The vast field of ecological design can, and has been subdivided in many ways by various practitioners and teachers. What is important to remember is that all such categorizations, indeed all categorizations of any type are arbitrary. We separate elements from the continuum of the universe around us to better comprehend and manage them. But different observers in different positions and times will create other, equally valid divisions to suit their own predilections and needs.

While coming up with our current topic set, my friends and I produced more than a dozen versions of the list. Strong arguments could be made for the validity of each. The necessity to move on cut the debate short, however, and I settled on the current set as a reasonably comprehensive, working outline of the field.

But the key word is "working." I expect this list to evolve, and hope that that evolution is inspired by input from our readers and writers all over the planet. If you have thoughts on the sub categories of the ecological design field, please share them with us. Perhaps you feel that your favorite topic has been overlooked, or our entire perspective is passe. While we can't promise to incorporate all of your ideas into our developing format, we certainly want to hear them.

Philip S. Wenz

The Topics

Appropriate Technology
Industrial Ecology
Sustainable Agriculture
Whole Systems


APPROPRIATE TECHNOLOGY: Most of the articles in this category will be about technology that is appropriate for a particular cultural setting or economic reality. It is inappropriate, for example — as has been shown by bitter experience — for developed countries to break down sustainable agricultural systems in less developed countries and replace them with systems that are dependent on high-level technology, fossil fuel and massive capitalization that creates debt. Appropriate technology is key to sustainable development.

BIOSPHERE/BIOREGION: Here are traditional environmental articles about topics such as global warming and desertification, and the design responses to these problems. Included, also, are discussions of the biosphere as a system.

ECOCITY/ECOVILLAGE: How can we build sustainable cities, villages and towns?

ECO-NOMICS: Ecology and economics have the same root, eco, meaning house. Our collective house, of course, is planet earth. Ecology is knowledge of the house, economics is it's management. The articles in this section discuss economic theory and implementation based on ecological sustainability.

ECOTECHNOLOGY: While many meanings are possible for this word, it is used here in a specialized way to contrast with "biotechnology." Biotechnology is based on the theory of genetic determinism which holds that all biological functions are determined, ultimately, by genes. Biotechnology claims that through the manipulation of genes we can solve a wide variety of "problems," from curing diseases to counteracting the tendency of stored fruit to rot. Based completely on an analytic, as opposed to a holistic view of life, biotechnology has come into its own as a science in the decades following the "breaking" of the genetic "code" in 1953. Recently, an entire biotechnology industry has gotten heavy institutional and financial backing with promises to solve a number of society's problems and enrich investors.

Many of biotechnology's promises, however, may prove to be like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or, worse, as destructive as the sirens' song. Serious questions have been raised about the effect of genetically engineered plants and viruses on the larger ecosystems into which they are introduced. Competition between biotechnology firms holds back knowledge, often gained in part with public resources, that could benefit humanity or the planet as a whole. Life forms themselves are patented by "biopirates" who dupe indigenous peoples into revealing the secrets of their natural medicinal plants.

Ecotechnology, applied holistic biology, offers a very different view of life and set of solutions for our common problems. Holistic biology is based on the premise that all living systems, and the sub components of those systems are interdependent. While genes determine the shapes of some proteins, the behavior of the genes themselves is regulated by the cells in which they are housed. The organism is a network of interacting components — a system. The behavior of that organismic system, in turn, is determined by and determines (interacts with) the ecosystem of which it is a part. This holds true for all levels of life, everywhere on the planet.

An excellent example of applied ecotechnology is the "living machine" designed by John Todd and his associates. Living machines clean up toxic "waste" the same way ecosystems do, by feeding it to organisms that reduce it to an increasingly less toxic state as it moves through a series of tanks that mimic natural ponds. By the time the "waste" reaches the last tank in the series, it is sufficiently purified to be returned to nature. Living machines are based on the ecological principle of "Waste Equals Food" — the recycling of matter that has sustained life on this planet for 3.6 billion years.

ENERGY: A variety of articles on alternative energy production, energy management and conservation, energy policy and so on can be found in this section.

INDUSTRIAL ECOLOGY: The next step in the industrial revolution is for manufacturing facilities to mimic organisms in ecosystems and become interdependent, using each other's "waste," for their own raw materials. Manufacturing profits can be increased by adopting nature's efficiencies.

METAPHORS: Natural spriitualism, aesthetics and naturalistic design language are the subjects of this section.

NETWORKS: A revolution is underway in the design of systems-from transportation to communication systems-which connect humans to one another for the exchange of goods and ideas. Network are complex systems that, as a result of their unpredictable functioning, can produce surprising, unintended effects, known as emergent properties. The internet is a good example of a network that was designed for one purpose and evolved to serve many others. Studying natural networks and designing human networks based on their principles of organization and development is an essential component of ecological design.

REMEDIATION: Remediation means restoring. This section covers the waste stream, resuse, recycling, bioremediation, which means using biological agents to clean up "waste," and related subjects.

SHELTER: We spend most of our lives in buildings. It is critical that these buildings be sustainably designed.

SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE: Author Ernest Callenbach has pointed out that we "eat oil," meaning that most of our food is grown with fertilizers derived from oil. A world wide revolution in agricultural production, known variously as Permaculture, organic farming and sustainable agriculture is slowly putting our food production on a sounder footing.

WHOLE SYSTEMS: Understanding whole systems, from the Biosphere to a local ecosystem to the abstract networks of computer modeled "artificial life" is key to designing human systems that are compatible with nature.