RISD Foundation Studies Lecture Series
Beautiful Theory: Resilience, Ecology, Sustainability
Claudia J. Ford
16 November 2010
Chace Auditorium, Rhode Island School of Design
I would like to begin tonight’s lecture with gratitude and thanks to a number of people who have made this event possible. I would like to thank Joanne Stryker, Ken Horii, and Foundation Studies for inviting me to speak to you this evening. I would like to thank Kevin McNulty and Andrew Grant for the logistical support in making this happen. I would like to thank your first year student classmate, Kevin Cochran, for the design and technical support that a digital immigrant such as myself cannot function without.
I would like to thank my colleagues at the Antioch Resilience Design Group for the indispensible academic critique of a very rough first draft of this lecture. I would like to thank RISD faculty, students, and staff in the RISE and Respond Design groups. We are fortunate at RISD to have so many artists and designers doing cutting edge work in the field of sustainability. I would like to thank Professor Robert Brinkerhoff for giving me permission to use his artwork. We build on the work of others and this lecture is no exception.
“What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all the four of them to me? And me to you?” Gregory Bateson
There are many things that are driving my exploration of tonight’s topic on adaptive cycles and the ecological theory of resilience, but two of them stand out. First is what I have learned through my passion for global social justice work. I have spent my career, thus far, working with others to make another, different, world possible. I have done this by working in the fight against poverty, disease, discrimination, lack of education, and lack of political rights, around the globe. I have worked with men, women, and children in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, and on my sojourns through refugee camps and squatter camps, war zones and rainforests I have been struck repeatedly by just how complex most people’s lives are.
The struggle to survive, for far too many of us in this world, is a struggle of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual complexity far greater than we realize, and far greater than it is for the few of us who have been fortunate enough not to face such daily exertions. I was not prepared for this complexity and I remain enormously frustrated about it. I feel that the solutions, the economic, social, and environmental solutions we have been working with are too simple to deal with the troubled conditions I have observed. Our attempts to help are not working. They have not worked. Poverty and suffering remain in this world and by all measures are increasing. We have not yet created the other world we desperately need, and in some cases desire, to create. We require ideas to match the size of our challenges.
I was very excited when I came across a different, new to me, way of thinking about intractable issues that might begin to point to the direction of a different and better world. I discovered this in my doctoral program in environmental studies, and it is the outlines of this theory that I aim to share with you today. In addition to being energized about potential ideas for addressing the pressing issues that are facing us, I was, as an artist, enthralled with the aesthetic promise of this work. I believe you will be too.
Dutch software developer and social commentator Jurgen Appelo contends, “Complexity is that property of a system which makes it difficult to predict its overall behavior, even when given reasonably complete information about its components and their relations.”  If I had to sum up my first passion it would be an exploration of this concept of complexity.
I have another motivation for my interest in resilience theory. The size of the environmental issues that face us is huge. G. Tyler Miller, author of 58 environmental science and ecology textbooks, names some key environmental challenges:
§ Rapid population growth
§ Unsustainable resource use
§ Not including the environmental costs in the products we make and buy
§ Trying to manage and simplify natural systems without understanding how they work
When I returned to the United States 2 .5 years ago, after nearly thirty years abroad, I was struck with the requirement to move the environmental dialogue beyond reduce-reuse-recycle. True that I had missed a great swath of the US discussion on environmental issues in the three decades I was away, and the conversation overseas, while similar, is not the same. Initially, I discovered myself a bit confused by all this “green” conversation. That there are different kinds of greens? What’s that? What does that mean? More importantly how will this classification of our aspirations help us fundamentally change our behavior?
Well to generalize and stereotype, bright greens, it appears, are supposed to be enthralled to technology and think there is an engineering fix to everything. Dark greens, I guess, are meant to be looking for us all to live locally and become organic farmers as the only sustainable option. There are good initiatives on both sides of this debate — witness the Transition Town movement, local farmers’ markets, or green roofs, and LEED design certification; yes, good work is being done on all sides of this debate. However, I am not enthralled to technology; I do believe a paradigm shift is needed, and yet I am not a dark green pessimist; a “doomer.” Motivated by my sense of uncertainty about the creation of new ways to talk about environmental issues as well as a growing sense of urgency to address these issues, I am back in school to read for my doctorate in what emerges to me as the most important collective issue we face today – humans’ relationship with Earth.
My second passion for this research, therefore, can be expressed as, “What does this all mean?” What about the human behavior changes necessary to address our current environmental problems? How does theory or practice address the fundamental difficulty of making the world a better place? Of participating in a behavioral paradigm shift?
Tonight, I want to talk to you, briefly, about ecology’s resilience theory including the concept of adaptive cycles, and why this might matter to us in our search for solutions to the problems of a complex world and a troubled relationship between earth and humanity. I want to set this discussion against the backdrop of the multitude of specific economic, social, and environmental issues we face, but which I will not discuss. Climate change is just one, but one important piece of the overall challenge. New York activist-artist, engineer, and designer Natalie Jeremijenko names climate change as emblematic, “The climate crisis is a shared, collective, uncertain threat. It is a crisis of agency. We have to reimagine our relationship to natural systems.”
The environmental challenges facing us are fundamental. Our presence on earth is not a light one. We walk heavily upon this earth. We oppugn the earth, nature, other species, and our place in and on the planet. The solution to these challenges lies within our ability to shift our understanding of our place within nature itself; towards greater understanding, posits British curator Emma Ridgway, “The uneasy realisation of our current situation is that we are part of an ecological system that we influence more than we previously thought was possible. We are not outside observers, we are participants; we engage and affect systems whether we intend to or not.”
It is my opinion that ideas about our relationship to and with the earth we inhabit are important to investigate at this point in your career. As student artists and designers, as practicing artists and designers, this is a key time for looking at these debates from all sides. Towards the end of this lecture I will briefly explore the unique ways that artists have of looking at complex problems in general and environmental issues in particular.
John Maeda says that designers are critical makers. He is right. We, as artists and designers, are making and thinking. Theory is always important to explore, however, for this juncture — the intersection of theory and action — is where paradigm shifts happen. How do we close the gap between human behavior and our desired environmental future? This is the paradigm shift I seek.
These are the issues that motivate me. My remarks are driven by questions. Questions inform other questions in an iterative cycle. Solutions are not answers, as some would have from other, older, and not, I would argue, entirely useful paradigms. Solutions are found in the process and in the generation of more useful questioning. For this lecture, then, these are my starting questions:
w What underpins an ecologically sustainable way of life?
w What is design thinking?
w What unique role do artists and designers have to play in creating a sustainable future?
I will not directly answer these questions, but I will present some of the roads we may usefully follow to find the responses. Let us turn to ecology’s resilience theory and the concept of adaptive cycles, and why this might matter to us in our search for solutions to the problems of a complex world and a troubled relationship between earth and humanity.
By studying ecosystems around the world, researchers have learned that most systems of nature proceed through recurring cycles consisting of four phases: rapid growth, conservation, release, and reorganization. Theoretical ecologist, C.S. “Buzz” Holling observed that ecosystems developed in what he termed adaptive cycles of exploitation (rapid growth), conservation, release and reorganization, which could be described in three dimensions – ecological ‘wealth’, connectedness and resilience. In summarizing these changes in ecological thought, Dana Phillips, literary critic, asserts, “The old idea of the ecosystem as a model of order and equilibrium has become the new ecology that emphasizes indeterminism, instability and constant change.”
We may briefly mention two well-known examples of these cyclical adaptations – fire and the economy. When forest management consists of fire suppression, as it has and, by and large, continues to, we also suppress natural cycles of fire and regeneration that actually serve to increase the resilience of the forest community. We create a system that is paradoxically more vulnerable to fire and less resilient and adaptable. In our economic system our recent and continuing crises indicated that we have become brittle and less resilient in our enslavement to unrealistic unending growth. The hubris was partly that we could take the economic system and manage it in isolation from other systems.
Professor Garry Peterson, a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Center describes the management learning that accompanies the phases of the adaptive cycle:
The phase from growth to conservation is a phase of incremental change, a problem-solving phase, where foundational models of management and behavior are assumed to be correct and learning is characterized by the collection of data and information to solve problems.
The subsequent phase of conservation through release can be a time of abrupt change, where change is episodic and surprising, and learning is characterized by facing the consequences of the inadequacies of the underlying management models.
The phase of transformational change occurs from release to reorganization, a phase of cross scale surprise or novelty involving wicked and complex problems between different sets of changing variables. The adaptive cycle can be shifted into another and different cycle, with new roles and/or new combinations of agents, and requiring new paradigms, not only new models.
C.S. Holling introduced the concept of resilience into the academic world in 1973. It was described as the amount of disturbance an ecosystem can withstand within a given state of stability. Resilience now has multiple meanings:
w The ability to persist in the face of change.
w The return time to a stable state following change (engineering definition).
w The property of a system that mediates transition among different stable states (ecology definition).
My exploration of resilience theory is driven by another question. How do we create sustainable human/nature systems when these transitions are driven by rapid and escalating human behavioral patterns? Holling, Gunderson, and Ludwig describe these behavioral challenges related to sustainability, “The complex issues connected with the notion of sustainable development are not just ecological problems, nor economic, nor social. They are a combination of all three. Actions to integrate all three typically short-change one or more.” Holling and his co-researchers call this the Trap of the Expert (disciplinary hubris), where each approach is based upon a particular, partial, not integrated world-view.
Adaptive cycles are the foundation of ecological, economic and social systems. Let us consider the adaptive cycle, the moibius strip of change, and look at the way this model might point to a holding of the opposing forces of growth and stability versus change and variety. This tension between stability and change is the paradox of sustainability. Buzz Holling says, “Sustainability requires both change and persistence.”
Holling, Gunderson, and Ludwig further assert, “In order to plan for sustainability, we need to know how new “knowledge” (is) created from competing information sources and incorporated with useful existing knowledge, Which processes create novelty which smother innovation, which foster it? Neither ecology, nor economics, nor institutional theory now deals well with these fundamental questions of innovation, emergence, and opportunity.” Novelty, innovation, and “questions of emergence, and opportunity” are foundational to what is known as design thinking. It is this element of resilience theory, the adaptive cycles model, and the application of theory and model to sustainable development, that reaches out specifically to the visually rich, and pattern specific ways of knowing and creating that characterize the work of artists and designers.
English journalist Madeleine Bunting says, “The central assertion is that the crisis is not just one of climate change but of epistemology – of how we know the world and our place in it. That is not something a politician can ever stand up, say, and be understood. It is something that has to be experienced, and arguably, it is artists who can enable that experience.” I would now like to share with you five examples of the work of artists and designers who are actively thinking and making around the idea of sustainability, and invite you, if you have not heard of them, to look up their work. I see in their work an invitation to think and create around these difficult questions. When looking at art and design thinking about complex problems of sustainability what becomes clear is that artists and designers are concerned with discovering and creating the patterns that invite both stability and change. Buzz Holling calls this, “The way of the artist-scientist: and their nascent, stumbling ideas,” and the Royal Society contends that design has an essential optimism with respect to progress and change.
This presentation looks briefly at the work of five artists and designers dealing in very different ways with the questions of sustainability and the environment:
1. Nathalie Miebach
2. Natalie Jeremijenko
3. Matthew Mazzotta
4. Bryant Terry
5. Stewart Brand
As we come to the end of this lecture let us think about the unique role of artists and designers in a sustainable world. Artists and designers see patterns. We work with patterns; we confront and provoke patterns in intimate ways that others do not. Others have their own ways of facilitating action at the juncture of theory. The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Art describes designers’ potential task, “Ready to improvise and prototype, brave in the face of disorder and complexity, holistic and people-centered in their approach to defining problems, designers have a vital role to play today in making society itself more resourceful.”
We cannot complete a discussion of resilience theory without acknowledging that the origins of resilience theory lie in the stories of our first nations communities. Fikret Berkes is a Canadian academic who researched with Buzz Holling. Dr. Berkes’ research focuses on indigenous ecological knowledge, and with first nations communities he examines the common roots of resilience and traditional ecological knowledge. Traditional communities impacted their environment, without question, and sometimes destructively. However, for many reasons traditional communities walked and still walk more lightly on this earth. The Navajo cycle of spiritual sustainability, for example, is the way of balance, harmony, and hope. The Center for Ecoliteracy says, “When nature is our teacher, we can see that long-lasting change requires looking beyond individual “problems” to address the patterns that connect them.” My dissertation research hopes to recognize and describe this traditional knowledge and the patterns that inform it; it is our collective legacy.
Vandana Shiva asserts that, “The act of living and of celebrating and conserving life in all its diversity – in people and in nature – seems to have been sacrificed to progress, and the sanctity of life been substituted by the sanctity of science and development.” We are left, then, with the questions we started with. I wish you the bit of unease that having some unanswered questions may always give you. It is the space in which personal and social change happens. I count on the utility of unease. It is a space of vulnerability that we share with each other.
Ultimately this is a beautiful theory. Beautiful in its heroic complexity, and beautiful in its fragile simplicity. Resilience is not alone a characteristic of natural systems, or human systems. Resilience is also a personal quality. It radiates among humility and compassion as a quality that is a living mission statement. Something we strive for. Something that has more to do about relationship and community than it has to do about ourselves.
I desire to reclaim a coherent connection to nature. I yearn to claim my responsibility to hold and maintain the natural world as sacred. I aspire to use my unique position in the web of existence to fight for social justice and in so doing to champion a different, more flexible, respectful way of being of this world and not only in it. To do this I must learn the ability to be wounded and to be an activist at the same time. The environmental tragedies that we have created demand nothing less of me.
I finish this lecture tonight with a profound sense of urgency that itself is complicated by the teeter-totter of hope and concern. Technology, yes, will fix some of the environmental mess we have made by that same addiction to technology. However, it will not be the ultimate answer. It will be accompanied by a commitment to what is noble, good, and exemplary in humans. It will require a spiritual “fix” as well. Be still. Discover what is sacred to you. I suggest that this earth and all its creatures and features, animals and minerals, seas and skies, it is all sacred. Thank you.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” Albert Einstein
 I mean here the term “read” in the British sense of doctoral studies, which, indeed recognizes more accurately one of the more important tasks of obtaining an advanced degree. I study at Antioch University New England in the oldest environmental studies program in the country and hope to be finished by 2014.
 C.S. Holling, “Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems,” Ecosystems 4 (2001): 395.
 Dana Phillips, “Ecocriticism, Literary Theory, and the Truth of Ecology,” New Literary History 30, no. 3 (1999): 580.
 Lance H. Gunderson, “Ecological Resilience–In Theory and Application,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 31 (2000), 426-427.
 C.S. Holling, L.H. Gunderson, D. Ludwig, “In Quest of a Theory of Adaptive Change,” in Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Systems of Humans and Nature, ed. L.H Gunderson, and C.S Holling (Washington DC: Island Press, 2002), 8.
 C.S. Holling, “Understanding the Complexity,” 390.
 Holling, Gunderson, and Ludwig, “In Quest,” 11.
 Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology & Development (London: Zed Books Ltd., 1989), xvi.