Well of course many things on many levels, body mind and spirit. But here is one that takes some intention to notice and commitment to realize:
Designing closed energy loops.
What does everyone mean by sustainable? Well ultimately, I think, that patterns of resource use have no externalized costs, and that all outputs feed into inputs. These are cyclical flows of energy.
Natural ecosystems are always cyclical in this regard; and I believe it is generally accurate to say that only sunlight is the continuous input which is external to the system itself. A healthy ecosystem, by virtue of its myriad interconnections and multifunctional relationships, recycles all its products and is, as David Holmgren notes, operating by definition at maximum power and efficiency. Everything is food (or some other life support) for someone or something and there is no possibility of waste. Death is life’s sustenance, the central process of energy redistribution by which all things inter-are (to borrow the term from Tich Nat Han).
Many are coming to realize that the linear resource paths we create and live through now are profoundly destructive and imperil our future. That we consider the byproducts of our consumption waste, to be discarded, taken out of the energy use stream, and made toxic in concentration, is in conflict with the physical and spiritual reality of life’s process.
So I try to imagine a world where there is no concept of garbage, where our patterns of resource use are not linear but completely cyclical. Where there are no externalities in our vision and every process interacts with others in beneficial and self-renewing ways. This may sound idealistic, and it is hard to imagine in specifics given the deeply entrenched energy flows built into our culture, though many provocative ideas do exist. But it is our responsibility and imperative to teach ourselves how we might begin to design these resource patterns. Doing so requires a radical shift in the way we identify ourselves in relation to our environments (both natural and created). Use must not be seen as consumption and exhaustion of a given resource, but instead merely a change in form, which when completed may proffer a benefit to another interlinked process. One place where we can begin to practice these design concepts and learn from them is in our gardens.
Ecological gardens, gardens designed to mimic the interconnected patterns of natural ecosystems while serving specifically human needs (food access, community creation, beauty etc), are obvious places in which we can begin to teach ourselves and practice employing truly sustainable (self-renewing) design strategies. To me gardening conscientiously offers a fascinating way to learn about closing energy loops and creating sustainable resource flows in a manner that is inherently accessible, deeply connected to human culture, and understandable.
The garden has many uses as a teaching tool, but this most important one is not a given; it requires a rigorous and intentioned practice of design in order to create self-sustaining garden ecosystems. And doing so involves letting go of many long standing cultural and intellectual biases (for example, those favoring euclidean geometric patters, categorical organization and separation, “cleanliness” etc). It is one thing to learn by observing the emergent design patterns of nature, and quite another and deeper step to attempt to design similar patterns into our environment in ways that care for our communities (people and earth) while meeting our needs.
I tiptoed into this here, on a more consciousness oriented site, and I intend to explore this more in the coming weeks. I sense that inherent to design as a practice of thinking are important and often unnoticed beliefs, prejudices, psychological dispositions and spiritual questions, all of which need to be examined in order to manifest structural changes in our environments.