Mark V. Barrow
The prospect of extinction, the complete loss of a species or other group of organisms, has long provoked strong responses. Until the turn of the 18th century, deeply held and widely shared beliefs about the order of nature led to a firm rejection of the possibility that species could entirely vanish. During the 19th century, however, resistance to the idea of extinction gave way to widespread acceptance following the discovery of the fossil remains of numerous previously unknown forms and direct experience with contemporary human-driven decline and the destruction of several species. In an effort to stem continued loss, at the turn of the 19th century, naturalists, conservationists, and sportsmen developed arguments for preventing extinction, created wildlife conservation organizations, lobbied for early protective laws and treaties, pushed for the first government-sponsored parks and refuges, and experimented with captive breeding. In the first half of the 20th century, scientists began systematically gathering more data about the problem through global inventories of endangered species and the first life-history and ecological studies of those species.
The second half of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries have been characterized both by accelerating threats to the world’s biota and greater attention to the problem of extinction. Powerful new laws, like the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973, have been enacted and numerous international agreements negotiated in an attempt to address the issue. Despite considerable effort, scientists remain fearful that the current rate of species loss is similar to that experienced during the five great mass extinction events identified in the fossil record, leading to declarations that the world is facing a biodiversity crisis. Responding to this crisis, often referred to as the sixth extinction, scientists have launched a new interdisciplinary, mission-oriented discipline, conservation biology, that seeks not just to understand but also to reverse biota loss. Scientists and conservationists have also developed controversial new approaches to the growing problem of extinction: rewilding, which involves establishing expansive core reserves that are connected with migratory corridors and that include populations of apex predators, and de-extinction, which uses genetic engineering techniques in a bid to resurrect lost species. Even with the development of new knowledge and new tools that seek to reverse large-scale species decline, a new and particularly imposing danger, climate change, looms on the horizon, threatening to undermine those efforts.
The term ecological design was coined in a 1996 book by Sim van der Ryn and Stewart Cowan, in which the authors argued for a seamless integration of human activities with natural processes to minimize destructive environmental impact. Following their cautionary statements, William McDonough and Michael Braungart published in 2002 their manifesto book From Cradle to Cradle, which proposed a circular political economy to replace the linear logic of “cradle to grave.” These books have been foundational in architecture and design discussions on sustainability and establishing the technical dimension, as well as the logic, of efficiency, optimization, and evolutionary competition in environmental debates. From Cradle to Cradle evolved into a production model implemented by a number of companies, organizations, and governments around the world, and it also has become a registered trademark and a product certification.
Popularized recently, these developments imply a very short history for the growing field of ecological design. However, their accounts hark as far back as Ernst Haeckel’s definition of the field of ecology in 1866 as an integral link between living organisms and their surroundings (Generelle Morphologie der Organismen, 1866); and Henry David Thoreau’s famous 1854 manual for self-reliance and living in proximity with natural surroundings, in the cabin that he built at Walden Pond, Massachusetts (Walden; or, Life in the Woods, 1854).
Since World War II, contrary to the position of ecological design as a call to fit harmoniously within the natural world, there has been a growing interest in a form of synthetic naturalism, (Closed Worlds; The Rise and Fall of Dirty Physiology, 2015), where the laws of nature and metabolism are displaced from the domain of wilderness to the domain of cities, buildings, and objects. With the rising awareness of what John McHale called disturbances in the planetary reservoir (The Future of the Future, 1969), the field of ecological design has signified not only the integration of the designed object or space in the natural world, but also the reproduction of the natural world in design principles and tools through technological mediation. This idea of architecture and design producing nature paralleled what Buckminster Fuller, John McHale, and Ian McHarg, among others, referred to as world planning; that is, to understand ecological design as the design of the planet itself as much as the design of an object, building, or territory. Unlike van der Ryn and Cowan’s argumentation, which focused on a deep appreciation for nature’s equilibrium, ecological design might commence with the synthetic replication of natural systems.
These conflicting positions reflect only a small fraction of the ubiquitous terms used to describe the field of ecological design, including green, sustain, alternative, resilient, self-sufficient, organic, and biotechnical. In the context of this study, this paper will argue that ecological design starts with the reconceptualization of the world as a complex system of flows rather than a discrete compilation of objects, which visual artist and theorist György Kepes has described as one of the fundamental reorientations of the 20th century (Art and Ecological Consciousness, 1972).