1 Introduction: The Design of Culture and the Culture of Design

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Environmentalists are often regarded as people wanting to stop one

thing or another, and there are surely lots of things that ought to be

stopped. The essays in this book, however, have to do with beginnings.

How, for example, do we advance a long-delayed solar revolution?

Or begin one in forest management? Or materials use? How do

we reimagine and remake the human presence on earth in ways that

work over the long haul? Such questions are the heart of what theologian

Thomas Berry (1999) calls “the Great Work” of our age. This

endeavor is nothing less than the effort to harmonize the human enterprise

with how the world works as a physical system and how it

ought to work as a moral system. In the past two centuries the human

footprint on earth has multiplied many times over. Our science and

technology are powerful beyond anything imagined by the confident

founders of the modern world. But our sense of proportion and depth

of purpose have not kept pace with our merely technical abilities.

Our institutions and organizations still reflect their origins in another

time and in very different conditions. Incoherence, disorder, and

violence are the hallmarks of the modern world. If we are to build a

better world—one that can be sustained ecologically and one that

sustains us spiritually—we must transcend the disorder and fragmentation

of the industrial age.We need a perspective that joins the hardwon

victories of civilization, such as human rights and democracy,

with a larger view of our place in the cosmos—what Berry calls “the

universe story.” By whatever name, that philosophy must connect us

to life, to each other, and to generations to come. It must help us to

rise above sectarianism of all kinds and the puffery that puts human

interests at a particular time at the center of all value and meaning.

When we get it right, that larger, ecologically informed enlightenment

will upset comfortable philosophies that underlie the modern

world in the same way that the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century

upset medieval hierarchies of church and monarchy.

The foundation for ecological enlightenment is the 3.8 billion

years of evolution. The story of evolution is a record of design strategies

as life in all of its variety evolved in a vast efflorescence of biological

creativity. The great conceit of the industrial world is the belief

that we are exempt from the laws that govern the rest of the creation.

Nature in that view is something to be overcome and subordinated.

Designing with nature, on the other hand, disciplines human intentions

with the growing knowledge of how the world works as a physical

system. The goal is not total mastery but harmony that causes no

ugliness, human or ecological, somewhere else or at some later time.

And it is not just about making things, but rather remaking the

human presence in the world in a way that honors life and protects

human dignity. Ecological design is a large concept that joins science

and the practical arts with ethics, politics, and economics.

In one way or another all of the important questions of our age

have to do with how we get on with the Great Work, transforming

human activity on the earth from destruction to participation and

human attitudes toward nature from a kind of autism to a competent

reverence. It would be foolish to think that what has taken several

centuries or longer can be undone quickly or even entirely. But it

would also be the height of folly to continue on our present course or

to conclude that we are doomed and give up hope. For most of us the

Great Work must begin where we are, in the small acts of everyday

life, stitching together a pattern of loyalty and faithfulness to a higher

order of being. The hallmarks of those engaged in Great Work everywhere

must be largeness of heart, breadth of perspective, practical

competence, moral stamina, and the kind of intelligence that discerns

ecological patterns.

This is a tall order, but we have a heritage of ecological design intelligence

available to us if we are willing to draw on it. The starting

point for ecological design is not some mythical past, but the heritage

of design intelligence evident in many places, times, and cultures prior

to our own.We don’t need to reinvent wheels. What we will need in

the decades ahead is to rediscover and synthesize, as well as invent.

Let me illustrate with four examples.

1. Several days after the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building

in Oklahoma City in 1995, an Amish friend of mine with a welldeveloped

sense of humor called from a pay phone to inform me that

no Amish person was involved in the crime. I responded by saying

that I was not particularly surprised. “Good,” he replied, “I just

wanted to clarify that in your mind.” After a pause he added: “You

know if the Amish were involved, the getaway buggy would have

been blown up.”

My friend usually has a point to make. This time it was simply a

humorous way of saying that if the horse is your primary mode of

transportation, there are some things you cannot do. Whatever malice

may be hidden in the heart, the speed and power of the horse sets

limits to the havoc one can cause. If the horse is your primary form of

transportation, you cannot haul enough diesel and fertilizer to blow

up large buildings, and you could not escape the ensuing destruction

anyway. A horse-drawn buggy has a radius of about eight miles in hilly

country, and if you have chores to finish by suppertime, you cannot

conveniently shop until you drop. And if you could, you still could

not haul it all home. The use of draft animals also limits the amount

of land one can farm, which, in turn, limits the desire to take over a

neighbor’s farm.

In Amish culture, in other words, the horse functions like a mechanical

governor on a machine. The horse sets a standard of sorts for

human activity and a way for the culture to say no to some possibilities,

which means saying yes to better ones. The Amish voluntarily accept

the limits imposed by the horse and the discipline of living in a

close-knit community. People in industrial culture, on the other hand,

have no functional equivalent of the horse and accept few limits beyond

those of what is assumed to be cost-effectiveness. The Amish

and most traditional cultures can sustain themselves indefinitely

within the ecological limits of their regions. They contribute little or

nothing to climatic change, cancer rates, and the loss of biodiversity,

and they are invulnerable to any technological failure originating

within their own community. Modern societies, on the other hand,

are increasingly vulnerable to a long list of ecological, economic, technological,

and social threats. The question then arises whether we also

need some functional equivalent of the horse in order to become sustainable.

If so, what could it be?

2. The hamlet of Harberton, with a population of perhaps 100,

is no more than 4 miles from the city of Totnes (Devon, U.K.) with a

population of 10,000. The road connecting the two, however, is a single

lane flanked by high hedgerows which traverses an ancient and

competently used countryside. Drivers meeting on the lane connecting

Harberton and Totnes must decide who will back up to let the

other through. The process works with a civility and friendliness that

is surprising to an American driver accustomed to speed and rudeness.

In fact, the entire scene is unexpected. In, say, Ohio, there would

be little or no countryside between the two places. Developers would

have filled the four miles with malls, scenic motels, billboards, parking

lots, fast-food joints, and poorly constructed housing. In contrast, the

people of Devon have maintained and in some ways have improved a

landscape continuously inhabited since the Neolithic era. It is a landscape

of rolling hills, stone buildings clustered into villages, small

fields, dairy farms, sheep pastures, hedgerows, and narrow roads. To

the north is an expanse known as Dartmoor, to the south is the English

channel and port towns such as Dartmouth from which the

Mayflower sailed. This was an ancient landscape before the birth of

Socrates and would still be mostly familiar to its early inhabitants.

How is it that human occupation and use of this land for perhaps

10,000 years has not led to its desecration?

3. Western agriculture imposed on the island of Bali displaced

an agricultural system of remarkable productivity that had thrived

for a thousand years or more. Balinese agriculture was controlled by

a system of temples presided over by a priesthood that orchestrated

the distribution of irrigation water. The entire process was calibrated

to the seasons, pests, and differing crop needs by a complex

calendar worked out over many centuries. That intricate, resilient,

and highly productive system was displaced by the Green Revolution

in the 1970s administered by experts who regarded agriculture

as merely technical. The results were disastrous. Crops failed, pests

multiplied, and the society unraveled. The Balinese system of agriculture

had been a remarkable blend of religion with hydrological

and biological management. The imposition of technocratic Western

agriculture undid in a few years what had taken hundreds of

years to create largely because “the managerial role of the water

temples was not easily translated into the language of bureaucratic

control” (Lansing 1991, 127). Now much of that system based on

Western science and agronomy has been dismantled. But how can a

system based on superstition work where one purportedly based on

science does not?

4. Designer Victor Papenek once identified the Inuit people of

northern Alaska as the best designers in the world. They are, he believed,

“forced into excellence by climate, environment, and their

space concepts. At least equally important is the cultural baggage

they carry with them” (Papenek 1995, 223). Living in spare environments

frozen through much of the year, the Inuit people have had to

develop acute powers of observation, memory, and senses. They can

repeat a long trek using nothing more than the memory of the same

journey made years before.With eyes closed they can draw accurate

maps of their coastline. And their best maps drawn long ago rival the

best maps we can make with satellite data. Their homing sense resembles

that of animals that can find their way home through adverse

conditions. They make little distinction between space and time.

They observe details with keenness lost to Western people. Can design

ingenuity be bred into a culture by adversity?

Such examples reveal the importance of the relation between

culture and the long-term human prospect in particular places. There

are, of course, many other examples, such as Helena Norberg-Hodge’s

(1992) study of the impact of Westernization on the people of

Ladakh and Gary Nabhan’s (1982) study of the Papago peoples of the

desert Southwest. The history of settled people in many places reveals

the fact that culture and the ecology of particular places have

often been joined together with great intelligence and skill. The results,

however imperfect, are habitats in which culture and nature

have flourished together over many generations. They offer clues

about how the human enterprise has, under some conditions, been

sustained and what might be required to extend the life of our own.

Having been shaped by a century or more of cheap oil, industrialism,

and hyperindividualism, we have a difficult time understanding

what might be learned from such seemingly archaic examples. Yet as

tourists we are drawn in large numbers to places like Amish country

or Devon to snap a few photographs and after a brief visit return to

other places that are not nearly as wholesome and to lives far more

hectic. We seldom see any relation between the two. What can be

learned from well-used landscapes and settled societies wherever

they exist is the importance of local culture as the mediator between

human intentions and nature. Design for settled peoples is more than

the work of a few heroic individuals. The process by which cultures

and communities evolve over long periods of time in particular places

is manifest not so much in discrete and spectacular things as it is in

overall stability and long-term prosperity. Indeed, it is the absence of

spectacular monuments like pyramids, glittering office towers, and

shopping malls that signals the intention of people to settle in and

stay a while. Design in such places is a cultural process extending over

many centuries that has certain identifiable characteristics.

In contrast to the frenetic pace of industrial societies, settled cultures

work slowly, rather like “a patient and increasingly skillful lovemaking

that [persuades] the land to flourish” (Hawkes 1951, 202).

Moreover, settled cultures seldom exceed what can be called a human

scale. They persist mostly, but not exclusively, on local resources. In

Devon, most houses and barns are made from local timber and stone

and roofed with local slate or thatch. Fences are grown as hedgerows

over centuries. In Amish country, barns and houses are still built from

local timber by the community in barn raisings. The culture is mostly

powered by sunshine in the form of grass for animals and by wind for

pumping water. Settled cultures grow most of their food. They provide

their own livelihood. To their young they impart the skills and

aptitudes necessary to live in a particular place, not the generic job

skills necessary for the anywhere-and-everywhere industrial economy.

Instead of individual brilliance, design results from an intelligence

that is deeply embedded in the culture.

Settled cultures tend to limit excess in a variety of ways. Showiness,

ego trips, great wealth, huge homes, hurry, and excessive consumption

are mostly discouraged, while cooperation, neighborliness,

competence, thrift, responsibility, and self-reliance are encouraged.

I doubt that these traits are mentioned often, but they are manifest in

the routines of daily life. It is simply the way things are.Western culture

with its worship of egoism, doing your own thing, consumption,

the cult of wealth, and keeping one’s options open is simply incomprehensible

from the viewpoint of settled people. Whatever their

particular theology, settled cultures limit the expression of the seven

deadly sins of pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust simply

because these vices make living in close quarters difficult if not

impossible. In Western culture, as Lewis Mumford (1961, 346) once

noted, the deadly sins have mutated into “virtues” that feed economic

obesity. When the two cultures have clashed, settled people have regarded

industrial people as seriously deranged. But more often than

not settled people are either subsequently seduced by materialism or

swept away by the sheer power of the more aggressive culture.

Settled cultures, without using the word “ecology,” have designed

with ecology in mind because to do otherwise would bring ruin,

famine, and social disintegration. Out of necessity they created harmony

between intentions and the genius of particular places that preserved

diversity both cultural and biological capital; utilized current

solar income; created little or no waste; imposed few unaccounted

costs; and supported cultural and social patterns. Cultures capable of

doing such things work slowly and from the bottom up. There is no

amount of individual cleverness that could have created the intricate

cultural patterns that have preserved the landscape of Devon or

grown rice in Bali for millennia, nor any that could have created a culture

as stable and nondestructive as that of the Amish. On the contrary,

these evolved as a continual negotiation within a community

and between the community and the ecological realities of particular

places. Such cultures are not the result of scientific research so much

as continual trial and error at a scale small enough to give quick feedback

on cause and effect. Ecological design, then, requires not just a

set of generic design skills but rather the collective intelligence of a

community of people applied to particular problems in a particular

place over a long period of time.

Ecological design at the level of culture resembles the structure

and behavior of resilient systems in other contexts in which feedback

between action and subsequent correction is rapid, people are held

accountable for their actions, functional redundancy is high, and

control is decentralized. At a local scale, people’s actions are known

and so accountability tends to be high. Production is distributed

throughout the community, which means that no one individual’s

misfortune disrupts the whole. Employment, food, fuel, and recreation

are mostly derived locally, which means that people are buffered

somewhat from economic forces beyond their control. Similarly, the

decentralization of control to the community scale means that the

pathologies of large-scale administration are mostly absent. Moreover,

being situated in a place for generations provides long memory of the

place and hence of its ecological possibilities and limits. There is a kind

of long-term learning process that grows from the intimate experience

of a place over time of the kind once described by English wheelwright

George Sturt ([1923] 1984, 66) as “the age-long effort of Englishmen

to fit themselves close and ever closer into England.”

Beneath what we can see in settled cultures, there is a deeper

worldview that we can barely comprehend. In contrast to the linear

thinking characteristic of Westernized people, Native American cultures,

for example, had a more integrated view of the world in which

they lived. In Vine Deloria’s words, “The traditional Indian stood in

the center of a circle and brought everything together in that circle.

Today we stand at the end of a line and work our way along that line,

discarding or avoiding everything on either side of us” (1999, 257).

There was (and for some, still is) a view that all that exists is bound in

a kind of supportive kinship. These relationships imposed responsibilities

on humans to perform tasks that upheld the “basic structure of

the universe” and ensured that all life forms were treated with respect

and dignity (ibid., 131). Humans were intended to live “as relatives”

with all animals and learn from them (ibid., 237). “Apart from participation

in this network,” Deloria says, “Indians believe a person simply

does not exist” (ibid., 132).

The idea that humans are embedded in a network of obligation

and are kin to all life explains why settled cultures often regarded

economics as a kind of gift relationship. “In most Indian communities

in the old days the most respected person was the one who gave

freely of physical wealth, who showed a concern for the unfortunate,

and who allowed weaker members of the community to rely on

him/her” (Deloria 1999, 132). The essence of the economy is the

simple and profoundly ecological idea that “the gift must always

move” (Hyde 1983, 4). Tribal people often evolved complicated cer-

emonies, like the potlatch of the Native American tribes of the North

Pacific, in which wealth was given away, destroyed, or discarded. Beneath

such customs is an ecological view of the world that involves

understanding “that what nature gives to us is influenced by what we

give to nature” (Deloria 1999, 19). When wealth is no longer regarded

as a gift to be passed from person to person, then and only

then does scarcity appear.

Such relationships were not religious abstractions, but central to

the way Native Americans related to the places in which they lived.

They made no clear distinctions between themselves physically and

the land in which they dwelled. Land contained the memory of past

deeds and the spirits of their ancestors. Settled people have always

known where they would be buried and with whom.“Our memory of

land is a memory of ourselves and our deeds and experiences,” in

Deloria’s words (1999, 253).We who regard land as a commodity to

be bought and sold or as a resource can scarcely comprehend such

a view. Our lack of comprehension is, in the view of tribal people, a

mark of our adolescence and immaturity.

This book is not an argument to return to some mythic condition

of ecological innocence. No such place ever existed. It begins, however,

with an acknowledgment that we have important things to relearn

about the arts of longevity—what is now called “sustainability”—

from earlier cultures and other societies. Many of those cultures

appear to us as quaintly archaic if not utterly incomprehensible. But

in the larger sweep of time, our emphasis on economic growth, consumption,

and individualism will be even less understandable to subsequent

and, one hopes, wiser generations. Carrying out the Great

Work of making an ecologically durable and decent society will require

us to confront the deeper cultural roots of our problems and

grow out of the faith that we can meet the challenge of sustainability

without really changing much. The evidence, I think, shows that we

will have to change a great deal and mostly in ways that we will come

to regard as vastly better than what exists now and certainly better

than what is in prospect.

This is a design challenge like no other. It is not about making

greener widgets but how to make decent communities that fit their

places with elegant frugality. The issue is whether the emerging field

of ecological design will evolve as a set of design skills applied as

patchwork solutions on a larger pattern of disorder or whether design

will eventually help to transform the larger culture that is badly in

need of a reformation. I hope for the latter. Green consumerism or

even greener corporations are Band-Aids on wounds inflicted by

economy grown too indifferent to real human needs and pressing

problems of long-term human survival. Corporations certainly need

to be improved, but the larger design problem has to do with the

structure of an economy that promotes excess consumption and

human incompetence, concentrates power in too few hands, and destroys

the ties that bind people together in community. The problem

is not how to produce ecologically benign products for the consumer

economy, but how to make decent communities in which people

grow to be responsible citizens and whole people.

The essays that follow aim to broaden the concept of ecological

design, explore various pathologies that prevent it, and sketch the educational

implications of design. In the final section the essays lay out

a standard for design that is oriented to generosity in the large sense of

the word, the preservation of wildness and wilderness, and the design

of a culture that protects its children.