Ecological Design

The rule of no realm is mine, but all worthy things

that are in peril as the world now stands, those are in my care.

And for my part, I shall not wholly fail in my task

if anything passes through this night that can still

grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come.

For I too am a steward. Did you not know?

~ J. R. R. Tolkein

Although science-deniers are still commonplace in America and beyond, according to the United Nation’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, “Growing inequality, environmental decline, and “teetering” economies mean the world must change the way it does business…We need to change dramatically, beginning with how we think about our relationship to each other, to future generations, and to the ecosystems that support us.” As early as 1992, scientists issued a warning to humanity, saying, “A great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievable mutilated.”How can humanity change to fix these problems? Clues to the solutions seem to lie within some concepts defined below:

Sustainability – Those choices, decisions, actions, and ethics that will best achieve ecological/ biological integrity; protect qualities and functions of air, water, soil, and other aspects of the natural environment; and preserve human cultures. Sustainable practices allow for use and enjoyment by the current generation, while ensuring that future generations will have the same opportunities. (Taken from the National Park Service – U.S. Department of Interior website).

Sustainable design – Design that applies the principles of ecology, economics, and ethics to the business of creating necessary and appropriate places for people to visit, live in, and work. Development that has a sustainable design sits lightly upon the land, demonstrates resource efficiency, and promotes ecological restoration and integrity, thus improving the ‘triple bottom line’: environment (planet), the economy (profit), and society (people). (Taken rom the National Park Service – U.S. Department of Interior website).

Ecological design – coined by Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan in 1996 as “any form of design that minimizes environmentally destructive impacts by integrating itself with living processes”. (From their book Ecological Design). John Todd, scientist and author in Vermont, has done groundbreaking work using eco-machines to mimic wetlands in order to safely purify waste water.

"Living Machine" structured to perform the funcion of greywater filtration.

Biomimicry (bio = life, mimic = imitation) a new discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. The core idea is that nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers. They have found what works, what is appropriate, and most important, what lasts here on Earth. (Taken from the Biomimicry Institute website).

Here’s a video from TED Talks featuring Janine Benyus, the scientist who coined the term in her book Design by Nature.

Here’s another.

Here’s a new one by Michael Pawlyn titled “Using Nature’s Genius in Architecture”.

This video by Alew Steffen on Our Sustainable Future.

Here’s an interesting TED presentation titled “Hedonistic Sustainability”.

This video is “On the Business Logic of Sustainability”.

And here’s one of my favorite architects, William McDonough, on his sustainable design project.

As demonstrated by the videos, there appears to be an infinite amount of ways to apply these ideas to particular fields of study, projects, businesses, and lifestyles. But any sustainable system is going to have some similar properties, and to fully appreciate them we need pattern recognition. My next post will dive into some patterns and a little bit of math.

Environmental Ethics Blog

Along with Chaos Theory, I am also enrolled in Environmental Ethics this semester. For our class, we need create a blog on a topic of our choice with weekly updates. How convenient that I’ve already begun something similar! So, for my Ethics blog, I’m going to focus on ecological design, specifically highlighting the ethical design system known as ‘permaculture’.

Throughout this semester, I’ll be reporting on permaculture: what it means, what it encompasses, the theory behind it, how it’s done, who’s doing it where, and highlight local projects being worked on.

We have about 15 weeks during the semester, so here’s some tentative topics I’ll be covering:

  • Context
  • Ecological Design
  • Permaculture Ethics
  • Permaculture Principles
  • History and Prominent Figures
  • Applications
  • Patterns
  • Case Studies: Global Permaculture
  • Case Studies: Permaculture in the U.S.
  • Case Studies: Permaculture in Minnesota
  • Resources

For my first entry, I hope to provide a context for this concept to emerge from.

Most of what I know about all this comes from my classes, so to establish an environmental context, I will summarize, paraphrase, cite, and quote a text book required by Winona State University’s School of Science and Technology Biology Program. The book is entitled “Living in the Environment: Concepts, Connections, Solutions” by Miller and Spoolman and was published in 2009. Spoolman is a relatively local intellect; He received his Masters in Science Journalism at the University of Minnesota and lives in Wisconsin.

All of the information given in this post appears in the text. The book is a solid 700 pages all about the science of sustainability, complete with beautiful photos, illustrations, data visualization, mathematical formulas, references to peer reviewed case studies published in scientific journals, time lines, and compelling questions. It’s really quite the read. It is interesting to note, that the book is written so as to have a moral connotation. Section headings like “How should we manage forests?” or “How should we deal with hazardous waste?” [emphasis added] imply that there are right and wrong answers to these questions, and their location in a University science text book suggests that academia does indeed hold wisdom regarding issues with moral relevance. Section headings like “People have different views about environmental problems and solutions” also acknowledge the reality that differing opinions exist, and that the views expressed in the book are not dogma, but rather one part of an evolving dialogue.

To establish that ecological design is a necessary tool, I will pull out some of what I feel are the most troubling facts about just one micro-chasm of the world, the one most commonly associated with permaculture, the one that’s in our backyard: agriculture. I’ll just try to paint a picture with a broad sweep, but know if you start to look into these issues, they are much more complex and dynamic than what I’ll touch on in this post. And also, I am only pulling from one source (unless otherwise linked).


Corn Field in Wabasha County, MN

Ah, the Great Plains, the Bread Basket of the U.S., the Midwest, whatever you want to call it, this geographical location has undergone significant modifications caused by humans. The prairie ecosystem has provided Americans with rich soil, some of the best on the planet, which has allowed us to produce extensive amounts of food crops. But, despite its advantages, the text states that agriculture has major harmful environmental effects on biodiversity loss, soil, water, air pollution, and human health.

Now for a few statistics:

According to the Natural Resource Conservation Service, 90% of America’s soil is eroding 17 times faster then it is being formed.

One third of the country’s original topsoil is gone, and in Iowa, over half of it is gone after just a century of farming.

In 2009 in Minnesota, we were estimated to loose 4-8 tons of topsoil per acre.

At current rates, Lake Pepin, adjacent to Lake City, MN, will fill in with sediment and recede into the Mississippi river bed within this century.

Apple nutritional density is 90% less than it was in 1930.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has identified the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone has doubled in size since 1992.

The Dead Zone off the Gulf of Mexico

This increase is caused by the estimated 6.5 million cubic tons of fertilizer used on the agricultural fields throughout the Midwest that drain into the Mississippi.

There are numerous other dead zones world wide.

Food production peaked in the 1980s, and since then population has increased, resulting in more people suffering from starvation, malnutrition, and hunger.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported an estimated 1 billion people in the world are chronically malnourished, hungry or starving.

72 acres of rainforest are being burned per day to make way for agriculture. At this rate, all of the forests will be gone in my childrens’ lifetimes.

Agrobiodiversity is dangerously low. Too simple of a system, like a country full of potatoes (or corn and soybeans), is fertile breeding ground for a Malthusian disaster.

I think you get the idea.

Now you can see that there is generous room for improvement. Next week, I’ll introduce ecological design.


Comments about Math Class

It’s the end of the first week of spring semester 2012, and my classes are already winding up into full gear. This time around, I am pleased to engage in Math 315: Chaos Theory with Dr. Berry Perratt. My professor, who works professionally to solve chaotic problems, was taught by none other than James Yorke, who shares the esteemed Japan Prize for Science and Technology with the late Benoit Mandelbrot, for their contributions to understanding dynamical systems, its controls, and applications. The class is all about dynamical systems, fractal geometry, and self-organized criticality. This first week has been straight philosophy, but from here out it is all numbers and computer programs. Since lecture was mostly just that, a lecture without discussion, I figured I’d use my blog (with inserts from my first assignment) to try to wrap my head around this intriguing emerging field.

The famous ‘Mandelbrot set’, an image collecting all of the Julia sets for quadratic functions. “One of the most intricate and beautiful objects in mathematics”.

So we had to read the first part of our text book, which was a history of the evolution of thought between researchers from a diverse array of fields. Then we read three articles, the last of which I found particularly remarkable. It was called “Faith and Quantum Theory” written by Particle Physicist Stephen Barr for the theology journal First Things. My assignment was to answer the following questions:

1. What is wave-particle duality?

"Once and for all I want to know what I'm paying for. When the electric company tells me whether light is a wave or a particle I'll write my check."

Wave-particle duality is a term that describes the nature of light and electrons. Empirical observations confirm that light and electrons behave both like a continuous wave and a discrete particle simultaneously. The phenomenon is also part of Quantum Theory, and has successfully predicted a vast array of physical systems with stunning accuracy.

2. Describe the contributions of both Max Planck and Louis de Broglie to the wave-particle conundrum.

In 1900, Planck assumed that the energy in light waves came in discrete, indivisible sections (quanta), which was not consistent with earlier assumptions that light energy is like a continuous wave. This perspective allowed him to successfully resolve various theoretical conundrums.

Later, de Broglie assumed that if waves (like light) could behave like particles, then particles (like electrons) could behave like waves. This perspective allowed others to develop a coherent, consistent mathematical description of wave-particle duality.

3. What does the author describe as the main contributions of: (1) Newton’s theories, (2) Maxwell’s equations, (3) Einstein’s relativity, and (4) Quantum Theory.

1)   Newton unified celestial and terrestrial phenomenon.

2)   Maxwell unified electricity, magnetism, and optics.

3)   Einstein unified space and time.

4)   Quantum Theory unified particles and forces.

4. Briefly identify one inconsistency to which Quantum Theory gives rise.

“A probability must eventually get resolved into a definite outcome if it is to have any meaning at all, and yet the equations of quantum theory, when applied to any physical system, yield only probabilities and not definite outcomes.”

The author then went on to explain the importance of the observer, a knowledgeable mind, and reality as the collapse of a wave function.

5. The author identifies the three main interpretations of Quantum Theory as: (1) Copenhagen, (2) Many Worlds, and (3) Bohmian. For each one, write a sentence that describes the advantage and disadvantage of the interpretation.

1)   The traditional Copenhagen interpretation would believe that since the fundamental equations can only describe probabilistic answers to physical systems, and since the human mind can have certainty through rational thought and empiricism, that therefore the mind cannot be merely physical and deterministic in nature. This would imply that the mind is metaphysical, which is consistent with dualism and Western religious philosophy. This would also imply that reality is created by our mind, and perhaps lies only within our mind. The interpretation also suggests that there is not an objective reality, and that the mind couldn’t be described by physics.

2)   The Many Worlds View interprets quantum theory to mean that all probable situations are simultaneously part of reality. If the fundamental equations only give probabilistic answers, then it may be possible that the entire nature of reality is probabilities. This would also imply that there is no objective reality, but that all realities are possible and exist in proportion to their relative likelihoods. The advantage of this perspective is it takes the observer off the pedestal, but the disadvantage is that it would imply infinite alternate realities, all represented as a proportional percent, which seems highly unlikely.

3)   The Bohmian Theory interprets quantum data in a manner that distinguishes waves from particles but also explains their entanglement. Waves are the metaphorical track through which particles move through space and time. This would explain why a wave went through two windows at once while each particle just went through one, and also would imply that there is no contradiction in saying a fraction of a wave enters a light collector and simultaneously a whole number of particles enters. The advantage is that it successfully predicts similar results as the traditional interpretation. Although, the view has been said to be ‘artificial’ and deterministic, and essentially just a fresh perspective of Newtonian philosophy.

Here’s a link to one of my all-time favorite humor sites explaining the topic, among others, in “5 Scientific Theories That Will Make Your Head Explode”.

I would like to note that although the author of “Faith and Quantum Theory”, Particle Physicist Stephen Barr, believes in the Copenhagen interpretation, when I think it over for myself, I would put my money on Bohmian Theory. From a scientific perspective, the traditional viewpoint of quantum physics is tremendously unsatisfying. There isn’t an objective reality? We cannot use any known system of analysis for understanding the complexity of the human mind? I mean really? It is a dead end, intellectually speaking.

Although the Copenhagen perspective is harmonious with traditional religious belief systems, it is also the interpretation that has led to the flourishing of new age quantum quackery. To me, it doesn’t make the most sense to hold a scientific opinion because “it seems quite congenial to the worldview of the biblical religions…[and] it seems quite uncongenial to eastern mysticism.” Clearly that remark distinguishes the author as writing from a Western religious bias (to a Western religious audience, I might add), which is a non-secular perspective inappropriate for scientific dialogue. It seems irrational to dismiss Bohm’s clever idea just because “it undoes one of the great theoretical triumphs in the hisory of physics: the unification of particles and forces.” Ok, so what? Maybe we were wrong, and the unification of particles and forces really isn’t a great theoretical triumph, but rather a philosophical thought experiment that proves to be useless. Maybe our first intuitions regarding the experimental results were false, like they quite frequently are in scientific inquiries. It is possible we have been wrong, and if that’s possible, we need to look at other plausible alternative interpretations if we wish to claim scientific understanding. While complete consideration of all possible truths must be a part of the process, it would not be conducive to our future knowledge to conclude, at present and from here forth, we are unable to use the scientific method, mathematics, physics, or technology to advance our knowledge. How absurd! Then we would be left with knowledge based only in faith rather than continuing to hold knowledge based in empirical reason with the highest regard. In my experience, an honest scientific mind would claim to believe in a theory because it provided clarity rather than because to do otherwise would “get rid of the mysteriousness” as Barr puts it. Is a deterministic reality really so philosophically caustic? I think not. Many think not, and many believe moving beyond mystery into a place of clarity is far more remarkable, as poetically expressed by this video.

It seems to me that this research implies something not touched on directly by any of the authors we were assigned to read. It has been said by Jim Yorke, the man who coined the term ‘chaos’, that Chaos Theory, in a nutshell, is that a very small, simple change now can amount to a huge, complex change later. It seems to me that the statement ‘a very small, simple system now can amount to a huge, complex system later’ is also true. The math also appears to back up the idea.

Fibonacci Visualization.

Microscopic image of a fractal cross-section of plant tissue.

The pattern is in our veggies...

I mean, just putz around on google Earth for a little bit and you’ll start to see the pattern everywhere. It’s like once you become aware of it, you can’t help but notice.

To continue the theology theme, it has been humans’ historical intuition that the stunning complexity of life surrounding us is too beautiful, too functional, too adapted to its environment that it just had to be there because of some great cosmic engineer (ie God). Chaos theory has provided us with mathematical evidence that unspeakable beauty with literally infinite complexity is possible with a simple system that starts out with just 0 and 1. (0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13…) The computer is another system that operates on this fundamental truth: a highly functional, complex system from just 0 and 1. Just ONE from nothing, and mathematically, this universe is theoretically possible. Now, if you want to say that whatever that “1” was, is what you’re calling ‘God’, or that the mathematical system is how you’re defining ‘God’, well fine then. Have your God of the Gaps. But it would still imply that it is possible for the universe to begin with nothing, 0. At least, theoretically speaking. I wonder if this has been explored in depth by anyone? A quick google search assures me indeed it has! Now I have a new book to put on the ‘to read’ list – “A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing” by Lawrence Krauss, an actual theoretical physicist.

Who knew math class could be such a doozey!

For some fun videos about math, fibonacci numbers, patterns, and biology, see this blog.

“It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

-Carl Sagan