Monday, September 29, 2008

Sustaining the web of life

Sustaining the Web of Life


Biomimicry is the process of using natural biosystems as mentors, models and measures for human inventions. Janine M. Benyus, Biomimicry (Quill, 1997)

A natural biosystem:

Runs on current sunlight

Uses only the energy it needs

Fits form to function

Recycles everything

Rewards cooperation

Banks on diversity

Curbs excesses from within

Taps the power of limits

Learns from its context

Provides for future generations

Natural Capitalism

Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins in a book entitled Natural Capitalism (Little Brown & Company 1999) provide an application of natural principles to business. The four measures of natural capitalism are

1. Biomimicry (Nature as model, measure, and mentor) as described above.

2. Investing in Natural Capital or supporting ecosystems that are being destroyed like forests, wetlands, etc.

3. Service and Flow Economy – Changing from an emphasis on producing things to an emphasis on the services provided by those goods, e.g. transportation rather than trucks and autos

4. Radical Resource Productivity or increasing the productivity of available resources up to ten times through increased efficiency.

See the Natural Capitalism web site

Sustainable Designs

The Hannover Principles

• Insist on rights of humanity and nature to co-exist

• Recognize interdependence.

• Respect relationships between spirit and matter.

• Accept responsibility for the consequences of design decisions

• Create safe objects of long-term value.

• Eliminate the concept of waste.

• Rely on natural energy flows.

• Understand the limitations of design.

• Seek constant improvement by the sharing of knowledge.

For the full text of these principles developed by William McDonough see

Principles of Ecological Design

From Ecological Design by Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan (Island 1996)

1) Solutions grow from place-Ecological design begins with the intimate knowledge of a particular place. Therefore it is small-scale and direct, responsive to both local conditions and local people. If are sensitive to the nuances of place, we can inhabit without destroying.

2) Ecological accounting informs design- Trace the environmental impacts of existing or proposed designs. Use this information to determine the most ecologically sound design possibility.

3) Design with nature-By working with living processes, we respect the needs of all species while meeting our own. Engaging in processes that regenerate rather than deplete, we become more alive.

4) Everyone is a designer-Listen tot every voice in the design process. No one is a participant only or designer only. Everyone is a participant-designer. Honor the special knowledge that each person brings. As people work together to heal their places, they also heal themselves.

5) Make nature visible-De-natured environments ignore our need and our potential for learning. Making natural cycles and processes visible rings the designed environment back to life. Effective design helps inform us of our place within nature.

Guidelines for Sustainable Technologies

Different technologies can have vastly different effects on building or inhibiting sustainability. The following questions provide a guide for the sustainability index of a technology and its application. Technologies and applications with more answers yes than no tend to be more sustainable technologies.

Does the technology or its application:

1. Enhance community and foster dialogue?

2. Support diversity of people, cultures, and resources?

3. Encourage self-organization, creativity and local decision-making?

4. Utilize or increase the local knowledge base?

5. Increase focus on services needed and delivered rather than products?

6. Increase social equity?

7. Enhance awareness, interaction and interdependency of humans with the natural world?

8. Use less material from the crust of the earth and focus on renewable resources?

9. Maintain and enhance natural ecosystems?

10. Enhance efficient use of resources?

11. Avoid the use of toxic or persistent organic pollutants in its manufacture or use?

12. Utilize natural energy flows?

13. Enhance the use of resources from the local bioregion?

14. Avoid direct altering of internal information systems of organisms (DNA)?

15. Eliminate or recycle waste?

16. Create safe objects of long-term value?

17. Increase efficiency of energy flows?

18. Use natural organic models in its design?

19. Encourage reduced consumption of natural resources?

20. Increase the long-term economic viability of local communities?

21. Encourage full life-cycle ecological, economic and social accounting?

July 15, 2001

Sustainability Science

Sustainability science is a new multi-disciplinary approach to science that recognizes the limitations of traditional scientific inquiry in dealing with the complex reality of social institutions interacting with natural phenomena.

Statement of the Friibergh Workshop on Sustainability Science

Core Questions of Sustainability Science

Return to Precautionary Principle Developing Sustainability-Practical Applications

Holistic Management

Allan Savory with Jody Butterfield, Holistic Management (Island Press 1999)

Holistic management is a new framework for decision making on all levels that is based on resource management of the whole. It is a systemic approach, comprehensive in its inclusion of decision makers, the entire natural resource base and money. Savory developed the approach from his wide experience managing game lands in Africa and later, farming in New Mexico. Holistic Management considers the key role that animals play in renewing the land and on recognizing the nature and importance of four basic ecosystem processes: the water cycle, the mineral cycle, the energy cycle and community dynamics. Nothing can be managed apart from an understanding of the whole, the many communities of which it is a part. Establishing a holistic goal that includes quality of life, forms of production and the future resource base drives decision making.

Savory’s system includes eight tools for managing ecosystem processes: human creativity, technology, rest, fire grazing, animal impact, living organisms, and money and labor. Testing and management guidelines, planning procedures and a feedback loop assure constant monitoring of the success of decisions. Holistic Management is an important book for people who manage people, communities, land or money or anyone who cares about creating a sustainable future.

Savory’s Center for Holistic Management in Albuquerque, New Mexico, conducts seminars, publishes materials and has a web site,

The Precautionary Principle

in the Context of an Ecological Paradigm:

Some Questions and Values

The precautionary principle is widely used today as a guideline for environmental decision-making. Several international agreements incorporate versions of it in their texts. The most widely used description of the precautionary principle is found in Article 15 of the Rio declaration of 1992:

“In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

Another formulation of the principle was stated at Wingspread, headquarters of the Johnson Foundation, in January 1998, at a meeting of lawyers, scientists, policy makers and environmentalists:

“When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

While the basic elements of these and other formulations of the precautionary principle are similar, there are some differences.

1) Both formulations have the phrase “protect the environment.” Wingspread adds human health. The Rio declaration also calls for “Measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

2) The Rio statement speaks of “threats of serious or irreversible damage” while Wingspread uses “threats of harm.”

3) Rio uses “full scientific certainty” while Wingspread uses “cause and effect relationships not established scientifically.”

4) Only Rio uses an economic descriptor, “cost-effective measures.”

5) Responsibility is that of states in the Rio declaration, while Wingspread does not state an actor but implies responsibility on the actor.

Any comprehensive look at the precautionary principle needs to set itself in the larger context of an ecological paradigm. The earth, as part of the universe, is one living system. It operates through the relationship of all its elements, which are constantly in flux, adjusting to different forces, self-organizing according to principles that have been operative since the beginning of the universe and which continue to drive it. Examining the meaning of precaution in this system necessarily raises many questions which can be considered under five headings: 1) Economics, 2) Definition of Life, 3) Systems Approach, 4) Harm, 5) Science and 6) Levels of Action.


1. Economic Issues

What should the role of economic issues be in deciding an action? If economic measures are used, what is the meaning of cost-benefit analysis? What is cost? How much cost is acceptable? Who bears the cost – the actor, the “victim”, the governing authority? What are the costs in terms of resources and possible resource degradation? Are environmental costs considered costs? If effects are irreversible, how are they measured in economic terms? How are social, economic, and environmental costs defined in cost-benefit analysis? What are the benefits? To whom? What is the appropriate role of the market?

Value: The role of economics as a belief system--Money as the ultimate value rather than a means of exchange, the domination of markets over other sectors of the economy

2) Definition of Life

A. Fritjof Capra in The Web of Life (Anchor 1996) formulates a new scientific understanding of life as pattern of organization, dissipative structure and the life process of cognition. What is the threat to the web of life anticipated in an action or product? Does the action interfere with the integrated cognitive processes of the nervous system, the endocrine system or the immune system which act as one cognitive system? If the pattern of organization is embodied in a fluid structure of community described as an ecosystem, how does the product or action affect that system?

B. Biological metaphors better describe the web of life than physical metaphors. Linear and mechanical approaches to problems or a physical approach to the universe are no longer adequate as descriptors. Cause and effect implies a linearity, whereas in the complex systems of the web of life, effects are the result of multiple interacting factors. In the genome DNA may be 95% used for integrative activities. What are the effects of an activity on the integrative activities of an organism or ecosystem?

C. If the environment is us and we are the environment, an understanding increasingly supported by new scientific descriptions of the universe and its history, can we separate humans and the environment for the convenience of simplicity? If we do so, what are the implications and consequences?

Value: Integrity of creation, earth as gaia or a unified living system - Just over 50% of Americans agree that the earth is one giant living organism according to an EPA survey summarized in The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World, New York: Harmony Books, October, 2000, by Paul H. Ray, Ph.D.. and Sherry Ruth Anderson, Ph.D. How does an action affect this living system?

3) Systems Approach

A. In a systems or holistic approach, there are no side-effects, only effects, just as any consequence is a consequence whether intended or not. Ecosystems consist of many wholes, many systems that are mutually interactive with fluid boundaries. How does the activity affect the various wholes with which it interacts? How are different effects in different systems valued one against another?

B. In a complex system the nature of cause and effect is not linear or single. It involves an integrative understanding of multiple causes and multiple effects. What systems of feedback are we developing to assess these multiple consequences of an activity?


A. Responsibility for action - Who or what is responsible? How is that responsibility assumed or assigned?

B. Accountability of actors to communities – local, national, bioregional, international, ecological – How are measures of accountability defined and instituted?

C. Participation, democracy in decision-making, informed consent - Who makes what decisions? How are they affected by their decisions? How are others affected by their decisions? Who is excluded? How are decisions reviewed?

3) Harm

A. What are warning signs for ecosystem degradation and how does an activity accelerate or decrease degradation? Some typical indicators are Population Growth, Global Warming/ Climate Change, Stratospheric Ozone Depletion, Loss of Biological Diversity, Deforestation, Desertification and Land Degradation, Freshwater Loss and Degradation, Marine Environment and Resource Degradation , Effects of Persistent Organic Pollutants, and Gross Divergence in Income. What effect does an action have on any of these indicators?

B. What is the adequacy or inadequacy of risk assessment as a tool? Risk assessment is inherently reductionist and limited in its ability both to analyze a situation and to formulate responses, e.g. it is unable to describe adequately the combination of multiple chemicals in a situation. It is also a tool for predicting probability rather than actual effect. Risk assessment does not include asking those at risk if the risk is acceptable.

C. If the four principles of the Natural Step describe basic rules for the operation of the earth, how do they apply to a proposed activity? The four principles are:

TAKE The condition of naturally occurring materials

The earth is not sustainable if we continue to take from its crust stored deposits of materials at a faster rate than nature’s own cycles take and return those substances.

MAKE The condition of socially produced materials

The earth is not sustainable if we continue to make synthetic compounds and other materials at a faster rate than they can be broken down and integrated into natural cycles.

MAINTAIN The condition of ecosystem manipulation

The earth is not sustainable unless our actions maintain or renew natural ecological systems rather than systematically destroying them by overuse and misuse.

USE The socio-economic condition

The earth is not sustainable unless we use the natural resources we have to meet the basic needs of all people.

D. Four basic cycles operate in ecosystems: the water cycle, the mineral cycle, the energy cycle, and community dynamics. Each is a necessary part of the holistic functioning of the system. What is the effect of a proposed action on each of these cycles?

Value: Prevention of harm and to what? What is the definition and scope of harm? What degree of harm is acceptable? Who defines the degree of acceptability?

5) Science

What kind of science do we mean when using science to define the credibility or acceptability of an action and the analysis of it? Sound science is understood by environmentalists to be a political definition of science meaning “industry science.” The Heisenberg Principle in quantum physics is about uncertainty. Reductionist science is incapable of providing an adequate methodology for the complexity of the universe we are beginning to understand. The application of reductionist science in fields like genetic engineering increases perils. Sustainability science is a new endeavor that is combining many different disciplines to begin to understand the human-nature system. Its core questions provide an overview.

Value: The role of science as a belief system – How adequate is science, whatever its definition, to describe the problems we face and provide a basis for solutions?

6) Levels of Action

A. There are various levels of perceiving effects of an action and activities to counter that action. Some are personal, others are to restore damage to people or ecosystems. Others are institutional. Still others affect the transformation of an entire system. What level are we considering, both in defining the effects of an activity and in formulating a response to it -- personal, restorative, institutional reform, or transformation of the system? The latter level includes looking at the basic assumptions by which the system operates and challenging the paradigm.

B. If the world as we know it is, as some believe, in the process of changing paradigms from a modern industrial society to one that enhances its social information gathering processes to live in better accord with the earth, or to sustain the web of life, how does the proposed action accelerate or deny the process of paradigm change?

C. Where does responsibility for an activity lie? Nation state? Company? Individual? UN? Trade Association? Local community? How adequate are present governing authorities to deal with cross boundary effects? How do we facilitate cross boundary consultation and agreement? Chemicals, like any other matter, tend to disperse, not recognizing artificial political and institutional boundaries or natural boundaries.


A. Responsibility for action - Who or what is responsible? How is that responsibility assumed or assigned?

B. Accountability of actors to communities – local, national, bioregional, international, ecological – How are measures of accountability defined and instituted?

C. Participation, democracy in decision-making, informed consent - Who makes what decisions? How are they affected by their decisions? How are others affected by their decisions? Who is excluded? How are decisions reviewed?

To address the questions and values raised above a reformulation of the precautionary principle is necessary. I suggest:

In order to sustain the web of life and build living economies a holistic precautionary approach within a framework of public accountability shall be widely applied in decision-making. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage to the patterns, structures and cognitive systems of life, lack of knowledge through existing information gathering processes shall not be used to postpone measures to prevent harm.

Within any system, questions arise which cannot be answered in that system but need a larger system to provide the answer. All human systems, and therefore all processes of ethical decision—making, are ultimately part of the largest system, the universe. Relationship to the universe and its web of life is the ultimate value-creating entity. Nothing can avoid this judgment. The universe provides a model, a mentor and a measure for any actions that a precautionary principle would embrace.

J. Andy Smith III

Revised January 4, 2002

Ecological Economics

Robert Costanza, John Cumberland, Herman Daly, Robert Goodland, and Richard Norgard, An Introduction to Ecological Economics (St. Lucie Press 1997)

Humanity is at a tuning point where the activities of our species are so large that they are affecting the ecological life systems themselves. Economic growth needs to be rethought so that qualitative improvement without growth in resources occurs and the interrelatedness and interdependence of all aspects of life is recognized. We need to move from an economics that ignores interdependence to one that acknowledges and builds on it. To do this is to return to the classical roots of economics where economics and the other sciences were integrated. Ecological economics is an attempt to transcend narrow disciplinary boundaries to bring our full intellectual capital to bear on the huge problems we face. (Synopsis of review in The Future Survey Super Seventy: Best Books of 1996-2000, World Future Society, 2001)