a research practice working at the intersection of architecture, technology, art and ecological pedagogy

2008 An introduction to Environmental Cybernetics Pt 1

A previous version of this text was published in www.bdonline.co.uk on 24th April 2008.

An introduction to Environmental Cybernetics Pt 1


This post aims to address some of the broader questions raised by the need to rethink – in the light of emerging evidence of fast approaching planetary limits – our methods of design, production and consumption, specifically with regard to architecture, urbanism and the built environment. I speak from a research based position, at the intersection of academia, design education and architectural practice.

Balance of nature

There are many definitions of sustainability, and indeed many questions about whether that is even the right word to use to describe how we want to be in the world. However, the standard and useful definition to refer to is that provided by the UN Brundtland Commission Report in 1987, which stated that sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. However today this statement often contains an additional clause asserting the quasi-legal stakeholder rights of the rest of the planet’s ecosystem, to be similarly un-compromised, now or in the future. Design theorist Alistair Fuad-Luke has argued that sustainable development is dependent upon a balance between the “four key dimensions to sustainability – economic, social, environmental and institutional,” an analysis which suggests that sustainable practice is nothing to do with this or that product or piece of technology, but is rather something which requires that we ask some difficult but utterly unavoidable questions about our current economic, social, environmental and institutional behaviour. Design, he says, “plays a key role in giving form, aesthetics and semantics to these dimensions, and so affects their real and perceived balance.” most of what is packaged and discussed within construction as sustainable practice is actually just carbon emission reduction

Natural capital

We should think of contemporary global capitalism as an ecology of production economies, ranging from say ‘the family’ at one end, to multinational corporations at the other. Many of these production economies are human, often technological. But some are natural cycles and material flows. One of the (many) problems with capitalism, is that it does not seem to have a mechanism to value what has been described as ‘Natural Capital’. As defined by Fritz Schumacher, Natural Capital is all of the material, food and energy resources that we take as found, and consume without replenishing, and without paying for – we only value the labour involved in their removal or harvesting. It has been calculated that the natural environment hands over every year the equivalent of $33trillion of wealth. And just as we do not value the natural capital which we consume, we do not correctly value the costs of waste, and cost of natural capital which is destroyed or damaged by waste or pollution. It has been calculated that we are each becoming $600 per week poorer as a result of the degradation of our natural capital resources in the environment. Our failure to recognise the value of Natural Capital is at the heart of a wider failure to see, understand and work with the existing material and energy flows of the planet that we live on.

Wider crises

Whilst there has been a huge increase in awareness of issues around climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions in recent years, there is an equally high level of confusion about the relationship and difference between climate change issues, and fully ecological thinking. Indeed, most of what is packaged and discussed within construction as sustainable practice is actually just carbon emission reduction. However, whilst the development of a wide range of low carbon technologies, materials and processes is essential to secure our futures, on their own they can only, at best, delay the onset of climate change.

Even if technologies came online tomorrow which could reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases to preindustrial levels, this would at best do nothing but delay the onset of other environmental crises. This is because there is nothing special about carbon, it is just the first of many cycles which we would appear to have knocked out of rhythm. We are facing at least five major and distinct (though inter-related) environmental crises, in addition to carbon: water, food, energy, material supply and waste. Undermining further these high level systems failures, a host of minor low level events could have major high level repercussions. For example, if the bee populations continues to collapse at current rates, global food production will be decimated due to lack of pollination.

The Code is not enough

Clearly design and construction will have crucial roles to play in the shift to new sustainable social and economic models. If we are to make the correct choices and decisions, it is essential that we are not only informed about ‘low level’, on the ground technologies, but also that we are able to evaluate these within the framework of a critical awareness of ‘high level’ holistic thinking. The broad lack of informed discussion around new policy like the Code for Sustainable Homes is a case in point. Are we for example happy to have houses which minimise windows, and the amount of direct sunlight that enters. Such designs might be low carbon, but are they holistically sustainable? Are we happy to live in airtight homes? (yes, I am aware that ‘airtight’ home are mechanically ventilated!)

The air inside our homes is six to eight times more polluted than the air outside, even in cities like London. This partly because of the wide range of artificial materials used in construction which gives off harmful emissions, such as plastics, adhesives, paints etc. It is also because we fill our homes with consumer goods which are not properly designed for human consumption, and which are constantly emitting toxins (according to Michael Braungart etc). The airtightness requirements for CSH 6 homes will trap even more of these toxins in our homes. When we just look at carbon emissions without reorganising our entire production ecology, we will just cause new problems.Are we for example happy to have houses which minimise windows, and the amount of direct sunlight that enters. Such designs might be low carbon, but are they holistically sustainable?

Are we happy to live in airtight homes?

Over the coming posts I will try to introduce high level conceptual tools for holistic, systems-ecology thinking, and use them to discuss low level practical and policy concerns like CSH.In case this has seemed a bit bleak, or daunting, let me finish with some good news. It is still possible foreveryone currently alive on our planet to live a life full of abundance, both material and ‘aesthetic’ (by which I mean everyday lifestyle, happiness, wellbeing etc). Although we are currently on a trajectory that will soon crash into the very real and fast approaching wall of all kinds planetary limits plus socio-economic contradiction, thinkers like Ezio Manzini and david Harvey argue (in very different ways) that it is still possible for us to redirect the powerful forces of change that are active within the world’s economy – such as globalisation, ICT (information and communication technologies), ‘democracy’ etc – and that we can use these forces to move us onto a trajectory which will rather allow us to co-exist and co-evolve, with the various entities, flows and systems with which we share the planet. Manzini has argued that there are, emerging within the ‘ecology of economies’ that makes up contemporary global production, progressive new ‘sustainable’ economic and social practices, technologies and enterprises, which if grown and networked, could fundamentally alter the form and nature of global capitalism. For Manzini, we live within and as a part of a global economy which can be understood as a cybernetic organism – or an ecology: a network of systems within systems – and according to cybernetic theory (the theory of systems) that small changes at a low level of an organism, can under the right conditions, have large effects on the overall behaviour of the system.

It is useful to reflect upon this statement by David Harvey, which I presume must surely refer (“small-scale experiments”) in part to the kinds of projects facilitated by Manzini:

“Contemporary attempts to revive the communist hypothesis typically abjure state control and look to other forms of collective social organization to displace market forces and capital accumulation as the basis for organizing production and distribution. Horizontally networked as opposed to hierarchically commanded systems of coordination between autonomously organized and self-governing collectives of producers and consumers are envisaged as lying at the core of a new form of communism.  Contemporary technologies of communication make such a system seem feasible. All manner of small-scale experiments around the world can be found in which such economic and political forms are being constructed.  In this there is a convergence of some sort between the Marxist and anarchist traditions that harks back to the broadly collaborative situation between them in the 1860s in Europe.” (David Harvey, Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition – Talk given at the World Social Forum 2010.)


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