Finding a Way

Will Peoples’ Responses to the Emergencies of the Coming Decades be Warm? Or Cold?

Nora Bateson


Nora Bateson & Mamphela Ramphele

The crises of the moment do not need further description here. Suffice to say that the complexity of the overlapping crises of inequality, health, justice, technology, ecology and culture are producing emergencies that the institutions of the last centuries cannot contend with. How will the next decades play out amidst these crises? More importantly, what is possible for societies around the world to learn in the process?

We (Bateson & Ramphele) are going to bring our voices together on this topic, to open a conversation with a conversation. We have both been watching these patterns for decades, from different sides of the world, different experiences of life, different cultures, different generations… but we have seen something very similar. Each of us has struggled to find the thing people call “traction” for these observations we share. We have been told it was not practical, strategic, or policy oriented.

Today we are writing this together, mutually learning how to express this extremely important shift in how to approach environmental and social change. It turns out it is not traction that is needed, but relationship.

The lifeboat story: cold version: There is an old metaphor, introduced by Garrett Hardin in which a lifeboat is featured as a way to ponder the mathematics of survival. The thought experiment is explored through the lens of ethical distribution of resources. It has been applied to population, immigration, natural resources, food supplies and more. High school students are often given this ‘lifeboat ethic’ as an introduction to how hard decisions at structural levels are assessed.

In the story, there are 50 people in a lifeboat that can hold ten more people, but there are 100 people in the water. It would appear that approximately 90 people will unfortunately be left to die so that any may survive. The project then becomes a collection of ‘difficult but necessary’ questions to justify how the remaining 10 people will be selected to survive.

Who will choose who lives and who dies?

What are the criteria for those choices?

How will the ones who are on the boats be fed?

Is cannibalism a possibility? (Really, this is one of the questions.)



Nora Bateson

Filmmaker, writer, educator, lecturer, President of the International Bateson Institute. Books: Small Arcs of Larger Circles 2016, Warm Data *upcoming 2019