Afther the green revolution, time for the ‘brown’ and ‘blue’ revolutions

Excerpted from a lecture by John Thackara, at the occasion of the Buckminster-Fuller Challenge and design award:

In addition to the million-plus grassroots projects of restorative economy; and in addition to community-scale networks like Transition Towns; a third zone of activity, also outside the design tent, is also amplifying the reach of systems thinking beyond the academy.

This is the emergence of projects that engage with resource efficiency as a social process, not a technical one. Our BFC winner last year, Operation Hope, exemplified this.

Simply explained, Operation Hope was about the use of cattle to reverse the spread of deserts around the world. But its back story was about the ways energy and nutrients are circulated in natural ecosystems and how humans could learn from this.

I believe all of us on the jury were surprised when we selected , as our clear winner, such a starkly post-Green Revolution and post fossil-fuel project. We seem instinctively to have marked a step beyond the green revolution which, with its hyper-industrialized agriculture, involved massive inputs of petro-chemicals and herbicides, monoculture cropping, and confinement animal feeding operations. Yes, the Green Revolution increased global food production tremendously – but it severely degraded its ecological base in the process. Project Hope, in contrast, stood for what its founder Allan Savory calls a new ‘Brown Revolution’ that is based on the regeneration of covered, organically rich, biologically thriving soil and brought to fruition via millions of human beings returning to the land and the service intensive production of food.

The fundamental difference between Operation Hope and what went before is that it was – is – about wholes, not parts. Unlike the subject specialization of the industrial growth economy, Savory’s approach is based on the idea that things can have properties as a whole that are not explainable from the sum of the parts.

The same goes for this year’s remarkable winner, Blue Ventures.

By connecting conservation with wealth creation Blue Ventures has found a way to help fishing communities in the developing world experience a counter-intuitive reality: that saving fish doesn’t mean starvation, it means surviving and prospering.

As Alasdair Harris, Blue Venture’s founder and research director told us, “the way we approach marine conservation is not just about setting up protected areas. It’s about alleviation of poverty, empowering women, reducing gender inequity. All those things, from sex and reproductive health to education are directly relevant to conservation. We work in a multidisciplinary, holistic way.”

At the scale of the city, or the city-region, this kind of multi-dimensional, multi-scalar, multi-temporal restorative design re-imagines the man-made world as being one element among a complex of co-dependent ecologies: energy, water, food, production, and information. It takes natural biodiversity and its starting point – with special emphasis on bioregions, foodsheds and watersheds.

It’s not about back-to-nature. It’s about enabling these different ecologies and flows and networks help each other.”

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