Eco-Human Theory and Practice
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Arran Gare

Assoc. Prof., Philosophy and Cultural Inquiry, Swinburne University of Technology (Hawthorn, Australia)



Based on research on cultural evolution, the Russian/American scientist and historian Peter Turchin argues that 10,000 years of warfare have actually made humans more cooperative and more able to coordinate their activities. In doing so, warfare has paved the way for a peaceful world. Despite many reasons for pessimism, the author of the article defends Tuchin’s claim, arguing the threat of global ecological destruction provides the incentive to further develop our capacity for cooperation, not only through international relations, but through the way we organize societies and its institutions and the built-up environments we create. To coordinate the quest for a peaceful, ecologically sustainable world order, or ‘ecological civilization’, we need to articulate a new dialogic grand narrative based on ecological rather than mechanistic thinking to inspire people to work towards this end. However, for its concrete realization, we need to change the way people live, interact with each other, and experience life. To achieve this, we need to focus on our built-up environments, how these are designed and built, and what kinds of life and experience they make possible. We need to acknowledge the absolutely central place in life to ecopoiesis, the making of households or homes, recognizing the contribution to architecture and town planning of the work of Christopher Alexander.

Keywords: ecopoiesis, ecocivilization, human ecology, architecture, morphogenesis



The Russian/American evolutionary scientist and historian, Peter Turchin, offers an optimistic view of the future of humanity, despite the focus of his research having been on the pervasiveness of war in human history [39]. His argument, presented in Ultra Society [40], is that, contrary to the view of humans as selfish individuals, the capacity for cooperation among humans is far greater than any other animal, and despite a propensity for conflict, 10,000 years of war have made modern humans the greatest co-operators in history. Consequently, we are moving towards a peaceful world order. Such optimism seems odd as we face ecological catastrophes, the beginnings of a new cold war between China and USA, with this conflict largely driven by the quest to ensure or block resource and food security in a world that is destroying its resources. These conflicts are exacerbated by the reassertion of civilizations challenging universal values. With the erosion of belief in universal values, Samuel Huntington’s predictions of the clash of civilizations are being realized [26]. A more plausible scenario than that predicted by Turchin might be that the Twenty-First Century will be characterized by increasing conflict and warfare, a breakdown of cooperation and even the collapse of civilization, with people struggling to survive in a new regime of the global ecosystem no longer ideal for humans.

However, Turchin’s study of history does provide reasons for hope. The core concept developed by Turchin in Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall [38] and War and Peace and War [39] is ‘asabiya’, taken from the Fourteenth Century Islamic scholar, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), who claimed it to be the key to history. Asabiya is the capacity of large numbers of people to coordinate their activities. Ibn Khaldun saw such cohesion as emerging in small tribal societies and being intensified by religious commitment, but then dissolving as these societies conquered and moved into cities. Turchin [38, ch.4] argued that, historically, asabiya has developed most fully among ‘meta-ethnic’ societies living in close proximity to powerful societies with very different cultures threatening their very existence. Asabiya enabled these communities to survive, expand, conquer and create empires consisting of large multiethnic territorial states with complex power structures. However, these empires could survive only so long as the asabiya of its core members was maintained. This is lost with growing disparities of wealth. Rome, initially struggling for survival on the edge of Greek civilization, illustrated the development of asabiya and the rise and fall of such a civilization.

Extending this work in Ultra Society, Turchin shows how empires have generated new forms of cooperation associated with greater humanity. Summing up the evolution of humanity, Turchin wrote:

'Early in our evolutionary journey we got rid of the alpha males who ruled our great ape ancestors (and continue to rule chimpanzee and gorilla communities). … For hundreds of thousands of years we lived in societies in which there were few distinctions beyond age, gender, and earned reputation. Then something happened. Starting about 10,000 years ago, the egalitarian trend reversed. Alpha males came back in the guise of god-kings. They oppressed us, enslaved us, and sacrificed us on the altars of their bloodthirsty gods. They filled their palaces with treasures and their harems with he most beautiful women in the land. …Fortunately, god-kings did not last long. Another great turn followed, another trend reversal. …Human sacrifice and deified rulers went out of fashion.' [38, p.21f.]

These observations are not new, but Turchin claims that, with the new science of cultural evolution, these developments can be explained: ‘War is a force of destructive creation, a terrible means to a remarkable end. And there are reasons to believe that eventually it will destroy itself and create a new world without war’ [38, p.22].

The societies that prevailed in these wars were characterized by the capacity for complex organization, and it was developing such organization that led to the transcendence of the domineering egoism of rulers. This began with the civilizations of the Axial Age between 800BCE to 200BCE, the era when the great religions were born, and has continued since then. Turchin pointed out the level of cooperation that has been achieved at present, with the international space station put in place through the cooperation of USA and Russia exemplifying this. It involved the coordination of people (the work of 3 million people years) vastly exceeding anything constructed by previous civilizations. Such coordination, Turchin argues, is difficult to achieve, and it can easily be lost. In another work, Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History [40], Turchin described the current state of USA with its growing inequality, increasing levels of violence and inability of its politicians to cooperate as an instance of a cycle in which this ability is being lost.  It appears that without threats, asabiya and the capacity for coordination of people’s actions, and the trust required for such coordination, begin to disintegrate. However, it is here that the global ecological crisis, which threatens the whole of humanity, could serve to revive this asabiya on a global scale, providing the means to coordinate vast numbers of people, creating an ecologically sustainable civilization. Maintaining this asabiya will require a more egalitarian and humane order, from local communities to the global level, and it is in this way that the Ultra Society projected by Turchin could be realized.

From ecological culture to ecological civilization

That the global environmental crisis could serve to create a peaceful world had been proposed by Ivan Frolov at a conference in the Center for History and Philosophy of Science at Boston University in 1985 (which I attended). Frolov was a very influential Marxist philosopher who was closely aligned with Mikhail Gorbachev and went on to become editor of Pravda. He argued that addressing the global ecological crisis could be the basis for uniting humanity, ending the cold war and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Frolov, along with other Soviet Marxist philosophers and scientists, were involved in reformulating Marxist philosophy to rethink the role of science and technology and the place of ethics in society, offering a new synthesis of Marxism, science and humanism [8]. In doing so, Frolov engaged with both mainstream Western thought, dominated by reductionist science, and also Western Marxism. He drew heavily on Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 to argue that humans should not see themselves as separate from nature but as participants within it, and to defend Marx’s humanism. He also invoked the work of the biogeochemist Vladimir Vernadsky and his concepts of the biosphere and the noosphere. In an article written with Viktor Aleksandrovich Los' of the Soviet Academy of Sciences' Institute of Philosophy, they argued for the value of nature over and above its economic utility and rejected the view that humans should dominate nature. The authors suggested that:

'… under the influence of the crisis nature of the developing socioecological situation, man is gradually moving away from the illusion of anthropocentrism and rejecting the traditional hegemonistic relationship to nature. His thinking has ceased to limit itself to notions centring around needs and designs of him and him alone. His activity is acquiring an ever-broader biosphere orientation, and his thinking is drawn to "biocentrism" . . . Biospherocentrism assumes an orientation of human activity and thinking in directions that consider his interests both as subject and as object, as man and nature.' [8, p.16].

In characterizing his own work, Frolov gestured towards Marxist-Leninism, but in drawing on Marx’s early work, he was much closer to ‘Western Marxists’. What differentiated Frolov’s views from these Western Marxists was his refusal to accept that science is value free, irrelevant to ethics, and just a means for developing technology. His ideas can be better understood as a revival of a tradition of radical ideas that developed in Russia in the first decades of the Twentieth Century, particularly in the 1920s. This was associated with the radical wing of the Bolsheviks, the Vpered or Forward group, inspired by Aleksandr Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky, who became Commissar of Education. These radicals were opposed to both capitalism and bureaucracy, that is, rule by managers, and argued for the democratic organization of work rather than for a command economy [10]. Along with Marx’s social philosophy, Bogdanov [5] was strongly influenced by recent advances in science and developed a general theory of organization, Tektology, designed to provide the basis for a monistic worldview, allowing us to see ourselves as self-organizing participants in a self-organizing nature. It was offered not just to interpret the world, but to provide workers with the means to understand advances in the natural sciences, to rethink the human sciences, and to redefine their relations to each other and to nature [11, 45]. Rejecting the base/superstructure model of society, Bogdanov characterized technology and ideology as different dimensions of culture, both involving work. What Bogdanov and Lunacharsky were calling for was the creation of a new culture, or ‘Proletk’ult’, systematising the entire cognitive experience of the past, incorporating all that was best in previous cultures while going beyond them, to be incorporated into practices and in the organization of the economy and society. It would provide workers, including scientists, artists and intellectuals, with the means to organize themselves rather than being reduced to instruments by a class of managers and technocrats.

This tradition of thought was repressed with the advance of Stalinism. However, Lenin had been a strong environmentalist, and there had been a strong tradition of the earth sciences, including ecology, in pre-revolutionary Russia [43, ch.1; 34]. Lenin placed Lunacharsky, an even stronger environmentalist, in charge of protection of nature, including nature reserves, leading to the flourishing of ecology [43]. The Soviet Union led the world in ecological theory at this time, incorporating into its thermodynamics as well as ideas from Engels’ Dialectics of Nature. Ecologists argued that they should have a major role in the first five-year plan, determining what kinds of economic development were possible and desirable. Despite Stalinist suppression, many were able to continue their work, further developing their radical ideas. [44]. The notion of ‘ecological culture’ was developed by these ecologists and was widely used from the 1970s onwards [20]. The ecologists were reviving the project of developing a new culture, giving a central place to ecology. In this revival of 1920s ideas, they were also aligned with efforts to revive the humanities through semiotics. This was given focus by the Tartu/Moscow school of semiotics, led initially by Juri Lotman, who regarded Mikhail Bakhtin as his main source of inspiration [30, p. 29]. These are the ideas that Frolov and his colleagues were helping to revive.

This notion of ‘ecological culture’ was embraced by Qianji Ye, a Chinese agricultural economist scientist working in the Soviet Union at the time. In 1984 he published an article in an edition of The Journal of Moscow University devoted to scientific socialism, and in 1987 this was translated in a Chinese newspaper. The term ‘ecological culture’ was translated as ‘ecological civilisation’ (shengtai wenming). Promoted by Chinese environmentalists, in November 2007 ‘ecological civilisation’ was incorporated into the Central Commission Report to the Chinese Communist Party’s 17th National Congress and embraced as a central policy objective by the government, and in 2012, the Party included the goal of achieving ecological civilisation in its constitution, and included this goal in its five-year plan. Then, in 2017, the 19th Congress of the Party called for an acceleration of ecological civilisation construction [25].

Ecological civilization, ecology and ecopoiesis

While this commitment to ecological civilization expressed recognition of the devastating effects of damage to local and global ecosystems and the existential threat to humanity of ecological destruction, what ‘ecological civilization’ means is still not fully defined. Taking the work of ecologists and climate scientists seriously involves recognizing a threat to the future of the whole of humanity. Would this be enough though for people around the globe to put aside their own short-term interests and coordinate their actions on a vast scale to create an ecological sustainable world order? Ecological civilization in its more radical interpretation involves elevating the standing of ecology and climate science not just as objective knowledge of the mechanisms of nature, but as a fundamental challenge to mainstream reductionist science. For mainstream science, the universe is ultimately meaningless, with everything that happens determined by the laws of physics, with organisms being merely machines for reproducing DNA through a struggle for survival and reproduction in a given environment. For the more radical proponents of ecological civilization, commitment to ecological civilization involves a rejection of this nihilistic science and an affirmation of life through science. They are working towards a fundamental transformation in the way humans understand life, including themselves their relations to each other, to their communities, to humanity and to the rest of nature, both theoretically and in their practices and institutions. It is an attempt to integrate and further develop the traditions of thought inspired by the speculative naturalism of Friedrich Schelling, although the importance of Schelling to these traditions is seldom appreciated [18].

Ecology, a term coined by Ernst Haeckel in 1866, is the study of the ‘homes’ or ‘households’ of organisms. It examines how organisms provide the conditions for each other, recycling nutrient, transforming the non-living environments in the process. Ecology is at the forefront of anti-reductionist thinking associated with efforts to understand complexity, now recognized as necessary to advance science generally. As Robert Ulanowicz argued in Ecology: The Ascendent Perspective:

'Ecology occupies the propitious middle ground. … Indeed ecology may well provide a preferred theatre in which to search for principles that might offer very broad implications for science in general. If we loosen the grip of our prejudice in favour of mechanism as the general principle, we see in this thought the first inkling that ecology, the sick discipline, could in fact become the key to a radical leap in scientific thought. A new perspective on how things happen in the ecological world might conceivably break the conceptual logjams that currently hinder progress in understanding evolutionary phenomena, development biology, the rest of the life sciences, and, conceivably, even physics.' [42, p.6]

According to Ulanowicz and like-minded ecological theorists, the development of ecology requires an ontology of relational processes according to which the most basic existents are patterns of activity. From this perspective, ‘things’ or ‘objects’ are forms of definiteness or structures continually produced by these patterns, which are then constrained, but also facilitated by these forms. These patterns are to some extent immanent causes of themselves with their own particular logic, but only exist in relation to other patterns, being dependent on them while resisting their logic. As Kant and then Schelling argued, are actively maintaining and developing their forms against the forces of their environments, while being totally dependent on their environments for nutrients and other conditions of their existence. Ecosystems are patterns of interacting organisms, ranging from cells to the totality of life on Earth, interacting in such a way that they preserve and develop the environmental conditions for their survival and further development.

Major advances in ecology involved appreciating the importance of symbiosis in evolution, and the role of life in geological processes, including soil formation and changes in the atmosphere, and the central role of thermodynamics in comprehending biological communities, or as they were later called, ecosystems. Dialecticians and complexity theorists focussed on the dynamic and temporary nature of any balance of forces in these systems. More recently, hierarchy theorists have shown the essential role of enabling constraints in all these processes, as for instance, where constraints of grammar etc. make it possible for humans to communicate in far more complex ways than other animals. Another development has been associated with the advance of biosemiotics, including ecosemiotics, according to which life is essentially the action of signs [7]. Kalevi Kull [29] argues that the bonds in ecosystems are semiotic bonds. All this has been interpreted through hierarchy theory as particular forms of constraints and constraining activity [36]. Ecological concepts have been generalized, so organisms have themselves been characterized as highly integrated ecosystems, and the Earth itself as a complex ecosystem reproducing the conditions for life. Vernadsky’s notion of the biosphere has been revived and strengthened, with Lovelock characterizing the global ecosystem as ‘Gaia’. The notion of the noosphere was reformulated by the Russian/Estonian cultural theorist Juri Lotman, building on the work of the Bakhtin school, as the semiosphere. Utilizing Peircian semiotics, all of life on Earth was characterized by Jesper Hoffmeyer [24] as the semiosphere, with human culture as characterized by Lotman’s more limited notion of the semiosphere interpreted as a major component of this broader semiosphere. Ecology has been extended to the study of human societies. The development of hierarchy theory, non-linear thermodynamics and other advances in complexity theory, and the integration of Peircian biosemiotics and the Tartu-Moscow tradition of semiotics focussing on the semiotics of culture [30], have provided the basis for advancing human ecology where it can subsume geography, economics, sociology and culturology [19, 199ff.].

All this radically changes how evolution and development are understood. It can no longer be understood as organisms being selected in competitive struggles for survival in a given environment. Organisms survive by creating and augmenting the conditions for their continued existence. To survive in an environment consisting of both living and non-living processes, they must be able to find a niche, but in doing so, they modify these niches. The most successful organisms are those which augment their niches and create new niches both for themselves and for other organisms which, in developing, further augment the environment and thereby the health and resilience of their biotic communities. Such niches provide the conditions for the emergence of new processes and new forms of life, associated with new constants.

This can be seen in the morphogenesis of multi-celled organisms, which can be understood as highly integrated ecosystems. The developing embryo generates a biofield which provides the conditions for the emergence of more specific biofields which constrain cells to differentiate into various organs, each partially autonomous but being semiotically constrained in the environment of the whole organism [22]. In this process the embryo develops the form of a functioning adult. The most important aspect of this development is that there is emergence of new patterns of activities or processes that are constrained so they do not destroy each other but are adapted to each other and augment the conditions for each other. As Ho [23] pointed out, the stability of organisms depends on all the parts being informed, participating and acting appropriately to maintain the whole in such a way that the global cohesion and local freedom are maximized. Each part is as much in control as it is sensitive and responsive. The same morphogenetic processes are involved not only in the development of plants and animals, but also in forests and ecosystems generally.

Ecosystems become increasingly complex and diverse as new niches are created and new organisms establish themselves and evolve within these niches, creating new living forms. Life develops in ecosystems, including organisms, through a process of ecopoiesis, that is, household/home-making, providing the conditions for components to emerge and develop, which then provide the conditions for new levels of creative emergence.

Ecopoiesis and human culture

It is through such evolution that the global ecosystem evolved to eventually provide the conditions for the evolution of humans, with their much more complex forms of semiosis characterized as ‘culture’ [30, 32].  Defining culture through Peircian semiosis involves recognizing a number of different dimensions. While such semiosis involves the capacity to construct stories and produce abstract forms of thinking, including mathematics and science, these are grounded in and intimately related to practical activities, and even more basically, to morphogenesis. Morphogenesis is ‘vegetative semiosis’, the development of the forms of organisms based on inherited signs or information [28]. Such morphogenesis is an interpretant of the environment the organism has to engage with. Vegetative semiosis is the condition for organisms to act on the basis of signs in its environment, that is, for animal semiosis. This is the condition for the development of symbolic semiosis associated with humans. The symbolic dimension of semiosis facilitates reflexivity and the highly developed capacity of humans to see the world from the perspective of others and to reflect upon themselves and their own and others’ beliefs as a consequence [6]. They have not only Umwelten or surrounding worlds, but also Mitwelten or ‘with worlds’, shared with others and experienced as being shared, and Eigenwelten or self-worlds, people’s selves and their experiences reflected on by them from the perspective of others [16]. It is these highly developed forms of semiosis that facilitate the extremely complex forms of cooperation that Turchin referred to.

The most obvious developments of culture are associated with the development of technologies from primitive tools to modern information technology and, facilitated by technologies of communication, the development of new discourses, from the elaboration of myths to the development of art, religion, philosophy, mathematics, history and drama, then science and various literary genres. The evolution of these has been associated with the development of institutions, based on differentiated and defined roles for people though which they are accorded recognition and gain their identities. This is the basis for co-ordination of people’s actions in complex organizations and projects. All these can be seen as part of the human environment, being components of their ‘households’ or ‘homes’, understood very broadly and including the ‘households’ of communities at different scales and the forms of communication and ways of living and thinking required for their functioning. It is these cultural developments that have enabled humans to advance to an ecological understanding of the world. Developed through complexity theory and biosemiotics, this has made it possible to appreciate the reality and significance of life and to overcome the oppositions between the sciences and the humanities. It enables humans to understand their place and role in ecosystems, including the global ecosystem, upholding Aldo Leopold’s dictum that: ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise’ [31, p.224f.].

These advances in ecology, along with geology and climate science, provide a life affirming worldview that could both mobilize people and enable them to coordinate their actions and lives in new ways to constrain the destructive egoism of power elites, but also enable people to discover and interpret signs enabling them to reconstruct the history of life on earth, and to understand the driving forces behind the destructive trajectory of modern civilization and the damage it is causing [14]. Ecology is providing new directions in agriculture and industry. However, so long as economic actors, including corporations, are in competition with each other in an unconstrained global market, taking these new directions is extremely difficult. Ecological economics and human ecology offer different policy guidelines for governments to provide more favourable environments for such efforts [15]. The problem at present is that current governments, largely under the control of a global corporatocracy based in transnational corporations and committed to even further concentrating wealth and power, are doing their best to eliminate challenges to mainstream economics, which is still dominated by a Hobbesian conception of humans. Ecology provides new directions for thinking about politics, upholding a view of humanity as communities of communities and supporting multi-level federalism with as much decentralization of power as possible, and for reviving educational and research institutions and providing a challenge both to mainstream economics and the domination of discourses by economists [15, 17, 19]. At a more immediately practical level, work is being undertaken to show how ecological thinking can transform business management and education practices [27]. Coordinating all these developments is an emerging new dialogical grand narrative of ecological civilization, upholding a new vision of the future to aspire to [19].

Creating this civilization involves educating people to be committed to and to work for the common good of their communities, who can then find and develop niches or homes where they can live, develop and actualize their creative potential to augment life. Developing or transforming institutions is clearly central to this, along with the development of people’s virtues and character. However, equally important is the kinds of built-up environments humans create for themselves. Largely overlooked by environmentalists, the issues involved in such morphogenesis highlights all other dimensions of what is involved in creating an ecological civilization, and it is these I will focus on, drawing on the work of the architectural and town planning theorist, Christopher Alexander.

Architecture and town planning as ecopoiesis

When environmentalists consider architecture and town planning, they focus on energy efficiency, recycling, waste management and other technical issues. For the architectural and town planning theorist, Christopher Alexander, this exemplifies the very limited, instrumentalist and mechanist thinking associated with Taylorist managerialism. Alexander [1, p. 6] argues the problems are much deeper than environmentalists have acknowledged, characterizing the discipline of architecture based on Taylorist managerialism in which workers are reduced to mere instruments as ‘a mass psychosis of unprecedented dimension, in which the people... have created a form of architecture which is against life, insane, image-ridden, hollow.’ Our built-up environments are far more than machines for living, as Le Corbusier characterized them. They are humanity’s contribution to the morphogenesis of nature and should be evaluated accordingly, and currently, this morphogenesis is awry. This could be a major factor standing in the way of mobilizing people to effectively face up to and deal with ecological problems.

To begin with, Alexander considered what makes buildings beautiful. If people are honest, they can see that modernist and postmodernist architecture is not beautiful. It is oppressive and ugly. Alexander sought to understand why. Beauty is not a mere subjective sense, but is objectively in the world, he claimed. It is a quality of reality that most people have no difficulty appreciating. While some people can be blind to beauty, Alexander provided evidence to show that in most cases, all people will agree on what counts as beautiful. What we experience as beautiful, Alexander argued, is also what we recognize to be more alive, and conducive to life, and accordingly he identified beauty with what we experience as more alive, redefining life in doing so.

Initially, Alexander was concerned with what it is about built-up environments and works of art that make them beautiful, and on this basis, produced a number of patterns to provide architects with the means to produce beautiful buildings. However, in the first volume of his four volume major work on the nature of order, The Phenomenon of Life [1], Alexander went on to argue that it is necessary to characterize life as such, so that what we take to be built-up forms which are more alive and therefore more beautiful can be seen as merely particular forms of life. Life, he argued, springs from wholeness. It is wholeness consisting of centres that augment each other so that each centre enlivens the other centres. He identified structures that appear in things that do have life such as levels of scale, strong centres, boundaries, alternating repetition, positive space, good shape, local symmetries, deep interlock and ambiguity, contrast, gradients, roughness, echoes, simplicity and inner calm, and not-separateness. It is the absence of these features, he argued, that accounts for the felt lack of life and beauty in much of modern (and postmodern) architecture.

In the second volume of this work, The Process of Creating Life [2, 13] Alexander argued that it is not these forms as such that are alive, but the processes by which they are generated. It is not the design that gives life to human products, but rather the processes by which they are produced. The focus of this volume is on process; a particular kind of process - the process of ‘unfolding from the whole.’ The features of living structures emerge from the unfolding of the whole according to the following principle: ‘[A]t each moment in the emergence of a system, the system tends ("prefers") to go in that direction which intensifies the already existing centres in the wholeness in just such a fashion that the new centres reinforce and intensify the LARGER configuration or wholeness which existed before.’ [2, p.47]. Such unfolding is characterized by structure preserving transformations. Development involves augmenting rather than obliterating the structures that already exists, both within the individual developing process and in its environment. This can be seen in the morphogenesis of organisms and in the development of buildings, towns, cities and civilizations. Structure preserving transformations are a defining feature of living morphogenesis.

In a later essay [3, p. 18], Alexander argued that such morphogenesis necessarily involves sustainability. As he put it:

'At each moment of its unfolding, this deep adaptation is going on. In what we call Nature, the beauty of the Earth - another word for its sustainability - comes only from this kind of process. Something very similar is necessarily true of towns and buildings, too. The subtle, efficient, and tender adaptation that makes a place harmonious, useful, and dear to our hearts comes from morphogenesis. Incorporating the beauty of the Earth into building construction and in the making of towns and villages can only come from some version of a similar morphogenetic process.'

Building in such a way in inimical to Taylorist managerialism. Taylorism replaces the natural and organic processes that relies on judgment, participation, and common sense, with rigidly applied rules and codification of tasks and functions, producing the modern organization with its machine-like repetition of processes that increase efficiency. Taylorism involves dissociating the labour process from skills, craftsmanship, tradition and knowledge, separating conception from execution and monopolizing knowledge to control the labour process. In opposition to this, Alexander argued that the architect and workers involved in the actual building should not have a rigid plan of the finished product but overall guidance while collectively engaged in working out what is required to advance the building. All those involved need to appreciate the ends to be achieved, working out what it will be like to live or work in such buildings and how this fits in with the environment of the building, including other buildings, the rest of nature and the activities of those living in this environment. This requires the cultivation of a ‘feel for the whole’, and being continuously guided by this is the condition for the final product being beautiful. Alexander proclaimed [3, p.19]:

'This is a completely different way of thinking about building, and planning, and architecture, and ecology. It is a way of thinking that acknowledges the wisdom of the naturalists, and makes central your own love and respect for all that lives. It is something very clear. It is hard to do. It is profoundly worth fighting for. This conception is larger than the present narrow view of sustainability as a technology of resource counting. The cycle of reuse can indeed be part of a sustainable world; the cycle of attention to land, in such a way that it bears fruit, replenishes itself, can be a part of sustainability thinking. But the world must also sustain us in our existence, sustain animals, sustain plants, sustain water, sustain wind, sustain society. All that can come only from a broad philosophy in which we see renewal as the foundation of every creative act and every creative process.'

Understanding building as morphogenesis within nature but distinctively human automatically commits builders to aspire to sustainability, but in a much broader sense [3, p.19]:

'This view of sustainability is not a technocratic, money-inspired, soulless use of gadgets and their production. It is rather a truly visionary and scientifically sensible view of how Nature unfolds, and that extends to insist that our settlements must unfold in the same way that Nature does. But since it is architecture with Nature, not Nature alone, that unfolds, it produces types of geometric structures that are unique to buildings and human beings, still "natural," still profoundly helpful to the beauty of the Earth, and still always preserving the deep structure of the surface of the Earth.'

Beautiful built-up environments are both the product of and are conducive to the vitality of communities, Alexander argued. The feeling for the whole, and the sense of wholeness involved in making the world more beautiful, is a feeling for life. Alexander further argues that ‘feeling’ should not be regarded as merely subjective or equated with emotion: ‘It is a feeling in the singular, which comes from the whole,’ he explained. ‘It arises in us, but it originates in the wholeness which is actually there. The process of respecting and extending and creating the whole, and the process of using feeling, are one and the same. Real feeling, true feeling, is the experience of the whole’ [2, p. 371]. Production is ‘unfolding from the whole.’ It is associated with care for existing centres of life, producing so that what is produced augments what is already alive. It is this, Alexander points out, which makes building into structure-preserving transformations consisting of centres that augment each other, forming hierarchies of patterns of centres.

Alexander emphasizes the far-reaching nature of the revolution in thought and practice he has been calling for, not only for architecture but also for society. He promises to regenerate life by engaging people in designing and building beautiful environments, reviving their social spaces and their institutions to enrich their lives and their appreciation of beauty. Involving people in this way requires of them that they come to understand in a practical way a cosmology that validates their experiences of beauty and life. If this project is successful, people will dwell within the world in a different way and again be aligned with life. With revived communities, they will also be empowered to further the interests of life. Alexander calls for the slow improvement of all social processes in this way. He argues we can define the ultimate function of society as ‘generating a healed structure in the world through morphogenetic processes-and that this primary function is to allow us, the members of society, to adjust progressively all the small processes in such a way that individually, and together, they will more and more effectively create a living world. This is identified with the quest for freedom because ‘it is the shape-creating, organization generating, aspect of process which ultimately allows people to do what they want, what they desire, what they need, and what is deeply adapted to life as it is lived and to experience as it is felt. Alexander is concerned to overcome the division between the public and private and to recreate or revive those spaces and institutions that-in the past mediated between individuals and the State. This is associated with efforts to revive communities, institutions and organizations as self-governing without hierarchies of managers. That is, through architecture, Alexander is addressing the atomization of society and the corrosion of public life, institutions, and organizations that have undermined real democracy and transformed the public into self-centred egoists striving to define themselves through ever increasing levels of consumption, manipulated by demagogues and public relations experts to reproduce the social order that continues to render their lives precarious, increasingly meaningless and ecologically destructive.

Alexander can be criticised for his almost blanket condemnation of modern architecture, and for romanticizing the past. This does not undermine the value of what he is claiming, and without these extreme judgements, the relevance of Alexander’s work for the quest for ecological civilization becomes more evident. The best illustration of bad architecture and town planning is in USA, particularly Los Angeles, and it is in USA that the destructive effects of bad architecture and town planning on communities and the associated impoverishment of cultural life have been most evident (Sennett 2018). Along with the expansion of Taylorist managerialism, extended through what George Ritzer (1998) characterized as the McDonaldization of the economy, built-up environments have played a major role in the slow disintegration of the capacity for coordinated action by Americans, as shown by Turchin (2016b). This is manifest in the almost complete failure of USA to face up to and deal with greenhouse gases and ecological destruction. As is evident from the essays in Timothy Beatley’s anthology Green Cities of Europe (2012), many European cities, respecting older concerns with beauty and less influenced by Taylorism, have maintained community life and consequently have been far more successful at moving towards ecological sustainability.


I have tried to show here that a culture incorporating the notion of ecopoiesis can orient people to achieve new levels of coordination in their activities so that the full development of people will work towards the common good of humanity, and ultimately, of the health of the global ecosystem. The global ecological crisis provides a strong motivation for undertaking this fundamental transformation of culture, and thereby the way people live and how they participate in the morphogenesis of nature. The emerging grand narrative of ecological civilization should facilitate this coordination to identify specific goals, altering the way politics is understood, internationally, nationally and locally. This will involve democratising the management of institutions, decentralizing power and eliminating Taylorist managerialism, and altering the way we educate the young. And to facilitate all these changes, moving towards this future will involve changing the way we work and build, and the kinds of built-up environments we produce; that is, our contribution to the morphogenesis of nature.

While there are clearly huge challenges in realizing this new civilization, the possibility of doing so becomes more plausible when seen in broad historical perspective. As Turchin showed, despite what looks like a history of endless warfare, there has been irregular progress towards more humane and more peaceful organization of societies. The current global ecological crisis has generated a global environmentalist movement strengthened by advances in post-reductionist science, integrated by ecology, aligning science with the humanities, which is now being reformulated through semiotics, aligning it with advances in ecology. It could mobilize enough people to create this new civilization, incorporating these ideas into their social relations, institutions, technology and built-up environments, altering the way people understand themselves and their goals, achieving the peaceful world order predicted by Turchin.


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Reference for citations

Gare, A. (2022). Ecocivilization and ecopoiesis: Creating peaceful world order. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 3(1). [open access internet journal]. – URL: (d/m/y)


About the journal

In accordance with the Law of the Russian Federation on the Mass Media, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Communications (Roskomnadzor) on September 22, 2020, the web-based publication - The peer-reviewed scientific online journal "Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice" was registered (registration number El No. FS77-79134).

“Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice” is the international multidisciplinary Journal focused on building an eco-human paradigm, disseminating eco-human knowledge and technology based on the alliance of ecology, humanities and the arts. Our journal aims to be a vibrant forum of theories and practices aimed at harmonizing the relations of mankind and the natural world in the interests of sustainable development, the creation of Eco-Humanity as a new community of human beings and more-than-human world. The human being is an ecological being, not separate from the world. The Ecopoiesis journal is based on that premise and aims to develop a body of theory and practice within that framework.

The Journal promotes dialogue and cooperation between ecologists, philosophers, doctors, educators, psychologists, artists, musicians, designers, social activists, business representatives in the name of eco-human values, human health and well-being, in close connection with concern for the environment. The Journal supports the development and implementation of new environmentally-friendly concepts, technologies and practices in the various fields of health and public life, education and social work.

One of the priority tasks of the Journal is to demonstrate and support the significant role of the arts in their alliance with ecology and the humanities for the restoration and development of constructive relations with nature, raising environmental awareness and promoting nature-friendly lifestyles.

The Journal publishes articles describing new eco-human concepts and practices, technologies and applied research data at the intersection of humanities, ecology and the arts, as well as interviews and conference reports related to the emerging eco-human field. It encourages artwork, music and other creative products related to eco-human practices and the new global community of Eco-Humanity.