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To halt the decline of an ecosystem,

it is necessary to think like an ecosystem.

—Doug Wheeler

It’s time to take action. And in a fundamentally different way.

While countless people are engaged everyday in worthwhile work in making the world a better place, we seem to have come through a decade where there has been more breakdown than progress.

From the impact of terrorism which sparked additional conflict around the globe to the collapse of an economic system which ethically and materially was unable to support itself, the first decade of the 21st century was more challenging than uplifting for many. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, many had more negative associations with the past decade than any in the last half-century.

While this is understandable, perhaps we can take the upheaval and turbulence as something of a positive sign—or at least as a call for change.

It’s increasingly evident that what worked for some time (or what we thought was working) is no longer viable and we are entering an era of deconstruction and rebuilding—both figuratively and literally—of communities, of regions, perhaps of entire societies. While economic, environmental and social uncertainty have increased and must be addressed, we have been asked to respond to disasters of increased intensity over the past decade—including 9/11, Katrina, Haiti—that require changing our perspective and redesigning many elements of our world.

Addressing challenges presented by our economic system—and by natural disasters where we seemingly have no control—both demand that we retrofit our thinking about the most basic assumptions: how the market works (or doesn’t), how our communities function (or don’t), how prepared we are for a changing global climate (or aren’t).

The recent issue of Metropolis Magazine “What’s Next?” looks at innovative design over the coming decade. A change in mind must be coupled with a change in design—of our economy, our products, our communities. What will foster such a design change is looking at our interactions—our human ecology—in a fundamentally different way. Indeed, as former California Resources Secretary Doug Wheeler shares we need to “think like an ecosystem” and not merely to reverse decline in the ecosystems ‘out there.’

Our personal interactions in the world, our institutional arrangements all fit into a set of ecological relationships that are—in many instances—out of balance. With the welcome growth in the sustainability field, there are challenges to its authenticity including clear questions about how we define sustainability, who is included in that definition, and what actions we must take to make concrete progress across sectors.

A blog from The Ecologist looks at the ethical dimensions of defining sustainability and provides a useful frame for questioning whether ‘sustainability’ is offering a transformative context for change—or just providing a justification to continue in the same ways, substituting some products for others but not changing our relationship to each other or the planet.

Any real change must begin with a deeper understanding of ourselves and our institutions as we engage in a changing world. Whether in wealthy suburban communities, inner cities, or war-torn regions, there are psychological manifestations of our disconnection from our place. The question “Is There An Ecological Unconscious?” raised in a recent article challenges the view that our problems are personal or societal—ecopsychology sees our behavior as intimately linked to our environment.

Seeing such a connection allows us to question our most basic assumptions about our relationships with the landscape and with each other. And it requires—in designing new systems for an emergent culture—that we approach such work in a radically different way. The next episode is a call to action—to continue the work that results in fundamental change on the level of our built environment and our relationship to the natural world. But it also demands that we see our world from a different perspective and adopt new models of leadership so that we can generate lasting change consciously, creatively and collaboratively.

January 2010