Sunday, 29 April 2007

learning from nature

Clearing out the garden shed to make room to store the new bike I came across this solitary wasp's nest wedged up between two cardboard boxes. Admiring the beauty, simplicity and intelligence in the design and craft reminded me that I am trying to re-structure my work, life and outlook to that of living systems thinking. I do believe nature provides the best model for a sustainable future, one of thinking, as Fritjof Capra describes, in terms of "relationships, connectedness and context".

But what exactly is sustainability, when do I, we, know when we have reached it? David Orr speaking at Plymouth University a few years ago suggested that we don't know what sustainability entails but we should calibrate what we do with how the world works. Capra's definition of a sustainable human community expands on this. I first read it in Resurgence 226, and it's also in "Energy and Sustainability" a speech he gave at the 2003 World Social Forum:

Since the outstanding characteristic of the biosphere is its inherent ability to sustain life, a sustainable human community must be designed in such a manner that its ways of life, businesses, economy, physical structures and technologies do not interfere with nature's inherent ability to sustain life.

Traditional societies had already sussed this of course, those that forgot it or got greedy didn't survive. I'm sure our biggest learning curve today is to really get to know nature again, to re-gain an instinctual understanding of her ways - not just an accumulation of facts learned from books or TV but a real knowledge from experiential discovery. I learned about and experienced this when travelling in Australia in the late 1980s - there came a point that I felt so in tune with nature, heart beating with her rhythm, the slow life. Maybe it was just the heat! But I lost it soon after returning to Britain. I put this down to indoor life (although I spend a lot of time outside) and the daily pressures of living/earning here. Which means I know how to return to closeness with nature... it's just finding a way to get there.

In his lecture David Orr gave a number of eco-design principles which seem appropriate guides for making my practice sustainable:

- nature is standard
- protect diversity
- account for all costs
- whole systems
- use current sunlight
- eliminate waste

and he indicated implications arising from these:

- short feedback loops
- short supply lines
- closed nutrient cycles
- accountability
- decentralised control
- redundancy
- information moves not materials
- prices that tell the truth

Expanding on these: short feedback loops suggests that anything resulting from an action should not have a linear feedback (such as finite mining of salt reserves) but should loop back or be cyclical (ie ocean salt being replenished fast enough), and the effect should be as localised as possible. I haven't explained that well and need to mull it. edit 1 May 22.32 James Lovelock described positive and negative feedbacks in his recent book The Revenge of Gaia. An example of a positive feedback he gives is the "ice albedo feedback", 'albedo' referring to reflectivity. Snow-covered ground reflects sunlight back to space and so stays cold. But as snow begins to melt dark ground emerges which absorbs sunlight and so becomes warmer. The warmth melts more snow and so positive feedback and linear feedback exist. Before accelerated ice cap melting an equilibrium existed, a negative and looped feedback.

Short supply lines is akin to buying or acquiring locally and thus related to the above and to minimising energy use in transportation.

Closed nutrient cycles relates to waste - or ensuring that anything I produce but cannot use can be used elsewhere, and likewise considering whether what I use to start with need be raw material or could be a re-used material. Guess I could have just said 'recycling'!

Accountability is why this blog exists. As is moving of information not materials - although sharing my discoveries is not a material like Cornish Sea Salt.

De-centralised control and redundancy need a bit more thinking on my part.

Prices that tell the truth is partly about externalised costing - not just for example energy use but also social costs, which is why I support the Fair Trade concept. But true pricing also accounts for, to use the same example, the unsustainable use of finite resources such as rock salt.

And now I am going to ponder the wasp nest, and think about how these principles and implications relate to the nest design and construction. I already have been advised the outer cup or bowl is for thermo-regulation ("use current sunlight"), and may be the reason the cells are on a pedestal.

1 comment:

Robin Paris said...

commenting to myself to test the comment tool