Symbiosis And Living Machines

[reblogged from Cooperation Commons]
Human-Plant/Animal Species Symbiosis

The nature of human cooperation with other species is now largely a based upon a symbiotic structure that has changed very little since the dawn of agriculture in early human civilization.

This symbiotic relationship has consisted mostly of humans selectively breeding, raising and caring for different plant and animal species for the purpose of harvesting certain by-products from the plants and animals. Plants and animals are removed and isolated as much as possible from their ecosystems. If some controllable ecosystem-level benefit can be found, such as bees pollinating fruit trees, then it is allowed and encouraged to happen. But for the most part, plants and animals are reduced to individual and isolated “units”, to be raised and consumed. Plants and animals are isolated and developed by species, and little note is taken about possible advantages to be had from inter-species interaction.

Recently, some have started to look at the human symbiotic relationship with plans and animals from an ecosystem perspective. An ecosystem is a “living machine” that feeds, cleans, regulates, renews, and adapts itself. It is also a complex web of diverse inter-species relationships. If you really think about it, we’ve lived for thousands of years under the original human paradigm of agriculture. The “Green Revolution” really only enhanced and improved that paradigm. But, it did not obsolete it.

Designing Living Machines

Our recent understanding of the symbiotic nature and processes of ecosystems has led people to start looking at human technological processes , and designing ways to take advantage of the qualities that different species have evolved naturally for dealing with many different problems.

One example is human “waste” water. Some estimates are that developed-world households produce on average, nearly 586 L of waste water per day. Most of this water is simply “treated” with chemicals, and then released into rivers and lakes.

It’s been discovered, however, in the last few decades, that ecosystems of plants and micro-organisms are able to very effectively clean human waste water, while also contributing to scrubbing greenhouse gasses like Carbon Dioxide, and other air pollutants out of the atmosphere.

William McDonough has done some “living machine” work on the Rogue River Plant in Detroit. McDnough has shown effective ways to design natural living systems as effective and affordable replacements to human technological processes.

MIT architect Mitchell Joachim of the Media Lab’s Smart Cities group envisions houses that people grow instead of building.

Image from

This idea would not just “save” trees, it would increase them. It would also help people create habitats that cost less to heat and cool. Tree-homes could also be designed to attract bird and bat species that consume biting insects like mosquitoes.

Right now, the technology and knowledge exists for humans to replace many processes with sustainable “living machine” ecosystems. But, there is a cultural inertia with ancient ingrained symbiotic nature of our current relationship with plants and animals. Yet, at the same time, there is a whole new industry of opportunities waiting to be tapped into.

Suggested Reading

Ecological Design:

Cradle To Cradle” by William McDonough and Michael Braungart

Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins

Nature’s Operating Instructions: The True Biotechnologies (The Bioneers Series) by Kenny Ausubel and J. P. Harpignies

From Eco-Cities to Living Machines: Principles of Ecological Design by Nancy Jack Todd and John Todd


Cooperation Commons Summaries: Keyword: Bioeconomy

Cooperation Commons Summaries: Keyword: Ecology

The Enriching Project TeleCommunity: review research, or register and add your own.

P2P Wiki: Open Source Ecology, Ecological Economics,

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