“Nature herself is sublimely eloquent. The stars as they sparkle in firmament fill us with delight and ecstasy, and yet they all move in orbit marked out with mathematical precision.”
Alexander Von Humboldt
There is a strange numbness that comes with acknowledging that we are not only entering the sixth mass extinction event in our planet’s four and half billion year history, but that our own species is solely responsible for the atmospheric and geological changes that are driving it (Kolbert, 2015). This realisation when fully acknowledged, prompts us to reflect profoundly on the role that humans play within the complex web of ecosystems that regulate life on earth. Indeed, this is a fast expanding field of scholarship. The field of study known as Social Ecological Systems (yes it’s a mouthful!) is an example of a contemporary attempt that is being made to understand the complex dynamics that shape the living world around us. It is also a concession, at least in the world of academia, that the boundary lines between natural systems and social systems are infact artificial and arbitrary (Berkes, Folke, 1998), and this I will argue, challenges the very foundation on which our dominant cultural identity is built.
Timothy Morton suggests that “ecological awareness is the awareness of unintended consequences” (Morton, 2013, p.51) and indeed this idea is best visualized through the suggestion of the Anthropocene. That is a new proposed geological era defined by a clear stratum of matter within our earth’s crust. This uniquely human signature when viewed by future geologists would contain the remnants of synthetic polymers, hazardous radionuclides and levels of the carbon dioxide higher than any epoch over the last three millions years. Not to mention the fossilized deposits and carbon remains of the mass biological die-off aforementioned. This is the unintended consequences of our actions. No one set out to systematically destroy life on earth, yet that is the resulting impact of the decisions we have made, the stories we believe and the way we are living our lives.
This essay then, investigates the role of both philosophy and design in shaping the social ecological systems within which we dwell. In doing so it looks to expose the deep misconceptions that have led us to the door of our own extinction. By tracing back to more than a millennia in our history, I will interrogate the dominant cultural ideologies that have shaped our development as a species. My hope is that this critique will open up a space to reimagine our relationship to nature, and therefore offer an insight into a different approach to philosophy and design that may be useful, as we navigate a future marked by significant environmental and social change.
Our relationship to nature and our understanding of ourselves in the great cosmos has a long and storied history but if we were to pick a starting point, then where better to begin than the inception of ancient philosophy, which by no coincidence collides with the earliest examples of ecological scholarship. Aristotle was not only an exceptional philosopher but an equally gifted theoretical biologist (Depew, 2004, p.1). This drive toward theory means that for Aristotle, problems we now recognize as scientific were penetrated at every point by questions that he recognized as philosophical. His biological treatise comprises a quarter of the corpus of his writings (Lenox, 2019). Yet the term biology didn’t come about until the 18th century. For Aristotle, what we recognize as biology today, was a central part of the science of natural philosophy and physics (Depew, 2004, p.5). In other words, for Aristotle the study and even the reverence of living organisms was absolutely essential to achieving a deeper understanding of our own ontology. This is important because it sets the stage for the development of an environmental philosophopy that is argubly broader and more holistic than the lens of scientific biology that shapes our contemporary understanding of the living world today.
It was on the island of Lesbos that Aristotle began to work with Theophrastus. While Aristotle primarily studied animals, Theophrastrus studied plants. Together their scholarship makes up the oldest known set of treatises that describe the behaviour of living organisms and their environment, which serves as the early foundations of modern ecology (Depew, 2004, p.11). But perhaps most interesting is Aristotle’s treatise ‘De Anima’ which outlines in great detail his theory of the soul. For the ancient Greeks, the soul was a mark of living things. Something that is subject to emotional states and responsible for planning and practical thinking (Lorenz, 2009). ‘De Anima’ makes clear that the soul is the ‘form’ of all living substances. Substances are then materially composed of different functional parts (On the Soul 412 a 20). Therefore plants, animals and humans all share the same underlying form just with different functional capacities. This is a metaphysical proposition that unites our perception of ourselves with the objective reality that we are indeed deeply interconnected and derived from all living beings. It is curious that our functional capacity of self awareness and emotion does not give us an overriding sense of responsibility and stewardship rather, it seems to have manifested as something closer to entitlement and ignorance, at least that is what dominates our culture today.
Aristotle’s overarching theory was that ‘being’ can be distilled down into the elemental concepts of ‘form’ and ‘matter’ (Ainsworth, 2020). He coined this idea; hylomorphism. However the question remains how this unifying concept, were it still prevalent today, would shape the way we design. There is a temptation here to draw a direct parallel. That design itself is surely hylomorphic because at its essence, it is the act of creating a thing by giving form to matter. Social anthropologist Tim Ingold, defines hylomorphic design as “imposing forms internal to the mind upon a material world”(Ingold, 2009, p.1), but in fact this line of thinking highlights the exact hubris that anthropocentric design suffers from. That is, the fallacy that we can ‘impose’ our will on the world and shape as we see fit. While this illusion may hold for some time, the truth is the process of ‘making’ is closer to a reciprocal back and forth. It requires ‘listening’ to what is being shaped and working with it in a way that best suits its true nature. Any carpenter knows that before wood is cut, one must read the direction of the grain. So then, a useful interpretation of Aristotle’s philosophy when it comes to design might be that the true form and matter of any thing we wish to engage with, should be first observed and appreciated by the designer. The process of change, if it is necessary, should then be one that strives to alter the form in a way that is most appropriate to the material. In this manner the maker remains in an adaptive state that concedes that our human desire is not supreme but simply one input in a complex process of transformation.
However Aristotle is of course somewhat succeeded in the Western canon of philosophical thought by a new breed of Christian-Judeo thinkers in the 16th century, namely René Descartes. A potent mix of religious dogma and scientific rationalism creates an entirely different set of ethics for engaging with the natural world. The Christian Old Testament, Genesis 1:28 for example directs the “followers of God” to “…have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every beast of the earth.” Descartes takes this a step further by constructing a philosophy of rationalism that at its most destructive justifies humans as the “masters and possessors of nature.” (Discourse on Method, Vol. XXXIV, Part 1). This is arguably not only the epistemological wellspring from which anthropocentrism as an ideology would grow, but also the seed of the misconception that nature is nothing more than a utility or a resource.
From this line of enquiry, among others, the scientific revolution takes hold of Western Europe and with it design becomes a practice rooted first and foremost in the geometric manipulation of the physical world. Most critically, complex systems and phenomena are simplified through a lens of universal mechanism. That is to say that we can think of all natural phenomena as merely a collection of individual parts, similar to that of a complex machine. This ideology would directly contradict Aristotle’s proclamation that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts” (Metaphysics, Book VIII, 1045a.8–10). Universal mechanism when seen through the lens of design suggests that we hold the omnipotent ability to deconstruct and manipulate the world around us. The barrier then to any desired outcome is merely dissipated through the use of empirical scientific investigation. This is fundamentally flawed because it discounts what Timothy Morton has already described as the “unintended consequences” of which today are all too clear. Contemporary systems theory regards these unwanted consequences as something called ‘emergent properties’ which can generate unforeseen behaviours and feedback loops (O’Connor, 2020). Therefore, any designer wishing to engage with the manipulation of a system must first come to terms with its inherent emergent properties and this requires a more holistic understanding than that of early Western science alone.
There were however detractors from these Cartesian ideals. Prussian polymath Alexander Von Humboldt sought to unite natural science and culture through his observations of Latin America. During his five year expedition he wrote of the “ancient and deeply seated bond which unites natural science with poetry and artistic feeling”(Humboldt, 1849). His travels would lead him to the reactionary idea that the natural world was in fact a unified whole wherein everything was correlated, in his words a “wonderful web of organic life”(Humboldt, 1849). By successfully uniting empirical knowledge with a deep artistic reverence for the phenomena of nature, Humboldt offers us a different approach to how we might engage with the world around us. Rather than dwell within the specialization of individual fields of knowledge, as was becoming increasingly popular during the scientific revolution, Humboldt advocates for a more holistic approach where romanticism and empiricism unite. Even his semantic use of the words “web of organic life’” uses the natural metaphor of a spiders web to communicate the fragility and wonder of nature, rather than describe it in mechanical terms.
His method involved not only direct field observation, measuring and collecting data in situ but also allowing himself to experience, in an emotional and aesthetic sense, the world before him. (Wulf, 2017, p.4) His five-volume opus entitled ‘Cosmos’ (a nod to the ancient Greeks) purposely abstained from the narrow lens of specialization that was driving scientific advancement and instead presented a unified, interconnected vision of the natural world. This approach is perhaps best exemplified through his heroic cross-sectional drawing of Chimborazo volcano (fig.1). While the section is a common mode of representation for the designer today, here Humboldt both artistically rendered his image while simultaneously attempting to convey myriad technical data on temperature, altitude, humidity, atmosphere, and the animal and plants at each layer of elevation. While this is undoubtedly a romantic attempt to capture the sheer complexity of interacting systems, what was revealed at the time was phenomena that had not been previously understood by the scientific community.
Humbolt successfully theorized the isothermal process connecting climate zones across multiple latitudes and became the first person to suggest the possibility of anthropogenic induced climate change (Rawding, 2017, p95). The ambition to map global-scale biogeophysical patterns and processes is not only a foundation stone in the study of modern ecology but the underlying objective of Social Ecological System scholarship today. Therefore we should not shy away from the representation of complex systems, rather a designer should seek to illustrate with as much detail as possible the myriad processes that are disrupted through the action of design. It is from here that we can begin to map the potential emergent properties of which Descartes seemed so naively unaware.
The Industrial Revolution was literally born out of a convergence of new science, philosophy and design predicated on the mythology that man can control nature. And it is without doubt that our industrial exploits are the catalyst that generated the levels of atmospheric pollution that are today changing our global temperature. The last two hundreds years are littered with examples of environmental crisis and ecosystem destruction that were justified through an insidious desire to pursue ‘development’ in the name of progress. But how can this ostensible ‘development’ be remotely prudent if it results in the near extinction of our own species? Clearly, we need not only a new compass but even an entirely new map, since we are walking blindly through a terrain which we do not fully understand. The chance of stepping off the edge of the existential cliff currently remains uncomfortably high.
If there is a silver lining to the sheer scale of pollution that was generated through the first and second industrial revolutions, it is that the unwanted environmental consequences of our actions became not only visible to the lay individual but threatened their very livelihood. This sparked a new wave of environmental philosophers in the early 19th century giving birth to the Romantics. Emotion takes centre stage in any romantic attempt to view the world and design is no exception. Here was the birth of a movement that could potentially unify modern science with the intuition and emotion that makes us so unique as human animals. Romanticism was a direct response to the rationalism of the Enlightenment era and the artistic and academic contributions of those who embraced this approach such as Alexander Von Humboldt speak for themselves. But Romanticism was merely the inception of a line of thinking that is still playing out today. Surprisingly (although perhaps not for Humboldt) where its impacts are most prevalent, particularly in the context of design and ecology are in the world of systems thinking.
So then let us turn to a figure for whom systems thinking was the logical way of viewing the world, he is familiar to most contemporary designers today; Richard Buckminster Fuller. In his book ‘Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth’ he compares humanity at the turn of the 1970’s to that of a small chick breaking out of its shell, having depleted the limited resources within. He says “We are faced with an entirely new relationship to the universe. We are going to have to spread our wings of intellect and fly, or perish; that is, we must dare immediately to fly by the generalized principles governing the universe and not by the ground rules of yesterday’s superstitious and erroneously conditioned reflexes”(pg.66). Fuller caught the Zeitgeist. The collective realisation that we exist firmly within the hold of complex natural systems and therefore require a new set of governing principles was catalysed through the lens of William Anders in the 1968 photo from space that would become known as Earthrise (fig.2). There is no more literal example of thinking on the broadest planetary systems scale than looking at Planet Earth, floating in the abyss of space, surrounded by great oceans and and clouds, operating on a scale and detail beyond our comprehension.
This global perspective ignited the spark of a new philosophical approach to system thinking. It is worth pointing out that the semantic terms ‘ecology’, ‘biosphere’ and ‘ecosystem’ only came into our common lexicon at the end of the 19th century, yet today they seem completely logical as conceptual ideas. The expansion of our own conscious awareness is racing against the clock of climate breakdown and species extinction. So, in more pragmatic terms, what can be deduced from this new ontological perception of ourselves? How does this expanded awareness shape the design of our lives? Particularly when we know that change is not only a given, but that change seems to be the nature of nature itself.
The clues lie in the work of ecological systems thinkers such as C.S.Holling and Bill Mollison. Holling introduced the concept of resilience into academic literature to help understand the capacity of an ecosystem to maintain its core identity when subject to change (Folke, 2010). In other words, resilience is broadly about dealing with uncertainty and it is no coincidence that this term has increased dramatically within scholarly fields since discovery of anthropogenic climate change. This is where the conceptual idea of Social Ecological Systems comes in. A conceptual framework that looks at both human communities and ecosystems as fundamentally interrelated. In this way, we can start to compare and even design for properties that apply to these multifaceted systems such as adaptation and transformation (Gunderson, 2010). First let us clarify what we mean by these words. Adaptability is defined as “the capacity of actors in a system to influence resilience” while transformability can be thought of as “the capacity to create a fundamentally new system when ecological, economic, or social structures make the existing system untenable” (Walker et al. 2004:5).
These concepts are best understood through Hollings diagram of The Adaptive Cycle (fig.3). This is a heuristic model, which means it is designed specifically to help us understand an otherwise complex process. It shows a four-phase cycle that is observed in both social and natural phenomena. In this model a system is established and then grows using the resources and capital around it, it reaches a natural point of conservation once the resources begin to dwindle, at which point it invariably releases or collapses. This is a chaotic period where the opportunity for change is at its greatest. This is then followed by re-organisation of the system to meet the new conditions and ultimately back into rapid growth, creating an ongoing, seemingly infinite loop. This is a revolutionary concept because it accepts the notion of collapse as the natural expectation of any system whether it is social or natural. Every great civilization, ancient forest and animal colony has moved roughly through this process throughout antiquity. In other words the central lesson of resilience thinking is that environmental designers should avoid optimising a system to one specific set of stable environmental conditions, as they will reduce the ability of the system to adapt when those conditions inevitably change (Gunderson et al. 1995).
This is translated more literally into both a philosophy and a blueprint for design by the work of Bill Mollison through the concept of permaculture. As a framework, permaculture (which combines the words permanent and culture) uses the principles of resilience and regeneration to construct a whole systems approach to living within balance of natural ecosystems (Mollison, 1998). These are design principles based not on a romantic nostalgia for a more agrarian form of living, as is often misinterpreted, but rather derived from the cutting edge 21st-century science of systems ecology (Holmgren, 1997, pg.7). If we apply the conceptual idea of a Social Ecological Systems at different scales whether it is the neighbourhood, the city or even a country, we can then deploy a material response of design based on permaculture principles, which bake in resilience, adaptation and transformation. In this way the recent remnants of modernist design which represent control and simplicity are renounced in favour of a new philosophy that embraces complexity and even collapse as fundamental to the function of any healthy social or natural system.
As I attempt to draw a conclusion, let me bring it back once more to the ancient Greeks. Heraclitus who preceded Aristotle and even Socrates wrote just one treatise entitled ‘On Nature’, in it, among the cryptic musings of his early philosophy he emphasized the constant, ever present phenomena of change. He wrote “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man”. There is a profound psychological shift that comes with accepting the nature of constant change because by doing so we stop pushing against the fundamental nature of the systems that shape our life. Instead, just as the wood cutter reads his grain, we start to work with the natural flow of things in a more reciprocal nature.
By embracing a holistic, integrated approach to thinking about who we are and how we engage with the world around us, we gain a broader, more enlightened perspective on the interconnected web of life that Humboldt witnessed as he looked over Chimborazo volcano more than a century ago. Global warming and species extinction is ‘change’ on a massive, daunting scale. There is no doubt that we need to adapt, even to transform ourselves and our society in order to navigate the disruption that comes in any such process. But in order to do this, we must first concede that we are not the omnipotent masters of the universe. Rather we are subject to complex and adaptive processes just as every other creature on this planet. This is the foundation of a philosophy and a framework for design that offers an antidote to the reductive and erroneous approach of anthropocentrism.
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