An Ecological Civilization is the Renaissance We’ve Been Waiting For
Six ingredients for a more resilient future
Quick note: for those who are new here (hi y’all!) just wanted to give you a bit of info about me. I work full time on the science team at a climate-focused nonprofit called One Earth. I also co-run a sustainable demonstration site, Solar Punk Farms, with my husband. All that to say.. my newsletters are unlikely to arrive at any orderly interval, but I do have quite a few in the queue! This is an article I wrote for One Earth which aligns well with what I do across all my interests: scheming for a more beautiful, resilient future!
Many see the Industrial Revolution as its own kind of Renaissance. Over the past 300 years it enabled an accumulation of wealth that the world has never before seen. Yet, industrialization and the fossil-fuels that aided its growth did not come without a price. As a recent report warns, six of nine planetary boundaries have been exceeded. This unprecedented material abundance is only enjoyed by some, yet has polluted and put at risk the whole world’s air, rivers, oceans, forests, and food, and has caused two of humanity’s largest crises: climate change and the biodiversity crisis. The era of the industrial civilization is foreclosing on itself, and many are now pointing to the need for an ecological civilization to take its place. This would be a true Renaissance, where human and ecological flourishing alike are at the center of everything we do.
Before industrialization, humanity existed in an agricultural civilization during which productivity was low and people were organized around meeting basic needs. The industrial civilization ushered in a new high-productivity era that inevitably affected peoples’ values, lifestyles, beliefs, and the institutions that governed them. An ecological civilization will similarly necessitate a major paradigm shift. As Jeremy Lent asserts in “What Does An Ecological Civilization Look Like?”, we need “a transformation in the way we make sense of the world, and a concomitant revolution in our values, goals, and collective behavior.”
From Latin, ecology means “knowledge of home” and ecological means the “applied knowledge of home.” While the old industrial system is characterized by an indifference to how life on this planet works, an ecological civilization operates with ecological principles at its core – with behaviors, values, goals, and institutions organized around the applied knowledge of life on Earth.
In her book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Janine Benyus outlines some of Life’s Principles here on Earth:
“Life runs on sunlight. Life rewards cooperation. Life builds from the bottom up. Life banks on diversity. Life recycles everything. Life builds resilience through diversity, decentralization, and redundancy. Life optimizes rather than maximizes. Life selects for the good of the whole system. In short, life creates the conditions conducive to life.”
Inspired by Benyus’ Life’s Principles and the work of sustainable development scholar, Jiahua Pan, I created 6 ingredients for an ecological civilization.
6 Ingredients for an Ecological Civilization
1. Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency
With few exceptions, life on Earth runs on energy from the sun, either directly in the case of plants, or indirectly in the case of animals and fungi. In times of plenty, all living things learn to chemically store energy to ride out times of need. An ecological civilization will operate on a similar strategy, using 100% renewable energy aided by storage to buffer the intermittent nature of solar and wind. A civilization based on a finite energy source such as fossil fuels exposes itself to all sorts of risks. Increasingly, the renewable energy transition is being seen not just as a win for the environment but also a way to ensure a more resilient and local source of energy.
Just as Life wastes nothing, citizens of the ecological civilization will use energy much more wisely. We will adopt new technologies and behaviors to minimize our energy needs while optimizing our quality of life. As the IPCC highlights in its Sixth Assessment Report, lowering demand through efficiency measures would “significantly reduce” the challenge of reaching net zero emissions, lower pressure on land, and decrease our dependence on unproven technologies like carbon capture. The better we are at efficiency, the easier the transitioning our energy system and creating an ecological civilization will be.
2. Sustainable Urbanization
A notable shift brought on by industrialization was the urbanization of humanity. Nearly all of humanity lived in rural areas before the 1700s, but now over 55% of people live in cities, a number that will likely continue to rise. While density has its environmental benefits, the rapid urbanization of humanity has been rife with environmental impacts. An ecological civilization will construct cities and the transportation systems within and between them in such a way that they enhance surrounding ecosystems instead of degrade them.
Renewable public transit, walkable cities, pollinator pathways, green construction, and wildlife corridors are some ways in which cities will be reimagined in a more sustainable and healthy future. In an admirable effort, Paris is seeking to make its famous Seine river swimmable again which will require a transformation in how the city functions. However difficult these changes may be, the results will enhance the overall quality of life in cities, giving us drinkable water, breathable air, beautiful scenery, liberating mobility, and healthy living spaces.
3. Sustainable Industry & Consumption
Between the low productivity agricultural civilization and the toxic, over-productive industrial civilization, the ecological civilization will seek to hit the Goldilocks zone of productivity: equitably meeting people’s needs while only sourcing natural materials at a rate they can be sustainably replenished. The ecological civilization paradigm will seek to create high-quality, long-lasting, healthy, and eco-friendly products capable of being cycled back into industry or safely composted into our ecosystems. In this Goldilocks zone, industry will operate without greenhouse gas emissions but will still continue to innovate, often learning from nature’s ingenuity to provide us with healthy and fulfilling lives.
Our behaviors, not just our products, will need to evolve as well. Everyday people will need to consume more efficiently and shift from a throwaway, single-use mindset to one more in-line with a circular economy: learning to rethink, refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, and recycle. This type of behavior will become emergent and aspirational in an ecological civilization where social values have shifted in-line with ecological thinking.
4. Ecological Abundance, Biodiversity, and Resilience
According to the scholar Roy Morrison, an ecological civilization will exhibit a “global convergence of ecological norms,” meaning around the world, people will understand the importance of protecting and enriching the ecosystems we all rely on. Not only do in-tact ecosystems help mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon in their soils, roots, and shoots, they also increase our resilience to more extreme weather. Mangrove forests reduce the impact of tsunamis, oysters act as natural water purifiers and reduce the strength of waves, and forests create their own rain and cool surrounding areas. Protecting these areas will benefit our civilization in numerous ways and also provide habitat for the non-human creatures who also rely on them.
As a rule, promoting biodiversity increases ecosystem resilience, which is why One Earth spearheaded “A global deal for nature,” which introduced the 30 by 30 conservation target in peer-reviewed literature — protecting and conserving 30% of the world’s lands and oceans by 2030. The follow-on paper, “A global safety net,” (GSN) published the first comprehensive map of all land areas critically important for biodiversity and ecosystem services. It also found that at least 37% of these areas are under Indigenous territorial governance, demonstrating the importance of centering Indigenous territorial rights in the global conservation agenda. Like a “blueprint for saving life on Earth”, the GSN allows people to zoom into a global map and see the areas that need protection by state, country, ecoregion, and bioregion. We hope this visual tool can help shift the way people see the world and our role in protecting its most biodiverse places.
5. Ecological Institutions
When industrialization began, it needed institutional support to foster its growth. This need created capitalism, neoliberal politics, and globalization. Any civilizational transition will require similar support from a suite of new regulatory systems. An ecological civilization will rely on institutions adapted to governing and accelerating the transition to a sustainable economy. A few examples might include legal protections for our ecosystems – including rivers, forests, mountains, oceans and animals – as has been done in Chile, New Zealand, Ecuador, and India. It also would include how businesses are organized, specifically expanding the scope of a business's stakeholders to include not just shareholders, but the health of their consumers and the environment.
It would also require a shift away from GDP as the primary metric of success and toward more holistic indicators of health like a Quality of Life Index, Gross National Happiness, or the Happy Planet Index. In many ways the industrial civilization is characterized by a simplistic drive toward maximizing a single metric: return on capital. An ecological civilization, like Life itself, will be much more comprehensive and complex in its behavior, seeking to optimize for all life on earth.
6. Equitable Distribution of Power and Resources
Many of the ills of the industrial society are caused by inequality and a globalization machine that flattens both cultural and ecological diversity. An ecological civilization would reverse this process, understanding that “life builds resilience through diversity, decentralization, and redundancy.” Ensuring equitable distribution of resources helps achieve decentralization of power and ability. As Wade Davis describes in his book about the importance of cultural diversity, “the plight of diverse cultures is not a simple matter of nostalgia or even of human rights alone, but a serious issue of geopolitical stability and survival.”
Local cultures can be seen as social technologies adapted to their ecological niche. People with strong relationships to their lands are the most equipped to solve the issues they're closest to, but only if they are provided the resources and governmental authority necessary. Beyond straightforward issues of justice, ensuring the equitable distribution of resources across a network makes the entire network stronger and helps achieve climate resilience by decentralizing people’s ability to address problems as they arise. Climate change will present an everywhere all at once crisis in which we will all play our part. Every corner of the globe needs to be equipped to meet the challenge so we can all prosper.
Dr. Roy Morrison, Director of the Office for Sustainability at Southern New Hampshire University, notes that “the scope of transition from industrial to ecological civilization is comprehensive. It is philosophical, social and spiritual as well as transforming all aspects of what and how we do things and value things.” We think these changes will become manifest in a transition to renewable energy, sustainable cities, circular industry, protected lands, ecological institutions, and an equitable distribution of resources.
We believe the concept of an ecological civilization is a clarion call for the more perfect future we can all rally behind. We find it an immensely important framework that places us at an incredibly decisive juncture along the continuum of humanity’s development. At One Earth, our mission is to empower everyone, everywhere, with the knowledge, inspiration, and opportunity to heal the earth and reclaim our future. We think an ecological civilization is the future we all deserve and should be striving toward.
Pan, Jiahua. China's environmental governing and ecological civilization. Berlin: Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2016.
Richardson, Katherine. Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries. Science Advances, 2023.
Lent, Jeremy. What Does An Ecological Civilization Look Like?. Yes Magazine, 2021.
Morrison, Roy. Ecological Civilization. Meer magazine, 2022.
Benyus, Janine. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.
Kate Raworth. Doughnut Economics.
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