Archive for the ‘Uncategorised’ Category

Artisan ecologies

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

Consumer culture

Consumer culture has been defined as an economic arrangement in which the lived cultural experience of everyday life depends on social resources, plus the symbolic and material resources on which they depend, entering households (Fig 1).  The environment is thereby brought into the home as part of a process of cultural ecology mediated through markets. Consumption, a set of behaviours found in all times and places, is dominated by the purchase of commercial products. The socio economic system is largely understood to be carried out through the exercise of free personal choice in the private sphere of everyday life. Social democratic actors are deemed to be individually free and rational.  Furthermore, consumer culture is also bound up with the idea of modernity, that is, it develops in a world no longer governed by the traditions of generation-on-generation stasis, but rather by year-on-year flux in fashion. Consumer culture denotes a dynamic ever changing global economy in which value has been divorced from the material satisfaction of wants and the sign value of goods takes precedence. The term sign value denotes and describes the value accorded to an object because of the prestige (social status) that it imparts upon the possessor, rather than the material value and utility derived from the function and the primary use of the object.  In this process of the global marketing mass produced goods the local artisan producer has become an ‘endangered species’.

Globalization is a process driven by multinational companies embedded in capitalism, which extinguishes old production systems to make way for the new.  It entails the free movement of capital, goods, services and labour around the world. Currently both capital and goods move freely, and services such as banking, telecommunications, media and advertising will do so increasingly. Labour mostly moves freely but the vast majority of working people in the world congregate in towns and cities where they are static.

Stasis used to be a feature of rurality which transmitted existing cultural values, norms and customary ways of doing things unchanged from generation to generation.   Its mainstay was access to the local countryside. Country folk were sustained by its biophysical resources within an artisan ecosystem defined as the creative interactions beteen a wide range of practices, organizations, resources, activities and connections.  The interlocking elements of this rural ecosystem enabled culturally significant designs, products and practices to flourish in small communities.

Artisan ecologies are focused on communities that are bottom-up and human centred aggregations of families embodying the craft atmosphere of a territory due to proximity of resources and a shared material cultural background. Such communities based on artisanship are engaged in giving form and meaning to local natural resources and managing the process of making culturally and socially significant products.

Clay is one such natural resource.  An abundant and accessible material, clay is sustainable. Humans have used it for centuries to produce ceramics. Easy to excavate from the ground, clay requires very little processing  .

Fig 1 Mind map of global consumerism

Ceramics is one of the most ancient industries on the planet. Once humans discovered that clay could be dug up and formed into objects by first mixing it with water and then firing, the industry was born. As early as 24,000 BC, animal and human figurines were made from clay and other materials, then fired in kilns partially dug into the ground.

In the present day, artisan ceramics is in decline in a world of global consumers fed by mass production.  From a 21st century perspective, where the cultural focus is now on the sustainable use of natural resources, there can be no doubt that an understanding of the cultural ecology of ceramics should hinge on the relationships of ceramics and their production to the rest of the sociocultural system and the broader ecosystem.  Frederick R. Matson first suggested the term ceramic ecology in the published papers of the “Ceramics and Man” symposium held in 1961 under the auspices of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. He expressed a desire to move ceramic studies toward a more human focus—ceramics and man—reflecting the symposium’s title. Matson thus coined the term ceramic ecology to represent   “… one facet of cultural ecology, that which attempts to relate the raw materials and technologies that the local potter has available to the functions in his culture of the products he fashions” (Fig 2).

Fig 2 A mind map of ceramic ecology

Invention of Eduardo Williams

Since his formulation of ceramic ecology more than half a century ago, Matson’s ideas have inspired a number of studies and the publication of several volumes. In particular, In 1985, Dean E. Arnold broadened the ceramic ecological perspective to include a systems paradigm and identified a number of systemic relationships between ceramic production and the physical environment, on the one hand, and the sociocultural system of which it was social focus on the other.  These relationships consist of basic feedback mechanisms that stimulate and/or limit ceramic production in a cultural-environmental system. Based on certain chemical, ecological, and social phenomena that underlie the nature of pottery itself, these relationships occur in many of the societies of the world and are isomorphous cross-culturally. Thus, it should be possible to explain the development of an ancient craft and the maintenance of a modern craft in a broad intercultural conceptal framework, which is applicable to all crafts.

In 1989  Lorette Mouat and Deane E Arnold, reporting on their research into the potters of El Porvenir, Honduras, revisited Matson’s ideas. They took a viewpoint that the concern with raw materials, technologies, and products in Matson’s definition implies a focus on ceramics as objects.  There is no explicit recognition of the relationships that exist between ceramic production and society on the one hand and the environment on the other. In their view, if ceramic ecology is truly one facet of cultural ecology, as Matson states, then one would expect a wide range of relationships among the production of ceramics, society, and the environment (like weather and climate), distance to resources, and sedentariness as well as the functions of the ceramic product in society.

Thus, the term ceramic ecology implies a broader relational paradigm beyond Matson’s narrow definition and represents an important conceptual change in the way that ceramics traditionally have been viewed.

With respect to choosing a suitable operational model to construct a cultural ecology of ceramics, pottery in the Indian subcontinent has an ancient history and is one of the most tangible and iconic elements of Indian art. Artisan family potters are one of the largest castes, spread across 212 districts of India, predominantly in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Gujarat, Maharashtra, parts of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. They are known by different names in each state.  All are facing decline.

What’s in a name?

The castes and sub-castes of India are mainly based on occupations and the associated skill levels. The potter caste is very ancient and widespread throughout India and is concerned with the production of earthenware utensils and images of deities which are essential for domestic wellbeing and efficiency.. These terracotta handicrafts have been recovered in archeological excavations, particularly at the ancient sites of the prehistoric  Indus Valley Civilization.  This was an early example of urbanisation located in what is Pakistan and northwest India today, on the fertile flood plain of the Indus River and its vicinity. Evidence of religious practices in this area date back approximately to 5500 BCE. Farming settlements began around 4000 BCE and around 3000 BCE there appeared the first signs of urbanization. By 2600 BCE, dozens of towns and cities had been established, and between 2500 and 2000 BCE the Indus Valley civilization was at its peak.  Harrapa was one of these flourishing cities with a thriving population of terracotta potters. The glazed Harappan pottery is the earliest example of its kind in the ancient world showing a great inventive genious. Terracotta, taken from Latin terra cotta or baked earth, is the art of creating glazed or unglazed porous earthenware, figurines, and other decorative materials from clay which is dried and fired in temperatures of around 1000°C giving it a distinctly orange, red, brown, yellow, or grey colour. It is then covered in sand to allow it to cool down. This colour depends not only on the type of clay found in the beds of the water bodies in the area where the artist is based but also on the firing process. For example, if the smoke from firing is allowed to get out through the vents in the kiln, a red or orange colour is obtained. On the other hand, if the vents are sealed, it gives the items a black colour. Decorative pieces are either left with their original colour or painted in multiple hues to make them more attractive.

Polychrome pottery is rare and mainly comprised small vases decorated with geometric patterns mostly in red, black and green and less frequently in white and yellow. Incised ware is rare and the incised decoration was confined to the bases of pans. Perforated pottery has a large hole at the bottom and small holes all over the wall and was probably used for straining liquids.  Some pottery was ornamented on the outside with knobs. The Harappan pottery includes pans, goblets, dishes, basins, flasks, narrow necked vases, cylindrical bottles, tumblers, corn measures, spouted vases and a special type of dish on a stand which was an offering stand or incense burner.

The people of India who worked as family potters, making utensils, tiles or any related products from earth were called, “Kumbhkar.” Kumbh means clay utensils and kar means maker. Therefore, Kumbhkar later became,”Kumbhar.” Many of them belonged to the ancient “Jati” people of the mythical Prajapati community, named after Prajapati the Hindu god of creativity which positions potters at the heart of Hindism.  

Some Prajapatis/Kumhars trace the origin of their community to the beginning of civilization when humankind started using utensils to prepare and eat food. As potters they proudly consider themselves to be the initiators of the world’s first industry.  They also situate themselves in one of the most famous stories of Hinduism which is known as the great churning of the primeval ocean by the gods and demons in the quest for the nectar of immortality. This tale has deep dimensions, capturing insights into the nature of existence.  

According to a Hindu myth, the first Kumbh (earthen pot) was a gift from the Gods to collect the Nectar. Another mythological story says that when Lord Shiva was about to marry Parvati he realised he had forgotten the water carrier integral for the ceremony. Therefore, he gave a part of his skin for clay to Prajapati to make a pot and Parvati gave her blood to decorate the pot. That is when the first kumbh (earthen pot) was created and Prajapati became the first potter.

The classification of Kumhars in the Hindu social caste system differs from region to region. For example, because the making of a pot was the first creative act of HIndu mythology, in some temples in Rajasthan, only a Kumhar can lead the worship, not the traditionally priestly Brahmins.

The geographical location of pot-making is revealed by mapping the distribution of family names, such as Sorathia, Ladwa, and Varia. The potters who lived in Sorath were known as “Sorathia Prajapati.   Today, the Kumhar caste is mainly found in Pakistan and Punjab, Bijnor(U.P.).

The following surnames of Prajapati. potters have persisted  through the centuries;

Bhalsod, Bharadwa, Bharadwaj, Buhecha, Chandegra, Chavda, Chhaya, Chitroda, Chohan, Dabhi, Devalia, Dhokia, Dodia, Fatania, Gadher, Gadhia, Ghadhvana, Ghedia, Girnara, Gohil, Gola, Jagatia, Jethwa, Jogia, Kamalia, Kansara, Kataria, Kholia, Koria, Kukadia, Ladva, Majevadia, Mandora, Mavadia, Maru, Nena, Oza, Pankhania, Parmar, Pithia, Poria, Rathod, Ravat, Sarvaiya, Savania, Shingadia, Solanki, Taank, Vadher, Vadukul, Vara, Vegad, Visavadia, and Yadav.  Some of these family names are often spelt in a variation for example, Gohil is spelt Gohel and Ladwa is spelt Ladva, etc.

Decline and revival in artisan potters

Down to the late 20th century the Indian potters worked as families with division of labour between men, women and children, each contributing a particular skill.  At the beginning of the 21st century it became apparent that throughout India the art of family potting was dying in the face of mass production of factory glazed wares.   In recent years, the decline in artisan potters has followed the decrease in the number of artisans engaged in the handicraft industry using clay, metal or stone. These artisans are now employed in manual labour or are unemployed, giving up their high skills. One of the major reasons for this change is the commercially and machine-made cheaper alternatives available in the market. The limited exposure of artisans to the market, loss of urban consumer interest, and factory competition has also added to the decline of the handicraft industry. Today India adds only 2% to the global handicrafts market. Thus, many of these artisans are living in abject poverty and economic conditions.

The government, the private, and the non-profit organizations have played a major role in trying to revive the handicraft industry. However, the impact has been isolated and limited. Much effort is required to completely revamp the rural handicraft industry using local resources. Various organizations are helping by setting up exhibitions both domestically and globally to showcase the crafts produced by these artisans. These organizations are creating marketing opportunities for craftsmen and craftswomen, to sell their products at a better price to a wider consumer base. They are using unique business models to create these market linkages from artisan to consumer, thus being profitable to all involved, especially the artisan.

With the advancement of communication networks across the country, networking can be used positively to the artisan’s advantage. New designs, ideas, orders, and markets can be within the reach of the artisan with the right training. Educating customers too is an important part of revitalizing the handicraft industry. Today online marketing is a buzzword to buy and sell artisan products. Some organizations are already connecting buyers and sellers directly online.

The handicraft industry is very important for India as it is the second largest employment generator in the rural sector. Efforts are being made to revitalize and develop it to its full potential. It is also an industry that helps to showcase the rich cultural heritage of the country. New initiatives have the potential to boost the lives of millions of Indian artisans, not just the potters.  An estimated 7 million artisans according to official figures (and up to 200 million artisans according to unofficial sources) are engaged in craft production to earn a livelihood. It further states that the global market for handicrafts is $ 400 billion with India’s share below 2 percent, representing a tremendous growth opportunity. The report further adds that 39 percent of artisans incur production expenditures of less than Rs 12,000/ $ 215 a year and only 19 percent spend above Rs. 50,000/ $ 900 a year.


Because of their proximity to the prehistoric Indus valley, Gujarat potters have always been regarded as as continuity-inheritors of ancient terracotta working skills.  It was significant in this respect that in 2010 the Gujarat government funded a scheme to train artisans to fine tune their art to meet modern needs. The state government acted through the Matikam Kalakari Rural Technology Institute (MKRTI), with the help of the Central Glass and Ceramic Research Institute (CGCRI) and designers from National Institute of Design (NID) and National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), to impart training to potters in reinventing their products and designs so that they can be sold in the domestic as well as international markets


A large number of the potters in Delhi have migrated from the neighboring states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. They are located in Govindpuri and Hauz Rani: Kumbhar Basti.  A number have settled in the Prajapati Colony in A Uttam Nagar that was set up in the 1970 to house the potters coming from the countryside. As most of the potters had names connected with their caste occupation the colony was called Prajapati. Currently over 400 families practicing this craft in the colony and provide their products across Delhi and NCR. The methods adopted by the potters are similar to those employed in the pottery tradition(s) of their ancestral homelands. Black, red, and yellow clay in the form of small pieces is obtained from Rajasthan and Delhi. This is mixed and dried, after which water is added to it. The resulting mixture of wet clay is filtered through a fine sieve to remove pebbles. After the clay has been kneaded into homogenous flexible dough, the prepared clay is made into a variety of artifacts using either the throwing technique. Coiling techniques are used in making large products that are too big to be thrown on the wheel and to make those with shapes that cannot be turned on the wheel. After giving shape to the item and drying it in the shade, it is baked in the kiln.

Aruvakode in Nilambur, Kerala

Pottery making in Aruvacode is the story of Jinan, a rebel, activist, designer. Moreover this is the story of lives that he touched and changed positively for ever.

A news report on how the destiny of Aruvacode, from being a simple potter village had changed to becoming a hub of sex-workers, impelled Jinan to proceed to Aruvacode, a sleepy village by the river in Nilambur in Kerala.

According to Jinan,“the reason for such a drastic transformation in the village was the rush of cheap substitutes of steel, aluminum, and plastic products to pottery in the market. The rush had pushed the demand for earthenware off the edge and the artisans were left a troubled and distressed lot. Seized of their traditional labour, women of the village were forced into sex-work.”

Several years with the potters of Aruvacode had revealed to him that the issue of development lies deep in preserving the self-respect and creativity of the concerned community.  

In his presentation in “De-colonising the Aesthetic Sense: The story of craft revival in Aruvacode potters’ village”, Jinan argues that “any community, armed with an absolute sense of self-respect and untarnished creativity, is well able to sail through all their problems. It is a dilemma of the ‘educated’ and the culturally uprooted sections of our society that development is perceived more on an economic plane. It is these sections that genuinely consider the distressed community as incapable of confronting and solving their own problems”.

“The advent of consumerism had held out its stakes and the artisans failed to keep pace with the fancy needs of the new consumer. In earlier times the artisans had always responded excellently to the local needs of the people, as a strong cultural bond held the user and the producer in unison. But every nuance of modernity brought with it newer difficulties for the potters”.

Treading therefore very carefully, not to step on to the much-travelled path of the interventionist agencies, he took up work with the potters.  Honouring his own integrity, he ensured that the aesthetic quality of whatever they made was to be rooted in their own culture. He therefore limited his role to encourage the incorporation of novel utilitarian aspects into their creations. It was a slow process and the products that emerged were evolved at a natural pace  (Fig 3).

Fig 3 ‘Kathakali depicted in terracotta tiles

Designed by artisans and potters trained by social entreprenuer K.P. Jinan Posted by GP (The Blue Wonder blog:March 2011)

Jinan concludes ; “My journey into the world of the rural artisan communities was not with the intention of ‘developing’ them or educating them. I went to them to regain that which I had lost in the process of getting educated; to learn from them. Having escaped ‘education’ and ‘development’ they were still original and authentic and were holding on to the culture and world-view, which sustained them for centuries. I perceived the rural / tribal communities as being wise and evolved; and recognised that only by learning from them could we lead sustainable lives.

The basic ideas behind their training programmes were to help the individuals regain their wisdom and confidence which lies embedded within their own communities and culture, believing that creativity can and does solve many a problem related to self-esteem.  Jinans work has created a demand for the unique products developed at Aruvakode and products from this small ‘colony’ are being displayed in public places and privately in several cities in India”.

An ecological model of artisanship

In a recent debate at London’s Tate Gallery about when craft becomes an art, it was suggested that perhaps intention makes the distinction. If a maker intends to express something perhaps that makes it art.  However, makers often felt that it was the material they worked with that made it craft – textiles, ceramics, glass seem to fall into the craft category, never mind if their intention as maker might be an artistic one.  

On the other hand, ….”perhaps it’s how a maker learnt their skill. As an apprentice coming through a process of learning a skill, hand to hand, as it were? That’s craft. As a fully formed genius honing an expressive talent? That’s art.  Perhaps it’s use. Something wearable or useable – jewellery or furniture for example – seems to fit neatly under the craft label, while something that has no clear practical purpose might be called art. However, this doesn’t take into account the decorative crafts, nor the artists who produce practical items”.

Trying to answer such apparently simple questions misses the point that creativity arises in the maker’s environment.  Ceramics, for example, has a cultural ecology that presents an holistic, conceptual understanding of how people, craft and art connect in the environment through the creativity in families. The diversity of the artisan’s immediate landscape is an essential resource.  Instead of endlessly debating the question, what defines an artist or a craft maker, or even divides an artist from a craft maker, an environmental approach leads to a total understanding of artisanship as an expression of communities’ creative ways of organizing and triggering social interactions.  The broad aim of ‘making’ is to master local ecosystem services to improve livelihoods.

Increasing, global competition from mass production is leading many artisans to live in a precarious, fractured and marginalised condition.  Artisans are even more endangered in the developing world, where they often face subjection to large monopoly businesses, market corruption and unreliability, as well as lack of perception of international consumers’ trends. To face the complex challenges of the current and future world, the activities of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of production, described as service design, have to change.  They have to move towards strategies and systems that address social and environmental problems, particularly those associated with living sustainably.

Within this dynamic arena, there is a general upsurge of interest in artisanship. Artisanship is defined as the human-centred economic activity of giving form and meaning to local natural resources.  Hand work or the control of mechanised and digital tools, are applied to the process of making small, unique and flexible batches of culturally and socially significant goods. The new aim of service design is to improve quality of the products and the interaction between the service provider and its customers.  This is considered as a necessary resilient response to the increasing demand for flexible, customised and redistributed manufacturing that reconnects communities to their local material culture and reaches out to global markets. These ideas may be summarised in a concept map of ceramic ecology Fig 4).

Fig 4 Concept map of ceramic ecology

The map may be generalised for other expressions of artisanship.  For example, the textile sector has its own artisan ecology. It encompasses a high level of employment of skilled workers, has a wide range of applications and ever-increasing consumption trends.  These all cause urgent environmental and social challenges. Also, it is one of the most complicated productive artisan ecologies, involving many different actors (i.e. farmers, manufacturers of fibres, yarns, fabrics and apparel/carpet retailers), service sectors and waste management issues.

Several service design approaches could be adopted by textile artisanship to produce textiles which are environmentally responsible, socially just and economically fair, as well as culturally meaningful and enriching at a personal level. The weaver’s imagination could be summoned to encourage sustainable development, building resilient interconnections between environmental, technological and economic resources, social and cultural values. This could be achieved through the shared efforts of policy makers, NGOs, artisans’ communities and individuals, as summarised in Table 1.

Jaipur artisan weavers

Jaipur Rugs Foundation (JRF) is a non-profit organization that catalyzes sustainable livelihoods for people engaged in an entire carpet making chain by empowering them to establish collective enterprises through enhancing their artisanal and business skills. The overall work mandate of JRF is to reach out to remote rural areas of India and establish bonds with destitute communities, especially the women, enabling them to start weaving not just rugs but also their own lives.  NK Chaudhary established JRF to promote economic prosperity among marginal communities. Starting with two looms and an extraordinary vision, he has been able to connect people around the world with craftsmanship of Indian village weavers.

Most of the artisans are women and the JRF enables them to gain economic independence working at home. The goal is to bring positive sustainable change in the lives of artisanal communities ‘providing a life of happiness and dignity’.  To achieve this, the JRF concentrates on providing work for unemployed and unskilled women living in rural villages and seeks to give training in the craft of rug-weaving. Once a woman becomes a working artisan, she also gets an opportunity to integrate with the Jaipur Rugs inclusive development business model.  The subsequent phase is to deliver technical training and augment their skills and knowledge and release their artistic creativity (Fig 5). For the first time ever, weavers get to be the designers of their own rugs. Each rug is a masterpiece for the design inspiration it weaves. It is imbued with the individuality of the artisan who made it and evidence of the release of her unique artistry.

Fig 5 Developing creativity

To release this creativity every weaver is part of a grassroots network that requires specialised logistical support.  Raw material is dropped off at an artisan’s home where they work on the product. To ensure customers receive high quality products, quality supervisors inspect looms to help ensure a consistent output while tracking progress. These supervisors also ensure the artisans are serviced so they are not interrupted by the shortage of yarn or any other such factor limiting their earning capacity. When completed, the rug is picked up at the weavers doorstep and sent on to the next stage of the rug making progress. These visits also ensure that weavers are paid every month at their looms. At present, these networks stretch across 600 villages in five Indian states connecting 40,000 artisans.

Jaipur’s weavers thus have the ability to work creatively from their rural home in a more comfortable working environment than most entrepreneurs and corporate employees across the world!  However, one of the biggest challenges faced by artisans is the lack of awareness and knowledge regarding opportunities intended for them under various social welfare schemes. JRF has been playing an instrumental role in facilitating access to artisan cards. These are issued to the artisans by Development Commissioner, Handicrafts (Government of India) with support from District Industries Centers (DICs).  The cards recognise the recipient is a skilled worker and eables them to receive various benefits provided by the government. JRF also seeks to equip artisans with basic knowledge and skills that help them save money to shape a brighter future for their families. The focus is on improving well-being of artisans and their communities by providing access to various socio-economic educational and medical benefits. This entails assistance in formalities like filling forms, providing supporting documents and linking them with banks. In addition, a system of payment, ‘M-Pesa’ by Vodafone, has been promoted for weavers to facilitate their financial transactions.  M-Pesa means “m-money” in Swahili and is the global brand for Vodafone’s Mobile Money service. The service is now present in 10 countries. Mobile money is a digital representation of cash which Vodafone stores safely in a ring-fenced bank account (a “trust” account). The mobile money account of each customer is linked to their mobile phone account. M-Pesa is specifically designed to benefit customers who have no access to banks.

To summarise, the Jaipur Rugs project is a very successful process of engaging village artisans with the vision of a commercial organization with a charitable arm that promotes empowerment through instilling an entrepreneurial mindset. The purpose is to enable artisan weavers acquire higher responsibilities and take control of their lives with an owners’ mindset. The is realised in the last facet of entrepreneurship development that creates leaders at the grassroots who create more leaders as they spearhead the mission of enabling sustainable livelihoods to all those in need.  

Jaipor rugs are marketed globally with the motto ‘purchase with purpose’. In effect JRF is helping to shift urban wealth from the rich to the rural poor!

Internet references


Culture as an ecology

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

Based on the experience of Denis Bellamy who led teachers and students in Wales to rethink pedagogy for the twenty-first century.

Culture: the iceberg model

Fig 1 Culture: the iceberg model

The analogy of  “culture as an iceberg”  illustrates the complexity of culture (Fig 1).  Only the tip is visible (language, food, appearance, etc.) whereas a very large part of the iceberg is difficult to see or grasp (communication style, beliefs, values, attitudes, perceptions, etc.). The items in the invisible body of the iceberg could include an endless list of notions from definitions of beauty or respect to patterns of group decision-making, ideals governing child-raising, as well as values relating to leadership, prestige, health, love, death and so on.

Culture in education

A curriculum that builds on students’ cultural understanding, or allows them to use their personal funds of knowledge about their home culture, has proven to be more effective in changing behaviour because students can relate it to their own lives.

However, it can be difficult to determine how best to accommodate cultural diversity in an education system, but culturally conscious education is becoming more common.  However, most people are not educated to look beyond their immediate situation. People tend to experience nature, history, and society through the lens of biography and their own culture. Educating for the 21st century needs a more universal outlook that links personal problems to public issues on a global scale. Individuals can take control over their own lives by becoming aware of the dynamics of their own positions within a global social and natural order.  Also, by developing an awareness of all of those individuals in different circumstances, progress can be made toward global understanding and tolerance as people learn to act in their common interests.

The overriding common interest of our time is climate change and its management to avoid a global catastrophe.  Providing a solution will necessitate cross-cultural communication. People from various countries, with different backgrounds, have to exchange their ideas and opinions about how to solve this world wide problem in equity. The cultural differences between people influence both the content of their message as well as the way it’s expressed. On this premise alone, bringing culture to the centre of education at all levels is justified.  Furthermore, making comparative connections between culture, nature, economics and ecology is key to starting to enact effective policy on climate change that we are just beginning to understand as a system. The effects of climate change will be economic, social, and environmental and because of the complexity of culture will alter people’s lives in a myriad of ways.

Another educational metaphor assumes that culture is structured hierarchically in “layers of building blocks” like a pyramid.  This pyramid model (Fig 2). differentiates three levels of ‘software of the mind’: universal, cultural and personal. Geert Hofstede admits that trying to establish where exactly the borders lie between nature and culture, and between culture and the environment created by a personality is a challenge, not least because personalities are probably imbibing a shared cultural commons.

Fig 2 Culture: big C and little c

Our understanding of the term culture depends on which section of the “iceberg” or layer of the “pyramid” we are referring to. As a consequence, there is a wide range of definitions. At one end of the scale we find the traditional, elitist view of culture which concentrates on all products of art and scholarship, including literature, painting, music, philosophy and so on. R J Halverson calls this culture with a capital “C”.   At the other end of the scale we find everyday culture, represented by the things we use in our daily life (such as food and drink or dress or technical devices), by our daily actions (comprising work and leisure), by the way we think and feel about and value our possessions and actions and the ways in which others are distinguished from us. This is the area of culture with a lower-case “c”.

In all definitions, culture refers to a “set of signs by which the members of a given society recognize one another, while distinguishing them from people not belonging to that social group.

Hofstede also sees culture as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another

C Kramsch defines culture as “a common system of standards for perceiving, believing, evaluating, and acting”.

UNESCO offers one of the most comprehensive definitions of culture: the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of a society or social group… [encompassing] in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs.

The traditional view of culture (big C) would be too narrow and static since it does not take into account individuals interacting in multicultural and intercultural settings. Therefore it is essential to emphasise two further aspects of culture when thinking about intercultural education: the comprehensive aspect, which classifies boundaries and group identities and the dynamic aspect which emphasises blending.

Any one of these many definitions and concepts may be taken as the starting point to understand culture.  Because of the diversity of the windows and doors into culture it is convenient to think about defining appropriate subdivisions.  Culture is often discussed as an economy, but it is better to see it as an ecology, because this viewpoint offers a richer and more complete understanding.

Classification of cultural ecosystems

The term oekologie was coined in 1866 by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel.  The word is derived from the Greek οικος (oikos, “household”) and λόγος (logos, “study”); therefore the original definition of “ecology” means the “study of the household [of nature]”

Ecology originally referred to the interrelationships between living creatures and their habitats, but over the years the term has been generalised to mean the set of relationships existing between any complex system and its surroundings. In this broader context of culture as an ecology, we can regard the household of nature as encompassing our place in the cosmos.  This point is made everytime a primary school student is taught that they are made from stardust. Cosmos often simply means “universe”, but the word is generally used to suggest an orderly or harmonious universe. Here, we are situated in a dynamic chemical continuum from cells to galaxies embedded in dark matter. Much of the history of cosmology and its theories are a reflection of people and the cultures they lived in. The dominant view at any time is a cultural one and accepted because of the forceful personalities behind the ideas, whether they are scientists or believers in the hand of gods.

Nevetheless, an ecological view of the cosmos recognises organized structures on all different scales, from small systems like Earth and our solar system, to galaxies that contain trillions of stars, and finally extremely large structures that contain billions of galaxies.  How and why these organized structures formed and how they influence one another is a major focus of modern astrophysics, which aims to measure properties of individual galaxies and the largest structures in the universe at the same time. This ecological view of the universe allows astronomers to understand how the largest systems influence the smallest ones and how this interplay changes with time.  Their ideas can become part of a materialistic culture, which in turn creates stories about how we live on planet Earth, with particular reference to the sky and cosmos as part of the wider environment .

Cultural ecology was defined by Julian Steward in 1937 to describe the study of the processes by which a society adapts to its environment.  Over the years cultural ecology has come to define an interdisciplinary subject concerned with the factors that shape culture and how culture shapes its environment, particularly through the discovery, depiction and management of natural resources. An important aspect of ecosystem dynamics is the life cycle of its expressions.  It is in this sense that culture is an ecology with within many subcultures.

Seeing culture as an ecology is congruent with approaches to the understanding of human society based on cultural values that take into account a wide range of non-monetary values. This ecological approach concentrates on relationships and patterns within the overall system  It shows how careers develop, ideas transfer, money flows, and product and content move, to and fro, around and between the funded, homemade and commercial subsectors of society. Culture is an organism not a mechanism; it is much messier and more dynamic than linear models allow. The use of ecological metaphors, such as regeneration, symbiosis, fragility, positive and negative feedback loops, and mutual dependence creates a rich way of discussing culture. Different perspectives then emerge, helping to develop new taxonomies, new visualisations, and fresh ways of thinking about how culture operates in relation to environment.  This kind of thinking results in the definition of many sub divisions of cultural ecology.

Subdivisions of cultural ecology

For convenience of education this dynamic continuum of the universe, when focused on planet Earth, can be divided into five large sub-ecologies of habitats, culture, politics, economics and cells.  These are broad, well defined bodies of knowledge dealing with interdisciplinary issues. They are best studied by applying systems thinking to life on Earth, where the old subdivisions of knowledge give too narrow a perspective

There are many smaller subdivisions of cultural ecology such as a eco­feminism,  deep ecology. and the ecology of art and ideas. In the former, the crucial issue is the historical relationship between the  domination of women and the domination of nature. In deep ecology the tension between bio­centrism and human self-realisation comes to the fore.  

The essence of deep ecology is to address “deeper” questions.  These are questions about human life, society, and nature. In this respect, deep ecology is a conceptual approach or general orientation in our thinking about the industrial model of world development, where people go where the work is.  Its standpoint is that major ecological problems cannot be resolved within the continuation of industrial society driven by the existing capitalist or socialist-industrialist economic system. An alternative is regionalism, which claims that strengthening the governing bodies and political powers within a region, at the expense of a central, national government, will benefit local populations in terms of better fiscal responsibility to implement local policies and plans.

Bioregionalism gives place a cultural ecology perspective because it is a political, cultural, and ecological system or set of views based on naturally defined areas called bioregions. Bioregions are defined through physical and environmental features, including watershed boundaries and soil and terrain characteristics. Bioregionalism stresses that the determination of a bioregion is also a cultural phenomenon, and emphasizes local populations, knowledge, and solutions for living sustainably.

Bioregionalism is often presented as the politics of deep ecology, or deep ecology’s social philosophy. This is the view that natural features should provide the defining conditions for places of community, and that secure and satisfying local lives are led by those who know a place, have learned its lore and who adapt their lifestyle to its affordances by developing its potential within ecological limits. Such a life, the bioregionalists argue, will enable people to enjoy the fruits of self-liberation and self-development.  

Bioregional awareness teaches us in specific ways. Gary Snyder says It is not enough to just ‘love nature’ or to want to ‘be in harmony with Gaia.’ Our relation to the natural world takes place in a place, and it must be grounded in local information and experience.  A bioregion provides livelihoods, not just amenity. It builds on existing relocalisation and a circular economy that measure where resources come from; identify ‘leakages’ in the local economy; and explore how these leaks could be plugged by locally available resources.  It can be as large as a watershed or as small as a village.

These ecologies all promote the use of concept maps and mind maps as aids to comprehension of the whole. This type of mapping system begins with a main idea or subject that then branches out to show how it can be broken down into specific topics with connections between them.

The term “political ecology” was first coined by Frank Thone in an article published in 1935 (Nature Rambling: We Fight for Grass, The Science Newsletter 27, 717, Jan. 5: 14).  Political ecology is the study of the relationships between political, economic and social factors. In particular, it deals with the politicizing of environmental issues. It includes the issues of resource access and utilization with an overarching world-system framework.  From this viewpoint colonialism is an ecology with many case histories. For some time, Jason W Moore has vigorously promoted himself as the inventor and chief theorist of something he calls “world-ecology”, described in this book as “a way to think through human history in the web of life”.1 In his view, which he presents as an extension of Marxism, Europe’s pillage of human and natural resources in the Americas in the 16th century established a capitalist world-ecology that continues to this day. All subsequent developments, including the industrial revolution, imperialism, monopoly capital and neoliberalism, are just adjustments within the 16th century framework, caused by long-term shifts in the cost of the “cheaps”—mainly raw materials and workers—that capitalism requires.

Other cultural ecologies

The concept of economic ecology is not to design an ecological economics where ecology is merely one element of economic theory, but rather an economic ecology where human economy is fully integrated into the habitat ecology of the planet

The concept of cellular ecology encompasses the interactions between the various fluid compartments of the body to regulate the body’s internal activities and its interactions with the external environment to preserve the internal environment. The control system involves the regulated biochemical flows between blood compartments, organs, and cells.  The ultimate fluid compartment is that of cellular organelles, which are parts of cells, as organs are to the body. Together they form an ecology that permits the prime functions of living organisms—growth, development, and reproduction—to proceed in an orderly, stable fashion. As a system, the body’s cells are exquisitely self-regulating, so that any disruption of the normal internal environment by internal or external events is resisted by powerful counter measures. When this resistance is overcome, illness ensues.

Cellular ecology developed to bring the anatomical organisation of cells into a more dynamic biochemical framework for studying  how the components of a cell interact within the cell and how cells interact with their surroundings. In other words cellular ecology is based on the understanding that the whole body is dynamic and greater than the sum of the parts.  A unifying theme is homeostasis. The concept of homeostasis—that living things maintain a constant internal environment—was first suggested in the 19th century by French physiologist Claude Bernard, who stated that “all the vital mechanisms, varied as they are, have only one object: that of preserving constant the conditions of life.”

On such subculture for example is the ‘creative’ industries defined by the dynamic components of advertising, fashion, theatre, film and video games.  The ecology of art and ideas deals with ‘the complex interdependencies that shape the demand for and production of arts and cultural offerings’ . It is set out in the following mission statement of the University of New Mexico with particular reference to its art and ecological resources,

“The University  of New Mexico provides an environment where creativity, experimentation, and intellectual discourse can flourish, the Department of Art demonstrates a strong commitment to its community of Studio Artists, Art Educators and Art Historians. The Department recognizes the advantages that are gained through the integration of these disciplines and through broader association with other disciplines and research units across the university. Creative and intellectual energy generated by crossing boundaries benefits our graduate and undergraduate students and prepares them for an ever-changing global culture.  Art & Ecology courses encourage students to investigate, question, and expand upon inter-relationships between cultural and natural systems. Our courses place emphasis on methods and tools from many disciplines—including the fine and performing arts, design, the sciences, and activism—to foster collaborative and field-based research and art-making. We view art as an agent of analysis, critique and radical change. We are less bound to traditional media and more to stimulating ideas and new forms of public engagement and aesthetic experience”.

A curriculum for the 21st century

“Stories exist,” says Joseph Campbell, “to give life meaning, to experience being alive, and to harmonize the microcosm of an individual with the macrocosm of the universal,” by which he means the invisible, overarching value structure or ‘codes of conduct’ within a society that connect it to certain metaphysical truths , the truths that individuals accept and promote as one’s “cultural operating system” (Campbell & Moyers, The Power of Myth).

Resource management is an increasingly important aspect of humanity’s cultural operating system.  It appeared in the University of Cardiff in 1971 as an idea for a new interdisciplinary applied subject dealing with nature conservation. The notion came from a student/staff discussion. during a zoology field course on the Welsh National Nature Reserve of Skomer Island.  The discussion originated within a group of students searching for a new cultural operating system and their story was one of dissatisfaction with the narrow view of world development and its economic system presented in single honours science subjects. These subjects had been formulated to serve 19th century empire builders. The student’s message was that modern society facing a deteriorating environment needed education for stewardship based on a natural capital account, not education for exploitation based on the asset stripping of nature to maintain year on year economic growth of a monetary economy.

Surprisingly, the idea was enthusiastically taken up by staff in the pure and applied science faculties as the philosophical thread for an honours interdisciplinary course in Environmental Studies.  The new course was organised in Cardiff University during the 1970s. It integrated the inputs from eleven departments, spanning archaeology, through metallurgy, to zoology. Their contributions were organised around the theme of applied ecology as expressed in the organisation of natural resources for production of environmental goods and services .  This interdisciplinary element amounted to one half of a general honours degree, the other half being the specialised syllabus of one of the contributing departments. Over the years it was chosen by many high grade students as an alternative to single honours.

Later in the decade this course was evaluated by a group of school teachers under the auspices of the University of Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate (UCCLES), from where it emerged as the interdisciplinary school subject ‘natural economy’.   Natural economy was launched by UCCLES to fulfil their need for a cross-discipline arena to promote world development education. This project was initiated by the Duke of Edinburgh, Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. to bring environmental management to the centre of secondary school curricula.  The title came from the 1980 World Conservation Strategy, which aimed to value natural assets as stocks in a natural capital account to develop and manage a country’s long term economic sustainably. In this context, ‘natural’ means derived from nature. As in natural law, ‘natural’ also means a belief in the existence of a rational and purposeful order to the universe. Therefore, as a guide to human endeavour, natural economy defines the actions necessary to live in accordance with this cosmic order, accepting the importance of monitoring and valuing natural assets to manage them for their sustainability.  Therefore, natural economy as an educational theme is to the management natural resources for production as political economy is to the management of human resources for production.

Natural economy was launched by UCCLES as an international school subject and was also disseminated throughout Europe by the Economic Community’s Schools Olympus Broadcasting Association (SOBA) for distance learning.  

Through a partnership between the University of Wales, the UK Government’s Overseas Development Administration and the World Wide Fund for Nature, natural economy was published as a central component of a cultural model of Nepal with the help of a sponsorship from British Petroleum.

During the 1980s, an interoperable version of natural economy for computer-assisted learning was produced in the Department of Zoology at Cardiff, with a grant from DG11 of the EC.  This work was transferred to the Natural Economy Research Unit (NERU) set up in the National Museum of Wales towards the end of the decade.

Follow this link to an outline of an early natural economy framework

In the 1990s NERU obtained a series of grants to integrate natural economy into a broader cultural framework dealing with the relationships between culture and global ecosystems in which humankind is an evolving dominant species.  For these purposes, cultural ecology was adopted as the holistic framework of an EC LIFE Environment programme with the aim of producing and testing a local conservation management system for industries and their community neighbourhoods.   The R&D was carried out in partnership with the UK Conservation Management System Partnership (CMSP), the University of Ulster, four British industries and two european ones. The aim was to provide a web resource for education/training in conservation management in schools and their communities.  The web resource developed as SCAN (Schools and Communities Agenda 21 Network) initiated by a post-Rio,1994 gathering of school teachers and academics in southwest Wales. The meeting was sponsored by the Countryside Council for Wales, Dyfed County Council, and the local Texaco oil refinery. This partnership was based in Dyfed’s St Clears Teacher Resource Centre. From here, a successful award-winning pilot was led by Pembrokeshire schools to create and evaluate a system of neighbourhood environmental appraisals, and network the local findings and action plans for improvements from school to school.  The objective was to encourage schools to work with the communities they served, as out-of-school laboratories, to manage the community’s resources sustainably and so contribute to its Local Agenda 21 action plan.

Barriers to educational change

In 2015 Geoff Masters  Chief Executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research “……argued that one of the biggest challenges faced in school education is to identify and develop the knowledge, skills and attributes required for life and work in the 21st Century. This is an ongoing curriculum challenge”.

In particular, he was questioning how well the school curriculum is preparing students for life and work in the 21st Century.  He selected the following factors that were barriers to change.

  • Current curricula often are dominated by substantial bodies of factual and procedural knowledge, at a time when it is increasingly important that students can apply deep understandings of key disciplinary concepts and principles to real-world problems.
  • School subjects tend to be taught in isolation from each other, at a time when solutions to societal challenges and the nature of work are becoming increasingly cross-disciplinary.
  • School curricula often emphasise passive, reproductive learning and the solution of standard problem types, at a time when there is a growing need to promote creativity and the ability to develop innovative solutions to entirely new problems.
  • Assessment processes – especially in the senior secondary school – tend to provide information about subject achievement only, at a time when employers are seeking better information about students’ abilities to work in teams, use technology, communicate, solve problems and learn on the job.
  • Students – especially in the senior secondary school – often learn in isolation and in competition with each other, at a time when workplaces are increasingly being organised around teamwork and are requiring good interpersonal and communication skills.
  • School curricula tend to be designed for delivery in traditional classroom settings, at a time when new technologies are transforming how courses are delivered and learning takes place.

All of these six .barriers to educational innovation were responsible for the failure of natural economy and cultural ecology to gain traction as school subjects.  The final blow in the UK came with the adoption of the national curriculum following the 1988 Education Reform Act.

Geoff Masters was writing in 2015 against the backdrop of a long-term decline in the ability of Australian 15-year-olds to apply what they are learning to everyday problems. Over the first twelve years of this century, Australian students completed their compulsory study of mathematics and science with declining levels of ‘literacy’ – that is, declining abilities to apply fundamental concepts and principles in real-world contexts.  This decline is widespread and is evident in performances in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). .

In fact educationalists are still cleaving to the format  that Cardiff students wished to overturn nearly half a century ago whereas society at large is being asked by the UN to commit itself culturaly to the 2030 millennium goals to live sustainably. This can only be achieved by global thrust towards education for sustainability at all levels.   

It was only in 2012 that the UK’s Natural Capital Committee (NCC), was set up to report to the Government and advise on how to value nature to ensure England’s ‘natural wealth’ is managed efficiently and sustainably. During its first term it produced three reports to government on the ‘State of Natural Capital’.  From this it appears that ecosystem assessment is beginning to influence economic thinking.  Indeed it is a fundamental activity that is necessary if natural capital is to be mainstreamed within decision-making. It sends a strong signal to businesses and local decision makers but there have been no moves to integrate it with education for sustainability.   

Since the 1970s changes in the environment surrounding our schools have been taking place rapidly against a backdrop of the shift from an industrial economy to one based on the instantaneous, global traffic of information. Today’s schools are still dominated by a national curriculum dating from  Victorian values and its nonadaptive grip on teacher training. The pre-climate change national curriculum was not designed to prepare children for participation in the globally explosive knowledge economy or its demand for outcomes over process. The traditional model of teachers dispensing discrete, disconnected bodies of information, the traditional school subjects, presented in isolation from the other subject areas, is increasingly obsolete as a way to prepare children for living on a crowded planet. But for educators to simultaneously recognize these shifting dynamics, figure out how to address them through root and branch reform of instructional change, and then implement meaningful, sustainable changes, is a daunting task. Teachers and school leaders today must, as Tony Wagner puts it, “rebuild the airplane while they’re flying it” (Wagner, 2006).

This is why cultural ecology on line is now being accessed by millions but was squashed by the obligatory UK national curriculum shortly after its incarnation.  Then it was greeted by Cambridge teachers with ‘How I wish I had been able to take it at school’. In fact the only country to adopt the Cambridge natural economy syllabus, top down, was Namibia, where it replaced the subjects of biology and geography.


An important outcome was the production of an annotated mind map of cultural ecology starting with the idea of managing resources for a sustainable future.  This mind map is still available as an educational exampler at the following web address: .  

The following links set out the concept map derived from this mind map, which is augmented with connections to web sites providing more information about the concepts that are currently being expanded and augmented.






Because cultural ecology is an interdisciplinary educational subject there are many routes to establish a topic framework depending on the concept chosen to define the main idea.  The following versions of cultural ecology are being developed within the system of Google-Sites.

The Planet We Share’.

“Environment Matters”

“Education for Conservation”

“Living Sustainably”

“Rescue Mission”

“Resilience UK”

“Conserving Butterflies”

“Community Fishing Heritage”



CLICK Here for an updated version of this BLOG

Internet References

Nature, nurture and culture

Wednesday, July 18th, 2018


The nature vs. nurture debate is concerned with the extent to which particular aspects of behavior are a product of either inherited (i.e., genetic) or acquired (i.e., learned) characteristics.

Nature is what we think of as pre-wiring and is influenced by genetic inheritance and other biological factors. Nurture is generally taken as the influence of external factors after conception, e.g., the product of exposure, experience and learning on an individual.

The nature-nurture debate is concerned with the relative contribution that both influences make to human culture.

Cultural revival might be the only thing that stands between the conservation or destruction of the environment, the only way to perpetuate the knowledge and wisdom inherited from the past, necessary for the survival of future generations. A new attitude toward nature provides space for a new attitude toward culture and the role it plays in sustainable development: an attitude based on a new understanding – that self-identity, self-respect, morality and spirituality, all major contribtions of nurture, play a major role in the life of a community and its capacity to take steps that benefit it and ensure its survival.

Sustainable prosperity

It is increasingly recognized that the promotion of sustainable futures requires fundamental reconsideration of current economic models and related consumption and production patterns.  These have now breached key planetary boundaries, with disruption to Earth’s restorative systems and evident destruction of the common good. New efforts are needed urgently to identify a safe operating space for humanity.  These efforts have to be mounted in the face of global environmental change, while giving due ethical concern to other life forms that share the planet with us. In particular new ethical systems have to be adopted that combine the legitimate development needs of the world’s poor while recognising the need for a new understanding of the limits to growth and sustainable prosperity. At its core, is the need to protect the common good, now and into the future.  This requires protection of the global commons.

One interpretation of the global commons refers to a series of legally defined common resource pools and common sinks connected to the functioning of healthy ecosystems. Another refers to commonly used resources for informal agriculture and fisheries based on patterns of customary use. A third applies to the life support functions of planet Earth, which are ubiquitous and manageable only by curbing the demands of people to satisfy their needs rather than their wants.

The management and appropriate regulation of the commons are of vital importance for the survival of humanity as a whole, including the wellbeing of future generations and of other life forms. More informal and local management of common pool resources, involving community participation and diffuse and decentralized governance systems, is also increasingly recognized as beneficial. Natural resource management and the protection of the global call for policies that deliver on distributive and restorative social, economic and environmental justice. Such policies must ensure environmental protection and the maintenance and equitable access to ecosystem services.  The latter are exemplified by fresh water, food and cultural and spiritual benefits, which we derive from nature. Indeed, the safeguarding of the global commons will attest to the humanness of our species that is the only life form in a position to nurture the planet for all life.

In particular, the following practical questions need to be considered:

How can humanity reconcile the needs of the poor while operating within safe, planetary limits?  

What trade-offs need to be made, by whom, and with what consequences, when judged in terms of social, economic and environmental justice?


  • How can the global commons be effectively governed across spatial (from international to the local, community level) and temporal (across generations) scales to ensure sustainable futures?



  • What is the moral framing for the collective life support of the planet and what science/governance devices are required to safeguard these functions into the future?


As a species, we transcended our biological dependence on the environment long ago. The question of survival, therefore, has to admit culture in equal part with nature. It is significant that language of resource utilisation maintains “culture” as it’s root: agriculture, permaculture, aquaculture, etc.  This language defines our deep interest in the environment. So sustainability must consider the preservation of a complex web of culture, which includes not only our perceptions of, and attitudes towards the way we use the natural environment, but also our relations to the societal environment. When we think of sustainability in these broad terms, we have to start wondering exactly what it is that we are seeking to sustain.

What are we really trying to preserve in a world where the growth rates of poverty, crime, unemployment, drug abuse, homelessness, racial conflict and just about every other indicator of societal breakdown are rising geometrically. In the United States alone, functional illiteracy stands at twenty five percent.  Terrorism has become a universal form of political protest.

All these horrifying statistics, however, have one thing in common: we tolerate them by choice. With an appropriate political shift and realignment of resources, unlikely, but nonetheless possible, we could choose to be different. Indeed, it is our ability to make choices, or at least the availability of choices to make, that is worth promoting. In this context, Ruth Durack defines sustainability as development that satisfies the choices of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to make choices of their own regarding their relationship of culture to environment.

Culture and environment are inseparable because what makes any human society is its culture; a Latin word which was derived from “colore” meaning to cherish. For a society to be societal it must be cultural; therefore, society and culture are also intertwined. In the same vein, the culture of any society is largely dictated by its geography. Put another way, there is conspicuous sociological interplay among the concepts of culture, nurture, and nature.  These are the three pillars of cultural ecology.

Curbing urbanisation

The conversion of Earth’s land surface to urban uses is one of the most irreversible human impacts on the global commons. It hastens the loss of highly productive farmland, affects energy demand, alters the climate, modifies hydrological and biogeochemical cycles, fragments habitats and reduces biodiversity.

We see these effects on multiple levels.  Future urbanization will, for example, pose direct threats to high-value ecosystems.  The highest rates of land conversion over the next few decades will likely take place in biodiversity hotspots that were relatively undisturbed by urban development in the last century. Within cities, the nature of urban growth is also an important determinant of urban dwellers’ vulnerability to environmental stress.

The environmental impacts of urban expansion reach far beyond urban areas themselves.  In rapidly urbanizing areas, agriculture intensifies on remaining undeveloped land and is likely to expand to new areas, putting pressure on land resources. Furthermore, urban areas change precipitation patterns on scales of hundreds of square kilometres.   Direct loss in vegetation biomass from areas with high probability of urban expansion is predicted to contribute about 5% of total climate change emissions from tropical deforestation and land-use change.. The scope and scale of these impacts is yet to be fully researched.  Although many studies have described how urbanization affects CO2 emissions and heat budgets, effects on the circulation of water, aerosols, and nitrogen in the climate system are only beginning to be understood.

Zetter and Watson note in the introduction to ‘Designing Sustainable Cities in the Developing World’ that urban globalisation has had two particular negative outcomes. It has eroded with culturally-rooted built environments and accelerated the destruction of the patrimony of indigenously designed and developed places and spaces, characteristic of the village.  At the same time it has increased pressures to commodify the place-identity of historic urban spaces and places. They are becoming detached from their local, spatial, and temporal continuity, whilst still being represented as preserved authentic artefacts for global cultural consumption. Loss of patrimony begins with the depopulation of rural communities. As a current case history, China’s rapid urbanisation has generally meant the destruction of traditional neighbourhoods that are replaced with modern buildings and community spaces that are usually architecturally dull and unpleasant to inhabit. This problem is global.

The central factor driving urbanisation with its unsustainable lifestyles is job creation to support mass production in factories and large-scale service enterprises situated far from home. The industrial revolution has led people to “shop” for the needs they have. This modern life model of the daily commute is based on urban economics of self interested rational consumers tinged with “romantic individualism”.  According to the romantic view of individualism, people expect freedom and to break free from chains. But urbanisation is associated with infinite desires which are never fully satisfied and a huge contrast has built up between individualism and life as a collective mass. It’s so contradictory that all people expect freedom from village life but they end up in excessive work and stress.

Humanity is in desperate need for a paradigm shift to live within a bounded, finite planet and take the necessary conditions not as constraints.  A new ecological economics is required that centres on development without growth of human demands on Earth’s non-renewable resources. In 2011, R. Bailey in the Oxfam report, ‘Growing a Better Future’, defined the new model of prosperity as one”which delivers economic development, respects planetary boundaries and has equity at heart”.

Unfortunately, the concept of sustainability is routinely reduced to a question of physical survival in an environment of continuing degradation and depletion. Resilience comes from physical and social design that conspire to preserve the status quo.  This is precisely the point at which the ideas of sustainability and of the village diverge. A village, by its nature, is a stable, self-perpetuating, self-sustaining entity. It has boundaries and a limited size, an internal organization that resists revision, a coherent scale and building character that is embeded in history, and a fragile landscape that is vulnerable to economic growth. It builds and sustains a social network that relies on interwoven destinies, censuring the separatist, the non-participant and the transient. It is, by necessity, a fixed, complete and finished entity, whose greatest enemy is the future. Its very survival requires resistance to change.

Urban/rural carbon footprints

The 21st century poses a challenge regarding disparities in access, allocation and disposal of carbon. Traditionally, inequalities have been defined from an economic or ‘state of development’ perspective. This perspective is particularly relevant to the developing world, that faces the double challenge of rapid urbanization and environmental sustainability. Also, there are ethical, and empirical gaps in climate governance related to urban–rural carbon dynamics.

Analyzing data from more than 200 countries over five decades shows that although carbon emissions are heavily correlated to its wealth (in terms of gross domestic product per capita), the data suggest that a country’s level of urbanization correlates more with carbon emissions than its wealth. That is to say, as countries urbanize, their cities’ contributions of carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases start to become disproportionately high in comparison to their population and wealth.

India is a good example. Household income in India has increased considerably in line with economic growth over the last decades. The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI) reports that urban wages rose by 17.38 % between 2000 and 2005. Household expenditure has been rising in line with wages, especially in the urban areas where richer households are located. It is expected that a large proportion of households to pass the critical income level of 2 dollars per day and carbon emissions from Indian households will account for a significant share of global greenhouse gas emissions in the future. This rise in carbon emissions will be correlated with increasing direct and indirect energy requirements of households. However, energy consumption and carbon footprints vary with what and how households consume.  Income is the major driver of household emissions but fuel types, which are used for cooking, have an impact on carbon footprints as well as age, gender, employment. In this context, female-headed Hindu households emit on average slightly less than their counterparts. Those categories classified as luxury goods such, as transport, medical goods, entertainment or services do not exhibit the highest carbon emissions.

It is clear that equal access to resources forms the bedrock of sustainable human settlements and future urbanization. However, this translates into immense barriers to changing national urbanization pathways, particularly for developing countries, which seem to be following the unsustainable examples of urbanization in rich countries. Cities in urbanized middle-income countries emit comparable levels of carbon dioxide per capita to those in richer countries.   For example, some cities in China now emit more carbon dioxide per capita than many cities in developed countries while some rural areas in low and middle-income countries have low or even negative carbon emissions per capita. Promoting cities solely as engines of economic growth creates stiffer competition among cities, which leads to more consumption, higher concentration of wealth and carbon emissions in urban areas. In turn, these dynamics increase inequities, particularly affecting the poorest and weakest in rural areas—those who have little voice and suffer from having fewer resources and opportunities. In order to reduce emissions and urban-rural inequalities there is an urgent need to catalyze and scale up innovations that provide adequate housing, energy access, transportation and economic opportunities for the rural population in a sustainable manner.  

Working from home

In the United Kingdom, rural areas host around half a million businesses; over 25% of all registered businesses in England. Rural areas in England are home to 17.6% of England’s total population and 15% of jobs.  Many of the businesses operating in rural areas are small or medium sized enterprises and are evidence of a new ruralism where industrialism is serviced from within an agrarian economic zone. Economic activity in rural areas is increasingly diverse, with significant manufacturing and services sectors, alongside more traditional farming. Knowledge-based and creative industries are also growing rapidly.  A Call for Evidence has been published jointly by the UK’s Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It seeks evidence on how planning and governance can better support rural life and invites ideas about how the planning system could further support sustainable rural life and businesses. Contributions are invited from all interested parties. The evidence provided will inform further thinking on delivering the commitment to support rural productivity. The same questions are relevant for the developing world facing large scale urbanisation.  How can working from a rural home produce goods and services to satisfy a global market? This question is relevant to India, for example, where it is estimated that 40% of the population will be urbanised by 2030. Although this perspective is not usually framed in the context of curbing climate change the impact of the new rurality on global commons is of significance in the context of its lower contribution to the global carbon footprint.

Empowering bottom up environmentalism

The safe and just use of space for future generations requires empowerment of people to secure resources needed for sustainable development and the alignment of cultural demands with the limits of Earth’s ecological productivity.  Environmentalism is concerned with protecting the global commons.  In this context, there are those who say we should invest in bottom-up environmentalism, by empowering the people who have the most to lose when it is driven from the top.  These are the rural poor who encounter the pull of urban economics and move to cities thereby enhancing their the impact of urbanisation on the global commons. This requires their empowerment to develop a more benign rural version of economic development

A concept map based on this proposition has been constructed, exemplified by a model of the empowerment of marginalised women.  It sets out a process of change which requires a theory of change to turn it into an operational programme.

Fig 1 Desired programme outcome

Fig 2 Outcomes framework for forces that influence the programme

A Theory of Change (TOC) is essentially a comprehensive description of the activities and interventions required to reach the desired outcome of a programme of change.  The TOC does this by first identifying the desired programme outcome (Fig 1) and then working back from that to identify all the forces, negative and positive, that affect the outcome either by stopping improvement or by making a positive difference.   These are mapped out in an Outcomes Framework (Fig 2). Those forces that are likely to have the most influence on the programme outcome are selected and weighted to highlight those that are likely to be manageable (Fig 3). They are sometimes referred to as ‘the attackable forces’ and they become the programme’s outputs and it’s operational objectives.   In simple terms the logic is like completing the sentence “if we do X then Y will change because…”

Fig 3 Weighting the forces with red dots according to their influence

The Outcomes Framework then provides the basis for identifying what type of intervention should be adopted to lead to the preconditions for achieving the programme outcome.  This leads to better planning, in that activities are linked to a detailed understanding of how change will actually happen. It also leads to better evaluation, as it is possible to use performance indicators that go beyond the identification of programme outputs to measure progress towards the achievement of outcome.

Table 1 Weighted forces in an outcomes framework to produce grassland of high biodiversity as the programme outcome

What could make a positive difference (positive forces)? What’s stopping improvement (negative forces)?
Frequency of mowing *****

Grazing ****

Seeding with grass parasites***


Removal of trees and scrub*

Application of fertilisers*****

Application of weedkillers*****

From the weighted forces (*****) the TOC is based on the intervention of regular mowing and the banning of fertilizers and weed killers.   

The TOC is an exercise in system thinking and it can applied to systems of varying complexity, both social  and biological. For example, there is an urgent need to monitor the wildlife value of grasslands and assess how they can be managed effectively. Grasslands are a priority habitat due to their fragility within a process of succession to woodland. If left unmanaged they will quickly disappear. If they are not managed properly they will change their characteristics and biodiversity. will decline very quickly.  A table of weighted forces for a theory of ecological change can be made (Table 1) based on seven forces of which three may be selected because they have the biggest effect on biodiversity.

It has been recognised that certain species indicate high floristic diversity of grassland. Others indicate a positive or negative effect of management.  These key species are performance indicators and could be used to monitor the outcome.

In 2016 the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) released a report detailing ten factors that can either enable or constrain women’s economic empowerment. Drawing on data from the Gallup World Poll—which covers 99 percent of the world’s population age fifteen years or older—the report analyzes how these complex and interacting factors can inform policy solutions to advance women’s economic empowerment.

The report signals an important transition from previous studies on women’s economic empowerment— navigating from the question of why policy should support women’s economic empowerment to how it can do so.

In defining women’s economic empowerment, ODI notes that it is “concerned not just with increases in women’s access to income and assets, but also with control over them and how they use that control in other aspects of life.” In other words, how does economic participation change their lives? To answer this question, the ODI breaks its ten factors into two categories: direct and underlying factors.

Direct factors, related to women’s “individual or collective lived experiences,” include:

i Education, developing skills, and training;

  1. Access to quality, decent paid work;

iii. Address unpaid care and work burdens;

  1. Access to property, assets, and financial services;
  2. Collective action and leadership;
  3. Social protection.

Underlying factors, pertaining to structural conditions, include:

  1. Labour market characteristics;
  2. Fiscal policy;

iii. Legal, regulatory, and policy framework;

  1. Gender norms and discriminatory social norms.

Policies for TOC interventions based on the factors are;

  1. Education, skills developing, and training;

Policy should focus on keeping girls in school by providing measures for safe transportation to school and increasing recruitment of female teachers. Likewise, initiatives can be developed for older women that combine vocational training and life skills such as the ability to manage challenges and advocate for their rights. While many countries have neared parity at the primary level, significant gaps in secondary schooling remain, despite evidence that an additional year of secondary school later raises girls’ wages by 15 to 25 percent.

  1. Access to quality, decent paid work;

Legal restrictions to women’s formal employment should be removed; informal workers should be legally recognized and protected; and female entrepreneurs should have increased access to financial services that often remain out of reach. While these measures could help all workers, they are particularly important for women who are overrepresented in the informal economy.

  1. Address unpaid care and work burdens;

Employers and governments should strive for the “recognition, reduction, and redistribution” of care work, instituting better parental leave and breastfeeding policies, as well as affordable childcare options. Importantly, these benefits should extend to informal workers as well. Such policies could help transform ingrained cultural attitudes about a woman’s ability to work and raise her family simultaneously.

  1. Access to property, assets, and financial services;

Legislation should affirm equal property and asset ownership rights for men and women. As noted in the report, only 15 percent of agricultural landholders in Sub-Saharan Africa are women—and land held by women is often smaller than that held by men. Likewise, measures should be taken to ensure women’s financial inclusion by increasing economic services and training.

  1. Collective action and leadership;

Initiatives should support women’s collective action and leadership, enabling women to challenge current power structures. In lending such support, government programmes should be implemented through a gender-sensitive lens. Donors and other partners can ally themselves with women’s groups to grow their legitimacy.

6.Social protection.

Protections that address women’s specific needs; protections for parental leave, unemployment benefits, childcare support, and social pension programmes among others, should be implemented.  However, the ODI report cautions:

“social protection is most effective as part of a broader package of long-term investment…It is not a standalone measure, and it cannot compensate for inadequate macroeconomic, labour or industrial policies that underpin women’s economic marginalization and (dis)empowerment.”

  1. Labour market characteristics;

As women are overrepresented in the least profitable occupations in 142 countries, labor and economic policies should prohibit workplace discrimination and support women in decent work.

  1. Fiscal policy;

Fiscal policy should seek to reduce taxes that disproportionately burden women and participate in “rigorous gender-responsive budgeting to inform policy and spending decisions.”

  1. Legal, regulatory, and policy framework;

Encourage ratification of ILO Convention 189 to ensure protections related to pay, hours, health, and insurance for domestic workers. To date, only twenty-two countries have ratified the Convention. Likewise, broader legal reforms should be implemented including revision of family codes to permit women to work outside the home, and laws protecting migrants from exploitation and abuse.

  1. Gender norms and discriminatory social norms.

Efforts should be undertaken to reform discriminatory gender norms. ODI suggests involving formal institutions, such as religious organizations.and garnering the support of men to change prevailing attitudes toward women and girls.

The comprehensive policy recommendations stemming from ODI’s ten factors have the potential to transform women’s role in the economy and in society more broadly.

As the ODI report concludes, “Achieving women’s economic empowerment involves more than isolated technical interventions; it is an inherently political process requiring challenges to established norms, structures, and sites of power.”  In this connection, starting from the ODI’s report it is possible to create a TOC for the empowerment of rural women and girls (Table 2), where empowerment is integral with economic improvement of home and village. It is a table of objectives that turn policies into an outcomes framework for operational plans.

Table 2 Outcomes Framework for the empowerment of women and girls

What could make positive difference (positive forces)? What’s stopping improvement (negative forces)?
Teach gender equality in school curricula

Increase women’s rights to land.

Promote leadership.

Incease literacy.

Increase artisan skills.

Inform and educate women and girls about their rights.

Create business opportunities for home working entrepreneurial artisans.

Support women and girls to organise and become agents of change

Build political will and legal/institutional capacity to prevent discrimination.

Provide comprehensive services.

Build capacity of media to deal with gender issues.

Support women’s rights organisations.

Work with men and boys.

Engage leaders.

Encourage politicians to speak out.

Legal system including customary and religious laws prevents, recognises and adequately responds to violence against women.

Social media

Lack of political will at all levels of government.

Antaganistic dominant social norms; values, beliefs etc.

Inadequate services to promote and protect women’s rights.

Lack of social, legal and economic autonomy for women and girls.

Over-burdened and under-resourced civil society.

Lack of social, legal and economic autonomy for women and girls.


For these more complex sociocultural systems a TOC is normally shown as a flow chart or diagram with accompanying text. The Theory of Change Online (TOCO) software was created as an accessible, easy-to-use learning tool for creating and implementing a Theory of Change. TOCO is an online application that allows you to create a TOC diagram. The software is free and accessed directly through the website, so you don’t need to download and install it.

Once in the application, you can create boxes that represent the elements of your theory (e.g. outcomes, outputs, prerequisites, etc.) and place them on the page. Each box has associated indicators and the boxes can be linked with arrows. For each arrow you can specify a rationale (why does this box lead to that box?) and interventions (what will you do to make this box lead to that box?). You can also group boxes together under headings, add comments, text, and assumptions.

Purchase with purpose

‘Purchase with Purpose’ is a concept model of Indian rural entrepreneurship and social development conceived by N.K.Chaudhary, founder of The Jaipor Rug Company to revive and sustain India’s rich heritage of domestic hand weaving, producing  hand knotted rugs for international markets. The purpose is to generate a financial cash flow from rich to poor to promote economic independence and creativity of village artisan weavers. 

N.K.Chaudhary also created The Jaipur Rug Foundation (JRF) to empower marginalised villagers (mainly women)  and support economic independence of creative village artisans who would otherwise migrate to towns and cities for jobs in mechanised mass production, losing their ancestral cultural patrimony and adding to urban carbon footprints on the global commons.  In this respect, the company and its charitable arm are parts of a novel cultural system that empowers women and stabilises their communities.

The above description is available as a concept map which highlights actions on some of the positive forces listed in the outcomes framework of the theory of change (Table 2).

Appendix 1  Notes on culture

The culture of a society is the way of life of its members; the collection of ideas and habits which they learn share and transmit from generation to generation.  Indeed culture is a design for living held by; members of a particular society.

The culture of a people is their identity as it affords them due recognition. It is their underlying distinguishing factor from other peoples and cultures. In fact, all societies across the globe have various and divergent cultures which they cherish and practice. Nevertheless, no two cultures, when juxtaposed, are absolutely identical. In order for a society to operate functionally and effectively, people must ensure  strict and constant adherence to the various components of their culture.

Culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, customs, laws and other capabilities which are learned, shared by individuals as members of society, and transmitted from one generation to another.

Sociologically, many activities of members of any society such as eating, music, dancing, occupation, education (formal, informal, and nonformal), visiting friends, courtship, marriage (its forms and types), beliefs (festivals and liturgies), naming and burial ceremonies, entertaining friends and guests, greetings, and system of government, are all found within the confine of nonmaterial culture which is the exclusive preserve and concern of this study. Material aspect of culture which comprises the physical and touchable implements or objects such as wears, computer, spoon, pot, cup, cutlass, building, phone, and sandal, is also invaluable and complementary.

Murdock, an anthropologist, has produced an itemized list of cultural traits that he claims has universal application. Included among the eighty-eight general categories of behaviour are such practices as patterns of cleanliness training, food taboos, and funeral rites; such principles of social organization as property rights, religious practices, and kinship arrangements, such practical knowledge as fire making, the use of tools and names for different plants. It is important to keep in mind that at no point do cultural universals carry down to the actual details of what people say and do. It is the forms—the broad types of “behavior”—and not the specific contents of behaviour that are found in all cultures.

Culture is essential to our humanness. It contains a set of readymade definitions each of us reshapes very little in dealing with social situations. In other words, culture provides a kind of blueprint or map for relating with others. Consider how you find your way in social life. How do you know how to act in a gathering, with a stranger, in a funeral, naming ceremony, toward a person who smiles, leers or swears at you? Your culture supplies you with broad, standardized, prefabricated answers, and formulas or recipes for dealing with each of these situations. Not surprisingly, if we know a person’s culture, we can understand and even predict a good deal of his or her behaviour. The need for this research arose due to the unbridled increase in disappearance of cultural values among the Aworis in Ado-Odo/Ota Local Government Area (LGA) Ogun State. Thus, to unravel the causes and consequences of the eroding significant cultural values among the Aworis in Ado-Odo/Ota LGA, Ogun State, certain clear-cut questions have to be provided answers to. For instance, what language do you understand or speak best? How many languages do you speak or understand? How many native attires do you have compared with the English wears?

Internet references

Sustainability: An Aquarist’s Viewpoint

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018

Global Environment Outlook (GEO)

The Global Environment Outlook (GEO) is a consultative, participatory process, promoted by the United Nations.  It builds capacity for conducting integrated environmental assessments for reporting on the state, trends and outlooks of the environment.  GEO is part of a recent, broad sweep of environmental history which, through a series of reports, informs environmental decision-making and aims to facilitate the interaction between science, policy and practical applications. The fifth edition of the Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-5), was launched on the eve of the Rio+20 Summit, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, in 2012.  It resulted in a focused political outcome document, ‘The Future We Want’, which contains clear and practical measures for implementing sustainable development.  The aim is to combat a deterioration of the the global environment, which is occurring through depletion of resources such as air, water and soil; the destruction of ecosystems; habitat loss; the extinction of wildlife; and pollution of land and sea.

These deleterious ecological patterns are emerging on a planet of 7 billion people, rising to more than 9 billion by 2050.  They tell humanity that the applications of science and technology are running out of control and are driving, year on year, unsustainable economic growth.  Governments claim these ever-increasing demands on Earth’s natural resources are necessary to spread and maintain increasing human wants on a global scale.

The biggest challenge of GEO5 is to develop educational frameworks at all levels to bridge the science-policy-application interface necessary to bring humanity into equilibrium with the limits of Earth’s ecological productivity.  It means translating the findings of science into environmental law and policy to produce societal change required for living sustainably. The aim has to be to move away from the current linear take-make-waste industrial model, which is no longer sustainable in the face of rapid population growth, resource constraints, urbanisation, water insecurity and other trends.

The roles of science/technology, governance/management and education/civil society are the three composite actors of sustainability.  Everyone and every profession is equally important in this global cross disciplinary effort, but technology has the first and last word.  Technology is the best short and long term solution to the sustainability issues we face today that require harnessing flexible managerial survival strategies to re-couple human needs with the limitations of Earth’s ecological food chains and material cycles.  The paradigm is the circular economy, a model that focuses on careful management of material flows through product design, reverse logistics, business model innovation and cross-sector collaboration.

In essence, the circular economy is about moving from a system of ‘accumulating waste’ to one of “endless resourcefulness.” This regenerative model, upon which the growing recycling industry is based, affords a viable business opportunity to successfully tackle environmental priorities, drive performance, innovation and competitiveness.


Educational models for systems thinking

The whole UN process, of which the GEO is one of the latest strategies, originated in the belief that the global impact of endless consumerism could be prevented only by a global solution. The international community never found that solution,  Many would say this attempt at government by global conferences has failed. It will continue to fail so long as agreements made at these meetings of the international community are not accepted by all signatories as binding at an operational level and are not supported by educational frameworks for inculcating the concept of prosperity without growth.  Economic growth is often seen as essential for economic prosperity, and indeed is one of the factors that is used as a measure of prosperity. However, an alternative point of view is that prosperity does not require growth, claiming instead that many of the problems facing communities are actually a result of growth, and that sustainable development requires abandoning the idea that year on year  growth is required for prosperity. The debate over whether economic growth is necessary for, or at odds with, human prosperity, has been active at least since the publication of Our Common Future in 1987, and can be pointed to as reflecting two opposing worldviews.

In 1996, the British ecological economist Tim Jackson outlined the conflicting relationship between human wellbeing and economic growth in his book Material Concerns.  Prosperity without Growth.  It was first published as a report to the UK Sustainable Development Commission in 2008 and comprehensively expanded on the arguments and policy recommendations.

This educational issue has been a challenge stretching back through Rio 1992 to the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment of 1972.  Yet the world remains on an unsustainable track despite over 500 internationally agreed goals and objectives. GEO-5 assessed 90 key environmental goals and objectives and found that significant progress had only been made in four (ozone depletion, access to fresh water supplies, research to reduce marine pollution and lead removal from fuel). Looking ahead, GEO-5 suggested that six ‘scenarios and transformations’ are needed to help turn the situation around:

  1. Transform human consumption (not only production)
  2. Shift motivations and values
  3. Accelerate the transition to sustainability.
  4. Forge a new social contract
  5. Apply adaptive management and governance (i.e. learn by doing and adjust course accordingly), and
  6. Develop clearer long-term targets and international accountability

These scenarios are bound together as a system that links ecology with culture.  They can only be understood and implemented by systems thinking to help support processes of decision making among stakeholders.  Stakeholders will have different, often contrasting, perspectives on sustainable development and systems thinking is necessary in order to generate purposeful action to improve situations of change and uncertainty.  This is particularly the case regarding action to combat climate change.

Climate change is one of the major interdisciplinary challenges of our time and adds considerable stress to societies and to the environment. From shifting weather patterns that threaten food production, to rising sea levels that increase the risk of catastrophic flooding, the impacts of climate change are global in scope and unprecedented in scale. In this context, behaviour change for combating climate change is a global objective that does not respect national borders. Emissions anywhere affect people everywhere. It is an issue that requires solutions that need to be coordinated at the international level and it requires international cooperation to help developing countries move toward a low-carbon economy operating within the bounds of what Earth can produce.  Because of its multidimensional character the necessary behaviour changes have to take into account relationships and think about wholes. This requires a capacity to unravel complex interactive systems. Mind maps and concept maps are essential formats to make projections and analyze what’s going to happen before decisions can be made. The conceptual complexity of behaviour change to combat climate change is presented in Fig 1. In this map education is part of the concept of a behavioral change toolkit.

Fig 1 Concept map of behaviour change for combating climate change

The toolkit is organised around the following fifteen concepts linking environment, economy and society


  • Use of nonrenewable resources should be “paid for” through increased renewable resource replacement
  • Rates of use of renewable resources should not exceed the rate of their regeneration
  • Rates of use of nonrenewable resources should not exceed the rate at which sustainable renewable substitutes are developed
  • Rates of pollution emission should not exceed the environment’s capacity to counteract
  • Substances (e.g., styrofoam, food waste) produced by society must not be produced at a rate faster than nature can break them down again


  • Resource distribution MUST be fair and efficient WHILE meeting human needs
  • Money should be circulated as long as possible within the community.
  • A living wage should be paid to all employees.
  • Business should give back to the community in proportion to its footprint on the community.
  • Markets should maximize efficiency, discourage the use of disposables, and greatly reduce waste.


  • Cities should grow only within predetermined community boundaries (e.g. current city limits).
  • Adequate food, housing, and medical care should be available to every family
  • Every girl and boy should receive education that teaches the knowledge, perspectives, values, issues, and skills for sustainable living in the community.
  • The present generation should ensure that the next generation inherits a community at least as healthy, diverse, and productive as it is today.
  • Communities should insist upon planned longevity and less conspicuous consumption of material good.

Earth as an aquarium

The central feature of sustainable development is the capacity for life to endure in the closed space of a relatively small planet. The educational concept of Spaceship Earth was invented to reinforce the idea that planet Earth is like a closed spaceship hurtling through space on a very long-duration mission. There is no resupply from outside sources. Recycling is as much a part of the natural order of things as is the sunrise everyday. Pollution occurs when there are outputs that cannot be used as inputs for something else. Pollution is harmful and can be dangerous. The connections between parts of the natural system are imperative to its normal operation. By systems thinking about what it takes to keep people alive on a spaceship, learners should come to understand more fully what it takes to keep people alive on this planet.

Another useful concept of endurance on a smaller scale is the goldfish bowl.  Michael Cottmeyer described it this way:-

“If you are in the bowl, how to you even contemplate doing anything about the water? How do you imagine getting out of the bowl, emptying the water, cleaning the glass, refilling the bowl, and getting back into a healthy environment? The dirty water is all around you and it’s really difficult to understand how we can change.   …changing the water requires leadership… it requires someone who can get their team to believe that the water can be changed… it requires someone that can keep people safe while they are in transition… it requires someone that has the vision to see what’s possible and who is willing to take the necessary risks required to get us there”.

Mary Catherine Bateson, an American cultural anthropologist, recalls how setting up an aquarium began a process of her becoming a systems thinker.  She says:

“One of my favorite memories of my childhood was my father helping me set up an aquarium. In retrospect, I understand that he was teaching me to think about a community of organisms and their interactions, interdependence, and the issue of keeping them in balance so that it would be a healthy community. That was just at the beginning of our looking at the natural world in terms of ecology and balance. Rather than itemizing what was there, I was learning to look at the relationships and not just separate things”.

Within this context of modelling aquatic ecosystems to support education for sustainability the GEO5 outcome document points to the use of captive animals to promote public understanding of the way ecosystems are responding to unprecedented human consumption and production.   This prompted BIAZA to publish a report entitled ‘Environmental Sustainability and Climate Change’.  

BIAZA is the professional body representing zoos and aquariums in the UK and Ireland. It has more than 100 zoo and aquarium members whom they support in their commitment to be at the forefront of conservation, education and research.  Zoos and aquariums are particularly well placed to influence the public to support action in these areas given that they attract large numbers of visitors and engage with a broad socio-economic cross-section of society. The BIAZA report centred on finding practical ways of acting on ’The future we want’.  BIAZA’s starting point is that zoos and aquariums inspire strong emotional connections between animals and the public. These are needed to carry out the proposed ‘social transformation’ role and act as agents of cultural change and as educators for sustainable development. This interaction, the report says, can occur through using endangered caged animals to teach children how zoos, wildlife parks and aquariums are about humankind’s impact on the natural world and how conservation is encouraging respect for living creatures.  

Similarly, AZA, the US Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Conservation Education Committee (CEC) supports the appropriate use of living animals in zoos and aquariums as an important and powerful educational tool to advance a conservation agenda.  The CEC released a research agenda framework in 2010 after a thoughtful, inclusive development process that involved researchers, practitioners and evaluators. The goals of the framework are to help those in the conservation education and communications field understand how they can contribute to a greater body of knowledge.  The objective is to provide a structure for individual institution and multi‐institutional studies. These have to be interpreted in the larger picture of what we know about zoos and aquariums, their visitors, and their community relationships. The framework also provides an opportunity for all AZA‐accredited institutions and independent researchers to become involved in social science research and to work collaboratively to enhance the impact of zoos and aquariums and the conservation field as a whole.  

In general, zoos and aquaria are seen as places for parents and children to discover new things together. Research shows that parents, in particular, place value on zoos and aquariums as unique venues for informal learning.  To help in this direction, the spaceship Earth concept can be developed as the goldfish bowl/aquarium concept to create a practical home demonstration model of sustainability.


Managing a microcosm

All aquaria are managed as closed technological microfiltration systems. They are aquatic systems in which water is recirculated through filters, detoxified,and reused. A simple technological model of such a microcosm is presented in Fig 2 along with the major processes that keep its inhabitants alive.

Fig 2 Processes in a microfiltration system

  1. Food is given to Fish.
  2. Fish excrete Ammonia.
  3. Bacteria converts it to Nitrite.
  4. Bacteria converts Nitrite to Nitrate.
  5. Water changes carried out to reduce levels of Nitrate.
  6. Sunlight enables plants, including algae to use Nitrate for growth.
  7. Bacteria in the substrate or filter breaks down fish excreta and debris.
  8. Plants give off Oxygen when lit.
  9. Plants absorb Carbon dioxide during the day to grow and  give off carbon dioxide during the night

This system is not a good model of sustainability, mainly because fish food has to be added day after day. Most fish are dependent on complex organic substances (the food substrate).  Such organisms are categorised as heterotrophs.

A new perspective is required to turn an aquarium into a more appropriate experimental model of sustainability.  The approach has to start with the idea that aquaria of any kind are fundamentally algae producers (Fig 3). From this point of view, fish selected to populate the tank should be species that feed on algae which grow naturally in the tank.  Algae belong to a group of organisms capable of synthesizing their own food from inorganic substances, such as nitrate salts using light or chemical energy. Green plants and certain bacteria can also do this. They are called autotrophs.

Food chains of algae-eating fish have evolved in fast flowing tropical streams.  Here, births, growth, reproduction and death of algae and fish are, coterminous with The educational message is that Earth is an ecosystem and Homo sapiens has to survive on what the planet as a whole can produce to fulfil basic needs.

Microalgae as a group exhibit multiple metabolic pathways for different growth regimes depending on availability of organic carbon substrate.  They can adopt autotrophic (photosynthesis), heterotrophic (organic substrate dependent) and / or mixotrophic (auto and heterotrophic) modes of nutrition (Fig. 2). Microalgae can also adapt to changing conditions to become specialized autotrophs or heterotrophs through long-term shifts in the growth conditions. Furthermore, some microalgae can switch between these growth regimes (one is active while the other is inactive) at a particular period depending on the tank’s condition, while other microalgae are capable of using the pathways simultaneously. For example, the presence of a high concentration of CO2 enhances photosynthesis but undermines the utilization of organic carbon substrate, possibly due to retardation of respiration. Besides, absence of light during dark cycles leads to utilization of organic carbon substrate. Microalgae exhibit diverse metabolic pathways when experiencing hypoxic (low O2 concentration) or anoxic (extremely low O2 concentration) conditions in aquatic systems.  This metabolic flexibility of algae is the reason why it is so difficult to control their growth in aquaria.  A tank microcosm based on the productivity of autotrophic algae is depicted in Fig 3.

Fig 3 A tank microcosm based on microalgae as primary producers

Fundamentally, managing an aquarium to stimulate thinking about how we humans can live sustainably has the objective of balancing the growth of algae  to match the food requirements of fish (Fig 4). This concept map is amplified in Fig 5.

Fig 4.  Main factors affecting the growth of tank algae

Fig 5  The aquarium: a bigger picture

The expanded concept map (Fig 5) indicates that no microcosm, natural or technological, can stand alone. The map is but a fleeting partial scenario of the complexity of what is needed to sustain a tank ecosystem populated with fish that can live on algae.   

In the experimental algae/fish/nitrate model, derived from the wild, the aquarist is trying to maintain a steady state concentration of nitrate in a tank.  This concentration is a balance between its production by filter bacteria from waste ammonia excreted by the fish and its uptake by a growing population of algae being cropped by fish for maintenance and growth.  Management consists of adding or subtracting fish so that there is always a film of algae on the surfaces of tank. This is an innovation in understanding.

An aquarium then can be a model of humanity’s target goal of a biogenic carbon/humanity/carbon dioxide planetary equilibrium, powered by sunlight.  In this context, ‘sustainable development’ refers to the holistic approach and temporal processes required to integrate anthropogenic carbon, the cause of climate change, into the biogenic carbon cycle that will lead us to the end point of global sustainability (Fig 6).

Fig 6 A simplified diagram of cllimate change

In the 20th century, we saw Earth in space for the first time.  From space, our planet is a small and fragile ball dominated not by human activity and edifice but by a pattern of clouds, oceans, forests, grasslands and soils. Humanity’s inability to fit its activities into that pattern is changing Earth’s ecosystems, fundamentally. Many such changes are accompanied by life-threatening hazards to all life forms. This new reality, from which there is no escape, must be recognized and managed across the globe.  Aquariums are a reminder of this fact and managing one may be regarded as another educational tool to change humanity’s attitude towards an over-used planet proceeding on a linear take-make-waste industrial strategy. The aquarist models microcosms to illustrate the limits to Earth’s environmental carrying capacity. The objective is to promote the idea that the carrying capacity of planet Earth is better conceptualised as being due to the continuous presence in human systems of entrepreneurial action to solve emergent problems in innovative ways. Prosperity without growth  is the aquarists target.

Natural economy and cultural ecology

Wednesday, April 11th, 2018

Those now being educated will have to do what we, the present generation, have been unable or unwilling to do: stabilise world population; stabilise and then reduce the emission of greenhouse gases; protect biological diversity; reverse the destruction of forests everywhere; and conserve soils. They must learn how to use energy and materials with great efficiency. They must learn how to utilise solar energy in all its forms. They must rebuild the economy in order to eliminate waste and pollution. They must learn how to manage renewable resources for the long run. They must begin the great work of repairing as much as possible, the damage done to Earth in the past 200 years of industrialisation. And they must do all this while they reduce worsening social and racial inequities. No generation has ever faced a more daunting agenda”. (Orr, 1994, p.26).

1 A conservation management curriculum

The general definition of economic sustainability is the ability of an economy to support a defined level of economic production indefinitely. This can only be achieved as a long term international goal if humankind takes from Earth only what its ecosystems can provide indefinitely. This kind of economy, which recognises Earth’s ecological limits, can be called a natural economy in that it can only be established by moral certainty or conviction.   Whilst accepting that science is the engine of prosperity there is now general agreement within the international community that humanity must move towards a natural economy where production is aimed at satisfying the consumer’s own needs, and is not driven by wants. The former would include the needs for food, clothing, shelter and health care. Wants are goods or services that are not necessary but that we desire or wish for. Education has to change accordingly.  In particular it has to emphasise the need to share Earth’s resources and gradually embrace the need to integrate the principle of sharing per se into our international economic and political structures.  The mantra of natural economy is ‘prosperity without growth’.

Most educationalists would recognised that Orr’s ‘conservation management curriculum’ should be at the centre of education at all levels, but it is still a peripherally rare and optional system of education.

In Wales during the 1970s, natural economy emerged as the idea for a new academic subject from student/staff discussions during a zoology field course on the Welsh National Nature Reserve of Skomer Island in 1971. It was enthusiastically taken up as the philosophical thread for an honours course in Environmental Studies organised in the University College of Wales, Cardiff, during the 1970s. This course integrated the inputs from eleven departments, from archaeology, through metallurgy, to zoology.

Late in the decade this course was evaluated by a group of school teachers under the auspices of the University of Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate (UCCLES), and emerged as the subject ‘natural economy’ (the organisation of people for production). Natural economy was launched as a new international subject by UCCLES to fulfil their need for a cross-discipline arena to support world development education. UCCLES was urged in this direction by the Duke of Edinburgh, who was chancellor of the university at this time.

Natural economy was disseminated throughout Europe as part of the EC’s Schools Olympus Broadcasting Association (SOBA) for distance learning. It was also published as a central component of a cultural model of Nepal through a partnership between the University of Wales, the UK Government Overseas Development Administration and the World Wide Fund for Nature, with a sponsorship from British Petroleum.

During the 1980s, an interoperable version of natural economy for computer-assisted learning was produced in the Department of Zoology, Cardiff University, with a grant from DG11 of the EC. This work was transferred to the Natural Economy Research Unit (NERU) set up in the National Museum of Wales towards the end of the decade.

2  Culture and ecology

The complex interdependencies that shape the demand for and production of arts and cultural offerings is defined as the ecology of culture.  Culture is often discussed as an economy, but it is better to see it as an ecology, because this viewpoint offers a richer and more complete understanding of people’s behaviour. Seeing culture as an ecology is congruent with cultural value approaches that take into account a wide range of non-monetary values. An ecological approach concentrates on relationships and patterns within the overall system, showing how careers develop, ideas transfer, money flows, and product and content move, to and fro, around and between the funded, homemade and commercial subsectors. Culture is an ‘organism’ not a mechanism; it is much messier and more dynamic than linear models allow. The use of ecological metaphors, such as regeneration, symbiosis, fragility, positive and negative feedback loops, and mutual dependence creates a rich way of discussing culture and its relationships to environment. Different perspectives of culture then emerge, helping to develop new taxonomies, new visualisations, and fresh ways of thinking about how culture operates.

In the 1990s NERU obtained a series of grants to integrate natural economy into a broader knowledge framework linking culture with ecology. This wider social framework was called cultural ecology.  For example, an EC LIFE Environment programme with the aim of producing and testing a conservation management system for industries and their community neighbourhoods, used cultural ecology as the wider knowledge framework.The work was carried out in partnership with the UK. Conservation Management System Consortium (CMSC, the University of Ulster and British industry.

Version 2 of cultural ecology on-line was developed and evaluated by the ‘Going Green Directorate’ with the aim of giving the subject a wider international significance. One aim was to provide a web resource for education/training in conservation management. The other aim was to develop an education network based on the production of educational wikis to bring conservation management towards the centre of curricula at all levels of education.

Version 3 of Cultural Ecology became part of International Classrooms on Line financed and promoted by the charitable Bellamy Fund.

3 MEA: an educational framework

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was carried out between 2001 and 2005 to assess the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being.  The practical aim was to establish the scientific basis for actions needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems and their contributions to human well-being. The MEA responded to government requests for information received through four international conventions—the Convention on Biological Diversity, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, and the Convention on Migratory Species.  It was designed to also meet needs of other stakeholders, including the business community, the health sector, nongovernmental organisations, and indigenous peoples. Sub-global assessments were aimed to meet the needs of users in the regions where they were undertaken.

The assessment focuses on the linkages between ecosystems and the cultural dimension of human well-being and, in particular, on “ecosystem services.” An ecosystem is a dynamic complex of plant, animal, and microorganism communities with the nonliving environment interacting as a functional unit. The MA deals with the full range of ecosystems—from those relatively undisturbed, such as natural forests, to landscapes with mixed patterns of human use, to ecosystems intensively managed and modified by humans, such as agricultural land and urban areas.

Ecosystem services are the benefits people obtain from natural economy in its functional sense. These benefits include provisioning services such as food, water, timber, and fibre; regulating services that affect climate, floods, disease, wastes, and water quality; cultural services that provide recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual benefits, and supporting services such as soil formation, photosynthesis, and nutrient cycling Humanity, while buffered against environmental changes by culture and technology, is fundamentally dependent on the flow of ecosystem services.

The MEA examines how changes in ecosystem services influence human well-being. Human well-being is assumed to have multiple constituents.  These include the basic material for a good life, such as-

  • secure and adequate livelihoods;
  • enough food at all times;
  • shelter, clothing, and access to goods;
  • health, including feeling mentally well and having a healthy physical environment, such as clean air and access to clean water;
  • good social relations, including social cohesion, mutual respect, and the ability to help others and provide for children;
  • security, including secure access to natural and other resources, personal safety, and security from natural and human-made disasters;
  • and freedom of choice and action, including the opportunity to achieve what an individual values doing and being.

Freedom of choice and action is influenced by other constituents of well-being (as well as by other factors, notably education) and is also a precondition for achieving other components of well-being, particularly with respect to equity and fairness. This raises the questions how should ‘prosperity’ be redefined and how could prosperity be spread without economic growth?

The conceptual framework for the MEA posits that people are integral parts of ecosystems and that a dynamic interaction exists between them and other parts of ecosystems, with the changing human condition driving, both directly and indirectly, changes in ecosystems and thereby causing changes in human well-being.  At the same time, social, economic, and cultural factors unrelated to ecosystems alter the human condition, and many natural forces influence ecosystems.

Although the MEA emphasizes the linkages between ecosystems and human well-being, it recognizes that the actions people take that influence ecosystems result not just from concern about human well-being but also from considerations of the intrinsic value of species and their ecosystems. Intrinsic value is the value of something in and for itself, irrespective of its utility for someone else. The MEA therefor probides the pedagogy for cultural ecology.

4 Well-being

Freedom and choice refers to the ability of individuals to control what happens to them and to be able to achieve what they value doing or being. To be able to have freedom of choice and action people have to be in a state of well-being. Well-being is not just the absence of disease or illness. It is a complex combination of a person’s physical, mental, emotional and social health factors. Well-being is strongly linked to happiness and life satisfaction. In short, well-being could be described as how you feel about yourself and your life.  Everyone has freedom of choice and action as their goal in life. Freedom and choice cannot exist without the presence of all the elements governing well-being,

Social surveys have defined five distinct statistical factors which are the universal elements of well-being that differentiate a thriving life from one spent suffering. They describe aspects of our lives that we can do something about and that are important to people in every situation studied.

These elements do not include every nuance of what’s important in life, but they do represent five broad categories that are essential to most people.

  • The first element is about how you occupy your time or simply liking what you do every day: your Career Well-being.
  • The second element is about having strong relationships and love in your life: your Social Well-being.
  • The third element is about effectively managing your economic life: your Financial Well-being.
  • The fourth element is about having good health and enough energy to get things done on a daily basis: your Physical Well-being.
  • The fifth element is about the sense of engagement you have with the area where you live: your Community Well-being.

5 Ecosystem Services

People everywhere rely for their well-being on ecosystems and the services they provide. So do businesses. Demand for these services is increasing. However, many of the world’s ecosystems are in serious decline, and the continuing supply of critical ecosystem services is now in jeopardy. The global economy is nearly five times the size it was fifty years ago. This unprecedented level of growth places huge demands on limited resources and has degraded an estimated 60 per cent of global ecosystems.  The loss or degradation of ecosystem services will have increasing impacts on human well-being.

There is an indirect influence of changes in all categories of ecosystem services on the attainment of this constituent of well-being. The influence of ecosystem change on freedom and choice is heavily mediated by socioeconomic circumstances. The wealthy and people living in countries with efficient governments and strong civil society can maintain freedom and choice even in the face of significant ecosystem change, while this would be impossible for the poor if, for example, the ecosystem change resulted in a loss of livelihood.

In the aggregate, the state of our knowledge about the impact that changing ecosystem conditions have on freedom and choice is severely limited. Declining provision of fuelwood and drinking water have been shown to increase the amount of time needed to collect such basic necessities, which in turn reduces the amount of time available for education, employment, and care of family members. Such impacts are typically thought to be disproportionately experienced by women.

The common elements that underlie poor people’s exclusion are voicelessness and powerlessness. Research conducted by the World Bank in 1999, involving over 20,000 poor women and men from 23 countries, concluded that despite very different political, social and economic contexts, there are striking similarities in poor people’s experiences. The common theme underlying poor people’s experiences is one of powerlessness. Powerlessness consists of multiple and interlocking dimensions of ill-being or poverty.

Confronted with unequal power relations, poor people are unable to influence or negotiate better terms for themselves with traders, financiers, governments, and civil society. This severely constrains their capability to build their assets and rise out of poverty. Dependent on others for their survival, poor women and men also frequently find it impossible to prevent violations of dignity, respect, and cultural identity.

In its broadest sense, empowerment is the expansion of freedom of choice and action. It means action to increase one’s authority and control over the resources and decisions that affect one’s life. As people exercise real choice, they gain increased control over their lives. Poor people’s choices are extremely limited, both by their lack of assets and by their powerlessness to negotiate better terms for themselves with a range of institutions, both formal and informal. Since powerlessness is embedded in the nature of institutional relations, in the context of poverty reduction an institutional definition of empowerment is appropriate.

The economic history of the world is the entire history of the world, but seen from a certain vantage-point – that of the economy. The ecological history of the world is the history of the world seen from an environmental viewpoint. Increasingly, this environmental viewpoint takes in the place of the human ecosystem within the entire cosmos. To choose one or other vantage-point, and no other, is of course to favour from the start a one-sided form of explanation. However, economists and historians have stopped thinking of economics as a self-contained discipline and of economic history as a neatly-defined body of knowledge, which one could study in isolation from other subjects. Economic phenomena cannot be properly grasped by economists unless they go beyond the economy. With regard to political economy, which in the 19th century appeared to concern only material goods, it has turned out to embrace the social system as a whole, being related to everything in society. The same can be said of biologists with respect to ecology, with its history of evolution, which is no longer regarded as primary science, but as a philosophy of inter-relatedness.  

Political culture is an important variable in the analysis of cultural ecology as it suggests underlying beliefs, values and opinions which people hold dear (such as shared ethnic and religious affinities) and that produce culturalistic groups. For example, catholicism treats the individual as social and transcendent.  

‘Ecology’ is used to define a particular type or branch of the relationship between living organisms and their environment e.g. aquatic ecology; avian ecology. Where the species is a community of Homo sapiens, sharing a common heritage of ideas, beliefs values and knowledge, the interrelationship is called cultural ecology. It includes an environmental complex of human activities undertaken for profit. The activities are concerned with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services and the management of natural resources (land, forest, water), finances, income, and expenditure of a community, business enterprise, etc. This highlights the fact that the subject matter of both ecology and economics, which are themselves interrelated, cannot be isolated from all the other social, ideological and political problems of survival.

Economics and ecology come together at their common linguistic root , oikos; house, which in both cases signifies a space where a complex of activities is undertaken concerned with the consumption of natural resources and their transformation for production and distribution.

Management and ecology, as a specific pattern of human activities, emerges in the archaic use of the word economy to define the management of household affairs; (via Latin from Greek oikonomia; domestic management, from oikos house + -nomia, from nemein to manage)  

Keeping Within Earth’s Ecological Limits

6 An educational framework

Cultural ecology is a system of knowledge about environmental management.  It has been created in Wales from the inputs of teachers and students at all levels of education. The aim is to stimulate discussion of ideas and projects about how to bring people and nature into equilibrium. The approach is through planning for sustainability based on good science and robust economics in which well-being of our planet and personal beliefs are interdependent.

The following definitions are provided to guide its use and development as an interdisciplinary educational framework.

  • Cultural ecology provides windows from many subjects into issues of environmental management.
  • Cultural ecology is about human communities as makers. In making things, humans are now the main functional components influencing planet Earth’s biological cycles of materials and energy flows.
  • Cultural ecology is an educational experience that demonstrates the importance of crossing boundaries of traditional subjects in order to understand and solve environmental problems.
  • Cultural ecology is a practical activity. It shows how individuals, families, and organisations can make and operate action plans to set limits on the environmental impact of their day to day uses of materials and energy that flow through home, neighbourhood, workplace and leisure environment.
  • Cultural ecology is a set of notions about nature illustrating how everyone interprets the world from within a particular multi factorial framework of perception and thought.  This often gives rise to difficulties and dangers in using one’s own perspective to judge the values and behaviour of others towards environmental issues.
  • Cultural ecology is seen practically as a gathering of local information about the good and bad aspects of neighbourhood, put into a global context. It provides a knowledge framewwork for environmental appraisal, which is necessary for citizens to participate constructively in local government plans for sustainable development- the Local Agenda 21- and the 2030 targets for living sustainably, particularly in the context of community regeneration.
  • Cultural ecology empphasises the environmental relationships between poverty, social exclusion and the environment. Urban environments are often characterized by overcrowding, substandard housing, underemployment,une mployment and an undeveloped infrastructure, especially in relation to the provision of basic social services. Rural environments are frequently characterized by social exclusion resulting from landlessness, inequitable land-tenure systems, subsistence or lower incomes, and paucity of basic social services. Both create their own particular versions of poverty and deprivation which constitute a major challenge to governments and agencies in the provision of a reasonable living environment

To bring conservation management to the heart of family life requires an ability in each individual to conceptualise the wholeness of self and environment as a set of beliefs to live by and a context that gives meaning to life. This ability may be described as ecosacy; a third basic ability to be taught alongside literacy and numeracy. The term ecosacy comes directly from the Greek oikos meaning house, and household management includes making decisions about the natural resources that flow into it. To be ecosate means having the knowledge and mind-set to act, speak and think according to deeply held beliefs and belief systems about people in nature, which is conceptualised as a community of beings.

The educational framework of ecosacy is cultural ecology. The division of knowledge has its origin in the work of Steward in the 1930s on the social organization of hunter-gatherer groups. Steward argued against environmental determinism, which regarded specific cultural characteristics as arising from environmental causes. Using band societies as examples, he showed that social organisation itself corresponded to a kind of ecological adaptation of a human group to its environment. He defined cultural ecology as the study of adaptive processes by which the nature of society and an unpredictable number of features of culture, are affected by the basic adjustment through which humans utilise a given environment in which they have inevitably become an ecological component.

Cultural ecology, as a divsion of science, originated from an ethnological approach to the modes of production of native societies around the world as adaptations to their local environments. It has long been accepted that this anthropological view is too narrow. It isolates knowledge about the ancient ways of resource management from possible applications to present day issues of globalised urban consumerism. People now consume resources at a considerable distance from where they occur.  Conservation management is an institutional process of political adaptation to the environmental impact of world development. Conservation systems are concerned with stabilising the functional relationships between people and the environment, and managerialism has to be integrated into people’s perceptions of how they fit within environmental systems, large and small.

Because traditional systems often involve long-term adaptations to specific local environments and resource management problems on their doorsteps, they are of interest to resource managers everywhere. Also, there are lessons to be learned from the cultural significance of traditional ecological knowledge with regard to the sometimes sacred dimensions of indigenous knowledge, such as symbolic meanings and their importance for cementing social relationships and values into the neighboorhood..

If conservation management is to be brought into the general education system from its current specialized professional periphery, it has to have cross-topic connections for learners to navigate to and from a range of departure points.

A mind-map to begin building this navigation system was produced from the subject of ‘natural economy’ created by the Cambridge University Examination Syndicate for education in world development. This project was carried out by the Going Green Directorate, a group of academics and teachers associated with the Schools and Communities Agenda 21 Network of the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.

Cultural ecology presents two sides of the coin of global economic development. World development has taken place by the ‘unlocking of nature’, at first by self-sufficient groups in bands, and tribes. Now it involves networks of interdependent nations involved in industrial mass production and the movement of resources and goods rapidly over vast distances measured in hours or days. This process has taken place not by biological evolution, but by inventions, which, from age to age, drive the human economic system. First it involved the application of ideas about the living world that produced the hunter and the forager, and led to fire and water being harnessed as physical aids to comfort and lighten labour. From these beginnings came a settled view of ‘nature’ as something to be subdued by mankind. This led to the development of educational systems in which subjects were built according to the knowledge required to educate the specialists who were to carry forward this exploitative culture.

A new educational map is now needed to replace the fragmented one that has been shaped by the industrial revolution and that is now leading inexorably toward the destruction of industrial society.  Industrial humankind now has to remake its culture globally and direct future cultural evolution for living sustainably. A rationally controlled technology does give us a means of survival for ourselves and many generations to come, although it must be supplemented by a social technology that encourages people to value and reward ecologically sound behavior and adopt a new values of what it means to be prosperous. Mankind must respond to survival imperatives with meaningful social action.  Culture must again become an ally, rather than an enemy, in realising the sensible strategies for survival that were set out in the 1992 Rio Environmental Summit.

This new map for the 21st century and beyond carries the undercurrents of knowledge that flow between and into conventional subjects. Based on the MEA, it is an overview of the integration of knowledge required to produce an overview of the topics that have to be brought together to explain human cultural evolution and are needed to develop operations to balance our use of natural resources in relation to their continued availability. Subjects have been replaced by topics. Topics are the links between knowledge and action and are guideposts for a sustainable society. In the mindmap of cultural ecology it will be seen that traditional subjects, which are designed to produce specialists, are to be found three to four levels deep.

The topic map of cultural ecology presents world development as the replacement of traditional systems for utilising natural resources with scientific systems for managing imass productions. Conservation management is the bridge between these historical, interrelated aspects of human social evolution. It carries value judgments and perceptions about environment where scientific knowledge is not necessarily the clearest representation of what reality is from the standpoint of Homo sapiens being just one of many living things in a community of beings.

7 Flows of ideas for living sustainably

The two flows of ideas about cultural ecology begin with the major topics of ‘exploiting resources’ and ‘conserving resources’.

Viewed through the human economic system and its consequences, one set of second-level topics represent the exploitation of natural resources governed by people’s ideas about human production. This starts with knowing how to tap resources for making goods. Cultures are formed.  When basic survival needs have been met, ‘making things’ is accelerated by creating public and private art works, using earnings from ever demanding markets for goods and services. Civilizations are formed.

Today, demand for goods is now so great by all nations across the world that it is impacting on the limited stocks and the planets finite space, producing changes in culture, society and environment. The stocks and flows of nature’s production represent the intrinsic organisation for producing the resources we loosely call ‘natural”.

Conservation of natural resources takes place around ideas about how to cope with the impact of human production through concepts of culture, society and environment. The aim is to sustain production from generation to generation, by developing global culture committed to conservation strategies. The objectives have to be met through operational, outcome- based conservation management systems.

But following this flow of ideas, and agreeing with the conclusion that the present cultural attitudes towards the dominance of exploitation have to be moderated by conservation management in home and community, is not enough. The application of a new cultural ecology to living in an overcrowded world, chasing new goods and services, will ultimately depend on the actions of the majority in a democratic society. If each person fails to see, feel and act in relation to the long-term consequences of what he or she is doing, all will be lost. In the end, each person must be made to feel responsible for the present and future welfare of all mankind. Education can only become applied when its content corresponds to, or gives valid and acceptable guidance for dealing with reality.

Designing a new culture means adopting an activist attitude toward cultural evolution rather than passive acquiescence to the results of technology; but most important of all, it means actively intervening to modify norms, values, and institutions to bring them into line with the physical and biological constraints within which mankind must operate.

The entire world society must soon reach a consensus on what is meant by a livable world and must cooperate in using science, technology, and social institutions to construct that world, rather than forcing human beings to conform to a world shaped by these forces out of control.

8 Conservation Management

Conservation management is an applied aspect of cultural ecology  To the extent that we have genuine respect for the natural world and the living things in it, the conflict between human civilization and the natural world is not an uncontrolled and uncontrollable struggle for survival. From an ethical standpoint, the competition between human cultures and the natural ways of other species can exemplify a moral order that can best be described as ‘live and let live’. To realise this order, we as moral agents have to impose constraints on our own lifestyles and cultural practices to create a moral universe in which both respect for wild creatures and respect for persons are given a place. The more we take for ourselves, the less there is for other species, but there is no reason why, together with humans, a great variety of animal and plant life cannot exist side by side on our planet. In order to share the Earth with other species, however, we humans must impose limits on our population, our habits of consumption, and our technology. In particular, we have to deal with serious moral dilemmas posed by the competing interests of humans and nonhumans. The problems of choice take on an ethical dimension but do not entail giving up or ignoring our human values. The aim is to manage situations in which the basic interests of animals and plants are in conflict with the non basic interests of humans.

Basic interests of humans are what rational and factually enlightened people would value as an essential part of their very existence as persons. They are what people need if they are going to be able to pursue those goals and purposes that make life meaningful and worthwhile. Their basic interests are those interests which, when morally legitimate, they have a right to have fulfilled. We do not have a right to whatever will make us happy or contribute to the realization of our value system, but we do have a right to the necessary conditions for the maintenance and development of our personhood. These conditions include subsistence and security (“the right to life”), autonomy, and liberty. A violation of people’s moral rights is the worst thing that can happen to them, since it deprives them of what is essential to their being able to live a meaningful and worthwhile existence as persons.

Our non-basic interests define our individual value systems. They are the particular ends we consider worth seeking and the means we consider best for achieving them. The non- basic interests of humans thus vary from person to person, while their basic interests are common to all.

The principles of conservation apply to two different kinds of conflicts in which the basic interests of animals and plants conflict with the non basic interests of humans. But each principle applies to a different type of non basic human interests. In order to differentiate between these types we must consider various ways in which the nonbasic interests of humans are related to the attitude of respect for nature.

First, there are non basic human interests which are intrinsically incompatible with the attitude of respect for nature. The pursuit of these interests would be given up by anyone who had respect for nature because the kind of actions and intentions directly embody or express an exploitative attitude toward nature. Such an attitude is incompatible with that of respect because it considers wild creatures to have merely instrumental value for human ends and denies the inherent worth of animals and plants in natural ecosystems. Examples of such non-basic exploitative interests and of actions performed are:-

  • Slaughtering elephants so the ivory of their tusks can be used to carve items for the tourist trade.
  • Killing rhinoceros so that their horns can be used as dagger handles.
  • Picking rare wildflowers, such as orchids and cactuses, for one’s private collection.
  • Capturing tropical birds, for sale as caged pets.
  • Trapping and killing reptiles, such as snakes, crocodiles, alligators, and turtles, for their skins and shells to be used in making expensive shoes, handbags, and other “fashion” products.
  • Hunting and killing rare wild mammals, such as leopards and jaguars, for the luxury fur trade.
  • All hunting and fishing, which is done as an enjoyable pastime (whether or not the animals killed are eaten), when such activities are not necessary to meet the basic interests of humans. This includes all sport hunting and recreational.

All such practices treat wild creatures as mere instruments to human ends, thus denying their inherent worth. They are non basic. Wild animals and plants are being valued only as a source. Their central purposes represent an exploitative attitude towards nature. Those who participate to fullfil the aims of such activities as well as those who enjoy or consume the products knowing the methods by which they were obtained, cannot be said to have genuine respect for nature.

It should be noted that none of the actions violate human rights. Indeed, if we stay within the boundaries of human ethics alone, people have a moral right to do such things, since they have a freedom-right to pursue without interference their legitimate interests and, within those boundaries, an interest is “legitimate” if its pursuit does not involve doing any wrong to another human being.

It is only when the principles of environmental ethics are applied to such actions that the exercise of freedom-rights in these cases must be weighed against the demands of the ethics of respect for nature. We then find that the practices in question are wrong, all things considered. For if they were judged permissible, the basic interests of animals and plants would be assigned a lower value or importance than the nonbasic interests of humans. No one who had the attitude of respect for nature (as well as the attitude of respect for persons) would find this acceptable. After all, a human being can still live a good life even if he or she does not own caged wild birds, wear apparel made from furs and reptile skins, collect rare wildflowers, or engage in recreational hunting.

Conserving natural resources is about using less and managing stocks to ensure they are renewable and an even flow is carried forward into the long-term. This philosophy was endorsed by the international community in towards the end of the 1980s.

For example;

the Governing Council of UNEP, the UN Environment Programme, in its decision 15/2 of 1989, “invites the attention of the General Assembly to the understanding of the Governing Council with regard to the concept of “sustainable development”, as follows: “Statement by the Governing Council on Sustainable Development”

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs and does not imply in any way encroachment upon national sovereignty. The Governing Council considers that the achievement of sustainable development involves cooperation within and across national boundaries. It implies progress toward national and international equity, including assistance to developing countries in accordance with their national development plans, priorities and objectives. It implies, further, the existence of a supportive international economic environment that would result in sustained economic growth and development in all countries, particularly in developing countries, which is of major importance for sound management of the environment. It also implies the maintenance, rational use and enhancement of the natural resource base that underpins ecological resilience and economic growth. Sustainable development further implies incorporation of environmental concern and considerations in development planning and policies, and does not represent a new form of conditionality in aid or development financing.’ “—Official Records of the General Assembly, Forty-first Session, Supplement No. 25 (A/4425), UNEP/GC, 15/12 decision 15/2, Annex II.

9 Cultural Values

Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behaviour acquired and transmitted between individuals and groups by symbols.

The behavioural patterns constitute the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts. In this context, the essential core of culture consists of traditional ideas and especially their attached values, which govern the way the members currently use nature, live in nature and relate to their historical roots expressed in traditions of art , technology and landscape. Culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other hand, as conditioning value-influences upon further action.

Cultural ideas manifest themselves in different ways and differing levels of depth. Symbols represent the most superficial and values the deepest manifestations of culture, with heroes and rituals in between.

Symbols are words, gestures, pictures, or objects that carry a particular meaning, which is only recognized by those who share a particular culture. New symbols easily develop, old ones disappear. Symbols from one particular group are regularly copied by others. This is why symbols represent the  outermost layer of a culture.

Heroes are persons, past or present, real or fictitious, who possess characteristics that are highly prized in a culture. They also serve as models for behavior.

Rituals are collective activities, sometimes superfluous in reaching desired objectives, but are considered as socially essential. They are therefore carried out most of the times for their own sake (ways of greetings, paying respect to others, religious and social ceremonies, etc.).

The core of a culture is formed by values. They are broad tendencies for preferences of a certain state of affairs to others (good-evil, right-wrong, natural- unnatural). Many values remain unconscious to those who hold them. Therefore they often cannot be discussed, nor they can be directly observed by others. Values can only be inferred from the way people act under different circumstances.

Symbols, heroes, and rituals are the tangible or visual aspects of the practices of a culture. The true cultural meaning of the practices is intangible; this is revealed only when the practices are interpreted by the insiders.

The ‘human habitat’ encompasses all those material remains that our ancestors have left in the landscapes of town and countryside. It covers the whole spectrum of human creations from the largest towns, cathedrals, industrial markers or highways – to the very smallest – signposts, standing stones or buried flint tools.

These are all components of the `sense of place’, through which we relate to and value our local environment. A full appreciation of the historic dimension can therefore be of the greatest importance to the development of appropriate and successful schemes of economic development and community regeneration, rather than the impediment that is sometimes supposed.

In seeking a reason for conserving cultural heritage in the form of sites and artifacts, human evolution has to be seen in the context of the current state of development of the universe. This is to be seen as a cosmos, possessing meaning and value as an ordered whole, which is reflected in the earth’s eco-system which includes the human habitat.

Modernity has led to a loss of such a holistic understanding (as existed previously, for example, in the 19th century ‘Great Chain of Being’). Matters of meaning and value have been expunged from nature, which has been reduced to simple mechanism. Can this materialistic determinism, in its ‘cosmic pessimism’, provide an ethical basis for an holistic heritage protection policy which encompasses both ecosystems and human history?

Some scientific ‘pessimists’ have argued for such a policy on fundamentally anthropocentric grounds, of purely human need and potential – which can equally justify continued exploitation/ manipulation of nature destroying ecosystems and cultural heritage. A number, notably in defending biodiversity, have stressed the preciousness of life more generally; but even this ‘preciousness’ depends finally on what Homo sapiens in its cultural achievements, has brought to what it has created.

A dualistic view of nature, as serving or subordinate to humanity and without an intrinsic value, will eventually prove ecologically unsatisfactory. Instead, nature’s worth needs to be seen in its inherent beauty, referring to an objective aspect of the universe, namely the ‘ordering of novelty’ or ‘harmony of diversity’ or ‘unifying of complexity’. These features point to a dynamic balance in beauty, too much ‘order’ leading to a banal even ‘dead’ homogeneity and too much ‘novelty’ to a breakdown of coherence, even to chaos.

This vision is best captured by the idea of ‘process humanism’ in which the cosmos is not a static condition. Creation is an ongoing, open process, in which human creativity enhances the aesthetic intensity of the universe, or can disturb the balance between order and novelty/diversity.

Humanity can only too readily be seen as ‘in charge’ and unconstrained in its immediate material, ‘worldly’ inclinations and (hubristic) ambitions. Beauty is then demoted as a significant or practical consideration. Ecological degradation is the outcome of this tendency’s ascendancy in world politics and economics. Humanity’s capabilities require it to assume its responsibilities in sustaining the cosmic process, recognizing that it is not just for humans (it can exist, already has, without them) or valueless apart from them. Global order can no longer ignore its long-run ecological, cosmic basis. To take this successfully on board, a more than techno-scientific and economic rationality is called for. Conservation is then a human responsibility to sustain and enhance the ordering of novelty and the unification of complexity as the essence of the cosmic adventure towards ever more beauty. In this context, beauty is the objective patterning of things that gives them their actuality and definiteness as intrinsic cosmic values.

10 Managing Ecosystem Services

The aim is to create an international educational framework for comparing how different countries are managing ecosystem services. The framework will be wiki and html pages integrated with the commonly used Green Map System, C Map Tools , Articulate Presenter and e-book software to create resources for on line learning using case histories of conservation/resilience management under the conceptual banner of ‘cultural ecology’ to provide a thematic unity.

All the habitats to which we now ascribe nature conservation value and which prompt our concern to sustain them are the incidental results of long social occupacy during which there has been a dynamic interaction between culture and ecology. Now, unless checked, these random forces, which have framed the human ecological niche will mpoverish habitats and extinguish species. Conservation management is a necessary human behaviour in household. neighbourhood, region and planet for as long as the human population is measured in hundreds of millions.

Cultural ecology as a system expressed as landscapes (Fig 1):-

-combines a sense of place (defined by historical rights and habits) with a territory (a geographical entity)

-to express connections between a rural economy (based on local production and marketing) and its dependent urban economy (dependent on distant production processes),

– with ecosystem services (the processes by which the environment produces resources utlilised by humans such as clean air, water, food and materials) supporting growth (as wealth and population size),

-which accentuates

social inequalities (the existence of unequal opportunities and rewards for different social positions or statuses within a group or society) and environmental degradation (the deterioration of the environment through depletion of resources such as air, water and soil;

the destruction of ecosystems and the extinction of wildlife) eg deforestation (the process whereby natural forests are cleared through logging and/or burning, either to use the timber or to replace the area for alternative uses.);

and climate related issues (many detrimental effects such as more frequent and severe natural disasters, droughts and floods, a rising sea level, and a reduction in biodiversity that particularly affects species upon which the world’s poor rely for their livelihoods reduce the ability of the environment to provide food, water and shelter for the people who currently live there.

As a result, many people will be forced to relocate, which requires behaviour change to re-balance people with resources.  The challenge is to find the right balance between what we demand, what the environment needs, and what other people need from us in terms of food imports and exports) through resilience plans (the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change, so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure and feedbacks to conserve ecosystem services.

These connections are presented as a process diagram in Fig 1.

Fig 1 Process diagram of cultural ecology


Fig 2 Managing ecosystem services: a concept map

This blog has been abstracted from a much larger document which is under construction at;


Access the full range of educational resources at:-International Classrooms On LIne  

Zenic Links between Culture and Ecology

Monday, February 5th, 2018

“Meaning is the pairing of an idea with an object, an image, a thing. How could anything ‘mean’ something without us giving it meaning? And that meaning is completely relative. I don’t intend to say that we’re acting as some supreme meaning-creator. But, humans with their human minds, they search for meaning – they try to find meaning in everything. Does it have meaning? Does anything? We seek to understand patterns so out of the chaos of life we find patterns which offer some comfort, some sense of identity, some rhythm and, out of that, create a sense of identity. Hopefully we find patterns and meaning that help us to lead healthier, happier, more loving lives”  Michael Divine

The Land Ethic

Fig 1 Comparisons of the human skeleton with those of apes.

In 1863, eight years before Darwin’s Descent of Man, Thomas Henry Huxley published his most famous work, Evidence as to Man’s place in Nature. He pointed out the anatomical similarity of humans and apes, particularly regarding their brains, which underpinned Darwin’s case for their common ancestry.  Huxley drew attention to the biological unity of apes and humans, implying that humankind was, and still is, an integral part of nature.  

Eight decades passed amidst a growing concern about the speed and impact of industrialization on the natural world and human-nature relationships. This period saw the rise of the conservation movement.   Human agency in the modern world is  pro­foundly shaped by the economics of industrialism.  It was  becoming obvious that in order to address environmental degradation world leaders would sooner or later have to come to terms with the premises and consequences of an economics that supported the endless growth of mass production   Growth-economics did not have a satisfactory way of handling environmental concepts like wilderness or beauty and Aldo Leopold encapsulated this issue in his 1947 essay,  “The Land Ethic,” which would eventually be published in A Sand Coun­ty Almanac in 1949.   For Leopold, human action in the environment is dictated by an economic system based on a utilitarian atti­tude towards land which is as economically illiterate as it is morally  unsustainable. He traced this non adaptive way of thinking back to the Judeo-Christian tradition, noting that,

“for twenty centuries and longer, all civilized thought has rested upon one basic premise: that it is the destiny of man to exploit and enslave the earth. The biblical injunction to ‘go forth and multiply’ is merely one of many dog­mas that imply this attitude of philosophical imperial­ism.”  

In the Sand County Almanac he wrote,

”It is a century now since Darwin gave us the first glimpse of the origin of species. We know now what was unknown to all the previous caravan of generations: that men are only fellow voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with other creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise”.

At issue here is how the worldview of Western civilization has been deeply scarred by what Leo­pold has described as a conqueror mentality towards land. However, this worldview was becoming increas­ingly untenable in view of human population growth, the increased power and efficacy of human technology, and ecological findings which defined the land as a close knit living community.

Conservation was a response to an overly simplistic economic worldview, but its suc­cess, Leopold realized, would depend on whether so­ciety was able to revise this worldview to bring human consumption in line with its planetary limits. The dominant economic worldview would need to be reconciled with a global ecological understanding and ethical treatment of what we now call the biosphere.  At the heart of Leopold’s conservation thinking was an emphasis on the importance of per­sonal stewardship on the part of private landowners that would be ultimately based on values and beliefs that defy pressure of growth-economics. In his essay he proposed that human beings view themselves as “plain members and citizens” of the living community of the land and not as its conquerors.  He then proposed that economic expediency be supplemented, perhaps even preceded, by other con­siderations:

quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

Writing in 1949, he noted,

“it seems likely that the present muddle (in the pursuit of conservation through public owner­ship of land) arises from the fact that the conserva­tion problem involves a new category of economic phenomena; one with which economists are accustomed to deal.”

Zen and Ecology

We still await the international adoption of Leopold’s new category of economic phenomena, which is now known as steady state economics aimed at sustainable development.  In the meantime there has been a shift towards changing human attitudes to nature with humankind being viewed as an integral part of the biosphere in everything it does.   

This idea is central to Zen, a Buddhists philosophy which appeared with the youth culture in the West, during the 1950s.   Zen became an adjective to describe any spontaneous or free-form activity concerned with seeing observing and searching to generate mindfulness. For Buddhists there is no self in the deep sense that no one exists as a singular, permanent structure distinct and isolated in any meaningful way from the rest of the world. This is entirely in line with an evolutionary and ecological approach to our origins and our embeddedness in natural processes.

Fig 2  The noble eightfold path of Buddhism to achieve a state of mindfulness

The word Zen is derived from the Chinese word “chán” and the sanskrit word “dhyana,” which mean “meditation.” In sanskrit, the root meaning is “to see, to observe, to search.”  In this respect, the combined behaviours of seeing, observing and searching as a spiritual process by which to gain knowledge of our place in nature pre date the invention of Buddhism.

It is in this vein that David Barash published an article in 1973 entitled “The Ecologist as Zen Master” in which he discussed what he considered the remarkable parallels between Zen Buddhism and the then emerging public writings on ecology. He felt that the interdependence and unity of all things was fundamental to both Zen practice and the science of ecology. In addition, both share a common non-dualistic view of the fundamental identity of humankind and its surroundings. A bison cannot be understood in isolation from the prairie; understanding requires study of the bison-prairie unit. He concluded that “the very study of ecology, is the elaboration of Zen’s nondualistic thinking”.

This nondualistic thinking was taken up practically in 1991 on the eve of the first meeting of world leaders to produce an agenda for sustainable development by John Seed, director of the Rainforest Information Centre in Australia.  He gave the following answer to the question of how he deals with the despair of difficulties associated with saving the remaining rainforest:

“I try to remember that it’s not me, John Seed, trying to protect the rainforest. Rather I’m part of the rainforest protecting myself. I am that part of the rainforest recently emerged into human thinking”

Environmental Mindfulness

Zenists act to develop the realization that self and world are not separate. This development in the context of Buddhism takes place through meditation and the cultivation of mindfulness. The mental exercise known as meditation is found in all religious systems. Prayer is a form of discursive meditation, and in Hinduism the reciting of slokas and mantras is employed to tranquilize the mind to a state of receptivity. Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offered the following guidance regarding the goal of meditation on humankind’s fears and hopes for Earth in 1991.

“If we want to continue to enjoy our rivers—to swim in them, walk beside them, even drink their water—we have to adopt the non-dual perspective. We have to meditate on being the rivers so that we can experience within ourselves the fears and hopes of the river. If we cannot feel the rivers, the mountains, the air, the animals, and other people from within their own perspective, the rivers will die and we will lose our chance for peace”.

In the early 1990s, both John Seed and Thich Nhat Hanh were part of an international movement promoting the need to develop a deeper level of environmental understanding so that people can act environmentally out of “feeling” or experience, rather than intellectual knowledge. David Orr in 1994 discusses the importance of “feeling” the truth.  In the final chapter to his  book, Earth in Mind, he concludes that the objective of environmental education should be to draw out our affinity for life. Orr believes we cannot act wisely without knowledge.  We will not act wisely without feeling. The cultivation of mindfulness is a time honoured Buddhist method to develop such feelings. Mindfulness is a sharpened awareness of the immediate present in which we strive to look deeply into the environmental impact and value of our every action. The latter aspect was taken up by the Zen teacher Philip Kapleau in his book The Three Pillars of Zen in 1965.   It was one of the first English-language books to present Zen Buddhism not as philosophy, but as a pragmatic and salutary way of training and living:

“It is precisely the lack of mindfulness that is responsible for so much of the violence and suffering in the world today. … The aware person sees the indivisibility of existence, the deep complexity and interrelationship of all life, and this creates in him a deep respect for the absolute value of things” .

One Square Foot of Earth

Fig 3 Whispering Weeds, Mat Collishaw

James Thornton’s book, ‘Radical Confidence: A Field Guide to the Soul’, was published in 1997.  James was a top US litigator for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), winning over 100 federal cases. Yet he came to feel that the tools he was using as a litigator and environmental advocate “were used up.” He felt that beyond the changes in policy he could effect as a lawyer, a shift in consciousness on the cultural level was needed because so much of his work was based on anger.  This was a kind of righteous anger, what any person feels when they look at what our society is doing to the Earth.  He had to admit to himself that he hadn’t gone beyond anger.   His book was a call to go deeper, to explore ways of working, living, and being beyond those of the lives we create for ourselves. Some of us answer that call and are brought into new ways of seeing, gaining insights that allow for an opening of the heart, mind, and soul. James Thornton is such a person. He began by questioning what the impact would be if everything he and other environmental activists were advocating was put in place, which is unlikely because of the way the political system works, would that be enough? Would they then be in a sustainable and harmonious relationship with the Earth? Thornton’s answer was absolutely not.  The environmentalists knew they were dealing in the realm of real politics and the types of large scale changes they would like to see were the ones they could not even advocate because of the political realities and the consciousness at play in politics. Genuinely fundamental changes were ones that required a metamorphosis in individual consciousness.  Is there a way in which Buddhist practice and other contemplative practices can contribute toward healing the alienation that has divided us from the Earth, our thoughts from our bodies, and us from other species?

Thornton’s own sense was that some kind of contemplative practice, and it can be from a Christian tradition, a Hindu tradition, a Jewish tradition, or Buddhist tradition, is absolutely required to bring about such a metamorphosis. Simply being in the space of quiet mind in the natural setting and allowing the heart to speak allows a surprisingly rapid experience of intimacy with the Earth.  He illustrated this with the following story from a class where he was teaching the practical way to achieve a state of environmental mindfulness.

The instruction was to sit concentrating on one square foot of earth and simply be with it for an hour. The hope was that by paying total awareness to one square foot of Earth, you are experiencing in the natural world what you do contemplatively when you give total awareness to the inner world, which he called the “inscape.”

One woman came back and related how she had sat with her square foot of earth which was full of grass.  It took twenty minutes for her to quiet down to the point where she noticed a small caterpillar that she had in fact been looking at for twenty minutes. She remembered the instructions that if a question was coming up from your heart, to simply allow it to come and in fact to direct it to the living organisms that you were sitting with. Out of her heart rose the question for the caterpillar: “will you teach me about metamorphosis?”

The caterpillar responded rather like a tough old Zen master: “Why should I teach you about metamorphosis?”  She answered, “because you will be going through complete metamorphosis and turn into a butterfly – who better to teach me about how to change?” The caterpillar said, “you don’t seem to understand, most of us don’t make it to butterflies. Either we don’t find the right food plants and die or we’re eaten by predators. There’s no guarantee at all that I’ll become a butterfly. On the other hand, you, as a human being, experience metamorphosis all the time. If you want to know about metamorphosis, study yourself.”

She was speaking with her larger self, represented by Earth, opening her mind in a way that transformed her, and in a way that was very gentle and very subtle, to feel a sense of connection to the larger world, to the cosmos.

Thornton expanded on this as follows:

Simply opening produces healing. When a person, as that young woman did, opens to that part of us, that which needs healing the most comes forward. There is a very gentle progression of material that emerges when we begin opening in this way, so that the things that would overwhelm us don’t come up and things that need to be healed, that we can in fact deal with, are what come up first. Progressively deeper material comes up.

Part of my intensely deep practice in Germany was walking for several hours a day in the woods that surrounded the town. It was an integral part of the meditation. I began to think that meditation or contemplative practice that is divorced from the world is a little bit crazy. These practices in fact tend to have been developed in the natural world. Buddha sat under a bodhi tree. Jesus wandered and fasted in the desert. All of these practices are very deep in their origin, with a very deep connection with the Earth. You open so much that the Earth then teaches – the wisdom encoded in nature simply speaks. It’s wonderful to meditate in a hall or to pray in a church – it’s fabulous. But if that’s the only place we do it, we’re actually missing what the practices originally gave people when they were founded.

At a time when people are desperate to make some sense of their lives, Thornton demonstrates how to embark on our own hero’s journey. Only by taking full responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and actions can we bring about the revolution in consciousness that is so vital today. In order to discover how to care for the Earth and all its inhabitants, we must first learn how to care for ourselves. Thornton shows us the way.  He leads us through a series of contemplative exercises designed to clarify the body, mind, and heart, and make a deep connection with the wisdom encoded in the natural world. His nature writing is joyously lyrical; the book as a whole is immensely practical, drawing on Jungian psychology, and Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian teachings, to give people the tools to work for the benefit of all living beings.  A Field Guide to the Soul has been described as “the Bible for the new millennium.”

Inscape and Instress

The term inscape used above by Thornton was coined by the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins as he developed his theories of what constituted poetry.  ‘Inscape’ means the particular features of a certain landscape or other natural structure, which make it different from any other. Hopkins, as a poet-artist, had to determine just what was special about any scene. His notebooks show the tremendous care with which he details what he thinks is unique about a particular sunset, cloud formation or even waves.  He invented the term ‘instress’ to mean the actual experience a reader has of inscape: how it is received into the sight, memory and imagination. The poet’s job is to find images that will ‘nail’ the inscape down for readers, so they can recapture the poet’s perception and experience.

The terms convey the uniqueness of each created thing or person, and how that individuality is perceived or experienced by the observer. Hopkins felt it was the artist’s job to perceive and express such uniqueness, either in art or through words. He constantly attempted this in his journals and letters.

All this suggests the need for contemplation to understand what one is seeing. William Wordsworth experienced a similar inscape frequently in his time of living in the Lake District or in his travels. He called the particular intense experiences he had of a landscape ‘spots of time’, and as patterns in nature they had definite spiritual or mystical significance for him. When we say ‘landscape’, that does not exclude people, as they too have their own inscape. Such experiences confirmed for Wordsworth the presence of some spiritual entity beneath the surface of reality, and the instress was, as it were, a veil being briefly withdrawn, so that he could perceive this.

Fig 4 Five actions of mindfulness

The whole Romantic enterprise was to see nature in its individuality, as opposed to the scientific approach of the eighteenth century, which had been to classify and generalise. With today’s technology, we can see each snowflake as being different, have our fingerprints taken and our DNA profiled to establish our uniqueness. So there now is less clash between the impersonality of science and the intense individuality of the microcosms of Romanticism.

Around this time, another key writing on this behavioural zenic theme appeared.  Entitled The Conservation Biologist as a Zen Student, it was published in 1997 by Fred W. Allendorf.  According to Allendorf the primary issue of environmentalism is that we behave in a way we believe benefits ourselves at the expense of nature. This is true both at a collective level (jobs versus the environment) and an individual level (driving a car versus riding a bike). However, Allendorf says this perception of a “choice” is incorrect because humans are not separate from nature.  In other words Zen is not about concepts or ideas; it is about how we live our lives. Zen can play a practical role in providing guidance for the conservation biologist in his or her life. Many of the principles considered here are found in most Buddhist teachings, not just Zen.

Alllendorf’s paper was published in the journal of the Society for Conservation Biology.  The goal of the Society, as stated in every issue of its journal, is “to help develop the scientific and technical means for the protection, maintenance, and restoration of life on this planet”. However, Allendorf’s view, like that of Thornton, is that the lesson of Zen is that knowledge alone of what needs to be done is not sufficient to change our behaviour .  For example, Allendorf says we turn light-switches on many times throughout our daily life without awareness. Mindfully performing this act requires awareness of the physical sensation of touching and moving the switch. In addition, we become aware of the effects of this action.

I live in a power-grid connected to the power generating dams of the Columbia River. The connection made when I turned the switch in my office this morning connected my computer with electrical power generated by dams on the Columbia River. These dams and the long pools behind them have blocked or hindered the return of salmon to their spawning grounds. I try to be aware of that connection every time I turn on a light switch; I usually fail.

Environmental awareness can be reinforced by gathas.  These are short verses used to bring the energy of mindfulness to each act of daily life and are a traditional form of Zen practice. The following gatha, written by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1992, can be used before every meal:

In this food,

I see clearly the existence

of the entire universe,

supporting my existence.

Another of Allendorfs everyday examples of stimulating mindfulness is seeing the entire universe in our breakfast cereal.

If we take just a moment to reflect, “the ocean is there; the rain that watered the grain was carried from the ocean by clouds. The sun is there; the grain could not grow without energy from the sun. The Jurassic ecosystem in which the dinosaurs dwelled is there; plants that fed the dinosaurs 200 million years ago were transformed into the fossil fuel that was used to harvest the grain and to carry it to the table. Gregor Mendel is there, along with the plant breeders who developed the strains of grain. Such moments of reflection strengthen our appreciation of our interdependence to countless beings, past and present, near and far”.

Cultivating such constant awareness of our actions is a powerful method to transform our behaviour so that we can act in a way that will protect, maintain, and restore life on Earth.  The stated goal of the Society for Conservation Biology is to save “life on this planet”. However, Zen teaches that we cannot save others; at best, we can save ourselves by transforming our own unskillful ways. However, Zen also teaches that our identity is not limited to our ego-self. Our identity includes all living beings. Humans act in a way that they feel is in their own self interest. We will act to save “life on this planet” only if we recognize at a deep level that our “self” includes all beings. We need to recognize and feel at a deep level that ultimately we are not conservation biologists trying to save other species. Rather, we are one emergence of life on this planet trying to save itself.

Fig 5 Small Wood

Roots of Zenic Behaviour

To most people, Zen is associated with meditation, and is seen as being beyond their experience.  In the West, during the 1950s, Zen became an adjective to describe any spontaneous or free-form activity concerned with seeing, observing and searching to generate mindfulness. Strictly speaking Zen is a noun. Zenic is an adjective. The aim of these zenic behaviors is to  encourage  logical thinkers to become logical and poetic thinkers. While the discernment of rational thought is not lost, the complementary zenic  perspective of a poetic and spiritual sensibility towards self and environment is added.

The roots of zenic behaviour are:

1  Let go of what you can’t control. You are the only entity that you can fully control. Your thoughts, actions and feelings are what you are able to change. The actions and thoughts of anyone else, on the other hand, are precisely what you cannot control, perhaps despite your best efforts. Learn to let go of what other people think and do, and turn your focus back onto yourself.

  • Give people the benefit of the doubt. If you think you’ve been wronged or mistreated, evaluate the situation from a third-person point of view. Consider that the offending person might not be aware of what they’ve done. Give them the benefit of the doubt and consider they are just unaware.
  • Alternately, if someone has disappointed you, think about your expectations. Are they realistic? Were your expectations communicated to the other person? It might help to talk to that person, for example, to clarify how the miscommunication happened.

2  Look at the bigger picture. Putting things into perspective will help you balance the way you approach life. This goes hand in hand with letting go of things you can’t control. Ask yourself what else is happening in the world that might be contributing to a negative situation.

  • When thinking about an issue that you can’t control, make a list of factors out of your control that impact this issue. For example, if you are having trouble finding a job, think about the downturned economy or the outsourcing of jobs in your industry.
  • Reduce worry by asking yourself if something will matter in an hour or a day from now.]

3  Control or change the aspects that you can control. When you empower yourself to take control of certain things, you can feel more adept at maintaining a calm attitude.

  • For example, if you get riled up at the morning traffic, consider controlling your interactions with the traffic by changing the time that you leave in the morning, or taking mass transit.] Don’t give your mind more fodder for stress, anger and frustration. Instead, reduce these things so you can clear your mind.

Zen Buddhists following Thich Nhat Hanh take 14 precepts or what we might call vows. Three of these have relevance to the practical applications of zenic thinking:

  1. Precept 5: do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry. Do not take as the aim of your life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Live simply and share time energy and material resources with those who are in need.
  2. Precept 11: do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. Do not invest in companies that deprive others of their chance to live. Select a vocation that helps realise your ideal of compassion. (Thinking of business as a vocation may well shift the consciousness of those involved in it. Taken with precept 5 business becomes a sustainable vehicle for the zenic purpose to be realised in the hearts of individuals working in business.)
  3. Precept 13: possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from profiting from human suffering of other species on earth. (This calls us to make very certain that the activities of business are non grasping and that where we find this to be happening that we speak out against it.)

Buddhist practice is deeply concerned with discarding  beliefs that exist that give rise to suffering.  This means discarding:  

  • believing oneself to be separate from others  
  • believing that the environment is a resource to be used in unlimited ways  
  • believing that material wealth makes us happy  
  • believing that the suffering of communities different from our own has nothing to do with us  
  • believing that what we do makes no difference  
  • believing that the systems and structures we have created are the only ones we can make work  
  • not understanding that impermanence is built into everything we do.

These can be taken as markers on the way to sustainability.

Natural Contemplation

Thomas Merton, the great twentieth century monastic Christian contemplative, once wrote that one of the biggest challenges facing his novices was their lack of “natural contemplation,” the contemplation of nature.  Teaching people about proper disposal of garbage, recycling, and other environmental topics is not the answer. People only protect what they love. To love something, you have to know it. But what does “knowing” entail?   As world populations continue to rise and as wild spaces are reduced due to human encroachments, our heightened interactions with other beings expand our awareness of both ourselves and other. As individuals, our consciousness of the boundaries between humans and other living things ultimately determines our own fate as a species. Having become dependent on other species, plants, animals and microbes,  for psychological and nutritional needs, human beings don’t often know where the self ends and the other begins.

Many scholars have ventured general comparisons of Eastern and Western Art. Suzuki (1957:30) suggests that Oriental art depicts spirit, while Western art depicts form. Watts (1957:174) holds that the West sees and depicts nature in terms of man-made symmetries and super imposed forms, squeezing nature to fit his own ideas, while the East accepts the object as is, and presents it for what it is, not what the artist thinks it means. Gulick puts it this way:

Oriental artists are not interested in a photographic representation of an object but in interpreting its spirits . . . . Occidental art . . . exalts personality, is anthropocentric . . . . Oriental art . . . has been cosmocentric. It sees man as an integral part of nature . . . . The affinity between man and nature was what impressed Oriental artists rather than their contrast, as in the West. To Occidentals, the physical world was an objective reality–to be analyzed, used, mastered. To Orientals, on the contrary, it was a realm of beauty to be admired, but also of mystery and illusion to be pictured by poets, explained by mythmakers, and mollified by priestly incantations. This contrast between East and West had incalculable influence on their respective arts, as well as on their philosophies and religions. (1963:253-255).

One of the richest visual objects in Tibetan Buddhism is the mandala.  A mandala is a symbolic picture of the universe. It can be a painting on a wall or scroll, created in coloured sands on a table, or a visualisation in the mind of a very skilled adept.

Fig 6  Thangka painting of Manjuvajra Mandala

A similar spirit pervades the Zen haiku – a poem in seventeen syllables that must point to a certain wholeness of perception. The poet’s skill is judged by his imperceptibility in the haiku, which must capture the essence of the moment in which it is conceived and written.

An example of a famous haiku by thep Zen master Basho:

An ancient pond

A frog jumps in


Another one, also by Basho:

You light the fire

I’ll show you something nice –

A great ball of snow!

Haiku of a quiet, desolate sabi-laden moment by Gochiku:

On a withered branch

A crow is perched,

In the autumn evening.

Intercultural Zenic Art:

“Resting the mind can be accomplished by meditation, and also by artwork, which allows the intuition to flow: the conscious mind recedes. Meditation and art work at their best complement each other, and true things emerge.” —Candace Loheed

Zen means “meditation.” Zen teaches that enlightenment is achieved through the profound realization that one is an enlightened being. This awakening can happen gradually or in a flash of insight.  But in either case, it is the result of one’s own efforts. Deities and scriptures can offer only limited assistance. Enlightenment, the essence of Zen, is a freedom of thinking that is in, but not of this world and does not require anything extraneous.  

Zen Buddhism’s emphasis on simplicity and the importance of the natural world generate a distinctive aesthetic, which is expressed by the terms wabi and sabi.   In traditional Japanese aesthetics, Wabi-sabi is a world view centred on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.  The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence, specifically impermanence, suffering and absence of a well reasoned self-nature. Self-nature, strictly defined, is the totality of our beliefs, preferences, opinions and attitudes organized in a systematic manner, towards our personal existence. Simply put, it is how we think of ourselves as an individual.   In meditation we compare our present selves with  the self we should be and if there if they do not march up with how we should think, behave and act out our various life roles, then try to discover ways of making the change.

Characteristics of the wabi-sabi that are guides to the zenic art aesthetic include asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.  These two amorphous concepts are used to express a sense of rusticity, melancholy, loneliness, naturalness, and age, so that a misshapen, worn peasant’s jar is considered more beautiful than a pristine, carefully crafted dish. While the latter pleases the senses, the former stimulates the mind and emotions to contemplate the essence of reality. In today’s Japan, the meaning of wabi-sabi is often condensed to “wisdom in natural simplicity.” In art books, it is typically defined as “flawed beauty.”  

Fig 7  “Fujisan” white Raku ware tea bowl (chawan) by Honami Kōetsu, Edo period

Whether she is a Buddhist or not the zenic artist strives to apply Wabi-sabi to illustrate the inherent nature of an aesthetic object by the simplest means possible. The goal is to capture the intrinsic qualities of the object, its eternal essence.  Contemplation is key to the creation and viewing of art, as it requires a deep personal understanding of the inner nature of the subject being rendered and viewed.

Art in the West has developed a complex linguistic symbolism through which the artist manipulates his material to communicate something to his audience. Art as communication is basic to Western aesthetics, as is interrelationship of form and content. Music is considered a language of feeling and consists of sonorous moving forms.  Landscape painting in the Western tradition is not merely an aesthetically pleasing reproduction; the artist uses his techniques of balance, perspective, and colour, to express a personal reaction to the landscape–his painting is a frozen human mood. The aesthetic object is used as a link between the audience and the artist’s feelings and the Western artist’s technique is used to create an illusion of the forms of reality.

The zenic artist, on the other hand, tries to suggest by the simplest possible means the inherent nature of the aesthetic object. Anything may be painted, or expressed in poetry, and any sounds may become music. The job of the artist is to suggest the essence, the eternal qualities of the object, which is in itself a work of natural art before the artist arrives on the scene. In order to achieve this, the artist must fully understand the inner nature of the aesthetic object.  The latter is its Buddha nature. This is the hard part. Technique, though important, is useless without it; and the actual execution of the artwork may be startlingly spontaneous, once the artist has comprehended the essence of his subject.

The style of painting favoured by traditional Zen artists makes use of a horsehair brush, black ink, and either paper or silk. It is known as sumi-e. A great economy of means is necessary to express the purity and simplicity of the eternal nature of the subject, Because it is a generalizing factor, Zen art does not try to create the illusion of reality. It abandons true to life perspective, and works with artificial space relations which make one think beyond reality into the essence of reality. This concept of essence as opposed to illusion is basic to Zen art in all phases.

Fig 8 The Emperor’s goat

A favourite example of the creative working of a zenic artist is the story of the Emperor’s goat. A Chinese painter was once commissioned to paint the Emperor’s favourite goat. The artist asked for the goat, that he might study it. After two years the Emperor, growing impatient, asked for the return of the goat; the artist obliged. Then the Emperor asked about the painting. The artist confessed that he had not yet made one, and taking an ink brush he drew eight nonchalant strokes, creating the most perfect goat in the annals of zen Chinese painting.

The earliest reference to Zen brushwork occurs in the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, a text which relates the life and teaching of the illustrious Chinese master Hui-neng (638-713). Buddhist scenes, composed in accordance to canonical dictates, were to be painted on the walls of the monastery in which Huineng was labouring as a lay monk. At midnight the chief priest sneaked into the hall and brushed a Buddhist verse on the white wall. After viewing the calligraphy the next morning, the abbot dismissed the commissioned artist with these words: “I’ve decided not to have the walls painted after all. As the Diamond Sutra states ‘All images everywhere are unreal and false.”‘ Evidently fearing that his disciples would adhere too closely to the realistic pictures, the abbot thought a stark verse in black ink set against a white wall better suited to awaken the mind.

Thereafter, art was used by Chinese and Japanese Buddhists to reveal the essence, rather than merely the form of things, through the use of bold lines, abbreviated brushwork, and dynamic imagery—a unique genre now known as Zen art.

Although the seeds of Zen painting and calligraphy were sown in China, this art form attained full flower in Japan. Masterpieces of Chinese Ch’an (Zen) art by such monks were enthusiastically imported to Japan during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and a number of native artists  studied on the mainland. Building on that base, Japanese monks produced splendid examples of classical Zen art; eventually Zenga became one of the most important Japanese art forms, appreciated the world over for its originality and distinctive flavour.

Early Zen in Japan was a religion for cultured aristocrats and powerful lords but by the fifteenth century Zen priests and nuns became actively concerned with the welfare of common folk. The democratization of Zen had a marked effect on painting and calligraphy, and the scope of Zen art was dramatically expanded.

Hakuin and Sengai, the two greatest Zen artists, employed painting and calligraphy as visual sermons (eseppo) to teach the hundreds of people, high and low, that gathered around them. Both of the masters drew inspiration from other schools of Buddhism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Taoism, folk religion, and scenes from everyday life; their calligraphy too embraced much more than quotes from the Sutras and Patriarchs—nursery rhymes, popular ballads, satirical verse, even bawdy songs from the red-light districts could convey Buddhist truths. Zen art thus became all-inclusive: anything could be the subject of a visual sermon.

Following the example of Hakuin and Sengai it became de rigueur for Zen masters to do much of their teaching through the medium of brush and ink; a tradition that continues to the present day. In many ways, Japanese Zen art parallels the Tibetan Buddhist concept of termas (hidden treasures).

According to Tibetan legends, the guru Padmasambhava hid thousands of texts all over the country to be discovered later when the time was ripe for their propagation. Whether or not this is literally true, during the persecution of Buddhism in Tibet during the ninth century, a large number of religious texts and articles were in fact hidden in caves, under rocks, inside walls, and other secret places to prevent their destruction, and over the centuries such treasures were gradually recovered. Similarly in Japan during this century, devotees of Zen art have uncovered thousands of magnificent pieces locked away in temple store-rooms, sitting forgotten on shelves in private homes, kept in drawers by indifferent art dealers, or left uncatalogued in museums. The illustrations in this article are largely comprised of such discoveries. Significantly, these pieces, some unseen for centuries but still bearing a message as fresh and forceful as when first delivered, are reappearing just as it is possible to display them throughout the world by means of modern print technology.

While the primary purpose of Zen painting and calligraphy is to instruct and inspire, it does have a special set of aesthetic principles; indeed, the best Zen art is true, beneficial, and beautiful a combination of deep insight and superior technique. The freshness, directness, and liveliness of Zen painting and calligraphy imbue it with a charm that few devotees of Japanese art can resist.

Belief in the superiority of spiritual mastery over technical mastery is evidenced by numerous stories of Japanese sword fighting in which untrained monks defeated trained samurai because they naturally comprehended the basic nature of the contest, and had no fear of death whatsoever..

One aspect of Zen thought and practice that is important to understand is how much it is a reaction against the popular culture and ideology of the times, both then and now. Zen spontaneity evolved out of dissatisfaction with stale tradition and dominant social structures. Zen, therefore, is almost always a rebellion against political, artistic, and social forms that threaten to crush natural action and true human feeling. Jazz, too, continues to react against structures, whether the tightly set chord patterns of popular music or the idea of musicians as entertainers only. Jazz rebels against the concept of music as a pre-set, pre-determined form, and, like Zen, demands that people act purely in the moment, without reference to past learning or future anxieties.

Like painting, poetry and other cultural expressions of Zen, jazz could be said to be the practice of a set of musical theories. Jazz musicians, like Zen practitioners, though, always take their theory with a high degree of scepticism. That is, theorizing in abstract ways tends to move away from concrete realities, and often ends up in hollow music. In Zen gardens, the mind is always brought back to the rocks, plants and walls of the garden whenever the mind starts to float away into transcendent formulas or abstract musings. In jazz performance, the musician too is constantly brought back to the concrete sounds, rhythms, and tones of music. Jazz, though, is rarely an individual practice, but also incorporates the concrete expressions of the jazz performance, the musician too is constantly brought back to the concrete sounds, rhythms, and tones of music. Jazz, though, is rarely an individual practice, but also incorporates the concrete expressions of the other musicians. In these ways, the abstract is not shunned, but not invited in, either. In the best of jazz and of Zen, the concrete and the abstract work together as a single, unified force.

Spontaneity is at the core of both jazz and Zen. The overlaps and parallels are hard to other musicians. In these ways, the abstract is not shunned, but not invited in, either. In the best of jazz and of Zen, the concrete and the abstract work together as a single, unified force.

Objects and Subjects for Meditation

All the 7 billion people of the world have only one single Planet where we can live and perpetuate, and that is our precious Mother Earth. The rate at which we extract natural resources  far exceeds their rate of natural replenishment by natural biological and physical processes. Earth is giving us signs and warnings that ‘business as usual’ will not do. We are NOT taking heed of the critical signs because we are too busy running our daily lives in a competitive world where increasing material wealth is seen as good and right. But the sad fact is that there is no social equity in the quest for sustainable development. We are really not bothered about other human beings who are far more disadvantaged than us in the social and economic perspectives. Members of the same human race do not care for one another!  M. Nadarajah

Object focused meditation is a visual meditation involving an external physical item.  We are conditioned to be task-oriented since childhood, so we have learned to keep the mind from drifting by giving it a task to focus on.

Object focused meditation makes use of this conditioning by getting the mind to focus on the object in front of you.  It tricks the mind into staying in the present moment. The nature of the specific physical item to use for the meditation is a matter of personal preference and anything from a candle flame to a picture of a deity to a flower to a rock could be used.  The external object of attention is useful in as much as it acts as a point of reference to which the mind can easily be tethered. Every time it strays, you simply need to bring it back to the object.  However, if the meditation is aimed at getting a deeper understanding of  the natural world it helps to choose an object that is natural.

The chosen object should meet two conditions –

  • be small enough so it can be scrutinized without having to move your head, and
  • be big enough so you don’t have to strain your eyes to study its details

Regarding the subjects for meditation, the most important points of focus are the pathways between culture and ecology that have to be followed in order to live sustainably. Cultural ecology on Earth today is dominated by unmindful production and consumption. We consume to forget our worries and our anxieties. Tranquilising ourselves with over- consumption is not the way.  The objective of zenic meditation is to learn how to live mindfully and cooperatively, in harmony with others and with nature.  The route map was plotted on September 25th 2015 when countries adopted a set of goals to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda. Each goal has specific targets to be achieved over the next 13 years.  For the goals to be reached, everyone needs to do their part by adopting behaviours in keeping with the new sustainable development agenda: governments, the private sector, civil society and ordinary people.

Meditation on the Coventry Tapestry

Fig 9  The Great Tapestry at Coventry Cathedral

As an educational example of meditative education the theme of ‘Notions About Nature’ or ‘Seeking Spiritual Signs in the Living World’ was taken in the 1990s as a response to the Rio Environment Summit which involved establishing a communal network for meditation on notions about nature: part of the Welsh Schools in Communities Agenda 21 Network (SCAN)

The collective meditation began with the industrial assault of the Sea Empress oil spill on an exceptionally beautiful Welsh coastline that had been a source of spiritual inspiration for the painter Graham Sutherland. Groups of children were activated to follow Sutherland’s particular notional language; a quest which led inevitably to his Great Tapestry in Coventry Cathedral.

It is presented on the web to other students for comment, and in the hope that it will be extended with other local appraisals of the ‘sacredness of place’.

The first version was edited from the contributions of Welsh students who have participated in real, and virtual, discussion groups within the Schools in Communities Agenda 21 Network SCAN organised from the National Museum of Wales Cardiff (1996- 99)

A spiritual view of environment emerges from trying to read and express various signs of the workings of nature in relation to our position in the grand scheme of things. For example, the Koran has much to say about ‘signs’ which, through the imagination, point to the deeper significance of everyday life.

‘In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of night and day; in the ships that sail the ocean with cargoes beneficial to man; in the water which God sends down from the sky and with which He revives the earth after its death, dispersing over it all manner of beasts; in the disposal of the winds, and in the clouds that are driven between earth and sky; surely there are signs for rational men (The Koran 2:163).

With a similar set of holistic notions about nature, St Francis of Assisi praised God ‘for our sister, Mother Earth, which brings forth varied fruits and grass and glowing flowers’, and ended with praise to God ‘for our Sister the death of the body’. Neighbourliness on the part of a stranger is signed as a cultural element of evolved human behaviour in the parable of the good Samaritan. A sunset seen above an urban skyline can be both a scientific and an uplifting spiritual experience. These cultural notions about nature cemented families to neighbourhood in the past, but are now lost or diluted within our urban and rural placeless subcultures. Individuals and families lie unattached to the major world religions and are left to develop their place in an idiosyncratic cosmology.

Moral and spiritual teaching has always relied heavily on visual imagery. Images make and realise a society’s attitudes, values and beliefs, and to transmit signs of what it is to be human from one generation to the next. They also enable us to see reality from different perspectives where the same image may form a bridge, say, between science and religion. However, an image may also enable us to grasp mysteries beyond human understanding. In meditating on Sutherland’s tapestry one is obviously beginning with messages that may be presented through graphic art. Notions about nature are equally powerful when presented in words and music. In this context, students soon began to move between the different kinds of communication media.

Using a system of ‘notional appraisals’, examples may be gathered within a humanities syllabus of the influential role played by the visual arts, literary expressions, and architecture, in the formation and maintenance of religious and spiritual values. However, there is no generally accepted educational framework for gathering and using neighbourhood notions about nature to link communities and environment to a larger whole. In particular, classroom examples are needed which highlight the use of notional values of environment in guiding the course of local development.

This issue came to a head for many children in South Wales when the super-tanker ‘Sea Empress’ came to grief in Milford Haven in February 1996. SCAN*, the Schools in Communities Agenda 21 Network, was just beginning to develop as a system of environmental appraisal in Pembrokeshire’s schools. Children in the SCAN schools were already alerted to the fragility of their neighbourhood, but the Sea Empress disaster still came as a shock. There was a burst of meditative creative activity as they tried to articulate their feelings of fear and frustration about the loss of valued features of their local coastline. These, for the most part, appeared as meditative poems, letters, and video presentations. There was also a conference in Cardiff”s National Museum led by the Pembrokeshire SCAN schools who were in the front line of the oil spill and its horrific clean-up.  The mindmap of this project can be seen at:

There is also an international educational wiki on living sustainably, currently receiving between 15 and 50 unique visitors per day:

Meditation on One Square Foot of Earth

Sheila Roberge, is an UNH Cooperative Extension Outside Volunteer.  During one class, to push them, and herself, a little harder, she led her students outside and each student measured off one square foot of ground.  Each then got down close and looked long and carefully in his or her square foot. They found amazing things. Lots and lots of ants: red ants, black ants and red-and-black ants. Worn-down grass with roots twisted at the surface competed with spindly weeds for a bit of sun and space, and dead pine needles crisscrossed each other, making delicate patterns on the of the ground.

Dried bits of seeds, bark, and tiny twigs filled in spaces, and here and there rocks and stones pushed up through the grey dirt. In some of the squares we found beetles; once someone found a spider with eggs. It seemed that everyone found pieces of acorns or the husks of seeds.They all wrote down our observations of their square foot of earth.

Back inside the classroom, the students read quietly to themselves the poem, “To Look at Any Thing” by John Moffitt, which begins: To look at any thing, If you would know that thing, You must look at it long.

Fig 10 Half a square metre of upper level storm beach, Machynis, Llanelli, Jan 2918

Then for homework, Sheila Roberts asked them to use their observations of their square foot of earth to write a free-verse poem between 10 and 20 lines. When they read their poems to each other, a quiet reverence filled the room. No one laughed or said anything crude or cruel.

Roberge’s message is go outside and, as Moffitt advises, “enter in to the small silences between the leaves.”  Let the natural world around you and beneath your feet fill you with wonder. You don’t need to be a poet or a student to learn to have an appreciation for nature. Just imagine all the earth in square feet, imagine all the life teeming within each square foot, and tread carefully.

Someone else who used the one square foot of Earth for meditation was James Thornton, as outlined above.  He was seeking a way in which contemplative practices can contribute toward healing the alienation that has divided us from the Earth. His aim was to regain a sense of connection to the whole cosmos, which comes immediately when there is the sense of connection with the living Earth.

Meditating with Images

The history of art is filled with images made for sacred places and artists often attach themselves to places, carving out sacred spaces, and attending to the details of their specific location. Such a place is Hereford Cathedral and such an artist is Tom Denny.  

Fig 11 Thom Denney Treherne Window Hereford Cathedral

Denny’s stained glass paintings are meditative windows with which to access the ideas of Thomas Traherne, an English poet, clergyman, theologian, and religious writer.  .A great passion depicted in Traherne’s work is his love of nature and the natural world, frequently displayed in a very Romantic treatment of nature that has been described as characteristically pantheist or panentheist. While Traherne credits a divine source for its creation, his praise of nature seems nothing less than what one would expect to find in Thoreau. Many scholars consider Traherne a writer of the sublime, and in his writing he seems to have tried to reclaim the lost appreciation for the natural world, as well as paying tribute to what he knew of in nature that was more powerful than he was. In this sense Traherne seems to have anticipated the Romantic movement more than 130 years before it actually occurred.  There is frequent discussion of man’s almost symbiotic relationship with nature, as well as frequent use of “literal setting”, that is, an attempt to faithfully reproduce a sense experience from a given moment, a technique later used frequently by William Wordsworth. of Focus: Zenic

Fig 12  Mat Collishaw: Burnng Flowers Framed photograph

People think the goal of meditation is to empty the mind. It’s not about clearing the mind; it’s about focusing on one thing. When the mind wanders, the meditation isn’t a failure. Our brain is like a ‘wayward puppy’, out of control. Catching it and putting it back to the object of focus is the meditation.  What better way then to meditate on out of focus photographs to plumb the depths of reality. It is our in depth of perception of fragmented images which shapes the concrete layers of reality.

Reviewing the Saatchi exhibition ‘Out of Focus: Photography’ in 2012  Anna MacNay pointed out that nothing at the Saatchi Gallery is ever just about art in the traditional sense,

“ – that is, it’s never just about looking, seeing, and responding aesthetically; there’s always a conceptual element, something clever, something subversive about the works. And this is certainly the case with the current exhibition, Out of Focus, the first major photography show at the gallery in over ten years. Showcasing the work of 38 international artists – for the term “photographer” is too narrow, and alternative suggestions span such neologisms as “photoworkers”, “photoartists”, “camera artists”, and “cross-platform mediators” – old ideas about the “professional” and “amateur” are disregarded, just as are the boundaries between categories such as documentary, fashion, advertising and art”.

Anders Clausen’s Picture 35 and Green (both 2010) presented screenshots of desktops, both exploiting and satirising digital photography. At the opposite extreme, Matt Collishaw has created a number of monumental black and white and mirrored mosaics, breaking down the images, as he says, like pixels, but simultaneously adopting zenic art forms.

Central to Mat Collishaw’s work are the themes of illusion and desire, which he uses to draw us into a mental arena where everyday images are questioned and broken down for answers.

Spirituality is a way to move beyond the surface understanding of life and to begin to peek into some of the underlying layers.  In the context  of the art works in the Saatchi exhibition, peeking means meditation.  For example, Noémie Goudal’s Les Amants (Cascade) (2009) appears, at first glance, to be a fast flowing waterfall, but, upon closer examination, reveals itself to be a man-made installation of transparent plastic sheeting set in a dry forest. MacNay asks, Is it still beautiful? Do we still stand there in breathtaking awe? Or do only natural realities deserve such a response? Does a created image of a created artefact deserve equivalent reverence?

Poetic Microcosms

Contemplation of a transient microcosm involving a predator and its prey produced the following poem ‘Windhover’  by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Fig 13 A ‘windhover’

The Hovering

I caught this morning,

Morning’s minion,

Kingdom of daylight’s dauphin,

Dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon,

In his riding of the rolling level

Underneath him steady air,

And striding high there,

How he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing.


The Swooping

In his ecstasy!

Then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend,

The hurl and gliding rebuffed the big wind.

My heart in hiding stirred for a bird,

– the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!


The Dropping

Brute beauty and valour and act,

Oh, air, pride, plume, here buckle!

And the fire that breaks from thee then,

A billion times told lovelier, more dangerous,

O my chevalier!

The Killing


No wonder of it:

Shéer plód makes plough down sillion shine,

And blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.


Internet References

Whale installation

Visual thinking about style in art and pattern in nature

Saturday, January 20th, 2018

1  Pattern in human nature

Albert Einstein has long been cited as a visual thinker, but few have looked in detail at the way he described thought:

“What, precisely, is ‘thinking’? When, on the reception of sense impressions, memory pictures emerge, this is not yet ‘thinking.’ And when such pictures form sequences, each member of which calls forth another, this too is not yet ‘thinking.’ When, however, a certain picture turns up in many such sequences, then—precisely by such return—it becomes an organizing element for such sequences, in that it connects sequences in themselves unrelated to each other. Such an element becomes a tool, a concept. I think that the transition from free association or dreaming to thinking is characterized by the more or less preeminent role played by the ‘concept'” (Einstein 1979, 7)..

Pattern exists in objects designed by people as well as in non human nature.  That is to say as well as having the ability to recognise pattern we behave creatively as pattern-forming beings.  Pattern as an expression of human creativity is an underlying visual framework that organizes surfaces or structures in a consistent, regular manner. In this context, pattern can be described as a repeating unit of shape or form, but it can also be thought of as the complex “mental skeleton” that organizes the parts of an artistic composition.

In the visual arts, style is a distinctive creative manner which permits the grouping of works into related categories.  A style is a distinctive, and therefore recognizable, way in which an act is performed or an artifact made or ought to be made.  Style refers to the visual appearance of a work of human creativity that relates it to other works by the same artist or one from the same period, training, location, “school”, or art movement.  The notion of style has long been the art historian’s principal mode of classifying works of art.   It is through changes in style that the history of art is shaped.

Painting styles are usually associated with an era in art history, defined by the influences of certain schools of thought.  For example, the impressionists had a great influence on generations of artists who followed. Their application of paint, along with the loose suggestions of forms bathed in light created an upheaval in the art community. The Impressionists had broken away from traditional painting methods working in a manner that would clearly set them apart. They developed a different  and unique style.  But even as a group of artists who shared specific beliefs about light and colour, members of the impressionist school still created their own individual styles.

Artistic style is often divided into the general style of a period, country or cultural group, collection of artists or an art movement.  Individual artists adopt the approved style of the group. Divisions within both types of styles are often made, such as between “early”, “middle” or “late”. In some artists, such as Picasso for example, these divisions may be marked and easy to see (Figs 1a & 1b), in others they are more subtle. Style is seen as being dynamic, always changing by a gradual process.  The rapidity of stylistic change varies greatly, between the very slow development typical of prehistoric art or the art of Ancient Egypt to the rapid changes in Modern art.  Style often develops in a series of jumps, with relatively sudden changes followed by periods of slower development.  However, art movements are simply a historical convenience for grouping together artists of a certain style so that they may be understood within a specific context of pattern or time.  

One of the functions of style in art is to give back what technology takes away. And what technology takes away most often now is a sense of age. Pieces of technology more and more feel as if they come from nowhere. They vanish into obsolescence in a matter of years. Being temporary, they take on the status of utterance. They’re like speech instead of writing; they hang in the air for an instant, and then they’re gone. The same is true for much of the built environment. And the same is true for much of contemporary art.

Fig 1a & 1b  Two of Picasso’s styles

Style is not a matter of right and wrong but of what is appropriate for a particular setting and audience. Consider the following two passages, which were written by the same author on the same topic with the same main idea, yet have very different literary styles:

“Experiments show that Heliconius butterflies are less likely to oviposit on host plants that possess eggs or egg-like structures. These egg mimics are an unambiguous example of a plant trait evolved in response to a host-restricted group of insect herbivores.

“Heliconius butterflies lay their eggs on Passiflora vines. In defense the vines seem to have evolved fake eggs that make it look to the butterflies as if eggs have already been laid on them.” (Example from Myers, G. (1992). Writing biology: Texts in the social construction of scientific knowledge. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. p. 150.)

What changed was the audience. The first passage was written for a professional journal read by other biologists, so the style is authoritative and impersonal, using technical terminology suited to a professional audience. The second passage, written for a popular science magazine, uses a more dramatic style, setting up a conflict between the butterflies and the vines, and using familiar words to help readers from non-scientific backgrounds visualize the scientific concept being described. Each style is appropriate for the particular audience.

Discerning patterns in nature is often the first step in making patterns from nature.  Using patterns to create a style can be regarded as the final step in human artistic creativity  A good example of the process of turning patterns in nature into an artistic style is the work of Gustav Klimt (Fig 2).

Fig 2 ‘The Kiss (Gustave Klimpt

Klimt’s painting style was based on exotic patterns taken from Byzantine, Greek and Egyptian art which in turn had been derived from patterns in nature.  His pictures are ornate, elaborate and decorative, often including bright patterns and gold leafing. He was good at the seamless mixing of historical and traditional patterns with a contemporary approach to painting, combing abstracted patterns with realistic figure painting.  These pictures demonstrate how his new style spanned the abstract and realism movements in the 1890s.

2 Patterns in nature

We make sense of the world by looking for repeating qualities in phenomena around us.  We discern patterns in nature and then try to work out the reasons behind repeating motives, events and processes.  An extreme form of this human trait is “patternicity,” or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise; like seeing faces or landscapes on decaying surfaces  (Figs 3 & 4),  

Fig 3  Pin of decaying wall plaster

Fig 4 Pin of flaking paint on a metal surface

At a very simple level, we may attempt to understand patterns in nature by grouping things by colour, shape, texture, number or according to qualities of sound, smell, taste, touch or properties of movement. Or we may group them according to purpose, function or any one of many conceptual organizers.  A common visual conceptual organiser is the discovery of a frequently found arrangement  of surface markings.  

3 Taking an artful view of scientific problems

As  natural phenomena, patterns in the non human world do not adhere to a standard set of rules; we can identify patterns, but they are not necessarily uniform.  Patterns in nature are visible regularities of form found in the environment and are the outcomes of biophysical processes such as weathering and natural selection. These patterns recur in different contexts and can sometimes be modelled mathematically. Natural patterns include symmetries, trees, spirals, meanders, waves, foams, tessellations, cracks, stripes and spatial distributions of plants and animals (Fig 5).

Fig 5 Three quantifiable natural spatial distributions

Early Greek philosophers studied pattern in nature, with Plato, Pythagoras and Empedocles attempting to explain order in the environment.  In the 19th century, Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau examined photographs of soap films, leading him to formulate the concept of a minimal surface. German biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel painted hundreds of marine organisms to emphasise their symmetry. Scottish biologist D’Arcy Thompson pioneered the study of growth patterns in both plants and animals, showing that simple equations could explain spiral growth. In the 20th century, British mathematician Alan Turing predicted mechanisms of morphogenesis which give rise to patterns of spots and stripes on body surfaces. Studies of pattern formation now make use of computer models to simulate a wide range of patterns.  Hungarian biologist Aristid Lindenmayer and French American mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot showed how the mathematics of fractals could create plant growth patterns.  

Pattern in nature is a recurring characteristic that helps in the identification of any ecological problem. It might also act as a predictive indicator of how that problem might be expressed in the future. Mathematics, physics and chemistry can explain patterns in inanimate nature at many levels. Patterns in living things are explained by the biological processes of natural selection governing their growth, reproduction and ageing.

4 Tonal mapping of plant distribution: science into art

Over the past half century, remote sensing imagery has been acquired by a range of airborne and space-borne sensors.   Classifying and mapping vegetation is an important technical task for managing natural resources as vegetation provides a base for all living beings and plays an essential role in affecting global climate change, such as influencing terrestrial CO2. Vegetation mapping also presents valuable information for understanding the natural and man-made environments through quantifying vegetation cover from local to global scales at a given time point or over a continuous period. It is critical to obtain current ,states of vegetation cover in order to initiate vegetation protection and restoration programmes.

Four main types of information contained in an optical image are often utilized for the interpreting images obtained from remote sensing:


  • Radiometric Information (i.e. brightness, intensity, tone),
  • Spectral Information (i.e. colour, hue),
  • Textural Information,
  • Geometric and Contextual Information


In displaying a colour composite image, three primary colours (red, green and blue) are used.   When these three colours are combined in various proportions, they produce different colours in the visible spectrum. The display colour assignment for any band of a multispectral image can be done in an entirely arbitrary manner, for instance by manipulating its hue saturation and lightness  In this case, the colour of a target in the displayed image does not have any resemblance to its actual colour. The resulting product is known as a false colour composite image. There are many possible schemes to produce false colour composite images to detect certain objects in the image.

Fig 6 False colour composite image from a remote cesnsus.

This false colour composite scheme allows differences in vegetation to be detected readily in the image (Fig 6 ).  In this type of false colour composite images, vegetation appears in different shades of red depending on the types and conditions of the vegetation.  Clear water appears dark-bluish (higher green band reflectance), while turbid water appears cyan (higher red reflectance due to sediments) compared to clear water. Bare soils, roads and buildings may appear in various shades of blue, yellow or grey, depending on their composition.

This kind of tonal mapping of vegetated microcosms often produces images that are visually pleasing.  As such, these images expressing patterns in nature can bring together scientists and artists seeking common ground.  Here is an example of how a common understanding based on the principles of ecology and abstract art can be forged in the focus of remote censoring. The ecological highlight is the distribution pattern of bluebells in open grassland on the small Welsh offshore island of Skomer. (Figs 7-8 ).

Fig 7 Distribution of bluebells in the south west corner of field 5; false colour composite scheme from a drone census, Skomer, May, 2017.

red = bluebells; green = dead bracken fronds; blue = teucrium grassland

Fig 8  Another false colour composite image of part of Field 17, Skomer, May 2017.

This field had grown a crop of potatoes in 1948, since when it had been left to develop as a bracken/woodsage grassland heavily grazed by rabbits.  From the late 1980s the field hadbeen mowed to kill bracken after which it had been invaded by seeding bluebells.  The path to the farm is acting as an impediment to the spread of bluebells from the base of a rock outcrop.

5  Paper marbling a link between art and geology

Paper marbling is a method of aqueous surface art, which can produce patterns similar to smooth marble or other kinds of natural surfaces. The patterns are the result of colour floated on either plain water or a viscous solution known as size, and then carefully transferred to an absorbent surface, such as paper or fabric. Through several centuries, people have applied marbling to a variety of flat materials and it is often employed as a writing surface for calligraphy, and especially book covers and endpapers in bookbinding and stationery..

Fig 9 Making marbled pattern; swirling the pigment

There are several methods for making marbled papers. A shallow tray is filled with water, and various kinds of ink or paint colours are carefully applied to the surface with an ink brush. Various additives or surfactant chemicals are used to help float the colours. A drop of “negative” colour made of plain water with the addition of surfactant is used to drive the drop of colour into a ring. The process is repeated until the surface of the water is covered with concentric rings.

The floating colours are then carefully manipulated to make a pattern either by blowing on them directly or through a straw, fanning the colours, or carefully using a human hair to stir the colours (Fig 9). In the 19th century, Tokutaro Yagi, the Kyoto master of Japanese marbling (suminagashi), developed a method that uses a split piece of bamboo to gently stir the colours, resulting in concentric spiral designs.

In the final step a sheet of art paper is then carefully laid onto the water surface to capture the floating design. The paper must be strong enough to withstand being immersed in water without tearing.

The scientific reason that marbling works is because water molecules like to stick together, a property called surface tension. This property allows very thin layers of ink to float on water, mixing in beautiful patterns when surface tension is disrupted with a drop of detergent, a tool like a paintbrush, or movement. To marble paper, you have to use dye or paint that floats on the water where it can be easily transferred to paper.

Fig 10   Marbled  book cover

Marbling is an art (Fig 10) based on the imitation of patterns made in limestone under intense volcanic heat (Fig 11).  It produces the same kinds of patterns as those produced by rendering of digital images to investigate ecological patterns in grassland (Fig 12).

Fig 11 Polished section through Alpine white granite

Fig 12 False colour rendering of remote census of the distribution of bracken and woodsage Field 5, Skomer, August 2017

6  Cultural ecology of thinking with pictures

The study of ecology as a scientific enterprise within biology involves looking at species within a wider environment. For example a rainforest exists within a greater global biosphere. The rainforest ecology is affected by changes in its internal relationships, such as the ebb and flow of species due to fluctuations in food chains, and is also affected by external shocks, such as climate change. In a similar fashion, human culture exists within a wider political, social and economic environment with both proximate and remote connections. This blog deals with just one of these wider cultural connections, between  style in art and pattern in nature.  Both of these relationships are based on a human response to visual interrogations of the environment.  A creative learning behaviour is activated, which evolved as part of a cultural survival mechanism for a naked ape in a dangerous environment.

A regenerative, cyclical model of creative culture has been proposed by  Andrew Missingham. He calls it ‘the creativity filter’, where creativity of all kinds is processed to become culture.  This takes place in a dynamic process whereby the outcome of a creative act becomes categorised and evaluated as conserved heritage, which then serves as a stimulus for further creativity.  

Within this cultural ecosystem there is a constant cycle of the regeneration of creativity from earlier ideas (Fig 13). A new idea in art, science or sociology is the first step, which often occurs at the margins of society and can be transgressive of current accepted norms. Most creative work stops there. Step two, if it happens, is that the creativity is curated, that is to say choices are made about what to take up and what to ignore, about what works and what doesn’t. In the third collection phase the creativity is taken up more widely, and people buy or experience it, in other words collect useful examples.  In the next phase the creativity is evaluated and the valued elements are conserved. Once conserved they may be re-used to create something else. For example, one role of libraries is to stimulate new intellectual property from their collections and holdings. Intellectual property exists within culture on a continuum, and when public institutions make content free for reuse this ‘is not generosity but part of a library’s purpose.There is a similar role for public art galleries

Fig 13  The cultural ecology of creativity

In the current context of the immersion of people in social media it is important to evaluate the various platforms as tools for people to engage creatively within their mental ecosystem.  Bearing in mind that the cultural currency of social media involves storing, sharing and exchanging pictures,  the obvious platform for running and managing a programme of creativity is Pinterest.

Pinterest can be thought of as a cultural force that brings picture collecting into the international social sphere of cultural ecology.  This is because the three powerful human traits behind creativity are accommodated within Pinterest, namely collecting, sorting and storing for future use to support the development of new ideas.  These behaviours are an expression of the childhood habit of taxophila.

When a young man with a childhood passion for collecting things like insects and stamps combined his passion with design and software engineering skills, Pinterest was born. Ben Silberman along with his friends and colleagues Paul Sciarra and Evan Sharp started the development of Pinterest in December 2009.  Pinterest is now an online pinboard where people pin images and organize pictures into self curated virtual boards (Fig 14).

Fig 14 Pinterest home page of Zygeena

At Pinterest, they continually store, update and serve feeds for millions of users and fan out millions of newly created pins/repins to thousands of followers, leading to billions of operations everyday.    Discovery, collection and curation of inspirational content are the two primary categories of user activity on Pinterest. Content curation is the gathering, organizing and online presentation of pictures related to a particular theme or topic. As a rule, a content curation site reproduces some of the original content and links to the full entry. Some content curation sites also provide original content, interpretation and commentary.  Critics of online content curation argue that the practice is a poor substitute for content creation on the part of the site operator, and a poor substitute for individual research on the part of the user. Furthermore, some such sites are little more than marketing tools. However, content curation sites can be useful to people who want a quick snapshot of current content on a particular topic.  In relation to the creativity filter Pinterest is a good platform with which to experiment.

The Pinterest ‘follow model’ is an invention to aid content discovery. It also has great potential for promoting creativity to power the picture filtering process of cultural ecology. The ‘follow’ model allows users to follow other users or follow boards created by other users, evaluating the ideas embedded in the pictures. For example, a running enthusiast could choose to either follow the ”nike brand” on Pinterest or follow the ”shoes” board created by collectors of ”nike brand”. Hence, each user/board has a list of followers who subscribe to the ideas embodied in the pins assembled on that board or gathered from other people’s boards by that user. Similarly, each user has a list of followees, who are the boards/users, the user is following. The following-feed for a user consists of content aggregated from all the followees of the user. Each time, a user accesses, Pinterest renders the following-feed of pins to the user.     

A large number of social networks have embraced the ‘follow model’, including Tumblr and Instagram. The following-feed is a core piece of user experience for the majority of social networks today.

As to how Pinterest works, initiating a search with the phrase ‘patterns in nature’ will bring up a vast number of boards and images,  To take just one example at random, in January 2018 a search for Patterns in Nature brought up a collection of 65 boards entitled Nature’s Pallet with a total of 11,368 pins. Dora Cheatham assembled the boards by collecting and classifying  pins taken from the boards of others.  Her collection had  263 followers and Dora was following 240 other boards, many of which had thousands of pins   Within Nature’s Pallet, only 13 boards had ‘nature’ in the title.  Of these, 4 were entitled Patterns in Nature, and had the following subtitles, Fractals (59 pins), Textures and Shapes (139 pins), Hearts (42 pins) and Spirals’ (82 pins).   Together the pins on these boards only amounted to about 3% of the total pins on Dora’s site, but these four boards were followed by almost a third of of Dora’s followers.  From the use of the title “Nature’s Pallet” and the artistic cropping of the pictures there can be little doubt that the main driver of the collection is an aesthetic appreciation of natural form and colour.  

It has been argued that the experience of beauty is in effect a mix of order and disorder. Beauty, is an experience of successfully discovering order or patterns. If something is too orderly, it becomes boring, If there is too much disorder, it becomes confusing. Between these extremes are structures in which order and disorder are mixed in such a way that discovering structures remains possible for an extended time and looking at it, we are again and again rewarded with discovering pleasing forms. The result is an ongoing experience of beauty and its fascination, which is revealed in the pins that Pinterest users choose to upload and follow.  Nevertheless, Pinterest is a free library from which to gain knowledge and carry out research.  For those looking for windows from art to science the boards  labelled ‘fractals’, ‘textures’ and shapes’ and ‘spirals’ are starting points for taking an artful view of the science behind patterns in nature (Fig 15).  

Fig 15’ Pin of a succulent plant illustrating a pattern of spiral growth

In these respects, a Pinterest account consists of a huge database of pictures.  Each one is the outcome of someone’s photographic creativity, from which the account holder can retrieve pictures to illustrate a theme.  The word ‘theme’ refers to the subject or topic on which a person speaks, writes or thinks and is the name of the pin  board .  Each selected picture encapsutlates an idea as a mental impression that illustrates and supports the theme.  The picture is pinned to the theme’s board to be curated and then stored for the future development of the theme. Pinterest has a facility to subdivide a theme into categories, each of which illustrate concepts underlying the theme. A concept is a generalized idea about a class of objects, attributes, occurrences, or processes that has been given a name.

For those interested in pictorial ideas that provide portals into science Zygeena’s NowSCAN boards are being developed for research into visual thinking about style in art and pattern in nature.

The main board is entitled “Patterns in and from Nature”.  It is a work in progress and the theme has been  provisionally divided into the following 17 concepts.

An Artful View of Ecological Microcosms.  

Populated Microcosms:

Microcosms in Bark:

Tonal Mapping of Grassland Microcosms:

Ageing at the Surface:

Patterns in Plant Distribution:

Fractal Growth:

Textures and Shapes:

Georgia O’Keefe:

Tourist Biomes, Costa Rica:


Edward Weston:

Gustav Klimpt:

Chance in Pattern:

Cultures from the Air:

Pattern in Insects:

Spiral Growth:

These concepts are being developed in the following wiki.  Go to the Pinterest pages.


Educating Managers for Sustainability

Saturday, December 2nd, 2017

Management and Leadership

Much time is spent taking people in positions of power and trying to train them to be leaders when we should be finding the leaders inside our organizations and training them to be managers.  Anyone within an organization has the potential to become a leader, but all managers must be leaders.  A manager is someone who directs others to follow a plan in order to meet speific, measurable objectives A plan provides principles for taking action and directions for achieving goals.  Managers, at any level, have a vision of what  has to be achieved and produce a plan to manage the challenges that limit the realisation of the vision.  The role of a plan is to guide the direction, alignment, and commitment needed to reach the plan’s targets  

Challenges are factors limiting the execution of a plan.  They fall into four broad categories that require leadership  aimed at:

  • leading change by forecasting shifts within the business environment that will bring increased complexity and new tensions to the organization as it develops.
  • shaping culture to create a social group that elicits strong identification and a sense of belonging.
  • leveraging polarities that may appear to be diametrically opposed, avoiding a dualistic, “either/or” approach to proceed with an holistic “both/and” solutions.
  • spanning boundaries in order to facilitate interdependent decision-making and co production across specialist divisions.

These challenges define organisations as complex adaptive systems operating within a wider arena of complex adaptive systems.  

Modern leaders have the task of interpreting how their organisation is to be sustainable, an extraordinary demand on leaders. Hence, leadership for sustainability requires leaders of extraordinary abilities. These are leaders who can  discern routes through complexity, think through complicated problems, engage groups in dynamic adaptive organisational change and have the emotional intelligence to engage with their own emotions in complex problem solving.

Fig 1 The CCL general model of leadership through management

Leadership through management planning is therefore a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others towards the achievement of a goal.  Leadership stems from individuals, not authority or power, and requires others, so there are many styles and many paths to effective leadership.  Particularly in the context of sustainable development the common element is to avoid or overcome dualistic thinking.

The key to successful leadership for sustainability is being able to bridge cultural divides by avoiding dualistic thinking because it is a divisive force in the human project.  In particular, dualistic thinking  can so easily separate humanity from nature, men from women and the rich from the poor.  

Dualism is a simplistic concept that all issues can be divided into either/or states, such as good/bad, right/wrong, determinable/indeterminable. Dualism does not recognize a continuum of values, such as a stretch of varying shades of grey between black and white and cannot explain complexity.  Its opposite is holism. Holism is the belief that everything in nature is connected in some way and promotes education in systems thinking to unravel complexity and make connections across divides.

As well as being holistic systems thinkers, leaders also have to be sharp planners.  Whether you are trying to lead other people or lead yourself, the planning logic of dealing with obstacles is very much the same. You still have to cope with all the variables in the environment, temptations pushing you away from your objective, motivation issues, self-discipline issues and just plain resource barriers to making progress. It is commonly said that leaders tend to be superior planners but inferior doers. However, you cannot be a good doer without planning how to remove obstacles that are preventing you reaching your objectives.  Leaders at any level have to look for ways to remove or overcome obstacles. They also want feedback on progression to their objectives. Therefore, to play an active part in implementing a plan, leaders have to be understand the logic of making plans.  

We classify plans as being strategic or operational.  Yet there is no difference in the logic used to make a strategic plan or an operational/tactical plan because there has to be a seamless coupling from vision to grass roots action.   All plans are management plans because they allow those involved to step back from the current situation and clearly see where they are drifting off course.  Leaders require a deep understanding that planning should bridge the gap between strategy design and tactical delivery,  In other words, leadership is a multilevel process that spirals down and around the entire organization. The tactics of one level become the planning challenges of the next.  From this point of view the planning system, as a technical instrument, has to make the entire planning/reporting system seamless and provide opportunities for its interrogation at any level.

Dualism and Holism

Education is not simply the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next through classrooms, books, and lectures. Holistic education is based on the premise that each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to spiritual values such as compassion, altruism  and peace. Holism transforms education to become a non compartmented universal process by which each of us and society as a whole engages reason and imagination in a dynamic system from the past in order to adopt values for living harmoniously in the future.  The task is to analyse the horrific failures of the human project throughout the past and present, and explore values for a future beyond war, poverty, injustice, and oppression. Dualistic thinking that separates men from women, humans from nature, poor from rich can and should be replaced with a fuller picture of the psychology of human identity and the interdependence of culture and ecology.   If the implications of this scientific revolution and the new paradigm of holistic thinking it produces are taken seriously, holism should become the dominating concept in all our day to day thinking.  Holism is revolutionary; the source of our gigantic hope for a transformed future, for the emergence of new goals for human existence on Earth.  The educational objective is to contribute to a transformed future where the economy of humankind is eventually maintained as a steady state equilibrium with our planet’s productivity. We are on the verge of the ultimate holistic level of existence where we see a world in danger of geo-political collapse as a result of adopting short term management of humanity’s natural capital. The next altruistic level seeks spirituality and unity in living systems; strives to eliminate war, poverty, disease, hunger and political oppression; recognises the potential need to sacrifice self and others as may be required for the overall survival of life; thinks and acts globally.

For this to happen we must be aware that;

  • we are a part of nature in everything we do and we cannot take from Earth more than the planet can regenerate;
  • an economy permanently subsidised by the exploitation of women’s work is dysfunctional;
  • eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty, is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for global sustainable development.

Steady State Economics

A steady-state economy is an economy made up of a constant stock of physical wealth and a constant population size. In effect, such an economy does not grow. The term steady state economy typically refers to the national economy of a particular country, but it is also applicable to the economic system of a city, a region, or the entire world. Early in the history of economic thought, classical economist Adam Smith of the 18th century theorised on the concept of a stationary state of an economy. Smith conjectured that any national economy in the world would sooner or later settle in a final stationary state.  The time it will take to arrive depends on how long it takes to realise that the depletion of natural resources is imminent,

There are four main concepts or pillars of the steady state economy:

  • Sustainable Scale: Creating an economy that can maintain its production and consumption on a level at or below the Earth’s ability to renew resources and absorb waste. It’s simply making the economy sustainable.
  • Fair Distribution: A steady state economy must not simply be sustainable from a biophysical standpoint, but also from a social standpoint. Creating the means to allow everyone the capacity to flourish is drastically important to a secure, stable and prosperous economy.
  • Efficient Allocation: The more efficient our economy functions the better use of resources and time we can allocate. As with any economy, the market is not perfect and we must take into account the externalities that harm our society’s ability to use resources wisely and efficiently.
  • High Quality of Life: What is the true purpose of creating a society and economy if not to give us a high quality of life? In a steady state economy this is not a weak side effect of the economy but an actual goal and purpose of the economy. When we stop focusing on growth we can focus on making our lives better, for everyone.

To move toward cultural sustainability it is imperative to regain a broader understanding of economics. Three principles are identified as essential for this conceptual expansion of economics. They are:

  • think in concrete terms rather than in the abstract;
  • work towards connectedness rather than isolation;
  • and aim for diversity rather than homogeneity.

All three principles are informed by feminist theory. Thus, it is argued that the voices of women who have gone largely unheard in economics are essential to reconceptualizing economics as sustainable.  

The focus on sustainability as the guiding principle for future economic activity has generated many, and often conflicting. definitions of sustainable economic development. Yet while the terminology may be new, the discussion is not. It parallels the discussion about biases of economic valuation that have long ago led to the neglect of the domestic and subsistence contributions relegated to the “informal” or household sector.

Feminist Economics

The three pillars of sustainable development — economic, environmental and social — are also relevant to discussions of gender equality as a factor impeding the implementation of strategies for sustainable development at all levels,   In particular, an increasing number of studies indicate that gender inequalities are extracting high economic costs and leading to social inequities and environmental degradation around the developing world.  Therefore, a new economic model for living sustainably must be gender neutral and incorporate feminist steady state economics.

Feminist economics is the study of economics including its methodology, history and empirical research aimed at attempting to overcome male biases. It focuses on topics of particular relevance to women that involve the exclusion of women from contributing to organisational innovation, effectiveness and survival.

Leadership for Creativity

While there is global interest in leadership and management for sustainability there is much less clarity about which leadership behaviours are most likely to produce the most favourable outcomes with regards creativity.  Three major leadership aims are:

  • to influence the activities of an organized group toward goal-setting and goal achievement;
  • to initiate a new structure or procedure for accomplishing an organization’s goals and objectives;
  • to initiate action among people.

All are important but it can be argued that the most important is leadership to initiate action among people.   Research into industrial creativity has shown there is a positive relationship between leadership which encourages or promotes both individual self management, and the ‘stimulant’ dimensions of the work environment for creativity.   To release this organisational creativity leaders have to use behaviour in ways that encourage employees to manage their own behaviour, develop greater freedom, autonomy, and self-motivation that are most conducive to creativity.  

The other two leadership activities provide the technical framework in which leadership for creativity can thrive.

Most dictionaries suggest leadership and management are quite similar with respect to guiding or controlling a group of people to achieve a goal.   Leadership, regardless of where it comes from, formally appointed leaders or Informal leaders, provides the link between ‘planning’ and ‘doing’. Effective leadership helps unify strategic planning and the organization itself, helping to overcome inertia and the tendency to keep things the same with silo thinking. Without leadership planning, most strategies will end up as dead pieces of paper. Most importantly, when strategic planning occurs without leadership taking the lead, cynicism increases when staff see that the plan is being ignored, or even violated. The outcome of this is that formal leaders suffer a loss of credibility.

A vision and its value statements are the core of leadership and are at the heart of strategy. The leader’s job is to create the vision for the enterprise in a way that will engage both the imagination and the energies of its people.  The vision and value statements need not be complicated. Howard Schultz brought Starbucks to where it is today: a vibrant, growing, hugely profitable company with global brand recognition. He has developed and promoted a strategic vision from the beginning: to make Starbucks “the most respected brand name in coffee and for the company to be admired for its corporate responsibility.”  Two key values that supported this vision were “to build a company with a soul” and to pursue “the perfect cup of coffee.”  To realise the vision and its values Schultz had to lay out a plan that people would grasp and accept out of trust, then get everyone working from top to bottom to achieve the objectives. These are simple phrases, but they have given direction to a highly successful enterprise!  

Leaders give direction by answering the following key questions,

  • Where are we?
  • Where are we going?
  • How will we get there?

These three questions are the basis for making any kind of plan, whether the plan is strategic or operational.  A successful  plan sets priorities, focuses energy and resources, strengthens operations, and ensures that employees and other stakeholders are working toward common goals.  Setting goals or objectives is what strategic and operational plans have in common.

The strategic plan itself really deals with Where are we going? And How will we get there?

Where are we going?

The future is impossible to predict, but contemplating scenarios will focus a leader’s attention and help her define the future for the business. Specifically, it compares her organization to her competitors. What do you do best? What makes you unique? What can your organization potentially do better than any other organization?  Answering these questions will help formulate a picture of what the makeup of the future organisation will be and what it is planning to achieve.

How will we get there?

Answering this question produces the core of a  plan. It’s also the most time consuming. There are a number of routes from the current position to realise the vision, and choosing the right one will determine how quickly or slowly the strategic objectives are met.  

Planning is a disciplined effort. In the end, it produces fundamental decisions and actions. The objectives shape and guide what an organization is, who it serves, what it does and why. With a focus on the future, effective planning also articulates how an organization will know if it is successful.  The latter requires using measurable performance indicators to monitor the outcomes of the plan.  

There should be seamless connections between strategic objectives and tactical objectives  This makes it imperative that the leader and her managers have been educated  to follow the same planning logic.

Taking the Lead

Leadership education, like leadership itself, must rely on heuristic approaches such as mentoring, coaching, patterning, and, trial-and-error experience. Most educators agreed that individual personality traits provide at least part of the basis upon which leadership skills are built, and such characteristics reach stability by adolescence. Hence, a frame is established that drives how future managers view their roles, their style of communicating, and their modes of interaction with others. Clearly, these frames can change, and individuals can learn to view things differently. Managers, like educators, continue to grow socially, physically, and intellectually. However, this early grounding and foundation may strongly influence the choice of career or profession, the style or attitude toward work relationships, and the approach of managerial roles and interactions, including leadership roles.

Leadership tests common assumptions about who counts as a leader and proposes that anyone who takes responsibility for understanding and acting on sustainability challenges qualifies as a ‘sustainability leader,’ whether or not they hold formal leadership positions. They lead ‘with’ rather than ‘over’ others in ways that account for the long-term viability of complex, interconnected living systems. Paradox, contradiction, and differing viewpoints are recognized as natural characteristics of healthy systems. Sustainability leaders recognize that the experience of change itself, and the dissonance it creates, fuels new thinking, discoveries, and innovations that can revitalize the health of organizations, communities, and the earth. Finding the balance among and between simultaneous and sometimes contradictory demands for economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable solutions is a compelling leadership opportunity ultimately grounded in a personal ethic that reaches beyond self-interest.  These points are exemplified in the following leadership actions.

  1. Use sustainability as a unique selling point

Consumers are increasingly looking to buy ethically sourced, sustainable products, especially in the food sector. Brands should use their sustainability as a point of difference to encourage sales.

  1. Think long term

One of the main cultural barriers across society is the focus on short-term key performance indicators (KPIs) and budgets. A sustainable business needs to encourage all those it works with to look at, and reward, long-term results. This idea is perhaps most apparent in the construction industry, where the perceived higher cost often blocks the creation of greener buildings. When looking at costs across the lifetime of a building, it really makes economic sense to build a green building.

  1. Communicate differently

People become involved with sustainable businesses for a variety of reasons. For a graduate, it might be the interesting work or the higher purpose. For an investor, it might be the unique nature of the business and its growth potential. Sustainable businesses should, therefore, tailor the way they communicate with each group, depending on their interests. Be clear about what’s important to each, and also what sort of language and approach will be most effective..

  1. Embed sustainability throughout your organisation

Changing organisational structures or creating roles, such as sustainability managers, might only act as a bolt-on, when a complete change in business culture and managerial priorities is needed. Embed cultural change and responsibility at all levels of decision making, because sustainable thinking works best when it is fully part of the business’s strategic direction.

  1. Improve management skills

Sharing knowledge from the experts to every member of staff is one of the biggest challenges to achieving full sustainability. It is difficult to find the opportunity to give all our design teams a practical knowledge of our future world, so that they can design to it. Good management, however, could make this change happen.

  1. Take risks

Many sustainable businesses have taken risks by investing in systems and technologies that are not yet mainstream. While it is easier for new businesses to set up in a sector with more developed systems working and paying for themselves, it is much tougher for early adopters to raise the finance for relatively unproven technology.

  1. Disrupt old business models

Disruption has the greatest impact when it interfaces with and improves existing infrastructure or attitudes.

  1. Network

There are a number of regional initiatives that give smaller – and startup – companies the opportunities to meet, network with investors and establish like-minded and sustainability-orientated companies.

  1. Support other sustainable businesses

Many businesses tell a pleasing sustainable story when they sell their own products, but they might not buy into the sustainability stories presented by other companies.  While some stories can be greenwash, he says, sustainable businesses can support others like them by buying their products.  Continuing to meet and share experiences even in tough times can inspire and encourage businesses to keep working towards their goals. It is important to keep sharing successes.

Management Planning for Leaders

McKinsey & Co is a global management consulting firm that serves a broad mix of private, public and social sector institutions. The organisation  helps clients make significant and lasting improvements to their performance and realize their most important goals.

From the interviews and other research, McKinsey & Co have distilled a leadership model comprising five broad and interrelated dimensions:

  • meaning, or finding your strengths and putting them to work in the service of an inspiring purpose;
  • managing your personal energy, or knowing where your energy comes from, where it goes, and what you can do to manage it;
  • positive framing, or adopting a more constructive way to view your world, expand your horizons, and gain the resilience to move ahead even when bad things happen;
  • connecting, or identifying who can help you grow, building stronger relationships, and increasing your sense of belonging;
  • and engaging, or finding your voice, becoming self-reliant and confident by accepting opportunities and the inherent risks they bring, and collaborating with others.

Although the research mostly involved inputs from women, the model is also suitable for men, particularly where there is a search for gender free platforms for personal leadership development.

The original McKinsey model has been reorganised as a management system in Figs 2 & 3. The system applies the outcomes of leadership development to make and operate strategic, tactical and operational management plans.  As a dynamic process it sustains a state of sustainability in a range of situations, home, neighbourhood, business, local government and national government.  Feedback and reflections from the outcomes of plans are used to improve managerial performance.  

Fig 2 Generalised managerial version of the McKinsey model

A plan for managing and operating strategic or operational plans begins with answers to three questions.

The question, Where are we?, is answered by describing the present situation which is embedded in history .

The question, Where are we going?, Prompts a vision. or mission statement of the organisation as it will be in the future.

To answer the question, How will we get there?, the vision has to be transcribed into measurable objectives that have to be met by overcoming obstacles in the way of reaching these targets, Each obstacle is a limiting factor in the management plan requiring a rationale to understand it and the inputs required to control it.  Resource inputs are scheduled into a course of action by answering the following questions;

Who will do the work?

When will they do it ?

How will they do it ?

What is required for them to do it ?

How progress towards meeting the objectives will be tracked is  by comparing the outcomes of the work with the objectives using performance indicators.  This monitoring process  closes the planning loop, and allows modification of the inputs if the objectives are not being met.

Ftig 3 Generalised management systen

The planning logic is basic to all management plans.  Although a plan may be set out on paper it is much easier to write, operate and report from using a relational database.

Internet references


Ecological constellations

Saturday, November 4th, 2017

Art meets science

Fig 1 Fishing float decorated with biomorphs, The Massim District of New Guinea, Alfred Cory Haddon

For those seeking a cultural bridge between science, art, and environment the concept of biomorphism may be taken as an important crossing point.  The term “biomorph” was coined by English anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon in 1895 with respect to designs derived from animate sources. It was applied to modernist art by English critic Geoffrey Grigson in 1934 and subsequently used by Alfred H. Barr in the context of his 1936 exhibition ‘Cubism and Abstract Art.  

Alfred Cort Haddon was born on 24 May 1855, near London, the elder son of John Haddon, the head of a firm of typefounders and printers. He attended lectures at King’s College London and taught zoology and geology at a girls’ school in Dover, before entering Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1875.  At Cambridge he studied zoology and was appointed as Demonstrator in Zoology at Cambridge in 1882. For a time he studied marine biology in Naples.  In 1888 he led an expedition to the Torres Strait Islands, where they spent eight months investigating marine zoology. This visit led to his interest in the native culture of the region. He was particularly fascinated by the rapid disappearance of local customs and ceremonies and decided to make collections of domestic artefacts and filmed local customs before they were obliterated through the impact of modernity.  Haddon was convinced that the hundreds of art objects collected had to be saved from almost certain destruction by the zealous Christian missionaries intent on obliterating the religious traditions and ceremonies of the native islanders. Film footage of ceremonial dances was also collected.  It was during the collection of domestic objects that Haddon applied the term biomorph to abstract designs reminiscent of biological forms and used them to classify the native decorative art.  (Fig 1  ).

Alfred Barr  as the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York  was one of the most influential forces in the development of popular attitudes toward abstract  art.  His groundbreaking exhibition was key to establishing the pedigree for modern art, a narrative that continues to shape the Museum’s presentation of modernism to this day. In the introduction to the catalogue, Barr declared that the day’s most adventurous artists “had grown bored with painting facts. By a common and powerful impulse they were driven to abandon the imitation of natural appearance.” To demonstrate the breadth of this modernist impulse toward abstraction, Barr assembled a wide-ranging exhibition of nearly 400 works of painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, architecture, furniture, theatre design, and typography. He also drew up a now-famous mindmap of the origins and influences of modern art that was reproduced on the catalogue’s dust jacket.

In the catalogue to the exhibition he addresses the emergence of biomorphism with reference to the development of the work of Hans Arp, which he regards as ‘simple in form and reticent both in spirit and subject matter’

“In the Surrealist tradition he is the puritan. In 1915, between periods of Munich Blue Rider Expressionism and Zurich Dadaism, he made collage compositions of almost geometrical purity (fig. 2). His Dada reliefs of which the Head (fig. 3) is a late example are built up of stratified sections of jigsawn, brightly painted wooden planking, like greatly enlarged units of a picture puzzle. His recent reliefs are of extreme simplicity, the cut-out shapes confined to a single level or stratum and severely framed in a rectangle. Often the relief shapes are mingled with painted shapes as in the Relief (fig. 4). Recently Arp has turned from stratified relief to sculpture in the round. His Human concretion (fig. 5) is a kind of sculptural protoplasm, half organic, half the water-worn white stone. In his concretions he was partly anticipated by an extraordinary work of Vantongerloo, the Composition within a sphere done in 1917 (fig. 6). Vantongerloo, a member of the severely rectilinear Stijl group, never again returned to such a hiomorphic form. Arp had done his collages in squares just before 1911 and never again returned to geometric form. The Arp “shape,” a soft, irregular, curving silhouette half-way between a circle and the object represented, appears again and again in the work of Miro, Tanguy, Calder, Moore and many lesser men”.

In the 1930’s biomrphism was very much in the air.  In his polemical introduction to modern painting and sculpture, Art Now (1933), the British critic Herbert Read identified two ‘methods’, which he felt best described the approaches to art taken by contemporary artists. The first of these was an ‘empirical’ approach, which aimed to reproduce appearances. For Read, such dumb fidelity to surface appearances rendered the artist as little more than a slave to ‘the physiological mechanism of his sight’, and represented an aesthetic dead end.1 The second method – and in his opinion, the most productive – he labelled ‘scientific’. This approach required the artist to interrogate the structural nature of objects, in effect, playing the role of a scientist. The artist, Read wrote, ‘realises that the outward appearance of objects depends on their inner structure: he becomes a geologist, to study the formation of rocks; a botanist, to study the forms of vegetation; an anatomist, to study the play of muscles, and the framework of bones’.2

Fig 2 Composition, Hans Arp, 1915

Fig 3 Head, Hans Arap, 1924

Fig 4 Relief, Hans Arp, 1930

Fig 5 Human Concretion, Hans Arp, 1935

Fig 6 Construction within a sphere, Vantongeloo, 1917

Another artist who played a similar role in the break with realism was Paul Klee.  Klee was fundamentally a transcendentalist who believed that the material world was only one among many realities open to human awareness. His use of design, pattern, colour, and miniature sign systems all speak to his efforts to employ art as a window onto that philosophical principle.  Painting a canvas was a route to showcase the expression of this inner world (Fig 7).

Fig 7 Stage Landscape, Paul Klee, 1922

Geoffrey Grigson was born at the vicarage in Pelynt, a village near Looe in Cornwall. He had a scrambling country childhood that furnished him with a fingertip knowledge of the countryside.   His childhood in rural Cornwall had a significant influence on his poetry and writing in later life. As a boy, his love of things of nature (plants, bones and stones) was sparked at the house of family friends at nearby Polperro who were painters and amateur naturalists.

Gregson’s poem ‘Incident of Wolves and Water’ may be regarded as a biomorphic  expression in words of humankind’s extermination of wildness and the loss of spirituality to express things of the heart related to the common biological heritage of men, wolves and pigs..



Two men saw two long wolves, low, cross

From the extensive forest which no more

Exists and go into the also now vanished church

Ruined, by an unhinged door.


Two men saw on their hind legs on the earth floor

These same wolves lap from its pillared bowl

Stale holy water as if (they thought) beasts

Of the devil as well needed medicament for the soul.


No more than this incident of wolves and water

Is recalled of that church whose footing grates a plough,

No yob of piety mentions that the same bowl unpillared

Affords stale water in a near farmyard to fat pigs now.

Artworks that conveyed a sense of vitality – such as sculptures by Constantin Brancusi, Hans Arp and Moore – were discussed by Grigson in biological terms, as abstract ciphers of vital energies or microscopical forms: ‘It is Brancusi whose polished unicellular forms have been the basis for such different figures, more complex, more ‘impure’, as those of Mr Henry Moore’, he wrote in 1935.39 Yet while the fluid, protoplasmic forms of Arp and other biomorphic modernists evoked what Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, would characterise as ‘the silhouette of an amoeba’,40 it was Moore’s swollen, pullulating shapes in wood and stone that – in Grigson’s eyes at least – most fully testified to biology’s influence on modernist art.41 ‘When I look at [Moore’s] carvings’, he wrote in 1943, ‘I sometimes have to reflect that so much of our visual experience of the anatomical details and microscopical forms of life comes to us, not direct, but through the biologist’.42

A poet by profession, Grigson founded the literary review New Verse in 1933 and, in the pages of the modernist art magazine Axis, formulated the term ‘biomorphism’ to describe the sort of organic, semi-abstracted forms favoured by Moore and some other contemporary artists.34 Drawing upon the nineteenth-century anthropology of Alfred Court Haddon and the biologistic criticism of the German art historian, Wilhelm Worringer, he coined the term to describe artworks that were neither representational nor wholly abstract but rather appeared to owe their origins, symbolically as much as, or more than, visually, to living things.35 In a couple of essays published in 1935, Grigson spelt out the aesthetic implications of the biomorphic idiom:

They are [artworks] in which an organic-geometric tension is very well obtained. Many of their forms are almost certainly ‘degraded’, as orthodox anthropologists would say, from organic forms which came nearer to nature. Some forms are further from any originals, and those have been described as ‘biomorphic’, which is no bad term for the paintings of Miro, Hélion, Erni and others, to distinguish them from the modern geometric abstractions and from rigid Surrealism.36

Within this critical framework Grigson left no doubt that it was Moore who most closely met his biomorphic ideals:

Product of the multiform inventive artist, abstraction-surrealism nearly in control; of a constructor of images between the conscious and the unconscious and between what we perceive and what we project emotionally into the objects of our world; of the one English sculptor of large, imaginative power, of which he is almost master; the biomorphist producing viable work, with all the technique he requires.37

The view that “art is imitation (representation)” had been replaced by the theory that art is expression. Instead of reflecting states of the external world, art is held to reflect the inner state of the artist.   For example, Henry Moore, said he sometimes began a drawing with no conscious aim but only the wish to use pencil on paper and make tones, lines, and shapes.

The most important biomorphist of his day was Henry Moore and Gregson discussed biology’s centrality to Moore’s practice in his 1943 monograph on the sculptor. New images of microscopic life and theories of biological development impacted profoundly upon Moore’s practice, had led to him adopting in the 1930s a biomorphic sculptural idiom that echoed the forms of living nature.

‘Biology must be acknowledged’, Gregson pleaded, ‘as a wellspring of inspiration for the contemporary artist and nowhere was this more evident than in Moore’s turgescent, fluid shapes. These ‘may be related to a breast, or a pear, or a bone, or a hill … But they might also relate to the curves of a human embryo, to an ovary, a sac, or to a single-celled primitive organism. Revealed by anatomy or seen with a microscope, such things are included now in our visual knowledge’.33

Collectively, these minute living things are now defined as microorganisms associated with the human body as a microbiome.

Fig 8  Two Forms, Henry Moore, 1934

Visually, Moore’s scupture bore all the hallmarks of a biologist’s awareness of nature’s microscopical structures. Artworks such as the amoebic Two Forms of 1934 (fig.8) powerfully convey the impression of swollen, cellular forms, gently distended by the dynamic flux and flow of internal fluids. The protuberant Composition 1932 (fig.5) correspondingly recalls the bulging asymmetry of microorganisms – as revealed in photomicrograph of protozoa  and gives iconographic credence to Grigson’s claim that ‘[Moore] is interested in the round, solid shapes into which life builds itself’.57  While the appellation ‘biomorphic’ could refer to natural form in the widest possible sense – encompassing objects as diverse as, nuggets of bone and the shapes of animals – it nevertheless relied upon the findings of biology to articulate fully the range of meanings to which it was subject.38.


A constellation in cosmology is a group of stars that are considered to form meaningful patterns in the celestial sphere, typically representing animals, mythological people, gods or creatures of the imagination ( Fig 9 ).

Fig 9 Costellation of Orion

In astronomy and navigation, the celestial sphere is an abstract sphere, with an arbitrarily large radius, that is concentric to Earth. All objects in the observer’s sky can be conceived as projected upon the inner surface of the celestial sphere, as if it were the underside of a dome or a hemispherical screen. Similarly, a constellation in biology is a group of organisms that are considered to form meaningful patterns in the biosphere.  The biosphere is the layer of planet Earth  where life exists.  This layer ranges from heights of up to ten kilometres above sea level, used by some birds in flight, to depths of the ocean such as the Puerto Rico trench, at more than 8 kilometres deep. These are the extremes.  In general the layer of the Earth containing life is thin: the upper atmosphere has little oxygen and very low temperatures, while ocean depths greater than 1000 m are dark and cold. In fact, it has been said that the biosphere is like the peel in relation to the size of an apple.

The celestial sphere is a practical tool for spherical astronomy, allowing astronomers to plot positions of stars.  The biosphere is also a practical tool that allows biogeographers to plot the positions of plants and their associated animals. For the purposes of research the biosphere is broken down into smaller units.  For example, a biome is a geographical area related to a climatic zone that is very large in size. Each biome has certain groups of animals and plants that are present within it. They are able to thrive there due to their ability to adapt in that particular type of environment.  The smallest functional units of the biosphere have been defined as microcosms, little worlds or worlds in miniature as opposed to biomes which are macrosoms representative of greater worlds.

But more than this it is through the concept of constellations that we observe we are part of something greater. Imagine a constellation in the sky – a grouping of stars where each star has an invisible string of energy connecting one to another and to Earth’s biosphere. In our aliveness on Earth, we, and all living earthly beings, have our origins in a common system of cosmic evolution and are tethered to past starbursts in which stars and all life forms are as one. We can see that the systems creating stars and producing the structure of bacteria are governed by the same fundamental processes. We can detect the link between the hottest fusion reactions in gamma bursters and the essential metabolic reactions which give rise to, and sustain, life.

In a biological sense, depicting systemic constellations is a method of ecosystems analysis for revealing and re-aligning hidden links within groups of tightly bonded species. Like the study of stellar constellations, detecting ecological constellations it is a visual process for revealing the hidden dynamics between life forms.  Since the origins of humankind, the physical environment has been profoundly shaped by the countless ways people make, modify, and interpret the places they inhabit or use.  Conversely the environment has always shaped the material possibilities through which people can order their existence.This reductionist approach can be taken to the level of human families.  For example, ‘Systemic Family Constellations’ describes a form of group psychotherapy that addresses current day to day problems of individuals at their source, in their family’s past; ‘Systemic Botanical Constellations’ is a form of grouping plants according to the visual patterns they make in order to understand their place in the biosphere and their relationships with humankind.

Constellations in art

In the early 1930s, Jean Arp developed the principle of the “constellation,” employing it in both his writings and artworks. As applied to poetry, the principle involved using a fixed group of words and focusing on the various ways of combining them, a technique that he compared to “the inconceivable multiplicity with which nature arranges a flower species in a field.” In making his Constellation reliefs, Arp would first identify a theme or set—for example, five white biomorphic shapes and two smaller black ones on a white ground—and then recombine these elements into different configurations. The Guggenheim Museum’s work is the last of three versions that Arp composed on this theme. His work, like Joan Miró’s, engaged Surrealism at the level of process, for he used automatist strategies to get beyond the constrictions of rational thought. Jean Arp sought to devise an abstract art that would represent a truer indication of reality than representational art, because the way in which it would be created would echo the ways in which nature itself creates.  He was using the artistic concept of constellation to investigate the environment as both a material and imaginary field through which social and cultural relations are represented and constituted.

Constellation According to the Laws of Chance c.1930 is a small rectangular painted wooden relief by French artist Jean (Hans) Arp (Fig 10). Eight monochrome biomorphic forms have been painted or placed onto the surface of a white painted board. These include three white wooden ovoid forms that sit in low relief casting shadows when under light. They are arranged among five black forms which have been painted directly onto the white background. Three of the black shapes are clustered in the centre but extend towards, and in some cases touch, the white forms, while two others seem to be either entering or leaving the composition, pushed into the lower left corner and top of the frame respectively. The white wooden frame both enhances and extends the composition, mirroring the white relief shapes within it.

Fig 10 Constellations, Hans Arp, c1930

Constellation According to the Laws of Chance c.1930 Jean Arp (Hans Arp)

It is likely that this relief was produced in Meudon, near Paris, in the studio to which Arp had moved in 1928. The white wooden forms were ordered from a craftsman and subsequently placed by the artist alongside the black shapes he had painted. It is unclear in which order the forms were added but it is evident that Arp determined the composition.

This relief shows Arp’s preoccupation with abstracted biomorphic forms inspired by constellations of natural forms such as stars and clouds, and his attempts to develop what he referred to in 1957 as an ‘object language’ based on a small number of similar shapes (quoted in von Asten 2012, p.86). He referred to such forms as ‘cosmic shapes’ and is quoted in a posthumous publication of 1972 stating that ‘the forms that I created between 1927 and 1948 and that I called cosmic forms were vast forms meant to englobe a multitude of forms such as: the egg, the planetary orbit, the bud, the human head, the breast, the sea shell… I constellated these forms “according to the laws of chance”’ (quoted in von Asten 2012, p.57).

However, In 1983 the collector Pierre Bruguière recalled how Arp, from 1930 onwards, often moved wooden shapes around in his reliefs before deciding on their definitive form, so that random placement was not involved (Robertson 2006, p.156).  Art historian Eric Robertson has suggested that Arp’s measured approach to the construction of his reliefs, combined with their ‘high degree of finish’, may seem ‘incongruous’ with the word ‘chance’ in many of their titles (Robertson 2006, p.156). However, the element of chance was manifest both in Arp’s rearrangements of the reliefs, which indicate that he did not have a premeditated plan, and also in the making of the white forms themselves: Arp reportedly gave only ambiguous instructions to the craftsman so as to encourage free interpretation.

The black and white cell-like shapes of Constellation According to the Laws of Chance express Arp’s deep-seated interest not in replicating the precise forms of nature, but in creating art based on the generative power of nature, like ‘fruit that grows in man, like a fruit on a plant or a child in its mother’s womb’, as Arp stated in 1931 (quoted in Anna Moszynska, Abstract Art, London 1990, p.113). The organic forms in this image coupled with Arp’s tendency to reposition objects indicate this desire to develop abstract art organically through the process of making.

In 1955 Arp described how black and white shapes could ‘equal writing’ (quoted in Robertson 2006, p.150). Robertson has emphasised the dominance of these colours in Arp’s work of the 1930s and 1940s but has pointed out that the ‘spatial distribution’ of forms within Constellation According to the Laws of Chance is ‘more complex’ than in most reliefs:

The forms continue to designate separate spatial realms, but the similarity of their shapes suggests not so much a tension as a relationship of complementarity in the balancing of opposites … The physical proximity of some of the white relief shapes and the black forms, whose edges occasionally touch, suggests objects of indeterminate scale moving and intersecting through three-dimensional space, an interpretation that Arp’s choice of title, ‘constellation’, consciously invites.

‘Constellation According to the Laws of Chance’ belongs to a body of work titled ‘Constellations’ that Arp had likely begun to produce in 1928. Early examples, such as ‘Constellation 1928’ (Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck, Remagen), often show Arp experimenting with white wooden shapes on a white background. He continued to develop the dominant themes of this piece throughout the 1930s in his wooden reliefs such as ‘Constellation with Five White Forms and Two Black, Variation III 1932’ (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York) and papiers déchirés including According to the Laws of Chance 1933 (Tate T05005). At the time of the production of ‘Constellation According to the Laws of Chance’ Arp was closely associated with dada and surrealism, both of which fostered an interest in the disruptive possibilities of chance operations as well as the flux and movement of biomorphic forms. Arp’s wooden reliefs also influenced artists such as Henry Moore and Joan Miró.

In 1940 and ’41, he began his well known series of 22 Constellations, which consist of black dots representing stars on a white ground, using gouache and thinned oil on paper. These are very intricate works, with every part of the canvas activated. The carefully placed dots create a ‘jumping’ or ‘dancing’ sense of movement, even a “connect the dots” feeling. However, Miro’s work tends toward more of a cosmic awareness – these are stars, rather than just abstracted dots (painted poetry).  The importance of his graphic work, continuous renewal and enrichment of his style show the high value which the artist attached to this medium of expression. Miro uses black ink with a range of values and refined tones, reaching wild and playful effects. With elements derived from Catalan traditional art and a spatiality, Miro gave his objects and symbols a proper life as subjects of stories from other worldly microcosms – the ideal reflection of a world longed for by the artist and framed in the context of the independence movement in his native Catalonia. This is in line with a prevailing idea that art’s core social and cultural function is as a mechanism for transformation.  Three routes for artists to achieve transormation of society have been put forward by Sheila Dickinson:

  • through empowering community (Complex Movements’ Beware of the Dandelions),
  • by laying bare the strange configurations of power for the sake of everyman (Rosten Woo’s Vendor Power!),
  • or by working within the existing halls of power to make them more humane and responsive to their constituents (Reggie Prim and Mankwe Ndosi’s project Tenant Voices in the Regulatory Services Department of the City of Minneapolis).

Constellations in science

Biomorphist art focuses on the visual power of a nonrepresentational form or pattern that resembles a living organism, in whole or part.  This is a cultural view of the visual impact of the living world, which brings biomorphism into contact with ecology.

The imaging interface between biological science and European art appeared with Antony van Leeuwenhoek, 1632–1723.  He was a Dutch student of natural history and maker of microscopes. He assembled over 200 instruments, some of which magnified objects several hundred times. With these microscopes he discovered the presence of creatures so tiny that they were invisible to the naked eye. He called these tiny living organisms “animalcules” (Fig 11).

“While I was talking to an old man (who leads a sober life, and never drinks brandy or tobacco, and very seldom any wine) my eye fell upon his teeth, which were all coated over; so I asked him when he had last cleaned his mouth? And I got for an answer that he’d never washed his mouth in all his life … I took some of the matter that was lodged between and against his teeth, and mixing it with his own spit, and also with fair water (in which there were no animalcules), I found an unbelievably great company of living animalcules, a-swimming more nimbly than any I had ever seen up to this time.”

              – Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Letter 39, September 17, 1683

Fig 11 Drawings of animalicules, van Leeuwenhoek

In the 1920s and 1930s the proliferation of photomicrographic imagery led to frequent comparisons between modernist sculpture and biological forms. In his photo-album of magnified natural structures, ‘World Beneath the Microscope (1935)’, W. Watson Baker accompanied the photograph of a sea-urchin shell, shot in extreme close-up, with the caption: ‘The modern sculptor must envy the massiveness of form, the grandeur of contour, of this small shell, whose dovetailing makes a strange and interesting pattern’.53

Similarly, in an essay – published in Apollo in 1930 – the Scottish documentary film-maker, John Grierson, provocatively suggested that the ‘organic’ qualities of modernist sculpture stemmed from the influence of microcinematography on the optical unconscious:

“It comes from a quickened consciousness of organic life which I am apt to think is the special stock-in-trade of a new generation. It may be that cinema has done something to open our eyes in this respect, with its power of revealing the constructions of plant life, animal life, and all life together in motion. It would still be more accurate to say that biology is getting into our blood. Certainly we become more conscious of the sculptural relations between these different worlds”.55

On the question of artistic modernism’s relationship to scientific imaging technology Henry Moore was just as forthright. In a text published in Unit One (1934), a book of artist statements edited by Herbert Read, he recognised that the evolution of scientific technologies had impacted upon his practice:

‘There is in Nature a limitless variety of shapes and rhythms (and the telescope and microscope have enlarged the field) from which the sculptor can enlarge his form-knowledge experience’.56

The modernist painter and critic John Piper felt that such photomicrographic enlargements revealed an underlying affinity between scientific photography and modern art: ‘It is amusing in fact to turn the pages and notice the artists suggested by the photographs: Klee (anchors and plates of Synapta), Ernst (a great many times), Miró (sponge spicules), Giacometti (chemical crystals), and so on’.54

With respect to the impact of photomicrography on abstract painters around this time, Joan Miro is the prime mover (Fig 12).  From early in his career he sought to establish means of metaphorical expression—that is, to discover signs that stand for concepts of nature in a transcendent, poetic sense. He wanted to portray nature as it would be depicted by a primitive person or a child equipped with the intelligence of a 20th-century adult.

Fig 12 Print, Joan Miro

Many of Miro’s paintings may be regarded as two-dimensional biomorphic constellations where the structural elements appear as species arranged as if they were in the field of a microscope.  His pictures are graphic microcosms populated with imaginary biomorphs.  

A living ecological counterpart of Miro’s two dimensional microcosms is an area of low lying vegetation viewed from above. Heterogeneity of environments in space and time is pervasive in all natural habitats. External resources like light, water, and mineral nutrients, which are essential for plants, and environmental conditions such as temperature and moisture, are distributed heterogeneously at various scales, including at scales relevant to individual plants.  This heterogeneiity is the basis for the appearance of botanical constellations.  

An example taken from a scientific investigation is shown in Figs 13-14.  This is the work of the botanist Mary Gillham on the Welsh offshore island of Skokholm.   Gillham’s research began in 1948.  Her study was mainly concerned with the impact of the faecal nutrients from nesting colonial seabirds on the island’s vegetation.  As part of this study she sketched the distribution of four dominant plant species in a small area protected from rabbit grazing over a period of several years (Fig 13)

Fig 1  The relationship of ungrazed vegetation to the underlying burrows. Rabbit-proof enclosure, N.E. Skokholm Island, July 1953  (Gillham, 1956).

She made a sketch of the areas occupied by the four plant species within and outside the rabbit exclosure in 1954. This was a snap shot of the response of vegetation to the absence of rabbit grazing.  This diagram of a microcosm has been selected as a botanical constellation in Fig 14.  It is part of the visual evidence Gillham was gathering on the population dynamics of plant species in the presence of rabbits.  It is a scientific record and of the ecosystem she was investigating.  It is also an example of transformation, or visual metamorphosis, the terms used to indicate shape-shifting between reality and  art.  It allows an artist to transform a shape representing one item into a similar shape representing something else. This, in turn, allows one meaning to be hidden behind another. It is a visual technique equivalent to allegory and metaphor in literature and has, in consequence, been widely used. It was first proposed in the 1930’s in a slightly different form by the French art historian, Henri Foçillon. Although subsequent historians have recognized visual metamorphosis in a few works by major artists, Dürer being the best-known, it has been far more widely used than anyone, save artists, has ever recognized.

Fig 14 Botanical constellation of 4 plant species, in an ecological microcosm, Gillham, 1954.

The route of image processing to turn a birds-eye colour photograph of vegetation into an artful expression of its biological pattern is set out sequentially in Figs 15-18.  The starting point (Fig 15) is a drone shot  showing a network of footpaths on Skomer Island, a few miles from Skokholm where Gillham had worked,  It depicts a big rabbit warren (the large light brown area) embedded in the coastal slope vegetation. Picture processing sofware (Topaz Labs ‘Simplify’ ) was used to apply false colour rendering to this image,  revealing more of the topographic diversity (Fig 16). Then, the contouring effect from the artistic menu of PaintShop Pro 8 was used to produce a biomorphic image (Fig 17).  This tool is designed to simplify the complexity of a digital photograph to turn it into a simulated painting. At high resolution, the picture is made up of contoured patches resembling biomorphs in Arp’s stratified reliefs.  In this respect this rendering filter can be used to define ecological constellations in grassland based on differences in colour within, and between, individual plants. Most of the ground cover within this microcosm has six elements;  bare soil,  Bracken, Wood Sage, Bluebell and two grasses, False Oat and Yorkshire Fog.

Fig 15.  Digital view of part of Skomer Island from a drone survey, May, 2017

Fig 16  False colour rendering of Fig 15 (Topaz Labs)

Fig 17 Stratiified colour relief of Fig 16 at high a resolution of detail

Fig 18 Stratified colour relief of Fig 17 at a low resolution of detail

The sequential process just described started with the digital photograph of a small area of the island and ended with a coloured diagram, coded to the computer RGB colour system, representing its topographic diversity.  Truthing the original drone image on the ground verified that the different patches of colour in Fig 16 were due to the dominace of different botanical species.  For example the blue areas were patches of bluebells.   As part of scientific research the four images present, rather than explain, the arrangements and relations of ecological elements as components of a dynamic coastal slope ecosystem, which is dominated by the behaviour of rabbits.  The images are presentations.  In this context ‘making a presentation’’ is the art of representing something by drawing or taking photographs.  In contrast ‘making a diagram’ is showing the workings of something. The main difference between making a presentation and making a diagram is that a presentation defines an object whereas a diagram explains an object in terms of its workings, role or relations as part of a larger whole (Figs 19 & 20). At some point in its life a scientifc presentation may be regarded as an art form.

Fig 19 Making a presentation versus making a diagram

Fig 20 Diagram of oycling in a constellation of plant species on Skomer Island in relation to the impact of rabbits


Internet References

Artful Ecology

Cultures from the air

Artfujl shoreline

Wonderful weeds

Awaking the Ecologist Within

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

1 Learning from the ‘primitive

The idea of the primitive human being , and the attempt at recovering the primitive mind as a kind of corrective to modernity, is evident in much of narrative fiction, where it similarly links with the themes of restlessness, alienation and exile. Indeed, travel writing and narrative fiction may be seen to feed into each other in significant ways

Recovering the primitive and the glorification of the un urbanised noble savage is a dominant theme in the Romantic writings of the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For example, he wrote on the corrupting influence of traditional urban education illustrated with descriptions of nature and man’s natural response to it. The concept of the noble savage, however, can be traced to ancient Greeks who idealized the Arcadians and other primitive groups, both real and imagined. Later Roman writers gave comparable treatment to the Scythians. From the 15th to the 19th centuries, the noble savage figured prominently in popular travel accounts and appeared occasionally in English plays such as John Dryden’s Conquest of Granada (1672), in which the term noble savage was first used as an icon for the lost wisdom residing in wilderness and the cultures existing cheek and jowl with wildlands.

The importance of this kind of knowledge for a planet in crisis was the theme for the 8th World Wilderness Congress in Alaska in 2005’ Wilderness, Wildlands and People: A Partnership for the Planet  At the congress, a questionnaire was distributed asking participants which writer(s) influenced them the most. There were 100 writers listed on the survey, and participants added several other names. Participants identified 91 writers, with most people mentioning several writers who have had great influence on them. Five of these writers were honoured at the congress. Sixteen others received numerous votes for their influence on attendees. These writers are Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Loren Eisley, Aldo Leopold, Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, John McPhee, Margaret Murie, Roderick Nash, Sigurd Olson, Roger Tory Peterson, David Quammen, Gary Snyder, Wallace Stegner, Terry Tempest Williams, and Laurens van der Post.  Explorers and writers, such as van der Post and Thesiger, often wrote of the ancient link between humanity and nature, and how within our fast moving cultures of today, much of this link to the inner ecologist has been forgotten.

The serious traveller seeks now, not to discover what remains unknown, but to record what is fast disappearing. Accounts of these journeys are characterised by nostalgia for ‘primitive’ modes of life that were being eroded by the inexorable advance of modernity. This nostalgia is evident in such texts as Graham Greene’s ‘Journey Without Maps’ (2002), based on a journey undertaken to Liberia in 1936, and Wilfred Thesiger’s ‘The Danakil Diaries’ (1998), based on journeys undertaken between 1930 and 1934, and it constitutes the focus of van der Post’s ‘The Lost World of the Kalahari’, based on a journey undertaken in 1955. The travellers portrayed in these works seek out remote  locations and present the cultures they encounter as instances of a kind of pure primitivism threatened by the contamination of modernity and its accompanying administrations and technologies.


2  Laurens van der Post: his own invention

In an age of rampant materialism, Laurens van der Post was a passionate and prominent champion of spiritual values.   He made up stories of an almost vanished Africa; a world of myth and magic in which the indigenous peoples of the continent lived for uncountable centuries before the Europeans came to shatter it. The nature of his spirituality was not always clear, and his more Messianic pronouncements could seem both portentous and imprecise, but the views he expressed in more than two dozen books struck a chord with millions of readers.  His perception of life’s mysterious power began with the Bushman, the first people of his native Africa, and grew .  “Men had lost their capacity to dream …” he reflected after the second world war. “I knew that somehow the world had to be set dreaming again.”   For van der Post, the Bushmen were gatekeepers to the unconscious: “I sought to understand imaginatively the primitive in ourselves, and in this search the Bushman has always been for me a kind of frontier guide.”

He invented fictitious stories about his own life to carry and develop his spiritual beliefs and  make them more acceptable to westerners seeking a unity with nature. This is in itself a sad reflection on how westerners  rank the words of a colonel in a crack regiment, which he said he was, higher than those of an acting captain in the military police, which was the reality. The literal truth was never of much interest to van der Post because he preferred what he described as the truth of the imagination.  In other words he lived his dreams. This sparked his creativity to produce stories of his heartfelt beliefs about the ills that come from racism and humanity’s severance from nature.  His fertile imagination was  allowed to invade his private life, too, and created a false fabrication of his personal career.  

The important question is why an Afrikaner brought up in a Calvinist culture should feel so tempted by the freedom of fantasy to deliver so important a philosophical message? . Evidently the inclination was there from his youth when, isolated in a small community and inspired by his father’s excellent European library, he dreamed of a quest for the Grail, of Odysseus, of the Knights of the Round Table.  Disposed from childhood to embroider and invent, he discovered that, thanks to his charm and eloquence, he could convince people.  So untruth and selective amnesia became the pattern of his life.  Occasionally, he admitted this. In one of his last books, ‘A Walk With A White Bushman’, he writes :

“This is one of the problems for me: stories in a way are more completely real to me than life in the here and now. A really true story has transcendent reality for me which is greater than the reality of life. It incorporates life but it goes beyond it.”

The woman who looked after him for the last four years of his life, housekeeper Janet Campbell, later said: “He was such an astonishing liar it seemed as automatic and necessary to him as breathing, from some flim-flam to do with socks to the engorged fabrication of his deeds. Consequently I found it impossible to see him as anything but his own invention.”

However,  the relevant question is not so much whether van der Post’s representation of the human need to value wilderness and wildness is true, but what the context, nature and purpose are of his representation.  In his essay, “Wilderness – A Way of Truth,” he recalls a conversation, possibly fictitious, he had with Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist who founded analytical psychology.  According to Van der Post, Jung said “the truth needs scientific expression; it needs religious expression and artistic expression,”.  Thus he sets up the need for having different, complementary attitudes and perspectives on nature.

To illustrate this, van der Post tells a marvelous tale, supposedly from the South African Bushmen, of  “The Great White Bird of Truth.’   This story recounts how the community’s best hunter one day caught a glimpse in a rippling pool of a beautiful white bird flying in the sky. “From that moment on, he wasn’t the same. He lost all interest in hunting…One day he said to his people, ‘I am sorry; I am going to find this bird whose reflection I saw. I have got to find it,’ and he said good-bye and vanished,”.  He travelled throughout all of Africa until at the end of his strength, watching the beautiful African sunset, he thought, “I shall never see this white bird whose reflection is all I know.” And he prepared himself to lie down and die. Then at that moment, a voice inside him said, ‘Look!’ He looked up and, in the dying light of the African sunset, he saw a white feather floating down from the mountain top. He held out his hand and the feather came into it, and grasping the feather, he died. Van der Post interprets this story as the tale of a person who is spiritually aware, is open to perceiving even a reflection of the truth, and is content with just one feather of the truth. This harkens back to the second part of Jung’s comments on the truth needing scientific, religious and artistic expression, “even then…you only express part of it,”.  Van der Post stresses the ongoing need of adaptation and re-orientation of each generation to the truth of inner and outer selfhood.  For him truth was the feature of his inner life.

Van der Post’s essay, “Appointment with a Rhinoceros,” is well worth the read. Briefly it is his telling of a transformative encounter with nature in his homeland of South Africa after having been away from home for 10 years, including 3 years in a Japanese concentration camp. He says that his loss of connection with his “natural self” and regaining it in a sudden communing with nature, is an “illustration of one of the many paths we can travel in order to rediscover this lost self,”. It is a really marvellous essay about the healing of war trauma through nature as well as re-establishing the harmony of inner and outer consciousness.

Luckily, the Van der Posts inner truths have been gathered together in a ‘reader’, Feather Fall, edited by Jean-Marc Pottiez  They are thematically organised to reflect the patterns which have influenced his life and his writing.  They distil the essence of the writer, thinker, spiritual guru and man of action.


3  Thinking with wood.  

Forests lie somewhere in the widespread desire for a spiritual dimension to western life.  In this connection, forests are multipurpose places of recreation and respite, deep reflection and enchantment. They are time-woven tapestries of layered histories, myths and legends. Witness to bygone gatherings and happenings; home to an abundance of wildlife. They have provided materials and inspiration for artists and craftspeople throughout the ages.  There is something truly magical about being in a forest.  From the moment you leave urbanity behind and step inside the leafy canopy, time and space become elastic. You enter another world of secret lives. There are hidden histories and new perspectives.  The apparent stillness evaporates into a teasing multidimensional cacophony of birdsong, insects and fluttering foliage: then before your very eyes the almost suffocating chaos of branches and stems  reorders itself into an awe inspiring and highly organised web of life.

As we let go of the supermarket economy we become more aware of an inner dimension in life far longer and more significant than the outer eventfulness of everyday living.  We become surrounded by  the universal imagery of dreams, the fertile legends and stories of ancient civilization, the intuitive teaching of prophets, poets and other pioneers of human environmental awareness. By letting ourselves think with wood rather than seeing individual trees, we are able to explore the potential in humanity to acquire self-knowledge and to live life according to its fundamental precepts. We become adventurous pioneers exploring not just the outward aspects of a turbulent and troubled world but, at a deeper level, the patterns and paradoxes of human life, the myths and dreams of the human mind, the values and cultures of different peoples, the elusive springs of ourselves.  Nowhere are these creative springs more clearly evident than in the of stone spheres of Costa Rica, made in preColumbian times made by the indigenous forest peoples.  The stones were originally located across the Diquis Delta and on the Isla del Caño in Costa Rica.  They were uncovered during the 1930’s when the United Fruit Company started searching for new areas to cultivate their banana trees.  It’s estimated that there were around 300 petrospheres that varied in size from a few centimetres to over two metres in diameter. Many of these have subsequently been relocated.  The largest petrospheres weigh around 15 tons and are classed as megaliths in their own right.  Most of the stone spheres are made from a hard igneous rock known as granodiorite (Gabbro) although some have been shaped from both sandstone and limestone.  They were placed in geometrical positions but very few now remain in their original locations.  Most have been moved to private estates, museums and government buildings. Nobody really knows why they were made and, more importantly, how they were made, but we can say that they were created as the outcome of deep spiritual thinking within a relatively small isolated community.  

From the beginning, Laurens van der Post  was aware of this deeper dimension in life. He never lost his sense of the overriding purpose and awesome continuity of life and the ultimate wisdom lodged in its keeping. His perception of life’s mysterious power began with the Bushmen of his native Africa. These people may be seen as an archetype of humanity revealing how primitive consciousness has become the modern unconscious.  Traditional practices are not always better than their latest developments. The social institutions and technology of traditional societies are a product of the environmental conditions in which those societies evolved. They may or may not be appropriate for modern circumstances. What is new is the challenge for modern society to perceive and interact with ecosystems in ways that not only serve our materialistic and spiritual needs but also do so on a sustainable basis.  Laurens van der Post sets the spiritual losses of urbanisation against the loss of wonderment in the workings of the ‘first pattern’ of things in the natural world.  Nowhere is this better exemplified than in ecosystem services.

“They started at once unloading the game, and went straight on to skinning and cutting up the animals with skill and dispatch. I watched them, absorbed in the grace of their movements. They worked with extraordinary reverence for the carcasses at their feet. There was no waste to mock the dead or start a conscience over the kill. The meat was neatly sorted out for specific uses and placed in separate piles on the skin of each animal. All the time the women stood around and watched. They greeted the unloading of each arrival with an outburst of praise, the ostrich receiving the greatest of all, and kept up a wonderful murmur of thanksgiving which swelled at moments in their emotion to break on a firm phrase of a song of sheer deliverance. How cold, inhuman, and barbarous a civilized butcher’s shop appeared in comparison!”

The Heart of the Hunter, Chapter 2

“Yet with all this hunting, snaring and trapping the Bushman’s relationship with the animals and birds of Africa was never merely one of hunter and hunted; his knowledge of the plants, trees and insects of the land never just the knowledge of a consumer of food. On the contrary, he knew the animal and vegetable life, the rocks and the stones of Africa as they have never been known since. Today we tend to know statistically and in the abstract. We classify, catalogue and sub-divide the flame-like variety of animal and plant according to species, subspecies, physical property and use. But in the Bushman’s knowing, no matter how practical, there was a dimension that I miss in the life of my own time. He knew these things in the full context and commitment of his life. Like them, he was utterly committed to Africa. He and his needs were committed to the nature of Africa and the swing of its wide seasons as a fish to the sea. He and they all participated so deeply of one another’s being that the experience could almost be called mystical. For instance, he seemed to know what it actually felt like to be an elephant, a lion, an antelope, a steenbok, a lizard, a striped mouse, mantis, baobab tree, yellow-crested cobra or starry-eyed amaryllis, to mention only a few of the brilliant multitudes through which he so nimbly moved. Even as a child it seemed to me that his world was one without secrets between one form of being and another. As I tried to form a picture of what he was really like it came to me that he was back in the moment which our European fairytale books described as the time when birds, beasts, plants, trees and men shared a common tongue, and the whole world, night and day, resounded like the surf of a coral sea with universal conversation”.

The Lost World of the Kalahari, Chapter 1

Thinking with wood with a mind tuned to these writings of Laurens van der Post grasps a great mystery which will never be solved.  No amount of knowledge diminishes the amount of the unknown  because knowledge moves and searches for meaning. If this proposition is not accepted our consciousness is deprived of a vital proportion of reality and we become excessive and arrogant in our claims on the planet. That wood should be the basis of human civilisation is a great wonder.  A sense of wonderment is part of our wholeness and keeps us humble as just another creature that has evolved on Earth and we are utterly dependent on its ecological bounty.


4 Thinking with pebbles

Laurens van der Post expressed his thoughts in the form of word pictures.  Painting a picture with words through descriptive writing takes practice.   Sense words, descriptive words, and plays on words are all tools that bring the writing to life. With such ‘pictures’, a writer will ensure that the reader won’t soon forget what has been written thanks to the mental landscape that is created by the author’s descriptive skills.  Laurens van der Post had this power at his fingertips and could project it with confidence in talks and conversation.  Already an accomplished word painter, in 1983 he published his 22nd book ‘Yet Being Someone Other’, written in an old  fisherman’s watch tower on the shingle beach of the English coastal town of Aldeburgh. Many regard it as his most revealing book.  It is a distillation of the thoughts that have moved him at the deepest level of imagination. This is testified by the unanimous praise heaped upon it by a wide range of influential reviewers.

The story starts with his childhood in southern Africa, and the passionate interest in ships and the sea that led him to take part, as a young man, in two voyages of special significance: the first in a whaling ship, with a Norwegian captain whose values and imaginative range unexpectedly nourished his own, and then a long voyage to Japan that not only enriched but enlarged his life. Both are absorbing tales of action and adventure; but more than that, they are narratives of personal discovery that go beyond the storms and happenings of the outside world into the uncharted waters of the other world within.

The harmonious mental blend of the external and the internal expresses the paradoxical duality of our being.  The duality is brought out vividly in the author’s marvellous evocation of Japan as it was just two generations after the country was opened to the West.  

With his deep-rooted sense of the sea, and of the part it has played in man’s aspirations and destiny, Laurens van der Post ends his story where it began, at the Cape of Good Hope, lamenting the loss of a line of ships whose tradition dates back to the dramatic discoveries of the Renaissance mariners.  A the same time he recognizes a new dimension of hope for the questing spirit of mankind in the constant search for meaning and purpose in life.  ‘Yet Being Someone Other’ brings together his veneration for the human bond with nature, his quest for the secret springs of life’s meaning, his high hopes that the family of man will heal its wounds and rediscover its soul on the way to the stars, and his conviction that he has a personal obligation to history to command the utmost respect for the bond between people and land.

‘Yet Being Someone Other’ is undoubtedly the most unusual and unplaceable of all van der Post’s writings.  Like most of them it is heavily autobiographical; but, it is also much more than that — a kind of prolonged meditation on the part played in his life and that of the post-Renaissance modern world by ships and the sea. However this voyage is an interior one, seeking to understand his own selfhood and the place of humanity in the cosmos. It deals not only with the wonders of the deep but of the mysteries of the Deeps.  

Regarding the identity of van der Post’s ‘other’, we must start with a quotation from Jung, van der Post’s mentor.

“Spirit is the inside of things and matter is their visible outer aspect”

(C.G. Jung, in Sabini, 2005, p. 2).

Jerome Bernstein in his book, ‘Living in the Borderland’, addresses the evolution of Western consciousness and describes the emergence of the ‘Borderland,’ a spectrum of reality that is beyond the rational yet is palpable to an increasing number of individuals. Building on Jungian theory, Bernstein argues that a greater openness to trans rational reality experienced by Borderland personalities allows new possibilities for understanding. Mary-Jayne Rust, writing about the psychological responses to ecological crises validates that language helps reconnect self with body and land.  She muses on the potential of creating a language incorporating self and earth as do many languages in indigenous cultures that weave together body and land, community, and universe.  In this context, it is important to inquire why van der Post, with a mind filled with knowledge about the richness of relationships between culture and environment in Africa and the Far East, gravitated to the small English seaside town of Aldeburgh and what part it played in releasing this complex literary work.  

First, Aldeburgh enters the English literary landscape through the poetry of George Crabbe. In his lifetime (1754-1832), he enjoyed both critical and popular acclaim. Byron ranked him with Coleridge as “the first of these times in point of power and genius”. Samuel Johnson, Walter Scott, Edmund Burke, Jane Austen and Tennyson were also admirers.   Crabbe’s best known works are the long narrative poems, ‘The Village’, published in 1783 and ‘The Borough’ in 1810.  Crabbe doesn’t name the seaside town featured in ‘The Borough’, but no one doubts it’s based on Aldeburgh, where he was born and spent his early life. Some of the descriptions still apply to the place today – houses “where hang at open doors the net and cork”, marshland with “samphire banks and saltwort”, tarry boats and rounded flints.  Through elegant rhyming couplets, Crabbe depicts a shocking world of poverty and brutality relieved only by the beauties of the natural world.

Second, the composer Benjamin Britten discovered Crabbe’s poetry whilst living in America.  The poetry was a revelation: “I suddenly realised where I belonged and what I lacked.”. The experience evoked a longing for the spiritual overtones of that grim and exciting seacoast around Aldeburgh.  On his return from the US he wrote the music for the opera Peter Grimes based on a single chapter of Crabbe’s poem and it had its first performance in 1945..   Britten made his home in Aldeburgh and three years later he founded the Aldeburgh festival.  Peter Grimes in Crabbe’s poem represents the ‘other’ in the East Anglian fishing community that persecutes him as an outsider. In this context Britten is probably the most celebrated composer of oppressed ‘others’ who are misunderstood. Laurens van der Post could well be put into the category of a mystic whose message is difficult to understand.       

Third, Aldeburgh remains an artistic and literary community with an annual Poetry Festival and several food festivals as well as other cultural events. Third, Aldeburgh is a tourist destination with visitors attracted by the absence of  fairground entertainments and the exceptional quality of the natural wildness of its surroundings.  Second homes make up roughly a third of the town’s residential property.

Finally, Aldeburgh and its pebble beach is a borderland that faces full on to the powerful eroding action of the North Sea.  Its storm beach, thrown up and maintained as a dynamic linear feature of graded shingle by the tides, is a maritime wonder, an ecological wilderness of pebbles which extends for miles to the north and south of the town.

Cut off by extensive moorland, mudflats and saltmarshes to the west,  Aldeburgh has always been a small self contained inward looking cultural island,with big skies over land and sea. In fact there are few places better within two hours of London for an urbanite, which van der Post was at that time, wishing to meditate on the the mysteries and tragedies of the Deeps.  From his writing perch high above Aldeburgh’s shifting pebbles, which have been gradually encroaching on the town since its first settlement in Tudor times, van der Post’s gaze would be inevitably directed into the featureless, untamable grey North Sea.  This was his horizon for musing on a rich segment of his inner world and its achievements.

“Accordingly I look back on countless moments like those without regret or even nostalgia, but only with unqualified gratitude to life for giving me so privileged a chance of communion with the sea and its meaning, both in the dimension of the here and now of daily life as in the depths of the spirit where, through the symbolism of the external world made manifest, we are in touch with all that has been and all that is to come”.

   Yet Being Someone Other, Chapter 2

“Both sea and ships are in themselves natural symbols of royal and ancient standing in the mind of man”.

   Yet Being Someone Other, Chapter 6

“Those who persevered to the true end, whatever their call to the sea, would find it had the power, unequalled by any other natural phenomenon, to transcend all and make mere man more than himself”.

   Yet Being Someone Other, Chapter 6

A storm beach is a beach affected by particularly fierce waves usually with a very long fetch. The resultant landform is often a very steep accumulation of rock fragments composed of rounded cobbles, shingle and occasionally sand.  It is one of the few wild ecosystems that has persisted visually worldwide from the ocean’s beginnings.  The tidal fetch hitting Aldeburgh in a north easterly gale can be around 2000 km.  Shipwreck and deaths at sea have always been talking points in the town’s daily life.

Day by day each tide animates an imperceptible progression of pebbles along by the promenade then south beyond the town to augment the great pebble bank of Orford Ness.  This is the treeless, botanically sparse, marine desert, albeit only a mile across, which chimes with the Kalahari in a mind a mind dwelling on human survival.  The last of the pastoralists recorded on Orford Ness, Phineas Munnings, had died long before van der Posts arrival. We can surmise that it was probably the absence of an aboriginal inhabitant to represent the ‘bushman’ of the shingle banks and marshes that prevented van der Post from articulating a particular inner response to Aldeburgh’s maritime wilderness.  Nevertheless,we can imagine him treading the shingle, brooding on the fate of planet Earth and the inability of humankind to take the necessary action to bring its demands for ever more planetary resources in line with the planet’s ecological productivity.   

“I myself, in my own small way in south-east Asia and all over Africa, had tried in vain to achieve a more merciful settlement of our debt to life. I had tried for some fifty years through my writing to prevent petrification and judgement according to the letter of archaic law in a court of fate whose appointed officers were executioners without love, and disaster without human bonds. How could men still doubt that disaster and suffering were the terrible physicians summoned by life when all other more gentle means of healing them had failed?”

   Yet Being Someone Other, Chapter 7

“There seemed to me moments in a desperate time when one had also to do and act on the ordinary everyday human scene. Art and writing, it seemed, ultimately demanded not only expression in their own idiom but also translation into behaviour and action on the part of their begetters. Being and doing, doing and being, for me were profoundly interdependent, particularly in a world where increasingly it seemed to me the ‘doers’ did not think and the thinkers did not ‘do’ . . . In the Western world to which I belonged, all the stress was on the ‘doing’ without awareness of the importance to it of the ‘being’. Somewhere in this over-balance of contemporary spirit, there appeared to be an increasing loss of meaning through the growing failure to realize how ‘being’ was in itself primal action, and that at the core of ‘being’ was a dynamic element of ‘becoming’ which gave life its quality and from which it derived its values and overall sense of direction. Because of a lack of such `being’, we were constantly in danger of becoming too busy to live”.

   Yet Being Someone Other, Chapter 6

“I believe that my own life established some small but undeniable and empirical facts: namely that every life is extraordinary; that the `average man’ is a statistical abstraction and does not exist; and that every single one of us — not excluding the disabled, maimed, blind, deaf, dumb and the bearers of unbearable suffering — matters to a Creation that has barely begun.

   Yet Being Someone Other, Chapter 7

This leaves us to question the enigmatic title of his Aldeburgh book, ‘Yet Being Someone Other’.  Normally this phrase would be the start of an explanation to qualify a personal course of action. One such significant far reaching action was his departure from the Cape of Good Hope in one of the last ocean going passenger vessels.  At this point of severance from his African roots van der Post presents us with an image as it would be seen in a newsreel. Yet, having an imaginative self within brought to the surface, by another root, the cultural impact of lost Portuguese explorers probing the African coastline in the days of sail for material wealth and to satisfy the insatiable human wanderlust.

Shipwreck, almost unendurable hardship at sea, and the constant and mysterious disappearance of vessels became so normal a part of Portuguese experience that it inspired a special literature of its own. Ordinary Portuguese men and women had their imagination so inflamed by what was increasingly a national horror story that they acquired an insatiable appetite, not just for factual records of what happened at sea but for fiction about the sea, ships and the men who sailed in them. It was called Literatura de Cordel, loosely translated as `string literature.’   It was given this name because so many stories of this kind came from the pens of popular Portuguese writers that they were rushed into print in a glorified pamphlet form and displayed all over Lisbon, strung up on string and hung up outside shops like some new sort of salami of the imagination, pre-cut for instant consumption.

   Yet Being Someone Other, pp.22-23

Above all, van der Post’s message for the world in ‘Yet Being Someone Other’ is that there is a bushman archetype in everybody but we have lost contact with that side of ourselves and we must learn again about a universal primeval inner self that animated the ancient hunters and pastoralists. The Bushman is walking about in our midst. personifying an aspect of humanity which we all have, but with which we have increasingly lost contact.  According to van der Post, Jung believed that every human being has a 2 million year-old man within himself and if he loses contact with that 2 million year-old self he loses his real roots in human evolution.  This disjunction between origins and actions has impoverished us and endangered Earth itself.  Diagnosing this ill revealed to van der Post that the difference between this naked little man in the desert, who owned nothing, and us, was that he is and we have, but no longer are. We have exchanged having for being. In this sense the inner bushman is presented as a bridge between the world in the beginning, with which we’ve lost touch, and the global world of consumerism, in which everyone is clamouring to satisfy wants rather than needs.  The prescription is simple.  Everyone must take the minimum for needs with a little bit extra to buy time for creativity. Applying the prescription is difficult because those who have gained the most from globalising capitalism will not give up their surplus to those who have the least.  To this misfit between sustainability and exploitation Laurens van der Post has no answer, but then neither has anyone else.

The traveller and author Jan Morris sums up Laurens van der Post as follows:

“He is a mystic, disguised as a novelist and man of action, and he is here in the world to ponder its incalculables, and allow us to share his conjectures. Yet he seems dissatisfied with the role, and wishes always to translate his long ecstasy into something more positive, some plan of action, some practical purpose. It is as though a sense of guilt, inherited perhaps from the Calvinist conscience, drives this inspired dreamer into a closer involvement with the world’s reality: as though the dream, and the vision, is not reality enough”.


5  A wonderment curriculum

Laurens van der Post spent his life teaching us about the mismatch between humankind’s wants and needs.  Since his death it is now commonplace to see that  in the long run we have no choice but move towards a society in which there cannot be any economic growth, market forces cannot be allowed to determine our fate, there must be mostly small and highly self-sufficient and self-governing settlements, mostly local economies, very little international trade, highly participatory political systems, and above all a willing acceptance of frugal lifestyles and non-material sources for life satisfaction.The best that education for sustainability can achieve within present socioeconomics is to inculcate a sense of wonderment in the natural world and teach the skills necessary to provide technical fixes to overcome inevitable future catastrophe.

Regarding educating for a sense of wonderment. Albert Einstein set out the thinking framework as follows:

“I have no doubt that our thinking goes on for the most part without use of signs (words) and beyond that to a considerable degree unconsciously. For how, otherwise, should it happen that we sometimes “wonder” quite spontaneously about some experience? This “wondering” appears to occur when an experience comes into conflict with a world of concepts already sufficiently fixed within us. Whenever such a conflict is experienced sharply and intensely it reacts back upon our world of thought in a decisive way. The development of this world of thought is in a certain sense a continuous flight from wonder”

“A wonder of this kind I experienced as a child of four or five years when my father showed me a compass. That this needle behaved in such a determined way did not at all fit in the kind of occurrences that could find a place in the unconscious world of concepts (efficacy produced by direct “touch”). I can still remember — or at least believe I can remember — that this experience made a deep and lasting impression upon me. Something deeply hidden had to be behind things”

Rachel Carson put it this way:

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full or wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength”.

The conventional educational belief is that by exposing people to the outdoors and immersing them in the workings of nature will elicit a deep sense of appreciation and wonderment. Van der Posts standpoint is that It is only by finding our place in nature, and nature’s place within us, that we can truly address the environmental challenges we face today.  The mission is to reconnect us to the natural world and to bring to our attention its role in sustaining human life on this planet.  He sees us all as walking artists, hunter/ gatherers of stories about, place, memories and objects. His writings are a wake up call to the ecologist within us all.  The educational home for this awakening is deep ecology, the environmental movement and philosophy which regards human life as just one of many equal components of a global ecosystem.

Taking this into account, the following core beliefs of a wonderment curriculum operate within the positive cycle of learning fuelled by curiosity and wonderment.


  • From birth, our innate curiosity drives us to wonder, explore, dream and discover.
  • Curiosity drives passion. “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious”. Albert Einstein
  • Promoting belonging and inclusion for all children to ignite and follow their passionate curiosity.
  • Education and learning should be a vehicle that ignites a child’s natural wonderment and curiosity encouraging them to ask why and why not.


Van der Post followed this prescription in words, developing his ideas in the form of an ongoing philosophical travelogue.  In summary his message was “There is a way in which the collective knowledge of mankind expresses itself, for the finite individual, through mere daily living… a way in which life itself is sheer knowing”.

Wonderment  triggers poetry.  John Keating in ‘Dead Poets Society’ encapsulated the social value of poetry.  

’ ‘We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.  And the human race is filled with passion.  And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

So perhaps the aim of education for living sustainably is to prepare students for a world that will require them to learn continuously, to find and solve problems globally, to act with empathy so as to bring hope and equity to many and strive to live a life full of a passionate pursuit of beauty and wonderment.  A wonderment curriculum is led by the belief that values other than market values must be recognized and given importance, and that Nature provides the ultimate measure by which to judge human endeavours.

A practical prescription is to live and learn pictorially in a state of profound wanderlust and wonder as da Vinci might have done.  Leonardo da Vinci was a brilliant artist, scientist, engineer, mathematician, architect, inventor, writer, and even musician-the archetypal Renaissance man, but Fritjof Capra argues, he was also a profoundly modern.  Not only did Leonardo invent the empirical scientific method I over a century before Galileo and Francis Bacon, but Capra’s decade-long study of Leonardo’s fabled notebooks reveal him as a picture thinker centuries before the term systems thinking was coined. He believed the key to truly understanding the world was in perceiving the connections between phenomena pictorially to reveal the larger patterns formed by those pictorial wow-factor relationships.


6  Profound wanderlust

Picture education is about exposing students to the wow-factor.  This focuses learning on  the  theory of multiple intelligences and particularly on spatial intelligence.  There is a number of distinct forms of intelligence that each individual possesses in varying degrees. Gardner proposes eight primary forms: naturalistic, linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, body-kinesthetic, intrapersonal and interpersonal. A number of others also suggest an additional one: technological.

One implication of Gardner’s theory is that learning/teaching should incorporate the intelligences of each person. For example, if an individual has strong spatial intelligence, then spatial activities and learning opportunities should be used.  A wonderment curriculum has to concentrate on the principles of picture production.  It is probably true to say that all people to a greater or lesser extent possess spatial intelligence.  It has been estimated that visual learners comprise 65 percent of the population, so crafted images are clearly key to engaging people in eLearning courses and making picture education accessible to most learners.

People with spatial intelligence (“picture smart” or visual smart) have the ability, or preference, to think in pictures.   Spatial intelligent people create and use mental images; enjoy art, such as drawings, and sculpture, use maps, charts, and diagrams; and often remember with pictures through the process of mind mapping.

The other thing that picture education is about is the feeding of wanderlust.  Wanderlust is defined as the desire to gather knowledge by seeing new things and is usually applied in the context of the urge to travel.  According to Miriam Websters Dictionary, the definition of Wanderlust is simply “a strong desire to travel”. It comes from the German language and is spelled Wanderlust. It is a relatively new word, dating back to the beginning of this millennium. These days the world is explored and presented through wanderlust images, when the traveller goes forth for pleasure or for political, aesthetic and social meaning.

Andrew Delaney, Director of Creative Content at Getty Images explains Wonderlust (sic.) Imagery as: “Images that inspires a sense of awe. They are images that are  connecting us with our surroundings and elicit a reaction of wonder when you see them.”

Here are some of Delaney’s key points for teachers wishing to produce their own Wanderlust Imagery:

  • Work with depth.
  • Play with colour and texture.
  • Give a sense of the unknown.
  • Don’t worry about showing “bad weather”.
  • Mother Nature is often the “hero” in the image.
  • Be very aware of scale and effective composition.
  • Catch the particles in the air to diffuse the light e. g. smoke or dust.
  • Experiment with a wider crop. Embrace the 16:9 format to illustrate the scale of nature.
  • Dare doing a non-extreme sports shoot. A contemplating feel is often more welcomed.
  • Make pictures that are inclusive, that makes you wish you were there. Sometimes cliché works.
  • You don’t always have to show the entire object to get other to understand what you are saying. Don’t be afraid of cropping.
  • Use a subtle approach to colour rendering. Colour pallets are becoming more subtle. Man and nature are becoming more blended.

Delaney makes some interesting points when talking about authenticity of the image.  The concept of Point of View (POV) photography can sometimes be very effective when trying to evoke a feeling with the viewer, because it is about enjoying what that person behind the camera is enjoying.   He says: “Be prepared to either discover it, or create a set of circumstances where the moment happens and you are there to photograph it.”  Another of his tips is to try to be present and do your best to catch the decisive moment. It is not about controlling a shoot, but creating a shooting window, where as a period of actions happens and you step out of it to record what happens,

“When the editors at Getty first look at a picture, they see if it works emotionally. Technical qualities are secondary but can sometimes add authenticity. Flare, backlight, a crooked horizon, blown highlights, or excessive grain/noise can all evoke emotions and helps with nostalgia. This must however be done delicately.

“All pictures today live or die on the basis of how they look as a thumbnail – which means you absolutely got to get your composition right”. If your picture doesn’t read as a thumbnail, it’s going to die. It is not going to get clicked on. The client of ours is not going to go to the next step of investigating an image if it fails the test of what it looks like as a thumbnail. It’s got to look good”.

The concept of accessing a photographic point of view is central to generate the motivation to travel in order to experience the point of view first hand.  Travel needs and motives reveal educational needs because they stem from an inner feeling of wanting to learn about new places and things, further fuelled by external pull factors that promise just that. This contemporary type of explorer has a fairly clear idea where she wants to go and she is not travelling away from her home (such as it is the case with escape), she is travelling toward a fixed destination. Her basic need springs from the feeling of a deficiency that she has encountered in her home environment. This deficiency (contrary to a lack) is subjective and a social construct. If the traveller’ nowadays described as a tourist,  is not capable of satisfying this deficiency (with its corresponding need), she has to look for other ways to continue.  

The first aim of an escape is to gain distance from one’s home environment. It is like living in between two realities: the home environment that has been left behind, and the destination where one is physically present but not as a part of it; this is a betwixt and between situation that is also referred to as liminality. The alienation of the home environment during the period of being a traveller refers to a space-related liminality, wherein places that themselves are liminal, such as beaches (between land and sea), are usually preferred.   Profound changes in the way that place and time are experienced as a result of accelerated globalization have led to a new questioning of identity, the self and the place people take in this world. Not only are ways of living leading to a sense of loss of identity, for many individuals computerized work conditions and everyday roles impose constraining and monotonous routines in which individuals find it difficult to pursue their self-realization.  Many theories on motivation and needs to be satisfied have used this model as a basic educational outline. Pearce applied it to the case of tourism and combined it with the tourist’s experience. He proposed five layers of holiday motivations:

  • relaxation (rest <> active)
  • stimulation (stronger emotions)
  • social needs (family, friends)
  • self esteem (self development through cultural, nature or other activities)
  • self-realization (search for happiness)

Travel needs and motives follow these different levels, the first two being the most common. It should be noted that this model is based on the Western world and in those parts where community life is especially valued, the ultimate goal is often not self realization but being able to serve the group, for example.

Through the works of  Laurens van der Post there runs a thread demonstrating intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence. Overall his writings are a philosophical travelogue, communicated in words.  They  illuminate the capacity of humanity’s inner life to distinguish the evils of modern civilisation, the life-enhancing wonders of primitive (especially Bushman) culture, and for communicating ecstatically detailed sunsets, sunrises, lions, elephants, bees, and extraordinary facts about the wilderness of (it seems) South-West Africa.  His writings are short on pictures.  This is a feature of the times when they were written.  A large body of research indicates that visual cues help us to better retrieve and remember information. The research outcomes on visual learning make complete sense when you consider that the human brain is mainly an image processor (much of our sensory cortex is devoted to vision), not a word processor. In fact, the part of the brain used to process words is quite small in comparison to the part that processes visual images.

If we think of literacy as reading and writing words, visual literacy can be described as the ability to both interpret and create meaningful visuals. With the constant, overwhelming flow of information and communication today, both parts of this modern literacy equation are non-negotiable   Our brains are wired to rapidly make sense of and remember visual input. Visualizations in the form of diagrams, charts, drawings, pictures, and a variety of other imagery can help students understand complex information. A well-designed visual image can yield a much more powerful and memorable learning experience than a mere verbal or textual description.   Movies and still images have been included in learning materials for decades, but only now has faster broadband, cellular networks, and high-resolution screens made it possible for high-quality images to be a part of eLearning. Graphic interfaces made up of photos, illustrations, charts, maps, diagrams, and videos are gradually replacing text-based courses.  We are now in the age of visual information where visual content plays a role in every part of life.

According to  Lynell Burmark, an education consultant who writes and speaks about visual literacy:

“…unless our words, concepts, ideas are hooked onto an image, they will go in one ear, sail through the brain, and go out the other ear. Words are processed by our short-term memory where we can only retain about seven bits of information (plus or minus 2) […]. Images, on the other hand, go directly into long-term memory where they are indelibly etched.”

Because of television, advertising, and the Internet, representing social facts pictorially as resources for learning through visuals is now the primary literacy of the 21st century.  It’s no longer enough to read and write text. Students must learn to process both words and pictures. They must be able to move gracefully and fluently between text and images, between literal and figurative worlds.  

Today, anyone with a digital camera and a personal computer can produce and alter an image.  As a result, the power of the image has been diluted by the ubiquity of images and the many populist technologies (like inexpensive cameras and picture-editing software) that give almost everyone the power to create, distort, and transmit images. But it has been strengthened by the gradual capitulation of the printed word to pictures, particularly moving pictures . The ceding of text to image has been been likened  to an articulate person being rendered mute, forced to communicate via gesture and expression rather than speech.   It was as a storyteller that Laurens van der Post communicated to people in their millions.  Our brains are far more engaged by storytelling than a list of facts–it’s easier for us to remember stories because our brains make little distinction between an experience we are reading about and one that is actually happening.  But a point can be driven home even more effectively by images.. That’s because visuals add a component to storytelling that text cannot: speed.  Research shows that, visuals are processed 60,000 times faster than text, which means you can paint a picture for your audience much faster with an actual picture. It’s no surprise then that tweets with images are 94% more likely to be retweeted than tweets without.  This also points the way to the use of Internet media such as Pinterest (pinboards), Tumblr (picture blogs) Instagram (social networking) and Mindomo (mindmaping) for mass education.  


7  Internet References




Picture blog

Social media




Teaching nature

Nature photography


Writers and wilderness

Yet Being Someone Other