Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

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Designing for Ecosystems Health

from ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health’ D.C. Wahl 2006

David Rapport explains: “In the ecological realm, one generally confers the connotation of ‘health’ to a state of nature (whether managed or pristine) that is characterized by systems integrity: that is, a healthy nature exhibits certain fundamental properties of self-organizing complex systems” (Rapport, 1992, p.145).

Aldo Leopold first proposed the concept of “land-health” in 1946. In an essay written shortly before his death “Leopold presents land health not just as a desirable attribute of a landscape but as a much needed focus for conservation work” report Baird Calicott and Eric Freyfogle in an anthology of Leopold’s work, entitled For the Health of the Land (Callicott & Freyfogle, 1999, p.218).

In his last essay, Aldo Leopold emphasized the urgent need to pay attention to, and facilitate land health and highlighted the need for understanding the “requisites for land health”. He wrote: “our new physical and chemical tools are so powerful and so widely used that they threaten to disrupt the capacity for self-renewal in the biota. This capacity I will call land- health” (Leopold, 1946, p.219). This definition predates, but is perfectly commensurable with, the systems and complexity view of life described in chapter one.

Aldo Leopold identified ecology as the “fusion point” of environmental science and management” (Norton, 1992, p.25). With regard to the adaptation of the human species to its local and global environment, ecology not only describes the life-sustaining, healthy dynamics of ecosystems, it also can help to inform Homo faber — the human maker — or the designer, of the way humanity participates in natural process.

The household (ecos) described by ecology is a higher (transcending and including) holon than the household described by our global or national economies. Ecology is both a descriptive, analytical science with a holistic and contextualizing intent, and the foundation for a prescriptive, design science based on a bio-centric, life- and health-sustaining ethic of participation. To act sustainably, humanity has to learn how to design for human and ecosystems health.

Baird Callicott argued that Leopold “introduced the concept of land health, not as a casual rhetorical device, but as a serious scientific project,” and that he stressed the importance of wilderness, diversity, complexity and functional integrity as major contributors to the maintenance of land health (Callicott, 1992, pp.48–49).

He suggests that the concept of autopoiesis as proposed by the biologists Maturana and Varela (see chapter 1) and Leopold’s concept of land health are “mutually reinforcing.” Callicott suggests that “the concept of autopoiesis could update and articulate what Leopold was struggling to express with his notion of land health characterized as the ‘capacity of land for self-renewal’” (Callicott, 19992, p.51).

Callicott emphasizes the similarity of healthy self-renewal and autopoiesis that is apparent in the following quotation from Maturana’s and Varela’s article ‘Autopoiesis: The Organization of the Living’ (Maturana & Varela, 1980):

If we contemplate this understanding of healthy self-renewal and dynamic health within the context of the current loss of the ability of self-renewal not only in a wide variety of ecosystems, but also with regard to community, regional and cultural identities the world over, it will become uncomfortably apparent how much the changes of the last century have jeopardized not only land-health on a global scale but also human cultural diversity and societal health.

The process of economic globalisation, viewed from this perspective, has contributed to a breakdown of autopoiesis on various scales and by undermining regional and community self- reliance has jeopardized the healthy dynamics of cultural self-renewal and self-maintenance as well as land or eco-systems health from a local to a planetary scale.

Benjamin Haskell, Bryan Norton, and Robert Costanza have argued: “While ‘health’ and ‘integrity’ are used ubiquitously in long-range policy documents as goals of protection efforts, they have never been defined well enough to make them useful in practice.” They suggest: “A clearer conception of the quality and health of natural environments will help bring our regulatory mandates in line with legislative ends” (Haskell et al., 1992, p.3).

Haskell et al. emphasize that ecosystem health “cannot be defined or understood simply in biological or ethical or aesthetic or historical terms. Many approaches must be used in clarifying the goals of environmental protection.” The concept of ecosystem health is best understood from a “pluralistic, multidisciplinary collection of perspectives … covering a broad spectrum of ideas from philosophy, science, and management” (Haskell et al., 1992, p.3).

Such a complex understanding of health, based on multiple perspectives and epistemologies informs a holistic approach to sustainability expressed through a salutogenic intention behind design. Such a design approach, based on a holistic and participatory understanding of complex dynamic systems, can provide a framework for salutogenic design in its role as trans-disciplinary facilitator and integrator of multi-perspective based decision making processes aiming for increased sustainability and systemic health.

The concept of “protecting and restoring health to ecological process at all levels” may help us in maintaining “the autonomous, self-integrative processes of nature as an essential element in a new ethic of sustainability” (Haskell et al., 1992, p.4). Haskell and his co-authors understand ecosystem health as a characteristic of complex natural systems. They explain: “Since fast-changing human cultures are embedded in larger scale, slow-changing ecological systems, we must develop policies that allow human cultures to thrive without changing the life support functions, diversity, and complexity of ecological systems” (Haskell, 1992, p.4). The box below lists five axioms of ecological management, as suggested by Bryan Norton, which can serve to frame a more detailed definition of ecosystem health (see Box 2.4).

Box 2.4: Five Axioms of Ecological Management:

(Reproduced and adapted from Norton, 1992, p.25)

The Axiom of Dynamism: Nature is more profoundly a set of processes than a collection of objects; all is in flux. Ecosystems develop and age over time.

The Axiom of Relatedness: All processes are related to all other processes.

The Axiom of Hierarchy [Holarchy]: Processes are not related equally but unfold in systems within systems, which differ mainly regardingthetemporalandspecial scale on which they are organized.

The Axiom of Creativity: The autonomous processes of nature are creative and represent the basis for all biologically based productivity. The vehicle of that creativity is energy flowing through systems which in turn find stable contexts in larger systems, which provide sufficient stability to allow self-organization within them through repetition and duplication.

The Axiom of Differential Fragility: Ecological systems, which form the context of all human activities, vary in the extent to which they can absorb and equilibrate human-caused disruptions in their autonomous processes.

In the context of the salutogenic approach to design proposed in this thesis, it becomes obvious how closely related a holarchic understanding of health as a scale -linking property of a complex and fundamentally interconnected process called the biosphere and an ecologically literate understanding of nature’s scale -linking processes are.

There is an emerging body of research on the ‘ecology of health’ that acknowledges how a holistic perspective of health has to be ecologically informed, while at the same time recognizing that a holistic understanding of health in complex dynamic systems can critically inform ecological understanding (e.g. Chesworth, 1996, Stott, 2000).

Health and ecology are synergistic perspectives of the same subject: interactions and relationships in a fundamentally interconnected and unpredictable process. Design expresses our human interactions with this process. By the way we design solutions to meet human needs, we integrate personally and collectively into the scale-linking complexity of ecosystems health and its relationship to human health (down the holarchy) and planetary health (up the holarchy).

Norton emphasizes that “complexity is directly related to self-organization, and these characteristics are the essence of ecosystem health and integrity.” He concludes: “The obligation to protect biodiversity can now be formulated as above all an obligation to protect biological integrity to the extent possible and to protect health where past actions have already destroyed the integrity of large systems” (Norton, 1992, p.26). This is a clear expression of a salutogenic design intent applied to the ecosystem scale. It acknowledges the complexity of interactions and relationships that contribute to maintaining integrity and health within ecosystems. Norton explains this perspective as follows:

This approach to ecosystem management for ecosystem health combines insights from the systems sciences and complexity theory with ecology and salutogenic design at the ecosystem scale. It is an integral approach that tries to transcend and include a variety of perspectives. Rather than being purely reductionistic, it aims to be informed by various epistemologies and sees true holism as a synthesis of reductionistic and holistic methodologies.

In order to structure the conceptualisation of a holistic understanding of large scale complex systems, a holarchical patterning into interpenetrating holons at larger and larger scales is employed. Norton emphasizes: “Essential to this hierarchical structuring is the recognition of ‘membranes’ — boundaries that separate systems and further subdivide the system into subsystems” (Norton, 1992, p.29).

This patterning into systems within systems, processes within processes, and networks within networks helps us to structure complexity and understand interactions and relationships at and across different scales. Characteristic of salutogenic design is that it is scale -linking and acknowledges the importance of both: maintaining the holarchical structure through maintaining the boundaries at each holonic scale, and — at the same time — facilitating interconnection, synergy, and symbiosis between scales.

Haskell et al. report a trans-disciplinary workshop that arrived at a working definition for ecosystem health: “An ecological system is healthy and free from ‘distress syndrome’ if it is stable and sustainable — that is, if it is active and maintains its organization and autonomy over time and is resilient to stress (in Haskell, et al., 1992, p.9). “This definition is applicable to all complex systems and allows for the fact that ecosystems are growing and developing in response to both natural and cultural influences. … Distress syndrome refers to the irreversible process of system breakdown leading to collapse” (Haskell et al., 1992, p.9).

Robert Costanza points out that ecosystems health should be understood as a “normative concept: a bottom line.” He calls it the “desired end point of environmental management” and thus proves my point that environmental management is salutogenic design at the ecosystem scale. Costanza reviews a number of conceptual definitions of ‘ecosystem health’ based on health as: homeostasis, absence of disease, diversity or complexity, stability or resilience, vigor or scope fro growth, and as balance between systems components (Costanza, 1992, p.239).

All of these conceptualisations of health have a valid perspective and can be informative, but they also have their limitations. Costanza calls them “pieces of the puzzle.” He proposes that ecosystem health should be understood “as a comprehensive, multiscale, dynamic, hierarchical measure of system resilience, organization and vigour,” and argues: “These concepts are embodied in the term ‘sustainability’, which implies the system’s ability to maintain its structure (organization) and function (vigour) over time in the face of external stresses (resilience).” Costanza emphasizes the important holarchical aspect of health: “A healthy system must also be defined in the light of both its context (the larger system of which it is part) and its components (the smaller systems that make it up)” (Costanza, 1992, p.240).

Costanza suggested that with regard to assessing and managing ecosystem health, there is a “progression from directly measured ‘indicators’ of a component’s status, through ‘endpoints’ that are composites of these indicators, to health with the help of ‘values.’” He emphasizes: “Measures of health are inherently more difficult, more comprehensive, require more modelling and synthesis, and involve less precision, but are more relevant than the endpoints and indicators from which they are built” (Costanza, 1992, p.241).

A dynamic, participatory whole systems perspective of health provides far greater integrative and synthetic capability to reach multi-perspective based sustainable solutions, but it loses a certain amount of analytic precision. It is more fuzzy, but also more useful.

Designing for human, ecosystem and planetary health is a wicked design problem that cannot be a precise science, since the systems involved defy prediction and control beyond a very limited scale. The goal of salutogenic design is health.

The creative realization of this intention must necessarily reflect all the complexity and dynamism of the process of appropriate participation in natural process from which health emerges as a scale -linking property. Costanza explains:

Costanza highlights that ecosystem health is “closely linked to the idea of sustainability, which is seen to be a comprehensive, multiscale, dynamic measure of system resilience, organization and vigour” (Costanza, 1992, p.248). This explains why designing for healthy ecosystems is simultaneously designing for healthy individuals and communities, and facilitating increased systemic sustainability.

The salutogenic approach is prescriptive and life-enhancing or health-enhancing. It is more important to achieve appropriate participation in natural process at local and global scales than it is to achieve descriptive perfection in our understanding of natural processes.

David Rapport points out: “The conventional biomedical model (detection of disease, identification of causes, finding a cure) is in sharp contrast to the salutogenic perspective advanced by Antonovsky.” He explains: “Salutogenic medicine focuses on mechanisms promoting healthiness rather than identifying symptoms or causes of disease;” and emphasizes: “The contrast here is between a diagnostic focus on system capabilities (properties of well- functioning feedback systems enabling self-realizing, energetic, and productive processes to occur) and a diagnostic focus on system disabilities” (Rapport, 1992, p.149).

Generally speaking, the fundamental guideline for salutogenic design is to increase systems capabilities and enable systems to respond and adapt effectively to unpredictable environmental or systemic changes while maintaining their autopoietic processes and therefore sustaining their future. Since social systems are fundamentally embedded in ecological systems, the health of social systems depends on the health of ecosystems. David Rapport proposes the following approach:

In my opinion, the need to assess the precise state of ecosystem health is secondary. At this point in the history of civilization, after millennia of agriculture and centuries of expansive colonialism an industrialization, it is only fair to assume that most of the world’s ecosystems are already less resilient, than they were, say three hundred years ago. The rapid decrease in biodiversity and the rapid increase in human population pressures on the natural world have already put large and small-scale processes of ecological transformation in motion. It is time to actively engaged in maintaining and restoring ecosystem resilience and health — humanity depends on it. Ecosystem restoration is salutogenic design.

Bryan Norton (1991, p.116) argues: “If ecology could throw off positivism and abandon the search for a single, universally applicable, mathematically precise model”, ecological understanding and ecology itself “could serve the public by helping to conceive management problems in a proper scale of time and space.” Norton highlights both the importance of boundaries of scale and the difficulty of their precise definition. He concludes:

Ecology as a science is only one aspect of this understanding. The ecological and holistic worldview is informed by this ecological science, complexity theory, and systems science, but it does not confuse the map with the territory and therefore allows a variety of other perspectives that provide a deeper ecological and spiritual understanding of the interactions and relationships described by these sciences.

Design for ecosystem health has to be globally effective in order to positively affect planetary health. In order to positively affect the health of human individuals and their communities it has to be implemented by these very individuals and their communities. Salutogenic design for sustainability requires full participation in order to be effective in the long term.

William Ruckelshaus (1996) argues for an approach that would aim to maintain ecosystem health through effective risk management simultaneously at the local and the global scale. “Global thinking … means dealing explicitly with the central question of risk management: how to reconcile technological systems with social values; how to develop consensus about potentially dangerous technologies, and how to establish and maintain trust in our protective institutions.” Ruckelshaus emphasizes: “We do not yet know how to deal very well with any of these questions” (Ruckelshaus, 1996, p.132) and concludes: “That is why local action — a diversity of local actions — is necessary. The most efficient way for our society to learn how to cope with risk is to enable hundreds or thousands of locally based risk management endeavours to take place” (Ruckelshaus, 1996, p.133).

In acknowledging that we are participants in a fundamentally interconnected and unpredictable complex dynamic system, or scale-linking holarchic process, it is also important to acknowledge that even with the best salutogenic intentions in mind, we can never fully predict the effects of our chosen design decisions on the health of the wider system. The precautionary principle would suggest we should therefore limit our specific interventions to focussing on a scale of local implementation through local people. At this scale it is easier to manage risk since feedback is short and immediately visible and comprehensible.

While designing for ecosystem health may have important effects on planetary health, it is best implemented at the scale of local communities and their local ecosystems. Only a particular ecosystem’s inhabitants can actively engage in effective salutogenic design within that ecosystem. Participation is central to salutogenesis and sustainability.

[This is the introduction to my 2006 PhD Thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’. This research and 10 years of experience as an educator, consultant, activist, and expert in whole systems design and transformative innovation have led me to publish Designing Regenerative Cultures in May 2016.]

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Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.

Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures



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Daniel Christian Wahl

Catalysing transformative innovation, cultural co-creation, whole systems design, and bioregional regeneration. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures