What Would Nature Do?

Tuesday May 17, 2016

The question we need to ask ourselves is this one - what would nature do?

The art rock band Devo used to have a piece in their show where they deconstructed modern life, entitled What Would Devo do? Indeed I used to own the T-shirt which asked the same question. Devo proceeded to create complete collapse of their show on stage in keeping with their operational thesis that we humans are de-evolving as a result of the way we are living in the world. Often misinterpreted by the public as simple failure by the musicians, the band parodied quite brilliantly the fragmentation and alienation of modern life through a sustained assault on received convention.

Inspired by Devo over many years I continue to explore the idea of de-evolution from a slightly different angle, but in keeping with the overall provocation that Devo initiated as it is just as valid today as it was when they began their deconstruction of contemporary values. In my own work, I too wish to challenge the damaging effects of orthodoxy of performance and convention, of self or organisation as a basis of perceived excellence, because I suggest that nothing we are doing in our education of the young is remotely excellent when we place it in the context of human-induced ecological collapse. In reality our education system is failing us, all of us, in its inability of provide contemporary society with a regenerative understanding and knowledge.

To do this we have to re-imagine the very basis of what education should be for in the 21st century, and to lead us into this consideration we have to explore the question: what would Nature do?

The existing narrative of educational change is aligned completely to industrial growth economics, and the failed economic intentions of continual growth and collective prosperity at that. If the recent revelations arising from the Panama Papers prove anything, they indicate that there is something deeply corrupt in modern capitalism. If this system is serving only a tiny percentage of the total population, as argued so powerfully by the Occupy Movement, it is likely to collapse, or revert to extreme punitive measures to maintain control, and these measures will permeate every aspect of society and not simply manifest themselves in the blunt instrument of punitive force.

It is my contention that contemporary schooling ('schooling' not 'learning') is complicit and active in this process, in its persistence with actions that are in keeping with maintenance of the status quo. Hence the growing fear of the force of inspection and the Foucauldian illusion of freedom within a repressive regime. As a result of the modernisation of schooling and the managerial and performative culture, any efforts to change education are destined to be framed within the existing dominant paradigm and its tired narrative, an imagined equity for all, the emancipation through educational achievement which leads to an apparent greater opportunity.

The Panama Papers show that we are not 'all in this together' and yet we continue to accommodate the idea of educational progress as a means of modern progress. The persistence of system failure that surrounds us at every turn is a barely acknowledged feature of any critical undertaking of reform, yet we still assume that the next developmental step will enhance and improve upon the earlier version.

We tinker with deck-chairs on the Titanic. That is modern life.

This places any suggested alternatives or radical interpretations at a huge disadvantage before they even begin, because unless they are aligned or congruent with the the existing narrative of performance activity and managerialism they have no quarter in the debate. This problem exists for all forms of non-compliant innovation, indeed innovations which exist outside of the dominant language and frame of change are treated with contempt, ridiculed, made to look irrelevant and unimportant alongside the big agenda of serving national economic need They inevitably are defined as extra curricular, added value, or enhancement components at best. Devo showed us this in their art-work yet we simply didn’t listen and take note of what they were suggesting - to evolve is to create; to de-evolve is to restrict, fit in, accept, conform.

This is fast proving to be completely untenable and unhealthy in the world of mainstream schooling. Not only because of the immediate punitive and negative consequences for those individuals or organisations who fall foul of the system, but also because it carries systemic consequences. The innovative potential of any system has itself to be nurtured, inspired, and challenged if it is to progress. When an operational narrative is so restrictively defined that reform itself deforms solutions, then a pattern of decline begins to become evident. This is what we are now witnessing in the conventional narrative of educational progress, tied to performance measures which have little or no meaning. They are tantamount to a form of de-evolution, based as they are on a failed ideology drawn from the industrially impoverished minds of lacklustre politicians and the economics of the gutter.

It would seem useful then, to begin to define a new kind of school system which is not locked to the industrial ethic, one which enhances potential and creativity instead of fear and inhibition and which opens up learning as a device for emancipation based around a different set of measures of value, and drawn together through a different ethic of care for earth and for people.

The question that I am exploring, and have been for some time, is what might the basis of this alternative narrative be?

My answer is Nature. In other words, what would Nature do? How would nature respond in the kind of systemic challenge being generated by the prevailing conditions? 

Why do I think this might be a way forward? Because it takes a reference point for a solution which is not of our own making, instead it is of a completely other magnitude - the universal, the cosmological. Natural systems are the template for life, and we can tune into them and use them as our reference point if we are to think about educating people for a real, life-enhancing future. All other solutions, being human-centric solutions, fall within the broader frame of the natural system under which we all function.

We learn this universal truth and embrace it in our thinking, or we fail.

If we take this evolutionary operating logic as a basis of exploring human progress, then it follows that we should perhaps attempt to study and understand natural systems as a guide and mentor for all our human action. The design imperative that nature provides is then, the guidebook for human learning, like an insurance policy for species continuity. A failure to acknowledge this will ultimately lead to a collapse of our civilisation. It is that serious and it illustrates why our existing reform efforts will continue to fail as they are human defined, not nature defined.

Follow the pattern of the universe, and we grow and progress. We can learn to act as 'earth beings' living amongst all other earth beings, human or otherwise. Once we learn this, we begin to move one step on a journey towards a sustainable future, and our schools will begin to organise around an ethic of care which acknowledges first and foremost that nature is our teacher, guide and mentor through which we educate our children. This trajectory is already set. We just have to learn how to see it, rather than school the young into the short-term industrial consumerist mindset of this present moment.

So, here are a few suggestions, based on what I have been learning as I have experimented with this thinking:

1. Everything is cyclical

Pattern is the fundamental design method - nature generates efficiencies and effective solutions through cycles of nurture, growth, yield, dispersal, and entropy. It does this through continuous trial and error over long time frames, but these experiments are based on patterns, repeated iterations of a simple process serves to establish a sustainable mode of operation.

2. Everything Gardens

Regardless of where nature is present, it is constantly in a process of change, it ‘gardens’ the environment just as much as we garden what we consider to be ours. If we imagine a city as a garden, under a constant process of definition and redefinition, we begin to get the idea of how nature is continually aligning itself towards a default position, to ensure continuity of life. If we were to design with this consideration in mind as we undertake our daily lives we would have to rethink the basis of much of our existing action because it would not suit the core consideration, serving the continuity of life. Gardening is then, a metaphor for action, all of our action.

3. Always maximise diversity

Think of a coral reef, a mountain, a forest and you will immediately picture an environment which supports more than one life form, more than one colour, more than one sound. The diversity of the web of life is what ensures its progression. If one plant, or one species falters, others are there to take over or in some cases to support and bring it back to health. Monoculture, a peculiarity of humankind, particularly in our farming methods and industrial processes, is neither healthy nor wise as it places our progress within limited parameters of potential.

4. The solution lies within the problem

Solutions taken out of context are more than often going to fail. We see this regularly in policy initiatives which attempt to apply a solution which has been used to resolve a problem in another place, another context entirely. Locking solutions to place by careful observation of the problem itself, and exploring the edges that this problem provides for modification and change is much more likely to yield results. Knowing our places deeply is the first step, understanding the systems which generate solutions is another, seeing the problem as a basis for a new solution is extremely empowering.

5. We learn by doing

Learning comes through acting. Doing stuff, trying things out and sharing what we have learnt is a foundation of natural systems. Nature has rules and theories and deep complexities, but these are always applied into the reality of place. We have come to see as educators that deep learning happens when we try out the ideas, seeing what happens and modifying in due course.

Where do we go next?

A few years ago I set up Pop Up Foundation to work as eco-social enterprise working worldwide to curate the conditions necessary to reimagine our relationship with nature by connecting people, place and planet. The intended outcome is to nurture, through educational efforts, a beautiful, fully functional, peaceful, abundant, biologically diverse Earth brought about through collaborative efforts to restore ecological function and regenerate degraded lands for the benefit of all life.

To do this Pop Up Foundation has developed a new and unique longitudinal enquiry programme, something we call Naturally Smart Places.

Naturally Smart Places brings people together in their day-to-day environment to regenerate and re-imagine their relationship with that place. Through this work we learn how to design interventions, establish new solutions, share our findings and collaboratively undertake the restoration of places, ensuring ecological functionality which in turn have profound human consequences.

The resulting outcome after a sustained period of enquiry and action has been the construction of a Naturally Smart Network connected around the world. In these centres, research, training and innovative solutions can be undertaken to continually enhance the local environment, providing practical solutions built around proven areas of need based on our 12 developmental themes:

Food, Soil, Energy, Water, Transport, Recycle, Well-being, Waste, Animals, Trees, Structures, Other.

It’s quite simple really, patterns, cycles, maximising diverse perspectives, looking for solutions from the analysis of existing problems, learning by doing. We have then developed a reporting platform for Naturally Smart Places to upload sustainability projects based on each of the themes. The platform allows members of the network to report against each of the themes, set measurement goals and these data provide the Foundation with global reporting options based on each of the regions which we will use at a later stage.

We work together to learn how to use ecological skills and understanding to ensure the restoration of degraded environments, from the city to the forest, we begin in the kindergarten and we work from there. Together we intend to learn how to design interventions, establish new solutions, share our findings and collaboratively undertake the restoration of schools, organisations and community centers, ensuring an ecological functionality which in turn can have profound human consequences.

The time-frame for this work is infinite - we cannot foresee a time when this form of learning becomes redundant, simply because we will always have to educate the next generation into understanding how to live sustainably and nurture abundance to their places.

Working within communities Pop Up Foundation has generated a blueprint for change in human actions to restore ecological and human balance. We have a ready network of places globally undertaking sustainability-focussed practices primed for sharing and inform the key strategic shift to the Naturally Smart Platform.

The new narrative is under way. The seeds are sown. We evolve. Perhaps..?


Professor Paul Clarke is an Independent Thinking Associate and a fan of Devo.









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