SHOULD THE PLANET BE A DESIGN PROJECT? The question appeared in big and bold type at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s recent exhibition The Future Starts Here, which called attention to transformative ideas and technologies that exist today but are not yet widely distributed. 1 The prompt to consider large-scale landscape change came near the end of the show, as if to remind visitors that the hundred or so objects on display might be used literally to shape the world, not only imaginations of it. The words were emblazoned on a long, open-top box containing fine-grained sand, which visitors could touch or sculpt. As they engaged with the exhibit, an overhead LiDAR sensor captured elevation data, and the simulated effects of topographic manipulation were projected onto the sand as colored light. Piling the sand high produced snowy peaks; excavating it resulted in rivers and lakes; in between were verdant slopes. The only constraint was the angle of repose.
The installation dramatized the extraordinary role humans play in environmental change. Improving lives and livelihoods by intensively transforming land into landscape — through agriculture, industry, and urbanism — we have brought about the Anthropocene, a geologic appellation which recognizes humanity as a force of nature. 2 Climate change is only the most visible effect; we might also consider the ways plant and animal species are evolving to live in our cities. 3 From this perspective, the planet has long been the product of design, if not its object. If we are now willing to accept our agency as planetary designers, there are new questions to consider, such as how we balance means and ends, or hopes and fears.
Security is a relatively new theme in design discourse, and a resonant one, underlying ambitious projects such as the Great Green Wall, which aims to slow desertification with tree plantings across the Sahel; the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, which connects North American habitat so that wildlife can adapt to climate change; the Dutch animation 2050—An Energetic Odyssey, which visualizes 25,000 wind turbines in the North Sea; and the National Ecological Security Pattern Plan for China, which we’ll discuss here. 4 But we should not embrace the concept of security without considering the consequences. As a matter of professional practice, landscape architects, architects, and civil engineers are licensed (at least in the United States) to promote the health, safety, and welfare of their clients, and the public at large. The change in focus, from safety to security, foregrounds existential fears. In defending ourselves from threats real and perceived, we need to consider whether the means of defense will ultimately destroy our relationships with what we seek to protect.
Economist Herbert Simon’s premise that “everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones” is a useful starting point for thinking about intentional change. 5 But design involves a great deal of uncertainty; design problems are often stated without a solid understanding of initial conditions, available options for action, or the desired end state. 6 These ambiguities are resolved through abduction. In science, an abductive conjecture provides a hypothesis to be tested for truth, whereas in design it is a proposition to guide the development of provisional thoughts that may be refined until they are judged as satisfying or not. The abductive proposition takes many forms, but it always ends with an argument for change. 7
Security is a relatively new theme in design discourse, and a resonant one. But we should not embrace the concept without considering the consequences.
The crafting of a design argument is often further complicated by “essentially contested concepts.” W. B. Gallie coined this phrase to recognize situations in which abstract ideas used to advance societal agendas are open to interpretation or challenge. 8 Examples include art, democracy, justice, and religion. In environmental design, the process of moving from a concept of goodness to material form can be hindered by competing models of cause and effect, or by having too much or too little data. So design logic is inherently contingent. Essentially contested concepts are used to frame abductive conjectures, which are in turn used to provisionally resolve — not permanently solve — wicked problems. 9
The National Ecological Security Pattern Plan for China, by Kongjian Yu and colleagues, states that security should be the primary goal of environmental design. 10 On one level, it’s hard to argue against security when we are surrounded by environmental precarity and uncertainty. And yet security is an essentially contested concept. To consider the securitization of an object or system we must understand how values — or in a more limited way, interests — are established, shared, and maintained. 11 Securitization reinforces the idea that there are aggressors and victims, actors on opposite sides of a dangerous situation. 12 And because survival is threatened, security trumps other political activities. We must therefore ask who within a society has authority to declare a security issue or threat, who has the responsibility to respond, and what (if any) are the limits of action. 13 And we have to recognize that improving security for one target can make others more vulnerable. 14 Prioritizing the security of the nation-state allows harm to people and environments — for example, fallout from nuclear arms testing or groundwater poisoning from lead and propellants. Conversely, prioritizing the security of the environment can harm the nation-state by limiting military operations, or harm people by limiting economic activities.
Imagine all the uncertainties about the future that people face and the actions they take to manage them. For simplicity, let’s assume these can be grouped into three categories. First, there are uncertainties that are privately inconvenient, which are addressed by personal care and habit, such as setting two alarm clocks to make sure an appointment is kept. Second, there are uncertainties that are socially important because they relate to collective health, safety, and welfare, which are typically addressed by routine government powers and sometimes by institutional support or markets. Finally, there are uncertainties that may cause existential harm. These require extraordinary intervention and are addressed through practices of security.
Securitization can limit the means of addressing environmental problems, by reducing our tool set to hierarchical and bureaucratic methods of statecraft.
For most of the 20th century, theories of security centered on the military defense of sovereign nation-states. The end of the Cold War, though, brought calls to expand the definition of security to include a wider range of concerns, including the environment. 15 Societies began to reevaluate how they define a “threat,” and to consider how ecological concerns affect health, economics, and political stability. 16 Many argued for holistic definitions of security that recognize transboundary issues larger than the state, as well as regional or personal issues within its borders. 17 In what was possibly the first high-profile consideration of the environment as a security concern, President George H. W. Bush revised the National Security Strategy to acknowledge the effects of transboundary environmental stress on political conflict. 18 The Clinton administration went further, arguing that deforestation, soil erosion, and water pollution had contributed to societal decay in Haiti, necessitating U.S. intervention. 19 But government interest in securitizing the environment goes beyond the obvious ties to national defense. The federal Farm Bill is now officially known as the Food Security Act, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is housed in the Department of Homeland Security. 20
Not everyone, though, favors the concept of environmental security. Placing ecological issues into national security discussions can confuse nonrenewable economic resources with renewable externalities, such as clean air and clean water. 21 And it allows the degradation of an ecosystem to be framed as a casualty of some other — often beneficial — intention. Finally, securitization can limit the means of addressing environmental problems, by reducing our tool set to the hierarchical and bureaucratic methods of statecraft deployed by nation-states. 22
Kongjian Yu, the lead author of the National Ecological Security Pattern Plan for China, and founder of the landscape planning firm Turenscape in Beijing, developed his early thinking about ecological security patterns as a doctoral student at Harvard in the 1990s. 23 He drew on theories and practices of environmental planning and design, a field which did not then intersect with the literature on environmental security that was advancing in security studies. Yu positioned security as a response to existential threats, drawing on Jerzy Kozlowski’s concept of ultimate environmental thresholds (which mark the point at which irreversible harm occurs) to qualify and quantify risk. 24 Notably, Yu was interested in the protection of systemwide processes that support continuing ecological function, not individual elements near collapse, such as endangered species. 25
Like Ian McHarg (whose Design with Nature he cited), Yu adopted the foundational premise of ecology, that we must attend to the storage, movement, and use of energy within a system. However, Yu regarded McHarg’s “layer cake” analytic techniques as necessary but insufficient; they enabled an understanding of vertical interactions (or energy relationships) but could not describe horizontal interactions. 26 Yu’s thesis demonstrated how to conceptualize and computationally model strategic positions and portions of the landscape to conserve, improve, and create those horizontal flows. One of the most important horizontal flows is water, which links heterogeneous ecosystems in a larger mosaic. Horizontal flows are also critical in supporting biodiversity through genetic exchange. 27
Kongjian Yu’s plan for China and other ecological security studies are successful examples of designing with nature. But what next? Are ecological systems to be securitized forever in this way? Is it expected that we will always be in crisis?
Yu’s National Ecological Security Pattern Plan was motivated by an announcement that China’s central government planned to create a New Socialist Countryside. 28 Concerned by the missteps the government had made in developing new urban areas, he wrote, uninvited, to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and suggested security pattern analysis and ecological infrastructure as a way of protecting the still healthy ecosystems and rich cultural heritage of rural areas. Within weeks, Yu was asked to assemble a team and create a plan. The team of about thirty professionals and doctoral students had one year to deliver a national-scale plan — synthesizing individual assessments for watershed headwater conservation, stormwater management and flood control, soil erosion, desertification, and biodiversity — that could guide detailed regional efforts. The scope of the undertaking is inspiring, and its methods were adopted by China’s Ministry of Land Resources.
By many standards, the Chinese plan and other ecological security studies are successful examples of designing with nature that can be celebrated without hyperbole as major accomplishments. But what next? Are ecological systems to be securitized forever in this way? What are the long-term implications of this rhetoric and the actions that follow? Securitization moves decisions out of routine political processes, and while doing so may benefit the object or system under protection, it also separates it from other aspects of society.
Some languages, including English, have two words for safety and security, which helps speakers distinguish between uncertainties that can be managed with formalized routines and those that demand emergency measures. Others, including Chinese and the Romance languages, do not make this distinction, so speakers must indicate it in other ways. We all need better language for contemplating the de-escalation of an emergency response.
Can it be imagined that designing with nature no longer requires extraordinary powers, but becomes a matter of routine safety?
Climate change and environmental degradation have pushed many people and landscapes beyond thresholds of resilience. 29 Humanity may eventually have no choice but to design the planet for our survival. However, the current language around ecological security is totalizing. Without providing a path for de-escalation, we risk diminishing or even denying necessary discussion and debate. Is it expected that we will always be in crisis? From the perspective of critical security studies, can it be imagined that designing with nature no longer requires extraordinary powers, but becomes a matter of routine safety? If not, our means — or worse, our imaginations — will be insufficient to confront the challenges we face.
Yes, existential threats provide just reason for exceptional actions in the name of security. However, taking such actions creates a paradox. Securitization focuses attention and establishes extraordinary practices in support of the protected object, but each compromise of cultural norms and social routines marginally and cumulatively changes our relationships with what we are trying to protect. As Michael Dillon wrote, “For something to be secured it must be acted upon and changed, forced to undergo some transformation through the very act of securing itself. Securing something therefore violates the very thing which security claims to have preserved as it is. Securing an object is only possible on the condition that the integrity of the original thing is destroyed.” 30
Making and remaking the landscape does not just change its topography; it also produces change in ecological relationships and values. In Design with Nature, the preposition with provides a pivot for possibilities. For McHarg, the task of environmental design is to find a fit between people and nature; we are instructed to design in accord with nature. There is a good amount of humility and flexibility in this approach. Yu and his colleagues also pursued a notion of fitness, which they tested with analytic techniques more advanced than those available to McHarg. The potential problem lies in the pursuit of their stated design logic — their chain of contingent thoughts to make an argument for change. Securitizing our planet’s ecological systems without a plan for de-escalation could result in alternate readings of that word, with. At one extreme, planetary design practices may reduce nature to a vestige, suggesting that somewhere within design a remnant nature is held as a possession. At the other extreme, with offers a lever for action. To design with nature means to take full command of natural processes as the primary tools of our own agency in producing change.
Which brings us back to The Future Starts Here, and its provocative challenge to consider the planet as a design project. Since the earliest times, people have shaped land according to their own image of what the world should be. 31 So it is not surprising to observe a feeling of instant gratification in museumgoers who are allowed the power to make mountains and carve seas. Nearby displays — like a model of Africa’s Great Green Wall and a golden spike encased in Lucite, symbolizing the Anthropocene — prompted visitors to think about large-scale geoengineering visions. And as if acting on cue, some people made sweeping transformations to the sand table, drawing long ridges and broad coastlines. Most visitors, though, made more discrete modifications close to where they were standing. They were careful not to interrupt the efforts of others, as if territorial borders existed. Even when no one else was around, many people respected well-shaped “existing” features as if they were protected natural wonders or cherished cultural sites. That humans often choose to limit the extent of our changes suggests that we, as a species, want to find a fit with nature and not fit nature through a totalizing narrative.