Presentation in Dialogue with Christopher Alexander, Esalen Institute, Big Sur, CA, 1991
The Pattern Language articulates in a systematic way a network of relationships that breathes life into design for people and nature. There is a lot of congruity between Chris’s approach and my own ecological perspective. One of my mentors, who is both a very fine naturalist and a Jungian psychiatrist, looks at what we’re doing in our modern world and chuckles, “It’s like burning up the house of life in order to toast marshmallows.” My passion is about the House of Life and how it relates to the marshmallow. There’s a great congruence between the picture Chris paints on how we should design the man-made environment and how the natural world works because both work around his concept of Centers of Life. In our evolution as humans, we instinctively always moved to nature’s center of life-where two systems meet, such as grassland and forest, the places of greatest diversity and productivity which ecology calls “Ecotones.” Our human origin in Africa where savannah met forest was no accident. I tend to experience multiple perspectives. When I experience cities and places with a high level of complexity, I experience both the productivity and its entropy. The difference between a living system such as a blue-green algae and Los Angeles is that the algae is coherent in the energetic sense,
producing and holding on to energy, while Los Angeles simply consumes, perhaps transforming the energy into forms of consciousness and information. Perhaps the marriage of energetics and information is what life is about. We want to create “sustainable environments” which assumes we cannot have life for very long if we continue to degrade the Centers of Life in nature and design which support us. The conversation we had yesterday envisioned weaving the two-nature and design-together. The means to weave the two types of Centers of Life together may require a further evolution in our consciousness, or perhaps a return to an earlier consciousness when humans had a much closer connection to the natural world. It’s great that Chris’s theory is present here at Esalen, because Esalen’s agenda and purpose has been nurturing a new consciousness. I’m an optimist about possibilities and a pessimist about probabilities. I don’t believe we can rush human evolution, or return it to some past state. Over the last few years, I’ve been trying to learn what the evolution of consciousness is all about and how it works. We know our human design has not changed since our human origin, but evidently our consciousness has. I agree with Chris that the kind of environment you are in can in itself trigger a shift in awareness. A critical
number of shifts in awareness may produce a shift in consciousness. The environment is a powerful teacher, we both agree on that. A lot of the energy behind places like Esalen, and other projects started in the 1960s, was that we believed that we could create or design a transformation in consciousness and accomplish that in ten or twenty years. Of course we were wrong. Design can play an important role in bringing about cultural change, and I do see a powerful congruence between Chris’s concept of Centers of Life and its integration with ecological design. There are three other concepts relating to ecology and design I’d like to discuss briefly. We’ve all heard “Sustainability,” most of us are familiar with “conservation,” and Bob Rodale often used the term “regeneration.” “Conservation” is a “fund” concept. A good conservationist says we have to conserve our natural resources. The concern is the rate at which we spend what we have. Sustainability is a “flow” concept. We have a fixed stock of resources at any point in time, we spend them at some rate, and we reinvest to maintain the stock through recycling, replanting, or redesign for longer life. “Sustainable
design” implies that our job is not only to design human habitation but to design the reinvestment, enhancement, and maintenance of natural systems. By this standard, anything remotely resembling how we in the most developed countries live is not sustainable because the outflow overwhelms any attempt to maintain stable flows of what nature provides. The concept of “regeneration” implies regrowth and healing. Rodale sees regeneration in conflict with traditional economic models that measure a society’s well-being in dollar terms. The greater the GDP, or total financial transactions, the better off the society. Rodale’s idea was if you had a healthy community, you had fewer economic transactions. If you had a vegetable garden and grew your own food and gave away your surplus, there was a negligible economic transaction. If the old lady next door was sick and needed a helping hand an hour a day, in a healthy community you’d take care of her and there was no money exchanged. Regeneration implies concern and care for the common good, both human and natural. It’s the term that speaks most powerfully to me.