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. […] 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.
David W. Orr (2002: 29)
Ecologically informed, health-generating (salutogenic), and scale-linking design for resilience and systemic health is not a recent innovation. This approach has emerged throughout the past century with the work of pioneers discussed elsewhere in this book. Most of them explicitly make the improvement of health a central aspect of their work. These pioneers have provided a solid foundation for the emerging theory and practice of transition design for resilient and regenerative cultures.
In socio-ecological systems (SESs) the effects of our actions can often only be observed and understood after long time-delays. In such complex dynamic systems, cause and effect is often non-linear with feedback loops leading to sudden escalations, unforeseen consequences and side-effects.
What determines change in an SES over time are mainly the underlying, slowly changing variables such as climate, land use, nutrient stocks, human values and policies, as well as systems of governance and interdependencies between local, regional and global scales. SESs never exist in isolation; they are nested within a holarchical or scale-linking structure of other SESs (see Chapter 4).
How do we design for resilience at the scale of our communities and bioregions, as well as nationally and globally?
By trying to create healthier systems capable of the appropriate transformative response in the face of sudden disruptions and crises, we need to pay particular attention to how proposed solutions are scale-linked spatially and temporally.
Spatial scale-linking connects individuals, communities, ecosystems, bioregions and nations all the way to the planetary scale (and beyond).
Temporal scale- linking can be understood as the way slow processes and fast processes interact. Many of the factors that will cause a loss of resilience at one particular scale, for example within a community and its local ecosystem, will also affect resilience at another scale, the national or planetary level. Localized actions, like the burning of fossil fuel, can accumulate to have global effects like climate change, which in turn can affect local conditions in multiple and unpredictable ways. This is the nature of the fundamentally interconnected nested system (holarchy) in which we live.
Among the factors that can degrade systemic health at multiple scales are: loss of biodiversity, toxic pollution, interference with the hydrological cycle, degradation of soils and erosion — but also, inflexible institutions, perverse subsidies acting as incentives for unsustainable patterns of consumption, and inappropriately chosen measures of total value that focus on short-term maximization of production and increased efficiencies at the loss of redundancy and diversity in the system as a whole.
The (re-)emerging narrative of interbeing helps us to see ourselves within the context of a fundamentally interconnected, constantly transforming complex whole. As human beings we both shape, and are shaped by, life’s evolutionary process. Our actions and designs shape our world. The world we co-created, in turn, shapes current experience and our collective future.
From the perspectives of many indigenous cultures, creating healing relationships is seen as a sacred act. Scale-linking and salutogenic design is also sacred design. It expresses our meaningful connection (interbeing) with this transforming whole through the way we participate in our human community and the community of life. This participatory perspective can also be found in the ‘new sciences’ as the notion of appropriate participation in complex systems.
The new science keeps reminding us that in this participative universe, nothing lives alone. Everything comes into form because of relationship. We are constantly called into relationship — to information, people, events, ideas, and life. Even reality is created through our participation in relationships. We chose what we notice; we relate to certain things and ignore others. Through these chosen relationships we co-create our world. If we are interested in effecting change, it is crucial to remember that we are working within webs of relations, not with machines.
Margaret J. Wheatley (1999: 145)
Ultimately, the shift towards a regenerative human civilization and increased human and planetary health will require a majority of global citizens to assume full responsibility for their co-creative involvement in shaping humanity’s and the planet’s future. To a greater or lesser extent, we are all designers of this future. We can intentionally choose to create healing relationships in the communities and ecosystems in which we participate. In 2006, my doctoral research concluded that if the basic intention behind all human design was salutogenesis, we would be able to facilitate a local and global shift towards sustainability (Wahl, 2006b).
Valerie Brown lists two criteria that should guide human behaviour if we hope to avoid serious damage to the natural processes that maintain systemic health. We need to i) “consume nature’s flows while conserving the stocks (that is, live off the ‘interest’ while conserving natural capital” and ii) “increase society’s stocks (human resources, civil institutions) and limit the flow of material and energy” (Brown et al., 2005). Both are central aspects of a regenerative culture.
Salutogenic design aims to facilitate the emergence of health at and across all scales of the whole. It recognizes the inextricable link between human, ecosystem and planetary health. Rather than primarily focusing on the relief of symptoms of disease or ill-health, this approach tries to promote positive health and a flourishing of the whole.
In other words, the aim of salutogenic design is to support healthy individuals in healthy communities acting responsibly in healthy societies to nurture and maintain healthy ecosystem functioning as the basis for healthy bioregions and ultimately a healthy biosphere. Scale-linking, salutogenic design aims to create resilient and regenerative systems at and across all scales.
[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]
Daniel Christian Wahl works internationally as a consultant and educator in regenerative whole systems design, and transformative innovation. He holds degrees in biology (Univ. of Edinburgh / Univ. of California) and Holistic Science (Schumacher College) and his 2006 doctoral thesis (Univ. of Dundee) was on Design for Human and Planetary Health. His recent book Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press in the UK in May 2016, has already gained international acclaim, and his blog on Medium has a large international readership.