What if natural systems shaped human constructs?
While rooted in landscape architecture, this project delved into the philosophies and personal values which I see as important guiding principles for not only the future of the profession, but for the way in which humanity progresses in general. The work is primarily a written statement which can be found below, but also included two images: one “mural” which was a pictorial representation of the writing, and one “mapping” which seeks to explain the statements through other illustrative means.
The originals were both 56″x24″. In addition to the full images, a couple closer details of each are also shown. Additionally there is a “postcard”; originally at 7″x5″.
Most of the images and illustrations which went into the composite mural and mapping are not my own material and are the property of their respective owners. The composites I created are meant only to accompany and enhance the writing.
Humanity is Natural
To understand the relationship of humanity to the earth, and to the universe, one must first remove all cognitively-derived concepts relating to the environment. To an outside observer separate from human existence, concepts such as “wilderness” and “pristine” would not bear any meaning. We make these intellectual constructs because we exist as the conscious entities within our human flesh and we believe that every action and pursuit taken at our hands is somehow different from the world around us. We believe that we are somehow different from nature. However, to the outside observer we are just another biological process taking place on this planet. It is useful to also be aware of the fact that the same basic elements that make up everything in our universe are the same that comprise the human body—in other words, we’re not unique. Hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen are the most common elements in the universe. With the exception of helium which is chemically inert, these same elements are also the most common within the human body and in that same order.12 This perspective illustrates that humanity and the universe are both a part of the same process of Nature.
Before continuing, it is necessary to be clear about the definition of “nature,” or the “natural”. James Corner makes an appropriate distinction: “The first, ‘nature,’ [lower-case ‘n’] refers to the concept of nature, the cultural construction that enables people to speak of and understand the natural world, and that is so bound into ecological language; the second, ‘Nature,’ [upper-case ‘N’] refers to the amorphous and unmediated flux that is the ‘actual’ cosmos, that which always escapes or exceeds human understanding.”4 Therefore it can be established that “nature” is the whole of the earth’s processes as it is generally seen as separate from humanity, and “Nature” is the fundamental principles and laws of physics that govern the entire universe and through which there is a perpetual state of change.
With the understanding that humanity is simply a biological process playing out, it is easy to look at many of the major challenges and problems affecting the world today, such as global warming or pollution, and see that they are simply byproducts of our own Natural development. There are also other problems which we only perceive as problems because of our perspective. These would include such things as invasive species displacing native species or the destruction of natural lands. In these cases Nature is simply playing out its laws on a system, but because the act may have been initiated by the effects of humanity’s progress, we perceive that we have in some way damaged nature. However, if you are able to view all of these so-called problems from beyond the human perspective, you would see that none of them conflict with the integrity of Nature. Neither does the very existence and the pursuits of human-kind in any way oppose Nature. Simply compare humanity to any other natural species: all forms of life will attempt to grow in population as far as their environment will allow, all will try to lay claim to as much territory as they can get, all will attempt to acquire the best resources, and all will try to hoard as much resources as they can. Human behavior as a species is therefore no different that the rest of life on the planet. All of life competes for resources, and as the organism with the greatest intelligence, it would follow that human beings would, by far, be the most capable of obtaining any resource.
Sustainability and Survivability
However, there has been a change within the last century. We are at a turning point and beginning to realize as a species that or progress has the potential to kill us. Again, this is not to say that we are in some way opposing Nature. The problems exist only because the byproducts of our development are in certain cases either damaging to ourselves directly or to the environment in which we live. Ideas like “environmentalism” and “sustainability” have emerged in response to these problems, however there is a general false sense of their intent. These ideas are not benevolent and altruistic concepts. Neither are they intended to “help nature.” These ideas are, in fact, the beginning stages of an understanding on how to perpetuate human survival, and they’re in reaction to the awareness that our survival is dependent upon the infinitely greater network of biological systems with which we share the earth. Survival, as it is for any species, is the capacity to develop relevant knowledge in enough time.5 Sustainability as a practice is therefore an adaptation, and is merely an early step in the development of the knowledge of how our survival is dependent on other biological systems.
In realizing that our survival is inherently tied to Nature, we have come to the early conclusion that we must become more like it. While this is true, it is true in a far different way than is commonly considered. The typical misdirected expression is of some sort of a “reconnection” with nature. This idea can come in one of two flavors. The high-tech approach commonly displays visions of green utopias where vegetation co-mingles with urban environments and buildings take on naturalistic forms. The low-tech approach, on the other hand, is of humanity relinquishing technology or undoing our progress and returning to an earlier state “in balance with nature.” Under both scenarios, the idea is that we need to make our constructed environment look more like what we perceive nature to be. (e.g. deconstructing channelized rivers, restoring wildlife habitat, and eliminating harmful emissions) The problem with this viewpoint is that it separates us from Nature and it sets forth the misconception that we can control and prescribe Nature and put it where we think it should belong.
Nature is not something humanity has the capacity to control (in our current state at least). The fundamental principles from which the laws of Nature and physics are able to operate are at a level beyond human understanding. It is therefore in futility that we attempt to oppose the course of Nature. We can try to prescribe the condition of our world, but at best the state is only temporary. Nature is in a perpetual state of flux, and will always bring to equilibrium whatever we attempt to prescribe.
The reason we feel the need to become more like nature is not because we need to “look like it” from an external sense, but because we need to adopt the framework which permeates all of life’s systems. Nature has survived and will continue to survive indefinitely in some capacity with or without human influence. The key knowledge we are after is the knowledge of that survivability which permeates not only biological processes, but within every dynamic system throughout the cosmos.
The Infinite Singularity of Humanity
While humans are biological process inherently tied to Nature and therefore no different than any other organism on earth, we are paradoxically also incredibly unique compared to all of Nature. As far as we know, we are the only Natural process with the peculiar ability to imagine. We are able to create in our minds infinite possible circumstances that do not actually exist. The imagination has the unusual ability to take abstractions which does not exist and manifest them in the real world. This effect is allowed by some strange property of physics which allows incredibly dissimilar entities (the vastness of the universe compared to our own brains) to embody the same mathematical and causal structure and to do it more and more over time,5 i.e. we can visualize in our minds an increasingly greater number of things as we continue to learn.
It can be said that the infinite that is the universe and all of Nature evolved to a single point that is the human condition. Paradoxically this singular human condition in itself contains the infinite within the consciousness of every individual (in the sense that the extent of our imaginations are limitless). With that infinite possibility as our tool, we are able to choose the most amazing, exciting future and pull the present forward to meet it.10 Jason Silva hypothesizes that perhaps gravity and antimatter only shape the universe at its initial and most uninteresting stage and that perhaps following this, the universe will be shaped deliberately by the infinitely more powerful human mind.10
Although the capacity for human development does contain this infinite possibility, we are still a product of Nature and remain bound by Natural laws. It is therefore crucial that we understand how Nature operates so that we have the greatest opportunity for survival as we move into the future.
To Understand is to Perceive Patterns
Everything that moves, whether animate or inanimate, is a flow system. A flow system “wants” to flow more efficiently, and over time will shape itself to do so.3 Therefore the filamentary interconnected structure of tree branches, of river deltas, of lightning, and of lungs are not accidental, but the result of a flow that connects one point to a large area, with infinite points.3 The understanding of this property of Nature is called Constructal Law and has been adopted recently as a new law of physics; in other words, it is a characteristic of Nature. Its creator, Adrian Bejan, says that to be alive is to be a flow system that’s free to change its configuration over time.3 In this context, “alive” is not limited to living things but to all systems which flow, or in other words, all systems which have inputs and outputs. And truly, all things in the universe do flow, given a long enough time-line. The reason this particular pattern is so prevalent across all of Nature is because it deals with efficiency, and efficiency is the core component of survival. In biological organisms this efficiency is called “fitness” within the realms of natural selection and evolution. However, efficiency and the Constructal Law is also pervasive in non-biological systems. For example, the structure of a watershed, which transports water from an entire region to one point, is not static. Rivers change course, flood, dry up, and even connect with others. They flow and are free to change over time; always seeking optimal efficiency. Another example is of lightning: it will always seek the path of least resistance, or in other words, the most efficient path.
Constructal Law as it is seen in physical scenarios is apparent. However, if something doesn’t look like a tree, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t abide by the law. Movement is the key attribute, and movements are complex and do not always leave a trail such as in rivers, lightning, or trees. Yet, as we are ever expanding or technological capacities, we are further able to capture and analyze data, and are increasingly creating visual representations of that data. Once we do that, we are finding the same interconnected filamentary pattern emerging across all realms of existence.10
The patterns of networks which comprise Constructal Law have been extensively documented. Physicist Albert-László Barabási, author of Linked and researcher of network theory explains:
“The brain is a network of nerve cells connected by axons, and cells themselves are networks of molecules connected by biochemical reactions. Societies, too, are networks of people linked by friendships, familial relationships and professional ties. On a larger scale, food webs and ecosystems can be represented as networks of species. And networks pervade technology: the Internet, power grids and transportation systems are but a few examples. Even the language [used] to convey [thought] is a network, made up of words connected by syntactic relationships.”2 9
Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, writes about recurring patterns and liquid networks:
“Coral reefs are sometimes called ‘the cities of the sea’, and part of the argument is that we need to take the metaphor seriously: the reef ecosystem is so innovative because it shares some defining characteristics with actual cities. These patterns of innovation and creativity are fractal: they reappear in recognizable form as you zoom in and out, from molecule to neuron to pixel to sidewalk. Whether you’re looking at original innovations of carbon-based life, or the explosion of news tools on the web, the same shapes keep turning up… when life gets creative, it has a tendency to gravitate toward certain recurring patterns, whether those patterns are self-organizing, or whether they are deliberately crafted by human agents.”8 9
Johnson uses ‘The Long Zoom’ as a way of defining the way he looks at the world. “If you concentrate on any one level, there are patterns that you miss. When you step back and simultaneously consider, say, the sentience of a slime mold, the cultural life of downtown Manhattan and the behavior of artificially intelligent computer code, new patterns emerge.”8 9 James Gleick, author of The Information, has written how the cells of an organism are nodes in a richly interwoven communications network, transmitting and receiving, coding and decoding and how Evolution itself embodies an ongoing exchange of information between organism and environment.7 9 Geoffrey West, from The Santa Fe Institute, also believes in the pivotal role of networks:
“Network systems can sustain life at all scales, whether intracellularly or within you and me or in ecosystems or within a city…. If you have a million citizens in a city or if you have 1014 cells in your body, they have to be networked together in some optimal way for that system to function, to adapt, to grow, to mitigate, and to be long term resilient.”9 13
Author Paul Stammetts writes about The Mycelial Archetype. He compares the mushroom mycelium with the overlapping information-sharing systems that comprise the Internet, with the networked neurons in the brain, and with a computer model of dark matter in the universe. All share this densely intertwingled filamental structure.9 11
Whether it is called Constructal Law, networkism, interconnectivity, or the Mycelial Archetype, this principle is what allows Nature its pervasive survivability. This is the knowledge humanity needs to more fully understand and implement into our own constructs.
With the awareness that humanity is itself a process of Nature, it would follow that the Constructal Law is in fact already embedded in everything we do. And this is absolutely the case. Even without the awareness of it, Constructal Law is plainly visible in human-made products. The hierarchy of roads and highways is possibly the easiest to see; we even call roads arteries. There many other examples as well, such as power grids, corporate structure, writing structure, sewage systems, language, and the internet.
We are noticing this fact now because we are looking back on the things we have accomplished and realizing that as we increase the efficiency of the things we create, they are beginning to take on the appearance of biological structures. Cities have been compared to organisms, transportation systems look like blood flowing through veins, and human activity in urban environments have been called the city’s heartbeat. The recurring patterns however, are only happening passively because they are a product of Natural efficiency. As we move into the future it will become ever more necessary that we can understand these processes and implement them deliberately into everything we create.
Evolving Human Constructs
While the presence of Constructal Law will always emerge, currently the way in which humanity builds and creates environments is in conflict with Natural process. The human race has a long standing history with disrupting flow systems. In many circumstances, we have literally killed other things (although this is typical of biological organisms), but on a far greater scale we have become systematic in removing resources from their Natural flow systems. This is especially true of the materials we use in constructing our environment and the substances we use to power our world. Every material used in human creations was once a part of a flow system, but as we harvest these materials they become “dead” and we place them in situations incapable of reentering their Natural flows. Architecture, for example, is still crafted through the use of Victorian-era technologies which impose form upon matter. Industrial manufacturing and the construction of inert objects always results in a one-way transfer of energy.1 On a long enough time-line these materials will once again return to a flow system (everything eventually decays), however we hinder this process due to our desire for permanence. Therefore one of the most important aspects of Constructal Law that we need to embrace for our own survival is the acknowledgment that everything is constantly in a state of change.
Our static and inert human constructs which we keep detached from Natural systems is problematic because of their opposition to Natural process. Changes and Natural flows happen at different rates and are dependent on their particular environments. We have the perception that substances such as stone or metal are resilient, but this is only so if they are in the environments from which they originated, i.e. within the interior of the earth. When these inert materials are brought to surface environments, they are subject to far different Natural processes. They chip, break, tarnish, and erode. This is in contrast to biological processes in this same environment which possess the abilities to grow, adapt, self-repair, and generally persevere. Therefore one of the greatest challenges facing the future of humanity is the development of materials which are appropriate for the Natural processes that occur in the environments in which we live.
Astonishingly, there has already been progress into developing this type of technology. Protocells, for example, are engineered cells of biological tissue which are free of DNA. These substances, which are essentially “living,” are capable of movement throughout an environment and can be controlled through various chemical signals.1 Since a material like this shares properties very similar to biological organisms, a material of this kind would be able to react and adapt to changes in the environment. They could be involved in chemical exchanges with the soil or the atmosphere and could have the ability to do things like self-repair, or autonomously replicate. Materials of this type would be connected to flow systems and by being adaptable could prove to be far more resilient and even more permanent than our constructs are today.
It would be understandable to assume that by using biologic-like materials, our built environments would end up looking very similar to natural environments. And by comparing such a vision to the materials and construction methods used by humanity today, it would seem as though the change would be far too drastic and fundamentally different to ever actually occur. However, the geometric form, straight lines, and mathematical precision that is commonplace in buildings, roads, and just about every other human-made product is not fundamentally different from Nature. Geometry in a pure state does occur in Nature, just not as frequently at the scale at which we perceive our environment. For example, very regular geometric organization is extremely prevalent at the molecular level and below. Therefore it is important to understand that by utilizing biologic materials, we would not need to fundamentally change the appearance of the things we create. Everything in Nature is governed by the same mathematics, we as humans are just engaging those properties in very different ways than they naturally occur. It is also precisely those different ways of engaging the Natural world that sets us apart considerably as an agent of change.
Although humanity is a Natural process, we do possess abilities that are both unique and powerful and potentially indicative of an ultimate paradigm shift as we are increasingly taking control of Natural systems and becoming the primary force that is shaping our universe. However, it is vital to our survival that we understand the Natural systems from which we ourselves were created and use those processes as the tools with which we build our future.
Finally, it is worth noting that ideas are also processes under Constructal Law. Concepts such as copyrights and intellectual property actually oppose the flows that allow new ideas to be generated. Ideas too are networks and new ideas are the products of making connections from sets of already existing ideas.6 If humanity can embrace this fact, it will accelerate the pace at which we are able to address some of our most challenging issues. As Steven Johnson says, “Chance favors the connected mind.”8
1 Armstrong, Rachel – http://www.ted.com/talks/rachel_armstrong_architecture_that_repairs_itself.html
2 Barabási, Albert-László – Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means
4 Corner, James – Ecology and Landscape as Agents of Creativity
5 Deutch, David – http://www.ted.com/talks/david_deutsch_on_our_place_in_the_cosmos.html
6 Ferguson, Kirby – https://vimeo.com/kirbyferguson
7 Gleick, James – The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
8 Johnson, Steven – Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation
9 NotThisBody – http://notthisbody.com/?p=798
10 Silva, Jason – http://vimeo.com/34182381
12 Tyson, Neil Degrasse – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KeJoVeKSsyA
13 West, Geoffrey – http://blog.ted.com/2011/07/26/qa-with-geoffrey-west/