Worldwide, governments subsidize agriculture at the rate of approximately 1 billion dollars per day. This figure rises to about twice that when export and biofuels production subsidies and state financing for dams and river basin engineering are included. These policies guide land use in numerous ways, including growers’ choices of crop and buyers’ demand for commodities. The three types of state subsidies that shape land use and the environment are land settlement programs, price and income supports, and energy and emissions initiatives. Together these subsidies have created perennial surpluses in global stores of cereal grains, cotton, and dairy, with production increases outstripping population growth. Subsidies to land settlement, to crop prices, and to processing and refining of cereals and fiber, therefore, can be shown to have independent and largely deleterious effect on soil fertility, fresh water supplies, biodiversity, and atmospheric carbon.
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).