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Ecological Design, Complexity, and Systemic Health

from ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health’ D.C. Wahl 2006

Human changes to the environment have altered the continuity of global cycles, and the rate of change is expected to increase. Ozone depletion, global warming, urban pollution, non-degradable industrial waste, fresh water contamination and biodiversity depletion are bringing serious and increasing risks to sustainability of the planet’s life-support systems and so to human health and wellbeing.

—Valerie Brown et al., 2005, p.8

The etymology of the word ‘health’ reveals its connection to other words such as healing, wholeness and holy. Ecological design is an art by which we aim to restore and maintain the wholeness of the entire fabric of life increasingly fragmented by specialization, scientific reductionism and bureaucratic division. … In reality it is impossible to disconnect the threads that bind us into larger wholes up to that great community of the ecosphere. The environment outside us is also inside us. We are connected to more things in more ways than we can ever count or comprehend.

— David Orr, 2002, p.29

Evolution generates many levels of wholeness simultaneously, from the metabolic dance of a cell to the vast cycles maintaining the biosphere. These nested levels of integrity are sustained by their own characteristic pattern of health. By designing with nature, by working with the pattern of health, we may aspire to designs that are compatible with the living world.

— Van der Ryn & Cowan, 1996, p.103

Complexity theory and our knowledge of living systems is confirming a widely-shared intuition: The healthy, sustainable systems are those which are self-organizing, self-healing, and self-renewing, and that are able to learn in order to maintain and adapt themselves. They exert autonomy, but in relation to and as integrative parts of larger systems. They maintain a dynamic balance between structure and flexibility, between order and chaos. In systems terms, these are known as ‘complex adaptive systems’ and there are no better illustrations than organisms and living systems.

— Stephen Sterling, 2001, p.54

Box 2.5: Climate Change and Human Health:

Hand-drawn from my PhD (the graphics were of very poor standard for a design school ,-)

Even if we have defined and measured health, we still need to find mechanisms to promote its acceptance as an over-riding goal, this is possible. … some kind of global organizations are needed, and the United Nations is the best we have … [but] … Health can only be achieved from the bottom up, in the complexity of local contexts and diversity; health cannot be given to someone … At all scales, one of the biggest obstacles is the compartmentalization of knowledge (in universities) and of practice (in governments), which result in the kind of destructive feedback loops we talked about earlier. Therefore, we need to work at creating organizational structures that foster adaptive communication across departmental lines (health, agriculture, economics) … This is not some Utopian Dream we are after. Rather, we are using health as a way of thinking and acting that will allow us, in the words of Rene Dubos, to find ‘a modus vivendi enabling imperfect (people) to achieve a rewarding and not too painful existence while they cope with an imperfect world.’”

— David Waltner-Toews, 2004, pp. 104–105

…if we put the new complex systems management techniques firmly in a context of the complexity of eco- social systems, subject to the over-riding goal of fostering a healthy, flourishing biosphere in which healthy human communities have an essential role — then this is more than just another way to help your business make money. There are things we not only can do, but should be doing. And there are systems that are better of if we judiciously neglect them. — David Waltner-Toews, 2004, p.108).

We cannot sustain health without addressing what is needed throughout the interconnected systems of our lives; our selves as individuals, our physical health, our psychological health, our relationships with our families, our communities and our environment. In regaining the roots of our health, we may learn to be better stewards of the earth as well as of ourselves.

— Fraser & Hill, 2001, p.73

Professor Michael Hyland (Health Psychology at The University of Plymouth) … suggests that the body, as a complex system, is self-regulating, and inherent within any self-regulating system is the ability to learn to self-regulate more effectively. Complementary and alternative therapies work with this self-regulating system, enabling the system to re-learn what it has forgotten, and possibly guiding towards more effective self-regulation.

— Fraser & Hill, 2001, pp.36–37

Box 2.6: Prerequisites for Good Health and Health Care

We are beginning to understand that human health and environmental health are one. We are part of nature, and the past two hundred years of the domination of science over nature has served to cut us off from the roots of health. The prerequisite for life on earth are pure air, clean water and nutritious food. And lasting change in health will come from three main areas: personal responsibility, collective responsibility, and education.

— Fraser & Hill, 2001, p.59

Catalysing transformative innovation, cultural co-creation, whole systems design, and bioregional regeneration. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures