Social Ecology and Organic Environmental Design

Image by G Albrecht. Claire Albrecht looking at a Hundertwasser model village at the KunstHausWien 2005.

(Original publication in Rethinking the Built Environment: Proceedings of the Catalyst ’95 Conference, 13-16 July, 1995, ed. By Dr. Janis Birkeland, Centre for Environmental Philosophy, Planning and Design, University of Canberra, PO Box 1, Belconnen.

Glenn A. Albrecht, The Department of Geography, The University of Newcastle, Callaghan NSW 2308.


One of the major intellectual moods of the late 20th century is that there is no objective basis to any value position one might care to take up. Values are seen as culturally constructed and that therefore all possible positions are equally ‘valid’. Indeed, Postmodernism has celebrated the so-called deconstruction of objectivity and has strongly advocated the new creative freedom possible in the prevailing ‘anything goes’ climate.

The problem with such a view is that while providing the room to critique Positivism and Modernism, very little of any substance has been provided to fill the gaps. Postmodernism has no answers on important issues such as sustainability, because it has abandoned objectively-based science, social science and ethics. Because of this, it has no coherent contribution to make to the idea of environmental design.

The context of human habitation and the design of the social realm can be put into an objective historical and temporal framework by asking and attempting to answer the following questions:

  1. What conditions enabled the species Homo sapiens to successfully populate the earth?
  2. What kind of animal is Homo sapiens?

The foundations of values

I shall answer these questions using, initially, information gleaned from texts on environmental science and eco-evolution. One of the most self-evident objective truths about planet Earth is that it was here before we were here (before Postmodernism). About five billion years ago the earth was a coherent mass. Four billion years ago there is evidence of microbial life; these microbes were able to take hydrogen in and release oxygen as a by-product of their metabolism. As the microbes flourished, they produced an oxygen-rich environment which threatened their own survival. The eukaryotic (with a nucleus) cell evolved as an oxygen consumer and began a further evolutionary explosion that has yet to cease. It has been pointed out that if a human were to be transplanted back to earth as it was four billion years ago, the oxygen poor environment would have caused asphyxiation in a matter of minutes (Kupchella and Hyland, 1986, p. 109). Multi-cellular animals emerged, and by six hundred million years ago there was a great variety of marine-based multi-cellular organisms inhabiting the oceans. As we move through geological time, more complex forms of life evolved… fishes, amphibians, reptiles and mammals emerging from 430 to 200 million years ago. Plants were also evolving at this time, with ferns emerging 400 million years ago and flowering plants in the Cretaceous period some 100 million years ago. It is clear that there was chemical and biological co-evolution that created increasingly complex and diverse conditions for life. The ecoanarchist Murry Bookchin describes the inter-relationships between the first and most recent life forms on the earth:

That living things, emerging ages ago from their primal aquatic habitat to colonise the most inhospitable areas of the earth, have created the rich biosphere that now covers it has been possible only because of life’s incredible mutability and the enormous legacy of life-forms inherited from its long development. Many of these life-forms, even the most primal and simplest, have never disappeared – however much they have been modified by evolution… Although they may antedate the ‘higher’ plants and mammals by over a billion years, they inter-related with their more complex descendants in often unravelable ecosystems. (Bookchin, 1982, p. 24-25)

An understanding of evolution and ecology should give humans a profound sense of our connection to the life on this planet that created the conditions for our own emerging as a species. We are linked to all other living things over deep evolutionary time and within expansive ecological space in an organic unity.

It is this temporal and spatial conjunction that humans entered about 2.6 million years ago. Homo sapiens have been described as “intelligent, co-generalists” (Kupchella and Hyland, 1986, p. 115) and it is clear from our basic biology that cooperation is an essential part of our make-up. The adaptive advantage of intelligence possessed by humans would have initially been used to comprehend and relate to the environment into which we evolved. The senses combined with intelligence enable us to directly relate to our external reality. It would be very strange if it were otherwise, since our very survival depends on being able to immediately relate to the things in nature that were present long before our arrival. The search for food and water, the avoidance of predators, the interaction with landscape and climate and relations with each other are predicated o having senses that give us access to the real world. That humans have evolved to possess sensory and intellectual abilities that are made of the same ‘stuff’ as natural reality should come as no surprise to anyone except deeply alienated postmodernists. As the German philosopher, Hegel, put it in the 19th century:

Of a metaphysics prevalent today which maintains that we cannot know things because they are absolutely shut to us, it might be said that not even the animals are so stupid as these metaphysicians; they go after things, seize and consume them. (Hegel, in Weiss, ed. 1974, p. 205)

Although humans have good all-round abilities, they are, even by comparison to large herbivores such as antelope, relatively defenceless. Without mutual support using intelligence and tools, humans would be easy prey for carnivores. Humans also have a long gestation period with the resulting infants unable to fend for themselves for at least a decade or more. The human infant, unlike a baby crocodile, requires a social group around it, supporting the mother during late pregnancy and its infancy, thus enabling it to achieve maturity. Humans are social animals. We have always lived in social groups where cooperation between all members of the group is a necessity for the survival of the species. As hunters and gatherers, humans worked cooperatively to achieve common goals using high levels of communication and coordination.

Aggression and conflict were certainly parts of the human make-up, however, if aggression, conflict and egocentricity were to prevail, the human species would have disappeared within a few generations of its emergence. The anarchist Peter Kropotkin put the case of cooperation as a basis for success in evolutionary terms:

those species which best know how to combine, and to avoid competition, have the best chances of survival and of a further progressive development. They prosper, while the unsociable species decay. … It is evident that it would be quite contrary to all that we know of nature if men were an exception to so general a rule. … To a mind accustomed to the idea of unity in nature, such a proposition appears utterly indefensible. (Kropotkin, 1987, p. 74)

While it is evident that humans are at the pioneering edge of the process of evolution that has been unfolding for about four billion years, it is not clear if this fact alone provides a clear orientation on values for human beings. It might be argued that the vital connections that humans have with the rest of nature provide a very basic guide for human values: live within the preexisting structure and processes of nature, or we are likely to be in trouble with essentials for life such as clean air and water and healthy soil and food. Such a guide post might infer that we should live as our ancestors did, hunting and gathering or producing subsistence agriculture and touching the earth as lightly as possible. This neo-minimalist strategy has been associated with the ethical position in environmental philosophy known as Deep Ecology (see Devall and Sessions, 1995). However, such an ethic does not seem to acknowledge that humans are part of nature and that human culture is an expression of our potential as a species to further coevolve with the rest of nature in a way that supports continued increases in its complexity, diversity and unity.

It is often suggested that the theory of evolution in science provides nothing but an account of how species become successful in adapting themselves to a given environment. In this theory, ‘success’ means a viable adaption and a competitive edge in the struggle to survive. The notion that there is progress in a qualitative sense from simple (algae and bacteria) to complex organisms (dolphins and humans) has been dismissed as anthropocentrism on the part of humans as they desire to see themselves as at the top of the evolutionary hierarchy.

There is, however, some evidence and argument that can be forwarded to support the idea that there is directionality in nature towards the complex and diverse. The movement in evolution from the simple to the complex is supported, in its most concrete form, in the fossil record that is available to us, since it shows that, over time, organisms evolve in a way that manifests greater complexity and diversity. Even when we factor into our assessment of the fossil record the fact that at certain moments in evolutionary history there have been mass extinctions of whole groups of animals and that there is evidence of great diversity that no longer exists, we can, with justification, argue that when evolution proceeds after a catastrophe, it moves in the direction of increasing complexity and diversity.

Ecoanarchism and complexity theory on directionality

The ecoanarchist, Murray Bookchin, has attempted to found an objective basis for human ethics on the premise that there is directionality in nature. Increasing complexity and diversity provide a basic framework to “help us distinguish which of our actions serve the thrust of evolution and which impede them” (Bookchin, 1982, p. 342). Bookchin identifies three attributes of organic life that are of primary ethical significance. They are what he calls mutualism, freedom and subjectivity. ‘Mutualism’ depicts the relations of mutual dependence in time and space that are the essence of ecological relationships. The anarchist, Kropotkin, was on the correct path when he saw mutual aid within and between species as a factor in evolution, and this pioneering insight has been expanded in the 20th century by ecological advances in understanding the complexities of symbiosis and types of living relationships formed by mutual dependence.

‘Freedom’ is best described as the active effort by organic beings to assert their identity and presence and to preserve themselves, while ‘subjectivity’ is Bookchin’s term for matter to self-organise towards consciousness and finally self-consciousness in humans. Bookchin argues for the emergence of increasing degrees of subjectivity in the unfolding of life from the simple to the complex. Life, in spontaneously producing itself, also produces a material substance that “… eventually yields mind and intellectuality” (Bookchin, 1982, p. 364).

Humans are capable of using their intelligence to discover the values explicit in the direction of increasing complexity and diversity. Again, as was highlighted above, we are in a position to do this because our sense organs and intelligence are themselves products of natural evolution; we are nature trying to understand itself. Humans are not some kind of evolutionary mistake or dead-end, we are on the pioneering edge of a process that is unfolding in the rest of natural evolution. Our awareness of both evolutionary processes over deep time and our connections to other species forms the basis of an ethical stance with respect to human-nature relationships and human-human relationships. As Bookchin puts this ethical foundation:

to arrest the spontaneity that lies at the core of a self-organising reality toward ever greater complexity and rationality, to abridge freedom – these actions would cut across the grain of natural evolution, deny our heritage in its evolutionary processes, and dissolve our legitimacy and function in the world of life. (Bookchin, 1994, p. 74)

Some support for Bookchin’s position can be found in the development of complexity theory in the last decade. Complexity theory has changed the 19th century view of entropy (the destructive tendency towards disorder and loss of useable energy in any isolated system) to one that is intimately involved in the creation of order in the natural world. The way physicists and others have come to this view is through the observation that in certain circumstances (described as far-from-equilibrium), matter displays a tendency to self-organise in new ways. Prigogine and Stengers describe this fundamental shift in thinking:

We now know that far from equilibrium, new types of structures may originate spontaneously. In far-from-equilibrium conditions we may have transformation from disorder, from thermal chaos, into order. New dynamic states may originate, states that reflect the interaction of a given system with its surroundings. We have called these new structures dissipative structures to emphasise the constructive role of dissipative processes in their formation. (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984, p. 12)

The most important discovery associated with dissipative structures is that the second law of thermodynamics (the entropy law that suggests that the universe is gradually heading towards heat death) while still having universal relevance, can be negated at a more local level. By exporting entropy into its environment, a dissipative structure can must exist in an open system where an exchange of energy can take place. A dissipative structure creates an internal order that is “far more efficient in utilizing energy for organisation and maintenance than the background system within which the primary flux occurs” (Dyke, in Weber et al, 1988, p. 360).

Those who have applied these new insights generated by what is now called non-equilibrium thermodynamics (NET), have done a great deal to assist the defence of an ethic founded on the direction of increasing complexity and diversity in nature. There is an emerging perspective that dissipative structures develop in an irreversible way through spontaneous self-organisation to increased states of complexity. As Depew and Weber argue:

It is an essential property… of dissipative structures, when proper kinetic pathways are available, to self-organise and, when initial boundary conditions are specified, to evolve toward greater complexity… Thus if we grant that biological systems are constrained by the same physical laws that made their emergence possible, we can expect such systems – organisms, populations, species, clades, ecosystems, and the biosphere as a whole – will evolve, and evolve towards greater complexity. (Depew and Weber, in Weber et al, 1988, pp. 337-338)

While Complexity Theory is not in itself a compelling reason to support Bookchin’s position, there is at the very least within contemporary science, a theory that is consistent with the view that nature has directionality and with it the potential to evolve toward increasing complexity and diversity. Dissipative processes have now been studied in many types of physical and biological systems and they are now also being identified in human social systems. Cities and their urban systems, for example, are good cases for analysis as dissipative structures, where ‘entropy bookkeeping’ rather than the conventional ‘economic bookkeeping’ might help us design and run a sustainable city (see Dyke, in Weber et al. 1988, p. 366).

Directions for design

The implications for design of the self-generated movement in life toward increasing complexity and diversity can now be drawn out. As humans have socially evolved, they have done so in a way that has increasingly deconstructed (in the literal use of the term) biotic complexity that has taken millions of years to evolve. Our social evolution has diverged from the direction of natural evolution, particularly in the last three hundred years. While it may have increased its technological complexity, industrial society has done so at the expense of the ecological and biotic complexity of the planet.

For human social evolution to again live with the grain of nature and be sustainable, it must be in harmony with and complement the complexity and diversity evident in eco-evolution within the core systems of a human community (see Albrecht, 1994). For example, a distinct type of politics and decision-making structure will reflect unity in diversity. Bookchin makes it clear that:

society conceived of as a diversified and self-developing ecosystem based on complementarity, poses a very distinct notion of politics (that stresses) human scale, decentralization, nonhierarchy, communitarianism, and face-to-face interaction between citizens. (Bookchin, in Clark, 1990, p. 9)

We can begin to imagine other elements of our social systems that will be designed to mirror the idea of maintaining or increasing complexity and diversity as derived from eco-evolution. The way we produce food will not only support current levels of biotic complexity, it will have an ethical dimension that links our relationship to the environment to an enriched social and psychological life. Permaculture and organic gardening are essential methods of food production that work with nature, not against it. By contrast, agribusiness produces food on a global scale with genetically engineered organisms, pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers and high energy inputs in such a way that biotic complexity is destroyed and replaced by engineered monocultures.

Similar comment can be made about technologies and the way they are developed and used by humans. Eco-technologies will work with the direction of nature. The complexity of modern technology is superficial if it is achieved at the expense of life-supporting complexity in natural systems. Bookchin suggests that eco-technologies will be linked to an array of renewable energy sources and will be devoted to the production of things that have quality, permanence and artistic and aesthetic merit. The artistic and aesthetic are crucial here, for it is in this way that human intelligence can be used in a way that is itself open and creative. The designer and artist, Hundertwasser, has shown in his work how organically-inspired complexity and art can come together in aesthetic unity. His ideas come from a profound awareness of the disturbance humans are enacting on the planet and an ecological and aesthetic sense of how we need to bring social and natural ecology back into harmony. Through art and design, Hundertwasser attempts to repair the lost organic unity that once pervaded all living systems. He argues:

Only a full, irregularly-flowing stream with tree-lined banks can produce pure water, regulate the water balance and sustain fish and animal life for the benefit of man and his agriculture … Now, almost too late, we are grasping this ancient wisdom, breaking up the straight concrete lines of regulated streams and river courses, in order to recreate their original, irregular state. How ironic. Why regulate a stream only to deregulate it afterwards? (in Rand, 1991, p. 71)

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright also conceived of architecture as having the potential to create built forms that go with the flow of nature rather than against it. In the forward to The Living City, Wright argued that “true human culture has a healthy sense of the beautiful as its life-of-the-soul: an aesthetic organic, as of life itself, not on it; nobly relating man to his environment (F. Lloyd Wright, 1958, p. xi). Ian McHarg, in his now classic book Design with Nature (1969), argued that organic form is “integral with all processes” and that it is possible to evaluate how well human design fits with the pre-existing order of things. Appropriate design will harmonise with this preexisting order while bad design contradicts it. McHarg uses the concept of ‘fitness’ to develop an evaluative dimension to design. He argues that:

If the purpose of fitness is to ensure survival and ensure evolutionary success for the organism, the species, the community and the biosphere, then adaptations are primarily directed toward enhancing life and evolution. Can we then avoid bringing concern with form into the realm of the enhancement or inhibition to life and evolution? When we link form to life we must retreat to a more basic but united concern with adaptation as creative or destructive. Fitness is then by definition creative and will be revealed in the form of fitness that is life-enhancing (McHarg, 1992, p. 173.)


The final point that can be made in the light of the above is a suggestion for a question that can be asked whenever the issue of human development arises:

Does this thought or action maintain or increase the diversity, complexity and hence unity of natural and social ecologies?

If this answer to this question is that it does not, then it is unethical and should not be done. The reason why it is unethical is that it prevents the realisation of latent potential in living systems to enhance life and achieve greater complexity and diversity. This is the same ethical impulse that concerns us when humans cannot achieve their full potential. When oppressed and exploited by those at the top of power hierarchies, individual humans cannot reach their full potential and hence our whole society is impoverished by their failure to reach that potential. Such retardation is what is ethically wrong about the exploitation and oppression of groups in society … it prevents what would otherwise be a spontaneous move on the part of self and the community toward increasing complexity and diversity.

The death of a child or young adult hits us hard as a tragic loss of such potential. The death of the Earth while it still has the potential to evolve is similarly tragic. To avoid unsustainability, sickness and a premature death we need a creative, organically inspired design that makes human technology and the built environment organic moments of this greater direction in life and living systems.

Biography (1995)

Glenn Albrecht is a lecturer in environmental studies in the Department of Geography at the University of Newcastle. He is active in local and national conservation and is a foundation member of the Hunter Wetlands Trust. He has also had a long-term interest in the avifauna of Australia and the history of ornithology on this continent. He has an academic and a personal interest in the concept of sustainability and has published in this area. At the personal level, Dr Albrecht is very much committed to the idea that his children, Anthony and Claire, and indeed all other children, should not inherit an earth that is worse off in social and ecological terms than the one we now inhabit. He actually believes that the earth could even be better by becoming more complex, diverse and unified, like it once was.


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