Saturday, April 28, 2007


The famous anthropologist Gregory Bateson liked to tell a story about New College, in Oxford, England. The main hall there was built in the mid-seventeenth century with oak beams forty feet long and two feet thick. Recently they began to suffer from dry rot, and administrators couldn’t find English oaks large enough to replace them. A young faculty member said, “Why don’t we ask the college forester if some of the lands given to Oxford might have enough trees to call upon?” They brought in the forester, who said, “We’ve been wondering when you would ask this question. When the present building was constructed 350 years ago, the architects specified that a grove of trees be planted and maintained to replace the beams in the ceiling when they suffered from dry rot.” Bateson’s conclusion was “That’s the way to run a culture.” ( Source)

While googling for more on this subject, I came across this transcript of a lovely speech by an architect. An extract :

“We must realize that the things we make must not only rise from the ground but return to it, soil to soil, water to water, so everything that is received from the earth can be freely given back without causing harm to any living system. This is ecology. This is good design .

Unfortunately, our culture has adopted a design strategem that essentially says that if brute force or massive amounts of energy don't work, you're not using enough of it.

Instead if we looked around, we will find that there are certain fundamental laws that are inherent to the natural world that we can use as models and mentors for human design.

There are three defining characteristics that we can learn from natural design.

The first characteristic is that everything we have to work with is already here -- the stones, the clay, the woods, the water, the air. All materials given to us by nature are constantly returned to the earth, without even the concept of waste as we understand it. Everything is cycled constantly with all waste equaling food for other living systems.

The second characteristic is that one thing allowing nature to continually cycle itself through life is energy, and this energy comes from outside the system in the form of perpetual solar income. Not only does nature operate on "current income," it does not mine or extract energy from the past, it does not use its capital reserves and it does not borrow from the future. It is an extraordinarily complex and efficient system for creating and cycling nutrients, so economical that modern methods of manufacturing pale in comparison to the elegance of natural systems of production.

Finally, the characteristic that sustains this complex and efficient system of metabolism and creation is biodiversity. What prevents living systems from running down and veering into chaos is a miraculously intricate and symbiotic relationship between millions of organisms, no two of which are alike.”

If nature takes millions of years to produce coal or oil, and we manage to wipe them off in a matter of two hundred years......


Usha said...

The design is there for us to learn from and yet we don't use it.
I have this strange suspicion that having made everything so perfect Nature wanted to also ensure that Earth wont last forever so Man was conceived so he could ensure destruction of self and everything around.
If only we would learn from these three prinicples, we could still save the Earth, Probably!

Raj said...

Usha, I say I must protest. What do you mean Man and he? Be gender neutral. Woman and she also do their bit in destroying the planet.

Usha said...

oh I am so sorry. I said it in MAN kind of way - not gender specific.
I rephrase it here : "so the human species was conceived so it could...." Aiyo, I am not good at this!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post, Raj.
So good that I'm rendered speechless!