Questioning Ecological Design:
A Deep Ecology Perspective

By Eugenio A. Lomba-Ortiz
July 2003

Short Bio

Eugenio A. Lomba, B.S., M.Sc., J.D., LL.M.
Eugenio Lomba comes from Orocovis, Puerto Rico. He holds a BS degree in Agronomy and Soils from the University of Puerto Rico, a Masters of Science (M.Sc.) degree in Soil Chemistry from Virginia Tech, a Certificate of International Research and Development Specialization from Virginia Tech, a J.D. from the University of Puerto Rico School of Law, and a Masters of Laws (LL.M.) Degree in Agricultural Law from the University of Arkansas School of Law. Eugenio served as the Assistant Director to the AgriBusiness and Food Business Management Program at Universidad del Este, as Instructor in the Department of Biology of the University of Puerto Rico, and as Visiting Lecturer in the Environmental Sciences program at the Universidad del Turabo.

. . .
" Taken in its entirety, the increase in mankind's strength has brought about a decisive, many-sided shift in the balance of strength between man and the earth. Nature, once a harsh and feared master, now lies in subjection, and needs protection against man's powers. Yet, because man, no matter what intellectual and technical heights he may scale, (is part of nature) too, the threat that he poses to the earth is a threat to him as well"
- Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth (1982).

" I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay until sundown, for going out, I discovered, was actually going in"
- John Muir

" A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise"
- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac.
. . .

Thinking ecologically about design is certainly not a "new" idea. Since ancient times "designers" looked to nature for "solutions" to their common problems; they saw nature as the perfect model to follow. More recently, designers such as Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, among many others, have attempted, with some degree of success, to address ecological issues through their designs. "Green Architecture," "Alternative Architecture," "Sustainable Design," and "Ecological Design," are some of the terms commonly used today to describe a special expression of design that takes as its primary driving force nature's processes. Van Der Ryn and Cowan (Ecological Design, 1996) defined this form of expression as "any form of design that minimizes environmentally destructive impacts by integrating itself with living processes." A "new" movement among design professionals has been developing for some time now with many of its principles synthesized by the current "green" movement in design.

Even though, in recent times, an increase in ecological education and environmental awareness is apparent among design professionals, there is still the need to better understand the expression of ecology through design. A deeper examination of the current paradigm(s) driving the ecological design movement will show that it addresses issues in a reactionary and remediative fashion, only scratching the surface without really considering deeper questions. This "green" design movement is shaped by the dominant worldview, a highly westernized and human-centered view, that in the end lacks ecological consciousness.

"Deep Ecology" presents itself as a possible alternative to the common dominant worldview of technocratic-industrial societies that regards humans as isolated and fundamentally separated from the rest of nature, as superior to, and in charge of, the rest of creation. Deep ecology involves cultivating ecological consciousness, the understanding that everything is interconnected. It is learning how to be more receptive and trusting, more holistic in perception, and is grounded in a vision of non-exploitative science and technology. Deep ecology as expressed by philosopher Arne Naess is "simple in means, rich in ends" (Drengson and Inoue, 1995; Devall and Sessions, 1985).

Globalization vs. Bioregionalism

Due to the ever-increasing reach of technology, many of the proposed solutions to the problems humanity faces today are based on the concept of the "global society." Problems are no longer studied within their own context, but general, prescription-like solutions are the norm in dealing with them. Unfortunately, design is no exception. The current eco-design movement has many times approached environmental issues in this fashion. An example is the common and repetitive scenario in which "expert" designers based in other cities, states, or even countries are called upon to intervene on a site without really knowing the relevant socio-economic, cultural-historical and biophysical processes associated with that specific area. These outsiders in some cases do not even care to try to understand local cultures and their relationship to their surrounding environment. They simply refer to their own past experience and the application of a design "recipe" that might be thought of as the best fit for a particular project.

Ecological design should be sensitive to local environments and cultures and respond accordingly, taking into account a bioregional approach. Bioregionalism predicates giving importance to natural boundaries between ecosystems instead of artificially made boundaries, and it implies self-regulation, a more sustainable way of life and work.

The Role of Technology

Some designers envision a society in which technological advances will ultimately provide the answer to any possible problem that society might confront in the future. Probably the best proponent of this idea was technologist/designer R. Buckminster Fuller. Fuller's "new way" of looking at the world revolutionized design. He expressed his motto of "doing more with less" through the innovative use of "new" materials and the exploration of "new" forms in order to create "new engineered" houses and vehicles. Fuller envisioned self-sufficient shelters by attempting to recreate or simulate nature by design.

Architect Paolo Soleri's ideas, which he called, collectively, "Arcology," (attempt to) merge architecture and ecology through design. Soleri, as well as Buckminster Fuller attempted to design self-sufficient cities in which everything "takes place under one roof." According to Soleri, his Arcologies would become "a reflection of the medieval city." Even though the search for self-sufficiency is very much in accord with deep ecology principles, and the bioregional approach to design, the amazingly technology-dependant design solutions proposed by these eco-designers raise important questions.

Another example is found in John Todd 's designs. A biochemist by training and self-named eco-designer, Todd provides us with a clear example of "ecological engineering" to "create" what he calls "living machines." Todd defines his "living machines" as "a composite of engineered components, material components, and living components." He also acknowledged the importance of "intelligent membranes" in the search for design solutions to ecological issues. In his own words, Todd's work attempts to find by design, "the missing link between nature and architecture."

Todd has suggested that problems of modern cities can be "de-aggregated or isolated" and then re-designed as "living machines" (Van Der Ryn and Calthorpe, 1986). Hence, it is clear that the approach taken by many "eco-designers" today is one in which nature is taken as a model machine, which parts and components need to be studied and understood and then designing and creating an abstraction or simulation based upon current or future technology. Again, and again the dependency on technology is more and more pronounced among today's eco-designers. Although to some extent these designers question the role of some of today's technologies, such as the search for alternative materials, it is also clear that technology itself is at the core of the design solutions they proposed.

Deep ecology questions all forms of technology. We need technology that is compatible with the growth of autonomous, self-determining individuals in nonhierarchical communities. We need principles that help us modify present technocratic-societies, where technology is the central institution. According to Devall and Sessions (1985) there are three main dangers to technocratic solutions: "(1) First is the danger in believing there is a complete or acceptable solution using modern dominant ideologies and technology, (2) the second danger is the presentation of an impression that something is being done when in fact the real problem continues, and finally, (3) there is danger of assuming there will be new experts who will provide solutions"

Steady-State v. Dynamism

The development of the discipline of ecology has been very dramatic, particularly in the last thirty years when the underlying paradigm of ecology has changed.

Ecosystems were first considered "closed and static" systems. Populations were supposed to reach a "climax state"; in general, ecosystems were supposed to "resist" any changes they faced and if left alone they were expected to reach equilibrium. Studies such as those by Odum (1953; 1969) and others on successional ecology on abandoned agricultural fields were critical to the development of the steady-sate paradigm in ecology.

The ruling paradigm of ecology today sees ecosystems and populations associated with them as "dynamic and open systems."

This is critical not just for scientists trying to gather as much information as possible on ecosystems, but to other disciplines such as design.

Today's eco-design movement tends to address design problems for a particular point in space and time and forget the dynamic nature of the systems and processes within these systems. Many of these eco-designers do not consider the lifespan of their designs, for example the cycles of materials.

In addition to overlooking the dynamic nature of ecosystems, common eco-design projects tend to address issues in an overly simplified way, without really questioning deeper issues. This is apparent when you flip through one of the professional magazines such as Landscape Architecture Magazine or Landscape Design and review what they consider to be ecological design work. For example, one of these projects addressed "ways of putting storm water to good use" by designing "green-grassed parking lots" (Thompson, 1996). This concept, though apparently successful in dealing with runoff issues for a particular point in space and time lacks a deeper sense of responsibility in addressing the bigger, more important issues such as the over dependency on automobile, transportation and the effects on natural ecosystems.

It is apparent that the "ecology" within ecological design is in need of critical revision. Current understanding and paradigms underlying the study of ecosystems should be brought to design in order to truly integrate both forming that special expression of design.

So What?

So why should designers (particularly eco-designers!) care about deep ecology and its possible relationship to design?

Probably the biggest task any designer might confront is that of working on the inner-self, that of cultivating ecological consciousness, of becoming aware of the "actuality of birds, ants, rocks, trees, wolves, and oceans," that of realizing that everything is interconnected.

The essence of deep ecology is to address "deeper" questions, questions about human life, society, and nature. Designers should question the establishment, question the new forms of technology and how ultimately technology relates to the environment, question novel alternatives of materials, question the socio-economic impact of their designs on local cultures, and then, maybe then, ecological design might become "simple in means, rich in ends."




Devall, B. and G. Sessions. 1985. Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered. Gibbs Smith, Publisher. Peregrine Smith Books, Salt Lake City, UT.

Drengson, A. and Y. Inoue. 1995. The Deep Ecology Movement: An Introductory Anthology. North Atlantic Books. Berkley, CA.

Odum, E. P. 1953. Fundamentals of Ecology. Philadelphia, PA. W.B.Saunders. Rpt. 1969.

Odum, E.P. 1969. The Strategy of Ecosystem Development. Science. 164(18).

Thompson, J. W. 1996. Let That Soak In. Landscape Architecture Magazine. Vol.86 (11): 60-67.

Van Der Ryn, S. and P. Calthorpe. 1986. Sustainable Communities. A New Design Synthesis for Cities, Suburbs, and Towns. Sierra Club Books. San Francisco, CA.

Van Der Ryn, S. and S. Cowan. 1996. Ecological Design. Island Press. Washington, D.C.

Video: "Ecological Design: Inventing the Future".


This ECOTECTURE article is Copyrighted by Eugenio A. Lomba-Ortiz, 2003. All Rights Reserved.


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