Let's review some of the concepts contained in the first 8 lessons.
Every living thing finds what it needs flowing through the whole system. A life that cannot find what it needs cannot exist in the system. The whole system consists of all the individuals of all the species alive at any given time. The interactions among these individuals creates the flows each individual needs.
The oxygen we breath, much of the water that falls as rain, the organic molecules we consume as food, the goods and services we buy and the information we use to plot our course through the system are all generated by the interaction of living things. Sometimes we talk about the pattern of interactions that generate the flows and sometimes we talk about the pattern of flows that generates the interactions but they are the same thing. The whole system is self organizing. It is generated by the pattern of interactions among participating individuals generating the pattern of flows through the system generating the pattern of interactions.
The task of Agents of Habitat is to use our influence to improve the health of our habitat. Our habitat is created by the pattern of interactions that affect us. Our locality is defined by the interactions that we can affect. We have defined health as a continuum of welcoming. A system that encourages participation increases the capacity to produce what participants need.
Our first goal is a pattern of interactions that persists. We seek a system that can be sustained for the participation of our great grandchildren. Our second goal is a pattern of interactions that builds the capacity to produce flows over time. We increase capacity by seeking out the human and biological potential that could be participating but is not. In that latent potential we will find the participants to increase the flows that will sustain the pattern. Seeing the whole system through this paradigm we can begin to develop a design language about using our influence to accomplish these goals.
Conditions conducive to Life
As represented by the arrows in the diagram A Living System, nature creates patterns of interaction that cycle flows through plant, animal, fungi and bacteria and back to plant. Each of the participants is getting what it needs to participate from the other participants. This is the definition of a symbiosis. This symbiotic pattern creates the entity we call ecosystem.
An ecosystem is an entity just like any living cell or more complex organism except for the absence of a membrane or skin. At first, it is hard to see these patterns. They do not have clear boundaries like our skins. Their boundaries are “fuzzy”. Further, they exist as a pattern of interactions within a larger pattern of interactions, and thus, must be distinguished from the larger pattern. They are vortexes or eddies within the whole system. That said, with practice, we can begin to see the pattern all around us.
Within these symbiotic patterns each participant requires energy, materials, nutrients and information in order to fulfill its life cycle and thrive. The plant processes begin the cycling by using solar energy and atmospheric carbon to build organic molecules. Because the flows cycle back into the system through fungal and bacterial processes, resources can accumulate in the system from one cycle to the next. We can measure the increase in retained solar energy and atmospheric carbon as an increase in the mass of organic molecules present within the system. As in a cell or an organism, the cycling of resources in an ecosystem is required for the participants to cohere in a pattern constituting the system.
For the purposes of this lesson think of a “Cell of Sustainability” (COS) as a discreet pattern of interactions that cycles flows back into itself with the capacity to accumulate resources over time. If we are to create the world that we want for our great grandchildren we will need Cells of Sustainability that include human beings as participants.
The way we are producing what humans need to thrive is not sustainable.
Human beings need food, clothing, shelter, education and health care to thrive. We may need other things, such as a sense of belonging, but these five needs are basic. Producing what humans need for the long term requires sustainable production processes.
When we began to separate ourselves from nature we began to simplify the processes of producing what we need. Compare the pattern of flows shown in the diagram Comparative Patterns. Most of what humans need is being produced in simplified patterns such as monoculture farming, concentrated animal feeding operations and single product manufacturing facilities. A monoculture such as a corn field requires significant inputs, engages in a single process and then exports corn as a product and a waste stream of soil and nutrient runoff. Because few of the resources generated through the growth of the plants are cycled back into the system the number of individuals that can participate in that place is reduced. The same lack of cycling and reduced participation is seen in a concentrated animal feeding operation and in a typical factory.
An alternative is a Cell of Sustainability created by embedding ourselves in a complex pattern of plant processes, animal processes, fungal processes and bacterial processes. The resources we cycle back into the pattern reduce the things we have to bring in from outside. The by products we can use to support other processes are removed from the waste stream. As we increase the volume and variety of participants within the pattern we move from a place with few participants (the barren end of the continuum) toward a healthy and sustainable system of production with many participants. From that base we can produce shelter, clothing, education, and health care through the human participants for the human participants.
There is a sweet spot on the continuum between simplified production systems and systems that cycle everything that is produced internally. That spot is where our COS could survive on its own if needed but life is so much better, and thriving so much easier and assured, with many connections into the larger system. We might compare it to a computer that can function on its own but has so many more possibilities connected to the Internet.
To design a Cell of Sustainability we might mimics the symbiosis of lichen.
A lichen is a photosynthetic algae (e.g. a plant) or cyanobacteria (a bacteria capable of photosynthisis) called the photobiont (photosynthetic symbiont) protected within a fungal container. It is a true symbiosis, and an example of the symbiosis that biologists call 'mutualism'. Photosynthesis provides the energy while the fungus collects resources from the environment. Specifically, the photobiont uses photosynthesis to produce sugars the fungi needs to produce a sheltering environment for both. The fungi supplies the water and minerals needed by the photobiont to produce sugars. The sugar, water and minerals cycle through the system and allow both the photobiont and the fungi to grow as these resources build up within the system. As a result of this symbiosis, lichen are some of the most resilient patterns in nature.
The diagram Placing Processes in Proximity shows a design mimicking the lichen that includes humans. Notice how there are incoming flows, internal cycling of flows and outflows. The interactions among the individual participants producing and partaking of the internal flows is what we mean by a Cell of Sustainability.
A Cell of Sustainability can begin as a small gathering of participants engaging in processes that cycle resources back into the cell. Our little baby COS will be floating in the sea of interactions of the whole system in which we find ourselves. There is no clear boundary between the COS and the larger system. The COS is defined by the flows that cohere the individual participants into the system.
The key to the design is to take the incoming flows and cycle them back into the COS to increase production. Cycle over cycle the flows invested in building opportunities for additional interactions result in increasing participation and make it easier for individual participants to obtain what they need to thrive.
In the diagram the COS operates within the flow of information through the whole system. A role of the human participants is to seek out information about other potential participants so that we can provide what those participants need so as to attract their participation. When we add new participants we benefit from what they will produce. The know how to create a stable pattern of interactions can then be returned to the larger system. Through this exchange of information our COS will be the recipients of useful, or even vital, information that will allow us to shape our COS in ways that enhance it's – and our – ability to thrive.
The COS operates within the flow of goods and services from which it takes the tools and materials to provide for an ongoing increase in the number and variety of participants and interactions. It can invest resources in facilities that house multiple participants and processes such as chickens – worms – fish – compost . . . placing processes in proximity to facilitate interactions among them. As we intelligently (based on useful and useable information) add processes, we increase the variety of products produced. In exchange for food and housing the COS can attract people to provide education and health care services, for example. Through the process of adding participants the COS can reduce the need to source products and services from outside . . . making it more sustainable and reducing the goods and services it has to sell to source the things it does not yet produce.
Our COS also exists within the flow of nutrients through the larger system. Some of these nutrient flows generated by the larger system are considered waste and can be tapped for free. In this category are the wood chips, cardboard and manures required to build deep mulch gardens. There is a flow of food wastes from restaurants and super markets that can feed our animal, fungal and bacterial processes. We might consider a demolition or de-construction service as a way to obtain building materials. Tapping into these waste streams allows our COS to further minimize its need for money while increasing its wealth in capacity to provide for its participants.
This is a different way of thinking of value.
Cycling the things we produce is the opposite of producing things for sale in the market. Think of it in the same way you would think about buying a house. We buy houses because the money we spend on the house cycles back into the equity instead of dissipating as rent. The investment in the house provides the shelter that our family needs to thrive. We have that same choice for the food, clothing, education and health care that our family needs. We can invest in a symbiotic pattern of interactions that produces those things our family needs. In the process we will create Cells of Sustainability.
When we buy a house we can choose to hide within its walls and isolate ourselves from the pattern of interactions taking place within a community we've chosen not to join. The alternative is to use our home to engage in symbiotic processes. When we embed ourselves into a symbiotic patterns of interaction, we create the opportunity to secure our family's access to the things they need. The more individuals participating . . . the more we can produce . . . the less we need to buy in the market.
As participants, this is how we become wealthy. As we discussed in A Pattern in a Pattern, money is not wealth. The wealthy do not have money in the bank. The wealthy own the capacity to produce value. In a market sense the wealthy produce things that people with money are willing to buy. In a biological sense wealth is the capacity to produce what we need for our family to thrive.
As we discussed in Discretionary Time and Money,
the process of embedding ourselves in a living system can occur at different scales. For community sufficiency technologies the scale is a typical suburban neighborhood. In these neighborhoods are families already invested in their home. We can think of adding symbiotic plant, animal, bacterial and fungal processes within the matrix of the existing structures. With each process and with each participant added to the symbiosis of the neighborhood it becomes easier for the residents to obtain the food, clothing, education and health care they need to thrive. Each existing neighborhood could become a cell of sustainability. Start with what your neighborhood has and build capacity to increase the flows that cycle back into the neighborhood.
At the scale of a Community Investment Enterprise, there is an opportunity for the larger community to invest in the capacity to produce the food, clothing, shelter, education and health care that the community needs to thrive. In the terms of this lesson, every community can invest in a cell of sustainability. We can start with an embryonic pattern of symbiotic interactions that taps into the human and biological potential latent in our community. It is an opportunity for every one in the community to invest in making our community more welcoming, more robust, more resilient . . .
Our task at the Living Systems Institute is to heal nature, end poverty and abate climate change. The task requires that we develop the know how to form symbiotic patterns of interactions with the living things around us. The necessary patterns feature humans as key stone species interacting to produce the things humans (and all the participants) need to thrive. We will also need to show our siblings in the community the value they will receive from the investment we are asking.
In the diagram Placing Processes in Proximity the cell of sustainability is placed within the flow of information. The participants seek out information from all the specialties and figure out how to make the symbiosis work. We would like you to be one of those participants seeking the know how that will allow humans to heal nature, end poverty and abate climate change . . . creating the world that we want for our great grandchildren. In other words, we would like you to become an Agent of Habitat.
For those who are in proximity to the Living Systems Institute (or could be) we offer an internship program. In this program you will participate directly in the research, design, prototyping and testing of the technology of symbiosis described in this lesson. There is a more detailed explanation in the page Internship Program. Download the application linked on that page and e-mail it to LSI c/o David Braden executive director.
We love to share what we know about living systems and we can certainly use your help in this most important work of our time.
Special Thanks to Oz Osborn and Don Studinski for help in editing this page,