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Landscape Ecostructures For Sustainable Societies: Post-Industrial Perspectives

Haikai Tane

Director, Watershed Systems

Centre for Catchment Ecology


1. Introduction

Nature does nothing uselessly, noted Socrates. Why then are some societies continually at war with Nature, slashing, burning, spraying, degrading and destroying environmental systems? Why do so many communities accept the destruction of landscape ecosystems and their underlying habitats on which they so greatly depend?

Understanding the reasons why involves a journey into landscape ecology and post-industrial society. Along the way you will discover a wealth of new words and concepts. Remarkably, the English language is deficient in words and phrases that describe the dynamics, energetics and evolving structures of habitats and ecosystems. They are not part of the English cultural paradigm. That says lots.

The concepts are profoundly simple, though difficult to grasp at first. In this short review, I seek to show why certain habitat and landscape ecosystem relationships are necessary prerequisites for sustainable societies. These natural infrastructure circuits underlying and linking habitats and ecosystems in functional ways (Leopold 1949) are called landscape ecostructures, (Warshall 1998).



About the Author: Haikai Tane is an honors graduate in geography and a graduate in law from the Australian National University, Canberra, and obtained his Master of Science, (ecology and planning) from the University of British Columbia, Canada. Haikai Tane has surveyed, mapped and modeled watershed catchments using geospatial technologies such as remote sensing and GIS since the early 1970ís. Haikaiís expertise researching and developing geospatial systems for watershed catchments has attracted international recognition and awards.


Publication History

The first version of this paper was commissioned by the NZ Soil & Health Association of NZ and appeared in Vol. 58(5) New Zealand Soil & Health journal, Auckland 1999.


2. Environmental Health of Landscapes

Traditional principals of environmental health are relatively simple and are well known from practical experience to foresters and farmers who operate organic systems. They know that environmental health depends on the integrity and performance of underlying environmental processes.

To hydrologists and engineers, water is H20 with a few minor elements and microbes. Until treated, water harvested from a catchment is considered unfit for drinking.

To landcapes ecologists, however, naturally flowing waters are mobile habitats with communities of living organisms thriving in terraqueous habitats. A progression of ecological processes remove pathogens, toxins and other unpleasant stuff to produce clean, fresh water, (Tane 1996). It has worked fine for as long as humans have been on earth

Today, chemical chlorination of waters is considered protection against germs and other nasties that should not be there. Fresh natural water has become industrial raw water requiring treatment. Some bugs however, (protozoans like Cryptosperidium and Giardia), do not care to play by the chemical rules of the water industry. They require slow sand bed filter systems mimicking natural floodplain processes to be removed reliably (Curds 1992).

Rains, mists and fogs end up seeping, flowing, surging and spreading moisture above, below and through the ground. These waters are processed organically while moving slowly through the near surface aquifers and soils of seasonal floodplains, watershed basins and other riparian habitats. No one habitat or landscape ecosystem can do the job alone. Proper connectivity and sequencing through riparian habitats are necessary for integrity (Hammond 1997). For this reason, reed bed and wetland filters are only short-term solutions. It is necessary to organize habitats and ecosystems ecologically for long term success.

The integrity of riparian landscape ecostructures is the key. This is their greatest social, economic and environmental benefit. They ensure the ecological capability of landscapes to purify water while maintaining habitats for biota. They provide the necessary spatial framework and operational system for integrating energy regimes, environmental resources and ecological processes through myriad life forms (Figure 1).

Society now has the technology, skills and resources to repair degraded environments. Regrettably, important social kills and cultural attitudes are lacking or absent. Before tackling this vexed issue, let us first consider the nature and role of landscape ecostructures. Yet hitherto no word or concept within the English idiom captured the meaning or significance of landscape ecostructures.

3. Pattern and Structure of Landscape

The key structures sustaining settled landscapes are both geospatial:

    1. Infrastructures These are the networks of roads, railways, telecommunications, social services, utilities, facilities and buildings. They are designed and built by architects, engineers, surveyors, technicians and politicians.
    2. Ecostructures These are the networks linking sites, habitats and landscape ecosystems into catchment ecosytems. They are mapped and studied by biogeographers, catchment ecologists and environmental designers.

It may help to visualize infrastructure as engineering networks and systems built of concrete and steel and natural ecostructures as habitats and ecosystems.

4. Industrial Infrastructures

Few people would dispute that industrial society degraded environmental systems at an unprecedented rate and scale. It was "normal" for industrial cities to dispose of their toxic wastes to rivers and streams. Waterways were reduced to contaminated drains, deficient in the basic biota and habitats necessary to maintain potable water supplies.

In industrial society, environmental health became a contradiction in terms. Visions of dark satanic mills were not just poetic metaphors, they were an accurate description of historic conditions. It seems industrial societies excel at the politics of exploitation, waste and misuse, all touted as progress and development.

Meanwhile, as underlying landscape ecostructures decayed, they wasted and became dysfunctional over large areas. Consequently, industrial landscapes generate raw water, unfit to drink, costly to treat and even more expensive to buy.

Today, most infrastructures installed for human settlements follow the industrial model (Figure 1). They are designed and developed as separate, specialized systems. Generally they are managed by different agencies when completed. Their independently designed components, the roads, dams, bridges, buildings, power stations, pipes, towers and tunnels, can work at cross-purposes while conflicting with and degrading underlying landscape ecostructures.

Expressed another way, industrial society first defines the engineering infrastructure required for settlements and then transforms the landscape and environment to comply. Rarely do they consider impacts on ecostructures, choosing instead to assess impacts on separate components of the system. By this approach the underlying integrity of environmental processes do not have to be considered.

The resulting damage to environmental systems and the continuing destruction of underlying ecostructures result in serious cumulative, long-term effects on environmental resources.


5. Landscape Ecostructures

Landscape ecosystems are complex suites of sites and habitats linked in particular ways to function as self-regulating systems. They are fundamentally open, organic systems, not machines. They evolve and adapt in ways that help ensure environmental health and reliable resources, including clean fresh water.

Mapping and modeling landscape ecosystems is a relatively recent development creating the integrated art and science of ecography A small, important step led from ecography to ecosynthesis, the process by which nature adapts, changes and evolves landscape ecosystems in the presence of human settlement. (Tane 1993).

Understanding the complex dynamics of adaption and change in landscape ecosystems proved too much for the simple, sequential models of ecological succession. The more robust, co-evolutionary model of ecosynthesis recognized the on-going evolution of new landscape ecosystems in response to human settlement.

Recognizing the destruction of landscape ecostructures and how they can be restored organically is one of the great challenges of post-industrial society, (Figure 2).

Ecostructures are ridentified from characteristic signatures created by functional relationships of sites, habitats and landscape ecosystems, (Figure 3). These patterns reflect the environmental dynamics of manifold life forms interacting continuously. Their topological signatures are keys to understanding environmental processes and relationships, however being non-linear open systems, they are best represented by heuristic processes not predictive models.


6. Sustainable Societies

Human settlements are relying more and more on engineering infrastructure to supply services such as treated water and costly energy. Industrial societies seem incapable of addressing the central issue that their culture degrades and destroys key environmental systems that supply fresh water and free energy.

Retrofitting aging industrial infrastructure and restoring landscape ecosystems through environmental design are now urgent needs and requirements for sustainable societies in Aotearoa and Australia. New knowledge and technology alone are not enough. The key to success is changing the dominant cultural paradigm from the present European industrial model to one befitting the post-industrial, Pacific region.

We should begin while we still can, by restoring landscape ecostructures that ensure reliable supplies of clean, fresh water in our streams and rivers, aquifers and lakes.

The sheer immensity of the problems involved in restoring catchment ecostructures by engineering is overwhelming. On the basis of past experience, specialized sciences and narrow problem mentalities seem incapable of addressing the overall situation creatively or effectively.

One reason is industrial science is unable to reliably model or measure complex, non-linear, organic systems. So it breaks things into smaller disconnected components, like chemistry, biology and economics, atoms, elements and species, and the scientific specialists study separate parts like so much minutiae.

Specialists said Marshall McLuhan, cannot see the forest for the trees, they rarely make small mistakes while heading towards the grand fallacy.

With hindsight it appears our most promising path is to restore ecosystem functionality and reconnect them through natural evolutionary processes of ecosynthesis.

Unfortunately, there is a cultural attitude common among people unable to accept the continuing, dynamic evolution of nature. Environmental conservation and ecosynthesis require recognizing people as integral parts of natural ecosystems. This assumption however, is anathema to people trapped in the Humans versus Nature mindsets.

This mindset is paramount among Nativists and similar cults seeking to lock up land, exclude human activities and prevent resource development in the cause of nature conservation. Indigenous peoples in the south pacific have named this paradigm eco-colonialism (Cox & Elmqvist 1991).

The policy and practices by which foreign immigrants impose their cultural paradigm on indigenous cultures and landscapes is short sighted. By disregarding the ecological integrity and cultural heritage of indigenous peoples, eco-colonialists ignore the cultural basis of landscape ecosystems and misinterpret what is natural, all the while destroying landscape ecostructures.

Whatever it is colonials create in the image of their homelands, by no stretch of imagination or manipulation of science can it be labeled sustainable. Until immigratn populations learn to live within environmental limits and protect the integrity of landscape ecostructures, they remain exploitative and destructive eco-colonials.

  1. Conclusion

In a world of tumultuous change and international conflict, crimes against humanity are front-page news. Everyday, equally serious crimes against Nature, involving chemical, biological and genetic weaponry, are carried out with the support of governments around the world.

It is now commonplace in industrialized societies for landscape ecostructure to be sacrificed for engineering infrastructure. With the benefit of hindsight, this might not have been the best choice. As the transition from post-industrial to information societies is now progressing rapidly, it is timely to consider the prospects for restoring landscape ecostructure while retrofitting industrial infrastructures in environmentally friendly ways.

Over extensive areas, however, the fundamental habitat structures and ecosystem relationships of landscape ecostructures are dysfunctional. Pieced together, the jig-saw puzzle of local environmental destruction emerges into a regional and global picture that is a frightening and depressing scene.

And as societies emerge from the dark ages of industrialism they are being confronted with a set of seemingly intractable problems including

By restoring landscape ecosystems and reconnecting them by landscape ecostructures we enable Nature to restore and manage the key environmental systems sustaining life in the biosphere.

In short, restoring the integrity of landscape ecostructures sums up the challenge of sustainable society in a post-industrial world.



Cox, AC. & T Elmqvist (1991) Ecocolonialism and Indigenous Knowledge Systems, Pacific Conservation Biology Vol.1(1) University of Queenland. Aus.

Curds, Colin (1992) Protozoa in the Water Industry Cambridge University Press, UK.

Hammond, H (1997) Water and Connectivity pp.102-108, in Ecoforestry edited by AR Drengson and DM Taylor

Nash, RF. (1989) The Rights of Nature, University of wisconsin Press, USA.

Ruddle, K. & Gongfu Zong (1988) Integrated Agriculture-Aquaculture in South China Cambridge University Press, UK.

Tane, Haikai (1993) Ecography: Mapping and Modeling Landscape Ecosystems, Technical Manual, River Murray Mapping, Murray Darling Basin Commission Canberra. Aust.

Tane, Haikai (1996) The Case for Integrated River Catchment Management, Keynote address, Proc. International Conference on Multiple Land Use and Integrated Catchment Management, Macauley Land Use Research Institute, Aberdeen. UK.

Warshall, Peter (1998) Modern Landscape Ecology Whole Earth Catalogue, Summer, 1998.


Copyright Reserved 1999.


Figure 1 Models of Catchment Systems showing Engineering infrastructure, Hydrology infrastructure, Koorinesian ecostructures, and Catchment ecostructures. Source: Tane (1996)

Figure 2 Steps in identifying Landscape Ecostructures

(A) Digital terrain model (B) Regolith benchmarks (C) Stream modeling and (D) Ecographic mapping Source: Tane 1999 (paper in prep).

Figure 3 Landscape Ecostructures as Cultural Art

Source: Water Dreaming Painting by Kevin Tjungarryi

Caption for Photo montage: Dr Ron Griffiths (Ontario) and his technician sampling in-stream macrinvertebrates in the Twizel River catchment, during autumn 1999. Multi-disciplinary research projects by Watershed Systems are developing catchment benchmarks for landscape ecostructures in the South Island high country.


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