Nature isn’t natural… or, at least, the way that we currently think about it isn’t. As a society, I believe that we’ve got it all wrong and that we create a lot of problems, as a result. I might even go so far as to say that the closer we can align our guiding principals with the way that the world works, the better off we (and nature) will be.
When you imagine nature, what comes to mind? A tree? A bird? What if I told you that these are products of nature (they are natural) but they themselves are not nature. To use an idiom, we can’t see the forest for the trees. Let me explain, but first, let’s examine a few mental roadblocks that we tend to get hung up on. As a culture, we tend to:
- view nature as something static and fragile; a things that needs to be protected so that it can remain in its original state.
- think of nature as competitive rather than cooperative; survival of the fittest.
- think of ourselves as separate and incapable of interacting with nature in positive ways.
- believe that we’re inherently at odds with nature; battling over resources.
Not only are these misconceptions fundamentally untrue and keeping us from experiencing nature’s true beauty but they’re preventing us from accessing the most abundant solution bank on the planet.
Nature Is A Network If we’re to solve many of the problems facing us, we need to broaden our understanding of nature as a collection of natural things to a network and the set of patterns and principals that make it function. In doing so, I believe that two things can happen (1) we can establish a framework for interacting with natural systems in ethical ways (ways that benefit the planet and ourselves) and (2) we can align our own systems with these same patterns and principals; we can become part of nature.
Nature is a network, created and governed by a set of patterns and principals that, over time:
- increase interconnectedness.
- increase complexity and diversity (diversity builds redundancy and resiliency).
- expand the adjacent possible (increases the potential for more connections, niches, etc)
- increase the ability to capture and store energy and resources.
- slows the flow of matter and energy (cycling matter and decreasing enthalpy).
- creates the conditions conducive to expanding.
Nature is a network of interconnected elements bound together by patterns and principals. So here’s the question: does the essence of nature reside on the elements (materials) being used or on the connections that bind them? A forest, as an example, is composed of trees, animals, soils, rock, carbon, water, oxygen, phosphorous, etc. but could a system of cables, electronics, data-storage, and users, bound together by similar patterns, also be natural? If a spider makes a web and we call it natural why couldn’t the human made “the web” be natural as well? In his 2010 book What Technology Wants author Kevin Kelly makes an exceptionally good case that technology is an extension of biology; he goes further by describing the “technium” as an emerging 7th kingdom of life. For me, this comparison becomes a lot more obvious when comparing the network maps of these two systems.
Kelly takes another step describing good technology as opening more doors than it closes (expanding the adjacent possible) and that each stage in technological succession is built upon the preceding stage (creating the conditions conducive to expansion). I think that he’s dead on; it’s the patterns and principals of nature, not the building blocks, that make something natural and, if this is true, we’ve just greatly expanded our own adjacent possibles. Does technology have an ecological footprint? Absolutely, but I also believe that (good technology) is allowing us to do much more with much less and that if we continue to integrate natural patterns into our systems that the impact will continue to lesson while benefits increase.
Can humans create natural things? I think that we do already. Though, as with the internet example, I don’t think that we’re always aware of it. In his book, Ecocities, author and urban theorist Richard Register describes cities as places for “maximizing connections” and, for the first time in history, more than 50% of the planet is living is urban environments. Why? One explanation is that cities are networks; exceptionally rich places for sharing experiences, commerce, culture, genetics, etc. and that they offer more opportunities than rural environments. According to studies done by physicist Geoffrey West, cities scale sub-linearly; this is to say that the larger a city is the less resources it needs to function. As an example, the average New Yorker has the smallest carbon footprint in the United States, “less than 30% of the national average” because of the city, not the people. How did this happen? Naturally, of course; stacking connections and opportunities is analogous to stacking layers in a forest. In close proximity, resources are shares and opportunities are created; in fact, according to West, if you double the size of a city you more than double the innovation within it (supra-linear scaling). Imagine the possibilities of further integrating natural systems into urban settings; urban ecology could grow food, increase biodiversity, capture and clean water, and process waste. As I’ve said before, cities could be among the most biologically rich places on the planet.
Curb Cut Swales, Layers of a Forest, Layers of a Forest City
So what’s the big deal? Why redefine nature if we’re already unconsciously adopting it to create solutions? I think that part of the answer comes from nature’s subtleness; we’re used to seeing the products of nature but not the underlying patterns that creates them and that’s understandable; they’re hidden. However, if we can consciously bring these patterns and principals to the front of our minds and embrace them, I believe that they could serve as ethical and life affirming guides to designing human systems; for we are their product so too can we use them to expand nature’s adjacent possible.