Ecological Humanism

January 9th, 2019

We Earth-bound humans are encountering a severe ecological crisis exemplified by climate change and have three choices for the future. The first option is to continue with industrial capitalism in pursuit of the dream of mastering nature. This global social force is underpinned by a radical separation between humans and other life forms.  It is associated with anthropocentrism, the idea that humans are superior to the rest of nature and thereby hold the right to pillage the planet. In 1961 humanity used 70 percent of Earth’s sustainable productivity; since the 1980s it has consistently exceeded it. The world’s ecological deficit is referred to as the global ecological overshoot. Since the 1970s, humans have been in ecological overshoot, with the annual demand on resources exceeding what Earth can regenerate each year. Today, the human population uses the equivalent of 1.7 Earths to provide its resources and to absorb its wastes. This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what is used in a year through overfishing the seas, overharvesting forests, and emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than forests can sequester through plant photosynthesis.  

Estimates put Earth’s carrying capacity at anywhere between 2 billion and 40 billion people. It varies with a wide range of factors, most of them fitting under the umbrella of ‘lifestyle’. For instance, if humans remained in the prehistoric hunter-gatherer mode, Earth would reach its capacity at about 100 million people. With humans producing food by intensive agriculture and living an urban life in high-rise buildings, that number increases significantly.  

To understand the flexibility of Earth’s carrying capacity is to look at the difference between the projected capacities of 2 billion and 40 billion people. Essentially, we’re working with the same level of planetary resources to produce both of those numbers. But people in different parts of the world are consuming different amounts. Basically, if everyone on Earth lived like a middle-class American, consuming roughly 3.3 times the subsistence level of food and about 250 times the subsistence level of clean water, Earth could only support about 2 billion people. On the other hand, if everyone on the planet consumed only what is needed, for a long-term state of contentedness, 40 billion people would be a feasible number.  In 2019 the human population on Earth living with global overshoot was 7.7 billion and increasing. As it is, the 25 percent of Earth’s population living in developed countries are consuming so much that the other 75 percent of humanity is left with barely what it needs to get by. Thus, the first choice, to maintain the ever-expanding capitalist order, is unsustainable. It is the very path which led to the current ecological crisis measureable by biodiversity in sharp decline.

Biodiversity is the basis of human existence; our life support system. Ecosystems regulate climatic processes, breakdown wastes and recycle nutrients, filter and purify water, buffer against flooding, maintain soil fertility, purify air, and provide natural resources such as wood, textiles, and of course food.  In the face of a decline in biodiversity an alternative future is the neo-Romantic idea of Earth as a managed wilderness, whose conservation on a planetary scale would be humanity’s primary ecological aim. That is to say, we have to reject anthropocentrism in favour of biocentrism, a principle inhibiting humans from interfering with the vital needs of other organisms. But this alternative  is untenable as well, since pursuing it would require a massive reduction in the human population, the subordination of human aims to perceived natural ones, and a regression to a low-tech agrarian existence.

Ecological humanism offers a third future, which takes the view that human beings are capable of transforming their societies so as to promote the flourishing of both humanity and nature.  Ecological humanism is, in essence, a communitarian view of human culture. Human beings, it argues, have always pursued the developmental ideal of becoming fully integrated persons within community contexts by answering the questions; Who am I? (searching for values, beliefs and empathy for others); What am I going to do (defining career paths); WilI I make it? (coping with the cultural impact of rapid social, technical and economic changes). This is a tradition that is particularly associated with three pioneer social ecologists – Lewis Mumford, René Dubos and Murray Bookchin.   Their work provides a vital interdisciplinary resource for those concerned with developing a coherent philosophy of how humanity and nature, from which we evolved, can and should work together to deal with the current ecological crisis. The crisis in cultural ecology is evident in the degradation of the natural environment under industrial capitalism; the pollution of the atmosphere, rivers and lakes; deforestation; the limitations of industrial agriculture and the adverse effects of toxic pesticides and soil erosion; the problems of chemical additives in food; the dangers of nuclear power; and the serious decline in the quality of urban life through overcrowding, pollution, poverty and traffic congestion.  Ecological humanism focuses on culture and affirms that human beings are capable of transforming their societies so as to enhance the flourishing of both humanity and nature.This perspective highlights an educational objective to promote a sophisticated, planned, co‐ordinated global economy that is ecologically benign, socially peaceable and equitable. A pedagogy is needed whose basic characteristic is to promote planetary well being, not humankind’s destructive animality. Learning to care comes through the application of reason, decency, tolerance, empathy and hope.

These are important human traits that we should aspire to, not because we seek a reward of eternal life or because we fear the punishment of a supernatural being, but because they define our humanity on Earth.  In 1997, Babu Goginieni, director of the Humanist and Ethical Union, referring to the need for humanism in education remarked that: “… Atheism is not important. I happen to be an atheist, but that’s not the point – what is important is freedom and human values, and a way of living with others and with nature.”  ‘Prosperity’ is ‘belonging with love’, not year on year financial gain.

Humanism is a worldview, not about one aspect of religion, knowledge, or politics.  Many humanists are also secularists, but religious believers may also take a secularist position on humanism which calls for freedom of belief, including the right to change belief and not to believe. Education founded on free humanistic intellectual enquiry envisages that all children should be free to grow up in a world where they are allowed to question, doubt, think freely and reach their own conclusions about what they believe.  Ecological humanism in the classroom is about where our convictions of human dignity, equality or liberty come from and how these principles are to be defended. It is about finding one’s identity to promote the management of the local and global consumption of finite planetary resources and the associated divisive issues of gender and livelihoods. As a communitarian project the questions to be answered are: Who are we? What are we going to do? Will we make it?  

Fig 1 Comparison of two pedagogies for promoting learning and good behaviour

Humanism is the outcome of a long tradition of free thought that has inspired many of the world’s great thinkers and creative artists since Greek and Roman times and gave rise to science itself.  In 1952, at the first World Humanist Congress, set out the fundamental principles of modern Humanism. The 50th anniversary World Humanist Congress in 2002, unanimously passed a resolution known as “The Amsterdam Declaration 2002”. Following the Congress, this updated declaration became the official defining statement of World Humanism.  The declaration promotes the application of human thought and action to solve the world’s problems of human welfare. Therefore humanism imposes no creed upon those committed to its principles and who share humanism’s quest for a more humane, just, and compassionate society. Humanism now takes on sustainable development initiatives looking far into the future as well as other pressing policy pursuits, with more immediate relevance. The latter are often also associated with sustainable development, such as the drive to promote health, secure basic education, reduce poverty, and create productive employment and livelihoods.

The fundamentals of modern Humanism are as follows:

1. Humanism is ethical. It affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others. Humanists have a duty of care to all of humanity including future generations. Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction.

2. Humanism is rational. It seeks to use science creatively, not destructively. Humanists believe that the solutions to the world’s problems lie in human thought and action rather than divine intervention. Humanism advocates the application of the methods of science and free inquiry to the problems of human welfare. But Humanists also believe that the application of science and technology must be tempered by human values. Science gives us the means but human values must propose the ends.

3. Humanism supports democracy and human rights. Humanism aims at the fullest possible development of every human being. It holds that democracy and human development are matters of right. The principles of democracy and human rights can be applied to many human relationships and are not restricted to methods of government.

4. Humanism insists that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility. Humanism ventures to build a world on the idea of the free person responsible to society, and recognises our dependence on and responsibility for the natural world. Humanism is undogmatic, imposing no creed upon its adherents. It is thus committed to education free from indoctrination.

5. Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion. The world’s major religions claim to be based on revelations fixed for all time, and many seek to impose their world-views on all of humanity. Humanism recognises that reliable knowledge of the world and ourselves arises through a continuing process of observation, evaluation and revision.

6. Humanism values artistic creativity and imagination and recognises the transforming power of art. Humanism affirms the importance of literature, music, and the visual and performing arts for personal development and fulfilment.

7. Humanism is a lifestance aiming at the maximum possible fulfilment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living and offers an ethical and rational means of addressing the challenges of our times. Humanism can be a way of life for everyone everywhere.

A primary task of humanism in education is to make students aware in the simplest terms of what Humanism can mean to them and what it commits them to. By utilising free inquiry, the power of science and creative imagination for the furtherance of peace and in the service of compassion, we have confidence that we have the means to solve the problems that confront us all. We call upon all who share this conviction to associate themselves with us in this endeavour.

IHEU Congress 2002

Internet references

Rethinking education as a cultural ecology

December 20th, 2018

A learning country

With education being “ […] a primary institution towards affecting social and ecological change for the better” (Kahn, 2003), educating for sustainability requires vast personal and collective paradigm shifts – completely new individual and global ways of being and doing.

In 2015 UNESCO published ‘‘Rethinking Education:Towards a Global Common Good’, which presented an educational landscape reflecting a world undergoing radical transformation with regard to methods, content and spaces of learning. UNESCO saw the increased availability of, and access to, diverse sources of knowledge as expanding new opportunities for learning.  These opprtunities were less structured and more innovative, affecting the classroom, pedagogy, teacher authority and learning processes. In scale, the transformation of the learning landscape underway in the first decade of the new millennium was likened to the historical transition from the traditional pre-industrial ‘learning on the job’ educational model to the ‘school as a mass production educational factory focused on passing written examinations’. Regarding the traditional pre-industrial learning model, most of what people learned came through the activities of their daily lives and work, with the apprentice system having pride of place. In contrast, the model of mass education born of the industrial revolution factory output model equated learning – almost exclusively – with schooling.

In September 2018 the Learned Society of Wales held its third international meeting in Cambridge entitled ‘The Ethics of Sustainable Prosperity for All’.  With respect to the role of education in attaining sustainable prosperity, an historical timeline for Wales was set out by Jane Davidson, a former Member of the Welsh Assembly Government, who had held the ministerial posts in education and environment.  As education minister she took the first steps towards education for living sustainably in a government paper. ‘The Learning Country; A Paving Document’. This was published in 2001, two years after the inception of the devolved National Assembly for Wales.  At that time Wales’ economic profile was summarised as:

  • GDP per head in Wales was some 20 per cent below the UK average;
  • the proportion of working age people whose highest qualification is NVQ level 4 or equivalent, or above, was some 23 per cent compared to 25 per cent in the rest of the UK;
  • in 1999 Welsh hourly earnings were 12 per cent below the UK figure;
  • 19 per cent of the population had no qualifications, compared to 16 per cent in the rest of the UK;
  • rates of economic inactivity were at 25 per cent in Wales compared to 21 per cent across the UK.

Davidson was cocerned with the political question,  Would such a culture of low skills, low qualifications, low creativity, low expectation, and low enterprise survive in the face of European and international competition?  The 2001 paving paper pointed to the plain fact that training and education are equally and intimately related to successful community development, social inclusion, wealth creation and personal fulfilment. The belief was that “… there is a close synergy between the measures necessary to sustain learning and creativity, and achieving the benefits of economic growth, community enrichment and a wonderful quality of life for individuals”. Thus, the Davidson paper presented a vision for the future where innovation in the arts, sciences and technology would stimulate and promote Wales as a vigorous learning country.  

Therefore, at the turn of the last century the Assembly Government was proposing a cultural prescription to implant a genuine momentum to lifelong learning for all.   The aim was to unlock everyone’s capacity to acquire the confidence to be adaptable and enterprising; and to make the most of the dynamic cultural and linguistic inheritance in Wales; all with due regard to the Assembly’s consistent commitment for the betterment of its population by:

  • realising sustainability;
  • tackling social disadvantage – especially in the most deprived communities;
  • promoting equality of opportunity; and
  • sustaining an environment that celebrates diversity and makes genuine progress towards realising the benefits of bilingualism.

In this respect the government was committed, more generally, to boosting the participation of children and young people across a range of dimensions in community life. The outcome was seen as the promotion of individuals’ attainment and development whilst also giving them the legal entitlement to design the services that affect them directly. This new ‘community for participation’ was to be supplemented with a new information resource’ branded Canllaw On-Line, to meet government aspirations for a confident, characterful, and holistic schooling system in Wales. This was seen as a system of cultural ecology in which schools could develop, and make the most of their varied strengths and origins in partnership with the community they served.   The focus of cultural ecology is the interchange between human and natural systems. It provides provocative insights into the nature of human relatedness with and impact on the natural world and a window through which the concept of sustainability may be configured. The educational dimension was seen to be a much closer relationship between schools and the communities, where schools would act as a community resource – not just in school hours but out of hours and in vacations as well. Schools were seen as being integral to community capacity building – providing a base for delivering, not just education and training (with links to FE and HE institutions), but also a range of other services like family support, health and enterprise promotion. The aim was to root schools in a wide community/environment context; where they were capable of taking genuine pride in their achievements, and able to ensure they were  publicly recognised. Schools were seen- quite as much as other providers – as being more and more concerned with enabling people to learn how to learn, as well as being dedicated to transmitting knowledge, skills and understanding. Information technology was seen as a vital resource for achieving this. Here, the Assembly Government was breaking with the past by regarding the disposition to learn, and the .confidence to do so, as being vitally important local social currencies for the future. Secondary schools, in particular, were going to be encouraged to progressively move away from rigid timetables, and even classroom based teaching, to very much more flexible modes of provision tailored to the needs of the individual learner and supported by ever strengthening distance learning and computer networking to spread ideas and achievements.

Schooling for a global economic downturn

The core of all political sustainability programmes rely on the old model of indefinite economic growth that caused our ecological crisis in the first place: ever-increasing levels of extraction, production and consumption. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015 calls for  “at least 7% GDP growth per annum in the least developed countries” and “higher levels of economic productivity” across the board. In other words, there is a profound contradiction at the heart of these supposedly sustainable goals. They call for both less and more at the same time. A new education system is needed to resolve the contradiction, which demonstrates how it is entirely possible to shrink our resource consumption while increasing things that really matter such as human happiness, well-being, education, health and longevity. Consider the fact that Europe has higher human development indicators than the US in most categories, despite 40% less GDP per capita and 60% less emissions per capita.

Despite the fine words about living sustainably, now, in Wales and elsewhere, the old schooling model focused on endless economic growth continues to associate learning essentially with classroom teaching to pass time-limited examinations.  In fact much learning, even in traditional educational settings, takes place at home and elsewhere. The physical space defined by the classroom is still the main locus of learning and is a central feature of formal education systems at all levels of learning.  In this respect, UNESCO has questioned the future of this 19th century schooling model in the digital age, bearing in mind the opportunities offered by e-learning, mobile-phone learning and other digital technologies. Also the current industrial model of schooling was designed to meet the production needs of unending year on year economic growth. This began to increase personal wellbeing over a century ago but since then, modes of learning and knowledge about Earth’s limits to support year on year increases in incomes have changed dramatically.  Sources of information have changed, as have the ways in which we exchange and interact with them. Furthermore, curricula have been slow to change and remain remarkably similar to what they have been for the past two centuries. In fact a high degree of prescription and detail in the national curriculum, allied to increasingly powerful accountability mechanisms, has tended to create a culture within which the creative role of the school has become diminished and the professional contribution of the workforce underdeveloped. In particular, the essential features of a national curriculum for the UK, devised in 1988, reflect a world that was yet to see the World Wide Web and the advances in technology and globalisation that have transformed the way we live and work.   

And yet, schooling remains as important as ever. It is the first step in institutionalized learning and socialization beyond the family, and it is an essential component of social learning: learning to be and learning to live together. Learning should not be merely an individual process. As a social experience, it requires learning with and through others – through discussion and debate with peers teachers, business leaders and politicians. In this connection, the transformation of the educational landscape in the contemporary world has seen growing recognition of the importance and relevance of learning outside formal institutions. There is a move from traditional educational institutions towards mixed, diverse and complex learning landscapes in which formal, non-formal and informal learning occur through a variety of educational institutions and third-party providers. Therefore, what is need is a more fluid approach to learning as a continuum, in which schooling and formal education institutions interact more closely with other less formalized educational experiences from early childhood throughout life. The changes in the spaces, times and relations in which learning takes place favour a network of learning spaces where non-formal and informal spaces of learning will interact with and complement formal educational institutions.  Above all we should no longer school young people for the review, but to battle for a sustainable future. This was the message of Davidson in 2018 when she said we must move away from the stressful process of ‘learning to test’.

It wasn’t until 2014 that serious effort was made to apply the 2001 pavement prescription to establish a new Wales curriculum.  Professor Graham Donaldson, was commissioned by the Welsh Government to consider new assessment and curriculum arrangements. His report champions six “areas of learning and experience” as the basis for a  curriculum, which would transcend all learning from the age of 3 through to 16. It is scheduled to come into operation in 2021.

The main points from the Donaldson Report are it:

  • incorporates all learners aged three to 16, from Foundation Phase to Key Stage 4 (GCSE)  
  • bids to develop: ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives; enterprising creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work; ethical informed citizens of Wales and the world; and healthy, confident individuals ready to live fulfilling lives as valued members of society
  • replaces existing key stages with “progression steps”, relating broadly to expectations at ages five, eight, 11, 14 and 16
  • follows progression steps to provide reference points for teachers and parents, while providing a “road map” for pupils according to their individual needs
  • is organised into six “areas of learning and experience”: expressive arts; health and wellbeing; humanities; languages, literacy and communication; maths and numeracy; and science and technology
  • introduces three “cross-curriculum responsibilities” – literacy, numeracy and digital competence – that would be expected of all teachers
  • maintains teacher assessment, which remains the “main vehicle for assessment before qualifications”
  • recommends that teaching of the Welsh language remains compulsory up to the age of 16, but there should be a new expectation that learners gain “transactional competence” by the end of their studies
  • recommends Welsh-medium schools should act as hubs for the Welsh language, supporting teachers and practitioners in English-medium schools
  • recommends all teaching and learning should be directed to achieving the four curriculum purposes
  • recommends external, standardised testing to provide important benchmarking information – but its frequency should be “kept to a minimum” in view of its impact on the curriculum and teaching and learning
  • recommends a programme of professional learning to be developed to ensure that the implications of the review for the skills and knowledge of teachers are fully met
  • Recommends a Wales’ national school categorisation system to be .adjusted to reflect the recommendations of the review

The Humanities working group has already developed a statement outlining how this Area of Learning and Experience (AoLE) promotes the four purposes:

‘Through exploring big ideas about the Humanities, pupils will study the past and present, and by imagining possible futures, will learn about people, place, time and beliefs. In detail pupils will:

•understand historical, geographical, political, economic and societal concepts.

•explore their environment to further develop their sense of place and wellbeing.

•engage in learning experiences about rights, values, ethics, beliefs, religion, philosophy and spirituality.

•consider, explore and make informed choices regarding sustainability and the impact of their actions.

•positively contribute to their community and critically engage with local, national and global issues to become a responsible citizen of Wales and the wider world.

This is the area of the new curriculum where the 2001 paving document can become a route to education for sustainability, stressing systems thinking across traditional subject areas and using the community served by the school as an outdoor laboratory.  It has potential to provide rich opportunities for learning beyond the school walls, for example through exploring the local environment and learning from the experience of people, organisations and businesses and political governance in the community. Children and young people will also gain the knowledge and skills to understand and contribute to the communities in which they live and engage with societal issues.  However, the invisible elephant in the classroom is the unaddressed question. How can Jane Davidson’s vision of a wonderful life for all be realised through education that engages students with a future economy committed to zero economic growth?

Humanity’s average ecological footprint is 2.7 global hectares (gha) per person in an economy targetted to grow unendingly year on year.  To sustain the current population on Earth of 7 billion people requires 18.9 billion gha (2.7 gha x 7 billion people), which is higher than the 13.4 billion global hectares of biologically productive land and water on Earth.  This is a fact demonstrating that humanity’s demands have already exceeded the regenerative capacity of the planet. If the escalation of this demand continues at this rate, by 2030, with an estimated global population of 10 billion people, two Earths will be needed to satisfy humanity’s yearly demands.

Currently, over 80% of the world population lives in countries that use more resources than their own ecosystems can renew. The core capitalist countries (EU, USA and Japan), are ecological big debtors.  In the survey of the Global Footprint Network, the Japanese consume seven times more than their country can provide; four Italys are needed to supply Italian demands for a good life. Education for a bright future should begin with the indisputable fact that humanity pursuing endless growth consumes more natural resources than the planet can ever replenish.

Education for One-planet Wales

Debate about zero economic growth in Wales was started in 2008 with the publication of ‘One Wales: One Planet The Sustainable Development Scheme of the Welsh Assembly Government’.  In his introduction the government’s First Minister said:

“I want a Wales fit for generations to come … What motivates me is doing my very best to ensure a brighter, sustainable future for [my grandchildren and their grandchildren] and every other child growing up in Wales today … [Therefore], top of the list … of our priorities which will continue to improve the quality of life for people today and in the future … is sustainability”’

Sustainable scale is the key characteristic of a steady state economy. Scale is simply a measure of the size of one object relative to another. In this case, concern is with the size of the human economy relative to the ecosystems that serve it. Sustainability is achieved when the human economy fits within the capacity provided by Earth’s ecosystems. Economic activity degrades ecosystems, interfering with natural processes that are critical to various life support services. In the past, the amount of economic activity was small enough that the degree of interference with ecosystems was negligible. The unprecedented growth of economic activity, however, has significantly shifted the balance with potentially disastrous consequences. This is why getting the scale of the economy right (technically the point at which the marginal costs of growth equal the marginal benefits) is the highest priority for a steady state economy.

Finding the Goldilocks scale of the economy, the size that’s not too small and not too large, but just right, is no easy feat. In cases where the benefits of growth outweigh the costs (for example, where people are not consuming enough to meet their needs), growth or redistribution of resources may be required. In cases where the size of the economy has surpassed the carrying capacity of the ecosystems that contain it (a condition known as overshoot), degrowth may be required before establishing a steady state economy that can be maintained over the long term. Adjusting the scale of the economy through accurate measurement of benefits and costs, through trial and error, through regulation of markets, and through political will to achieve sustainability is the great political challenge of our times.

Since continuous growth and sustainable scale are incompatible, growth cannot be relied upon to alleviate poverty, as has been done (ineffectively) in the past. If the pie isn’t getting any bigger, we need to cut and distribute the pieces in a fair way. In addition, poor people who have trouble meeting basic needs tend not to care about sustainability, and excessively rich people tend to consume unsustainable quantities of resources without constrainf. Fair distribution of wealth, therefore, locally. nationally and globally, is a critical element of sustainability and the steady state economy

The route delineated in One Wales One Planet to a brighter future is embedded in a vision where Wales:

  • lives within its environmental limits, using only its fair share of the earth’s resources so that its ecological footprint is reduced to the global average availability of resources, and the population is resilient to the impacts of climate change;
  • has healthy, biologically diverse and productive ecosystems that are managed sustainably;
  • has a resilient and sustainable economy that is able to develop whilst stabilising, then reducing, its use of natural resources and reducing its contribution to climate change;
  • has communities which are safe, sustainable, and attractive places for people to live and work, where people have access to services, and enjoy good health;
  • is a fair, just and bilingual nation, in which citizens of all ages and backgrounds are empowered to determine their own lives, shape their communities and achieve their full potential.

Clearly the Welsh government is imagining a country that met the basic needs of its citizens – one where everyone could expect to live a long, healthy, happy and prosperous life. Now imagine that same country was able to do this while using natural resources at a level that would be sustainable even if every other country in the world did the same.

Such a country does not exist. Nowhere in the world even comes close. In fact, to live within Earth’s sustainability limits, resources how used to meet basic needs would have to be reduced by a factor of two to six times.  Currently, wealthy nations like the US and UK satisfy the basic needs of their citizens at a level of resource use that is far beyond what is globally sustainable. In contrast, countries that are using resources at a sustainable level, such as Sri Lanka, fail to meet the basic needs of their people. In general, the more social progress that a country achieves through economic growth, the more Earth’s biophysical limits are transgressed.

On February 21, 1994 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Francisco, Dr. David Pimentel presented some statistics indicating the insufficiency of world resources to sustain a rapidly-expanding human population in relative prosperity.  His report indicated that even if humans succeed in using rapidly diminishing resources more efficiently, the planet can sustain a “quality” standard of living for only two billion people while still maintaining environmental integrity. The report concluded;

“For Americans to continue to enjoy a high standard of living and for Society to be self-sustaining in renewable energy and food and forestry products, given U.S. land, water, and biological resources, the optimum U.S. population is about 200 million.”  

In 2018 the U.S. population was 327 million, about 4% of the world’s population.

It is well known that Americans consume far more natural resources and live much less sustainably than people from any other large country of the world.   For example, it has been calculated that a child born in the United States will create thirteen times as much ecological damage over the course of his or her lifetime than a child born in Brazil and the average American will drain as many resources as 35 villagers of India and consume 53 times more goods and services than someone from China.  Wales is not far behind the U.S in its global demands.

If everyone in the world were to consume the same as the average Welsh citizen, just over 2.5 planets would be required. The most recent figure available for Wales’ ecological footprint is 4.4 global hectares per person,  more than double the average earthshare. The earthshare is the average amount of global resources available per person. To calculate earthshare, the total available bioproductive land and sea area of the planet is divided equally among the current global population. It is estimated that the present average earthshare is 1.88 global hectares per person. If everyone lived within their earthshare, we would be ecologically sustainable at a global level.  

The government’s aspiration is to to reduce Wales’ ecological footprint to the global average availability of resources within the lifetime of a generation. To achieve this goal our use of carbon-based energy, has to be radically reduced by 80-90% resulting in a similar reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions. It would support the government’s aspiration to make annual 3% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and its ambitions to make all new buildings zero carbon buildings; and move to producing as much electricity needed from renewable sources by 2025. There would have to be a radically different approach to waste management, moving towards becoming a zero waste nation. By this, is meant a society where focused on eliminating waste.  Waste that can’t be eliminated would be recycled in “closed loop” systems that achieve the best reduction in ecological and carbon footprints. The stated goal is to achieve 70% recycling across all sectors, and diverting waste from landfill by 2025.

Other changes envisaged for the future in Wales are:

  • to organise the way people live and work so they can travel less by car wherever possible, and can live and work in ways which have a much stronger connection with our local economies and communities.
  • have a resilient and sustainable economy that is able to develop whilst stabilising, then reducing its use of natural resources, reusing sites and buildings and reducing its contribution to climate change.
  • source more of our food locally and in season, within a natural environment where ecosystems are managed sustainably.
  • do all of the above in ways which make Wales a fairer society, reducing the gap between rich and poor, building on our commitments to tackling child and fuel poverty.

This One Wales One Planet vision led to the passing of the Well-being of Future Generations Act in 2015.  The Act makes the public bodies listed in the Act think more about the long term, work better with people and communities and each other, look to prevent problems and take a more joined-up approach.  This new law will mean that, for the first time, public bodies listed in the Act must do what they do in a sustainable way. Public bodies need to make sure that when making their decisions they take into account the impact they could have on people living their lives in Wales in the future.

It will expect them to:

  • work together better
  • involve people reflecting the diversity of our communities
  • look to the long term as well as focusing on now
  • take action to try and stop problems getting worse – or even stop them happening in the first place.

The Act establishes a statutory Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, whose role is to act as a guardian for the interests of future generations in Wales, and to support the public bodies listed in the Act to work towards achieving the well-being goals.

The Act also establishes Public Services Boards (PSBs) for each local authority area in

Wales. Each PSB must improve the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being of its area by working to achieve the well-being goals.

Yet, all future economic policies are still geared towards growth. Few of us believe we will ever “run out of stuff”. If we do run out of things, a more efficient alternative will be invented to take its place (such as the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy). The march has to be ever upwards. Negative growth and recessions are bad.  What is not followed through is the inevitability that we will have less to spend.

The Welsh Youth Parliament

When the National Assembly was established in 1999, one of its first acts was to set up a dedicated Education and Youth Engagement Service.  The Assembly wanted to give children and young people in Wales a fun and engaging way to learn about the National Assembly.

Since 2000, the Assembly’s Education and Youth Engagement team has worked with tens of thousands of children and young people across Wales.

A range of educational programmes take place in the National Assembly’s education centre, Siambr Hywel.  They help learners understand the National Assembly’s work and how they can get involved to influence what happens in their local area.  The Education and Youth Engagement team offer activities and opportunities to discuss political issues in schools and colleges across Wales. The National Assembly also focuses attention on young people outside of the school environment, to make sure everyone is included.

To make sure young people in Wales can express their opinions and are listened to, the National Assembly signed up to a Youth Engagement Charter in 2014.

The Charter sets out the National Assembly’s commitment to make sure it listens to, respects and acts on what young people from across Wales say.  It included a commitment to make it easier for young people to find out about the National Assembly and what it does, to take part in debates and to find out how their contributions make a difference.

Since the National Assembly made its commitment, many young people and professionals (backed by the Campaign for a Children and Young People’s Assembly for Wales) told the National Assembly they would like to establish a Welsh Youth Parliament.  Assembly Members agreed.

In October 2016, during a meeting of the whole Assembly, it was decided that a youth parliament should be set up.  The National Assembly consulted over 5,000 young people in Wales to help decide what the Welsh Youth Parliament’s aim, membership, and work should be.

A world for future generations

“The fellowship between man and man which has been the principle of development, social and moral […], is the ideal of goodness entirely human”.

This citation of the Victorian novelist Mary Ann Evans, known under the male pseudonym George Eliot, reflects an early definition of a humanism.   

The concept of humanism marks one of mankind’s most influential philosophical strands of thought and a crucial turning point within the history and the development of human civilization following a theme of human goodness.  The Italian philosopher Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) defined humanism in his famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, written in Florence in 1486:

“God the Father, (…) taking man (…), set him in the middle of the world and thus spoke to him: ‘we have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer’.”

The genius of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is an illustration of humanity’s endless ability to understand the environment. Inventor, architect, painter and civil engineer, Leonardo took an interest in all things, from medicine to biology. His note-books show an insatiable curiosity, an interest in the different movements of water, reflections on the atmosphere, observations of nature and the gestures or changes in humour of his contemporaries. He refreshed the Lombard portrait tradition, revolutionized painting and never ceased throughout his life to build bridges between disciplines, as equal and as diverse products of the never-ending creativity of human spirit. Through his travels in Italy and France, through his works – the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper – he is a model of what human beings can accomplish, by dint of work and imagination.

As an intellectual and ethical stance, humanism stresses the significance and the normative value of human goodness both with respect to individuality, community and overall society. As such, the concept of humanism involves a critical reflection of the constitution of society and of the manner in which social interactions between human beings proceed. Regarding its origins within the framework of the era of European Enlightenment, humanism was cast as a moral rationale.  The aim was to address fundamental questions relating to humanity and human nature. These relationships facilitated humankind’s ordered progress in science and technology. Rooted in the notion of a free and resourceful human existence, humanism evolved into the grand movement of human spiritual and creative liberation, which enabled an unparalleled acceleration of European economic growth and social change. In line with humanist ethics, material growth was understood as a collective good, which was to serve all participants of a community and meant to enable the socio-economic progress of society. Thus, although the exact definition of humanism has historically fluctuated in accordance with successive and diverse strands of intellectual thought, the underlying concept rests on the universal ideas of human emancipation, independence, social justice and the promotion of  general well being.

Economic growth has been defended for its contributions to human well being and increasing standards of living. Yet, it is evident that the current level of  economic growth requires to be supported by an increasing use of Earth’s natural resources that exceeds the capacity of the planet to yield them. It has been clear for a long time that we cannot continue to consume water, burn fuel and emit carbon dioxide at ever increasing rates. We are at a point in history where economic growth and monetary prosperity have to be replaced with a global cultural, spiritual, and political value shift to adopt a steady state economy.   The objective is to move towards simplicity,and sufficiency in a sharing, community, with a deep respect for the natural world, driven by a non-monetary definition of prosperity. Humanism is the obvious educational framework to carry us along this path.

Rowen Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury,  speaking at the Cambridge ‘Ethics of Sustainabile Prosperity for All’ conference in 2018 defined prosperity as ‘that which is hoped for’.  He maintained that ;

…morally, such prosperity should be rooted to provide for the common good for all and shared social goals.  Yet we are currently looking forward in panic in our current politics of populist protectionism which puts national security  over global wellbeing and pitches North against South, East against West and rich against poor. Our well being is interdependent and interlocking, so prosperity for the few is prosperity for none.  International crises be they environmental or social do not respect boundaries. The secure border is a toxic fiction”.

His prescription for a prosperous sustainable future is;

.”.. to build sustainble virtuous civil societies which transcend narrow factionalism and look wider and beyond national electoral politics. This also means reinforcing international organisations and finding narratives of international cooperation being empowering of our humanity rather than a loss of national freedom”.

With respect to human relations, he said;

“…we need a positive sense of justice in what is owed to all humanity, adnabod in Welsh (recognise or know someone).  Our localism and universalism needs to be connected, seeing the stranger as neighbour in a true humanism”.

There are various types of humanism.  Classical humanism, which is associated with the European Renaissance, emphasized aesthetics, liberty, and the study of the “humanities” (literature, art, philosophy, and classical languages of Greek and Latin). Secular humanism emphasizes human potential and self-fulfillment to the point of excluding a need for God; it is a naturalistic philosophy based on reason, science, and end-justifies-the-means thinking. Christian humanism teaches that liberty, individual conscience, and intellectual freedom are compatible with Christian principles and that the Bible itself promotes human fulfillment—based on God’s salvation in Christ and subject to God’s sovereign control of the universe.

The natural economy of gender is an outstanding barrier to human fulfillment that can only be resolved globally  through the application of secular humanism to ellicit changes in the complex social system of household partneships.  For example, a heterosexual community can be analyzed biologically as a marketplace in which men seek to acquire sex from women by offering other resources in exchange. Societies will therefore define gender roles as if women are sellers and men buyers of sex. Societies will endow female sexuality, but not male sexuality, with value (as in virginity, fidelity, chastity). The sexual activities of different couples are loosely interrelated by a marketplace, instead of being fully separate or private, and each couple’s decisions may be influenced by market conditions. Economic principles suggest that the price of sex will depend on supply and demand, competition among sellers, variations in product, collusion among sellers, and other factors. Research findings show gender asymmetries (reflecting the complementary economic roles) in prostitution, courtship, infidelity and divorce, female competition, the sexual revolution and changing norms, unequal status between partners, cultural suppression of female sexuality, abusive relationships, rape, and sexual attitudes.

A few weeks after Willliams made the above contribution to the Cambridge conference he co-signed with 93 academics the following open letter to the Guardian newspaper entitled ‘Facts about our ecological crisis are incontrovertible. We must take action’.  It is against this warning of environmental disaster that Williams’ prescription for a prosperous future should be set.

The letter reads:

We the undersigned represent diverse academic disciplines, and the views expressed here are those of the signatories and not their organisations. While our academic perspectives and expertise may differ, we are united on one point: we will not tolerate the failure of this or any other government to take robust and emergency action in respect of the worsening ecological crisis. The science is clear, the facts are incontrovertible, and it is unconscionable to us that our children and grandchildren should have to bear the terrifying brunt of an unprecedented disaster of our own making.

We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, with about 200 species becoming extinct each day. Humans cannot continue to violate the fundamental laws of nature or of science with impunity. If we continue on our current path, the future for our species is bleak.

Our government is complicit in ignoring the precautionary principle, and in failing to acknowledge that infinite economic growth on a planet with finite resources is non-viable. Instead, the government irresponsibly promotes rampant consumerism and free-market fundamentalism, and allows greenhouse gas emissions to rise. Earth Overshoot Day (the date when humans have used up more resources from nature than the planet can renew in the entire year) falls ever earlier each year (1 August in 2018).

When a government wilfully abrogates its responsibility to protect its citizens from harm and to secure the future for generations to come, it has failed in its most essential duty of stewardship. The “social contract” has been broken, and it is therefore not only our right, but our moral duty to bypass the government’s inaction and flagrant dereliction of duty, and to rebel to defend life itself.

We therefore declare our support for Extinction Rebellion, launching on 31 October 2018. We fully stand behind the demands for the government to tell the hard truth to its citizens. We call for a Citizens’ Assembly to work with scientists on the basis of the extant evidence and in accordance with the precautionary principle, to urgently develop a credible plan for rapid total decarbonisation of the economy.

There are two sides of the debate about the future of economic growth.  A conventional neoclassical economist would probably tell you that there have always been measurable increases in the efficiency of using resources, income, and quality of life improvements under past conditions of year on year economic growth. If the economy continues to grow, so their theory goes, ecological limits will be overcome thanks to technological solutions and a structural shift towards a post-industrial knowledge economy.  This ideal trajectory is called ‘decoupling growth from material input’ or ‘dematerialization,’ because each unit of GDP requires fewer and fewer material inputs. Some theorists, call this view ‘techno-optimism,’ which is the crux of the growth debate.

Many other economists – and an increasing number of thinkers across the arts and sciences – would suggest that the impossibility of endless economic growth is the proverbial invisible elephant in political debating chambers’.  According to H L Evans (2009:),

“…education, if it is to play a role in developing sustainable ways of being human in the world, cannot continue its traditional functions in a society headed for global catastrophe. It cannot simply aim to help individuals achieve lucrative careers in a world where continued enslavement of nature and economic and cultural colonisation of peoples serve as the inputs for economic growth”.

The cultural change needs to be substantial and faster than anything we have witnessed in the past through historic educational discourses and world development  trajectories. The humanistic sustainability education approach has delivered positive creative milestones on the revolutionary road of transforming homo economicus into homo sustineo. In so doing it is creating a new world of common sense, liberation and democracy in which nature is treasured and the well being of present and future generations is safeguarded.

Nevertheless, the economy’s aggregate material footprint, especially in high income regions, continues to climb despite technological innovation and efficiency gains.  Deleterious environmental changes march in lock-step with growth in GDP. Moreover, growth doesn’t necessarily improve well being, and the gains aren’t shared equitably with those who could benefit from them the most, especially in the world’s poorest regions. This in turn means that we should do what many economists would consider the unthinkable: actually produce and consume less, strive for a more fulfilling and less materialistic life, and tailor policies to address specific ecological, social, and financial challenges. This multilateral scenario would require that world leadership is needed to foster social and technological innovation without growth and guide transition to a steady state economy (SSE).  

Political decision making tends to be based on crises; decisions are not made until catastrophe strikes. Thus, decisions are ad hoc, designed to protect or promote a particular aspect of human well-being instead of examining the problem in a holistic manner. Based on past experience, we expect that leaders will continue to postpone decisions concerning human carrying capacity of the world, maintenance of a standard of living, conservation of resources, and the preservation of the environment, until the situation becomes intolerable, or worse still, irreversible.  Transition aimed at this end point requires a radical change in a global education system that was designed to create Western industrial empires.

Essentially, multisubject teaching was established in the 1904 UK Regulations of the Board of Education that knowledge can, and should, be divided into narrow subjects, and thereby more effectively organised for the benefit of the learner.  This assumption was reinforced in the UK National Curriculum.

The difficulties of escaping from this single subjects constraitlnt are exemplified by the Wales model.   Since 1999, the Welsh educational system developed within the bounds of a separate ministry and the opportunity was missed to integrate One-planet Wales, the Future Generations Act and  the Welsh Youth Parliament seamlessly within a new steady state economy format situated in the humanities. This could have been an integrated lifelong learning pedagogy with a curriculum, framed within cultural ecology, for living sustainably to promote a true multifaith humanism.

In the new Welsh curriculum the Humanities Area seeks to give pupils an understanding of historical, geographical, political, economic and societal factors.  This will provide opportunities to engage in informed discussions about ethics, beliefs, religion and spirituality. It draws on existing subjects, history, geography, business and social studies, as well as religious education.  This is the place to embed secular humanism as a philosophy of life which affirms the universal and unique significance of humanity, universal human rights, objective moral values, optimism concerning the future of the human condition, and meaning and purpose in human life. Davidson’s  2002 paving document, with its emphasis on pupils serving the needs of their community neighbourhood was signposting to a comprehensive humanistic curriculum with a commitment to “self-fashioning”. But it was not followed up.

All the basic elements were there for fostering a humanistic approach to Welsh education based on an engaging environment for the students to ask inquiry-based questions that promote meaningful learning.  The humanistic approach places a great deal of emphasis on students’ choice and control over the course of their education. Students are encouraged to make choices that range from day-to-day activities to periodically setting future life goals. This allows for students to focus on a specific subject of interest for any amount of time they choose, within reason. Humanistic teachers believe it is important for students to be motivated and engaged in the material they are learning, and this happens when the topic is something the students need and want to know.

Being a true (or new) humanist, secular or religious, today means  accepting a collective requirement of the humanities message, which emphasizes the necessarily collective dimension for Individuals to become whole in society, as members of a community. Humanists exist as a community of humanity that binds every individual to all others. Beyond our diversity, we all share one common human culture. Through communication, through language learning and dialogue, through scientific cooperation, we can extend beyond the limits of ourselves, we can broaden our knowledge, discover other customs, with an awareness of the humanity that binds all people of the planet together. New humanism means adapting the strength of an age-old message to the requirements of a global population commited to a steady state economy. This humanist message is that it will no longer will be it possible for governments, of any political persuasion, to take the natural environment for granted. After at least two centuries of unregulated exploitation of nature, this is surely, to all but a few self-interested corporations and their employees, a positive development.  Also, as concern about the environment has grown, new philosophies reevaluating the economic relationship between the social and natural worlds have also emerged. The purpose of a humanistic education today is to question the underlying vision of a prosperity built on continual growth. And to search for alternative visions – in which humans can still flourish and yet reduce their material impact on the environment.

A prosperous society without growth  is concerned not with income growtk and financial wealth, but with the health and wellbeing of its citizens, with access to good quality education, and with prospects for decent and rewarding work. Prosperity without growth enables basic individual rights, freedoms and equalities. But it must also deliver the ability for people to participate meaningfully in common projects. Ultimately, prosperity must offer society a credible and inclusive vision of social progress.   IIn summary, there is the education of commodity, the old kind of education that seeks to produce persons who will maintain and increase the economy of profit. And, on the other hand, there is the new, humanistic education of community, the kind that seeks to foster persons who will maintain and preserve the essential characteristics of community. Above all, a humanistic education would be the life long pursute of an ecological balance between society and nature. It would engage students with systems of environmental ethics that call for human beings to understand that we are all part of nature and its limited production in everything we do.


Five Classes for Humanistic Education to Live Sustainably

The context of this appendix is about developing a humanistic education system for growing selfhood in a rapidly changing world. It presents the view that teaching in a humanistic education system is about enabling learners to gather information and transform it creatively into a personal body of knowledge to answer the following three questions about growing as an individual.  

Who am I? (searching for values, beliefs and empathy for others).

What am I going to do (defining career paths to transient jobs that may not even exist yet).

WilI I make it? (coping with the cultural impact of rapid social, technical and economic changes).

There are also three ‘sister’ questions about developing a global community that has to cope with environmental issues surrounding the management of finite planetary resources and the associated divisive issues of gender and livelihoods.

Who are we?

What are we going to do?

Will we make it?

Young people have never had to ask these questions in past ages.  Sadly, the current education system is not engaging students with these big questions that are ‘burning in their souls’. Answering them requires teaching with a grander purpose of learning in mind i.e. growing each student as a whole individual, in body, mind and spirit.

Answers to these deep questions lies within the following ‘classroom’ framework for a system of humanistic education.

1  In the Steady State Prosperity class students learn that a failed growth economy and a steady-state economy are not the same thing; they are the very different alternative futures humanity faces today. The Earth as a whole is approximately a steady state. Neither the surface nor the mass of the earth is growing or shrinking; the inflow of radiant energy to the Earth is equal to the outflow; and material imports from space are roughly equal to exports (both negligible). The closer the human economy approaches the scale of the whole Earth the more it will have to conform to the physical behavioural mode of the Earth. That behaviour mode is a system that permits qualitative development but not aggregate quantitative growth.   None of this means that the earth is static—a great deal of qualitative change can happen inside a steady state, and certainly has happened on Earth. The most important change in recent times has been the enormous growth of one subsystem of the Earth, namely the human economy relative to the total system, the ecosphere. The ecosphere is no longer able to provide the sources and sinks for the metabolic throughput necessary to sustain the existing oversized human economy—much less a growing one. A growing economy produces more of the same stuff; development of a zero growth economy produces a constant amount of different and hopefully better stuff to support a more planet-friendly kind of prosperity.

2 In the Turning Facts and Beliefs into Knowledge class the students begin to learn how selfood is constructed from facts and beliefs and how to critically evaluate claims to knowledge. Students learn to analyse the arguments of others and to construct their own thoughtful arguments in response.

3 In the Creating a World View class students learn what defines a world view. Tradition, education, religion, political structure, economics, gender and historical context all contribute to the construction of an outlook on the world. Moreover, students learn that a world view is a human creation and therefore we are not hapless victims of the world we find ourselves in, but rather everyone is capable of ideation to give shape to it.

4 In the Defining Cultural Ecologies class students will learn that cultural ecology provides an ideational scaffold for a humanistic education system.   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 the features of any complex system and the influence of its surroundings (Table 1).

Table 1 Ecologies of species, art and gender

SpeciesHabitatsBiophysical factors
Works of artSocietiesBeliefs and ideas
Men and womenHome and communityMale dominance

The natural economy of gender is an example of a complex system that stands to benefit greatly from applied humanism.  The classroom objectives are:

  • to gain a basic understanding of the concepts gender, economy and economic agency and how to consider them in their interrelationship;
  • to be aware of power differences characterizing gender relations;
  • to learn how gender identities and relations influence economic outcomes;
  • to be able to argue how gender relations may structure economic institutions;
  • to know how to specify gender-aware economic functions and models.

5 In the Planning for Change class, students consolidate their critical power of argument and realization of their ability to effect change in an exploration of their responsibilities to do so. Humanistic planning is an approach to management theory based on the ideas of human needs and human values.  Students will study ethical theories, identify conflicts in values, analyse ethical issues pertinent to a programme of change and formulate planned solutions to ethical problems. Here the humanistic values of thoughtful reasoning, tolerance and open mindedness are applied to manage practical issues and problems.

6  Educators and facilitators.

Students follow a humanistic curriculum with the guidance of teachers and facilitators.

Teachers are the ones with knowledge and expertise in a particular field. They impart that knowledge through a variety of means to groups of students.

Facilitators build on the knowledge base of individuals to find the answers to questions bothering them.

Both methods of instruction serve a purpose and help individual students build their own personal body of knowledge and articulate it to others in the group.  They communicate through writing, pictures, audio, video, artworks and good deeds.

When a teacher enters a classroom, she/he is a subject expert and takes charge of a group learning environment. The teacher is responsible for creating lesson plans that direct the course of study that a group of students follows. Clear and concise objectives delineate what the group studies on any given day. The teacher is responsible for measuring how much information each student has gathered.  Evaluation is often in the form of tests, but the teacher may use other measurement tools to determine if all the students met the teacher’s objectives for the class as a whole.

Facilitators might not be subject experts like a teacher  They have special training in group dynamics, using processes such as conflict resolution, strategic planning and team building. In any group setting, a facilitator can quickly determine what each member of the group knows so that every person is self directed and has an opportunity to build on that personal knowledge. By asking guiding questions and keeping the group focused, a facilitator helps the group establish a set of ground rules about how the group should function, as well as allowing individuals meet their own learning objectives. A facilitator also helps individuals evaluate what they have learned. Facilitation works best in small groups.  Because humanism is a highly individualised body of knowledge the emphasis is on facilitation.

Cultural ecology of art and science

November 19th, 2018

“I believe when people call themselves spiritual they are basically signaling three things: first, that they believe there is more to the world than meets the eye, that is to say, more than the mere material. Second, that they try to attend to their inner life — to their mental and emotional states — in the hopes of gaining a certain kind of self-knowledge. Third, that they value the following virtues: being compassionate, empathetic and open-hearted.”

1 Cultural ecologies

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 (Table 1).

Table 1 Ecologies of species and works of  art

Features   Environment           Influences
Species     Habitats    Biophysical factors
Works of art       Societies    Beliefs and ideas

Space-time is a mathematical model of the universe that joins space and time into a single idea called a continuum. This four-dimensional continuum is known as Minkowski space. Combining these two ideas helped cosmologists to understand how the universe works as an ecology on the big level (e.g. galaxies) and small level (e.g. atoms).  For the convenience of education the dynamic continuum of the universe, when focused on Homo sapiens and planet Earth, has been divided into five ecologies of habitats, species, culture, politics, and economics. These are broad, well defined bodies of knowledge which are connected through interdisciplinary issues. They are best studied by applying ecological systems thinking to life on Earth, where the old subdivisions of knowledge give too narrow a perspective for tackling the problems of human life on an overcrowded planet.

Cultural ecology is the study of the distribution and abundance of people and the interactions between them and their biophysical environment. A cultural ecosystem defines a particular biophysical environment and its human inhabitants functioning together as a society.  This occurs with respect to the expression of its ideas, customs, and social behaviour in a habitat associated with a particular community of plants and animals.

In every culture in the world, artistic expression has emerged to provide an outlet for thoughts, feelings, traditions, and beliefs. Art can be both rooted in history and a catalyst for change in a culture. Many works of art are rooted in religion.  From these points of view cultural ecosystems may be defined by the dynamics of the interactions between particular styles of art and the society in which they were created. The outcome is to picture the essence of the universe and our place in it.

Albert Einstein remarked that the eternal mystery of the world is its intelligibility.  Religion fastens on to this element to create a system of thought and action.  The connections between religion, which answers the question, who we are, and science which answers the question, how we are, come together in art.

These ecologies and their ecosystems 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 (Fig 1).

Fig 1.1 Concept map of three ‘art in science ecosystems’ that depict a spiritual essence of the universe and our place in it.

Cultural ecology includes the study of cultural ecosystems that define the flow of ideas and  and their expression. In this connection, a growing number of contemporary scientists use the arts in a practical way to assist in their research, to gain insights that feed into their research, or to communicate their research to the general public. This notion of research as art differs from traditional scholarship in that it is not characteristically beholden to disciplinary conventions and parameters, and may present “findings” in visually aesthetic formats or those otherwise atypical of academic or journalistic publications.

Within cultural ecology, ecosystems of art and ideas are based on the model of consciousness, or “mind ”, as being like an ecosystem, and ideas as being like the flora and fauna of this system. Like the plants and animals in a tangible ecosystem, ideas are then subject to evolution, extinction, or successful flourishing. In biological ecology, scientists strive to understand biological processes so that we promote those we deem beneficial and avoid introducing destructive elements into the system.  Taking this point of view we define conservation management systems that match our use of ecosystem services to the rate of production of the natural resources they are capable of delivering.In the world of nature conservation the connection between art and nature is central to the understanding of each. Before the widespread use of photography, much of what we refer to as the visual arts involved an attempt to picture the the natural world in all its biodiversity of species. Thus, throughout history, visual artists have been inspired to capture the complex as well as the sublime qualities of nature and its life-forms. Scientists have done the same via observational recording, classification, counting, and analysis.

2 Spiritual expressionism

Fig 2.1 Concept map of spiritual expressionism

At its most basic, spiritual expressionism states that the fundamental, definitive quality of art is the ability to capture some aspect of spiritual thinking. The goal of spiritual expressionism is to find ways of representing divinity.  It is an ideology, such as the expressive theory, which sees the fundamental role of art as the expression of emotion.  

The relationship between art and spirituality has been historically mediated through the relationship between art and religion. As we have seen, this is particularly evident in the art of India.   In Western art history prior to the 20th century, spirituality was often subsumed by religion. While the origins of stained glass are unknown, the Gothic period of architecture saw a blossoming in the use of stained glass in its great cathedrals. In addition to artistic practicality, glass craftsmen found the mysterious qualities of glass exemplary to represent the religious and spiritual ideologies of the period, which they steadily honed to a fine art.

The relationship between art and religion was fractious; at times they were mutually reinforcing, while at others there was dissension because of the lack of unanimity about the image. The crux of the Iconoclastic controversies of the 8th and 9th centuries, and later the Protestant Reformation, was not so much a denial of the importance of imagery but, on the contrary, was about just how much power images held. The iconoclasts believed that the use of images distracted from the main goals of religious practice, and could lead to moral and religious corruption.  But in spite of the decline of organized religion in Western Europe, there has been growing interest in spirituality in areas of cultural life, especially in art. Many people no longer view institutionalized religion, as adequate for exploring their spirituality and look to new forms of spirituality as alternatives for finding ultimate meaning and addressing the profound needs of humanity. Central to the role of the artist has been a preoccupation with the deeper questions of life, often to reveal sights that are normally kept hidden from the public gaze and to challenge entrenched beliefs. The process of creating art is often described in quasi-mystical terms, whereby the artist-as-shaman unleashes or channels special creative powers in a process of making.  This transports the viewer to a different realm of the imaginary. Given these affinities between the roles of art and spirituality, it is unsurprising that spirituality is an enduring feature of contemporary art. Key written works, particularly Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911) and Der Blaue Reiter Almanac(1912), defended abstract art and revealed how non-objective forms could evoke the inexpressible through engagement with its formal qualities. In his 1911 work, Kandinsky emphasized his staunch belief in the redemptive qualities of the spiritual. He envisioned the Kingdom of God as an artistic domain that could be accessed by the artist-as-prophet, who was able to traverse “[t]he nightmare of materialism”to attain spiritual utopia through art. Abstract art provided the necessary means to do this, and the belief presented was that “[t]he more abstract [its] form, the more clear and direct is its appeal.  Since Kandinski experiences of the spiritual have often been sought outside of the traditional themes of religious narratives and imagery, which have often been presented in veiled or coded language. In this respect, it could be said that religious expressionism is an offshoot of abstract expressionism exemplified by the works of William de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Ruth Abrams,  Agnes Martin and Joan Mitchell.

De Stijl was a circle of Dutch abstract artists who promoted a style of art based on a strict geometry of horizontals and verticals. Originally a publication, De Stijl was founded in 1917 by two pioneers of abstract art, Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg. De Stijl means style in Dutch. The magazine De Stijl became a vehicle for Mondrian’s ideas on art, and in a series of articles in the first year’s issues he defined his aims and used, perhaps for the first time, the term neo-plasticism. This became the name for the type of abstract art he and the De Stijl circle practised.  As a manifesto it took…..

  • from cubism: the reduction of form to geometric elements (note that this was not the goal of cubism but it was how Mondrian and the de Stijl artists chose to understand and use it)
  • from art nouveau and symbolism: the flat, mural quality of paintings and design with emphasis on the surface;
  • from Van der Leck: a desire for an objective language of art
  • from Kandinsky and theosophy: a relationship of spirituality to abstract form
  • from philosophy: the belief that forms and colour can express “liberation” of the spirit; art should move and would move away from sensuality and materiality towards spirituality (this is also the influence of Kandinsky)
  • from mysticism: the belief that numbers can express purity; the belief that the outcome precedes actuality in a conceptual manner; the conceptualization leads to style and style becomes reality; in addition to this belief, revelation is central to mystical philosophy: this mean that the spiritual and philosophical act of contemplation allows the subsequent recognition of reality in a form which is consistent with the goals of mysticism.

The grid is a visual structure that Mondrian conjured as his interpretation of  De Stijl and placed at the roots of contemporary art. As a graphic component in painting, it came to prominence in the early 20th century when Mondrian was widely considered the “most modern” artist of his time. In 1912,  he began to create his “compositions,” paintings based on grids of horizontal and vertical black lines in three primary colours. “These basic forms of beauty,” he wrote, “supplemented if necessary by other direct lines or curves, can become a work of art, as strong as it is true.”   In fact curves are totally absent from his works.

The art historian Rosalind Krauss has pointed to the emergence of the grid as a critical step in the evolution of modern art. In her 1979 essay “Grids,” she wrote:

“In the early part of this century, there began to appear, first in France and then in Russia and in Holland, a structure that has remained emblematic of the modernist ambition within the visual arts ever since. Surfacing in pre-War cubist painting and subsequently becoming ever more stringent and manifest, the grid announces, among other things, modern art’s will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse.”

The painting named ‘Abstraction’ (Fig 2.2) is one of the culminating paintings that Mondrian had developed by 1921 consisting of straight horizontal and vertical lines, rectangular shapes resulting from their crossing; and a palette of black, white, and the primary colours.  He wrote: “Observing sea, sky, and stars, I sought to indicate their plastic function through a multiplicity of crossing verticals and horizontals. . . .

Fig 2.2  Abstraction: Piet Mondrian, 1921

8-1-12_Mondrian_AP1994_05, 8/1/12, 11:38 AM, 16C, 6726×8169 (732+1572), 100%, Custom, 1/8 s, R42.7, G17.1, B30.4

Like Mondrian, but twenty years after his death, the abstract expressionist, Agnes Martin, used the grid to organize a personal perception of nature into her canvases that were awash with colour, thus seamlessly blending what on the surface are two very different art styles: ‘minimalism’ and ‘colour Field’ (Fig 2.3).

Martin’s works are non-representational, yet the titles of her paintings and her own words about her art and life indicate that she was strongly influenced by nature – a focus that brought together different areas of her life. Her adherence to Buddhism encouraged her to rely on her everyday surroundings for subject matter; and her schizophrenia meant that she did not relate well or easily to humans, so that nature represented a calm, ordered refuge.

Martin’s use of the grid along with her focus on non-representation released the artist from the burden of traditional subject matter while allowing her to explore infinite variations of subtle colour. The resulting freedom of her artwork was at odds with the monastic restraint of her daily life.

About her work she says:  “When I think of art I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye it is in the mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection.”

Fig 2.3 “Summer” (1964): Synthesizing both Abstract Expressionism and minimalism. Agnes Martin

Martin’s work is has been likened to an archetype of aspects of pioneering America: the quietism of the Quakers, the spare and well-made furniture of the Shakers, the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the nature worship of Henry Thoreau, to which, in the 1930s, she added a deep interest in Zen Buddhism and other eastern philosophies long before these became almost mandatory among artists.

Writing about her works she said:

“My paintings have neither object nor space nor line nor  anything — no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging,  about formlessness, breaking down form. You wouldn’t think of form by the ocean. You can go in if you don’t encounter anything. A world without objects, without interruption, making a work without interruption or obstacle. It is to accept the  necessity of the simple direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.”

Martin praised the colourfield painter Mark Rothko for having “reached zero so that nothing could stand in the way of truth”. Following his example Martin also pared her works down to the most reductive elements to encourage a perception of perfection and to emphasize transcendent reality.  Her signature style was defined by an emphasis upon line, grids, and fields of extremely subtle colour. Particularly in her breakthrough years of the early 1960s, she created 6 × 6 foot square canvases that were covered in dense, minute and softly delineated graphite grids  In the 1966 exhibition Systemic Painting at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Martin’s grids were therefore celebrated as examples of Minimalist art and were hung among works by artists including Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman, and Donald Judd. While minimalist in form, however, these paintings were quite different in spirit from those of her other minimalist counterparts, retaining small flaws and unmistakable traces of the artist’s hand; she shied away from intellectualism, favouring the personal and spiritual. Her paintings, statements, and influential writings often reflected an interest in Eastern philosophy, especially Taoist. Because of her work’s added spiritual dimension, which became more and more dominant after 1967, she preferred to be classified as an abstract expressionist.  A better description would be to describe her as a spiritual expressionist. This concept is developed further in the linked Tumblr blog.

One of the central conventions of Western art is the idea that the painted canvas can be viewed as a window onto the world; that the existence of a flat surface is concealed and the painting presents the illusion of real life.  On the other hand, the philosophy of Mondrian places the grid grid as an emblem of modernism and modern artists have created works that reassert the presence of the flat canvas or play with the idea of the penetrable or illusory nature of that surface.  In some works there is a deliberate formal oscillation between flatness and three-dimensional space. Therefore the grid has become a key device in the understanding of the canvas as both a window and a flat surface. To some, the grid suggests the division of a window into panes of glass through which the world beyond can be seen, whilst simultaneously reminding the viewer of the presence of the two-dimensional surface they are viewing (Figs 2.4-5).

Fig 2.4 Bent grid 1,Corixus, 2018

Fig 2.5 Bent grid 2, Corixus, 2018

Spiritual expressionism is summed up by the work of Joan Mitchell, who, defining abstract art, said:

“Abstract is not a style. I simply want to make a surface work. This is just a use of space and form: it’s an ambivalence of forms and space.”  

“My paintings are titled after they are finished. I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me – and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature. I would more like to paint what it leaves with me.”

Joan Mitchell is known for the compositional rhythms, bold coloration, and sweeping gestural brushstrokes of her large and often multi-panelled paintings. Inspired by landscape, nature, and poetry, her intent was not to create a recognizable image, but to convey emotions. Mitchell’s early success in the 1950s was striking at a time when few women artists were recognized. She referred to herself as the “last Abstract Expressionist,” and she continued to create abstract paintings until her death in 1992.  Inspired by the gestural painting of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell’s mature work comprised a highly abstract, richly coloured, calligraphic manner, which balanced elements of structured composition with a mood of wild improvisation.

Mitchell rejected the emphasis on flatness and the “all-over” approach to composition that were prevalent among many of the leading Abstract Expressionists. Instead, she preferred to retain a more traditional sense of figure and ground in her pictures, and she often composed them in ways that evoked impressions of landscape (Fig 2.6).

Fig 2.6 Little weeds, Joan Mitchell

This correspondence between the arts issued largely from Symbolism and had been inspired by scientific studies of colours and tones as sensations. The ‘pure’ abstract painters – Vasily Kandinsky, Frank Kupka, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich – who followed after 1910, however, always declared that their paintings were not music, nor that they were painting music. Rather, they claimed that painting’s tonal colours have an effect on the human being just as music’s tones do: the relationship between music and painting is a parallel one, colour and tone affecting and enlivening human feelings

Tone in painting and drawing refers to the light and dark values used to render a realistic object, or to create an abstract composition. When using pastel, an artist may often use a colored paper support, using areas of pigment to define lights and darks, while leaving the bare support to show through as the mid-tone.  Tone can also mean the colour itself. One colour can have an almost infinite number of different tones. In this connection, tonal painting involves harmonizing or unifying a limited range of colour calling upon a whole range of tones within the limited colours to produce what is termed the atmosphere of the work. For example,in Wistler’s painting (Fig 2.7) of August 1871.  This is the first of Whistler’s Nocturnes. In this work Whistler concentrated on the tonal qualities of blue and grey, aimed to convey a sense of the beauty and tranquillity of the Thames by night. It was Frederick Leyland who first used the name ‘nocturne’ to describe Whistler’s moonlit scenes. It aptly suggests the notion of a night scene, but with abstract musical associations. The name nocturne was first applied to musical compositions  in the 18th century, when it indicated an ensemble piece in several movements, normally played for an evening party and then laid aside. The expression was quickly adopted by Whistler, who later explained,

By using the word ‘nocturne ‘ I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and colour first’.

In other words, his tonal pictures were to be perceived as abstract creations akin to musical compositions.

Fig 2.7  Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1871.

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea 1871 James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903 Bequeathed by Miss Rachel and Miss Jean Alexander 1972

Instrumental music is fundamentally abstract because it represents emotional states, symmetry and repetition, and other intangibles.  A common purpose of both abstract art and instrumental music as communication systems is to allow maker, and receiver indirect access to their inner feelings. Abstract art and music afford a way to get in touch with the unconscious part of our existence, even if we don’t realize what is really happening. In this sense, the role of  the maker of non representational art is to create a vehicle for communication that, when viewed or heard by another, evokes subconscious feelings and emotions.

In a musical art form tone colour is the characteristic that allows us to distinguish the sound of one instrument from another. Every instrument produces its own tone colour. For example, when you hear a clarinet and a guitar play the exact same pitch, the tone colour of each instrument allows you to tell the difference between the sounds that you hear. Furthermore, two violins are likely to emit different tone colours.  Another name for tone colour is timbre. We often use terms like warm, dark, bright, or buzzy to describe musical tone colour.

The reason music and abstract painting have the potential to be so powerful in arousing an emotional response is that they keep the conscious meaningful distractions to a minimum, so virtually all brain power is devoted to feelings.  As a partaker, you can open yourself, let in the energy and spirit that the maker put into the work, and allow it to interact with an open-minded brain.

The difference between the two art forms comes with their ‘reading’.  A musical message is presented n a fixed, linear fashion, progressively following the composer’s score from beginning to end.  In abstract painting there is no fixed route for all to follow; the eye searches for meaning in an idiosyncratic way.

3 Narrative representationalism

Fig 3.1 Concept map of narrative representationalism

In philosophy representationalism is the doctrine that in perceptions of objects what is before the mind is not the object but a representation of it.  In art representationalism is the practice or principle of representing or depicting an object in a recognizable manner,especially the portrayal of the surface characteristics of an object as they appear to the eye.

Narrative representationalism tells a story. It uses the power of the visual image to ignite imaginations, evoke emotions and capture universal cultural truths and aspirations. What distinguishes narrative representationalism from other genres is its ability to narrate a story across diverse cultures, preserving it for future generations.  

As far as we can tell painting was integral with the first appearances of storytellers, bards, prophets and poets, who were called upon to tell their visions.  Ťhrough a live encounter, they provided verbal images that could direct, entertain, provoke, heal and reconcile the communities in which they worked. Storytellers say that any story that they craft will in turn craft them to be a fit instrument for its telling. We are, in fact, made of stories, some of which serve our individual and collective endeavours, others binding us to outmoded images. Imagination, therefore, is the key to the invisible realm from which all stories and everything new and possible can be born. Coupled with clear intention, this essential human faculty will help connect people to those creative forces which are ever available to them. The future is shaped, for good or ill, by the stories we believe and follow

While telling almost any story involves words, characters and structure, making a picture of a story involves another aspect of storytelling the use of visual language. Visual language refers to how imagery is used to convey story ideas or meanings. Perspective, colour, and shape can all be used to support a story by guiding the audience to see,feel and dream certain things.

What we have in our minds in a waking state and what we imagine in dreams is very much of the same nature. Dream images might be with or without spoken words, other sounds or colours. In the waking state there is usually, in the foreground, the buzz of immediate perception, feeling, mood, as well as fleeting memory images.  In a mental state between dreaming and being fully awake is a state known as ‘day dreaming’. This is a meditative state, during which the things we see in the sky when the clouds are drifting, the centaurs and stags, antelopes and wolves, are projected from the imagination.

Abstract art has shown that the qualities of line and shape, proportion and colour convey meaning directly without the use of words or pictorial representation. Wassily Kandinsky] showed how drawn lines and marks can be expressive without any association with a representational image. From the most ancient cultures and throughout history visual language has been used to encode meaning:

“The Bronze Age Badger Stone on Ilkley Moor stands over a metre high and around 3 metres in length.  This bolder has a southwest facing flattest surface that is marked with a profusion of cups, rings, interlinking grooves and gutters. Depending on the weather and sunlight the rock can change from grey and featureless to a rich golden brown, resembling a miniature Uluru/Ayers Rock, with the carvings thrown into sharp relief. It may be necessary for several visits to the rock in differing condition to get a full appreciation of the complex designs. It’s a story-telling rock, a message from a world before written words.

Richard Gregory suggests that,

“Perhaps the ability to respond to absent imaginary situations,” as our early ancestors did with paintings on rock, “represents an essential step towards the development of abstract thought.”


3.1  Stained glass

Imagine a world in which everything was bright and shining and new, a world in which one thing reflected off another in such a way as to enhance the attractiveness and beauty of both—and further, that the visual quality of reflection and transparency was an indication of a higher, moral order, an order which was the beginning of the ultimate reality, which, in a word, reflected heaven. This is the concept of ‘claritas’ as it was understood in scholastic philosophy of the thirteenth century and probably earlier. It was the most highly prized of medieval visual qualities.

Fig 3.2  Window, St Denis, Paris

Most of the aesthetic issues that were discussed by Christians in the Middle Ages were inherited from Classical Antiquity. The Classical world had turned its gaze on nature but the Christians turned their gaze on the Classical world.  They tended to look upon nature as a reflection of the transcendent world. Along with this they possessed a sensibility capable of fresh and vivid responses to the natural world, including its aesthetic qualities. Beauty for the Medievals did not refer first to something abstract and conceptual. It referred also to everyday feelings, to lived experience..

For the medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a beautiful thing had three primary characteristics

  1. Integritas (wholeness)

It must not be deficient in what it needs to be most itself.

  1. Consonantia (proportionality

Its dimensions should suitably correspond to other physical objects as well as to a metaphysical ideal, an end.

  1. Claritas (radiance)

It should clearly radiate intelligibility, the logic of its inner being and impress this knowledge of itself on the mind of the perceiver.

These rules of medieval aesthetics were embedded in the archectural proportions and the luminosity of stained glass windows (Fig 3.2). They crystallized because all the philosophers in Middle Ages considered them as allegories, symbols and mysticism which came from the allegorical and mystic interpretations of the Bible.  Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253), a bishop philosopher, tried to unify the two aesthetical rules. In Grosseteste’s philosophy the concept of light played a role as important as the geometrical concepts. He was one of the philosophers who developed a so-called “metaphysics of light.” He affirmed the material world had appeared for the first time as light. The form which the world had taken resulted from the radiation of the light. Because light radiates in right lines, it conferred to the world a geometrical form. This way it has the beauty of the form. So, the metaphysics of light ties with it`s geometrical cosmology and both tie with aesthetics of cathedrals and churches..

The twelfth century provides a prototype of the medieval man of taste and the art lover, in the person of Suger, Abbot of St. Denis. A statesman and a humanist, Suger was responsible for the principal artistic and architectural enterprises on the Ile de France. He was a complete contrast, both psychologically and morally, to an ascetic like St. Bernard. For the Abbot of St. Denis, the House of God should be a repository of everything beautiful. King Solomon was his model, and his guiding rule.  The Treasury at St. Denis was crammed with jewellery and objets d’art which Suger described with loving exactitude. Thus, he writes of;

a big golden chalice of 140 ounces of gold adorned with precious gems, viz., hyacinths and topazes, as a substitute for another one which had been lost as a pawn in the time of our predecessor . . . [and]… a porphyry vase, made admirable by the hand of the sculptor and polisher, after it had lain idly in a chest for many years, converting it from a flagon into the shape of an eagle.

And in the course of enumerating these riches he expresses his pleasure and enthusiasm at ornamenting the church in such a wondrous manner (Fig 3.3).

Fig 3.3 Window, St Denis, Paris

Suger is thus like the other collectors of the Middle Ages, who filled their storehouses not just with artworks, but also with absurd oddities. The duc de Berry’s collection included the horn of a unicorn, St. Joseph’s engagement ring, coconuts, whales’ teeth, and shells from the Seven Seas. It comprised around three thousand items. Seven hundred were paintings, but it also contained an embalmed elephant, a hydra, a basilisk, an egg which an Abbot had found inside another egg, and manna which had fallen during a famine. So we are justified in doubting the purity of medieval taste, their ability to distinguish between art and teratology, the beautiful and the curious.

Suger himself adopted the positions sanctioned at the Synod of Arras in 1025, that whatever the common people could not grasp from the Scriptures should be taught to them through the medium of pictures. Honorius of Autun wrote that the end of painting was threefold: one was ‘that the House of God should be thus beautified’; a second was that it should recall to mind the lives of the Saints; and third. ‘Painting . . . is the literature of the laity’ [pictura est laicorum litteratura]. The accepted opinion as far as literature was that it should ‘instruct and delight’, that it should exhibit both the nobility of intellect and the beauty of eloquence.

In the construction of the Abbey of St. Denis, Abbot Suger was the first to employ flat-bed building techniques, a method invented in the 5th and 6th century buildings of the Near East and Greece. This move away from methods influenced by those used in the Roman Empire, allowed the construction of the characteristic Gothic cathedrals, with their immensely high vaulted ceilings. The walls were constructed completely of dressed stone with little reliance on mortar, thus the result enabled great reduction in the interval between windows. Unlike the preceeding Romanesque architecture, with it’s singular windows cut into thick walls, the Gothic design enabled much larger areas of glazing and greater relationship between each window. This resulted in a unification of the windows and the architecture which was different to that that had gone before. The stained glass was incorporated into this structure with the intention of manipulating light entering the building and creating an atmospheric storytelling effect.  Hitherto, with the close construction of Romanesque architecture, the individual widely spaced, deep-set windows piercing the thick walls afforded a series of separate experiences rather than a generally dispersed atmospheric experience. It was as though the viewer went from transparent icon to transparent icon as he progressed up the aisle. Suger, by employing the new flat-bed technique of construction, reduced the interval between the windows and cut down the bulk of the stone-work. Consequently the eye was enabled for the first time to take in a broad sweep of window expanse rather than individual points of interest. This unifying gesture towards not only the windows but also the interaction of the windows with the architecture was the great breakthrough, and on this new formal reality the rest of the achievement of stained glass in the Middle Ages depended.

The purpose of stained glass windows in a church was both to enhance the beauty of their setting and to inform the viewer through narrative or symbolism.  The stained glass window of the Middle Ages represents a profound intersection of material reality and spiritual vernacular. Though not an invention of the time, the medium fully matured and was articulated as never before in the walls of twelfth and thirteenth century European cathedrals. Many of these networks of glass and lead no longer survive. Those that do still speak today of their attempt to instil a sense of divine presence, manifest in light and colour.

The commonest method of making stained glass is to carefully cut pieces of glass, fire them and set them in lead calms (sometimes called cames). The calms are small bars of lead so grooved on either side that the glass can be slotted in and held. Where the calms abut or join up they are neatly soldered together. The whole mass of interlocking lead and glass is gradually built up into a panel which, when it has been soldered on both sides, is a manageable unit. After making the panel watertight by means of a loose boiled-oil putty rubbed into the cracks and carefully cleaned off, it is ready to be assembled into a scheme of many panels, building up into a total window.

Metallic oxides (usually from the ashes of beech trees) fired in proportion with silica harvested from sand produced a usable range of colour. This connection to a point of origin, coupled with the theology seems to have shaped the stained glass artist’s relationship with the medium. An understanding cultivated by knowledge of local processes allowed glass painters to work skillfully with glass’ inherent properties. It’s important to recognize that, while artists also painted detail to enhance a window’s narrative, stained glass is essentially an art of light modulation.

The power of the experience of Medieval stained glass lies in its integration with a theology of light and colour.  As a transparent as well as a coloured material, glass resonated profoundly with the concepts of clarity and opacity that functioned as primary dichotomies for both moral and ontological systems. Light was transparent as it left the Creator, acquiring colour, and thus its ability to be visible, as it penetrated the material world. Colours can therefore be seen as representing the diversity and imperfection of creatures, although they still betray the radiance of their origins.

Theology speaks to an individual’s present state as well as the one to come and the notion of stained glass windows as the poor man’s Bible is not without cause. The parish community of the middle ages was often illiterate and even picture Bibles were expensive. But a fuller reading of their theological purpose points to the storytelling function of most medieval art where the human figure is concerned. The windows are not so much the Bible of the poor as the proof that there was a vigorous tradition of preaching the Bible to the poor which cried out for illustration as a mnemonic after the sermon.  Isolated panels of glass which have survived indicate that the lives of the Old Testament patriarchs were recorded by the medieval glass painters. The choice of some Old Testament subjects and the neglect of others is puzzling until it is realized that the selection was based on the belief that Old Testament events prefigured those of the New Testament. In terms of form, stained glass of the middle ages favoured representation over abstraction. Reyntiens aligns this tradition with the doctrine of the “Communion of Saints” which was as old as Christianity itself.

The doctrine was, briefly, that there is an unbroken web of contact and mutual help between those who have died in the favour of God and those, in the Church, who are yet on this earth. This difficult doctrine was of such importance because the intercession of the saints on behalf of those still living meant that a cultus of the saints was a pressing necessity. This fact, together with the Doctrine of the Incarnation, which stated that the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, was at one and the same time truly man and truly God, fixed the consciousness of western, Christian, art towards the human figure rather than abstraction or geometric non-figuration. And it is on the basis of figuration that all the glass in the Middle Ages, with very few exceptions, was founded.

The medieval lay masters wanted to control their materials, and to bend and fashion them in such a way that anything was possible. They vaulted huge spaces on slender points of support. They introduced light into their enormous covered spaces in such a way that this light itself constituted a kind of decoration, indeed painting. There were no longer walls but rather translucent tapestries.  One has the impression that the source of the light is in the coloured glass itself and one has the feeling of being taken into distant space.

As Peter Hitchens has written, “What Chartres represents is a map and model of the cosmos enabling anyone with eyes to see to find an explanation of the spirit which motivates the universe, which arranges the stars and the comets in their orbits and courses, and which also causes our consciences to burn within us, and our eyes and ears to recognise truth and beauty when we see them. It is not literal, and not for the literal-minded. But then again, nor are poetry or music. And it is almost a cliché to say that Chartres is poetry and music, frozen into stone and glass.

Most of the glazing of the 176 windows was accomplished between around 1200 and 1235 Chartres Cathedral provides a hierarchy of time and space, putting everything into an eternal perspective.Writing about the windows at Chartres, Louis Gillet says, “No prince has owned a book of comparable illuminations.” Windows narrating a progression of events, such as the life of Christ (or of the Blessed Mother, or of a saint), displayed a series of vignettes based on Scriptural sources, apocryphal texts with anecdotal details (mostly about the life of Mary), and a medieval compendium of the saints’ lives. The stories are told by gestures and poses. Everything is abbreviated in a highly expressive form of narrative shorthand (Fig 3.4).

Fig 3.4 The Virgin and Saint John, from a Crucifixion, German, c. 1420, J. Paul Getty Museum.


In the thirteenth century, stained glass had been part of a living cosmology of materials.   By the sixteenth century it was not unusual for the glass painter to be given the task of imitating fresco wall paintings n stained glass . Engraved reproductions of such works were being circulated throughout Europe, and these were being accepted by the newly ascending mercantile patron as the final word in taste. Fine Art had been born and was beginning to be ‘applied’ to certain of the traditional arts. In this new hierarchy easel painting had become supreme and all of the other arts were practically shamed into imitating its effects. With his own standards of excellence thus revoked, the stained-glass artist, like the tapestry maker, illuminator, and mosaicist, was reduced to a common labourer.  

3.2 Indian painting

Painting has a very long tradition and history in Indian art. The earliest Indian paintings were the rock paintings of pre-historic times, the petroglyphs as found in places like Bhimbetka rock shelters, some of the Stone Age rock paintings found among the Bhimbetka rock shelters are approximately 30,000 years old.  India’s Buddhist literature is replete with examples of texts which describe palaces of the army and the aristocratic class embellished with paintings, but the paintings of the Ajanta Caves are the most significant of the few survivals. Smaller scale painting in manuscripts was probably also practised in this period, though the earliest survivals are from the medieval period. Mughal painting represented a fusion of the Persian miniature with older Indian traditions, and from the 17th century its style was diffused across Indian princely courts of all religions, each developing a local style. Company paintings were made for British clients under the British raj, which from the 19th century also introduced art schools along Western lines, leading to modern Indian painting, which is increasingly returning to its Indian roots.

Indian paintings provide an aesthetic continuum that extends from the early civilisation to the present day. From being essentially religious in purpose in the beginning, Indian painting has evolved over the years to become a fusion of various cultures and traditions.

Paintings are more than just pictures in a frame—they are unfolding stories with multiple perspectives.  For example, Indian paintings have been described by B.N. Goswamy as layered objects in which one thing, or thought, is gently laid upon another presenting a layered world of meaning. Therefore, he says, to extract a painting’s riches and experience the  joy of discovery, the viewer must summon energy, enthusiasm and the excitement of anticipation to become visually immersed in the layers. This process of understanding begins by interrogating a work to reveal the main message of its maker. He suggests that it will then fall into one of the following four categories of meaning.  It will present an observation, a passion (expressed as longing and love), a contemplation or a vision. This classification system cuts across historical and cultural divisions.

Because they are based on the layering of meaning Goswamy’s categories are not rigid, Visions can be informed by passion; observation can lead to contemplation, or it can, equally, be the other way—or any other way—around: contemplation can spring from visions, and observation can be expressed in terms of passion.  Each person, however, has to approach all these works, and these sections, in his/her own way.

i Observation

Fig 3.5 Untitled (Manoj Dutta, 2018)

The paintings in this category of meaning are mostly based on real sights, people and scenes, seen or imagined by the painter; and some of them especially commissioned by a patron. Naturally, portraits figure large in this group, as do scenes of palace life and princely pursuits, even though these are sometimes modified, reconstructed and given an unusual twist: e.g. the emperor Jahangir looking at a portrait of his father in one, shooting arrows at ‘Poverty’ in another; a rendering of the emperor Akbar, breaking the conventions of royal portraiture, with his eyes lowered in repose; a towering Raja Sidh Sen of Mandi..  Some of these `observations’ capture an inner reality: a dying Inayat Khan gazing into nothingness; a hunter becoming the hunted as a lion pounces on him; a pool with herons (Fig 3.5 )a chameleon sitting utterly still yet casting a sly eye at everything around him (Fig 3.6).

Fig 3.6  A Chameleon

Leaf, now in an unbound album Opaque watercolour on paper Mughal, Jahangir period; by Mansur; c. 1600 11 cm x 13.7 cm Royal Library, Windsor Castle.

As the painter Mansur renders it, this chameleon perched on the branch of a sparsely leaved tree, is evidently eyeing some insect. It has already changed its colour to the green that matches the leaves around him, but it is the coiled-spring-like tension in the body, claws firmly latched on to the branch, the tail curling up and, above all, the look in its sly eye—alert and all-knowing—which compels attention.

The skin of the lizard is brilliantly rendered—’exactingly, tactilely dotted all over with shaded green spots, and its spine . . . saw-toothed from neck to tail with perfect points of colour’, as the art historian Cary Welch has noted.  Mansur’s observation is remarkable and Welch, in his colourful description, envisions the painter `on all fours, inching his way through a thicket towards its prey, cunning and silent as a cat’. If a twig had snapped, he adds, ‘the chameleon would have fled, and this miraculous picture would not exist!’

It is difficult to date this painting and judgements range from 1595 to 1615. The likelihood of its having been made in the later Jahangir period is greater.  

The painter, Mansur, about whose antecedents one knows virtually nothing, was truly a man of extraordinary talents. The painter’s range of work is extraordinary—from historical scenes recorded in chronicles to illuminations, from individual portraits to renderings of groups. But it is as a painter of flora and fauna that Mansur was without a rival. A wonderful range of flowering plants apart, paintings of falcons and hawks, partridges and cranes and barbets, hornbills and pheasants and peafowls bear his name. Each is a masterly study. If a zebra was brought in from Abyssinia, it was Mansur who was called upon to draw a ‘portrait’ of the uncommon beast; if a turkey cock was brought in by a noble from Goa, and the emperor went into a paroxysm of delight at the sight of this ‘strange and wonderful’ bird, ‘such as I had never seen’, it was Mansur once again who was asked to paint it `so that the amazement that arose from hearing about them might be increased’. Clearly, it was this master painter’s uncanny powers of observation and his mastery of brush and palette (Fig 3) that made him the emperor’s first choice

Fig 3.7 Enlarged portion of Fig 3.6

ii Longing and love

The paintings under this division are largely those inspired by poetic texts. Iin them, lovers cling to each other against a landscape glowing with the exuberance of spring; languid heroines lie lost in thoughts of absent lovers; Radha and Krishna gaze silently into each other’s eyes on the banks of the river Yamuna; Princess Champavati with her exquisite ‘lotus face’ confuses the bumble bees who, instead of heading to the lotus pond, swarm around her.

Fig 3.8  An elopement

Folio from a Laur Chanda manuscript Pre-Mughaljainesque; middle of the fifteenth century 18.2 cm x 10.5 cm Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi.

As night descends, a drama begins to unfold 3.8. The lover, Lorik—hero of Mulla Daud’s celebrated Avadhi romance in verse, Chandayana, more popularly known as Laur Chanda—arrives at the palace of his beloved, Chanda, in the middle of the night. His entry is unnoticed, for the sleepy guard at the gate of the palace has almost dozed off. Lorik throws a rope for his lover waiting in the upper storey so she can slide down. Chanda advances eagerly to catch the end of the rope while a palace lady attempts in vain to stop her. Lorik stands below, looking above, his body tense.

There is lyricism in Mulla Daud’s words, but even more so perhaps in the manner in which the unnamed painter renders them here. With a sense of remarkable freedom, he creates a world of his own in which there are no correspondences to reality. The royal palace is stripped down to a bare skeleton, with no walls, doors or windows. Only a flattened angular dome and slender pillars provide a hint of opulence.

The inky-blue night sky seems to have descended to the earth, consuming the background with countless stars. All the figures remain clearly etched in perfect light, although the lone hanging lamp tells the viewer that the day is long gone and night has fallen. With great forethought, some areas are left uncoloured, exposing the white sheet on which it is painted. There is a space enclosed within the billowing veils of the two young women, or the outline of Chanda’s long, trailing braid. The snaky rope that Lorik has thrown up remains suspended in the air on its own, defiantly, and decoratively, without having reached Chanda’s hands.

The forms of the figures are all remarkably stylized. While the athletic-looking Lorik has the torso of a lion—broad chest, narrow waist—and holds his hands in studied gestures, Chanda and her companion are slim of build. Chanda’s waist is so slender that it is almost at the point of disappearance. The eye travels to Chanda’s uncommonly small breasts too, for the painter wishes us to notice that she is barely a woman.

The faces, seen in true profile, are sharply chiselled. But it is the eyes of all the four figures that compel attention. They are heavily elongated under those fine wavy lines that mark the eyebrows. While one eye seen in profile extends virtually to the ear, the other eye is suspended in the air, just outside the contours of the face. This points clearly to the work’s ‘Jain’ ancestry where one sees a similar treatment. Though there is not much attention to the articulation of the hands and feet which remain awkwardly inelegant, one can see the remarkable sophistication of other aspects of this folio. Stylistically, it bears the clear impress of the Jain or western Indian group of works, but one knows that those works did not all come from Gujarat or Rajasthan and were not all Jain in content.

iii Contemplation

An old pilgrim in tattered clothes moves haltingly forward, his expression suggesting he is reflecting over his life and the one hereafter (Fig 3.9).

Fig 3.9 Intimations of mortality

Leaf, possibly from an album Opaque watercolour on paper Mughaljahangir period, by Abu’! Hasan; c. 1618-20 11.1 cm x 6.5 cm. The Aga Klan Collection, Toronto

Abu’l Hasan, a great painter at the Mughal court—Nadir-al Zaman is the title that the emperor Jahangir conferred upon him, meaning ‘Wonder of the   Age’—moved away in one of his works from the glitter of power and opulence to paint an old, fragile man. The tone of the painting is hushed and one falls silent looking at the lone, hesitantly moving figure. The man—an old pilgrim perhaps or, possibly, a mendicant who has seen better days—stands barefoot, leaning on a thin, long staff as he struggles to move forward.  The body bears witness to the ravages of time: the bent back, the stooped shoulder, the snow-white beard, the lean, desiccated frame. But one can see, from the look in the eyes, that the mind is still keen and the bent of mind religious—he holds prominently a rosary of beads in his bony right hand and wears one round his neck. There are signs of indigence everywhere: the lower part of the body is bare, the feet are unshod, and the coarse apparel he wears consists mostly of a rough cloak used as a wrap, a folded shawl-like sheet thrown over the left shoulder, and an unadorned tightly bound turban.

Technically, the work is brilliant, one notices the roughness of the skin at the knees, the thinness of the fingers of the hands, the rendering of the beads in the rosary, each shrivelled and varying in size; above all, the virtuoso treatment of the face with its sage lines of age and experience.

Fig 3.10 Enlarged portion of Fig 3.9.

Technically, the work is brilliant in all its detail (Fig 3.10). One notices the roughness of the skin at the knees; the thinness of the fingers; the rendering of the beads in the rosary, each shrivelled and varying in size; above all, the face with its lines of age and experience.

At the same time, as far as we are concerned, does the work resonate within us? Does it give rise to thoughts in our own minds, perhaps even remind us of parallels, of something we had once read and were moved by?

iv Visions

Fig 3.11   Prakriti (Raza;1990)

This is how a contemporary Indian painter explains his picture (Fig 3.11) representing the development of Bindu.  Bindu is a Sanskrit term meaning “point” or “dot.” … Sometimes this bindi dot is considered to represent the point of Consciousness from which the universe originates.  

“Forms emerge from darkness. Their presence is perceptible in obscurity. They become relevant if their energy is oriented through vision into an alive form-orchestration for which certain prerequisites are indispensable.The process is akin to germination. The obscure black space is charged with latent forces asking for fulfillment. Like the universal natural order of the ‘earth-seed’ relationship, the original unit, ‘Bindu’, emerges and unfolds itself in the black space. All inherent forces unite. A vertical line intersects a horizontal line, engendering energy and light. Space is charged. Contours appear: white, yellow, red and blue, and along with the original black, they compose the colour spectrum of the visible world”.

The paintings that come under Goswamy’s category of ‘Visions’ are chiefly those that depict sights and events unseen, but that have for long been part of our ‘awareness’ and imagination.  Visions includes images of abstraction like Hiranyagarbha, the Cosmic Egg, (Fig 3.12) floating on the waters of eternity, or the golden mount, Meru. Here, too, are iconic images of goddesses bestowing grace or striking fear; and of divine couples looking down from snowy peaks. Then there are works relating to mythologies or heroic tales: the Ramayana, the Bhagavata Purana, the Speaking Tree. Krishna holds a mountain aloft on the palm of his hand; seven-storeyed vehicles rise in the air; trees speak; cows levitate in the air; the great hero Hamza battles dragons breathing fire; and Neptune roars through the oceans.

Fig 3.12  Hiranyagarbha; the Cosmic Egg   Folio from a Bhagavata Puma series Opaque watercolour and gold on paper Pahari, by Manaku of Guler; c. 1740 21.8 cm x 32.2 cm (outer) 17.6 cm x 28 cm (inner) Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi

Among the many speculations about the Origins of Creation, the Beginnings of it All—something that Indian thought is rich in—there are references to the wondrous, mysterious ‘golden womb’ or `golden egg’.  One of the oldest Puranas, the Matsya Purana, has this account of the beginnings of creation: after Mahapralaya, the great dissolution of the Universe, there was darkness everywhere and everything was in a state of sleep. Then Svayambhu, the Self-Manifested Being, arose—a form beyond senses. It created the primordial waters first and placed the seed of creation into it. The seed turned into a golden womb, the Hiranyagarbha. Then Svayambhu entered the egg.

In the course of painting his great Bhagavata Purana series, the painter Manaku spread the ‘primordial waters’ that the texts speak of over the entire surface of the page. There are no waves here, no great commotion, only concentric whirlpools and eddies, like giant rings of time on timeless waters. And in their midst, unmoving, completely still, floats the great golden egg, a perfect oval, seed of all that there is going to be.

A fascinating detail about this painting: when one sees the painting laid fiat, the egg appears a bit dark, almost dominated by browns. It is when you hold the painting in your hand, as it was meant to be, and move it ever so lightly that it reveals itself: the great egg begins to glisten, an ovoid form of the purest gold. true hiranya, to use the Sanskrit term for the precious metal.

(B.N. Goswamy ((2916) ‘The Spirit of Indian Painting’)

4  Anatomical representationalism

Fig 4.1 Concept map off anatomical representationalism

Art and science first came together in the late 15th century and Albrecht Durer was one of the main drivers.  Dürer was a German painter, engraver and mathematician.  He was born on May 21, 1471 and died on April 6, 1528 in Nuremberg.  Dürer established his reputation and influence across Europe when he was still in his twenties due to his high-quality woodcut prints. He was in communication with the major Italian artists of his time, including Raphael, Giovanni Bellini and Leonardo da Vinci, His vast body of work includes engravings, his preferred technique in his later prints, altarpieces, portraits and self-portraits, watercolours and books. His watercolours mark him as one of the first European landscape artists, while his ambitious woodcuts revolutionized the potential of that medium.  His introduction of classical motifs into Northern art, through his knowledge of Italian art, has secured his reputation as one of the most important figures of the Northern Renaissance. This is reinforced by his theoretical treatises, which involve principles of mathematics, perspective, and ideal proportions. In this connection, he realised the importance of using grids when investigating form. He found they were essential when trying to draw human figure objectively and when developing perspectives he realised that similar mathematical principles were required to unify all the elements in his works.

The creation of images of spatially separated objects led to the invention of perspective machines, which bring optics and the geometry of perspective close together. The devices have the aim of helping artists to draw what they see, In his “Underweysung” Dürer described four devices to draw perspectives, which have some similarities but also differences. In the most well-known of these devices a grid is placed in front of the object and the squared drawing surface corresponds with this grid.  By looking through the grid, objects become divided up into squares.   The eye position is fixed with the help of a stick or hole. It is a drawing tool with the advantage that an image can be drawn of  the seen object in a bigger or smaller scale. This process makes it easier to work out where each object is in relation to everything else around it.  

The artist using the drawing machine would have a piece of paper in front of them with the same number of squares as in the wooden frame. Everything the artist wanted to draw would be transferred from the square where they saw it in the grid, onto its twin square on the piece of paper. In creating a human portrait, if the artist saw a person’s nose halfway down the fifth square up and the second square across, then that is where they would draw it on the matching paper square.  By using the drawing machine, artists found out just how distorted the world appears when you look at it from odd angles (Fig 4.2 )

Fig 4.2 A 16th century drawing machine

Panofsky gives three reasons why the technique of perspective was received with such a universal enthusiasm in the 16th century. First, the placing of an object anywhere in a picture and the production of a certain distance and point of location symbolised a time in which man was positioned in the centre of the universe. Second, perspective satisfied the new craving for exactness and predictability. And third, the application of mathematical formulae to  make art agreed with Renaissance aesthetics.

Latour goes further and states that perspective is a form of fiction;

“… even the wildest or the most sacred […] things of nature – even the lowliest – have a meeting ground, a common place, because they all benefit from the same ‘optical consistency’. Not only can you displace cities, landscapes, or natives and go back and forth to and from them along avenues through space, but you can also reach saints, gods, heavens, palaces, or dreams”

Geometrical longitude and latitude in a picture create the perception in the viewer of standing right in the middle of a picture The observer was no longer detached from the painting, but a full part of it – the artist became a manipulator of visual images, able to “play perceptual games” with the viewer. Dürer’s work on geometry, ‘Instruction on Measurement’, is the first document to treat a representational problem with a scientific answer. He points out that perspective is not a technical discipline limited to architecture and painting, but rather an essential part of mathematics.

Like perspective, proportion also has an underlying mathematical expression.. What perspective is for the ‘room’ in a painting, so proportion is for the human or animal body as a whole.   Dürer sought to set up geometrical explanations for proportions, merging each body part with a geometrical form:

“The total length and general axis of the body is determined by a basic vertical […] The Pelvis is described as trapezoid, and the thorax in a square […] The head, if turned in profile, is inscribed in a square, and the contours of the shoulders, hips and loins are determined by circular arcs”.

Durer soon realised that he could not apply this model to every human being and abandoned the geometrical curves in his drawings, stating that “the boundary lines of a human figure cannot be drawn with a compass or ruler”. Instead he decided to consider a series of female and male body-types, which he assembled in his Four Books on Human Proportion (published posthumously in 1528).  One of his aims was to use transformations of human heads drawn against a coordinate grid to understand facial variation . This was a very powerful way to demonstrate how otherwise disparate shapes can be meaningfully compared.

Species ecology

The most useful ecological category to link art with science is species ecology.  Within this ecology art is expressed practically as the scientific subject of comparative anatomy, which explores and establishes the correspondences between body parts of organisms within and between species. It systemises and communicates similarities and differences pictorially.  These illustrations in terms of the design creativity of the illustrator are art works (Fig 4.3 ).

Fig 4.3  Comparison of hind leg bones of  human, short-faced bear, horse and extinct camel

Four centuries after Durer, the zoologist D’arcy Thompson took up the grid method as a way of defining the process by which evolution has produced different shapes and forms .  Durer had used it to study perspective and human proportions. Thompson used it to relate biological shapes to each other via geometric transformations of the grid. Thompson’s most famous set of observations in his book ‘On Growth and Form’ were the outcome of his search for a mathematical logic to compare bodily forms.  What makes Durer’s grid method particularly useful is that it allows for continuity, for gradual growth and development or transformation, whereby certain regions or features, such as the head of a primate, are stimulated to grow faster than other parts (Fig 4.4).

Thompson’s book is almost an encyclopedia of all the relations that have ever been discussed between mathematics and organic form. Among the subjects treated are: the form of the cell, tissues, concretions produced by living things, shells, horns, and teeth; from the dynamic point of view, growth and the relation between form and mechanical efficiency; and such perennial favourites of the geometrician as the form of the bee’s cell and the arrangement of leaves.

‘On Growth and Form’ has inspired thinkers including the biologists Julian Huxley, Conrad Hal Waddington and Stephen Jay Gould, the mathematician Alan Turing, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and artists including Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, and Ben Nicholson.  Jackson Pollock owned a copy. Waddington and other developmental biologists were struck particularly by the chapter on Thompson’s “Theory of Transformations”, where he showed that the various shapes of related species (such as fish) could be presented as geometric transformations, anticipating developmental biology of a century later. The book led Turing to write a famous paper “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis” on how patterns such as those seen on the skins of animals can emerge from a simple chemical system. Lévi-Strauss cites Thomson in his 1963 book Structural Anthropology.  ‘On. Growth and Form’ is seen as a classic text in architecture and is admired by architects “for its exploration of natural geometries in the dynamics of growth and physical processes.” The architects and designers Le Corbusier, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Mies van der Rohe were inspired by the book. Peter Medawar, the 1960 Nobel Laureate in Medicine, called it “the finest work of literature in all the annals of science that have been recorded in the English tongue”.

Fig 4.4 Convertion of a the skull of a lower primate into a human skull by differential growth of its parts.

Comparative anatomy is the channel by which artists depict the human figure seen as a pure animal form.  This is the basis of Lucian Freud’s ‘naked portraits, which created an entirely new genre in the depiction of the human figure. His pictures present subjects as forms not dissimilar from inanimate still life objects, while at the same time rendering painted flesh with an extraordinary, penetrating humanity.  These qualities are evident in Figs 4.5-6. By turns clinical and intimate, stark and tender, the art works resulted from weeks of intense sitting by and scrutiny of the artist’s subjects. While the woman in the first portrait goes unnamed, the second picture identifies Freud’s two most constant companions: his long-time studio assistant and friend David Dawson, and his whippet Eli. Both paintings evidence Freud’s almost ruthless process of observation and forensic reckoning of the human body.

Fig 4.5 Naked portrait in a red chair (Lucien Freud,1999)

Fig 4.6 David and Eli (Lucien Freud 2003–4)

“Living people interest me far more than anything else,” Freud stated. “I’m really interested in them as animals. The one thing about human animals is their individuality: liking to work from them naked is part of that reason, because I can see more.”

Freud’s work, and the exaggerated anatomical features arising from foreshortening of the human body has been taken as a model for teaching how to paint the body’s intriguing features ( Fig 4.7 ), particularly those expressed in the seated nude with crossed legs, a classic pose which has long been used as the starting point for abstraction (Figs 4.8).

Fig 3.7 Example of how to paint the female nude

Fig 3.8 Crossed legs

For Freud, seeing more meant defining a human being’s amimalness in the subtle shadows of the skin to reveal every hump and bump of his sitter’s musculature ad adipose tissue.  In this respect Freud was known for his uncompromising and forensic style that exposed every inch of imperfection in his sitters. Slabs of fat, birthmarks, disfigurement and dangling genitalia were all brought to life and magnified with an unerring eye.

As an earlier worker obsessed with female anatomy, Willem De Kooning, in his works on paper from 1938 to 1955, represents the female form in varying states of abstraction (Fig 3.9).  This group of works provides an invaluable glimpse at the deeply personal process of thinking, creating, and discovery that lies at the core of abstraction. With each drawing and oil sketch, a new artistic progression in the continuous struggle to realize and convey the essence of human  anatomy is revealed to the viewer. The pictures express his refined artistic successes and examples of a working out of visual problems on paper and canvas. The works are best characterized by an inherent tension. They vibrate with energy and visual force as they reveal the artist’s struggles to eliminate boundaries between drawing and painting, while probing figurative elements for their fundamental abstract anatomical forms. They read as transparent entries in the diary of a mind.

Fig 3.9  Figarative abstraction, Willem de Kooning

Austrian painter Egon Schiele was a major artistic figure of the early 20th century. Famous for his nude drawings and self portraits, the artist is perhaps known best for his depiction bodies as if flayed to expose the underlying muscles and connective tissue (Fig 3.10).

Fig 3.10  Nude self portrait grimacing Egon Schiele 1910.

In an interview for Studio magazine in 1946 the sculptor Barbara Hepworth was asked to describe her main sources of inspiration. Anticipating her response, the interviewer volunteered that these included ‘negro sculpture, the human figure, aerodynamics, or dreams’.  She replied simply: ‘The main sources of my inspiration are the human figure and landscape; also the one in relation to the other’. In her work she was developing the idea that the artist exists within the visible scene and not apart from it. The sculptures were not an expression of the observed landscape but of the act of observing it Fig 3.11).

Fig 3.11  Figure for Landscape 1959–60, Barbara Hepworth

Figure for Landscape 1959-60 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Presented by the executors of the artist’s estate 1980

The metaphorical use of body imagery in relation to landscape is fundamental in the Western world. The Renaissance metaphor that understood the earth to be modelled on the anatomy of  the human body has generally been regarded as a one‐way relation, ‘landscape as body. It finds its expression in generic landscape naming. In imaginative literature at least, the reverse relation, ‘body as landscape,’ is of frequent occurrence and continues well into the machine age. The body in question is generally female, and the culmination of the ‘body as landscape’ metaphor is pornotopia.

Jane Samuels’  ‘Terrain: Anatomical Landscapes’, is a series of drawings derived from walks around the UK. Walks are documented in photography, drawing and writing. This research informs detailed pencil drawings that each represents a single location. This process creates narrative images that explore the relationship between humans and our rural environment. In combining human anatomy and land, Samuels aims to underline the complicated connection between the science of conservation and politics the: the extent to which we change the land, the conflicts that arise in land management and the political battles that take place in our woods and fields

Carl Warner turns the ridges, hills and valleys of one or more human bodies into strange and surreal landscape photos (3.12).

Fig 3.12 Landscape formed from human bodies. Carl Warner

“[The project] plays on the sense of space in which we dwell,” writes Warner. “The external view of ourselves therefore becomes a more abstract and perhaps more intimate reflection of our inner being when viewed as a landscape or given a sense of place.”  This idea is represented in Figs 3.13- 3.16.

Fig 3.13 Landscape  #60, Eunice Golden 1972

© Eunice Golden 1972
“Landscape #160”
Mixed media on papeer
26″ x 51″

Fig 3.14   Anatomical landscape II; Desert Moon (Ivana Viani)

Fig 3.15 Elbowscape James Martin

Fig 3.16  Legscape

Human animalness dominates the art of Elizabeth Frink.  Her take on comparative anatomy is to make anatomical comparisons between humans and other animals. In this she is preoccupied with behavioral contrasts and similarities such as violence, aggression, brutalism, sensitivity, empathy, and nurture. She positions the horrors that men are culpable of committing alongside the day to day internecine violence of lower primates (Fig 3.17 ).  Frink’s works question how it is that urban bipeds, responsible for inventing sophisticated creative societies, can behave so violently towards each other. She leaves us to contemplate this inbuilt destructive legacy of 5 million years of evolution of the human form.

.Fig 3.17 Man and baboon Elizabeth Frink

Cellular ecology

Cellular ecology is a scientific concept that 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.  The outcome is to preserve the internal environment for survival of the whole. The control system involves regulated biochemical flows between blood compartments, organs, and their cells. The ultimate fluid compartment is that of cellular organelles, which are parts of cells, as organs are to the body.  Together, cells and their organelles 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 by environmental factors, illness ensues.

Cellular ecology can be visualised as a curriculum 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 an understanding that the whole body is a dynamic entity greater than the sum of the parts.  A unifying theme is homeostasis, that living things are constructed, physiologically, biochemically and behaviourally, to maintain a constant internal environment. The concept was first proposed 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’.

Picture making is an important research/recording activity within cellular ecology. Microscopes are used to study the different cellular forms pictorially to reveal their development in growth, ageing and evolution.

The science of comparative anatomy defines how body parts such as organs, bones, nerves and muscles are maintained as living cellular structures in a dynamic biochemical equilibrium with resources and conditions in the external environment (Fig 3.18  ). The human body maintains various physiological conditions within itself, such as temperature, at a constant level. This is not to say that these levels are not subject to change. In room where the temperature is below body temperature, we would be constantly losing heat to the environment. Our bodily functions work against the environment to keep our temperature up. This constant giving and taking away keeps us at a fixed range. This is referred to as a dynamic equilibrium. The body is like a candle flame.  Wax is burnt to be continuously replaced by wax drawn up by the wick, whilst the flame maintains its form.

Although we maintain biochemical constancy for certain favourable environmental conditions, there are many factors that keep changing those conditions, and the body works to maintain them at favourable levels.

Fig 3.18  ‘ Moving to stay put’: (pictorial model of homeostasis).

Because scientists are taught not to bring emotions into their research, it is important to see that an increasing number of contemporary artists (and scientists!) are taking on the challenge of using their art to present complex scientific issues in humanistic ways that question our ingrained separative thinking. Only in this manner will we search for humanistic, cradle- to-grave practicai solutions to today’s most critical environmental problems.  In this connection, the artists and scientists in 2015-16 Art & Science Collaborations’ SCIENCE INSPIRES ART: Biodiversity/Extinction exhibition at the New York Hall of Science, were selected by because they allowed their feelings of deep concern to guide their ultimate mission – for their art to stimulate public reflection, critical thinking, dialogue, and hopefully individual actions on the issues we face surrounding loss of biodiversity and species extinction.  Nature art is a bridge from the viewpoint that the depiction of plants and animals have played an important role in the belief systems of many different societies

Cellular ecology relies on microscopes to generate primary data. Generally the necessity to implement artistic views of scientific data is becoming increasingly important as we become ever better at probing the abstract world of the unknown. An annual symposium (Visualizing biological data – VIZBI) devoted to the topic is held in Europe’s leading molecular biology institute, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg. Over four days, scientists and designers link together to present and exchange ideas visually. The results are usually stunning, combining wonderful aesthetics with prescient design simplifying complex data for easy interpretation.  Biology data visualization is a branch of bioinformatics concerned with the application of computer graphics, scientific visualization, and information visualization to different areas of the life sciences. This includes visualization of DNA sequences, genomes, alignments, phylogenies, macromolecular structures, systems biology, microscopy, and magnetic resonance imaging data (3.19).. Software tools used for visualizing biological data range from simple, standalone programmes to complex, integrated systems. In this context science and art are the same thing. Both science and art are human attempts to understand and describe the world around us. The subjects and methods have different traditions, and the intended audiences are different, but the motivations and goals are fundamentally the same.

“These “heady” times for neuroscience are also having a domino effect in the arts. Artists have long reflected upon the nature of perception, memory, and emotion to create their work. But recent breakthroughs in understanding the brain, accompanied by its visualizations, are sparking the imaginations of artists around the world.” – Cynthia Pannucci, founder/director of ASCI and organizer of The Brain exhibition

The 16th international art-science juried exhibition, organized by Art & Science Collaborations, Inc., in promotional partnership with Meghan Rhodes and MEDinArt, was open for public viewing at the New York Hall of Science (located in Queens, NYC). The exhibition is the culmination of an international open call for “visually stunning” works of art inspired by brain science (and however one wished to interpret the knowledge products of this science).

Fig 3.19 Cortical columns (Gregory Dunn, 2014)

The 2017 Art of Science exhibition held at Princeton  University in 2017 explores the interplay between science and art and consists of images produced during the course of scientific inquiry that have aesthetic merit.  The First Prize winner Jennifer Rea superimposed images of mitosis and cell division on mass-produced floral fabric (Fig 3.20).. The work speaks generally of growth. It also extends the notion to encapsulate unregulated growth, and as the fabric pattern reveals, it could extend infinitely. Thus this could be conceived of as a sort of tumor. The floral pattern and the coloration of this piece are also reminiscent of feminine qualities, which opens up the door for dialogue about conceptions of growth. Utilizing elements of abstract art, such as a grid, emboldened to an organic state, this piece is very much within a contemporary time frame while being simultaneously timeless.

Fig 3.20 Cell division (Jennifer Rea, 2017)

Driven by an interest in the biological process of cell division, artist Jiyong Lee fabricates translucent sculptural works of segmented glass components fused through coldworking techniques. Some pieces purposefully take the form of organic life with titles such as “White-orange Chromosome Segmentation” or “Geometric cell membrane segmentation (3.21)” while others are decidedly more geometric in nature . Born and raised in South Korea, Lee has led the glass programme at Southern Illinois University since 2005..

Fig 3.21  Geometric Cell Membrane Segmentation, (Jiyong Lee 2016)

Nature art.

If any career bridges science and art, it is biological illustration. Despite advances in photography, we still rely on vivid pictures to help us learn about nature in a visual way. A biological illustrator produces detailed illustrations of everything from the smallest molecules to the largest dinosaurs. Above all. this requires artistic skill and creativity.

Botanical and scientific illustration share many common themes, meticulous observation, crucial composition, precision of rendering and the accuracy of colour are all intrinsic to this niche genre of art.  During the first decade of the sixteenth century Albrecht Durer was depicting plants in all his art works with a new approach of botanical accuracy. This was at a time when gardeners were introduced to exotic oriental bulbs and the science of botany broke away from medicine, to which it had long been subordinate. His work entitled ‘The Great Piece of Turf (3.22)’ depicts the plants exactly as he saw them growing in the field, and his observations would have a lasting influence on the rendering of flowers in art well into the seventeenth century.

Fig 3.22  Turf, Durer

Only ten of Durer’s studies of plants survive.

Durer gained the reputation of being the artist of ‘everyman’ illustrating books for numerous printing presses and selling individual prints on sheets of paper, which even the average person could purchase.

Forms from plants and flowers are an important component of Islamic art. Known as arabesque, floral and plant designs are configured into geometric forms that are painted on tiles to decorate buildings, mosques in particular, and on ceramic containers. That these patterns can continue infinitely supports the Islamic belief in existence extending beyond the visible material world. In Ottoman Turkey, the style known as Iznik developed which incorporated specific colours from natural pigments – in particular blue, green and red on a white background (3.23)..

Fig 3.23 Iznik ceramic

Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) was a scientist, philosopher, a true Darwinist, and a controversial personality because of his views and theories.  Despite the long list of his achievements and arguable statements, one can surely call him an artist who, through the use of his colourful and impeccably detailed illustrations, helped to popularize the theory of evolution.

Using illustrations of creatures the rest of the world had never seen Haeckel strived to inform the public about the immense biological variety of the world. He blended science and art in his drawings by staying true to the facts yet keeping the artistic aesthetics in mind. Hence, it’s no surprise that, to this day, Haeckel’s work serves as an inspiration for many artists (Fig 3.24 ).

Fig 3.24  Sea Anemones, Ernst Haeckel

Animals’ traits were observed by humans which led to images of animals entering into the symbolic language of early cultures.  In the Teotihuacan culture (Mesoamerica, 150 BC to AD 750), the jaguar was a central symbol within the belief system. As the quickest, most agile and dangerous predator in the jungle, the jaguar came to symbolise strength, power and domination. Rulers in Mesoamerican cultures associated themselves with the authority and hunting prowess of the jaguar (3.25).  Reverence for jaguars can be observed in many murals in temples in the region. Maya rulers incorporated jaguars into their names – such as Bird Jaguar and Shield Jaguar from the late Mayan period (AD 600 – 900). The representation of the jaguar as a symbol of power can be compared with that in Benin in West Africa, another region of equatorial rainforest, where the ruler, The Oba, associated himself with the leopard, the king of the jungle.  

Fig 3.25 Jaguar In A Tree, David Stribbling.

Fable is a literary genre: a succinct fictional story, in prose or verse, that features animals, legendary creatures, that are anthropomorphized (given human qualities, such as the ability to speak human language) and that illustrates or leads to a particular moral lesson (a “moral”), which may at the end be added explicitly as a pithy maxim or saying. Written fables bear traces of an oral ecological tradition that stretches back to the very dawn of history and animals in human thought.

Before the occurrence of the earliest Greek animal fables in the poems of Hesiod and Archilochus, and long before the earliest reference to the legendary fabulist Aesop in the fifth century BC, the genre had already enjoyed a long history in the Near East, from where, most scholars agree, the fable migrated to Greece during the ‘orientalizing revolution’ of the archaic period.  The Greeks themselves considered the fable to be of great antiquity, and in a number of instances Greek authors associate the fable with various exotic figures (e.g., Conis the Cilician, Thouros the Sybarite, and Cybissus the Libyan) and locales (e.g., Libya, Phrygia, Cilicia, Caria, Egypt) that had reputations as sources of ancient wisdom for the Greek imagination. The fables of Aesop are the only text that has been illustrated so often, so diversely, and so continuously that the history of the printed illustrated book can be shown by them alone.  The fable’s combination of freedom of approach and constant appeal has kept them steadily popular as a subject for book illustration from the fifteenth century to the present.

Why are we are so particular about the kinds of art with which we surround ourselves privately and publicly.  It is a sort of self-packaging we all practice as much on the walls of our homes as we do on our social media screen walls, Pinterest ‘boards’ and Tumblr art blogs. While the cynic might interpret this as mere showing off,  the philosopher Alain de Botton and the art historian John Armstrong peeled away this superficial interpretation to reveal the deeper psychological motive. We have a powerful desire to communicate to others the subtleties of who we are and what we believe in a way that our words might never fully capture (Figs 26-28 ).

Fig 3.26  At home with Diana Monkeys

Fig 3.27  Art works from the exhibition ‘Science Inspires Art

Fig 3.28 Sandpipers

5 Cosmic order

The artist tends to struggle more about gaining new insights into who and where we are as earthlings, while the scientist tends to struggle more with communicating how we are able to exist and thrive as a species.   Both contribute to defining our place in the cosmos. Artists have not only taken up art criticism and negotiations, they now also integrate research methods and scientific knowledge into their artistic process to such a degree that it even seems to be developing into an independent form of knowledge on its own

Also, the scientist grapples with the decision to write and the artist grapples with the decision to frame.  Writing and framing go together. That’s why its important, when situating oneself between art and science, to match words with pictures and pictures with words.  

Practically speaking, art is a product of expression. In the abstract, art is often practised either to make sense of our material reality or to create a manifestation of the consciousness of the artmaker.  Science, on the other hand, is an exploration of the world around us in an effort to find universal, indisputable cosmic truths. In short, art is often introspective while science is extrospective; art is used to understand consciousness while science is used to understand external realities.  At any one time, these inner and outer worlds place the individual in cosmic dimensions.

This cosmic perspective was set out by Ralph Waldo Emerson In his 1836 essay “Nature”. Emerson wrote, “All the parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapour to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine (transcendental) charity nourish man.”

Art is at the centre of this great scheme of things where an experience, event, object, or idea is extremely special and unusual and cannot be understood in ordinary ways.   This pictorial self-knowledge art bequeaths provides a language for communicating it to others. In this connection, spiritual sparks that helped inspire the pioneering abstract art of Vasily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevich and Frantisek Kupka grew out of spiritualism and the occult. They were generated by such ventures into mysticism as Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Rosicrucianism, Eastern philosophy, and various Eastern and Western religions. Spiritual ideas were not peripheral to these artists’ lives, not something that happened to pop into their minds as they stood by their canvas. Kupka participated in seances and was a practicing medium. Kandinsky attended private fetes involved with magic, black masses and pagan rituals.

Surrealism certainly had more than a streak of spiritualism running through it. This is exemplified by the works of the Catalan artist, Salvador Dali.  Between the wars the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid was a centre advocating an ongoing dialogue between science and art and acted as a place open to receiving the international vanguards. The Residencia was also a forum for debating and disseminating the intellectual life presented directly by its main figures. Through its salons there passed Albert Einstein, Paul Valéry, Marie Curie, Igor Stravinsky, John M. Keynes, Alexander Calder, Walter Gropius, Henri Bergson and Le Corbusier, among many others.   The young Salvador Dali was a student there and was interested in the interface between art and science. This is evident in a photograph of Federico García Lorca with the painter, who is holding a copy of the journal ‘Science and Invention’ from 1927. In the 1930s, Dali’s scientific interest focused on dual images and illusions. As hinted at by the word “dual” within it, duality refers to having two parts, often with opposite meanings, like the duality of good and evil. Duality has technical meanings in geometry and physics. In geometry, duality refers to how points and planes have interchangeable roles in projective geometry. By 1940 Dali had turned to Planck’s quantum theory; and in 1945 the nuclear, or atomic, period of his work began. In the 1950s, ‘corpuscular’ painting led Dalí to nuclear mysticism. During the latter period of his life, between 1955 and 1978, his work was deeply influenced by genetics in particular, and especially, by DNA and its structure.

When asked by a journalist from Le Figaro, “Why so much interest in science?” Dalí replied:

“Because artists scarcely interest me. I believe that artists should have scientific notions, so as to walk on different terrain, which is that of unity”.

The use of research in the visual arts or using scientificl knowledge to develop artistic work is by no means a contemporary phenomenon. Scientific knowledge, such as optics, colour theory, anatomy, natural science, physics, geometry, and physiology are absorbed by artists as a matter of course and are reflected in their artwork. Relevant contemporary theories and discourses re-emerge in artistic production and influence its forms of presentation, as well as its content. Referencing science was also common in the twentieth century, in, for example, the reference to psychoanalysis in surrealist painting, to phenomenology in minimal art, or to linguistics in conceptual art. In the sense of a recursion to scientific results, the term artistic research simply refers to the scientific references finding their way more or less explicitly into works of art. The artworks do not need to be a kind of research themselves, nor do they have to adhere to certain scientific standards. The concept of scientific art describes art with research – not in the sense of art understood as research, but rather by recourse to depicting scientific research.

Dalí’s artistic trajectory cannot be understood in isolation from his endemic interest in science. But in the period between 1962 and 1978 his work was most influenced by the staggering impact made on him by the discovery of the DNA code.   For Dalí the function of DNA was very clear: it is what lends us immortality. In his essay The Tragic Myth of the Millet’s “Angelus”, published in 1963, the painter explains:

“Moral law must be of divine order, for even before it was set down on Moses’ tablets it was contained in the codes of the genetic spirals“.  

This direct reference to DNA carrying humanity’s biochemical  blueprint, related that molecule with immortal life. Later, in his article “The immortality of genetic imperialism” Dalí referred to science in order to explain immortal life, saying:  

“it (immortal life) is contained in deoxyribonucleic acid – nothing is more monarchical that a molecule of DNA”.

According to Dalí, God’s laws were those of inheritance contained in deoxyribonucleic acid, and ribonucleic acid, RNA, was simply the messenger entrusted with transmitting the genetic code:

“On Jacob’s ladder, each step is a DNA landing, and the angels going up and down are the RNA”.

When Dalí read Watson and Crick’s 1953 article announcing their discovery of the genetic code, he said:

“It is the real proof of the existence of God.”

After that, DNA influenced his paintings and many other activities. An iconography of DNA was present in at least nine paintings from 1956 to 1976. His painting, (Fig 4.1) ‘Still Life, Fast Moving: 1956, “the decomposition of a fruit dish”, metaphorically summarized man’s post-atomic understanding of nature. Dalí suggested that there is a cosmic order in the Universe and by incorporating spirals into the composition; he was pointing the spiral molecular architecture of DNA, the alpha helix, as the the ultimate expression of life.

Fig 4.1 Still Life, Fast Moving (Salvador Dali, 1956)

Post WWII, Dali became fascinated by atoms which are the basic particles out of which the universe is created. He said after the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb in Japan that it “shook me seismically” and that the atom was his “favourite food for thought.  He saw the beauty of the atom and was interested in how atoms make up everything in the cosmos Living Still Life (Fig 4.1) was painted during a period that he called “Nuclear Mysticism. It is composed of different theories that try to picture the relationships between quantum physics and the conscious mind. The different theories are composed of elements that range from Catalan philosophers to classicism, pop art, and nuclear physics.

The name Nature Morte Vivante translates in English to “living still life.” It comes from the French translation “nature morte” which directly translates to “dead nature.” by adding “vivante,” which implies fast moving action and a certain lively quality, Dali was essentially naming this piece “dead nature in movement’.  This plays into his theme of Nuclear Mysticism which combined elements of art, physics, and science. The theory, as well as the term, “Nuclear Mysticism” was coined by Dali himself. In the late 1940s and early 1950s Dali had started to “return to his Catholic roots following World War II. Nuclear mysticism is composed of different theories proposed  by Dali that combine science, physics, mathematics, and art against a unifying backdrop of his own system of philosophy that emphasizes intuition as a means to knowledge and its importance in his search for a route to the divine.

In Nature Morte Vivante Dali wanted to show the motion that all objects have, that although an object is still, it is always full of millions of atoms that are constantly in motion. He portrays this thought throughout the painting. Every object is moving in some direction. Dali was also obsessed with the spiral, which he thought to be “the most important feature in nature”, and used it, as in the railings as “a symbol of cosmic order.  Not only does Dali portray his objects flying around the scene, he shows them twisted in usual ways. For example, the silver bowl is not only shown mid-air, but also twisted in an unnatural way for silver to bend. Dali also infused religious elements of Nuclear Mysticism into this painting. On the table with the white tablecloth, the objects placed closest to the table and that appear to be the least in motion are a glass of wine, two grapes, a pear, a glass bottle with water pouring out, and what appears to be a fig leaf. The fig leaf has long been a religious symbol associated with Christianity. In the Bible, Adam and Eve use fig leaves to cover themselves after their deception in the Garden of Eden. The placement of the fig leaf in Dali’s painting could allude to his reemergence back into Catholicism.

Dali wanted to give his own take on classical still life painting.  He believed that all matter was not at all like it seemed, but instead had attributes that even the best cosmologists were only able to guess at in a field of semi mathematical mysticism  He wanted to enforce “that all objects are made of atomic particles in constant motion,” which he portrays through the scattered items. The still life objects in motion embraced his own thoughts about the cosmic significance of atoms in motion.

Fig 4.2 Tuna fishing, Salvador Dali (1965)

Among the masterpieces Dali painted in the 1960s, ‘Tuna Fishing’ (Fig 4.2) is the most important in expressing the wholeness of humanity and cosmos. The painting was dedicated to Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier who was a French painter of the 19th century known for his depictions of battle scenes. Tuna Fishing is a metaphorical statement of humanity’s place in the universe. This artwork depicts men acting violently toward large fish. As long golden daggers stab the aquatic creatures, the once pristine blue waters turn to a blood red. To Dali, the men and the fish they are killing personify the universe. It represents a specific and frantic, compressed space that the world can sometimes be with respect to predator/prey interactions that maintain the human food chain. This immense picture (304 X 404 cm) painted at Port Lligat, combines all the styles Dali had worked in: Surrealism, “refined Pompierism,” pointillism, action painting, tachism, geometrical abstraction, Pop art, Op art and psychedelic art. Dali left an explanation of his aims in this painting, which ranks in importance with the 1931 Persistence of Memory, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.  The latter surrealist piece introduced the image of the soft melting pocket watch which epitomizes Dalí’s theory of “softness” and “hardness” that was central to his thinking from that time. Regarding this icon, Dawn Adès wrote, “The soft watches are an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time, a Surrealist meditation on the collapse of our notions of a fixed cosmic order”. This interpretation suggests that Dalí was incorporating an understanding of the world introduced by Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity. However, when asked whether this was in fact the case, Dalí replied that the soft watches were not inspired by the theory of relativity, but by the surrealist perception of a Camembert cheese melting in the sun. This metaphor encapsulates the

From the beginning of his career Dali has always evaded questions as to the meaning of his paintings by stating that he does not know what their meaning is. No one, he adds, is more astonished by the images which appear on his canvases than he; and having created them, he feels that his responsibility toward them is ended. Nevertheless his writings at times furnish partial data on the iconography of certain paintings.

With respect to the extreme human  predatoriness of Tuna Fishing he said:

“It is the most ambitious picture I have ever painted, because its subtitle is Hommage a Meissonier. It is a revival of representational art, which was underestimated by everyone except the Surrealists throughout the period of so-called ‘avant-garde art.’ It was my father who told me of the epic subject. Though he was a notary in Figueras, Catalonia, he had a talent for story-telling that would have been worthy of a Homer. He also showed me a print he had in his office by a Swiss artist – one of the Pompiers – showing a tuna catch; that picture also helped me create this painting. What finally made me decide to take the subject, which had been tempting me my whole life long, was my reading of Teilhard de Chardin, who believed that the universe and cosmos are finite – which the latest scientific discoveries have confirmed. It then became clear to me that it was that finite quality, the contraction and frontiers of the cosmos and universe, that made energy possible in the first place. The protons, antiprotons, photons, pi-mesons, neutrons, all the elementary particles have their miraculous, hyper-aesthetic energy solely because of the frontiers and contraction of the universe. In a way, this liberates us from the terrible Pascalian fear that living beings are of no importance compared with the cosmos; and it leads us to the idea that the entire cosmos and universe meet at a certain point – which, in this case, is the tuna catch. Hence the alarming energy in the painting! Because all those fish, all those tuna, and all the people busy killing them, are personifications of the finite universe – that is to say, all the components of the picture (since the Dali cosmos is restricted to the circumscribed area of the tuna catch) achieve a cosmos is restricted to the circumscribed area of the tuna catch) achieve a maximum of hyper-aesthetic energy in it. Thus Tuna Fishing is a biological spectacle par excellence, since (following my father’s description) the sea, which is initially cobalt blue and by the end is totally red with blood, represents the super-aesthetic power of modern biology. Every birth is preceded by the miraculous spurting of blood, ‘honey is sweeter than blood,’ blood is sweeter than blood. Currently America has the privilege 187 of blood, because America has the honour of having the Nobel Prize winner Watson who was the first to discover the molecular structure of desoxyribo-nucleic acid which, together with the atom bomb, constitutes the essential guarantee of future survival and hibernation for Dali.”

 When we ask now again: What is the invisible in perception? We take a stance of Nanette Rißler-Pipka and try to answer it by saying that the invisible is the part added by memory, invented or not, but we are not able to perceive something without seeing not only the one object present but also everything linked to this object by memory. In all his works, Dalí made it difficult or even impossible for us to decide, if he is discussing some serious theory of perception or just again leading the spectator on a false track. For Dalí, this is a starting point for the creative act as he not only adds unconsciously something out of his memory to his perception, which would be a pure psychoanalytic effect, but willingly mixes false and true memories and calls them “real” or better “surreal”.   This link between art and the pictorial presentation of science is particularly evident in the 12 lithographs that Dali produced in entitled ‘Conquest of the Cosmos’.

Fig 4.4  The Visceral Circle of the Cosmos, a lithograph in the suite Conquest of the Cosmos, Salvador Dali (1973)!enviragallery12182-12200

With the launch of the Soviet artificial satellite into orbit in 1957, the great task for humankind of conquering outer space was set out  This revolutionary step in the history of science led Dali to dream of cosmic landscapes and in 1973 he began engraving a suite of chromolithographs entitled “The conquest of the Cosmos’. By looking through the series  the viewer can spot the iconic surrealist symbols of Dalinean art, such as the melted watch, crutches, the burning giraffe, butterflies, snails and many more.  One of Dali’s favorite symbols the snail expresses his own duality, it hides what is vulnerable behind its tough exterior.  We often camouflage our troubling emotions and desires, our softness, with our own hard shells for fear of judgment

The engravings are among the largest size ever produced by Dali and took 18 months to complete.  They are outcomes of Dali’s Surrealist approach of portraying an idea or thought about our place in the universe.  Within their iconic simplicity they hold the key to an understanding of how science could be transcribed as pure art.  For example, the dominant logarithmic spiral in the The Visceral Circle of the Cosmos points to the importance of the rules of differential growth which have evolved to maintain life on planet Earth through generation to generation.   In this connection Dali developed an obsession with rhinoceros horns, because they are created, like shells, by differential growth in a perfect logarithmic spiral.

The fact that Dali’s watches are soft, that they appear to be melting like cheese, wax, or gelatin, seemingly contradicts the significance of time itself, rendering both time and the machine that measures it ineffective and irrelevant. As a result, Dawn Ades says that “The soft watches are an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time, a Surrealist meditation on the collapse of our notions of a fixed cosmic order”. Her words are echoed by Wilson who says, “The evocation of softness is one of Dalí’s most brilliant and compelling inventions: his soft objects are powerful and disturbing images of entropy, that fundamental physical process by which all things decay in time. “Ferdinand Aliquié agrees. “The soft object,” he says, “is the negation of any machine and, by that, of any process in physics.” The cosmic sense of this is further heightened, as William Jeffett points out, by the fact that “[t]he philosophers of the enlightenment had conceived of the workings of the universe as akin to that of the mechanism of a watch”.  Furthermore, when our sun is in the final stages of burning its hydrogen it will go through a period of expansion. Many astronomers expect that expansion to spread as far as the Earth in its orbit bringing about its ultimate demise.

Dali’s later years are summed up by Maša Hubijer ‘in his thesis ,’The Last Phase of Salvador Dalí – From the 1940s Until the End’.

“From the art history point, Dalí was a fair genius in both techniques and presentation, and he certainly changed the view of art from one point to another. His interpretation leaves us wondering about the hidden subjects and meanings that Dalí wanted us to explore. Perhaps he wanted to leave us wondering and exploring in order to trigger the mind of the next generations to come, trying to solve the Dalí world of dreams, science, mysticism and duality”.

5 Internet references*&page=5&sort=-partner_updated_at

Artful microcosms of cultural ecology

September 30th, 2018


Fig 1 Logo of the Club of Rome: a microcosm of humanity on Earth.

In April 1968, a group of thirty individuals from ten countries,scientists, educators, economists, humanists, industrialists, and national and international civil servants, gathered in the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome. They met at the instigation of Dr. Aurelio Peccei, an Italian industrial manager, economist, and man of vision, to discuss a subject of staggering scope; the present and future predicament of humanity. Out of this meeting grew The Club of Rome, an informal organization that was aptly described as an “invisible college.” Its purposes were to foster understanding of the varied but interdependent components, economic, political, natural, and social-that make up the global system in which we all live; to bring that new understanding to the attention of policy-makers and the public worldwide; and in this way to promote new policy initiatives and action.  The predicament now is how to address climate change in order to live sustainably. With respect to new actions, this blog addresses the question, what is the role and the potential of the arts in bringing about the cultural change required to live within Earth’s ecological limits? That was the question pursued by Melita Rogelj as her Master’s thesis for the School for International Training in Vermont (graduated in 2000).

Rogelj set out to answer the following questions in her research:

  • What is the connection between the arts and sustainability?
  • What is a new way to think about the arts that would inspire and facilitate a transition to increased levels of sustainability?
  • What is the importance of art for sustainability?

Her approach was:

“…… to associate sustainability with cultural evolution.  In order to achieve sustainability, I believe we must become a society of artists, willing to take creative risks, attempting to make connections and leap across disciplines and cultures in ways previously not attempted, or even imagined.”

There is an urgent need to develop the underlying theory and principles of “sustainability science,” based on an understanding of the fundamental interactions between nature and humans. This requires a new research and education paradigm that embraces biocomplexity, integrates the physical, biological, and social sciences, and uses a coupled, human–natural systems approach.  For this purpose, a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary mindset is needed to enlarge the discursive space of museums, schools, universities, disciplines and collections of objects by pushing at their conceptual boundaries. The knowledge produced from objects such as works of art is quite distinct from textual knowledge. But while we would like to believe that sharp boundaries define the functions of knowledge objects each is really the tip of an interdisciplinary iceberg.  Objects are the basis for thinking about microcosms, where the object stands for much deeper thought. ‘Microcosmic’ refers to the idea that parts or relations that define an entity are discovered, summarised, or miniaturised, in some smaller unit, which thereby becomes a cultural object (Fig 1).

According to Rudolf Allers microcosmism may be defined in the following way:

“One vague and broad conception is shared by all authors who ever speculated on the microcosmus and its relation to the macrocosmus. The former, which the Latin authors usually call minor mundus, has certain features or principles in common with the macrocosmus or the universe.”  

Hence, the basic idea of microcosmism is that it is a movement to promote the study of  correspondence or similarity between two entities on the assumption that the smaller entity is easier to investigate that the larger.

Works of art are microcosms.  To meet Melita Rogelj’s objective, the universal language of art has to be harnessed to inspire individual action.  This means drawing attention to the current environmental crisis and to moving people to change the behaviours and habits that contribute to it.  This blog is a first attempt to explore the the role of microcosmic art to communicate an emotional experience.

Expressing artful spirituality

In previous blogs, Corixus addressed transformation, or metamorphosis, as the concept central to making and adding meaning in abstract art.

This blog is about art as a carrier of two kinds of intelligence required to live sustainably. These were defined seven centuries ago by the Sufi poet Rumi. The first he defined acquired knowledge or book learning. It is the kind of intelligence that helps us to manage our environment and is tested to see how well we retain information. Rumi describes it as “getting always more marks on your preserving tablets.” This is the intelligence of our schooling and striving to succeed. It is imparted by narrative art which is a microcosms of the outer world expressing situations and objects.

Rumi also describes another kind of intelligence: “one already completed and preserved inside you./ A spring overflowing its springbox.” This intelligence is not the kind that moves from the outside in, as in traditional learning. “This second knowing is a fountainhead from within you, moving out.” This intelligence originates from within us rather than from outside sources.  It is imparted by abstract art which is a microcosm of the inner world of thoughts and ideas expressing creativity and transformation. In this respect, creativity and culture are virtually interchangeable.

In earlier times spiritual messages were transmitted figuratively directly through stained glass. But abstraction has entered the interface between spirituality and people (Fig 2).

Fig 2 A microcosm in stained glass inspired by the cellular basis of anatomy

From the maker’s and viewer’s perspective transformation provides access to deeper aspects of ourselves, including the pre-verbal feelings and symbols that reside in our subconscious.  So, we make and pursue transformations in search of the one realm within which all things are connected. For painting, this realm is the canvas before us. In other words, producing and viewing an abstract work can be a meditative, almost mystical affair.   The work has aesthetic qualities expressing ideas and emotions in a two-dimensional visual language. The elements of this language—its shapes, lines, colours, tones, and textures—are used in various ways to produce sensations of volume, space, movement, and light on a flat surface. These elements are combined into expressive patterns in order to represent real or supernatural phenomena to interpret a narrative theme, or to create wholly abstract visual relationships.  

Despite being without a material reference point, abstract art nevertheless often carries deep messages from the artist and are also injected by the viewer.  In fact the beginnings of modern art, especially abstract art, have strong spiritual roots. This fact is not always obvious from textbook presentations, which are more likely to focus on the timeline of innovations of the twentieth century.  While these historical narratives are valid they omit what may have been the most central motivation of the pioneers of abstract art who shared common spiritual roots. For many of these artists art was primarily about spirituality, and was perhaps the most appropriate vehicle for expressing and developing that spirituality.  Kandinsky expressed this conviction in his 1912 publication “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”; Mondrian mentions it in many of his writings; and so do other painters, poets, musicians and dancers. Here is Kandinsky, in a selection from his influential 1912 booklet Concerning the Spiritual in Art:

“When religion, science and morality are shaken and when outer supports threaten to fall, man withdraws his gaze from externals and turns it inwards”.

“Literature, music and art are the most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt. They reflect the dark picture of the present time and show the importance of what was at first only a little point of light noticed by the few. Perhaps they even grow dark in their turn, but they turn away from the soulless life of the present toward those substances and ideas that give free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul”. (Concerning the Spiritual in Art, p. 33)

This was also admitted by the painter Mark Rothko when he said in 1957:

“I am not interested in any relationships of colour or form or anything else, I am interested in the basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on, and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate with those basic emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”

The more one looks at Rothko’s great monochrome canvases, such as the Rothko Chapel pictures (Fig 3), the more you see subtle shifts and nuances of brush marks and hue.  But what is the connection between seeing more evidence of the painter’s mystical handicraft and the emotional response? Emotional responses are generally regarded as the keystone to experiencing art, and the creation of an emotional experience has been argued as the purpose of artistic expression.  Research has shown that the neurological workings of perceiving art differ from those used in standard object recognition.  Instead, brain regions involved in the experience of emotion and goal setting are activated when viewing art.

Fig 3 A viewer in the ‘Rothko Chapel’.

The Rothko Chapel is a non-denominational chapel in Houston, Texas, founded by John and Dominique de Menil. The interior serves not only as a chapel, but also as a major work of modern art. On its walls are fourteen black but colour-hued paintings by Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko is classified as one of the early New York abstract expressionists, a group of New York painters of the late 1940s and ’50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. Abstract expression blended elements of Surrealism and the first abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the colour field painting of Mark Rothko and others. Gestural abstraction, sometimes called action painting, is a style of painting in which paint is spontaneously dribbled, splashed or smeared onto the canvas, rather than being carefully applied.  The term colour field painting is characterised by large areas of a more or less flat single colour. Both techniques introduce random elements of form, tone and colour placement.

Small is large

Ruth Abrams (1912-1986) is a key artist of the time.  She also belonged to the New York group of abstract expressionists although her work remains on the fringes of the movement.  She may be described as a metamorphic artist in that throughout her career she moved confidently between figuration and abstraction. The more traditional scenes of painting offered a continual starting point for transformation. The most striking and successful example of this kind of metamorphosis is “Memory of My Mother,” a 1947 painting featuring an outline resembling a woman dissolving into a striking network of interlocking and interwoven colours  (Fig 4).

Fig 4 ‘Memory of my Mother’,  Ruth Davidson Abrams ca. 1959 Collection of Yeshiva University Museum Gift of the Estate of Ruth Abrams (2006.079)

However, it is believed by many that Abrams’s crowning achievement in abstract art is a series she produced in the 50s and 70s entitled “Microcosms.” The paintings describe the progression of an aesthetic journey —a discovery of a personal vocabulary based upon our unearthly perception of a universe distinctly different from familiar earthbound views and horizons.  These are works on tiny canvases, some as small as postage stamps, in which, through microscopic swathes and strokes of colour, she transcribed her thoughts about space exploration to produce imaginary interstellar meditative landscapes. Abrams chose the word microcosm to describe her artistic creations because they represented in miniature the characteristics of something much larger, namely, the cosmos as a place, or situation to which we turn when meditating on origins and futures.  In a strange way the very small pictures draw the viewer into interstellar space.

Fig 5 Andromeda nebula (1900)

With respect to the timing of these works, Abrams was responding to black and white photographic images of outer space that had begun enter the public domain through books on astronomy and space science at the beginning of the 20th century.  The Andromeda “nebula,” had been photographed at the Yerkes Observatory around 1900 (Fig 5). To modern eyes, this object is clearly a galaxy. At the time, though, it was described as “a mass of glowing gas,” its true identity unknown. Seventy-five years after this first image of Andromeda, NASA launched one of the most ambitious experiments in the history of astronomy: the Hubble Space Telescope, which has so radically changed and enlarged our pictorial understanding of the cosmos.  On April 1, 1995 Hubble captured a small region of the Eagle Nebula, a vast star-forming region 6,500 light-years from Earth. A colour version, called Pillars of Creation, was released from NASA in 2015 (Fig 6). Ruth Abrams died in 1986 and we are left to speculate about what her artistic response would have been to later space probes.

Fig 6 Part of the Eagle Nebula; NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Abrams explaining how she came to paint this vast entity in miniature said;

“I realized I could never do anything as big as the bigness I was now aware of, and that paradoxically, in order to convey that bigness, I had to move away from it and paint small.”  

Her work is evidence of the paradox that a tiny canvas can convey the giant wonder of the cosmos (Figs 7-9).

Fig 7 Ruth Abrams microcosm; a cropped enlargement

Fig 8 Ruth Abrams microcosm; a cropped enlargement

Fig 9 Ruth Abrams handling one of her Microcosms

Transforming Mondrian

Like Abrams’ microcosms, Piet Mondrian’s paintings had no narrative content and represented a metamorphosis over a period of years  from his paintings of windmills and trees. His lines and colours gradually became the subjects and he argued that they were were the purest forms of expression.  He elaborated this belief in his long essay ‘Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art’ published in the first eleven issues of the journal De Stijl. He wrote:

“As a pure representation of the human mind, art will express itself in an aesthetically purified, that is to say, abstract form. The new plastic idea cannot therefore, take the form of a natural or concrete representation – this new plastic idea will ignore the particulars of appearance, that is to say, natural form and colour. On the contrary it should find its expression in the abstraction of form and colour, that is to say, in the straight line and the clearly defined primary colour”.

Mondrian’s art was not based on reasoning or calculation.  Intuition was central to his concept of the artistic process – but he always had a strong urge to position his art in a wider cultural and philosophical context. Crucial to Mondrian’s thought was the Theosophical notion of evolution, which required the transformation of old ideas to make room for the new, in life, in society and in art.

Using software tools comprising algorithms and digital filters, Corixus is exploring futures of the Mondrian abstract style, introducing anatomical curves, tones and textures at random to produce microcosms (Figs 10-12)  ).

Fig 10 Random composition in black blue and yellow (Corixus. 2018)

Fig 11 Transformation of Fig  (Corixus. 2018)

PaintShop Pro

Fig 12 Transformation of Fig (Corixus. 2018)

Topaz Simplify.

The responses of viewers to these three images are overwhelmingly to place the last transformation first.

Anatomical microcosms

The starting point for this research into the transformation of Mondrian’s style is the concept of cultural ecology in which artistically created microcosms are positioned to link environment with society,  In this context, Leonardo da Vinci was the first to apply the term microcosm to promote the idea that people are part of nature. He envisaged the great picture chart of the human body he had produced through his anatomical drawings as a cosmografia del minor mondo (“cosmography of the microcosm”). He believed the workings of the human body to be an analogy, in microcosm, for the workings of the universe. Leonardo wrote:

“Man has been called by the ancients a lesser world, and indeed the name is well applied; because, as man is composed of earth, water, air, and fire…this body of the earth is similar.”

He compared the human skeleton to rocks (“supports of the earth”) and the expansion of the lungs in breathing to the ebb and flow of the oceans.

Leonardo’s few full-body figures deserve attention because they reflect so well his remarkable progression as thinker and artist from medieval, through early humanist, to modern humanist ways of understanding and representing the human body as an integral part of nature. A careful look at these figures provides a visual framework for discussing the concept of a microcosm in the continuing emergence and development of Renaissance humanist ideas.

“In [the] figures there shall be revealed to you the microcosm on the same plan as before me was adopted by Ptolemy in his cosmography”.

In so designating these regions of the body, Leonardo incorporates a third medieval tradition: the principle of the microcosm and the macrocosm, which held that the structure of the human body, a small world in itself, reflects the divine order of the universe  (Fig 13).

Fig 13  A near-term human fetus. Leonardo da Vinci

This was no doubt in his mind when he urged us to contemplate ageing wall plaster as a stimulus to thinking about the bigger picture of patterns in and from nature.  Ever since Leonardo da Vinci urged artists to search for inspiration in the dirt on walls or the streaked patterns in stones, they have found that the accidental blot, the chance mark, or the naturally occurring stain can be a starting point for some extraordinary art (Fig 14)

Fig 14 Splash on the wall ?

Abstract drawing

In its blog for 15  Nov 2016 the online gallery ‘Ideelart’  showcased ten ‘unforgettable examples of  abstract drawing’

Drawing was introduced as is one of the simplest and most accessible ways to make in art.

“Almost anyone can do it. All it takes is a writing implement and a flat surface. Yet as simple as the medium can be, some of the most unforgettable abstract artworks are abstract drawings packed with ambiguity and storytelling that trigger questions about their meaning

Abstract drawings are immediately approachable and direct. They are inherently ambiguous and invite a certain amount of conjecture. Ambiguity is an attraction, because it allows for the unfettered participation of anyone willing to open up to a work of art.  Because they are produced in their least guarded moments they casually drew something that expressed the truest nature of their ideas from deep within. Many artists turn to drawing in order to express some essential concept they are struggling with, and suddenly a form, a gesture or a composition emerges that perfectly expresses the essence of their search (Fig 15).

Fig 15 Elaine de Kooning – Unused preparatory drawing from In Memory of My Feelings, Ink on acetate, 13 7/8 x 11 in, 1967

Picasso stretches reality and exaggerates certain features, distorting the form to better communicate the essence (Fig 16)

Fig 16 Less is more. Detail from page of a Picasso sketch book

Internet references

Artisan ecologies

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

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

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

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

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

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