Nature as Nurture: A Paradigm Shift at TEDxMidwest & Our Place in the Greater Scheme of Things

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On humans as animals, the dawn of the anthropocene, designing nature, nature-mediated design, culturally smart rainforest restoration, doing right by orangutans and energy positive skyscrapers

Go Meave Leakey! With the addition of a single word tucked into a sprightly 6-million-year time-travelogue of our species’ history, the reigning matriarch of archeology’s most famous family blithely breezed past the troublesome—and artificial—division between man and nature: “Homo sapiens and other animals…,” said Leakey.  Not man and beast, but man as a beast, too. Which isn’t to say we are not unique. Noted Leakey, “We are the only species capable of destroying the biosphere,” which may very well be the most dubious distinction ever.

This shift away from an “us versus them” mindset emerged as a subtle but important theme at the recent TEDxMidwest conference in Chicago. From design and architecture, to conservation and reforestation, a new paradigm is emerging, one that offers genuine hope for slowing climate change, biodiversity loss and even improving health care.

Leakey’s casual comment may not have seemed all that radical, but it flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Look up the word “zoonosis” and you will learn it is an animal disease that can also affect humans. By implication, then, humans are not animals. This is what every doctor is taught.

The arrogance of the definition regularly comes back to bite us—sometimes literally. Nearly 2/3’s of human maladies are zoonotic, including ebola, SARS, influenza, plague, cowpox and West Nile virus. Yet despite countless “teachable moments” over the last several years, budgets and databases, along with veterinarians and doctors, remain largely segregated. Score one for the pathogens…

NATURE AS NURTURE

Our connections to the environment are likewise profound, sometimes arching over eons. “The oxygen exhaled by stromatolites is what we all breathe today,” explained photographer Frans Lanting, during the first talk of the conference, a presentation of his famous Philip Glass-scored slideshow,  “LIFE: A Journey Through Time.”

So no stromatolites, no us.

Lanting spent seven globe-trotting years, seeking out scenes true to Earth’s earliest history and evolution for his photographs. Three billion years ago, curious little stump-like structures created from massive colonies of cyanobacteria—stomatolites—ruled the world. Today, the last remaining “living fossils”  are found only off the coast of Australia. Since they flourished before “before the sky was blue,”  Lanting photographed them in twilight.

Stromatolites / "LIFE: A Journey Through Time" / Frans Lanting

BY DESIGN

Fast forward to the present and humans have bumped the stumps off the pedestal of champion planetary engineers. You would have to look far beneath the surface to underground lakes, deep sea thermal-vent ecosystems and Verne-imagined center-of-the-earthscapes to find somewhat pristine wilderness. Even there, though, since the weight of rising sea levels caused by man-mediated climate change has altered pressures along geological fault-lines, our collective carbon footprint can be felt.

The holocene era, according to a growing cadre of scientists, has given way to the anthropocene, a new geological age defined by human impact on the world’s ecosystems. Maps charting “anthromes”—biomes that take human influence into account—reveal the extent and speed of our species’ global conquest. In a few short centuries, we have tilled, industrialized, deforested, drilled, paved and sprawled our way into just about every nook and cranny. Changing the world may be what we do best.

Maps shows human impact on the world's biomes / created by ecologists Erle Ellis and Navin Ramankutty, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

For designer and TEDxMidwest speaker Bruce Mau, who has spent good deal of his career thinking about Massive Change, separating man from nature is absurd. “It’s not about control, but responsibility If we don’t openly design to nature, we destroy it.”  So far, we seem to be leaning heavily toward the latter. However, and encouragingly, two other presenters offered templates that could, if not return us to Eden, at least help pull us back from the brink.

RAINFORESTS, APES (HAIRY & OTHERWISE) & ECOSYSTEMS THINKING

Willie Smits first wow’ed the TED crowd with a talk in 2009 outlining a scheme to rebuild Indonesian rainforests using the sugar palm: a prodigious sap-producer that thrives on degraded land and only grows in polycultures:

  • Unlike the oil palm, which lends itself to vast plantations that shred biodiversity and produce only palm oil, a sugar palm-based polyculture produces dozens of forest products, from ethanol and fruit, to sugar and wood.
  • Oil palms require fertilizers and pesticides. Sugar palm polycultures enrich and stabilize land.
  • Rainforests burned to make way for oil palms have bumped tiny un-industrialized Borneo to the #3 spot for global CO2 emissions. Planting sugar palms can re-start the “rain machine,” promoting cloud formation and cooling.
  • Run-off from oil palm plantations fouls watersheds and contributes to flooding. Sugar palm polycultures soak up heavy rains and help keep watersheds healthy.
  • Oil palm plantations mean the extinction of orangutans and almost every other native forest inhabitant. Sugar palm polycultures are about stability through complexity. The more, the merrier, bio-wise.
  • Sugar palm polycultures produce more jobs than monoculture oil palm plantations

That last point is key. “The real issue is how to make it useful for people,” noted Smits. The sugar palm juice must be tapped daily, a labor-intensive proposition, which means steady jobs. The polyculture “recipe”—a plan for what to plant where and when, tweaked for specific sites—is designed to include food crops, which are especially important in the early years before the sugar palms start producing. The cascade of harvests starts quickly.

Willie Smits and orangutan orphans

Smits developed techniques to keep the fast-fermenting sugar palm juice stable for 24 hours and designed a processing plant that can be packed into three containers, flown into the jungle via helicopter and set up with almost “plug’n’play” ease. Once a village commits to the plan, it is fairly straightforward to jump-start resilient, eco-friendly economic development.

This is as much a jobs program as it is a reforestation project, and a way to help save our red primate cousins. It is about helping people where they live, rather than forcing them to uproot and become economic migrants competing for work in ever-expanding cities. The human cultural component is an integral part of habitat restoration.

BIOMIMICRY AND BIG TALL BUILDINGS

While Smits focuses on finding village-level answers in the rainforest, Chicago-based architect Gordon Gill seeks to “green” cities by reimagining the quintessential nature-defying structure: the skyscraper. A whopping 70% of greenhouse gas emissions are building-related, so it is a promising area for serious move-the-dial improvement. Rather than simply try to reduce a building’s carbon footprint, however, Gill would like to see it disappear altogether. Better yet, he wants buildings to go net positive, generating more energy than they consume.

No longer does form follow function. Gill has updated Louis Sullivan’s famous dictum for the 21st century: Now form follows performance, driven by a “synthesis of nature and technology.”

The 71-story Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China, set to open next year, generates its own energy through wind turbines integrated into the building’s structure. The design funnels air into the turbines, serendipitously lightening the load, saving enough money to cover construction costs of half a dozen stories. Vertical solar panels accent east and west-facing facades. Everything about the building relates to its environmental context. It is literally shaped by forces we cannot see.

Pearl River Tower, designed by Gordon Gill for Skidmore Owings & Merrill

The massive Masdar Headquarters project in Abu Dhabi is 103% efficient, mining sun and wind energy and recycling water on site.

The Federation of Korean Industries Tower in Seoul, which just broke ground, sports an accordion-style glass facade, with solar panels angled up to the sun and windows angled down to improve thermal efficiency.

Federation of Korean Industries, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill, architects

Closer to home, Gill’s firm, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill, developed the Chicago Central Area Decarbonization Plan, which promotes retrofits of older buildings and redirecting surplus energy back to the grid. According to their estimates, retrofitting half the commercial and residential buildings over the next 10 years could cut the city’s energy use by a third. Retrofitting the 10 largest buildings in the Loop could cut downtown emissions by 10%.

Gill’s firm itself is set to take on the largest green retrofit project in the city, or indeed, anywhere, ever: Willis (nee Sears) Tower. The estimated $200-to- $300 million project includes replacing 16,000 windows, installing more efficient lighting and plumbing systems and planting some experimental green roofs. The payback is expected to take 26 years, but enough energy will be saved to cover the needs of a proposed high-rise hotel to be built next door.

Willis (Sears) Tower retrofit: rendering with proposed hotel, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill architects

___________________________________

It is liberating, empowering and deeply inspiring to see what a dramatic difference a shift in perspective can make: We are part of a greater whole, not the lords of all we survey. By finding ways to work with nature and understanding ourselves as a part of nature, there may yet be a way to turn things around. There is no time to lose.

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