Given a choice between something messy or a beautiful solution, Nature invariably goes for beauty.
~ Marcus du Sautoy
“Synthetic Gyrus” by Tony DeVarco (dedicated to innovator, inspirator and astronomer Owen Durden)
Today’s world of increasing complexity and rapid globalization leaves us thirsting for new metaphors, analogies and emblems – those that can encapsulate the complex challenges we face into an image of clarity we can wrap our minds around. As the stakes of our collective behavior rise, this new image must both shock our sensibilities and inspire us into action. Such a fresh, contemporary archetype must quickly scale visibly into the heart of mass consciousness to encourage humans to become the stewards we were meant to be. To find these new emblems, we can do what the ancients did before us – look to the dynamic processes, natural morphologies and behaviors of our planet to see how she creates dynamic equilibrium in response to upheaval and change. I suggest a scale free archetypal form for our own age of self-reflexivity – the gyre.
Nothing could be more emblematic of Earth’s own processes of homeostatic stewardship and the grand challenge for humanity to rise to this occasion than two compelling images from the World’s oceans – The powerful brilliance of miles-wide phytoplankton blooms and the infamous spectre of the Texas-sized Pacific Garbage Patch. To juxtapose these two representations of our ocean’s cyclic behaviors gets us to the heart our ecological dilemma.
Emiliania Huxleyi Bloom
These two images evoke an understanding of the dynamic power of Gaia at work. One illuminates the powerful force of the ocean gyre in the shapes taken on by coccolithopore blooms that Lynn Margulis, Stephan Harding and others hail as Earth’s most important temperature regulator, a "global air conditioner." The other, a frightening human artifact - where the powerful shape of the gyre is exemplified through a massive, condensed swirl of thoughtlessly discarded plastic.
A gyre is a large-scale swirling vortex in the ocean, caused by the Coriolis effect, the way that moving objects deflect when viewed from a rotating frame of reference. There are five major natural vortices in Earth’s oceans and numerous small ones formed by the circulation of sea currents that bring water and silt from the lower depths upward and wind currents that move the water back outward from the center.
Yet now the ocean’s natural processes have turned the North Pacific gyre into a dynamic monument to humanity’s excess, a floating wasteland of consumer driven culture – a tightly woven sea of plastic called “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”
To get a sense of just how big this patch of trash is, Greenpeace features an animation of the trash in the Pacific Gyre showing the accumulation over the course of a 6-year period:
The Trash Vortex Animation from Greenpeace
After World Oceans Day in June, Claudia Welss, sustainability leader and founder of the NextNow Collaboratory clarified the current situation with plastic pollution in our oceans and the work of leading scientist Charles Moore who founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.
Speaking visually, we have a scale issue with the Pacific Gyre - we cannot view this garbage patch from Google Earth, or from satellite photos. We must look at it from up close, in indelible images of plastic trash or animations of its oceanic scope. Many sites on the web have already mistakenly used a satellite image of an Emiliania bloom to show the garbage patch – the irony is not lost on me, because Emiliania blooms, which we are actually able to see from a satellite view, are here to show us the ocean processes of gyre. The same dynamics also whip up tons of discarded plastic into a tight mass, like a trash compactor - ready to be recognized, disposed of and used as a cautionary tale about the delicate balance needed in the closed system of Earth. Yet, as part of this cautionary tale, our human created trash patch is choking the life force from our most beloved creatures of the sea. So let's also look a one of these micro sea creatures up close - phytoplankton.
The Sphere of Stewardship
Emiliania huxleyi is a spherical coccolithaporoid less than 4/1000ths of a millimeter in diameter (4 microns). As the most abundant phytoplankton in the world’s seas, Emiliana is a major producer of three climate forcing substances: organic carbon, calcium carbonate and dimethyl sulphide (DMS). These coccolithopores close pack together in a swarming mass before they fall to the water’s floor, or rise to its surface. The role of this most prevalent phytoplankton in the world’s oceans is to reflect the sunlight, much like snow in the arctic. Miles-long blooms of Emiliania, sometimes as large as the country of England, swirl with the ocean gyres to form massive, brilliant white “creatures” on the ocean’s surface.
If we look closely at one single specimen of Emiliania, we can see our lovely steward up close. When viewed from this vantage point, she is a masterwork of gentle geometry, more carefully wrought than the world’s finest lace, whose wheels are bound together through the same fivefold geometry as a geodesic sphere, or the carbon molecule, buckminsterfullerene.
Emiliania is my favorite microscale archetype – she has been since 1992 when I first found in the archive Bucky’s handwritten note on a microscopic image of emiliania in an early report of the first international program carried out by the paleoclimatic community to assess the climatic state of surface oceans. CLIMAP (Climate: Long-Range Investigation, Mapping and Prediction) was a project funded by NSF and launched in 1976. Fuller's handwritten notes on the report were written shortly before he worked out the final mathematics for his Fly’s Eye Dome in the 1970s. This dome was Fuller’s last experimental geodesic design, where complex curvature inspired by images from the tiniest scale was applied to a modular design of his geodesic enclosures for a home that actually rotated with the sun. Fuller’s Fly’s Eye design was not just inspired by the hexapent morphology of the microscopic eye of a fly, but also from electron microscopic views of our most abundant spherical phytoplankton, Emiliania huxleyi.
Deep in the spherical geometry of each single Emiliania is a nugget, or kernel, of truth – symmetry is a tool of stewardship. The symmetry of the fluid dynamics in the Pacific gyre knits together into a swirling watery mesh almost 4 million tons of our thoughtlessly discarded plastic waste from across over 10 million miles. There is something amazingly cool about this process. It is the same natural process brings together the Emiliania into blooms on the surface of the sea. But we need our micro and macro lenses for both space and time to see the beautiful power of Emiliania. To do this we can turn to her namesake, Cesare Emiliani.
Twentieth century renaissance scientist, Cesare Emiliani was the founder of the discipline of paleoceanography who pioneered the analysis of ancient sediments from the ocean floor as core samples to understand the longer cycles of temperature change on Earth. Emiliani’s work also proved that Earth’s climate cycles are a cosmological problem – demonstrating that we must look at the dynamics of Earth’s orbit in space to better understand our cyclic ice ages.
Diagram of Milankovitch Cycles by D. Tasa, F. Pazzaglia, Tasa Graphic Arts/Lehigh University
Emiliani also proved that Milankovitch cycles of obliquity, eccentricity and precession, when combined, cause major temperature changes leading to dramatic variations in global ice volumes, and this confluence represents the driving force of climate cycles. Emiliani’s work revolutionized our ideas about the history of the ocean and glaciation and became essential to our greater understanding of paleoclimate. It is indeed fitting that our ancient steward, Emiliania, whose compressed presence can also be seen above ground as the white limestone cliffs of the Seven Sisters of East Sussex and of Dover in England, is the key to understanding climate change and our archetype for planetary stewardship.
Seven Sisters Chalk Cliffs in East Sussex [CC by Stephen Dawson]
It almost seems that Nature, as a great artist, uses beauty or symmetry as a teaching tool – a way to make us linger and marvel long enough on one scale or another to see the keystones linking everything together. Using this example, photographer and eco-artist Chris Jordan, creates famous scale free montages that draw from the powers of visualization at many scales to make impactful statements on humanity’s excess. As an artist, Chris moves through scale to capture “symmetry” in the chaotic arrangements of crushed cars or in the layout of thousands of Barbie dolls, to shift the way we look at the life cycles and detritus of mass consumerism.
In a new 2009 series titled “Gyre” from his “Running the Numbers II”, Chris draws from one of the most well known Japanese woodblock prints, “Behind the Great Wave of Kanagawa” with a counterpart montage created by 2.4 million pieces of plastic from the Pacific ocean.
In his compelling series of visual musings, Chris makes the image beautiful on one scale, while following with a laser focus the discarded plastic pieces up close. Through these penetrating images, Chris tries to help us visualize “…the social consequences ten thousand miles away of the daily decisions we make as consumers as we try to educate ourselves about the enormity of our culture.”
We must assume that Earth is a system, like a spaceship, where everything must be reused, recycled, regenerated. Cautionary tales about this system have been heralded over and over again by grandfathers and grandmothers of the ecology movement, from Rachel Carlson’s 1962 book Silent Spring that looked at the impact of human pollution on bird populations to Buckminster Fuller’s 1970 Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth that offered a blueprint for survival diagnosing the causes of the environmental crisis as a crisis of ignorance. And who can forget James Lovelock’s classic 1979 work, Gaia – A New Look at Life on Earth, that offered for the first time Lovelock and Lynn Margulis' hypothesis that Earth is a self-regulating meta-organism.
Very few of us are aware that James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis was almost titled the Gyre Hypothesis. By the time Lovelock’s original book made it in print, he opted for a more mythical, feminine name, “The Gaia Hypothesis” which for better or worse, has also kept at least a generation of scientists at bay because of the title’s quasi-religious connotations. Lovelock’s first book on Gaia has since spawned his series of works with similar titles that carry us through the decades to The Ages of Gaia in 1988, The Vanishing Face of Gaia in 2007 and The Revenge of Gaia in 2009. Coming back to life, these old classics of early environmentalism arise again with hundreds of new ones with similar messages. They impact our consciousness now, because we are finally beginning to listen … and the title, Gaia now seems even more apropos.
In the past 20 years, these newer mainstream voices led by global Nobel laureate Al Gore and top climate change expert James Hansen take the baton and ground us further in the science behind the message, past the intentional censorship of the Bush administration into the popular press, the international stage and the Internet. They move our understanding forward, finally gaining traction only in the past couple years.
Yet a new generation of eco-artists such as Chris Jordan bring with their images this deeper understanding into the domain of emotional intelligence. They know that aesthetic perspectives engage synthetic thought, and that we must viscerally “feel” the urgency of the shift that is needed. To elicit this emotional response requires more than simply visualizing the data or articulating the science. Of his own work to raise consciousness of these issues through scale free artworks that include millions of plastic bottles, items of trash or other remnants of humanity’s excess, Jordan notes: “What I am trying to do with my work is to take these numbers, these statistics from the raw language of data and to translate them into a more universal visual language that can be felt… My belief is, If we can feel these issues, if we can feel these things more deeply, then they’ll matter to us more than they do now.”
A tipping point was reached in early 2009 when sustainability burst out of the closet and green thinking finally not only became cool, but started to make good business sense. Whew! What a long, winding road to envision humanity’s ecological footprint through time and space, to begin to see the macro paths we have tread en masse over the centuries and now to reflect together on how to go forward – to act. According to the Global Footprint Network, this urgent activism must be swift, deep and global. It must involve every person on Earth.
Global Footprint Network’s World Footprint Projection
In a powerful essay, “Navigating a Sea Change” sustainable design guru, Lauralee Alben uses the profound movements of the oceans as a powerful analogy for personal and organizational transformation. Alben’s definition of gyres as “self-sustaining currents of influence, circular feedback loops that surface innovative solutions and new possibilities” has now propelled practical action into inspired activism within a mainstream business context for almost a decade. Alben Design’s newly launched Sea Change Consortium seeks to help reframe business practice on the personal, community and global level to heed this urgent call. Today the gyre is more than a metaphor, it is a model for sustainable collective action.
Toward a Scale Free Systems View of Sustainability
We need to build a new kind of world view… of the interconnection of things – the environmental footprints a thousand miles away of things that we buy... The social consequences ten thousand miles away of the daily decisions we make as consumers as we try to educate ourselves about the enormity of our culture. Chris Jordan, TED 2009
So, let’s follow this visual story a bit further. In this Summer of 2009, eco footprints, carbon neutrality, sustainable design, and green business are becoming keywords as commonplace as youtube or IPhone. Almost overnight, new visual “systems thinking” models have propagated around the sustainability keyword with spiral views of the balance that must prevail for life on Earth, not just for our own species. On one site alone, Samuel Mann has collected a growing compilation of 179 sustainability visualizations with their links on his blog “Computing for Sustainability.” Samuel’s visual mashup of systems thinking schematics applied to sustainability include venn diagrams, flowcharts, color wheels, pathways and mindmaps. These diagrams have one thing in common – together they represent the first interdisciplinary compendium of snapshots capturing the systemic nature of the problem, from multiple points of view, from psychology to business practice.
Together, these diagrams create a compelling case for collective stewardship as humanity’s modus operandi. The kicker is this: Earth will survive as she has done for billions of years. But unless we shift our point of view, our own species may not. This is not about humanity saving the world. It is about changing our perception of the world and our place in it.
New visualizations of Earth and new metaphors, icons and emblems, such as the ubiquitous “universal recycling symbol” first created in 1970 (which could be considered the first public domain symbol generated through design crowdsourcing) now work together to help us rapidly reframe our understanding of Earth toward a systems view and begin to modify our behavior accordingly.
Long before the Pacific Gyre, the climate crisis, the Kyoto Protocol and the Copenhagen Climate Council’s emerging Manifesto, Buckminster Fuller, one of the Grandfathers of the ecology movement was calling for a new approach to global stewardship. His World Design Science Decade plan, first articulated in 1961, proposed that we would find ourselves with only one decade (set to launch 1965-1975) to “turn this ship around” and change our behavior as active stewards of life on Earth. His modus operandi? Comprehensive, Anticipatory Design Science. And who would lead the way? A new generation of architecture students.
Fuller suggested that the solution will not be a top down phenomenon but rather something that must include everyone on Earth – that it was a crisis of ignorance addressed by intentional design spontaneously initiated and propagated by our youngest generations - not a decision to be made by a consortium of political leaders. This would be an act of inspired, individual initiative - by millions. Now we know it must also be an act of collective, connected, distributed intelligence. And we must connect the dots. Perhaps Fuller’s Design Science approach, originally coined in the 1950s and remaining anonymous for over a half century, could now harness the zeitgeist of sustainable practice – “Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science.”
With the rise of social media, new global initiatives are rapidly rising to help create and network emergent sustainable design communities of practice who are actively and individually addressing the world’s most pressing problems. One such initiative is the Buckminster Fuller Challenge Prize – a program through the Buckminster Fuller Institute that offers each year a $100,000 prize to support the development and implementation of a strategy that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.
This program has resulted in a growing network of active solutions proposed by entrants who made it through the first two rounds of the Challenge prize. Now entering its third year, the Challenge has aggregated almost 300 proposals in a public “Idea Index” - a fully searchable database of these socially responsible initiatives that can offer each proposal more public support, discussion and interest to build momentum around them. As the Idea Index evolves, it will also leverage and support the internetworking of Design Science solution sets to amplify their effectiveness in the shortest amount of time.
Elizabeth Thompson, BFI's director and co-founder of the Challenge and Idea Index, noted: "The visionary solutions contained in the Idea Index are a demonstration of the intuition shared by many people that the solutions to our most pressing problems are 'out there' - designed by inspired and highly motivated individuals all over the planet. These are people who are not waiting for the mainstream institutions of the world to solve our problems for us!”
The Idea Index includes projects by individuals and groups, some by well known fathers of sustainable practice such as Pliny Fisk or John Todd, as well as those of individuals or small groups of students such as this year’s winning group of MIT students who proposed the “Sustainable Personal Mobility and Mobility-on-Demand Systems.” Just one of the hundreds of compelling projects to be found in the Idea Index is “The World Game Beta” a project by Katy Barkan, Alessandro Preda, Manuel Mansylla, and Jimena Leiva at the Harvard Graduate school of Design - an idea that concentrates on the importance of visualizing the influence of the Pacific Trash Patch and networking solutions around it.
World Game Beta shows the ocean gyres on Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Map
Sustainability is part of a long road back to our collective senses. We are rapidly relearning how to synthesize, syncretize, indeed ecologize our perspectives back to a systems point of view from centuries of over-specialization. Humanity has spent far too much time dividing up the disciplines, particularly in the sciences, in order to understand the grand sweeping vista of reality, only to discover that we need to find our way back to the indigenous understanding of Earth as living, breathing organism, a systemic whole in a cosmological context, in which humans play an essential, but not indispensable role.
Ours is a humble task – to simply open our eyes to the systemic qualities of the whole - perhaps, in so doing, to awaken to Gaia.