Loving Life Enough to Save It: Biophilia, Bioregional Sensitivity and Cosmopolitan Bioregionalism

Daniel Christian Wahl
18 min readMay 17, 2017

You live that your may learn to love.

You love that you may learn to live.

No other lesson is required [...]

The love that singles out a fraction of the whole foredooms itself to grief.

You are the Tree of Life.

Beware of fractioning your self.

— Mikail Naimy

The eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson suggested that the need to relate to other life forms and natural processes is an essential and integral part of human development and physical and mental growth. He discussed this concept under the name ‘biophilia’ (literally the love for life) and defined it as “an innate tendency to focus on life and life like processes” (in Kellert & Wilson, 1993, p.20).

The biophilia hypothesis suggests that humanity depends on nature not only for the obvious material and physical sustenance, but also for much deeper and equally important human needs for “aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual meaning and satisfaction” (Kellert & Wilson, 1993, p.20). “We are human in good part because of the particular way we affiliate with other organisms” and “the natural environment is critical to human meaning and fulfilment at both individual and societal level” (Kellert & Wilson, 1993).

Our sense of urgency is prompted by the conviction that the modern onslaught upon the natural world is driven in part by a degree of alienation from nature. Our modern environmental crisis — the widespread toxification of various food chains, the multifaceted degradation of the atmosphere, the far-ranging depletion of diverse natural resources, and, above all, the massive loss of biodiversity and the scale of global species extinctions — is viewed as symptomatic of a fundamental rupture of human emotional and spiritual relationship with the natural world (Kellert & Wilson, 1993, p.26).

David Orr has called for a Biophilia Revolution. He describes biophobia (literally the fear of life) as ranging “from discomfort in ‘natural’ places to active scorn for whatever is not man- made, managed, or air-conditioned”; and defines the term as “the culturally acquired urge to affiliate with technology, human artifacts, and solely with human interests regarding the natural world.” With regard to defining biophilia, Orr favours the psychologist Erich Fromm’s definition of biophilia as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive” over Edward O. Wilson’s definition quoted above (Orr, 1993, p.416). Orr warns:

Whatever is in our genes, the affinity for life is now a choice we must make. Compared to earlier cultures, our distinction lies in the fact that technology now allows us to move much further toward total domination of nature than ever before. Serious and well-funded people talk about reweaving the fabric of life on earth through genetic engineering and nanotechnologies; others talk of leaving the earth altogether for space colonies; still others talk of reshaping human consciousness to fit ‘virtual reality’. If we are to preserve a world in which biophilia can be expressed and can flourish, we will have to decide to make such a world (Orr, 1993, pp.416–417).

[This is an excerpt from my 2006 PhD Thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’.]

The future is wide open! Overpopulation and our technological abilities have put humanity in a position where the decisions we take collectively within the next thirty years will drastically affect what the world of the 22nd Century will look like. If we simply visualize what is now technologically and culturally possible that even a widely educated person in 1906 — only a hundred years ago — would have considered impossible and utopian, it becomes clear that during the next hundred years much will come to pass that we cannot even imagine yet.

This does not mean that the general trajectory into the future that we choose today will not decide whether we are moving towards a positive, life-enhancing, and humanly fulfilling future — a sustainable and attainable utopia, a eutopia (a good and healthy place)– or a challenging, ecologically and socially destructive, and humanly demeaning future — a dystopia (a bad and ill place). We have to choose our future by design.

The spectrum of possibilities is truly immense. We will not be able to predict with certainty or to reliably control how things will work out. In Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse, David Jay Brown documented just how diverse our hopes and predictions for the future really are through a series of interviews with a diverse range of visionary thinkers including scientists, artists, writers, technologists, linguists, philosophers, and inventors (see Brown, 2005).

From the technology driven, disembodied — and in my opinion deeply meaningless and sad, visions of Ray Kurzweil’s silicon-based ‘higher’ intelligences and Hans Moravec’s super- human, self-replicating robots, to the expansion in consciousness and meaning that Rupert Sheldrake, Edgar Mitchell, Peter Russell, Deepak Chopra and Ram Dass formulate in their own unique ways, Brown’s book represents a portfolio of possible futures. The choice between apocalypse and the dawn of a new humanity is ours!
As William Blake suggested, we must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.

We are all designing the future, whether we consciously choose and cooperatively work toward a future that we desire for ourselves, our families, our communities and future generations, or whether we let ourselves be lead by a passive consumer attitude like junkies of consumptive and ultimately self-destructive lifestyles, too numb to care about life or anything, just as long as the next consumptive fix fills the vacuum of meaning and eases the pain of an isolated and alienated self.

Do we love ourselves and our communities, do we love life enough to save it? Will we choose the path of salutogenesis, sustainability and life, or the path of degradation, disintegration, self-deception, and ultimately self-destruction?

David Orr (1993) provides a lucid discussion of the slow shift in human attitude towards the natural world, which has made biophobia such a widespread cultural pathology. He lists six gradual changes in perception, attitudes and assumptions about the natural world.

The first is the change from animistic worldviews that respected nature as a living presence to a scientific worldview of meaningless dead matter. Second, was the Cartesian shift of our attitude towards animals, as scientific detachment began to apply mechanistic metaphors to our understanding of living organisms. Third, was a shift of attention from the sensuous qualities of the living world to the hard data of quantifiable and measurable units of purely material or economic value. “Fourth, we needed a reason to join power, cash, and knowledge in order to transform the world into more useful forms. Francis Bacon provided the logic; the evolution of government funded research did the rest.” The fifth step was the creation of a “philosophy of improvement” which was provided by the “ideology of perpetual economic growth”; and the sixth requirement for the cultural spread of biophobia was “the sophisticated cultivation of dissatisfaction which could be converted into mass consumption” (Orr, 1993, pp.417–418).

Orr suggests that while these changes may have brought material and economic wealth to some, they have impoverished humanity on the whole by disconnecting us from the true source of our being:

The ecological crisis, in short, is about what it means to be human. And if natural diversity is the wellspring of human intelligence, then the systematic destruction of nature inherent in contemporary technology and economics is a war against the very sources of mind. We have good reason to believe that human intelligences could not have evolved in a lunar landscape devoid of biological diversity. And we have good reason to believe that the sense of awe toward the creation had a great deal to do with the origin of language and why early hominids wanted to talk, sing, and write poetry in the first place. Elemental things like flowing water, wind, trees, clouds, rain, mist, mountains, landscape, animals, changing seasons, the night sky, and the mysteries of the life cycle gave birth to thought and language. They continue to do so, but perhaps less exuberantly than they once did. For this reason I think it is impossible to unravel natural diversity without undermining human intelligence as well. Can we save the world and anything like the human self from the violence we have unleashed without biophilia and reverence for creation (Orr, 1993, pp.425–426)?

While many attempts by environmental and social activist or ecological designers to envision a healthier and saner world have been ridiculed by scientific and economic decision makers trapped in the worldview of biophobia, Orr suggests that widespread and increasing ecological, social and economic degradation are pushing the realization that business-as-usual of the currently dominant industrial growth society is truly utopian (leading nowhere or no place). “We have tried utopia and can no longer afford it.” Orr implies that only a fundamental re- design of the human presence in the world, based on reverence of and love for life in all its manifestations can help us to create “a sane civilization that loved more fully and more intelligently” (Orr, 1993, p.437).

The new science keeps reminding us that in this participative universe, nothing lives alone. Everything comes into form because of relationships. We are constantly called into relationship — to information, people, events, ideas, life. Even reality is created through our participation in relationships. We choose what we notice; we relate to certain things and ignore others. Through these chosen relationships we co- create our world. If we are interested in affecting change, it is crucial to remember that we are working with webs of relationships, not with machines (Wheatley, 1999, p.145).

In Love and Survival — How good relationships can bring you heath and well-being, Dr. Dean Ornish (1998) describes a wide variety of clinical and experimental evidence that shows how important loving relationships are to the recovery of an ill person to good health. Once we conceptually free ourselves of the need to explain everything based on linear cause and effect relationships, is it really too far fetched to assume that a love for life — biophilia — could significantly contribute to the healing of ourselves, our community and the planet? Dr. Ornish suggests: “Anything that promotes a sense of isolation often leads to illness and suffering. Anything that promotes a sense of love and intimacy, connection and community, is healing” (Ornish, 1998, p.14). This is the central lesson of salutogenic design!

Modern science is replete with illustrations of the seemingly impossible within living memory. But the victories of physical science would be nothing against the victory of the science of life, which is summed up in Love which is the law of our being. — Mahatma Gandhi (in Hart, 1996, p.87)

The Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela argue in their seminally important book The Tree of Knowledge — The Biological Roots of Human Understanding that love is the “biological foundation of social phenomena.” They suggest: “Without love, without acceptance of others living beside us, there is no social process and, therefore no humanness” (Maturana & Varela, 1987, p.246).

To dismiss love as the biologic basis of social life, as also the ethical implications of love, would be to turn our back on a history as living beings that is more than 3.5 billion years old. … Love is a biological dynamic with deep roots. It is an emotion that defines in the organism a dynamic structural pattern, a stepping stone to interactions that may lead to the operational coherence of social life (Maturana & Varela, 1987, p.247).

Maturana and Varela describe the creative power of meta-design when they reveal that literally “knowing is doing” and that “every human act takes place in languaging and, as such (as a social act), has ethical implications because it entails humanness.” They emphasize: “Everything we do is a structural dance in the choreography of coexistence;” and conclude: “We have only the world that we bring forth with others, and only love helps us bring it forth” (Maturana & Varela, 1987, p.248).

In the long-term, only widespread biophilia — the resurgence of the love for all of life as the underlying attitude that makes us truly human — will save humanity. Only a loving attitude towards all of life and its ‘continued exploration of novelty’ will help us to steer a course toward a sustainable future. By recognizing the relationships we form with each other and with the wider community of life as the actual ground of our being and identity, as the wellspring of health, meaning, and fulfillment, we are beginning to understand that ultimately, what sustains us, is a loving and cooperative attitude towards the “other” as what allows us to be our “self.”

From the Book of Hours:

Dear darkening ground
you have endured so patiently
the walls we have built.
Perhaps you’ll give the cities one more hour,
churches and cloisters two,
and those who labour,
maybe you let their work grip them another five hours, or seven. Before you become forest again,
and water and widening wilderness.
In that hour of inconceivable terror,
when you take back your name
from all things.

Just give me a little more time.

Just give me a little more time, because I want to love the things as no one has thought to love them. Until they are real and ripe, and worthy of you.

Rainer Maria Rilke (transl. by Joanna Macy)

There is something deeply instructive about the second half of this poem. Maybe all the possible and necessary changes in the way we, as humans, relate to the processes of the natural world, all the designs describes in this thesis, will all be in vain if the underlying attitude is inappropriate? Why does Rilke ask for a little more time? Not for his personal survival, but in order to love the beauty of this magnificent world we live in. Above all, we need to learn to love again. Love our selves, our fellow human beings and all the diverse community of life in which we participate. When we learn to love the world and life as the pattern that connects, appropriate action will follow. The eco-theologian father Thomas Berry suggests:

The solution is simple for us as humans to join the earth community as participating members, to foster the progress and prosperity of the bioregional communities to which we belong …. Such a bioregion is a self- propagating, self-nourishing, self-educating, self-healing and self-fulfilling community… . The future of the human lies in acceptance and fulfilment of the human role in all six of these community functions. The change indicated is the change from an exploitative anthropocentrism to a participatory biocentrism (Berry, 1988, pp.166 & 168–169).

Thomas Berry believes that healthy communities adapted to their local bioregions will provide the context for “re-inhabiting the Earth.” In his vision, a bioregional focus for the shift toward appropriate participation in natural process and sustainability, directly reflects natural patterns of organization and the processes of life. Each individual bioregion consists of many co- operating communities, and there is a reciprocal relationship between these communities and their region, since they are mutually dependent on each other for their healthy co-existence. Berry emphasizes that while bioregional organization should aim to maximize self-reliance, no bioregion will ever be fully self-sufficient, since all bioregions depend on a healthy ecosphere and therefore “all bioregions are interdependent” (Berry, 1988, p.169).

In collaboration with the cosmologist Brian Swimme, father Berry has inspired many people to engage in the rewriting and rethinking of the story we tell about ourselves, our universe and our role in it. They suggest that humanity has to collectively engage in the “great work” of re-storying our presence in the world. The core of this new story is the realization that the whole process of the universe represents a unity in which we participate. Berry writes:

… from the first imaginable moment of cosmic emergence through all its subsequent forms of expression until the present. The unbreakable bond of relatedness that makes of the whole a universe becomes increasingly apparent to scientific observation, although this bond subsequently escapes scientific formulation or understanding. In virtue of this relatedness, everything is intimately present to everything else in the universe. Nothing is completely itself without everything else. This relationship is both spatial and temporal. However distant in space or time, the bond of unity is functionally there. The universe is a communion and a community. We ourselves are the communion becoming conscious of itself (Berry, 1988, p.91).

Michael McGinnis suggests: “We should recognize that there are many other ways of getting to know the world [than the dualistic subject-object separation epistemology], and that the sum of the parts of a place does not equal the whole.” He argues: “When we wish to perceive a place really well, we need to regard it with its surroundings. … We need to open up our perceptual field of vision to include the animate, breathing world”(McGinnis, 1999, p.76). With regard to the practice and philosophy of bioregionalism, McGinnis writes:

Bioregionalism requires the natural incorporation of interior with the exterior and the field of bodily expansion to include others and place. Human activity takes shape with the winds, trees and rivers. We should recognize the connection between the interior (self) and the exterior parts of the landscape. The incorporation of the living breathing world with the human body requires a deeper form of human reason — a larger door to the “outside” — and understanding of our place in the world. As the painter Cézanne observed “nature is in the inside” or as Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote “the world is made of the same stuff as the body” (1964: 163)” (McGinnis, 1999, p.76).

Biophilia is the re-inhabitation of our larger self, the identification with all of life as the process that brings this world and our selves into being. The material and immaterial dimensions of reality reciprocate each other. We will not live differently if we don’t think and feel differently, but once we adopt a biophilic attitude and with it a salutogenic intention, this world will immediately be a very different place indeed. Since love is made manifest, like design, through the interactions and relationships we form with our immediate environment, our communities and ecosystems, it will first and foremost be expressed within the spatial context of our local bioregion.

Mitchell Thomashow pointed out: “The most daunting task facing the conceptual integrity of bioregionalism is its ability to convey metaphors, visions and practices that lend meaning to the complex interplay of local and global environmental relationships” (Thomashow, 1999, p.121). According to Thomashow, bioregionalism has to answer to the double challenge of scale and meaning.

I suggested in the previous subchapter that ultimately a meaningful existence is only made possible by recognizing our fundamental interconnectedness with the Kosmos — meaning emerges in the act of relating to the perceived “other” through the interactions and relationships we form. Once we are aware of our fundamentally participatory and co-creative role, we recognize our local community and ecosystem and the bioregion that contains them as the appropriate scale of re-inhabitation. The world changes through local action everywhere!

Bioregionalism projects a spirit of wholeness within community, a place-based foundation, grounded in the ecological nuances of the home territory. It cherishes diversity and pluralism without being overwhelmed by empires of commodity choices; it tolerates different ways of being, multiple formulations of identity without succumbing to a relentless, mindless quest for collective experience. Bioregionalism presents an alternative to fragmentation by suggesting the construction of an ecological identity…, of orbits and connections that integrate mind and landscape, self and ecosystem, psyche and planet, without worrying about the paths not taken, but focusing instead on the task at hand — cultivating mindfulness about human/nature relationships in the service of both self-realization and community health (Thomashow, 1999, p.124).

Mitchell Thomashow speaks of “bioregional sensibility” and calls for a “cosmopolitan bioregionalism.” He writes: “Developing the observational skills to patiently observe bioregional history, the conceptual skills to juxtapose scales, the imaginative faculties to play with multiple landscapes, and the compassion to empathize with local and global neighbours — these qualities are the foundations of a bioregional sensibility” (Thomashow, 1999, p.130). The list below lists a series of perceptual guidelines for the development of bioregional sensibility and a cosmopolitan bioregionalism.

Guidelines for Developing Bioregional Sensibility and a Cosmopolitan Bioregionalism

(Reproduced and adapted from Thomashow, 1999, pp.130–132)

Study the language of the birds: Integrate language and landscape. Make the study of flora, fauna, landscape and weather a daily practice. Know what species coinhabit a community. Know who is just passing through and where they are going. Learn from the ecosystem. Tell stories about wildlife and landscape as a means of revitalizing the spirit and psyche, of honouring the diversity of species, of expanding the notion of community. Restore natural history to the collective memory so that it is no longer endangered knowledge.

Navigate the foggy, fractal coastline: Understand that different scales may yield contrasting observations and that different people will have various interpretations. Avoid the illusion of contrived stability. Local knowledge requires practitioner-based science and place-based wisdom, cadres of bioregional investigators who catalogue the dynamics of local environmentalchangein their home communities, who compare notes with their colleagues, who chart a steady course in the midst of complex, turbulent change.

Move within and without: Trace the ecological/economic pathways of every day commodities to fully understand the impact of globalisation — its benefits and threats. Consider the full matrix of citizenship, all the ways that speech, intentions, motivations and actions contribute to the formation of bioregional sensibility.

Cultivate a garden of metaphors: Pay attention to sensory impressions and their broader symbolic meaning. Find the metaphors of anxiety that illustrate the relationship between the psyche and the planet. Find the metaphors of wholeness that pervade good nature writing — fruitful darkness, turtle island, attentive heart, crossing open ground, the spell of the sensuous, the island within — and contemplate their meaning. Trace the ecology of imagination.

Honour diversity: Use different ways of thinking and various cultural perspectives as a conceptual lens. Understand the world through the eyes, ears, and nose of wild creatures. Incorporate multiple learning styles. Attend to difference by exploring what is common and learning from what remains different.

Practice the wild: Experience wild nature and wild psyche. Consider the stark reality of food chain. Observe how civilization can never keep the wild completely at bay. Let wild nature inform play, work, love and worship. Practice the wild to balance the civilized.

Alleviate global suffering: Have compassion for the chasm of despair. Find the holes in the bioregion, the places of darkness that require healing and attention. Understand how the fruits of affluence often hinge on the exploitation of the weak. See the world as it is, without blinders, transcending denial.

Experience planetary exuberance: Life bursts forth everywhere. It is an indomitable, ever-present, mysterious force that permeates every surface of the biosphere, every pore in your skin. Every life form is a unique expression of the poetic and the sublime.

In order to achieve a frame of mind that acknowledges the magnitude of global and personal change, cosmopolitan bioregionalism represents a way of integrating psyche and nature for the purpose of constructing meaning and interpreting the world.

Thomashow stresses that such a bioregional sensibility “requires multiple voices of interpretation” and needs to be “open-ended and flexible” (Thomashow, 1999, p.130). The practice of bioregionalism is an attempt to form appropriate, accepting and loving relationships and interactions with the human and ecological communities that co-habit and co-create our local environment with us. Bioregionalism is an expression of biophilia — appropriate design!

To develop bioregional sensitivity — as a means to guide appropriate participation and inform the creation of a globally sustainable human civilization based on a cosmopolitan bioregionalism — is an act of love. In order to re-inhabit our local bioregions we have to fall in love with the unique way that life manifests through diversity in the place we call home. Only this love will guide us towards accepting, caring and nurturing action towards the community of life as a whole.

Design created with a loving attitude and care is what Tony Fry called “sacred design” (Fry, 1995, p.214). Every act of design, any conscious change in the interactions and relationships we form has to come from an attitude of love and care if our aim is salutogenesis, appropriate participation, and sustainability.

To consciously and materially express love for all of life and respect the sacred ground of our being through appropriate participation in natural process turns every act of design into a sacred act. Design for human and planetary health is acting through the healing power of love.

Let us become loving and conscious co-creators of a meaningful and sustainable future for humanity and all of life! Design for human and planetary health is sacred design. Sustainability is about consciously re-inhabiting the Earth as the sacred ground of our being.

Please Call Me by My True Names

Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow because even today I still arrive.

Look deeply; I arrive in every second to be a bud on a spring branch, to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile learning to sing in my new nest, to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, in order to fear and to hope, the rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that are alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river, and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond, and I am the grass-snake, who, approaching in silence, feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks, and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve year old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate, and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the Politburo with plenty of power in my hands, and I am the man who has to pay his debt of blood to my people dying slowly in a forced labour camp.

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life. My pain is like a river of tears, so full
it fills all four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
So I can wake up and so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.

Thich Nhat Hahn

[This is an excerpt from my 2006 PhD Thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’.]

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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



Daniel Christian Wahl

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