David W. Orr introduces Designing Regenerative Cultures
Cultures are not designed from the top down as much as they grow organically from the bottom up. We try to understand the various happenings through the lenses of history, sociology, anthropology and, after the passage of enough time, archaeology. Even if cultures cannot be designed as whole and coherent things, we have acquired a knack for designing parts like the banking system, the educational system or the next high-rise development. The things so created, however, are mostly tailored to the convenience of the existing structures of power and wealth without regard for the other parts or the long term. The resulting incoherence is a source of much befuddlement to scholars.
So, after several millennia of trial, error and happenstance, our future is in jeopardy. We are trending to a world of maybe eleven billion people, divided by ethnicity, religion, income and nationality. We don’t much like each other and the prospects for lethal conflicts are many. We are coming apart at the seams as nation-states appear powerless when challenged by drug cartels, cyber criminals and terrorist organizations. We are increasingly networked, interlinked and mutually dependent but often unable to find common purpose and act for the common good.
We are caught between the centripetal and centrifugal forces of post-modernity. And the pace of technological change is accelerating, giving us little time — or even inclination — for reflection. Not the least, we are rapidly changing the climate, extinguishing species, acidifying oceans and destroying entire ecologies.
Against this backdrop, Daniel Wahl proposes “designing regenerative cultures”. The vision of a designed future is easy to dismiss as yet another utopian scheme with roughly the same chance of success as Marxism or 19th-century Fourierism. The differences, however, are many.
First, in contrast to all previous eras, we know for certain that business as usual will be suicidal. That has been said so often and for so long as to appear trite with the effect of inducing mass narcosis. Unfortunately, it is true and we should pay attention. Second, the scale of our predicament is global; there are no safe places left anywhere on Earth.
Third, as Wahl describes, the ecological design arts broadly are flourishing. They are transforming farming, building, transportation, manufacturing and planning in ways congenial to ecologies and Earth systems. Their common characteristics are the use of nature as a model for design, maximal use of solar energy, preservation of biological and cultural diversity, and full-cost accounting.
Ecological design is no longer a distant prospect, it is happening all over the world. It is practical, not theoretical. It has very large political consequences, but is itself non-ideological and neither liberal nor conservative — simply forward. It is also affecting economics, accounting and the behaviour of investors and corporations. But ecological design has yet to change politics and calibrate governance with ecological processes and systems.
Fourth, ecological design transcends the Western experience. It is not synonymous with engineering or science. Rather, it is a compendium of the entire human experience of farming, building, engineering, planning and making. The ancient Javanese farm or the Balinese water system, for example, demonstrated remarkable design skills, which in some ways exceed our own. That is true partly because the design of resource flows of water and materials coincided with cultural and religious norms in ways that we, in our more compartmentalized world, find incomprehensible. Vernacular design, at its best, included humans, animals, land and waters as whole systems ordained by complex religious systems. The flaws were many, but the results were often durable over centuries. The fact is that there is much to learn about whole-systems design from other cultures and in other times.
Fifth, design is a systems revolution which is the art of seeing things whole and regarding our actions together with their likely consequences. Given the complexity of all systems and our inescapable ignorance, a systems perspective requires humility and pre- caution. It means working at a smaller scale, say, the neighbourhood, the farm, the factory, before generalizing to systems at a larger scale. Changing the scale also changes the system and so on.
Thinking in systems over longer periods of time is the revolution of our time. All of our new gadgetry and inventions pale in comparison. We are, as Wahl ably describes, parts of larger wholes, no one and no organization can be an island complete in itself. The upshot is that systems thinking moves us toward enlightened self-interest by which we understand that our wellbeing and human flourishing is collective, not individual; long-term, not short-term.
Sixth, whether acknowledged or not, systems thinking is kin to the core meaning of religion — ‘to bind together’ in Latin. We, living in a secular culture, tend not to see the connection, but it is nonetheless inescapable. Aldo Leopold’s ‘land ethic’ and the rules of decent behaviour prescribed in each of the Axial religions bear more than a coincidental similarity to the rules of enlightened design. We are our brother’s keeper and also that of the bears, whales, birds, soils, trees, lands and waters; and they ours. The entire system is mindful, shot through with consideration.
The word ‘regenerative’ in the title of this book signifies a commitment to the life processes inherent in ecological design. That, too, is reciprocal, mutual and inescapable. It also carries the command of the writer of Deuteronomy to “choose life” [30:19] Whether from self-interest or duty, the command requires that we comprehend and value life and life processes, become ecologically competent stewards of land, wildlife, soils, waters, and that we care.
Daniel Wahl has compiled a great deal of useful information in a masterful synthesis. That alone is a significant accomplishment, but he’s given us more than that. Designing Regenerative Cultures describes the doorway to a possible, indeed, necessary future. We are not fated to the dystopia in prospect. We have, as he writes, the capacity to design and to organize our societies to protect, enhance and celebrate life. The blueprint was there all along. The awareness of our possibilities is growing. The art and sciences of ecological design are flourishing. The choice, as always, is ours and that of those who will follow.
David Orr is Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College and a James Marsh Professor at the University of Vermont
[This foreword by David W. Orr is an excerpt from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]
The book is also available as en e-pub pdf from the publisher and on kindle through Amazon around the world.