Embracing Paradoxes


Our society has become increasingly divided and self-sabotaging. We seem to have become a collection of myopic paranoid binary thinkers, if we pause to think at all. We seem to think that we are either victors or victims, and we describe our wins and losses in superlatives. We seem to believe that our survival requires callousness or even cruelty.  

Under these conditions, with this sort of thinking, sustainability is impossible. The goal is to win and you can’t win unless someone or something else loses. What loses in the race for money and power is nature and humanity.

Pessimists working to make the world more sustainable believe we may be winning a few battles, but that we are losing the war. Optimists feel we may be losing a few battles, but in the long run we will win — we just need to create enough triple-bottom-line win-win scenarios. The problem with either of these views is that they are still based on winning and losing. They are based on assumptions of competition that pit productivity and profit against nature and humanity. Compromise is the best we can hope for. We can’t have it all.

But what if that’s not true? What if we can have it all? How would that work?

It would mean knowing how to strive for what really good looks like while being happy with just good enough. It would mean knowing how to leverage and love dynamic complexity while looking out for yourself. It would mean knowing how to relentlessly drive ahead while letting go.

It would mean embracing paradoxes. It would mean working like nature.

We tend to assume (because it is what we are taught) that nature is driven by competition — red in tooth and claw, dog-eat-dog. But have you ever seen a dog eat a dog? If nature were driven by competition, how could 4 billion years of fighting result in flocks and forests, swarms and schools? Why would your lawn have more than one victorious blade of grass? Of course there is competition in nature, but the goal is not for one individual (or species) to win, to obtain all the resources, to gain total control. The goal is to dynamically optimize resources within the system, to be resilient, to be sustainable.

How might we learn to embrace paradoxes, to have our social and economic systems function more like nature?  

First, we have to engage. We have to spend time in, experience, and understand nature. There we can see what synergies and systems, cooperation and co-creation, emergence and evolution look like. There we can see what really good and just good enough look like.

Next, we have to imagine. We have to push divergent thinking and generate wild ideas. We have to envision the future that we want to live in — a future that is not based on driving for infinite profit and power.

Finally, we need to create. We need designers and leaders who can leverage systems thinking, biomimicry thinking, and design thinking to craft the products, processes, and policies that reflect and reinforce a resilient, sustainable, and seemingly paradoxical world.


If you want to learn how to be one of those designers and leaders, you might want to explore MCAD’s MA in Sustainable Design program.

[Image courtesy of Denise DeLuca]

Denise DeLuca / Former Director

Denise DeLuca is the Director of MCAD’s Sustainable Design program. She was co-founder of BCI: Biomimicry Creative for Innovation, a network of creative professional change agents driving ecological thinking for radical transformation. Denise is author of the book Re-Aligning with Nature: Ecological Thinking for Radical Transformation, which was illustrated by MASD alum Stephanie Koehler. She also teaches with the Amani Institute.

Denise’s previous roles include Education Director for the International Living Future Institute, Project Manager for Swedish Biomimetics 3000, and Outreach Director for The Biomimicry Institute. Denise is a licensed civil engineer (PE) and holds a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering with a focus on modeling landscape-scale surface and groundwater interactions.  In addition, Denise is a Biomimicry Fellow and a member of the Advisory Council of The Biomimicry InstituteBoard Member of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP), on the editorial board of the Journal of Bionic Engineering, and an Expert with Katerva. Denise is based in Oregon.

contact:  [email protected]