Designing the Culture of Tomorrow

I am a firm believer that many of the waste streams, impoverishments, and toxic effects of human culture are design flaws. This, to me, is a message of hope, because design flaws can be un-designed and re-designed. We are not talking about irreversible realities like gravity or doomed human nature. Human civilization does not need to auto-destruct unless it has been designed to auto-destruct. In fact, every civilization that came before us that went extinct is a precious lesson in how not to repeat those mistakes.
Of course, this is not to overly simplify the challenge ahead of us. Each of us is designing human culture every day with the unfolding of our choices and life-narratives. What we eat, how we live, what we find unacceptable. There are a lot of moving parts. We are mysterious composites of beings making choices within predetermined structural realities – if that’s not a paradox, I don’t know what is.
Examples of ‘structural externalities’ include food, waste, buildings, and various systems (such as industrial, political, and energy systems). Structural externalities also include cultural assumptions, values, taboos, and norms. And while marinated in the environment and heredity we find ourselves in, we make pivotal choices along the way. These choices, added together, manifest into design. The design of our material human world and the design of the interior principals we live by.
Of course, humans have been debating free will versus predestination since they could debate. Are all our choices determined by what came before us, or are we free to make a difference? But for me, the co-existence of both realities is evident in our very genes. The study of epigenetics shows that while our genes represent a blueprint of pre-dispositions, lifestyle choices and individual experiences trigger which genes are activated or deactivated. In other words, genes, one of the most basic mechanisms of evolution, indicate that it is possible to operate within pre-determined structural realities but to, in turn, bend the activation of those parameters, and even forge new pathways. Choices, like lifestyle choices, alter genetic expression. Considering this is the entire mechanism by which evolution, well, evolves, I think we can safely assume it is operational in our lives, design, and culture.
It’s funny how the question of free will versus predeterminism is reflected in our dualistic political system. On the conservative side, the emphasis is on personal autonomy and choice. If someone is in jail, it is quite simply because their choices got them there, and they deserve it. There is an under-acknowledgment that external systems, biases, and structures have also contributed to that prisoner’s confinement. These external forces could range from nutritional deficiencies, and behavior-altering medications to the fact that a penalty for the same crime might vary from county to county, and the prisoner was the wrong color in the wrong county. Or that society has let a person down to such an extent that he or she was driven to desperation.
On the other side of the political spectrum, liberalism tends to over-emphasize structural pre-determination and ignore individual freewill. This stance denies the many cases of individuals overcoming tremendous odds, cultural biases, and personal hardship, achieving greatness nevertheless. Liberalism can become so accustomed to finger-pointing at ‘sad or bad’ externalities that the power of individual choice is ignored.
I mention politics because our political reality exerts such a strong influence on how culture evolves. This past century we have seen free-market capitalism on the right, with its emphasis on individual rights over collective rights…and communism on the left, with its favoring of collective rights over the individual. Both have been flip sides of the same coin: forms of profiteering that assume natural resource depletion as a sacred right.
The political hybrid required by the 21st century is one that prioritizes individual rights, collective rights, and the rights of nature to regenerate. Because of the latter, this is not merely some moderate ‘middle way’ between capitalism and communism. The inclusion of nature means designing a new political circuitry altogether. And while some interpret the ‘rights of nature’ as some novel form of government intrusion, it is in the interests of all of us, as individuals and a collective, to prevent the paving of paradise.
When it comes to crafting a sustainable culture, we need to acknowledge that social, political, and industrial constructs can be re-designed according to biological principals, and designed for success. Nature is teaching us every day what works and doesn’t work. For example, that competition must be balanced with mutualism. That there is no such thing as waste. That external, collective forces shape individuals but that individuals also catalyze mass movements. That creative processes need to embrace failure, iteration, and experimentation. That diversity brings us security. That failure to adapt is fatal.
As the old saying goes, don’t sh*t where you sleep. These common-sense evolutionary principals are strikingly missing from the operations and ethics of our culture. No wonder it seems determined to auto-destruct. We need to open our eyes, soak in the lessons from billions of years, and re-design our society.
We can do it. It’s in our very genes.

Emily Majewski
Emily Majewski is Co-Founder of PHYTOSTONE, a small firm based in Nayarit dedicated to creating advanced natural materials for home and garden.