Ecology: Learning from the Original System

Written by
Rae Lewark

Ecology: Learning from the Original System

Written by
Rae Lewark
Long before humans gained the intelligence, skills, and resources to create systems with purpose and function, the environment was building its own. From the smallest bacteria community to the biosphere, the environment functions through the structured cycling of energy and matter. Intricately designed with every process and reaction optimized, the planet has been developing, testing, and adapting systems for millions of years.

Ecosystems across the planet are unique, efficient, and perfectly designed for the conditions they experience in their bioregion. But they all have the same core purpose: to create a web of pathways for energy and matter to cycle. They have no start and finish and are designed to run ongoingly until conditions change and they adapt to form new paths.

Figure 1. The flow of energy through an ecosystem.

Humans are a part of this cycle, though we have gained the intelligence needed to alter, adjust, and adapt our ecosystems to meet our needs. From building dwellings to developing agriculture to paving roads, humans have gained the capacity to augment our environments to further human endeavors. But it is only since the advent of the industrial revolution that we began to alter the planet in progressively more extreme ways. With the introduction of fossil fuels to industry, access to massive energy sources has allowed us to tip the scales and leverage the earth’s resources to suit unprecedented economic gains. Though economic success has boomed, the efficiency of ecosystems has suffered. We design and implement linear systems, with no regard for environmental impacts, the longevity of ecosystems, or the long-term health of the people connected to them.

We have forgotten the system we came from. The ecologies that designed us. By shutting ourselves off from the information ecosystems have been gathering for millions of years, we limit our capacity to build a future. While the exploitation of earth’s resources is driving us to environmental ruin, access to resources is not entirely negative. We have the materials at our fingertips to design new systems. Systems linked to the ecosystems in their bioregions, where the flow of material and energy is connected. By linking human systems to ecosystems, we access potentials only available to us when acknowledging the information nature still has to teach us.

How do we begin to incorporate ecosystem knowledge into the systems we build?

We can start by integrating the Four Laws of Ecology, developed by Berry Commoner, into our thought processes:

1. Everything is connected to everything else

You cannot do just one thing; every action will have a reaction. In an ecosystem, a small change to the composition of the nutrients in the soil (for example, runoff from industrial agriculture) may seem insignificant, but these nutrients determine the growth and composition of the biomass in the ecosystem and can cause drastic and unforeseen changes. If we imagine the ripple effect of our actions when managing system outputs, we can develop methods that harmonize with ecosystem functions instead of disrupting them.

2. Everything must go somewhere

Mass cannot be created or destroyed, there is no such thing as “away.” When the “waste” from a process is discarded it will inevitably re-enter the environment and impact the ecosystems it encounters. When we recognize this, we can design systems that release only biological components back into the environment (food waste, timber, organics) and maintain technical components within production cycles (plastics, synthetic compounds, chemicals, etc.)

3. Nature knows best

The environment contains invaluable information. The planet has been designing, testing, and adapting ecosystems for millions of years. When in need of inspiration look to these tried-and-true systems as blueprints.

4. Nothing comes from nothing

It is impossible to create something new without taking from something else. We cannot produce goods and services unless we harvest material and fuel from the environment. We cannot build a house without cutting down trees, or fly a plane without extracting metals, drilling for oil, and producing plastics. When we create, we must account for the impact we caused by doing so.

No system is linear, even when we set boundaries to make it seem like it is.

When we reduce a system to a linear process we are not accounting for the actual magnitude of its functionality and impact. When we expand our view to the whole, we can build systems with higher capacity and resiliency. Imagine the world we can build when our inspiration is the coral reef, the alpine tundra, or the Amazon rainforest. When we look to ecosystems, the original systems, for inspiration we have the potential to rejoin the processes of nature and help shape the ecologies of the future.

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