View Electronic Edition

Living Technologies for a Living Planet

Humanity's present overarching crisis has been summarized by author and environmental educator David Orr as follows: "The problem is simply how a species pleased to call itself Homo sapiens fits on a planet with a biosphere." "This is a design problem," he maintains, "and requires a design philosophy that takes time, velocity, scale, evolution, and ecology seriously."

The design philosophy that David Orr advocates is emerging from our research of the last thirty years. It is now being codified into a scientific discipline and successfully implemented in a number of areas critical to both Homo sapiens and our biosphere-blessed planet. Gregory Bateson, who pioneered such thinking, wrote of the mind as "immanent, but not only in the body" and of a "larger mind of which the individual mind is only a subsystem ... still immanent in the total interconnected social systems and planetary ecology." That larger mind is observable not only in the metabolism of the living world. It is conspicuously reflected in the self-organizing processes of the contained ecosystems which were first developed by the aquaculture research at the New Alchemy Institute in the 1970s. The technique and technologies have since been honed at Ocean Arks International to form a body of knowledge, now referred to as ecological design.

Ecological design is a comparatively new discipline. It involves more than using renewable resources like solar and wind energy in lieu of fossil fuels or nuclear power. Predicated upon an unprecedented partnership with the natural world, ecological design at Ocean Arks has generated a new and hybrid form of technology. This technology, literally drawing on the intelligence encoded in the processes of evolution, incorporates elements from the living world in the form of thousands of selected organisms. Harnessing "larger mind" in this way is a new step in the coevolution of human and natural systems. This partnership of human ingenuity and resilient biological self-maintenance has the potential to replace the present technological infrastructure with more sustainable living technologies.

Living technologies incorporate the use of Living Machines, which were invented and developed at Ocean Arks. A Living Machine is made up of a contained ecosystem that has been inoculated with thousands of life forms including microorganisms, snails, fish, and higher plants. Confidence in their ability to self-design, self-organize, self-repair, and maintain their ecosystems is at the core of the design philosophy. Such a machine is intended to solve problems and perform designated tasks that can range from the restoration of water, waste treatment, growing food, air purification, climate moderation, treating industrial wastes, and environmental remediation. The progress of the ongoing research is documented in the Ocean Arks publication Annals of the Earth .

Less expensive and more effective than their industrial counterparts, living technologies have the potential not only to solve problems of production and pollution; they are also instruments of environmental restoration. Widespread application of living technologies could prove an unparalleled and dramatic means of shrinking the human footprint on the planet. To date, Living Machines have been installed in fifteen states and nine countries, including India and Brazil. Ecological design is also being incorporated into educational programs and taught in schools and colleges. The children and young people involved are learning to interact with the living world, to think like an ecosystem. They are coming to understand their world not merely as a resource base but as living planet to be cherished.