Monday, December 28, 2009

Topobiophiliacs Unite!

On my way home today I ran the usual gauntlet of big box stores and fast food restaurants—McDonald's, ToysRUs, Burger King, Walmart; you know the drill. Tens of millions of people around the country (and many other countries) will do the same on this day, traveling paved pathways through neon mazes emblazoned with all-too-familiar logos. Just as these corporations are generally based far away, so too the energy fueling our cars (and heating our homes upon arrival) comes from distant locales. The same is true for most of the foods we eat, the music we listen to, and the information we consume on television and the internet. Globalization has homogenized the industrialized world (and large parts of the non-industrialized world). Is it any wonder, then, that, awash in this sea of sameness, few of us feel a strong attachment to the places that we live? After all, if one place looks basically like any other, what difference does it make which of these you call home? Bolstering this detached state of affairs is the recent trend for people to live and work in multiple states, provinces, and/or countries over the course of their lives.

Such rampant uniformity and unrootedness is new for us, just a few decades old. For most of our lengthy duration, we humans have been intimately tied to our natal places such that the local scents, sounds, sights, tastes, and textures became integrated into our sense of identity. In addition to being steeped in the local community—its culture, foods, and personalities—we knew many of the local animals and plants and understood local rhythms—what month of the year a certain migrating bird arrived or a particular crop should be planted.

Previously in this blog and in its foundational essay, I have argued that Western societies currently suffer from a dysfunctional relationship with nonhuman nature, and that a sustainable future must include not only greener technologies and lifestyles, but a radically transformed worldview as well. Specifically, I have made the claim that three key elements are needed: 1) new metaphors (e.g., the tree of life, the whirlpool of life); 2) a new story, or origin myth (the Great Story, from the Big Bang to us); and 3) a renewed sense of place. Recent posts have addressed the first and second of these items. Today I will delve a little deeper into the third.

Presently, there is a tremendous need to buck the homogenization trend and re-establish our relationship to place. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we forsake the supposed “evils” of industrialization and return to tribal living, or even move toward a purely local existence. Barring the collapse of civilization (a real threat), globalization is here to stay, at least for awhile. Nevertheless, sustainable living (the antidote necessary to avoid civilizational collapse) must include strong local components (1). For example, most of the food in sustainable societies will be raised locally and change on a seasonal basis. Similarly, in stark contrast to our present dependence on fossil fuels from the Middle East, energy will come predominantly from local, renewable sources: geothermal, solar, and wind. And since every place has its own unique characteristics—for example, topography, climate, vegetation, water supply, and culture —sustainability will, by necessity, be closely tied to local needs. Thus, any successes in achieving sustainability at higher levels (state, nation, biosphere) will be realized only through the amalgamation of sustainable societies in local places, with the latter roughly equivalent to watersheds or “bioregions.”

Yet, given present trends towards globalization and homogenization, how are we to shift worldviews, moving from rampant placelessness to a meaningful sense of place? To begin with, how can we encourage large numbers of people to recognize the value of place and local community? In an effort to address these questions, I have become increasingly interested in the intersection of two concepts: “biophilia” and “topophilia.” Although they may sound like contagious diseases, this pair of ideas may just be critical ingredients for resolving the current eco-crisis. Biophilia, often defined as the human bond with other species, was described by biologist E. O. Wilson (2). Wilson suggested that this bond was innate, the result of millions of years of evolution in intimate contact with the nonhuman world. Topophilia, defined as an affective bond with place, is a lesser known concept described in particular by geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (3). In short, topophilia refers to a love of place, and biophilia to a love of life. I have often wondered if our long heritage as place-based beings means that we also have an innate tendency to develop bonds with the places we live. Combining the two ideas, it seems reasonable to postulate that we have within us a genetic predisposition to form bonds with the other life forms that live in and around our home places.

Whether or not the above hypothesis is borne out, it seems to me that we need to work toward building emotional connections with the living beings that share our native places; after all, they are key to our survival. It seems highly improbable that such connections can be forged through books, television, or the internet. No, if we are to renew our relationship with nonhuman nature, it must come from direct, firsthand experience. Fortunately, a number of recent movements are taking us in the right direction, and demonstrating the benefits of fostering both topophilia and biophilia. Below I mention three of these.

First, farmers markets are making a strong comeback in North America and Europe (1). These markets are full of local, sustainably harvested, often organic foods with a tiny fraction of the travel miles (and thus greenhouse gas emissions) that typify most foods in the Western World. Many participating farms conduct tours, allowing people to see firsthand where their food comes from and how it is raised. Second in this brief list is the recent “No Child Left Inside” movement, which aims to reverse recent trends and get children outside exploring nature as a means of enhancing physical and emotional health. This grassroots effort, triggered by Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods (4), is now supported by nonprofits such as the Children and Nature Network ( The leaders of this effort recognize that, in most instances, lasting bonds with nature will be rooted in firsthand childhood experience outdoors. The third and final example is the schooling for sustainability movement, which has a strong place-based emphasis (5, 6). Although still nascent and concentrated in independent schools, this effort to learn from nature and to focus education on place, community, and service is perhaps the most exciting of all. Programs such as school gardens and reclaiming local watersheds promote both understanding and a passion for place (see also

What can you do? Get more informed about, and engaged in, your place. Where does your food come from? Chances are that local, healthy food alternatives are available if you are not already tapping into these. Where do your wastes (i.e., garbage and sewage) go to? Are there ways to reduce your impacts? Can you (and, if applicable, your kids) name a dozen local plants and animals? What types of community projects need your help? What children can you get outside and mentor? As a New Years resolution, think about adding one or two items that address local issues. In short, vow to become a lifetime topobiophiliac! Not only will you be healthier—your community will be too. Plus, it will be great fun explaining your new affliction to others!

1. Brown, L. R. 2009. Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. Norton, New York.
2. Wilson, E. O. 1986. Biophilia: The Human Bond with other Species. Harvard University Press, Boston.
3. Tuan, Y-F. 1990. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perceptions, Attitudes, and Values. Columbia University Press, New York (reprinted: original published in 1974).
4. Louv, R. 2006. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, NC.
5. Sobel, D. 1996. Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education. Orion Society, Great Barrington.
6. Stone, M. K. 2009. Smart By Nature: Schooling for Sustainability. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Going with the Flow

For most of us, metaphors are merely figures of speech, something used to spruce up the end of a sentence—hardly the kind of tool one might enlist in saving the living world. Yet these simple expressions comparing one thing to another thing turn out to be more powerful than we could ever have imagined. Beginning with a ground-breaking 1980 book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson(1), linguists and psychologists have demonstrated conclusively that we literally think in metaphors, using these abstract comparisons to make sense of our world. Consider the metaphor “time is money.” By speaking of wasting time, budgeting time, or living on borrowed time, we make it clear that time for us is a valuable commodity. The notion of time as money is a relatively recent one closely linked to Western cultures, and not to many others past and present. We internalize hundreds of these conceptual metaphors—for example, argument is war, affection is warmth, and up is good—during development, and they become the lenses through which we see and understand reality. The beauty and danger of metaphors is that most of the time we use them unconsciously. But it is high time we took greater notice because, although metaphors help us navigate our way through the world, they can also cause us to accept inaccurate concepts or beliefs as “real.”

For the past four centuries, the machine has served as the dominant metaphor for life, causing us to regard organisms as amalgamations of parts. Although this reductionist perspective has generated tremendous insights—among them the germ theory of disease and the genetic basis of all life—the life-as-machine metaphor also transforms organisms into objects, fueling the notion that humans are meant to dominate nature. With a mechanistic mindset, forests become board feet of lumber and oceans are reduced to fisheries, hardly a recipe for sustainable living. Today the machine metaphor remains largely unchallenged, perpetuating a dysfunctional relationship between human and non-human life. And, as argued by numerous authors, this relationship threatens to bring down civilization itself.

The only commonly used alternative at present is the web of life, a metaphor that directs much-needed attention at wholes rather than parts, highlighting the myriad interconnections that embed humans into the living world. The web of life is a powerful and evocative symbol(2). Yet it does little to challenge the nature of being indicated by a mechanistic worldview. On the contrary, since it is generally defined only in terms of causal connections, the web metaphor often reinforces this age-old perspective, with organisms serving as the cogs and pulleys that keep the ecosystem “machine” running smoothly.

I am convinced that we are in desperate need of additional metaphors that more accurately represent the living world—and specifically the nature of being—as we understand it in the 21st Century. One possibility with considerable potential is what I have called the whirlpool of life. Everything flows, from air, water, atoms, and blood to apparently dense and unyielding things, like rocks, trees, and mountains. Particularly when we shift focus to atomic levels or geologic timescales, the internal make-up of things turns out to be ever-shifting, like river currents. Akin to whirlpools, organisms can be envisioned as swirling, evanescent concentrations of energy with poorly-defined boundaries that arise from the background flow, exist for a brief time, and then dissipate back into that flow. We are not merely interconnected with the natural world but derived from it, constantly re-making ourselves from the energy of the flow while retaining much the same form. In essence, then, the whirlpool of life is a dual metaphor of both river and whirlpool. Like the machine, the swirling whirlpool represents the focal level of interest (say, cell, organism, or ecosystem). And like the web, the flowing river provides the background context (for example, the organism surrounding the cell, or the ecosystem encompassing the organism). The river also exemplifies the passage of deep time, as well as the force that connects all things into a single, unified story, from the Big Bang to the present day.

If the downward spiral of a whirlpool initially conjures up negative connotations, think about how energy flows through you. Just like other animals, we consume air, water, and food that spiral downward to sustain our bodies before dissipating back into the environment in a degraded form. As I stated in the kick-off essay for this blog, “the notion of a river whirlpool fosters very different, yet highly instructive and scientifically accurate, conceptions of birth (emergence, evolution), of life (flow, transience, continual self-making), and of death (dissipation, transformation, recycling). In contrast to the still dominant machine and web metaphors, the whirlpool encourages us to view other life forms not as objects, but as subjects—fellow travelers in the current of this deep time river. On a still more profound level, a vortex perspective enables us to envision ourselves and other organisms not as ‘things’ at all, but as processes deeply and inextricably embedded in the background flow. In sum, [this metaphor] has potential to be at least as striking and potent as the web of life, directing much needed attention toward the flowing, transitory, and transformative aspects of nature and being.”

I am certainly not the first to compare life to whirlpools. Consider this 1950 statement from mathematician Norbert Weiner(3,4).

"Pattern is the “organized complexity” from which all life was assembled and human beings ultimately emerged. That pattern of organization is the touchstone of our personal identity. Our tissues change as we live; the food we eat and the air we breathe become flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone...We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are not stuff that abides but patterns that perpetuate themselves."

To my knowledge, however, no one has proposed the whirlpool as a metaphor to challenge the hegemony of the machine. A great strength of the whirlpool, I would argue, is that, like the web, it is a familiar aspect of nature. Its primary symbol, the spiral, is also a common natural phenomenon, from unfurled ferns(5) to swirling tornadoes to immense galaxies. Additionally, the spiral is an ancient, almost ubiquitous cross-cultural symbol that resonates deeply in the human subconscious(6). This motif appears, for example, in Celtic monuments, Arabic architecture, Japanese rock gardens, Greek mythology, Australian aboriginal paintings, Native American petroglyphs, and African art. Spirals have often been used to represent flow and change--including the cycling of days, seasons, and entire lives—as well as physical and spiritual journeys. I am not proposing that the whirlpool replace the machine as the dominant metaphor; we will need many additional examples to help us through the present eco-crisis. Nevertheless, a spiraling whirlpool within a flowing river may just be a fitting symbol for humanity’s journey into an uncertain future.

References and Notes
1) Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
2) Capra, F. 1996. The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. Anchor Books, New York.
3) Weiner, N. 1950. The Human Use of Human Beings. Houghton Mifflin, New York (quotation, p. 96).
4) Thanks to my friend Antonio Pares for bringing this quotation to my attention.
5) Fern image is from:
6) Ward, G. 2006. Spirals: The Pattern of Existence. Green Magic, Somerset, UK.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Evolution Changes Everything

Evolution is the scientific idea that will change everything within next several decades.

I recognize that this statement might seem improbable. If evolution is defined generally, simply as change over time, the above statement borders on meaningless. If regarded in the narrower, Darwinian sense, as descent with modification, any claim for evolution’s starring role also appears questionable, particularly given that 2009 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Surely Darwin’s “Dangerous Idea,” however conceived, has made its mark by now. Nevertheless, I base my claim on evolution’s probable impacts in two great spheres: human consciousness and science and technology.

Today, the commonly accepted conception of evolution is extremely narrow, confined largely to the realm of biology and a longstanding emphasis on mutation and natural selection. In recent decades, this limited perspective has become further entrenched by the dominance of molecular biology and its “promise” of human-engineered cells and lifeforms. Emphasis has been placed almost entirely on the generation of diversity—a process referred to as “complexification”—reflecting the reductionist worldview that has driven science for four centuries.

Yet science has also begun to explore another key element of evolution—unification—which transcends the biological to encompass evolution of physical matter. The numerous and dramatic increases in complexity, it turns out, have been achieved largely through a process of integration, with smaller wholes becoming parts of larger wholes. Again and again we see the progressive development of multi-part individuals from simpler forms. Thus, for example, atoms become integrated into molecules, molecules into cells, and cells into organisms. At each higher, emergent stage, older forms are enveloped and incorporated into newer forms, with the end result being a nested, multilevel hierarchy.

At first glance, the process of unification appears to contravene the second law of thermodynamics by increasing order over entropy. Again and again during the past 14 billion years, concentrations of energy have emerged and self-organized as islands of order amidst a sea of chaos, taking the guise of stars, galaxies, bacteria, gray whales, and, on at least one planet, a biosphere. Although the process of emergence remains somewhat of a mystery, we can now state with confidence that the epic of evolution has been guided by counterbalancing trends of complexification and unification. This journey has not been an inevitable, deterministic march, but a quixotic, creative unfolding in which the future could not be predicted.

How will a more comprehensive understanding of evolution affect science and technology? Already a nascent but fast-growing industry called “biomimicry” taps into nature’s wisdom, imitating sustainable, high performance designs and processes acquired during four billion years of evolutionary R&D. Water repellant lotus plants inspire non-toxic fabrics. Termite mounds inspire remarkable buildings that make use of passive cooling. Spider silk may provide inspiration for a new, strong, flexible, yet rigid material with innumerable possible uses. Ultimately, plant photosynthesis may reveal secrets to an unlimited energy supply with minimal waste products.

The current bout of biomimicry is just the beginning. I am increasingly convinced that ongoing research into such phenomena as complex adaptive systems will result in a new synthesis of evolution and energetics—let’s call it the “Unified Theory of Evolution”—that will trigger a cascade of novel research and designs. Science will relinquish its unifocal downward gaze on reductionist nuts and bolts, turning upward to explore the “pattern that connects.” An understanding of complex adaptive systems will yield transformative technologies we can only begin to imagine. Think about the potential for new generations of “smart” technologies, with the capacity to adapt, indeed to evolve and transform, in response to changing conditions.

And what of human consciousness? Reductionism has yielded stunning advances in science and technology. However, its dominant metaphor, life-as-machine, has left us with a gaping chasm between the human and non-human worlds. With “Nature” (the non-human world) reduced merely to resources, humanity’s ever-expanding activities have become too much for the biosphere to absorb. We have placed ourselves, and the biosphere, on the precipice of a devastating ecological crisis, without the consciousness for meaningful progress toward sustainability.

At present, Western culture lacks a generally accepted cosmology, a story that gives life meaning. One of the greatest contributions of the scientific enterprise is the epic of evolution, sometimes called the Universe Story. For the first time, thanks to the combined efforts of astronomers, biologists, and anthropologists (among many others), we have a realistic, time-developmental understanding of the 14 billion year history of us. Darwin’s tree of life has roots that extend back to the Big Bang, and fresh green shoots reach into an uncertain future. Far from leading to a view that the Universe is meaningless, this saga provides the foundation for seeing ourselves as fully embedded into the fabric of nature. To date, this story has had minimal exposure, and certainly has not been included (as it should be) in the core of our educational curricula.

Why am I confident that these transformations will occur in the near future? In large part because necessity is the mother of invention. We are the first generation of humans to face the prospect that humanity may have a severely truncated future. In addition to new technologies, we need a new consciousness, a new worldview, and new metaphors that establish a more harmonious relationship between the human and the non-human. Of course, the concept of “changing everything” makes no up-front value judgments, and I can envision evolution’s net contribution as being either positive or negative, depending on whether the shift in human consciousness keeps pace with the radical expansion of new (and potentially even more exploitative) technologies. In sum, our future R&D efforts need to address human consciousness in at least equal measure to science and technology.

(This piece first appeared on, and will soon be published in: J. Brockman [ed.], This Will Change Everything, Harper Perennial)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Rethinking Sustainability

Sustainability is arguably the most critical concept of our time, yet it is also a notorious buzzword co-opted for a variety of purposes. In many respects, if your goal is to mobilize the world to address the dire eco-crisis of the 21st Century, the word falls well short of the mark. Are we really supposed to get enthusiastic about “sustaining?” Wouldn’t it be better to “thrive?” Perhaps the rallying cry should be “Thrivability!” Nevertheless, given that the S-word seems to be what we’re stuck with for the moment, I need to ask: What does sustainability mean to you? This is a question we all should be contemplating. And the answer should be based as much as possible on a clear-headed view of the world. With the latter in mind, I would like to address what I see as three major misconceptions about sustainability, fundamental assumptions that must be recognized if we are to forge a viable path into the future.

Misconception #1: Humans are separate from (nonhuman) nature.
Today, the most commonly used definition of sustainability comes from the 1987 Report of the (UN-convened) Brundtland Commission: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” A central premise of this definition is that sustainability refers solely to human sustainability, in turn founded on the presumed separation of humans from the rest of nature. Although the latter idea has been a persistent illusion of Western societies for centuries, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain in a world of global warming, species losses, and ecosystem collapses. We are but one weedy species among millions, and the heart of sustainability, the “things” most in need of being sustained, are the stunningly complex ecological networks that support us and the great bounty of life forms with which we share this planet. To state what should obvious to all thinking individuals—sustainability in any meaningful sense will be founded on the balanced articulation of human and nonhuman nature. In this revised conception, an overly simplified alternative definition might be “living within Earth’s limits.”

Misconception #2: Sustainability is a destination.
Sustainability is commonly thought of as an ultimate goal or endpoint, a utopian state of equilibrium where humanity final reins in its excesses and strikes some sort of balance. Commonly cited characteristics of a sustainable future include greatly improved energy efficiency, a shift to clean energy (“green electrons”), a vast reduction of wastes and toxins, a focus on locally produced organic food, and conservation of diverse ecosystems. Yet ecosystems and human societies, arguably the two most complex systems known, are dynamic and open, operating far from any equilibrium state. Like all such systems, their behaviors do not follow simple linear cascades of cause and effect (A influences B, which influences C, and so on). Instead these systems are chaotic and nonlinear, ruled by mutual causality (A, B, and C all influence one another, along with many other components in the system). Small inputs frequently generate large and unpredictable consequences (the infamous “butterfly effect”), and ecosystems have the ability to change in response to shifting conditions. Rather than being a final goal or destination, then, sustainability is better regarded as an ongoing evolutionary process. Truly sustainable societies will mimic nature’s ecosystems in being resilient and adaptable, capable of absorbing perturbations and undergoing transformations once limits are exceeded.

Misconception #3: Sustainability is a global phenomenon.
Closely related to the fiction of sustainability as a destination is the notion of “global sustainability.” Yes, we now live in a deeply interconnected world in which a gazillion bits of information travel around the planet each second and the global economy is vulnerable to local collapses. I get that. Yet the idea that sustainability must be global is rooted in misconception #1, the presumed separation of humans from nature. Let’s consider, for a moment, the idea of sustainability from Mother Nature’s perspective. Natural environments vary dramatically in their capacity to provide food, shelter, medicines, and energy, to assimilate wastes, to process and store carbon and nutrients, to purify water and regulate runoff, to build and maintain soils, and to house biological diversity. Sustainability, then, must be attuned to local (rather than global) needs. Add to this the fact that human social systems are also highly diverse, dependent on such factors as religion, ethnicity, and governmental structure, and the need for localization becomes even more evident. Notwithstanding present trends toward globalization, sustainability must be locally and regionally based, adapted to place-specific limits, and achievable at larger scales (for example, states, nations, and the biosphere) only on a cumulative basis. Of course, innovations in both technology and education will provide critical tools applicable in a wide range of settings. Yet there will be thousands upon thousands of sustainable solutions rather than one; indeed, in a very real sense the process will be unique to every place.

Imagine if the vast bulk of us understood—not just intellectually, but on a deeper gut level—that humanity is not separate from nature, but rather intricately interwoven into the fabric of the biosphere. Imagine if we thought less about reaching some utopian endpoint and worked instead to create adaptable societies capable of responding to inevitable perturbations. And imagine if the elements of those societies—for example, housing, transportation, industry, and energy supplies—were designed so as to be embedded into native landscapes, mimicking the workings of natural systems. Such a revamped perspective would make us think entirely different about our daily decisions, since we would know that those decisions have ramifying effects that either nurture or harm the places we live.

If you’re searching for inspiring examples of true sustainability, look no further than the nearest forest, grassland, desert, or reef. Life has persisted on the planet without interruption for over 3.5 billion years. And every ecosystem throughout most of that unfathomable duration has collected and dispersed solar energy and recycled wastes, all the while maintaining trillions of diverse lifeforms. While resilient to change, those untold ecosystems have also had the capacity to transform in the face of changing conditions. In the sustainability venture, then, Nature must be our guide. I could never make this claim as eloquently as the poet Rainer Marie Rilke, so I leave the final word to him:

“If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence, we could rise up rooted, like trees.”