Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Contemporary Ecological Renaissance

Lance Kinseth, Self as Landscape, 48”x60, 2015

IN THE GREAT WORK, theologian Thomas Berry suggests that the task for the 21st century involves the integration of human life into the larger Earth ecosystem.  However, contemporary human life seems to be moving further away from nature.  Since 2000, the majority of people inhabit cities and this is anticipated to increase to 70% by 2050.  Berry suggests that this task will require the intensity of a renaissance because of the way that it will alter our fundamental understanding of human nature.
Berry’s task begins to seem possible because urbanization is driving ecologically adaptive features.  Remarkably, for example, global urbanization is unintentionally reducing the rate of global population growth to a degree which decades of intentional environmental activism have not been able to accomplish.  Because of the rate of reduction, there is even the guarded possibility that the global population might be lower at the end of the century than it was in 2001 (W. Lutz et al, The end of world population growth. Nature, Vol. 412, No. 6846, 543-545).
Global urbanization continues to diminish the health of both uninhabited and settled landscapes.  While we may desire to focus environmental efforts on improving unsettled landscapes, successes will be Pyrrhic victories at best if we fail to address urbanization as the primary locus for intervention for the integration of human life into the Earth ecosystem.  And the good news is that urbanization contains a naturalness that we did not expect.  There is a “living city” operant in the ecologically destructive separable city. 
In Finite And Infinite Games, James Carse would approach the city as a natural “infinite” system rather than as a “finite” machine, because a city is effusive and has no end.  The eco-barrier to be overcome is the design strategy rather than the city-form—a finite “hard grid” machine model that envisions separation from nature and continues to extract resources for consumption.  The reality is more one of an infinite soft, creative process that is so participatory as to be almost beyond design and capable of creating resources rather than only consuming resources.
If the city is viewed as the antithesis of nature, intentional urban planning and design corrects mal-adapted “artificial” modern life.  If the city is viewed as natural and “living,” design identifies outstanding adaptive ecological features and optimizes them.  What is especially noteworthy here for design is that the ecological adaptability of the post-modern city has already begun and does not have to be invented.  Design for an ecological “living city” would be quite different from either a now-popular strategy of a “livable city” or a “sustainable city” which have been the first steps in changing the “separable city.”  Rather than invention, the design task becomes one of listening and then optimizing existing ecologically adaptive features. 
When we begin to look differently, perhaps searching for a crazy oxymoron such as “human wildness,” astonishingly, ecological adaptive features of urbanization begin to be seen.  These include actions and large design elements, such as an astonishing reduction in the rate of global population growth, freeing up landscape by increasing people-friendly population density, shift to residency with its inherent interest in sustainability, resource efficiency due to density and public health even in urban poverty, enhanced intra-urban nonhuman habitat, eco-centered resource production rather than only consumption, primary support for environmental research, and specialization/innovation.  
 Thomas Berry’s ecological renaissance begins with our eco-literacy still in its infancy.  Say “nature,” and we glance out the window to find it rather than imagine oneself within nature.  A renaissance occurs broadly rather than as a specific social movement.  A “renaissance,” such as the Italian Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution is easily a century long process, and it tends to begin quite obscurely—as was visually demonstrated in the Italian Renaissance, beginning vaguely with artists such as Cimabue and becoming explicit with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.    
In this renascent view, human migration toward cities is a spontaneous intuitive effort to sustain in a peopled Earth.  In an infinite Earth system, cities must be complementary infinite systems to sustain across the long run.  And the long run outcome can be a surprising one—that we can create an oasis of human and non-human diversity and fittedness out of what we have presumed to be separate from wild nature and artificial and domestic.
Our environmentalism can transform to be a positive health model rather than adversarial, and be people-friendly.  The task before us is large, but we are beginning to look more as residents than as migrants—from a posture of inclusion rather than intrusion and exclusion.  In the city itself, there is an opportunity improve human health and optimize other species through fresh strategies such as reconciliation ecology and a litany of approaches such as “vertical gardens,” participatory architecture, green space, green technology.  An online search of eco-strategies will produce a near-unending list of creative endeavors. 
Startling, “domestication” that integrates “self-as-landscape”—this sense that humanness is more than human beings—may be the core expression of a constructive “human wildness.”  And this sense of contemporary human wildness is not esoteric or an ethereal return to a Pastoral state.  It is perhaps most wild in its quest for concrete alertness and adaptation—key dynamics of wild processes.  It is a practical, optimally healthful and deeply economic strategy, that, in a now-peopled Earth, can re-imagine Thoreau’s admonition, …in Wildness is the preservation of the world.

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