Ecological Design

David Orr, a professor Environmental Studies and Politics, suggests four reasons why ecological design provides a paradigm shift for thinking about how to tackles the various crises of our times that we can lay at the feet of the sort of thinking that has underpinned Western Civilisation that birthed economic globalisation and the commodification of everything in its path.

  1. Business as usual would be suicidal—given that it has driven the world system to the point of irreparable damage
  2. The scale is global—there are no safe places left anywhere on Earth, and that includes New Zealand, the favourite escape fantasy of the rich
  3. Although absent from political thinking, ecological design is flourishing in areas such as agriculture, transportation, energy, manufacturing and urban planning—we are finally turning our minds from the mechanistic thinking of the past to learning from nature, to biological thinking
  4. Ecological design transcends the Western tradition that underpins science and engineering.  It draw from more ancient systems of thinking linked to the modern sciences of ecology, but anchored in religious and cultural norms that sit at odds with the compartmentalised thinking that underpins most modern institutional practices and thinking
  5. It requires us to see things whole, to thinking about actions and their consequences across many points of interconnection. It means woking at a smaller scale, the neighbourhood, the village, the farm, the factory BEFORE generalising to systems at a larger scale.  It means working from the particular.
  6. Systems thinking in ecological design overcomes the modern split between religious or spiritual thinking and the secular world of the professions; it demands that we consider all the connections and re-consider that matter itself is alert with a form of intelligence.
  7. Ecological design requires us to think and act in ways that are reciprocal, mutual with all lifeforms and the Earth itself.

The Whole Earth Catalogue for the 21st Century

Daniel Wahl’s book, Designing Regenerative Cultures, has been described as the Whole Earth Catalog for the 21st Century. The Whole Earth Catalog (WEC) was an American counterculture magazine and product catalog published by Steward Brand several times a year between 1968 and 1972, and occasionally thereafter, until 1998. The editorial focus was on self-sufficiency, ecology  alternative education, with an emphasis on holism and a ‘do it yourself’ approach to life (DIY).

For the Baby Boomers of the Counter Culture movement that saw the development of alternative intentional communities in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Europe, the Whole Earth Catalog played a very important role.  Although this whole movement largely lost its impetus under the pressures of the way a capitalist economy is organised, and the impact of the drug culture that came along in its wake, we can perhaps think of it as the first wave of a movement that is now being called to manifest.  This time, not just a reaction to consumerism, to a response to the existential crisis facing the world.

Will we be able to change course?  Will the combined intelligence of humanity find a different path through systems thinking, or will it continue on its current trajectory of geo-political power plays, the profit-driven application of scientific knowledge into technologies and pharmaceuticals that are all too frequently destructive in unintended ways, the narrow scientific interest in knowledge as a tool of conquest of nature, of dreams of eternal life, of exciting artificial intelligence applications, whatever their actual societal impacts?  Will we learn from nature through systems thinking, or will be continue to seek to plunder nature, through a new form of biocolonialism, turning the Earth’s biological secrets into IP, the intellectual property of big corporations?

What is the new pathway out of these frightful conundrums?  Daniel Wahl sets out a framework, based on an interconnected system of four quandrants:

  1. Living Systems Thinking
  2. Transformative Innovation
  3. Biologically Inspired Design
  4. Health and Resilience

Wahl follows the same trajectory of thinking that informs First Nations Knowledge Systems, away from what he calls the pathological habit of understanding and experiencing ourselves as separate from nature, from each other and from the community of life, and towards what the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh called, ‘Interbeing’. We need to turn away from the dangerous ideology of economism—the competitive struggle in a world of scarcity, and the dangerously deluded view that reality is only that which the scientific method can unveil and count.

Wahl invites us to consider the following:

  1. Due to radical interconnectivity, systemic interaction and feedback loops, causality is more often than not circular rather than linear
  2. Uncertainty and ambiguity are therefore fundamental characteristics of our lives and the natural world that includes human culture, society and our economic systems—never merely observers
  3. Therefore we need to embrace the fact that we are participants, as inter-subjective and co-creating agents
  4. If we embrace the limitations of our own understanding, recognising our ignorance, we can learn to work creatively with ambiguity and befriend uncertainty
  5. We can pay attention to the wisdom of many minds and diverse points of view and live the questions more deeply before we jump to answers and solutions.
  6. We are always participants