Design Should Follow, Not Oppose, the Laws of Life

This piece was originally published in Home! A Bioregional Reader, edited by Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright, New Society Publishers, copyright 1990.

by Nancy Jack Todd and John Todd

i. The cell is the basic unit and building block of life. As such it is an entity complete unto itself. This is most easily pictured by bringing to mind the kind of one-celled creature frequently perused in introductory biology courses, the most popular usually being the amoeba. Like all other simple and primitive organisms, it is self-contained. It carries out, at the microscopic level, all the basic attributes of life, including food gathering, feeding, excretion, respiration, purification, and reproduction. The same is as true of a cell in our own kidneys, a butterfly’s wing, or a sumac leaf, as it is in the independently inclined amoeba.

ii. The cell participates directly in the fundamental functioning of the whole organism. There is a high degree of interaction and cooperation between cells. At the dawn of life on Earth, evolution was triggered when different kinds of organisms invaded or enfolded each other to produce composite organisms ranging from fungi and lichens to the higher plants and animals. Over eons of time the cooperation and interdependence between formerly unrelated organisms has grown ever more complex. Basic to biological functioning has been the bringing together of normally distinct organisms, the combined activities of which create new organisms. Concomitantly, many of the ancient, less complex precursors of present life forms, like bacteria, spirochetes, and blue green algae, still persist as independent entities. As such they continue to play a basic and major ecological role in the overall metabolism of the planet.

iii. The fact that organisms are at once complete, independent and autonomous, yet interdependent with other life forms, is a paradox to basic life. However whole and complete its structure, no organism is an island unto itself. Nature depends upon connections through different levels of biological organization. The connections are always immediate and near by. There is an unbroken continuum from cell to organism to the large ecosystem and beyond to the bioregion and on again ultimately to the whole planet. Further, although, through differentiation, related cells become organisms that range from insects to trees, ancient biological patterns are not abandoned but maintained through vast reaches of time. In this way nature is extremely conservative—and this characteristic is a unity that permeates all of life.

iv. The ecosystem is the next level of organization and is analogous to an organism, the differences being that the boundaries are less distinct, the length between the components longer, and the couplings looser. An ecosystem is an interacting system of living organisms and their non-living environment. In a sense, the environment is the home within which organisms live. A pond is one of the simplest ecosystems to visualize because it is contained in a bowl of land and its boundaries are easily discerned. An ecosystem can also be defined in terms of contained relationships—the ecosystem of the food chain or the relationships of the essential gases which are controlled by organisms are examples. When a pond is exposed to sunlight, the algae give off the oxygen essential to the survival of the animals. The bacteria and animals produce carbon dioxide which the algae and other plants need in order to live. Populations of smaller fish are kept in check by predators. Predators in turn are regulated by even larger predators like herons as well as by their own reproductive biology in that they produce fewer offspring. To make an anthropomorphic evaluation of such an arrangement as dog-eat-dog would miss the deeper meaning of nature. Just as all of us must live to eat, all life forms consume others yet also have a function beyond their own particular existence. In the end, all life is eaten or decays, that new life may be born and the larger life continue. Whereas organisms are outwardly defined by a particular structure or surface or architecture, such as bark or skin or scales, topographically ecosystems are defined by the diminishing or outer limits of the relationships. While the definition of boundary in a pond is contained by the banks, more often one ecosystem, like a field, will blend into others like that of a wood or a neighboring lawn. An ecosystem is not just an assembly of creatures but, because of the integrity of its structures and the mixed relationships, it is a definable entity, a meta-organism. Just as relationships in animals are expressed through a central nervous system, an ecosystem like a pond expresses relationships as a gestalt—as the sum of its parts acting in dynamic concert.

v. Nature is not static. The natural world lives in flux and understands change. In a wooded area an abandoned lawn left to itself reverts to a meadow and then, within brief decades, to a woods. During this period—technically termed ecological succession—structural changes take place. The landscape becomes more diverse, stable and often less vulnerable to perturbations. In contrast, more humanly derived systems, most of our towns and cities for example, indicate a frame of mind that could be called early successional. Structural relationships are defined and fixed at the outset and the pattern is hard to change as conditions change. We tend to build, destroy, rebuild, destroy and rebuild again. Too often we lock ourselves into inflexible designs which inhibit maturation in a given society or community.

vi. The bioregion, beyond the ecosystem, is the next over-riding structural unit, forming a cluster of ecosystems arranged topographically and climatically to produce a distinct region. A bioregion is easy to recognize but hard to define. It can be framed by a great river valley, by mountain ranges or a coast. Usually it is categorized by distinctive vegetation and climate. Yet even a bioregion is not an island unto itself, for it blends outward to join with others to comprise a biographical province. The hardwood forested land east of the Great Plains extending southward from southern Canada almost to the Gulf of Mexico is one such great province. Such provinces in turn interconnect and blend to form the Earth’s canopy—until eventually we come around to Gaia.

(First published in Bioshelters, Ocean Arks, City Farming: Ecology as the Basis of Design. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1984.)

Nancy Jack Todd (b. 1938) is an activist, writer, editor, and lecturer with particular interest in how topics like feminism, agriculture, and the arts intersect with environmental issues. In 1969 she co-founded New Alchemy Institute with her husband John Todd and Bill McCarney, and in 1982 she and her husband co-founded Ocean Arks International, for which she serves as vice president. She is also editor and publisher of the ecological journal Annals of Earth.

John Todd (b. 1939) is a biologist specializing in ecological design. He’s helped design self-perpetuating miniature ecosystems which can be studied and used to develop systems to address human needs. This research has led to real-world applications, including water treatment systems. He was the co-founder, with his wife Nancy Jack Todd, of Ocean Arks International, and, with her and Bill McCarney, of the New Alchemy Institute.

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