Thinking Like a Plant: On Daniel Belgrad’s “The Culture of Feedback: Ecological Thinking in ’70s America”
By Lewis PageMarch 5, 2020
The Culture of Feedback by Daniel Belgrad
Today, the term is mundane, the stuff of boardroom meetings and questionnaires. But it wasn’t always so. In his new book, The Culture of Feedback: Ecological Thinking in ’70s America, Daniel Belgrad tells the story of this odd and influential idea’s development and spread. “Feedback” was first popularized during World War II, when it was used by military engineers to refer to the dynamics of a self-regulating mechanical system that “fed” some of the results of its outputs “back” into itself as inputs. In the following decades, this vision began to seep into all sorts of other arenas of American culture. By the 1970s, this included a constellation of practices and beliefs that are now widely categorized — other than by an aging faction of hippies and a few Silicon Valley execs — as nonsense: thinking very hard about the interior lives of house plants; going to the Colombian rain forest to eat psychedelic mushrooms; and standing around with a group in a swimming pool in Northern California, hyperventilating to the point of unconsciousness in order to understand what it is like to be a dolphin.
Many narratives of the 1970s point to these kinds of experiments as symptoms of a cultural malaise: forms of self-absorbed soul-searching brought about by the failure of ’60s-era radicalism, which seamlessly presaged the hedonistic individualism of the Reagan years. But Belgrad’s book reveals something else: a serious strand of thought weaving through these (at times, he acknowledges, ridiculous) cultural forms, one which he calls “ecological thinking.”
In The Culture of Feedback, “ecological thinking” does not burst fully formed from Dennis McKenna’s drug-addled head, but rather emerges as a significant contribution to a long American conversation. How do we define efficiency? What about progress? How should we enact democracy? What is freedom? Do we really care about plants and the land? And how do we make sense of that pesky relationship between the mind and the body? Belgrad traces the intellectual history of a loosely assembled group forming new approaches to these difficult questions, and argues that the conclusions they came to might have more than a little to teach us today.
The ideas that Belgrad gathers together as “ecological thinking” were presented and contested in the pages of scientific journals and popular magazines, in seminar rooms and laboratories, but also in unlikelier forums. As the conservationist Paul Shepard wrote in 1969, the “greater and overriding wisdom [of ecology] […] can be approached mathematically, chemically, or it can be danced or told as a myth.” In order for the medium to match the message, Belgrad notes, Shepard actually preferred the latter two options.
Belgrad has opted for a more conventional form: an academic monograph. Belgrad’s prose is readable and precise, but it does not aim primarily to entertain; his book is a big, hulking idea, laid out in fractal detail. The argument spirals out from one particular idea of “efficiency” that rose to prominence in the early decades of the 20th century, when the forward march of industrial society promised an infinite increase in the productivity and quality of American life. In pursuit of this promise, the scientific management techniques of Frederick Winslow Taylor, popularly known as “Taylorism,” were deployed in order to increase the ratio of productivity — the amount of output per input. Superfluity was to be eliminated; the chaotic shop floors of the 19th century were to be replaced by the centrally planned factories of the 20th.
This idea of efficiency fit well with the social Darwinist beliefs of the time, which equated the progress of society with the process of natural selection. But as the Depression and the Dust Bowl dealt major blows to the optimism of consumer capitalism, a new, competing idea of efficiency emerged: one that emphasized the “optimal circulation of all resources available to a particular community” rather than the elimination of everything extraneous.
Belgrad locates the origin of this idea in an unlikely package: a new method of plowing promoted by two New Deal agronomists, Paul Sears and Aldo Leopold. While Taylorist wisdom held that the most efficient way to plow land was in a straight line, Leopold and Sears argued that the extra time and effort that it took to plot twisting furrows that stayed constantly perpendicular to the slope of the land would ultimately pay off.
In their treatises on plowing, Leopold and Sears cracked open what had been previously assumed to be a closed system, arguing that efficiency-driven monoculture farming and ruthless plowing had eroded soil and “released the forces of wind and water which had been held in check […] by the continuous carpet of plant life.” Attending instead to the various realities of the existing environment — the topsoil, topography, plants, and weather — would enable the creation of a sustainable system where resources would be well-distributed. “Civilization is not, as [the historians of progress] often assume, the enslavement of a stable and constant earth. It is a state of mutual and interdependent cooperation between human animals, other animals, plants, and soils,” wrote Leopold in 1933.
Leopold died in 1948, but one of his contemporaries, anthropologist Gregory Bateson, carried a similar message on into the latter half of the century. In New Guinea in 1933, Bateson met and fell in love with Margaret Mead. After moving to Bali, collecting a trove of ethnographic data, and conceiving a child, the anthropological power couple moved back to the United States in 1939. Not long after their daughter was born that December, the two joined the war effort: Bateson produced fake propaganda from secret posts in Burma and Thailand for the Office of Strategic Services, while Mead wrote tracts on the “national character” of the United States and conducted research into the food cultures of war-affected countries for the National Research Council’s Committee on Food Habits.
By 1942, both Bateson and Mead had become disillusioned with their roles as social engineers. They saw their aims — using knowledge of a society to manipulate it to certain ends — as antithetical to the ideals of democracy. People learn not only from the content of a lesson, they argued, but also by the way in which it is taught; the message “democracy is good!” blared from loudspeakers could actually induce a populace to be better subjects of a dictatorship. A truly democratic society would have to encourage open habits of mind. We must “discard purpose in order to achieve our purpose,” Bateson wrote.
In the following years, Bateson brushed up against early computational thinkers — notably Norbert Wiener, who is often cited as the father of “cybernetics,” a postwar philosophy of complex systems that used the idea of feedback to think about everything from mechanical engineering to psychology. Just like Bateson’s ideal citizens, Wiener’s computers learned and advanced through complex processes of communication and adaptation rather than through individual agency or central planning. Bateson began to apply the same kind of logic to ecology. Could nature be thought of as intelligent too, along with humans and computers? Fortunately, by that point, the zeitgeist was ready to receive new ideas. In 1967, Bateson delivered a speech at the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation in London, a gathering that also hosted Allen Ginsberg, Stokely Carmichael, and Herbert Marcuse. In 1972, three decades of Bateson’s work were collected in the tellingly titled Steps to an Ecology of Mind.
So begins the book’s titular decade. The run-up to the 1970s, outlined above, only occupies a few chapters of the book, but does a lot of heavy lifting in Belgrad’s argument; by the time he arrives at the computers and plants of the early ’70s, it is clear that he has taken readers on an unorthodox, and occasionally roughly assembled, path. What he gathers under the term “ecological thinking” is also sometimes called “systems theory,” and sits at the same kind of Northern Californian nexus as contemporary Silicon Valley culture. These days, with the optimism surrounding the tech boom out of vogue, it is more common to follow a darker thread through Silicon Valley’s history. Cultural histories of systems theory — like Orit Halpern’s Beautiful Data, Philip Mirowski’s Machine Dreams, and Paul Edwards’s The Closed World — tend to portray a world of intensifying control and surveillance. Other narratives focus in on figures like Wiener, citing the military origins of his theories to argue that there was never anything neutral or antiestablishment about computers or systems theory, or Stewart Brand, who in 1968, inspired in part by Bateson, published the Whole Earth Catalog, a DIY guide to self-sufficient living. Fred Turner’s influential From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism argues that Brand’s back-to-the-land individualism revealed the “masculinist, white-privileged, technocratic-consumerist, libertarian bias of the sixties counterculture,” which fused with early computer culture and led straight into the Reaganite neoliberalism of the 1980s and beyond.
Belgrad actively writes against these histories, preferring to focus on nature rather than computers, and optimism rather than pessimism. It is an endearing combination, and one that makes him dedicate the bulk of the book to close readings of wacky things people did in the 1970s, from riding dolphins to trying to communicate with vegetables. He gives us Talmudic exegeses of everything from the famous “crying Indian” public service announcement to John Cage’s works to a lesser-known EPA pamphlet cautioning against the dangers of noise pollution. It is tough to take all these schemes seriously — I lost interest somewhere around the horse whispering — but Belgrad is determined to do so. Undergirding all these disparate objects of curiosity, he argues, is an image of a nested systems, each open to outside influence — the mind a complex system inextricably linked with the body, the body linked with its environment, and that environment itself made up of infinite, indiscrete subsystems, all ideally working in concert to maintain balance. All of this converges into a genuinely hopeful portrait, of a set of promising ideas manifesting themselves everywhere from art pieces to environmental laws.
So, what happened? When I think of freely adapting systems, total decentralization, or good-hearted attempts at communing with nature today, I don’t feel much hope. I think of San Francisco — the Paris of the West turned poster child for extreme inequality. I think of the empty rhetoric of Silicon Valley utopianism or of old hippies with property in Berkeley, brewing kombucha as the world burns. I think of Twitter and Elon Musk, of the broken promises of ’90s globalism, of the faded hope of a seamlessly networked world. Did all this talk of systems actively pave the way for our present situation? Or was the real radical center of ecological thinking lost somewhere along the way, hollowed out by its enemies?
Belgrad tells the story of a battle where conservative forces actively undermined the potential of ecological thinking. Ideas like Richard Dawkins’s “selfish gene” hid a claim about the value of competition in a biological guise, and then spread that same logic to the domain of the market, where supply-side economics emerged as the ruling ethos of the 1980s. Game theory, the version of systems theory that emphasized confrontational individual choices rather than collective adaptation, won out in policy-making circles and popular culture alike. Attempts at reaching beyond the self were replaced by protective barriers: the Sony Walkman, the gated community, and Reagan’s orbiting Cold War lasers. Belgrad plays a little fast and loose in these last chapters, clearly preferring to focus on why ecological thinking is worth recovering rather than how its legacy came to be trammeled. The denouement that previous histories have pegged to 1968 has just been pushed a little further along, attributed to the conservative forces of the 1980s.
But the book is not primarily concerned with explaining the details of complex economic and political transformations. Its purpose is to find an alternate, optimistic path running through the counterculture of the second half of the 20th-century United States, in contrast to the well-trod twin narratives of postmodernity: Baudrillard’s vision of an inward turn toward self-obsessed irony, and Foucault’s diagnosis of seemingly liberatory trends that have only brought about intensified modes of control. In our era preoccupied with the narcissism of cell phones and the encroachment of surveillance capitalism, it is a mission that feels at once timely and futile. Why call for a return to something that so clearly failed to make good on its promise?
Perhaps the answer lies in the concept’s limitations. Ecological thinking is a beautiful idea, but not an indomitable one; it constitutes a serious philosophical school without a serious political program. Plant whisperers don’t necessarily make the best political operatives; it’s hard to effect broad societal change while humming to yourself in the Colombian rain forest. But even if he can’t help but overstate its potential, Belgrad makes a convincing argument for looking carefully at this past, parsing it gently. In a moment without much optimism, it might be worth recovering these old seeds of hope.
Lewis Page is a writer, editor, and journalist from Seattle. He is currently living in New Delhi, India, and writing for The Caravan magazine.
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