A Biophiliac’s Plan for the Future of the Design Industry

Emily Noelle Morabito - Culture and Philosophy


Staring out the window as the plane touched down into Charlotte Douglas International Airport, I realized that in every previous descent I had failed to notice the surrounding expanse of pines, oaks, and intermittently strewn wild grass welcoming the planes into their concrete fields. It was my first visit home to South Carolina after living in New York City and with it arose a new sensation, so viscerally unfamiliar, that the copper taste of onset nausea welled on the back of my tongue. Travel induced exhaustion lulled me to sleep on the drive from the airport to my parents house, but when the car pulled into the driveway I kicked off my shoes and jumped out of the car to feel the grass and clover between my toes. Beneath my bare feet, the wild carpet of my childhood brought uncontrollable tears falling down my face. These tears were not nostalgia induced, they were not born of homesickness. These tears were the epiphany of a biophiliac who was breathing fresh air again after months of city smog and soiled concrete. 

A revolution is surfacing in design. Within contemporary culture, many have become disconnected from nature and reliant on the facade of man-made environments. Those that currently hold power in design based industries view nature as raw material for use and disposal that makes mass production possible on a scale large enough to satisfy modern material culture. As a species, humans have over consumed what the planet has provided, ignoring resulting pollution, rising sea levels, and warming temperatures among the countless other symptoms of climate change.

Looking to the future, collectively fostering connection with our deeper biophilic nature will be crucial if earth is to continue supporting ever-growing human population density. Introducing biophilia into systems of education, design, and industry invites people to experience a deeper connection with nature by harnessing innate aesthetic and utilitarian human values of nature. More simply put, if culture were designed around biophilia, resources would be used only as needed, raw materials would be borrowed and returned rather than plundered, and mass industries would be more concerned with preserving resources instead of expending them.

Understanding Biophilia

In 1974, Biologist Edward O. Wilson defined biophilia theory as the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. Innate means hereditary and hence a part of human nature.” Biophilia was born in our earliest ancestors as they developed love and reverence for the natural world because it provided them with all available means of survival. Those that failed to develop gratitude fell victim to natural selection simply because they were unable to recognize the vital elements of nature. Through evolutionary processes this gene remained present in those with strength enough to beat natural selection and intelligence enough to acknowledge that the Earth allowed their endurance.

Stephen Kellert, Professor of Social Ecology at Yale University and leading expert in biophilic design asserts: The biophilia hypothesis proclaims a human dependence on nature that extends far beyond the simple issues of material and physical sustenance to encompass as well the human craving for aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even spiritual meaning and satisfaction.” Kellert categorizes biophilia theory into nine human values of nature inclusive of utilitarian, naturalistic, ecologistic-scientific, aesthetic, symbolic, humanistic, dominionistic, moralistic, and negativistic. These values are essentially the ways that biophilia is expressed in daily human interaction with the world. 

The Aesthetic Value of Nature

The search for the perfect red tomato in the supermarket, the vase of flowers that adorns the kitchen table, human attraction to symmetry, and the ability to find beauty in color are all manifestations of the aesthetic value of nature. Subconscious psychological reactions (positive or negative) to visual information that has been absorbed and processed by humans on a daily basis for generations define patterns of evolutionary preference toward the elements of nature that are understood as beautiful. Early humans’ learned indebtedness to flowering trees relies on the subliminal knowledge that the blossoms on those trees attracted honeybees and promised fruit. Centuries later, people who depend on distant agricultural systems to deliver fruit into their greedy palms flock to cherry blossom festivals in April for what reason? Beauty. 

Kellert asserts “the sense of aesthetic pleasure and emotional enticement associated with nature is, in Wilson’s view, the ‘central issue of biophilia.’” Wilson believed that it was aesthetics that initiated gratitude and first provoked biophilia as humans did not yet understand their origins and therefore sought what was most conveniently perceivable, visual information the most tangible of these cues. 

Learning Biophilia

More than ever, biophilic tendencies continue to grow dormant due to lack of human contact with the aesthetics of wild beauty, especially in the children of generation Z. Children that grow up within urban landscapes or the overly manicured facades of suburbia can fall especially victim as their development lacks true exposure to the aesthetic value of nature. Generation Z is likely the first of many to spend most of their childhoods enveloped in screens and artificial amusement. Kids that learn synthesized ideas of the natural world from television and textbooks may never have the chance to activate their biophilia if there is no space or encouragement for them to hunt four leaf clovers or spend afternoons immersed in the foraged architecture of their imaginations. If children are never given an opportunity to be wild and see wild, then they may never understand what it means to love the wild.

However, solutions that consider the importance of environmental aesthetics are being designed by those that desire to change said societal flaws. For example, educational initiatives run by organizations such as GrowNYC   provide spaces in which urban children can have intimate sensory experiences with plants, soil, and small farm animals, all the while learning where their food comes from. Introductory lessons in gardening foster essential understanding of life processes and gratitude for the natural systems that enable them. These programs also encourage children to spend more time outside learning how to enjoy nature. In an urban setting, parks also function as a tool for educators and parents to positively reinforce time spent outdoors. Green space in which a child can safely run free or get their hands dirty can activate previously dormant biophilia for that child and subconsciously reform the way that they interact with their environments.  

Studies show that children who experience consistent sensory exposure to the natural world appear healthier, more apt to problem solving, and more sensitized to the importance of environmental stewardship. This concept has been practiced in Denmark’s forest kindergartens  for decades. Instead of learning within a traditional classroom setting, young children explore freely in the forest year round with minimal restriction to their play. They are taught lessons in biodiversity, wilderness skills, and environmental consciousness. Weather is not a deciding factor in whether or not they will be outside, so they grow accustomed to withstanding the elemental discomforts of their ancestors, and  are encouraged to find beauty in them. Parents of forest kindergarteners have reported their children as being happier, more creative, in better physical shape, and possessing a heightened appreciation for being outdoors.

While imperative to early development, It is not exclusively children that are experiencing biophilia deficiencies. With a growing culture of stationary office jobs (and now work-from-home roles), high stress careers, and a technology centered culture, some urban adults are so far removed from nature that they lose consideration for the implications of modern consumption driven lifestyles. Absorbed by economic and material gain, many adults fail to devote time to the restorative elements of spending time outside and consequently develop a sense that there is something missing in their lives. Some try to fill this emptiness with material consumption, instead failing to fill the need for the spiritual and physical connections that they are missing. 

“Yellow Forest” installation, included in studio Olafur Eliasson’s “Y/our Future is Now” exhibition at the Serralves Museum in Porto, Portugal.

Biophilia by Design

As there are not exactly forest kindergartens for the middle aged “working professional”, the most direct way to reach an audience trained to consume and dispose is to design the products and environments that they enjoy in a way that will leave a lesser environmental impact and elicit biophilic response from their utilitarian value of nature, thus encouraging them to go outside. The utilitarian value of nature is the human predisposition to control and make use of whatever we can get our hands on. However in a modern context, this is largely responsible for today’s environmental crisis. 

For example, consider New York City with its grid system of concrete and high rise buildings, physical manifestations of manmade culture. Within the constructed chaos of Manhattan lives 51 blocks of Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1857. Using biophilic design principles, Olmsted constructed a park with rolling savanna-like terrain, intermittent trees, and large bodies of water. Olmsted understood that savanna-like environments were most relaxing to humans because their ancestors would have been able to see predators for miles on the horizon, that the shade provided by trees would have allowed escape from the intensity of the sun, and that the park’s lakes signalled to them that they would not perish of thirst. Thus, without realizing, New Yorkers view Central Park as a sort of urban sanctuary because their innate biophilia tells them to, but are still so ingrained in urban culture that they are not moved enough by the beauty of the park to refrain from littering on the great lawn. 

The aesthetic value of nature informs the utilitarian; within constructed modern lifestyles we remain aesthetic beings. People decorate everything-- homes, environments, bodies-- a tendency initiated by the personal aesthetic value of nature and encouraged by industries who then harness the utilitarian value of nature to generate profit. For example, the fashion industry today is the second most heavily polluting industry in the world behind oil. Fashion historian Gong Yun says,Fashion goes hand in hand with the times, life is not only an interpretation of fashion, but also the definition of fashion”  If this statement rings true, then in a time when it is necessary to consider environmental responsibility in all facets of life, utilizing biophilic design within an aesthetic industry like fashion could become a means of permeating biophilia into culture. Biophilic design holds the potential to marry man-made culture and the instinctive reverence for life that sustains humanity so that industries reliant on design learn the value of preservation over destruction.

Eco-fashion, environmental art, and architecture rooted in biomimicry remain growing trends in the world of aesthetics. Independent fashion designers around the world use techniques like natural dyeing and zero-waste patterning to produce well considered garments that satisfy culturally ingrained material greed, yet garner positive biophilic response when worn. Garments constructed of organic materials utilizing shapes, patterns, and colors derived from nature can activate biophilia by appealing to the aesthetic value of nature while fulfilling the utilitarian. Outdoor apparel brands like Patagonia use their platforms to initiate conversations with customers about consequences of consumption that they might have been previously ignorant to. Contemporary artists such as Olafur Eliasson and his studio push the boundaries of what is indoor versus outdoor space. Eliasson juxtaposes organic and manmade materials to create spaces that make his audiences consider the role of man within climate change. Biomimicry is utilized in architecture as a design element that more effectively integrates buildings into nature and gives people a taste of the aesthetic values of nature within constructed environments. When biophilia is considered a core design principle, a designed object (garment, product, building, etc) can become a conversation-starter on the topic of longevity. Designers that maintain connection with the natural world can use their own biophilia as a tool to push others out of their comfort zone and advocate for the treasures on Earth that the human species has put at risk. 

People often encounter environmental advocacy in a context that is intended to scare them or scold them. Engaging biophilia, love of life, is a way to reconnect people to an innate love of nature so that they may be inspired to fight for the environments they were made to love and protect. Biophilia is a phenomenon so elemental to humanity that it could become the catalyst for a cultural reawakening when integrated into the very systems that raise our children and design what they consume. When someone discovers biophilia within themselves, environmental responsibility becomes conversation instead of an argument, invitation as opposed to protest, and a love so deep that there is an unspoken understanding of all that we have to save. 

Written by Emily Noelle Morabito

Emily Noelle Morabito is a multidisciplinary artist and designer seeking solutions that address barriers of disability and the consequences of climate change. Her work relates the human body and elements of nature by creating worlds in which the body can move freely and explore its surrounding environments. She is currently in the process of founding her own line of adaptive activewear, you can support her work at http://kck.st/2XDrJdL 

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