The Spring of the Organic Revolution

Bringing technological progress in line with nature is not only good for our environment - it's also good for ourselves.

Follow the science. In an age of pandemics, climate change and other current and predicted disasters, this has become the mantra of political messaging. It doesn’t seem to be working.

All the metrics from global institutions pointing towards a better world than before — one of the favourites being the reduction of absolute poverty in the world — yet there has never been more disillusionment with the ‘March of Progress’. There is instead an increasingly common view that science is part of the problem, not the solution.

This view is a result of the way that science has been done over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. No longer trying to understand nature as it is, scientists and engineers came to see themselves as masters of it.

This is a story about how a new relationship with nature can change the way science is carried out. It is told with the stories of three books and the people who wrote them.

The Existential Pleasures of Engineering - Samuel C. Florman

At the height of the Vietnam war, a civil engineer named Samuel C. Florman was invited to give a speech at the New York Academy of Sciences. He was asked to consider engineering from a philosophical point of view, at a time when technology was increasingly identified with greed, war and man-made armageddon. Scientists and engineers were considered a part of the materialistic establishment that propagated it all. Florman called his speech The Existential Pleasures of Engineering. Itresonated. At least, with engineers.

In the book of the same name, published in 1976, Florman explored this disillusionment with technological progress.

“All about us the sense of disenchantment with technology appears to be growing. No one ... can ignore the fall of the engineer from the dizzying heights he once occupied... . With the coming of the environmental crisis, our relationship to society has changed. We cannot—should not—pretend that ... a hundred space spectaculars can restore things to what they were.”- Samuel Florman.

Despite this sentiment, the rate of progress has actually sped up. Technology isn’t going to go way. It has offered us comforts and conveniences which we are all reluctant to give up in one way or another. For every person who is happy to reduce their air travel, there is another who decides to eat less meat. To each of us, there is something that we would find difficult to live without in the short term, even it we have a sense that the long term consequences are disastrous. ‘It is clear,’ Florman says, ‘that our survival and the salvaging of our environment are more dependent on technology, not less.’

What if there was a different way to apply the tools of science and engineering in a way that really bring existential pleasure to society more broadly. One that didn’t force an apparent trade off between progress and disaster. The inklings of an answer can be found in a book that was published the year before Florman’s, by a Japanese farmer who had completely rejected agricultural technology and human scientific progress altogether.

The One-Straw Revolution - Masanobu Fukuoka

In 1930s Japan, a microbiologist named Masanobu Fukuoka was working as an agricultural customs inspector. One day, at the age of 25, he had an epiphany:

“Humanity knows nothing at all. There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is futile meaningless effort.’- Masanobu Fukuoka.

Fukuoka set out to prove that this idea was true. He quit his job and returned his father’s farm, where he had grown up.

After seeing a rice plant flourishing in an abandoned field filled with uncut straw, Fukuoka posited that much of what farmers did to increase their yields was unnecessary. He developed a farming method which involved no ploughing, no weeding and no use of chemical fertiliser or insecticides. Instead of looking at what techniques could be added to increase yields, Fukuoka looked at what could be eliminated. He called his approach ‘do-nothing farming’.

Fukuoka’s yield often exceeded that of traditional and modern farming methods while also improving the quality of the soil. And yet, his method did not become widespread, even in Japan, despite the fact that scientist and researchers from the country came to visit his farm. Fukuoka’s complaint was that each of them only considered his farm from the perspective of their narrow speciality — soil composition, insect damage, plant metabolism — and failed to see how the entire natural system interacted.

‘Scientists think they can understand nature. That is the stand they take. Because they are convinced they can understand nature, they are committed to investigating nature and put it to use. But I think an understanding of nature lies beyond the reach of human intelligence.’- Masanobu Fukuoka.

In 1973, a conference was held by the Agricultural Management Research centre in Japan. The main topic of discussion was pollution, a great deal of which was caused by the runoff of chemicals used in agriculture. When Fukuoka suggested that the use of chemicals be suspended and that his method be tried more broadly, he was told that his remarks were upsetting the conference.

Two years later, he wrote a book, The One Straw Revolution, which outlined his technique and his philosophy. It proved to be extremely influential amongst hippies, especially those who wanted to make a practical difference instead of continuing to protest in the hope that society would listen and change.

Despite his disdain for the way science is often appleid, Fukuoka’s thinking and approach is fundamentally scientific.

He said this in a 1982 interview:

‘The real path to natural farming requires that a person know what unadulterated nature is, so that he she can instinctively understand what needs to be done — and what must not be done — to work in harmony with its processes.’- Masanobu Fukuoka.

Fukuoka’s approach of harmonising nature has a certain appeal, if not in industry itself then in the public consciousness. It is becoming more apparent that by understanding nature, organisms and genetics it is possible to have both technological progress and environmental sustainability.

At the forefront of this field is an MIT professor whose work combines science and nature in ways that are surprising and inspirational.

Material Ecology - Neri Oxman

In 1976 — the same year that Florman penned is defence of 'the art of making science practical’— Neri Oxman was born in Haifa, Israel. Both of her parents were architects and  as a child she would often visit her grandmother’s garden. Culture and nature. After completing a PhD at MIT in 2010, Oxman formed the Mediated Matter Group at the college's Media Lab. She had come to the conclusion that the fourth industrial revolution would include an element that was missing from the previous three — biology. Technological progress could involve nature in a much more direct way.

‘The arc begins with nature inspired design and ends with design inspired nature.’ - Neri Oxman.

Pioneering the field of Material Ecology, Oxman and her team use computational design, additive manufacturing, materials engineering and synthetic biology to create experiments, projects, artworks and scientific breakthroughs.

Their work has appeared on runways, in scientific journals and recent retrospective exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art which spawned a catalogue.

A key characteristics of their work is to draw on the way that structures are formed in nature — through growth rather than assembly. One of their most well-known projects, the Silk Pavilion (2013), illustrates this.

The Silk Pavilion explores the relationship between digital and biological fabrication on product and architectural scales.

The Mediated matter Group are now planning to commercialise their research, by creating a new kind of company at the intersection of architecture, science, design and biotech. Their approach points to a future where technology and nature could become complimentary. As Oxman is fond of saying, ‘Mother nature and she will mother you back.’  

The future is to follow the nature.

An Organic Future

Imagine a solar energy gatherer, tall and slim, which autonomously tracks the position of the sun, turning its small, modular appendages to the optimal energy gathering angle. Noting the abundance of light in the area, it uses some of the energy it has absorbed to produce a copy of itself. It does this by bundling the digital blueprints of its design and some fuel into a small, chemical package which then falls from the initial gatherer onto the ground.

Using the energy from the fuel, as well as water from rain and the ground, the new gatherer is assembled according to the blueprints, as the necessary raw materials are gathered from the soil around it. In time, a second, fully-grown gatherer stands next to the first. Sensing that there is still yet more abundance of light and minerals in the area, the gatherers replicate again and now there are four.

This process continues until some resource, either light, water or minerals becomes scarce, the limiting factor to further replication. Should any of the resources start to deplete, some of the gatherers can shut down, temporarily or permanently, in the latter case allowing themselves to decay so that the minerals they contain can support the others.

Almost all human technology is produced by assembly. The individual components are made and put together piece by piece. It has also largely been made using inorganic materials, which lack a certain depth of physical and chemical relationship with biological organisms. Yet, many of these designs are inspired by nature and as we understand more about nature, the way we design, make and compute is becoming more aligned with organic processes.

Genetic algorithms use the patterns of population and evolution to generate optimal solutions to complex design problems. Through technologies such as 3D printing, products and structures are being grown layer by layer, in some cases with biodegradable or purely biological materials. Developments in DNA computing use the life-informing molecule to perform parallel calculations at tiny scales beyond the reducibility of semi-conductor transistors. The genes in other organisms and within our own bodies are becoming increasing understood and editable, allowing us to modify existing lifeforms and create new ones entirely.

We draw a distinction artificial versus natural, yet there is no fundamental difference between a skyscraper and a beehive. Both start with naturally occurring, raw materials, transmuted to another form and used to create a structure. Both are subject to the same physics and chemistry. Neither would appear spontaneously were the necessary atoms left alone long enough (infinity notwithstanding). Both are the result of a group and similar enough organisms working in some kind of coordination to construct them.

The recognition of broader intelligences in nature may erode this distinction over time. There is some evidence that the rate of solution finding in nature is far higher than one would expect from purely random mutation, raising the spectre of intelligent design, intelligence not necessarily being isolated cognition in single entities but an emergent phenomena, a collective consciousness born from the flow of information that is life.

If we see ourselves as just another part of nature, neither master nor custodian, our technology and societies may begin to reflect an understanding of some of the fundamental aspects of nature. The objects we make will be able to return to nature when we no longer need them and be reused by ourselves and other organisms at a sustainable rate, in the same way that our bodies return to nature, the chemical components consumed by other organisms.

We may appreciate that evolution through death, decay and rebirth are necessary parts of the life cycle and build that understanding into our systems. Rather than resisting, with a mind toward perpetual growth, bitterly fighting the stagnation in a way that so often leads to unnecessary conflict, we could recognise the need for reform and renewal. Chaos is coupled with the opportunity to establish new orders.

Our awe of nature may disappear, but so too will our fear. Accepting the inherent beauty in the finite nature of life and the inevitability of our own demise, stimulating empathy and urgency. Death and renewability are two and the same and inheritance maintains the connection.