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Ethics and design for regenerative cultures

Daniel Christian Wahl
6 min readSep 15, 2017


“Design is not so much about making things as about how to make things that fit gracefully over long periods of time in a particular ecological, social, and cultural context.”

— David W. Orr (2002: 27)

Important lessons about environmental ethics can be learned from the world’s traditional/indigenous cultures. Many of them managed to create regenerative systems that allowed them to live in a particular place for millennia. In Western culture, it was the conservation ecologist Aldo Leopold who provided the first modern formulation of an ecological and environmental ethic. He proposed that:

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong when it does otherwise.”

— Aldo Leopold, 1949: 224

Leopold emphasized that ethics is not only a philosophical and social but also an ecological ‘process’. Ethics ultimately concerns the relationship between the individual and the collective, aiming to define and guide appropriate participation in our immediate community, the human family and the community of life as a whole.

Moralizing masquerading as ethics can quickly be identified when we pay attention to the ecological component of ethics. Leopold argued that “the extension of ethics to include man’s relationship to the environment” is an “evolutionary possibility” but an “ecological necessity”. As such,

“an ethic ecologically, is a limitation of freedom of action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti- social conduct.”“these are two definitions of one thing which has its origin in the tendency of interdependent individuals and groups to evolve modes of cooperation.”

— Aldo Leopold,1949: 202

Ethics in its wider context is not only about guiding human interactions within exclusively human communities. A solely philosophical ethic, considered only within the social and cultural dimension, is often criticized for moralizing from the position of a single cultural and societal context and set of values. The wider function of ethics — its ecological imperative — extends beyond anthropocentric concerns to biocentric concern for the continuing evolution of life.

The Australian eco-designer and design theorist, Tony Fry, calls for designers to stop absolving themselves from their ethical responsibilities by delegating these responsibilities to their clients. Beyond a basic code of professional conduct, the ethical implications of any design need to be discussed during the early stages of the design process. Fry argues: “an ethics of now crucially needs to confront our anthropocentric being as a structurally unethical condition” (2004).

The emergence of a biocentric ethic also found early expression in the work of Ian McHarg (1969) who insisted that humanity has to learn the “prime ecological lesson of interdependence” and understand that all humans are “linked as living organisms to all living and all preceding life”. He was convinced that through understanding our interdependence “with the micro-organisms of the soil” and “the diatoms of the sea” humanity would learn that when it destroys nature it destroys itself and when it restores nature it restores itself (1963).

This insight lies at the heart of the transition towards a restorative and regenerative culture, whether motivated by enlightened self-interest or biophilia — our innate love for all of life.

McHarg gave the opening address for the first Earth Day celebration in 1971 and his CBS television series ‘The House We Live In’ contributed significantly to the first wave of environmental awareness and ecological consciousness that swept the USA in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

McHarg foresaw the need to reintegrate human activity and the operating conditions of our planet’s life support system. He was among the first to point out that when we design for sustainability and human survival and flourishing, what we are effectively trying to do is to support the systemic health of the whole system upon which we depend.

Because this whole system is in fact one system, only divided by men’s minds and by the myopia which is called education, there is another simple term which synthesizes the degree to which an invention is creative and accomplishes a creative fitting. And this is the presence of health.

Ian L. McHarg (1970)

McHarg’s definition of ‘Design with nature’ was a practice of design that increases interconnectedness, diversity, fitness and health throughout the system as a whole. To McHarg the system in question is nature and culture. He argues that culture change is the most rapidly adaptable way to re-establish a creative fit between humanity and nature. Biological adaptations to a changing environment take a lot longer to evolve than cultural adaptations.

McHarg called for a shift from a culture that is intent on controlling and exploiting nature to a culture actively aiming for the restoration of the Earth and the health of nature (1996). He was one the earliest design professionals to promote transformative innovation for a regenerative culture, even if he did not use these terms.

Over the course of the last century a number of visionary pioneers of design thinking and practice identified the culturally transformative power of design in the creation of a world that works for all. The pioneers were Patrick Geddes, Lewis Mumford, Buckminster R. Fuller, John Tillman Lyle, Viktor Papanek and Ian McHarg.

Among the elders of the design (r)evolution currently underway who are still active contributors to cultural transformation are John and Nancy Todd, Sim Van de Ryn, William McDonough, David W. Orr, Seaton Baxter, David Ehrenfeld, Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, Janine Benyus, Ezio Manzini, Steward Brand, Tony Fry, John Thackera, Niels-Peter Flint, and Bill Reed.

If you want to deepen into questions about the way that design can help to create a regenerative human culture, these people and their work are a good place to start. Many of them have been living this question for most of their professional lives. We will return to some of their work in the next chapter.

Before implementing any design solution we would do well to apply a series of checks to evaluate whether the proposed solutions are systemically integrated enough to contribute to the long-term health and resilience of people and planet. David Orr suggested that ecological design is about asking deeper questions. The list of questions below includes ones that he proposes we ask about any new design (adapted from Orr, 2002: 28). I could not resist adding two additional questions at the end.

Do we really need this new design?

Is it ethical to produce, market and consume the new design in the intended way?

What impact does the design have on the community that produces or employs it?

Is it really safe to make and use the proposed design?

Is it fair? (Does it contribute to greater social, economic and ecological equity without any form of exploitation?)

Is it designed to be repairable and can it be reused over a long period?

What is the full cost over its expected lifetime in terms of social, ecological and economic capital?

Does this new design truly offer a better way to meet certain needs than already existing designs?

How can we ensure that the proposed design does no harm and actively helps to restore damage already incurred — regenerating our capacity to meet an unpredictable future with community resilience?

How does the design actively reinforce our lived experience of a regenerative culture and the ‘narrative of interbeing’?

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]

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Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.

Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures

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Daniel Christian Wahl

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