2 Human Ecology as a Problem of Ecological Design

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Man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his

foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords.

—George Perkins Marsh

The Problem of Human Ecology

Whatever their particular causes, environmental problems all share

one fundamental trait: with rare exceptions they are unintended,

unforeseen, and sometimes ironic side effects of actions arising from

other intentions.1 We intend one thing and sooner or later get something

very different. We intended merely to be prosperous and

1. Our ecological troubles have been variously attributed to Judeo-Christian

religion (White 1967), our inability to manage common property resources

healthy but have inadvertently triggered a mass extinction of other

species, spread pollution throughout the world, and triggered climatic

change—all of which undermines our prosperity and health. Environmental

problems, then, are mostly the result of a miscalibration

between human intentions and ecological results, which is to say that

they are a kind of design failure.

The possibility that ecological problems are design failures is perhaps

bad news because it may signal inherent flaws in our perceptual

and mental abilities. On the other hand, it may be good news. If our

problems are, to a great extent, the result of design failures, the obvious

solution is better design, by which I mean a closer fit between

human intentions and the ecological systems where the results of our

intentions are ultimately played out.

The perennial problem of human ecology is how different cultures

provision themselves with food, shelter, energy, and the means

of livelihood by extracting energy and materials from their surroundings

(Smil 1994). Ecological design describes the ensemble of technologies

and strategies by which societies use the natural world to

construct culture and meet their needs. Because the natural world is

continually modified by human actions, culture and ecology are shifting

parts of an equation that can never be solved. Nor can there be

one correct design strategy. Hunter-gatherers lived on current solar

income. Feudal barons extracted wealth from sunlight by exploiting

serfs who farmed the land.We provision ourselves by mining ancient

sunlight stored as fossil fuels. The choice is not whether or not human

societies have a design strategy, but whether that strategy works ecologically

and can be sustained within the regenerative capacity of the

particular ecosystem. The problem of ecological design has become

more difficult as the human population has grown and technology

has multiplied. It is now the overriding problem of our time, affecting

virtually all other issues on the human agenda. How and how intelligently

we weave the human presence into the natural world will re-

such as ocean fisheries (Hardin 1968), lack of character (Berry 1977), gender

imbalance (Merchant 1980), technology run amuck (Mumford 1974), disenchantment

(Berman 1989), the loss of sensual connection to nature (Abram

1996), exponential growth (Meadows 1998), and flaws in the economic system

(Daly 1996).

duce or intensify other problems having to do with ethnic conflicts,

economics, hunger, political stability, health, and human happiness.

At the most basic level, humans need 2,200–3,000 calories per

day, depending on body size and activity level. Early hunter-gatherers

used little more energy than they required for food. The invention of

agriculture increased the efficiency with which we captured sunlight

permitting the growth of cities (Smil 1991, 1994). Despite their differences,

neither hunter-gatherers nor farmers showed much ecological

foresight. Hunter-gatherers drove many species to extinction, and

early farmers left behind a legacy of deforestation, soil erosion, and

land degradation. In other words, we have always modified our environments

to one degree or another, but the level of ecological damage

has increased with the level of civilization and with the scale and kind

of technology.

The average citizen of the United States now uses some 186,000

calories of energy each day, most of it derived from oil and coal (Mc-

Kibben 1998). Our food and materials come to us via a system that

spans the world and whose consequences are mostly concealed from

us. On average food is said to have traveled more than 1,300 miles

from where it was grown or produced to where it is eaten (Meadows

1998). In such a system, there is no conceivable way that we can

know the human or ecological consequences of eating. Nor can we

know the full cost of virtually anything that we purchase or discard.

We do know, however, that the level of environmental destruction has

risen with the volume of stuff consumed and with the distance it is

transported. By one count we waste more than 1 million pounds of

materials per person per year. For every 100 pounds of product, we

create 3,200 pounds of waste (Hawken 1997, 44). Measured as an

“ecological footprint” (i.e., the land required to grow our food,

process our organic wastes, sequester our carbon dioxide, and provide

our material needs), the average North American requires some 5

hectares of arable land per person per year (Wackernagel and Rees

1996). But at the current population level, the world has only 1.2

hectares of useable land per person. Extending our lifestyle to everyone

would require the equivalent of two additional earths!

Looking ahead, we face an imminent collision between a growing

population with rising material expectations and ecological capacity.

At some time in the next century, given present trends, the human

population will reach or exceed 10 billion, perhaps as many as 15–20

percent of the species on earth will have disappeared forever, and the

effects of climatic change will be fully apparent. This much and more

is virtually certain. Feeding, housing, clothing, and educating another

4–6 billion people and providing employment for an additional 2–4

billion without wrecking the planet in the process will be a considerable

challenge. Given our inability to meet basic needs of one-third of

the present population, there are good reasons to doubt that we will

be able to do better with the far larger population now in prospect.

The Default Setting

The regnant faith holds that science and technology will find a way to

meet human needs and desires without our having to make significant

changes in our philosophies, politics, economics, or in the way

we live. Rockefeller University professor Jessie Ausubel, for example,

asserts that

after a very long preparation, our science and technology are

ready also to reconcile our economy and the environment.

. . . In fact, long before environmental policy became conscious

of itself, the system had set decarbonization in

motion. A highly efficient hydrogen economy, landless agriculture,

industrial ecosystems in which waste virtually disappears:

over the coming century these can enable large, prosperous

human populations to co-exist with the whales and

the lions and the eagles and all that underlie them. (Ausubel

1996, 15)

We have, Ausubel states, “liberated ourselves from the environment.”

This view is similar to that of futurist Herman Kahn when he

asserted several decades ago that by the year 2200 “humans would

everywhere be rich, numerous, and in control of the forces of nature”

(Kahn and Brown 1976, 1). In its more recent version, those believing

that we have liberated ourselves from the environment cite advances

in energy use, materials science, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence

that will enable us to do much more with far less and eventually

transcend ecological limits altogether. Humanity will then take

control of its own fate, or more accurately, as C. S. Lewis once ob-

served, some few humans will do so, purportedly acting on behalf of

all humanity ([1947] 1970).

Ausubel’s optimism coincides with the widely held view that we

ought to simply take over the task of managing the planet (Scientific

American 1989). In fact, the technological and scientific capability is

widely believed to be emerging in the technologies of remote sensing,

geographic information systems, computers, the science of ecology

(in its managerial version), and systems engineering. The problems of

managing the earth, however, are legion. For one, the word “management”

does not quite capture the essence of the thing being proposed.

We can manage, say, a 747 because we made it. Presumably, we know

what it can and cannot do even though they sometimes crash for reasons

that elude us. Our knowledge of the earth is in no way comparable.

We did not make it, we have no blueprint of it, and we will never

know fully how it works. Second, the target of management is not

quite what it appears to be since a good bit of what passes for managing

the earth is, in fact, managing human behavior. Third, under the

guise of objective neutrality and under the pretext of emergency,

management of the earth is ultimately an extension of the effort to

dominate people through the domination of nature. And can we trust

those presuming to manage to do so with fairness, wisdom, foresight,

and humility, and for how long?

Another, and more modest, possibility is to restrict our access to

nature rather like a fussy mother in bygone days keeping unruly children

out of the formal parlor. To this end Martin Lewis (1992) proposes

what he calls a “Promethean environmentalism” that aims to

protect nature by keeping us away from as much of it as possible. His

purpose is to substitute advanced technology for nature. This requires

the development of far more advanced technologies, more unfettered

capitalism, and probably some kind of high-tech virtual simulation to

meet whatever residual needs for nature that we might retain in this

Brave New World. Lewis dismisses the possibility that we could become

stewards, ecologically competent, or even just a bit more humble.

Accordingly, he disparages those whom he labels “eco-radicals,”

including Aldo Leopold, Herman Daly, and E. F. Schumacher, who

question the role of capitalism in environmental destruction, raise issues

about appropriate scale, and disagree with the directions of technological

evolution. Lewis’s proposal to protect nature by removing

humankind from it raises other questions. Will people cut off from

nature be sane? Will people who no longer believe that they need nature

be willing, nonetheless, to protect it? If so, will people no longer

in contact with nature know how to do so? And was it not our efforts

to cut ourselves off from nature that got us into trouble in the first

place? On such matters Lewis is silent.

Despite pervasive optimism, there is a venerable tradition of unease

about the consequences of unconstrained technological development,

from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Lewis Mumford’s (1974)

critique of the “megamachine.” But the technological juggernaut that

has brought us to our present situation, nonetheless, remains on track.

We have now arrived, in Edward O.Wilson’s (1998) view, at a choice

between two very different paths of human evolution. One choice

would aim to preserve “the physical and biotic environment that cradled

the human species” along with those traits that make us distinctively

human. The other path, based on the belief that we are now

exempt from the “iron laws of ecology that bind other species,” would

take us in radically different directions, as “Homo proteus or ‘shapechanger

man’” (ibid., 278). But how much of the earth can we safely

alter? How much of our own genetic inheritance should we manipulate

before we are no longer recognizably human? This second path,

in Wilson’s view, would “render everything fragile” (ibid., 298). And,

in time, fragile things break apart.

The sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul, is even more pessimistic.

“Our machines,” he writes, “have truly replaced us.”We have

no philosophy of technology, in his view, because “philosophy implies

limits and definitions and defined areas that technique will not allow”

(1990, 216). Consequently, we seldom ask where all of this is going,

or why, or who really benefits. The “unicity of the [technological] system,”

Ellul believes, “may be the cause of its fragility” (1980, 164).We

are “shut up, blocked, and chained by the inevitability of the technical

system,” at least until the self-contradictions of the “technological

bluff,” like massive geologic fault lines, give way and the system dissolves

in “enormous global disorder” (1990, 411–412). At that point

he thinks that we will finally understand that “everything depends on

the qualities of individuals” (ibid., 412).

The dynamic is by now familiar. Technology begets more technology,

technological systems, technology-driven politics, technologydependent

economies, and finally, people who can neither function

nor think a hair’s breadth beyond the limits of one machine or an-

other. This, in Neil Postman’s (1992) view, is the underlying pattern

of Western history as we moved from simple tools, to technocracy, to

“technopoly.” In the first stage, tools were useful to solve specific

problems but did not undermine “the dignity and integrity of the culture

into which they were introduced” (ibid., 23). In a technocracy

like England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, factories undermined

“tradition, social mores, myth, politics, ritual and religion.”

The third stage, technopoly, however, “eliminates alternatives to itself

in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World.” It

does so “by redefining what we mean by religion, by art, by family, by

politics, by history, by truth, by privacy, by intelligence, so that our

definitions fit its new requirements” (ibid., 48). Technopoly represents,

in Postman’s view, the cultural equivalent of AIDS, which is to

say a culture with no defense whatsoever against technology or the

claims of expertise (ibid., 63). It flourishes when the “tie between information

and human purpose has been severed” (ibid., 70).

The course that Ausubel and others propose fits into this larger

pattern of technopoly that step by step is shifting human evolution in

radically different directions. Ausubel (1996) does not discuss the

risks and unforeseen consequences that accompany unfettered technological

change. These, he apparently believes, are justifiable as unavoidable

costs of what he deems to be progress. This is precisely the

kind of thinking that has undermined our capacity to refuse technologies

that add nothing to our quality of life. A system that

produces automobiles and atom bombs will also go on to make supercomputers,

smart weapons, genetically altered crops, nanotechnologies,

and eventually machines smart enough to displace their creators.

There is no obvious stopping point, which is to say that, having accepted

the initial premises of technopoly, the powers of control and

good judgment are eroded away in the flood of possibilities.

Advertised as the essence of rationality and control, the technological

system has become the epitome of irrationality in which

means overrule careful consideration of ends. A rising tide of unanticipated

consequences and “normal accidents” mock the idea that experts

are in control or that technologies do only what they are intended

to do. The purported rationality of each particular component

in what Wilson (1998, 289) calls a “thickening web of prosthetic devices”

added together as a system lacks both rationality and coherence.

Nor is there anything inherently human or even rational about

words such as “efficiency,” “productivity,” or “management,” that are

used to justify technological change. Rationality of this narrow sort

has been “as successful—if not more successful—at creating new degrees

of barbarism and violence as it has been at imposing reasonable

actions” (Saul 1993, 32). Originating with Descartes and Galileo, the

foundations of the modern worldview were flawed from the beginning.

In time, those seemingly small and trivial errors of perception,

logic, and heart cascaded into a rising tide of cultural incoherence,

barbarism, and ecological degradation. Ausubel’s optimism notwithstanding,

this tide will continue to rise until it has finally drowned

every decent possibility that might have been unless we choose a

more discerning course.

Ecological Design

The unfolding problems of human ecology are not solvable by repeating

old mistakes in new and more sophisticated and powerful

ways. We need a deeper change of the kind Albert Einstein had in

mind when he said that the same manner of thought that created

problems could not solve them (quoted in McDonough and Braungart

1998, 92).We need what architect Sim van der Ryn and mathematician

Stewart Cowan define as an ecological design revolution.

Ecological design in their words is “any form of design that minimize(

s) environmentally destructive impacts by integrating itself

with living processes . . . the effective adaptation to and integration

with nature’s processes” (1996, x, 18). For landscape architect Carol

Franklin, ecological design is a “fundamental revision of thinking and

operation” (1997, 264). Good design does not begin with what we

can do, but rather with questions about what we really want to do

(Wann 1996, 22). Ecological design, in other words, is the careful

meshing of human purposes with the larger patterns and flows of the

natural world and the study of those patterns and flows to inform

human actions (Orr 1994, 104).

In their book Natural Capitalism (1999), Paul Hawken, Hunter

Lovins, and Amory Lovins propose a transformation in energy and resource

efficiency that would dramatically increase wealth while using

a fraction of the resources we currently use. Transformation would

not occur, however, simply as an extrapolation of existing technologi-

cal trends. They propose, instead, a deeper revolution in our thinking

about the uses of technology so that we don’t end up with “extremely

efficient factories making napalm and throwaway beer cans” (Benyus

1997, 262). In contrast to Ausubel, the authors of Natural Capitalism

propose a closer calibration between means and ends. Such a world

would improve energy and resource efficiency by perhaps tenfold. It

would be powered by highly efficient, small-scale, renewable energy

technologies distributed close to the point of end-use. It would protect

natural capital in the form of soils, forests, grasslands, oceanic fisheries,

and biota while preserving biological diversity. Pollution, in any

form, would be curtailed and eventually eliminated by industries designed

to discharge no waste. The economy of that world would be

calibrated to fit ecological realities. Taxes would be levied on things

we do not want such as pollution and removed from things such as income

and employment that we do want. These changes signal a revolution

in design that draws on fields as diverse as ecology, systems

dynamics, energetics, sustainable agriculture, industrial ecology, architecture,

landscape architecture, and economics.2

The challenge of ecological design is more than simply an engineering

problem of improving efficiency; it is the problem of reducing

the rates at which we poison ourselves and damage the world. The

revolution that van der Ryn and Cowan (1996) propose must first reduce

the rate at which things get worse (coefficients of change) but

eventually change the structure of the larger system. As Bill McDonough

and Michael Braungart (1998) argue, we will need a second industrial

revolution that eliminates the very concept of waste. This implies,

as McDonough is fond of saying, “putting filters on our minds,

not at the end of pipes.” In practice, the change McDonough proposes

2. The roots of ecological design can be traced back to the work of Scottish

biologist D’Arcy Thompson and his magisterial On Growth and Form, first

published in 1917. In contrast to Darwin’s evolutionary biology, Thompson

traced the evolution of life forms back to the problems that elementary physical

forces such as gravity pose for individual species. His legacy is an evolving

science of forms evident in evolutionary biology, biomechanics, and architecture.

Ecological design is evident in the work of Bill Browning, Herman Daly,

Paul Hawken, Wes Jackson, Aldo Leopold, Amory and Hunter Lovins, John

Lyle, Bill McDonough, Donella Meadows, Eugene Odum, Sim van der Ryn,

and David Wann.

implies, among other things, changing manufacturing systems to

eliminate the use of toxic and cancer-causing materials and developing

closed-loop systems that deliver “products of service,” not products

that are eventually discarded to air, water, and landfills.

The pioneers in ecological design begin with the observation that

nature has been developing successful strategies for living on earth for

3.8 billion years and is, accordingly, a model for

• Farms that work like forests and prairies

• Buildings that accrue natural capital like trees

• Waste water systems that work like natural wetlands

• Materials that mimic the ingenuity of plants and animals

• Industries that work more like ecosystems

• Products that become part of cycles resembling natural

materials flows.

Wes Jackson (1985), for example, is attempting to redesign agriculture

in the Great Plains to mimic the prairie that once existed there.

Paul Hawken (1993) proposes to remake commerce in the image of

natural systems. The new field of industrial ecology is similarly attempting

to redesign manufacturing to reflect the way ecosystems

work. The new field of “biomimicry” is beginning to transform industrial

chemistry, medicine, and communications. Common spiders, for

example, make silk that is ounce for ounce five times stronger than

steel, with no waste by-products. The inner shell of an abalone is far

tougher than our best ceramics (Benyus 1997, 97). By such standards,

human industry is remarkably clumsy, inefficient, and destructive.

Running through each of these ideas is the belief that the successful

design strategies, tested over the course of evolution, provide the

standard to inform the design of commerce and the large systems that

supply us with food, energy, water, and materials, and remove our

wastes (Benyus 1997).

The greatest impediment to an ecological design revolution is

not, however, technological or scientific, but rather human. If intention

is the first signal of design, as McDonough puts it, we must

reckon with the fact that human intentions have been warped in recent

history by violence and the systematic cultivation of greed, selfpreoccupation,

and mass consumerism. A real design revolution will

have to transform human intentions and the larger political, eco-

nomic, and institutional structure that permitted ecological degradation

in the first place. A second impediment to an ecological design

revolution is simply the scale of change required in the next few

decades. All nations, but starting with the wealthiest, will have to:

• Improve energy efficiency by a factor of 5–10

• Rapidly develop renewable sources of energy

• Reduce the amount of materials per unit of output by a

factor of 5–10

• Preserve biological diversity now being lost everywhere

• Restore degraded ecosystems

• Redesign transportation systems and urban areas

• Institute sustainable practices of agriculture and forestry

• Reduce population growth and eventually total population


• Redistribute resources fairly within and between generations

• Develop more accurate indicators of prosperity, wellbeing,

health, and security.

To avoid catastrophe, all of these steps must be well under way within

the next few decades. Given the scale and extent of the changes required,

this is a transition for which there is no historical precedent.

The century ahead will test, not just our ingenuity, but our foresight,

wisdom, and sense of humanity as well.

The success of ecological design will depend on our ability to cultivate

a deeper sense of connection and obligation without which few

people will be willing to make even obvious and rational changes in

time to make much difference. We will have to reckon with the

power of denial, both individual and collective, to block change.We

must reckon with the fact that we will never be intelligent enough to

understand the full consequences of our actions, some of which will

be paradoxical and some evil. We must learn how to avoid creating

problems for which there is no good solution, technological or otherwise

(Dobb 1996; Hunter 1997) such as the creation of long-lived

wastes, the loss of species, or toxic waste flowing from tens of thousands

of mines. In short, a real design revolution must aim to foster a

deeper transformation in human intentions and the political and economic

institutions that turn intentions into ecological results. There is

no clever shortcut, no end-run around natural constraints, no magic

bullet, and no such thing as cheap grace.

The Intention to Design

Designing a civilization that can be sustained ecologically and one

that sustains the best in the human spirit will require us to confront

the wellsprings of intention, which is to say, human nature. Our

intentions are the product of many factors, at least four of which have

implications for our ecological prospects. First, with the certain

awareness of our mortality, we are inescapably religious creatures.

The religious impulse in us works like water flowing up from an artesian

spring that will come to the surface in one place or another. Our

choice is not whether we are religious or not as atheists would have it,

but whether the object of our worship is authentic or not. The gravity

mass of our nature tugs us to create or discover systems of meaning

that places us in some larger framework that explains, consoles,

offers grounds for hope, and, sometimes, rationalizes. In our age, nationalism,

capitalism, communism, fascism, consumerism, cyberism,

and even ecologism have become substitutes for genuine religion. But

whatever the -ism or the belief, in one way or another we will create

or discover systems of thought and behavior that give us a sense of

meaning and belonging to something larger. Moreover, there is good

evidence to support the claim that successful resource management

requires, in E. N. Anderson’s words, “a direct, emotional religiously

‘socialized’ tie to the resources in question” (1996, 169). Paradoxically,

however, societies with much less scientific information than

we have often make better environmental choices. Myth and religious

beliefs, which we regard as erroneous, have sometimes worked

better to preserve environments than have decisions based on scientific

information administered by presumably rational bureaucrats

(Lansing 1991). Accordingly, solutions to environmental problems

must be designed to resonate at deep emotional levels and be ecologically


Second, despite all of our puffed up self-advertising as Homo

sapiens, the fact is that we are limited, if clever, creatures. Accordingly,

we need a more sober view of our possibilities. Real wisdom is

rare and rarer still if measured ecologically. Seldom do we foresee the

ecological consequences of our actions. We have great difficulty understanding

what Jay Forrester (1971) once called the “counterintuitive

behavior of social systems.”We are prone to overdo what worked

in the past, with the result that many of our current problems stem

from past success carried to an extreme. Enjoined to “be fruitful and

multiply,” we did as commanded. But at 6 billion and counting, it

seems that we lack the gene for enough.We are prone to overestimate

our abilities to get out of self-generated messes. We are, as someone

put it, continually overrunning our headlights. Human history is in

large measure a sorry catalog of war and malfeasance of one kind or

another. Stupidity is probably as great a factor in human affairs as intelligence.

All of which is to say that a more sober reading of human

potentials suggests the need for a fail-safe approach to ecological design

that does not overtax our collective intelligence, foresight, and


Third, quite possibly we have certain dispositions toward the environment

that have been hardwired in us over the course of our evolution.

E. O. Wilson, for example, suggests that we possess what he

calls “biophilia,” meaning an innate “urge to affiliate with other forms

of life” (1984, 85). Biophilia may be evident in our preference for certain

landscapes such as savannas and in the fact that we heal more

quickly in the presence of sunlight, trees, and flowers than in biologically

sterile, artificially lit, utilitarian settings. Emotionally damaged

children, unable to establish close and loving relationships with people,

sometimes can be reached by carefully supervised contact with

animals. And after several million years of evolution, it would be surprising

indeed were it otherwise. The affinity for life described by

Wilson and others, does not, however, imply nature romanticism, but

rather something like a core element in our nature that connects us to

the nature in which we evolved and which nurtures and sustains us.

Biophilia certainly does not mean that we are all disposed to like nature

or that it cannot be corrupted into biophobia. But without intending

to do so, we are creating a world in which we do not fit. The

growing evidence supporting the biophilia hypothesis suggests that

we fit better in environments that have more, not less, nature.We do

better with sunlight, contact with animals, and in settings that include

trees, flowers, flowing water, birds, and natural processes than in their

absence. We are sensuous creatures who develop emotional attachment

to particular landscapes. The implication is that we need to

create communities and places that resonate with our evolutionary

past and for which we have deep affection.

Fourth, for all of our considerable scientific advances, our knowledge

of the earth is still minute relative to what we will need to know.

Where are we? The short answer is that despite all of our science, no

one knows for certain. We inhabit the third planet out from a fifthrate

star located in a backwater galaxy.We are the center of nothing

obvious to our science.We do not know whether the earth is just dead

matter or whether it is, in some respects, alive. Nor do we know how

forgiving the ecosphere may be to human insults. Our knowledge of

the flora and fauna of the earth and the ecological processes that link

them is small relative to all that might be known. In some areas, in

fact, knowledge is in retreat because it is no longer fashionable or

profitable. Our practical knowledge of particular places is often considerably

less than that of the native peoples we displaced. As a result,

the average college graduate would flunk even a cursory test on local

ecology, and stripped of technology most would quickly founder.

To complicate things further, the advance of human knowledge is

inescapably ironic. Since the Enlightenment, the goal of our science

has been a more rational ordering of human affairs in which cause and

effect could be empirically determined and presumably controlled.

But after a century of promiscuous chemistry, for example, who can

say how the 100,000 chemicals in common use mix in the ecosphere

or how they might be implicated in declining sperm counts, rising

cancer rates, disappearing amphibians, or behavioral disorders? And

having disrupted global biogeochemical cycles, no one can say with

assurance what the larger climatic and ecological effects will be. Undaunted

by our ignorance, we rush ahead to reengineer the fabric of

life on earth. Maybe scientists will figure it all out. It is more probable,

however, that we are encountering the outer limits of social-ecological

complexity in which cause and effect are widely separated in

space and time, and in a growing number of cases no one can say with

certainty what causes what. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, every answer

generated by science gives rise to a dozen more questions, and

every technological solution gives rise to even more problems. Rapid

technological change intended to rationalize human life tends to expand

the domain of irrationality. At the end of the bloodiest century

in history, the Enlightenment faith in human rationality seems overstated

at best. But the design implication is not less rationality, but a

more complete, humble, and ecologically solvent rationality that

works over the long term.

Who are we? Conceived in the image of God? Perhaps. But for

the time being the most that can be said with assurance is that, in an

evolutionary perspective, humans are a precocious and unruly newcomer

with a highly uncertain future. Where are we? Wherever it is,

it is a world full of irony and paradox, veiled in mystery. And for those

purporting to establish the human presence in the world in a manner

that is ecologically sustainable and spiritually sustaining, the ancient

idea that God (or the gods) mocks human intelligence should never

be far from our thoughts.

Ecological Design Principles

As creatures more ignorant than knowledgeable, what principles can

safely guide our actions over the long term? There is no operating

manual for planet Earth, so we will have to write our own as a set of

design principles. Ecological design, however, is not so much about

how to make things as about how to make things that fit gracefully

over long periods of time in a particular ecological, social, and cultural

context. Industrial societies, in contrast, work under the conviction

that “if brute force doesn’t work, you’re not using enough of it.” But

when humans have designed with ecology in mind, there is greater

harmony between intentions and the particular places in which those

intentions are played out that preserves diversity both cultural and

biological; utilizes current solar income; creates little or no waste; accounts

for all costs; and respects larger cultural and social patterns.

Ecological design is not just a smarter way to do the same old things

or a way to rationalize and sustain a rapacious, demoralizing, and unjust

consumer culture. 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 who do not confuse what they have with who they

are. The larger design challenge is to transform a wasteful society into

one that meets human needs with elegant simplicity. Designing ecologically

requires a revolution in our thinking that changes the kinds

of questions we ask from how can we do the same old things more efficiently

to deeper questions such as:

• Do we need it?

• Is it ethical?

• What impact does it have on the community?

• Is it safe to make and use?

• Is it fair?

• Can it be repaired or reused?

• What is the full cost over its expected lifetime?

• Is there a better way to do it?

The quality of design, in other words, is measured by the elegance

with which we join means and worthy ends. In Wendell Berry’s felicitous

phrase, good design “solves for pattern,” thereby preserving the

larger patterns of place and culture and sometimes this means doing

nothing at all (1981, 134–145). In the words of John Todd, the aim is

“elegant solutions predicated on the uniqueness of place.”3 Ecological

design, then, is not simply a more efficient way to accommodate desires;

it is the improvement of desire and all of those things that affect

what we desire.

Ecological design is as much about politics and power as it is

about ecology.We have good reason to question the large-scale plans

to remodel the planet that range from genetic engineering to attempts

to reengineer the carbon cycle. Should a few be permitted to

redesign the fabric of life on the earth? Should others be permitted to

design machines smarter than we are that might someday find us to

be an annoyance and discard us? Who should decide how much of nature

should be remodeled, for whose convenience, and by what standards?

In an age when everything seems possible, where are the citizens

or spokespersons for other members of biotic community who

will be affected? The answer is that they are now excluded. At the

heart of the issue of design, then, are procedural questions that have

to do with politics, representation, and fairness.

It follows that ecological design is not so much an individual art

practiced by individual designers as it is an ongoing negotiation between

a community and the ecology of particular places. Good design

3. The phrase by John Todd is from a personal communication; see also John

and Nancy Todd, From Eco-Cities to Living Machines: Principles of Ecological

Design (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1994).

results in communities 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. In a

well-designed community, people would know quickly what’s happening,

and if they don’t like it, they know who can be held accountable

and can change it. Such things are possible only where livelihood,

food, fuel, and recreation are, to a great extent, derived locally;

where people have control over their own economies; and where the

pathologies of large-scale administration are minimal. 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. Ecological design, then, is a large idea

but is most applicable at a relatively modest scale. The reason is not

that smallness or locality has any necessary virtue, but that human

frailties limit what we are able to comprehend and foresee, as well as

the scope and consistency of our affections. No amount of smartness

or technology can dissolve any of these limits. The modern dilemma

is that we find ourselves trapped between the growing cleverness of

our science and technology and our seeming incapacity to act wisely.

The standard for ecological design is neither efficiency nor productivity

but health, beginning with that of the soil and extending

upward through plants, animals, and people. It is impossible to impair

health at any level without affecting it at other levels. The etymology

of the word “health” reveals its connection to other words such as

healing, wholeness, and holy. Ecological design is an art by which we

aim to restore and maintain the wholeness of the entire fabric of life

increasingly fragmented by specialization, scientific reductionism,

and bureaucratic division.We now have armies of specialists studying

bits and pieces of the whole as if these were separable. In reality it is

impossible to disconnect the threads that bind us into larger wholes

up to that one great community of the ecosphere. The environment

outside us is also inside us.We are connected to more things in more

ways than we can ever count or comprehend. The act of designing

ecologically begins with the awareness that we can never entirely

fathom those connections. This means that humans must act cautiously

and with a sense of our fallibility.

Ecological design is not reducible to a set of technical skills. It is

anchored in the faith that the world is not random but purposeful and

stitched together from top to bottom by a common set of rules. It is

grounded in the belief that we are part of the larger order of things

and that we have an ancient obligation to act harmoniously within

those larger patterns. It grows from the awareness that we do not live

by bread alone and that the effort to build a sustainable world must

begin by designing one that first nourishes the human spirit.

Finally, the goal of ecological design is not a journey to some

utopian destiny, but is rather more like a homecoming. Philosopher

Suzanne Langer once described the problem in these words: “Most

people have no home that is a symbol of their childhood, not even a

definite memory of one place to serve that purpose. Many no longer

know the language that was once their mother-tongue. All old symbols

are gone. . . . The field of our unconscious symbolic orientation is

suddenly plowed up by the tremendous changes in the external world

and in the social order” ([1942] 1976, 292). In other words, we are

lost and must now find our way home again. For all of our technological

accomplishments, the twentieth century was the most brutal and

destructive era in our short history. In the century ahead we must

chart a different course that leads to restoration, healing, and wholeness.

Ecological design is a kind of navigation aid to help us find our

bearings again. And getting home means recasting the human presence

in the world in a way that honors ecology, evolution, human dignity,

spirit, and the human need for roots and connection.


Ecological design is far more than the application of instrumental reason

and advanced technology applied to the problems of shoehorning

billions more of us into an earth already bulging at the seams with

people. Humankind, as Abraham Heschel once wrote, “will not perish

for want of information; but only for want of appreciation . . . what we

lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder” ([1951] 1990, 37).

The ultimate object of ecological design is not the things we make but

rather the human mind and specifically its capacity for wonder and


The capacity of the mind for wonder, however, has been diminished

by the tacit design of the systems that provide us with food, energy,

materials, shelter, health care, entertainment, and by those that

remove our voluminous wastes from sight and mind. There is little in

these industrial systems that fosters mindfulness or ecological competence,

let alone a sense of wonder. On the contrary, these systems are

designed to generate cash, which has itself become an object of wonder

and reverence. It is widely supposed that formal education serves

as some kind of antidote to this uniquely modern form of barbarism.

But conventional education, at its best, merely dilutes the tidal wave

of false and distracting information embedded in the infrastructure

and processes of technopoly. However well intentioned, formal education

cannot compete with the larger educational effects of highways,

shopping malls, supermarkets, urban sprawl, factory farms,

agribusiness, huge utilities, multinational corporations, and nonstop

advertising that teaches dominance, power, speed, accumulation, and

self-indulgent individualism. We may talk about how everything is

ecologically connected, but the terrible simplifiers are working overtime

to take it all apart.

If it is not to become simply a more efficient way to do the same

old things, ecological design must become a kind of public pedagogy

built into the structure of daily life. There is little sense in only selling

greener products to a consumer whose mind is still pre-ecological.

Sooner or later that person will find environmentalism inconvenient,

or incomprehensible, or too costly and will opt out. The goal is to calibrate

human behavior with ecology, which requires a public that understands

ecological possibilities and limits. To that end we must

begin to see our houses, buildings, farms, businesses, energy technologies,

transportation, landscapes, and communities in much the same

way that we regard classrooms. In fact, they instruct in more fundamental

ways because they structure what we see, how we move,

what we eat, our sense of time and space, how we relate to each

other, our sense of security, and how we experience the particular

places in which we live. More important, by their scale and power

they structure how we think, often limiting our ability to imagine

better alternatives.

When we design ecologically, we are instructed continually by

the fabric of everyday life: pedagogy informs infrastructure, which in

turn informs us. Growing food on local farms and gardens, for example,

becomes a source of nourishment for the body and instruction in

soils, plants, animals, and cycles of growth and decay (Donahue

1999). Renewable energy technologies become a source of energy as

well as insight about the flows of energy in ecosystems. Ecologically

designed communities become a way to teach about land use, landscapes,

and human connections. Restoration of wildlife corridors and

habitats instructs us in the ways of animals. In other words, ecological

design becomes a way to expand our awareness of nature and our ecological


Most important, when we design ecologically we break the addictive

quality that permeates modern life. “We have,” in the words

of Bruce Wilshire, “encase(d) ourselves in controlled environments

called building and cities. Strapped into machines, we speed from

place to place whenever desired, typically knowing any particular

place and its regenerative rhythms and prospects only slightly” (1998,

18).We have alienated ourselves from “nature that formed our needs

over millions of years [which] means alienation within ourselves”

(ibid.). Given our inability to satisfy our primal needs, we suffer what

Wilshire calls a “deprivation of ecstasy” that stemmed from the 99

percent of our life as a species spent fully engaged with nature. Having

cut ourselves off from the cycles of nature, we find ourselves

strangers in an alien world of our own making. Our response has been

to create distractions and addictive behaviors as junk food substitutes

for the totality of body-spirit-mind nourishment we’ve lost and then

to vigorously deny what we’ve done. Ecstasy deprivation, in other

words, results in surrogate behaviors, mechanically repeated over and

over again, otherwise known as addiction. This is a plausible, even

brilliant, argument with the ring of truth to it.

Ecological design is the art that reconnects us as sensuous creatures

evolved over millions of years to a beautiful world. That world

does not need to be remade but rather revealed. To do that, we do not

need research as much as the rediscovery of old and forgotten things.

We do not need more economic growth as much as we need to relearn

the ancient lesson of generosity, as trustees for a moment between

those who preceded us and those who will follow. Our greatest

needs have nothing to do with the possession of things but rather

with heart, wisdom, thankfulness, and generosity of spirit. And these

virtues are part of larger ecologies that embrace spirit, body, and

mind—the beginning of design.