Ecoliteracy: Learning from living systems

If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise rooted, like trees. — Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours

We need to reintegrate our economic activities, the way we meet our needs and how we produce and share value, with the basic rules of ecology. Our design and technology need to be aligned with the way that life and living systems are structured and how they maintain their vital functions in support of individuals and the whole system.

The basic principles of ecoliteracy are a good starting point to explore some of the fundamental lessons we can learn from nature and how they might inform some guiding questions for the redesign of our economies, industries and society.

Ecoliteracy is the ability to understand the organization of natural systems and the processes that maintain the healthy functioning of living systems and sustain life on Earth. An ecologically literate person is able to apply this understanding to the design and organization of our human communities and the creation of a regenerative culture.

Originally promoted by the environmental educator David W. Orr (1992) and the physicist Fritjof Capra (1995), nurturing ecological literacy in students of a wide range of ages has become the goal of sustainability education programmes worldwide.

The Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California has been instrumental in spreading its innovative secondary school ecoliteracy curriculum around California, Hawaii and now even some schools on the island of Majorca. School gardens become the living activity classroom where children learn maths, ecology and systems thinking while growing healthy food. Teachers and students, together, learn from nature, through nature and as nature. The centre defined a series of ecological principles (Center for Ecoliteracy, 2015) that can help us frame questions we might want to ask as we aim to design as nature:

Networks: All life in an ecosystem is interconnected through networks of relationship defining life-sustaining processes.

How can we increase the vitality and sustainability of our own communities by weaving mutually supportive relationships between our human community networks and the rest of nature’s life-sustaining networks?

Networks are the patterns of organization expressing life’s fundamental interbeing. They make mutual support, learning, exchange and nurturing relationships possible. One example of applying this lesson in human design is to avoid or decrease unnecessary disruption of life-sustaining networks within and between ecosystems. Nature-bridges over motorways in the Netherlands, Germany, France and in Canadian natural parks are doing just that. These artificially constructed, often hundred-metre-long over-paths across major motorways and railway lines are not for human use, but are designed to let migrating animals roam more freely without dividing up their habitat with insurmountable obstacles. In a more general sense the creation of ‘wildlife corridors’ from one wilderness reserve to another serves a similar function. By allowing for migratory patterns to continue and avoiding the fragmentation of a species habitat, we are maintaining biodiversity and the health and resilience of natural ecosystems.

Nested Systems: Nature is structured as nested systems within systems (or processes within processes). Each individual system is an integrated whole and is simultaneously comprised of smaller sub-systems as well as being integrated into larger systems. This scale-linking structure means that changes at one scale can affect all other scales.

How can we scale-link our human systems in synergy within the nested eco-social systems that provide resilience and vitality?

Nested systems are part of nature’s pattern of health and resilience as they create both interconnection and a degree of self-reliance at different scales.[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.] As we saw in Chapter 4, the resilience and vibrancy of systems at any scale depend on this interlinking ‘panarchy’ which maintains redundancy, diversity, adaptability and transformability. Re-localizing production and consumption will increase local/regional resilience and decrease the multiple negative impacts of unnecessary transport of goods and materials.

A sustainable community has a certain level of self-reliance with regard to meeting its needs for energy, food, water, shelter, transport, healthcare and education at the local community level. For these semi-self-reliant systems to work and be resilient they have to be designed as nested systems within a local, regional, national and global context, based on knowledge exchange, collaboration and the exchange of the materials, goods and services that cannot be easily provided at the smaller scale or by using only the naturally occurring regenerative resources of a particular locality.

Cycles: All ecological communities are defined and maintained through the cyclical exchange of resources between members. These continual cycles within an ecosystem also intersect with larger regional and global cycles in a scale-linking fashion. Fast- and slow- moving cycles are interlinked and interdependent.

What can we learn from the patterns of nature’s interlinking cycles at multiple scales in our attempt to create circular economies that link the local to the regional and the global in a life-sustaining way?

To create a truly regenerative culture, we must design processes in interconnected, closed- loop cycles. These include: cycles of primary production of biological resources and patterns of use that allow for equal or higher amounts to be harvested in a sustainable way in subsequent years; cycles of learning and adaptation in response to changes in the environment; cycles that maintain basic ecosystems functions like clean water, clean air, re-growing energy and material resources; and cycles that separate all our products into either an industrial metabolism for the recycling and reuse of technical resources or a biological metabolism of organic resources through composting and use as fertilizer to support more biological growth (see McDonough & Braungart, 2002 & 2013).

To create restorative and regenerative cultures we will have to re-learn how to work with natural cycles like the availability of daylight; the hydrological cycle and water- storage in the rainy season; the carbon cycle and restoring soil fertility; and the seasonal cycle of availability of local foods and materials. Our industries, buildings and food systems have to be carefully attuned to nature’s local, regional and global cycles — not just to the annual seasonality, but also to ‘100-year floods, storms or droughts’.

Planning for resilience pays attention to such cycles, which are local, regional and global in scale, as well as operating in the short-, mid- and long-term. Mimicking nature’s closed-loop, no-waste, cyclical pattern of material flows based on renewable energy resources will help us to turn the vision of circular economies into reality.

Flows: Organisms depend on a continual flow of energy, water and nutrients to maintain their basic functions and stay alive. Solar energy sustains almost all life directly or indirectly and drives most ecological cycles.

How can we redesign all our systems of energy generation and distribution to mimic nature’s decentralized direct use of solar energy flows?

One of the most important flows to which a regenerative culture has to attune its patterns of energy consumption is the flow of energy from the sun. This energy initially hits the Earth in the form of sunlight and solar radiation, but then begins to drive other energy cycles like the flow of major wind systems, which in turn influence marine currents and waves.

We have to link the energy flows of our human systems to these natural and renewable energy flows that ultimately come from the sun. We also have to redesign our chemical industries and material culture to depend pretty much entirely on material resource flows that are plant-based and therefore solar-based.

Development: Whether individual organisms, whole species or entire ecosystems, all life changes over time. Individuals develop and learn, while species adapt and evolve, and ecosystems transform through the co-evolution of the organisms within them.

What can we learn from nature’s patterns of development and evolution in order to create more adaptable and resilient ways of dealing with change through continuous learning and transformation?

In this ecological principle lies one of the keys to confronting the multiple converging crises that humanity has created due to centuries of design and technology that disregard natural patterns. The fastest way for humanity to respond to this unsustainable situation is through cultural transformation based on personal and collective development. Evolutionary adaptation by mutation and selection will take too long. Individuals change culture and culture changes individuals.

We need individual, cultural and civilizational change to reinforce each other in order to respond in a timely manner to this opportunity to re-invent our human systems based on learning from other natural systems. Widespread education in ecological literacy will help this cultural transformation.

Dynamic Balance: Ecological communities are in constant flux and transformation, yet they also remain relatively stable over time. This dynamic balance is achieved through patterns of resource, energy and information exchange known as feedback loops.

How can we design feedback loops at the appropriate scale into our human systems so we can stay adaptable and resilient in a changing environment?

The concept of ‘dynamic balance’ describes how, despite constant change and transformation, natural systems remain relatively stable over time. The key here is ‘over time’: what may seem like long periods of relative stability from the perspective of a human life-time are only the blink of an eye on the time scale of evolution. The interactions of short-term and long-term cycles create periods of dynamic balance and transformational change. At the core of dynamic balance are processes of self-regulation and self- organization based on feedback loops.

Examples of dynamic balance and life’s involvement in creating and maintaining conditions conducive to life are the regulation of salinity in the ocean, oxygen concentration in the atmosphere and the long-term regulation of global surface temperatures (see James Lovelock’s work on Gaia Theory).

In the design of human systems we have to monitor our use of locally available renewable resources in real time to avoid depleting the regional capacity for regeneration. If we over-use a local resource, we have to reduce consumption and replace the resource with an alternative, or respond by ensuring that the annual sustainable harvest increases by raising the bioproductivity of this resource.

By mimicking nature’s patterns of self- organization based on feedback loops we can create dynamic balance in socio-ecological systems as a basis for long-term sustainability. The constant and long-term regeneration of the resources a culture needs to meet its basic needs is the defining characteristic of regenerative cultures.

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 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

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

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Tune in at aoapodcast.com | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors