left, and diverted from the larger issues of climate change, water, and human and ecological rights.
Of course, it is the job of the politicians to represent their constituents, so the leadership that is emerging is in keeping with the voters’ preferences.
But who and what are informing the voters?
Media and Journalism:
Communication of information about complex topics like climate, global economy and the refugee crisis are rarely expressed in their complexity over mainstream media and journalism. Mostly stories that have more than two sides are regarded as complicated and unsellable. The press is a commodity whose demand is informed and fed by numbers of readers. Popular stories dominate the news, and usually popularity means that the issues addressed are either fluff or simplistic, binary narratives.
Many news and media corporations are not able to provide impartial information that could discredit existing socio-economic structures, because they are not free to do so. TV channels, newspapers, radio and other media at the top level of global journalism form part of larger corporate conglomerates that have their own “dog in the race,” so to speak. This is not true everywhere, but enough news and media sources face conflicts of interest situations that can alter the course of big stories. Many journalists who have tried to publish critical stories that undermine powerful and corrupt leaders or businesses have found themselves publicly discredited and even in physical danger in recent months.
The press has found itself in a feedback loop that blinds it to the growing numbers of citizens (around the world) who have become so dissatisfied with mainstream discourse that they have seemingly moved their cultural focus into a parallel communications realm that utterly befuddled the press in the UK and US around Brexit and Trump.
Immigration laws, humanitarian aid rules and refugee regulations are all in a state of transformation now as a result of the sudden increase in numbers of refugees arriving in Europe after fleeing Syria and other countries in the Middle East. Sweden, for example, has thousands of unaccompanied child refugees who were sent ahead of their families in the hope of establishing asylum status for which families could apply. Now the rules have changed to stop the flow of refugees and their families are no longer allowed to apply for entrance to Sweden based on their children. Swedish family services are overwhelmed and children are fostered into care centers, traumatized and alone. They are caught in a Nowhere-land of not being able to go home, because home is gone, and increasingly finding no way to stay alone in Sweden.
Likewise, many EU countries are contending with proposed new laws around religious dress codes, education systems, and privacy of information for citizens.
Legal systems are also struggling with increasing pressures to harmonize with international norms that differ from local traditions.
Ecologists have warned that tipping points of climate change have been passed and that droughts, rising sea levels, flooding and extreme weather will disrupt food production, transportation and habitability in large areas of the world. In this sense the surge in refugees we are seeing now is only the beginning.
The ways in which these ecological changes will affect culture and economy are yet to be seen. But, it is more than likely that survival needs threatened by a combination of ecological disaster, economic depression and political unrest will drive millions of people from their homelands in the coming decades. Who those peoples will be, and where they will go is unknown.
Generally, the most vulnerable demographics are hardest hit, but even that is hard to predict. This emergency relocation project we are facing now marks the beginning of an era, not a passing event.
The institution of the family is where all of this comes together. Between generations, at the dinner table, in the garden or the market, this is where ideological threads are woven into the ecology of institutional systems. Families are where attitudes toward other people and nature are expressed and passed on. The care and empathy – or lack thereof – demonstrated within the family toward others provides the model for the next generations.
For many of the refugees arriving who have lost all or some of their family members, traumatic separation leaves feelings of loss and heartbreak, and potentially the desire for vengeance. After their journeys across continents to find a safe place to start over they are met with hostility from some and hospitality from others. What will the children who are arriving now feel about their new community if their experience is one of feeling unwanted and despised? Will that divisiveness develop into us vs. them revenge and gang behavior? What will the children 10 years from now experience when they walk alone at night in the city? Will the polarity of today beget a day-to-day life of violence for them?
The idea of home is usually associated with place, with residence, or with culture. But home can also be found in those that we love and that love us. Particularly in times of suffering, place is less reassuring than those people in whom we place our trust.
The Double Bind – A Cross Contextual Stuckness and Unstuckness:
The term Double Bind refers to a pattern of perceived impossibility produced by cross-contextual limitations. The term was introduced by my father, Gregory Bateson and a team of researchers to describe the conditions for schizophrenia. However, the pattern was never intended to be concretized as a cause for any particular pathology. Rather, Gregory Bateson insisted it was a description of an evolutionary pattern that produces both the trap from which all options appear blocked and the possibility of escape which comes with finding another level of perception. Double Bind theory is similar to what is sometimes called a “Catch 22” in that there is a high-stakes problem in which multiple contexts overlap and eliminate any strategic solution. The experience is one of being stuck from multiple directions, and usually contains the additional aspect of there being no way to express this multiple stuckness. Before addressing the ways in which the Double Bind theory is relevant to this analysis of the refugee crisis, the stuckness needs an illustration. An example of the double bind can be seen in the experience of the child of an alcoholic parent. The child whose life is danger in their household, knows his survival depends upon his parent, and that to go to the authorities will break up his family leaving him with nothing. The child cannot leave, but to stay is dangerous, and to tell is disaster.
The description above of the transcontextual overlap of institutional perspectives on the refugee crisis illustrates the theater of conflicting conflicts in which the crisis is brewing. Seeking solutions to the refugee crisis from any singular contextual angle will certainly breed consequential conflict from other angles. To receive the refugees with open arms is unfair to residents with the local experience of hardship under austerity, will change local culture and could crash the economy (some say); to send them back to their homelands is not possible when their homes and schools have been destroyed and there is no life there; to be responsible for their death in a camp somewhere at the doorstep to Europe calls into question the whole of European Civilization. What kind of culture sends millions of innocent people in need and asking for assistance, to their deaths? How do these events reflect upon cultural identity? And in what will future generations say about the choices made by their ancestors?
The solutions for one institution create further conflict in another. Preventing the parents and families of migrant children from receiving refugee status limits the numbers of refugees entering the EU, which may appear to be a political solution. However, economically and culturally this policy has the adverse effect of increasing the psychological service needs of the alone-children to treat their trauma, and of forcing the children into situations where they have to face day-to-day survival without the emotional and structural support of their families. Likewise, the political decision to park the refugees in Turkey provided an answer to the dilemma of where to put them, but created human rights issues, increased the likelihood of anger, humiliation and violence, and did nothing to stave off the ecological drought and political devastation that the refugees are fleeing from.
As mentioned above, the double bind is not only a pattern creating stuckness across contexts, but is also a pattern that permits release from that stuckness. The release requires that the stuck ones find the capacity to perceive their contextual circumstances in a new way. The stuck ones of course are not only the refugees and the citizens of the nations who are affected, but also the national and transnational institutions charged with understanding and dealing with the larger issues. In a sense, Europe, and the world as a whole, are caught in the stuckness of this situation. The ability to identify the double bind patterns is a step toward at least recognizing that the way the problem is being described is part of the problem. A new description will open otherwise unseen possibilities.
Complexity in Emergency Situations is Hard:
Lives are at stake, cultural identity is at stake, economic and social services are at stake – making the urgency of this issue a dominant political and economic story in the media. The lives of those who are relocating and the lives of those who are receiving them are both now and forever changed by these circumstances. The question now is about the nature of that change. Even though they have been developing over centuries, the emergencies around this crisis are severe. In the face of life and death decision-making, holding complexity in focus can appear to be a distraction from taking action. However, the narrative of this international situation is forming rapidly into polarized ideological interpretations, conflicts, and the emergence of divisiveness between citizens. Organizing a description of the current situation into a form in which the information is visible in a more contextual way is vital if we are to move toward the possibility of asking more productive questions about how to respond more effectively.
The era of people’s movement is under way. It is estimated that there will be hundreds of millions of people relocating in the coming decades. How do we generate a discussion about this that helps us get better at both supporting the incoming, and the incumbent, populations? The ecology of institutions that I have briefly described is patterning together and reinforcing outdated and inflexible interlocking relationships. With that in mind, I am increasingly inclined to encourage communities to organize outside of existing institutional frameworks. Changing institutions from the inside is unlikely given their stuckness, but we can change our relationship to our institutions by reconfiguring our own communications and interactions.
This process of reorganizing the relationships between existing institutions will require that communication and collaboration be opened between them in new ways. Ultimately this discussion will become installed as a change in the structures of our institutions. But, that will take time, dialogue and a collaborative mandate for information that addresses multiple contexts. On a community level this process is quite easy to begin. Organizing a group of people from varying corners of the socio-economic system around a topic is the first phase of gathering transcontextual information. In achieving even this initial step toward making the boundaries between institutions more porous, the complexity and interdependencies will become visible, thus lessening the tendency to reinforce binaries. There are many urgent topics such as the ecological crisis, health, and education which communities are struggling to find systemic approaches to support, and which could make a good starting point. At present the discourse is authorized only in terms of siloed information. As long as those compartments of our institutions are kept separate, their cross-sector consequences are not approachable in systemic ways. Polarization and binaries are useless in complex systems … except that they are highly effective in escalating unrest.
The issue of rapid human relocation globally is particularly charged by the looping of this siloed information. The press, the public and governments are feeding into the polarity of either welcoming or walling-out immigrants. Together they are frothing up passionate memes of nationalism versus global collaboration. These communication patterns miss the necessary complexity but offer what looks like the possibility of belonging to familiar right- or left-wing ideological positions in the discussion. If a wider range of transcontextual information becomes available, this illusion of partisan sides is worn down, making way for the more relevant questions of how to support systemic health and prosperity through this era of transformation.
I fundamentally believe that human beings can be horrible, but they can also be creative, and can instigate remarkable improvisational possibilities. History attests to both. This moment in history is the time and the opportunity to challenge habits of thinking that drift to reductionism. When information about complex issues, such as emergency relocation, is derived without contextual consideration “solutions” or actions to get pinned to simple binaries that wreak havoc. Now is the time to bring to the fore a more informed and contextualized perception of what lies ahead for humanity. Preparing the conditions in which another kind of conversation can take place will bring with it the possibilities of new forms of action.
Von Foerster, H. (1971/2003) Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition. New York: Springer.
 This article was delivered in compliment to a keynote speech and one-day seminar I gave in Oslo with the Norwegian Family Therapy Association’s “Førjulsseminar” in Gamle Logen, in December 2016. The form of this essay, which zooms in and out, focusing on the transcontextual interdependency of societal institutions was first developed to address “addiction” through a transcontextual lens in my research with the International Bateson Institute.
 The term was coined by Gregory Bateson in 1969, see G. Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind 2000, p. 272.
 The term was coined by Gregory Bateson and his colleagues at MRI in 1956, see G. Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind 2000, p.201.