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4. Maladaptation or creativity? A challenge for ecologists and designers

by John A. Harris

June 1997


1. Changed atmospheric conditions

2. Water quality and quantity.

3. Rapid extinction of animal and plant species

4. Excessive or inappropriate use of space

5. The need for wider public assessment and understanding of environmental issues



It is now widely recognised around the world that we are living on a threatened planet. Or, more specifically, threatened life on our planet. We have endangered species of mammals, birds, fish and other animal and plant life; we have air pollution, water pollution and soil degradation; we have a gaping ozone hole radiating ultraviolet light upon all living creatures whose evolution has not provided sufficient means of physiological protection from it; we experience extremes in climate bringing floods and droughts on an unprecedented scale; and, in the human urban societies of the world, violence and corruption have become part of the 'norm' of daily life to an extent which has become an entirely new phenomenon in human history.

Our response is anxiety. We somehow expect governments, scientists, people who do know the nature, extent, and gravity of these problems to exercise their authority to set in motion appropriate resolutions. To do something.

I want to put before you the idea that human intelligence, integrity, and creativity are commonly found amongst all people on earth, and that this reality is our only real resource for reversing the disorders besetting and threatening our globe. The problems are so complex, so interwoven, and so all-enveloping in their outcomes, that no single body of scientists, of well-meaning politicians, or of any other group with specialist expertise, can hope to confront them successfully. But that does not mean that the problems are not manageable and, indeed, reversible.

We are all motivated to act whenever and wherever we see threat to life. But for effective actions we have to grasp what the threat means, and why it exists. Already a good many people have a fair grasp of what our environmental threats are. And they are working at them. But what looms largest of all is that the destructive forces currently at work on our planet are gathering pace much faster than we are progressing towards reversing the disintegration of the life-supporting capacity of the globe.

It is my conviction that people with some measure, or grasp, of the threats to life must now engage in dialogue on a sweeping scale. Informed dialogue accelerates better understanding leading to more effective actions. It is our ways of communicating which must be re-examined urgently. And changed.

The "Catalyst 95" title of the Design and Environment conference held at the University of Canberra expressed well the challenge we face in exploring communication connections. The "Design" professions and those of the "Life Sciences" who met at this conference are concerned with human interactions with the environment: our habitat.

Think for a moment of Designers whose concern is with what we call the "built environment"; that is, the cities and towns, buildings, their fittings and furnishings, and all the other structures providing for human activities. We need them for manufacturing of industrial products, for the service industries making those products accessible to their users, and for the transport of people and goods.

And now think of the Ecologists whose concern is the 'natural environment': that great diversity of life forms and their physical and chemical environments which collectively make up the biosphere.

It is generally recognised today that these two very different kinds of environments—the built and natural—interact. What happens in one will change what happens in the other. Over the last few decades such changes have been manifesting themselves at a bewildering pace. We can all recall published work identifying some particulars among these changes. Let me instance three: two Australian and one international.

Stephen Boyden, an ecologist, has shown that some aspects of western culture are dangerously out of control now, leading to dire consequences which may put the very survival of the human species at risk.

Tony McMichael, a medical researcher, has applied both a biological and ecological approach to his research on epidemiology and illness. He finds direct connections between human health and well-being and the total environment in which we live. "...the risk arises from the disruption of natural systems because we are exceeding the biosphere's carrying capacity—that is, we are overloading the planet's 'metabolic' capacity to absorb, replenish and restore."

Finally, the recent statement issued as a warning to humanity which was compiled and signed by no less than 1,575 scientists from 69 countries including 99 Nobel Laureates, together with senior office-holders in prestigious scientific academies in Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America. This statement reveals that we have only a few decades—a period well within the single lifespan of the majority of people on earth today—before the destructive impact of humanity on the global environment reaches a point where the planet will be irretrievably damaged, bringing with it human suffering on an unprecedented scale.

Conservation and restoration programmes have begun. Among their active participants a claim for political power has already surfaced. If we are to feel encouraged by this, we have also to recognise that any changes for the better which have been won are coming at a pace too slow to overtake the existing rate of change from destructive forces at work today.

The first world-wide alert signals came from the international symposium in Stockholm in 1972. We learned there were massive life-threatening forces at work and the need to address them was urgent.

Not much had happened in terms of global repair by 1992, twenty years later, when The Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro. That Summit took place in a spirit of high hope for inaugurating change in human habits to bring about recovery from our weakened environmental life-support system. At Rio, 150 countries signed two U.N. Conventions on Climate Change and Biodiversity.

We have now travelled 23 years in time since the first world-wide alert. With what result? Our efforts at global repair are making slow headway but remain puny.

It is now clear that modern human societies have long been pursuing their own perceived wants and needs, each in isolation one from the other, with scant thought to our total dependence on the environment. Our inability to recognise the intimate and constant interaction between societies and the environment is affecting both the biological processes of our 'natural environment' and the physical and psychological health of human societies everywhere.

The title of this paper is "Maladaption or Creativity?". Notice the word 'or'. Maladaptations are specific physical and cultural activities we engage in which affect the immediate environment and are functionally incompatible with the larger environment which is the global life support system. We ourselves are an integral part of this system. As intelligent creatures we can now recognise this fact.

What it means is that we must satisfy our social and biological needs in a manner compatible with the essential needs of the biosphere. We cannot be creative by achieving one at the expense of the other.

Creativity is only achieved when the social strategies we develop, along with the structures and artefacts we design and make, are functionally sustainable within the ecological limits imposed by the global life support system.

This is the imperative need. And its urgency is such that designers and ecologists must pool their knowledge in order to redress damage done by our maladaptive human practices. Between us we must find a new free-flowing way of communication. The challenge is not to invent new technologies. It is learning to use the technologies we already have in ways which will slash their destructive capacity and go on to find ways to make them more sustainable within the Earth's biosphere.

The communications bridge can be crossed only by sharing specialist-area knowledge. And this vital bridge? How do we build it? By whole-heartedly setting in place co-operative relationships between one specialist group and another. Each will discover the elation of new-found understandings leading to new value systems in their work. It is only the first bridge. Others will need to be erected, whereby whole communities will be able to reassess their value systems, their lifestyles, and their world views.

In pursuit of that first bridge, as an ecologist, I want to consider well established research findings which have identified five major areas of concern, each one now at a critical stage.

These are:

1. Changed atmospheric conditions: global warming consequent upon the enhanced greenhouse effect; altered distribution of light and other forms of radiation— especially ultra-violet; the degradation of air quality— both indoors and outdoors.

2. Reduction in water quality and quantity.

3. Rapid extinction of animal and plant species consequent upon habitat destruction and a variety of human impacts.

4. Excessive and inappropriate use of space.

5. The need for clear-cut information that will enable people everywhere to readily understand those environmental issues relevant to their capacity to take appropriate productive action.

None of these issues is too big for individuals to make a real contribution to their control, and eventually reversal. They have come about through maladaptive practices of individuals. For the most part they can only be remedied by the cumulative creative actions of individuals. Let me turn now to some considerations of each of these issues.

1. Changed atmospheric conditions

Global atmospheric conditions are of vital consequence to all living organisms, including ourselves. We cannot consider them as separate from those prevailing where most of us live out our daily lives: the built environment.

Atmospheric conditions embrace temperature, light, other forms of radiation, available moisture, and the composition of the air we breathe. All occur across a certain range of quantities, intensities and frequencies. To these conditions plants and animals have evolved adaptive faculties which enable them to survive and reproduce—within the particular range of conditions which prevailed throughout their evolution. There is no clear cut-off point at either end of any evolutionary determined range. The degree to which we either exceed or deprive ourselves and other living organisms of that pre-determined range will largely determine the intensity and kind of destructive stress placed on all life forms.

All plants and animals have a compatible range of conditions which must be available to them wherever they are living. When conditions exceed the extremes of that range stress occurs. If that stress is sustained over time the cumulative effect will destroy the organisms involved.

The effects of global warming on atmospheric conditions are complex. It is projected that emissions of carbon dioxide continuing at present levels will increase the Earth's average surface temperature by 1.5ƒ C to 4.5ƒ C in the next 100 years. If that increase averages 3ƒ C, such a rate of change would be greater than at any time during the last 10,000 years. And there would be a rate of sea level rise of some 6 cm per decade, mainly owing to rising sea water temperature and the resulting thermal expansion of the oceans.

The full impact of such changes may yet be avoidable. The biosensitive approach of "The Halifax Eco City Project" in Adelaide sets a good example. This proposal is to build on land in Adelaide’s inner city areas an integrated residential and small business development designed according to ecological principles. That is, as an "energy conscious city" characterised by large suburban areas that integrate forests, woodlands and grasslands with extensive use of renewable energy, such as solar and wind, energy efficient buildings, and less dependency on car usage.

The quality of the air we breathe in all cities has deteriorated alarmingly. We all know that. But we do not all know that the air in our work places, homes, schools, and cars has also deteriorated alarmingly. Yet this is where most of us average about 90% of our time. If those places we occupy in the built environment are not well ventilated, the air is further degraded by emissions of pollutant chemicals from synthetic furnishing materials, surface finishes and cleaning products. Here is a major creative focus for designers. And from the Interior Designers Handbook of 1991 we discover research has shown that indoor plants can significantly maintain indoor air quality by absorbing a number of the health-threatening vaporised chemicals.

We are still coming to terms with the depletion of the ozone layer in the earth's upper atmosphere, but we know that more ultraviolet radiation is reaching the land and waters of the biosphere as a result. The filtering function of the ozone layer has been a constant in the earth's atmospheric conditions for millions of years. Yet in just a few decades human activity has brought about the degradation of that vital function of the ozone layer. The resultant increased levels of ultraviolet radiation not only lead to skin cancers. They can also affect adversely many of the materials within buildings which we regard as necessary to make them pleasant places in which to live and work. Ultraviolet radiation can leach the colour of painted and other surface finishes, it can degrade valuable paintings and prints, and cause fabrics to disintegrate. Together, these effects destroy valued aspects of the human built environment.

Even in passive solar houses it will now be necessary for designers to find the means for filtering out ultraviolet radiation without loss of visible light. Recent research has shown that light levels are dangerously low in most building interiors. We now know that the appropriate range of visible light intensities, without glare from the source, has a positive impact on our ability to perform tasks, on our emotions and moods, on our immune system and general health and well-being.

Many of us can recognise these effects of light upon ourselves. For the most part, while we don't welcome them we put up with them—from habit. But the need for adequate natural light in buildings to promote effective productivity and our sense of well-being is understood by designers. Occupants fear the cost of providing it. But the cost of inadequate light sources is far greater upon society as a whole. Most suburban houses in Australia have interiors which are poorly lit, are poor aesthetically, and have limited or no outlook. These are factors which can lead to a general state of depression in people which in turn can cause various forms of morbidity. If not relieved they can contribute to behavioural disorders and a range of social problems.

Well-documented research has shown the importance to human health and well-being of views from windows to landscapes with trees, hills, birds and other animals. We, ourselves, underwent our own evolutionary processes in a world of living landscapes. It is worthy of much closer investigation to enquire whether the stress we all feel from that deprivation in our built environments may not be an important root of the widespread social disorders in the world today. It is certainly manifest in the world-wide interest in wildlife, rain forests, and the natural 'wonders' which have given rise to the burgeoning industries of tourism and high-rating TV programmes.

Changed atmospheric conditions are not just a threat to animal species, they may already have helped cause the decline observed in amphibians world wide. A very recent scientific report is suggesting that this decline in frogs, toads, and the like, is not only due to habitat destruction and water and air pollution, but also to ultraviolet radiation exposure affecting amphibians which lay their eggs in the open. Increased mortality in their eggs and larval stages is now a reality.

This should come as no surprise, The longer an initial problem remains, the more secondary problems it will generate. There is now widespread agreement among those with specialist knowledge that our society has reached a stage where governments and individuals are spending more time, energy, and money, on trying to overcome the destructive side-effects present in our environment than they are on thinking through sensible, constructive, life-sustaining activities.

2. Water quality and quantity

Clean water is essential to life on Earth. We all know that. And most of us know we waste it and somehow or other contribute to its pollution. The present "politically correct" line of thinking that sets up "awareness raising" in the community at large is particularly pathetic rhetoric. A recent United Nations forum even went so far as to suggest that public awareness of the need for water control could be emphasised by changing the name of our planet from "Earth" to "Water" since 75% is comprised of oceans, and most of the fresh water forms the ice-caps of the polar regions.

The fact is that only l–2% of the Earth's fresh water is available to human populations. And everywhere urban populations are polluting it through sewerage effluent, the dumping of toxic chemicals, and the free use of household detergents. But we are generally not aware of this. Few residents, for instance, in Canberra—Australia's national capital—realise that they are residing in, and thereby influencing the water quality of, a major catchment area, the Murray Darling Basin, which produces some 50% of the total agricultural production of Australia.

In Australian urban areas most residents maintain one or other of gardens, grassed areas, window boxes, terrace plantings and indoor plants. Careful use of water in maintaining them is essential to the plants' lives and to our human well-being, But a great deal of waste and damage is caused by an inappropriate selection of plants, by using spaces unsuited to growing conditions, by poorly designed plant containers and by not providing low-maintenance watering and drainage systems. The designer, however, can readily create both planting plans and watering systems as an integral part of house design. Wherever the integration of the built and natural environments does occur, householders quickly learn to place a high value on water and air quality both as it affects themselves and the wider community. However patchily this integration has occurred so far it is an important example of successful linking of the professions of ecology and design.

3. Rapid extinction of animal and plant species

Ecologists see habitat destruction and disappearing species as one of the great conservation issues of our time. The rapid growth and spread of the human population is now threatening the diversity of living organisms and the ecological integrity of the Earth’s biosphere. The total human impact can be seen as the product of population numbers and of the impact per person. Both have been increasing dramatically over the last two hundred years and continue to increase exponentially. Human population stands at some 6 billion today and it is increasing by some 80 million people per year.

One eminent ecologist has thought of our existing and foreseen environmental problems in terms of "The end of biological history?". The sheer size of human socio-economic activities now rivals the natural processes that built the biosphere and maintain it in a habitable state. An astonishing 40% of the earth's most basic resource—the incoming solar energy stored by plants—is now taken over by the human species. As we assume control of this "net primary production" through agriculture, pastoralism, forestry, land clearing and urbanisation, there is less available to sustain other species.

When we contemplate 'life on earth' we tend to think of ourselves, and the birds, fish and other plants and animals we commonly see or know about. Yet the vast majority of living organisms are small and inconspicuous micro-organisms—insects and other invertebrates, bacteria and fungi—which are fundamental to the fertility of soils and the recycling of nutrients through ecosystems. What they do are the "public service functions of nature". In addition, from a medical point of view, 40% of all prescriptions contain drugs of natural origins, and humankind has as yet only looked at a fraction of biological species which means that we do not know what the full potential could be for human society.

A biologically diverse environment is essential to human health and well-being in many ways. It stimulates our senses with a constantly changing aesthetic which activates our emotions and moods in a pleasurable way. The present diminishment of that diversity and expected further losses suggest that in a few more decades people will be seeking direct contact with nature just so they can experience it. As well as deepening the sense of connection with other life forms which people intuitively seek, natural areas are also able to restore individuals to effective life functions following periods of high stress and mental fatigue. Indeed, even the view of nature from a window can positively influence recovery following surgery.

It is not only that the built environments in which most of us live do not provide sensory diversity and change in the same subtle manner as natural settings. Within our static buildings we tend to do the same sort of things day after day. Contrast this with natural areas where shifting patterns and natural change constantly capture both our interest and imagination.

One way for more people to have daily access to the world of nature within the built environment is to provide people with a sense of continuity of space, and of being part of a totally dynamic living environment. Designers accomplish this when they are free to position windows which open the senses to living plants, and integrate indoor furnishings with outdoor plantings.

4. Excessive or inappropriate use of space

All living organisms need their own evolved habitat space in order to grow, develop, mate, disperse, and—in the fullness of time—speciation will occur such that new forms evolve to continue the interdependent life processes. With our formidable population levels we must now find ways to reduce our own space dependency if other living organisms are to find the space they need to pursue their lives. Effecting positive steps in this direction will ensure that we ourselves, and future generations, live with the benefits of nature in full health in an ecologically sustainable world. Learning how to adopt practices which will conserve space is a major challenge for ecologists, designers, and all members of society who engage in providing spaces for urban life-style activities. We will have to set a new benchmark goal: that of minimising the individual's space needs while maximising a ready access to nature.

In Canberra, which is my own urban habitat, there has been a strong move in recent years for the development of medium density housing. Designers and government see this as an appropriate response to growing spatial needs. But these proposals meet with strong opposition from the resident community at large. Why? we must ask. The clear pattern of response from Canberra residents themselves shows not so much opposition to the concept of medium-density housing as opposition formed by adverse experiences of this type of housing which residents had either suffered or witnessed in their suburbs.

The problems raised by local residents include:

(1) inadequate ventilation reducing the quality of air indoors.

(2) insufficient natural light in living rooms as a result of too few, too small, or poorly positioned windows.

(3) lack of trees, parks, and open spaces to look on to.

(4) insufficient, and often inappropriate, places for children at active play.

(5) not enough parking spaces for friends, visiting family members and other visitors.

(6) not enough attention to noise control between the residents of medium-density housing and surrounding areas.

(7) loss of that fine sense of balance between privacy of private home and desirable social interaction.

(8) lack of appropriate provision for pets or companion animals.

The interesting thing is that residents, in most cases, blamed the building designers for these stressful problems. Solutions, of course, rely on creative design. Not design according to preconceived formulas, but design which is thought all the way through from the point of view of people-use and environmental impact. This must be foremost in the minds of the planner/designer rather than profit maximisation.

Budgets and profits carry weight, but must be weighed against the costs of causing subsequent ill-health, stress, and high anxiety in society at the same time laying too heavy a burden for the biosphere to carry. We have been mutely accepting what emerges from the developers’ and governments' mind-sets. Their concerns are ones that can be measured, and measured in dollar costs which everyone can understand. Our task must be to make known the downside costs of poor urban planning and urban design. And to make it widely known and clearly understood among developers, government agencies, and householders alike. Armed with this understanding, human intelligence and human integrity, at all levels of society, will readily reject present widespread practices and seek out the healthy life-sustaining solutions for both ourselves and for our built and natural environments: our habitat.

The need is pressing, as we can see by considering each of the four global issues we have been looking at and finding them all expressed by local Canberra residents in matters affecting them personally. However, it is not easy for the relationship between global and local environmental quality to be recognised by local residents anywhere in the world. But without this recognition positive social change at the personal, local, and global levels is unlikely to occur on a scale which is going to check and redress the environmental degradation issues now free-running throughout our planet, and its biosphere.

Once the issues are recognised and understood by the public at large a coincident set of dynamic solutions can emerge and take root. Our first task, as I see it, is an interchange of knowledge and understanding relevant to the global issues between the professions whose work actively impinges on both the causes and side-effects prevailing in the environment. I have tried to draw attention here to some of the initiatives society could expect from ecologists and designers through a creative synthesis of diverse understandings. Our challenge is to set up both situations and conditions where open dialogue can take place constructively.

It is good to record here that in Australia we already have a number of active community-based groups learning the nature of the problems we face. They are seeking to work together to bring about needed changes. And they are fruitfully diverse. Landcare, Coastcare and Waterwatch are nationally established. The Nature and Society Forum (NSF) is a Canberra-based urban group seeking to improve understanding throughout the community of the processes of life and of the place of humankind in the biosphere as well as stimulate discussion and debate between concerned and interested individuals about the relevance and implications of this improved understanding to themselves and society as a whole. NSF aims to create a bridge between the academic world and the community at large, encouraging an exchange of information and ideas on the environmental and health problems of concern to us all.

Another Canberra-based urban community initiative is the Australian Centre for Environmentally Sustainable Systems, known as ACESS. Its function is to promote sustainable systems and technologies, by means of developing a display area in the A.C.T. where the public can see sustainable technologies at work across the range of building design, water and land management, recycling, food production, integrated pest control, solar and wind energy and the like. The goal is to enable people to see how appropriate technologies are being put to work and ways of living they can put into practice themselves.

These are a few examples of new community organisations. They must be free to flourish in an effective networking environment. That way new groups will continue to form, expanding to embrace a very wide cross-section of society. They will throw open the bridges for the free flow of information throughout the whole community.

Perhaps these community groups will provide the stimulus that will lead to the prevention of further deterioration in the environment, and provide a strong lead in its reversal.

"Unless we change we'll get to where we're going, and faster than we think." (Anon.)



I would like to thank especially Arthur Robinson, Pamela van der Sprenkel, Stephen Boyden, Jane Hingston and John Schooneveldt for their valuable comments and assistance during the preparation of this manuscript.



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