Nature Knows: Diversity

I attended Greenbuild, the international Green Building conference, just before Thanksgiving, and had the great pleasure of listening to President Obama speak with the CEO of the USGBC, Mahesh Ramanujam. He spoke of many things: what he doesn’t miss from his last job (the fuss, the Presidential suite), what he does miss (Air Force 1, with its bed and shower on long trips), how he is now being schooled by his kids, and how life is much slower now.

He talked about leadership. How he cherished having smarter people around him, and sought always to increase diversity. Not diversity for the sake of diversity, but to attempt to fill in the gaps in perception that everyone, including himself, has. He explained that the decisions made by diverse groups will always be stronger and more successful, due to being more broadly and deeply informed.

That’s a leader.

I suggest that Barack Obama has heeded lessons from Mother Nature that many of us have missed. Nature is complex, diverse, and interdependent. She is so in order to increase overall strength and resilience of the complete systems. This complexity also creates incredible co-benefits where one existing resident benefits from the waste of another. 

When we create monocultures in our designed surroundings we create a situation where waste is truly that – a waste.

Nature (as interpreted by the author)

When we create monocultures in our work environments, the same thing occurs. If we have a team of procurement specialists working on contracts and processes, for example, but there is no one from the consultant realm to inform the work and share what requirements in the process are truly onerous, and to indicate what included requirements are upping the prices, this is a waste of time, money, and effort. We will become more efficient in procurement, perhaps, but more efficient at doing the wrong things. If we were to build and grow the relationships tied to every aspect of the complete process, fill in the gaps of knowledge through diversity, we would come to a better end product serving far more people with less “friction”.

Nature has illustrated the strength and success in diversity every single day, and for the longest time, and continuing now. We ignore this lesson at our peril. 

  • We build monoculture mega farms and then lament as disease kills off our crops, so we genetically engineer corn to resist the known diseases and we genetically modify certain bacteria and soy to survive even stronger applications of pesticides. 
  • We plant lawns around our houses, and then wail and moan about the hours mowing and fertilizing and we pay services to come and broad-spray pesticides that are toxic to our kids and our pets (and us), thinking that those little yellow flags will somehow protect us. 
  • We strip out all of the trees and bushes and grasses along the shore of our rivers, to improve our access and our views, not realizing that the intricate collaboration between those vegetations are what is (was) keeping the river edge stable. 
  • We use zoning to protect, but instead ensure division. We regulate that residences are “here” and industry is “over there” and schools are “there”, forcing us to build our cities for cars, not people, in order to navigate between those places, thus ensuring creation of systemically driven economic and health disparity.

How would Nature deal with each of the examples above? She would do these things in ways that take more fore-thought and planning, and may be more difficult to implement because they seem “messy”, at least by our current standards of simplistic efficiency. Yet the outcomes will be of infinitely greater value.

  • We must move to smaller and layered farms. I have yet to watch the film “The Biggest Little Farm”, but the preview shows a currently exceptional example that truly needs to become the normal approach. This farm produces more than anyone could imagine possible.
  • We need to eliminate the lawn as part of a home and part of a tech park, and embrace a community approach to play areas, encouraging a wide and fanciful array of parks, picnic spots, community gardens, and playgrounds to share. This will build community, reduce pesticide use, and optimize our neighborhood investments. See an example at our home.
  • We need to respect the riparian and shoreline systems of nature and provide access for people as well. Weave walkways between the trees, brush, and grasses and help the water’s edge to build up the redundant and diverse layers of protection that are needed. There are many projects engaging in such things along the Hudson and the edges of NY city, for example. A straight river with hard edges flows dangerously fast. A river with weaving rolling shoreline is slowed for better nutrient transfer to the soils, and for far greater safety for the area.
  • We must move to zoning that focuses on the needed end goals, not on a restriction or segmenting of life. Provision of light, access to clean water, elimination of toxins, acoustic parameters, and support of complete streets that are not solely designed for cars (in fact, may restrict cars). In this way an industry can move in next to my house if it ensures the safety of its processes. Schools can exist closer to businesses and people will travel less, wasting less time, money, and resources. We won’t relegate people with developmental disabilities to the fringes of our communities where they become “other” than us. Check out the Barcelona Superblock concept.

Nature teaches us about diversity, every day. 

Perhaps we can also heed President Obama’s words … “It starts with people having memories of communities and what that felt like.” There. Community is a natural system at its most beneficial. And thinking at the scale and complexity of “community” is just one way we can all be greener,


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