Divinity School Shield
Papers Series
     No. 4
Harvard Divinity School


Environmental Ethics and Public Policy Program
Timothy C. Weiskel, Director

Designing Within The Possible:

 The Art and Theology of Engineering Sustainability

Timothy C. Weiskel

Lecture presented to the Cambridge Arts Council
"Waterworks: A Symposium on Art and Water,"
The Sackler Art Museum, 5 April 1997.

Copyright, ©1997, Timothy C. Weiskel, All Rights Reserved

      It is our extraordinary privilege and great good fortune as a species to have evolved in cosmic and evolutionary time on a small planet not far from a medium-sized star in a vast, cold and expanding universe. We are not alien residents; we were born here; we belong here. Moreover, despite the earnest belief of some techno-scientific salvationists on the one hand and splinter religious cults on the other, we are not going anywhere else in the cosmos for long. We already live on the largest inhabitable "spaceship" in the known universe. Space travel fantasies that envision our long-term capacity to mimic earth-like conditions in man-made micro-environments projected forth on interplanetary voyages remain just that -- fantasies. We are here, now; and we must learn to acknowledge this, accept it, and make this cosmic awareness the core of our human creativity as artists, thinkers and engineers.

      Discovering our place in the cosmic order has been a long struggle and a hard-won process. Not everyone has caught on yet. Nevertheless, as we become collectively more conscious of our surroundings on Earth we are slowly coming to realize that our life here has been possible only because this is a "Blue Planet" -- one on which the temperature range over most of its surface coincides with water in its liquid state. It is that liquid state of water which makes our life -- and all life -- possible, for it is only through a constant metabolic exchange of fluids with their environment that life forms can be nourished and sustained.

      All human cultures have grasped this profound truth at some level, and this, perhaps, accounts for the pervasive sense of the sacred character of water. The properties of water are everywhere celebrated and extolled as attributes of the divine, and it is through the behavior of water that the divine is made manifest to humans. Long before the development of modern science peoples and cultures around the world could apprehend what we now comprehend -- all life depends on the seemingly endless cycling of water on our planet.

      The problem of sustainability is therefore one of learning how to manage the balanced exchange of fluids between complementary life-forms in the context of this larger hydrological cycle at work in the biogeochemical processes on earth.

      It can be said that as a species we have not been very quick to recognize this core truth about our existence. Collectively speaking we have ignored these fundamentals, and in our arrogance we have designed environments as if we were in charge. This mistake is what has led to the ecological crises across the globe. Most of the problems of industrial civilization today can be characterized as the self-inflicted wounds of faulty aesthetics and poor design. In our day humans are not so much struggling with nature as they are struggling with the legacy of their past mistakes in coping with nature. To put it plainly: artists and engineers are to blame, and they should be held accountable.

      Yet artists and engineers are not alone. Ultimately their mistakes can be seen to be the inevitable consequence of shallow theology -- a theology which either fails to acknowledge or refuses to accept a profound, fundamental and universal religious insight. That insight is simply this:

      we live in a world which we did not create and cannot control.
These truths are both undeniable and inescapable. If we wish to survive for much longer we will need to reconceive our species-role and redesign our environments accordingly.

      A new kind of aesthetic informed by a new kind of theology will be required to engineer our existence for sustainability. In most general terms, we need to learn to design within the limits of the possible. The task for the artist, engineer and theologian alike is clear: we must strive to re-imagine the human as a species-participant in a solar sustainable world.

      Nowhere is our poor design, faulty aesthetics and shallow theology more apparent than in the contemporary design principles and public aesthetics manifest in managing urban water. In the light of a heightened sense of ecological vulnerability in recent years we are now coming to realize that much of what has passed for clever urban design and good engineering in the past has, in fact, been quite bad and very ugly. It is as if we have been designing the built world on the basis of a misplaced metaphor, mistaking a circle for a line.

      In particular, urban civilizations have been prone to deal with water as if it represented a linear flow problem rather than a cyclical design challenge. The result of this tragically truncated vision and faulty aesthetic in urban culture has led us time and time again to engineer massive monuments to myopia. When future archaeologists look back upon the remains of our current civilization the public works constructions in major cities around the world will no doubt appear to them as sad and tragic reminders of engineering arrogance based on ecosystem ignorance. In city after city they will be able to see evidence that we became mired in our own muck while the well ran dry. From their vantage point they will be able to observe a fact that we daily choose to ignore: that in 21st century urban civilization we are fast heading for a world in which there is "water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink."

      In the face of this circumstance, we stand at a moment of choice in cosmic evolution. As the Catholic geologian, Thomas Berry, has put it, in geological terms we live in the "terminal Cenozoic." Biological evidence on the rates of species extinction seems to confirm his observation. According to Berry, whether we like it or not, we must choose between the "Technozoic" on the one hand or the "Ecozoic" on the other. Further, it is now clear that the artists and engineers will have to take the lead at this point. They are in a privileged position to transform public consciousness and show policy-makers the way out of our sad current circumstance. Ecological reality challenges artists and engineers to recognize new principles of aesthetics and design. Their most difficult task will be to transcend the insolence of physics and the arrogance of humanism to derive new principles of sustainability through mimicking natural biogeochemical processes.

      We will need to learn to accept, celebrate and design within the limits of the possible in the natural world. This is in part a technical task. But, perhaps most importantly, this task will require a theological understanding and a moral transformation that comes from cultivating a renewed sense of reverence for the profound and holy beauty of solar-sustainable life systems.

Further, material on the themes of water and sustainable design principles may be found in the following bibliographies:

No. 6 -- Ethics and Choice in Designing Managed Landscapes for Sustainability, by Timothy C. Weiskel.
Class Bibliography Series, No. 6. [Last updated: Mar. 10, 1997].
No. 11 -- Ethical Issues and the Hydrological Cycle: Estuaries and In-Shore Waters, by Timothy C. Weiskel.
Class Bibliography Series, No. 11. [Last updated: Apr. 1, 1997].
If you have questions about this page, please address your comments to its author, Timothy C. Weiskel. An electronic version of this paper resides on the World Wide Web at:

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