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The Bionarrative


Healthy people on a healthy planet

The best hope for the future lies in a fifth watershed in cultural evolution, leading to a new ecological phase in human history — a phase that is based on understanding the human place in nature and in which human society is sensitive to, in tune with, and respectful of the processes of life. This is termed a biosensitive society.

The word biosensitive fulfils the need for a single word to describe a society with these characteristics. The expression ‘ecologically sustainable’ has come to be used widely in recent years. Of course, society must be ecologically sustainable — otherwise, in the long term, it cannot continue to exist. But ecological sustainability is surely the bottom line. We must aim for a society that is not only sustainable, but that also positively promotes health and well-being in all sections of the human population and in the ecosystems of the biosphere (Figure 7.1). Biosensitivity is a broader and richer concept than sustainability.

Biosensitivity will be a fundamental guiding principle in all spheres of human activity. It will mean biosensitive cities, farms, industries, transport systems, economies, governments and lifestyles.

Box 7.1 Ecologically significant watersheds in cultural evolution

Cultural watershed and approximate starting date

Followed by:

Use and control of fire 200,000 years ago?

Ecological Phase 1 Hunter–Gatherer Phase

Farming 12,000 years ago

Ecological Phase 2 Early Farming Phase

Urbanisation 8,000 years ago

Ecological Phase 3 Early Urban Phase

‘Enlightenment’ and Industrial Revolution 250 years ago

Ecological Phase 4 Exponential Phase (or ‘Anthropocene’)

Ecologically unsustainable, leading to the collapse of civilisation, with great loss of life — unless humankind moves to Ecological Phase 5.

Biorenaissance Very soon

Ecological Phase 5 Biosensitive Phase

Based on understanding the human place in nature. In tune with, sensitive to, and respectful of the processes of life.

Source: Stephen Boyden

Figure 7.1 The biosensitivity triangle

Source: Stephen Boyden

Human activities and societal arrangements

Promoting health and well-being in all sections of the human population will mean that prevailing conditions will have to be in tune with human biology — that is, they must satisfy the biologically determined physical and psychosocial health needs of our species (see Box 3.2 in Chapter 3). Similarly, social conditions must satisfy the full spectrum of health needs of ecosystems — locally, regionally and globally (see Box 2.1 in Chapter 2).

Some of the most important physical features of a biosensitive society necessary for the attainment of these goals are listed in Box 7.1. This list serves to remind us that the long-term survival of civilisation will require radical changes in many different kinds of human activity.

It will be noted that the last item on this list reads, ‘The fifth ecological phase of human history will be free of weapons of mass destruction’. The existence of these weapons is as grave a threat to the survival of civilisation and well-being of humanity as are all the ecological maladaptations discussed in Chapter 5.

The achievement of the necessary physical conditions for biosensitivity will require big changes in societal arrangements. At present, government policies, the economic system and the institutional structure of society are all geared to ever-increasing consumption of resources and, consequently, ever-increasing impact on the living world around us. They are also resulting in extreme differences in the well-being and material wealth of different sections of the population. These arrangements are simply not consistent with biosensitivity and the survival of civilisation.

One of the roles of government will be to oversee a major reduction in the working hours of the labour force — thus diminishing the intensity of technometabolism at the same time as minimising unemployment. The current typical governmental response to unemployment is to attempt to create new and unnecessary jobs. This is ecologically crazy, because it results in further intensification of technometabolism with increased impact on the biosphere. When there isn’t enough work to keep everybody busy for eight hours a day, five days a week, the infinitely more sensible approach is to reduce the time that each person spends working.

Box 7.2 Essential physical characteristics of a biosensitive society

Human activities

  • minimal use of fossil fuels
  • extensive forestation and reforestation and other measures worldwide to sequester atmospheric carbon
  • a high proportion of energy used in society coming from clean sources (i.e. not resulting in emissions of carbon or production of dangerous radioactive by-products)
  • stable consumption of materials and energy at a sustainable level
  • maximisation of local food production
  • maintaining a supply of clean water for human consumption, free of pathogenic organisms or harmful chemicals
  • farming practices that protect the biological integrity and health of soils
  • keeping natural nutrient cycles intact by returning organic waste to farmland
  • effective protection of biodiversity in all regional ecosystems and in the oceans
  • no release into the atmosphere, waterways or soil of pollutants that interfere with the health of humans and other forms of life — directly (e.g. PM2.5 and SO2 in the atmosphere, POPs in the soil) or indirectly (e.g. CFCs in the atmosphere)
  • people’s lifestyles will be:
    • consistent with the biological health needs of the human species (e.g. clean air and water, healthy diet, plenty of physical exercise, the experience of conviviality)
    • consistent with the health needs of the living environment. Emphasis will be on such activities as growing food, making music, dancing, art, theatre, sport, convivial social interaction.

Human population

  • a healthy human population with no gross disparities in health and well-being in different sections of the population
  • eventual adjustment of global and regional populations to levels that do not cause progressive damage to the planet’s ecosystems.

Human artefacts

The built environment will be designed to:

  • minimise use of fossil fuels and water and maximise use of clean energy sources
  • minimise pollution
  • encourage health-promoting activities (e.g. walking, cycling, convivial social interaction)
  • maximise biodiversity and opportunities for local food production.

The fifth ecological phase of human history will be free of weapons of mass destruction.

Source: Stephen Boyden

Governments will also be involved in restructuring the workforce and in the transfer of workers in occupations that have undesirable impacts on the environment to jobs that are consistent with ecological sustainability.

The most significant change of all will be in economic arrangements. In a biosensitive society, the ideal of economic growth will be replaced with the ideal of economic health. This will mean that the economic system will:

  • be based on economic theory that reflects a sound understanding of the processes of life on which we depend and of the biological limits to human activities on Earth
  • ensure the satisfaction of the health needs of all sections of the human community and of the ecosystems of the biosphere
  • not result in a continuously increasing rate of use of material resources and energy
  • progressively reduce present disparities in material wealth, health and well-being across human populations.

In the educational arena, a core theme at primary and secondary levels will be the story of life and the human place in nature and its relevance to human affairs and everyday life. Students will be alerted to the brainwashing power of culture, and to the need to be constantly vigilant to ensure that the prevailing culture is free from delusions that cause unnecessary human distress or damage to the living environment.

Biosensitive cultures

These essential requirements for the long-term survival of civilisation will not be achieved unless there come about revolutionary changes in the prevailing cultures across the world. In biosensitive societies, these cultures will be characterised by profound respect for the processes of life which gave rise to us, of which we are a part and on which we are totally dependent for our existence. Unlike today, the goal of being sensitive to and in tune with these processes will be seen as of supreme importance. It will be given highest priority on the political and social agenda.

This radical shift in priorities will depend on a wave of new understanding sweeping across the cultures of the world — understanding of the story of life and the human place in nature. Understanding, that is, of the bionarrative. This new understanding will be the pivotal factor in the transition to biosensitivity. All the necessary changes in human activities, such as energy use and consumer behaviour, and in societal arrangements, such as the economic system and government regulations, will follow naturally from this seminal cultural transformation.

The transition

During the past half century there have been many signs of growing awareness among some sections of the community that our present society is heading for ecological collapse. At the international level there has been a series of major conferences on this theme organised by the United Nations, from the Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 to the Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. There have also been many important international conferences on specific ecological issues, such as anthropogenic climate change, loss of biodiversity and land degradation.

Over this time, numerous books have been published drawing attention to the fact that the survival of civilisation will require big changes in patterns of human activities on Earth. Early examples from the 1970s include works by Donella and Dennis Meadows, René Dubos and Barbara Ward, Paul Erhlich and Barry Commoner. Since that time there has been an explosive growth of literature on environmental history and environmental philosophy.

Many individuals and groups have come up with ideas for an ecologically sustainable society of the future. In 1972, Edward Goldsmith and others published A blueprint for survival in which they argued for a shift to a new kind of society to prevent ‘the breakdown of society and the irreversible disruption of the life support systems on this planet’. Today there are many community organisations and NGOs campaigning for a transition to an ecologically sustainable society, such as the transition town movement, the Great Transition Initiative and Inspiring Transition to a Life-sustaining Future.

There are also countless groups focusing on specific ecological issues. To mention but a few local examples in Australia: The Climate Institute, Sustainable Population Australia, SEE Change groups, The Wilderness Society, permaculture groups, Healthy Soils Australia, 350 Australia and Landcare groups.

The emergence of the Greens as a political entity is another indication of a growing concern about the ecological predicament — although election results suggest that this concern is shared by only a small percentage of the electorate.

Despite these encouraging signs, the warnings have not penetrated to the core of the prevailing cultures of the world. We have only to listen to the pre-election speeches of our political leaders for proof of this statement. Although some important measures have been taken here and there to protect aspects of the natural environment, they have not been allowed to interfere with the inexorable thrusts of ever-moreism and market forces. The juggernaut rolls on.

So, while the process of cultural reform is certainly underway, it has a long way to go, and the inevitable counter-reform backlash is very much in evidence. The ecologically maladaptive assumptions of the dominant cultures remain firmly entrenched, and the reform process is clearly in need of a boost.

In our view, the missing ingredient in this reform movement is a concerted effort to promote understanding of the story of life and the human place in nature. As emphasised throughout this book, this bionarrative has great meaning for every one of us and for society as a whole.

All major religions have their stories. This reform movement differs from religious movements in that its story is strictly about the natural rather than the supernatural, and by the fact that the story comes from direct observation of the real world, rather than from the imaginations of mystics and prophets.

Shared understanding of the bionarrative across the cultures of the world is, we believe, a precondition for the survival of civilisation. Only then will the health of the living systems on which we depend be given the highest priority in human affairs. There will be no significant change until this happens.

Once this crucial cultural transformation has taken place there will be wide-ranging changes in the intensity and nature of human activities and a major scaling down of resource and energy use in the affluent nations. Immense effort will be directed to countering the current anthropogenic threats to humanity and the living systems of our planet.

First and foremost, governments and the private sector will treat climate change as a matter of extreme urgency. Strong measures will be introduced to bring about a drastic reduction in the use of fossil fuels, to increase the use of clean energy, to sequester excess carbon in the atmosphere, and to bring an end to coal mining.

Very high priority will also be given to:

  • introducing a new economic system that satisfies the health needs of all sections of the human population without resulting in ever-increasing consumption of natural resources
  • bringing an end to population growth
  • eliminating the current gross disparities in human health and quality of life in different sections of the human population
  • protecting biodiversity on land and in the oceans
  • protecting the biological integrity of soils and returning nutrients in organic waste to farmland
  • increasing local food production
  • minimising the release of pollutants that result in damage to living systems
  • eliminating weapons of mass destruction.

All this will require enlightened and strong government action, supported by an informed and concerned public.


The most critical need at the present time is, therefore, to set in motion a radical social movement that has the primary objective of awakening the dominant cultures of the world to biological and ecological realities — through spreading understanding of the human place in nature and promoting a vision of society that is truly in tune with, and respectful of, the processes of life.

In most Western countries, the infrastructure to set the ball rolling is already in place in the form of countless NGOs that are working towards ecological sustainability. Unfortunately, they represent only a small section of the community and, so far, their overall effect has been minimal. If all the members of these groups were to devote some of their time and effort to promoting biounderstanding across the community, changes could come about in the prevailing culture in quite a short time.

These NGOs could also join forces to put pressure on UN agencies to become actively involved in the movement. These agencies have the means and the obligation to play a key role in the campaign.

Whether civilisation survives the next hundred years will depend on whether the world’s cultural systems come to embrace biounderstanding and take necessary action in time to avert ecological disaster on a massive scale.


This major shift in understanding is, of course, just the first phase in the reform process. Once the cultural transformation has taken place there will be widespread and informed dialogue at many levels in society on the ways and means of achieving the transition to biosensitivity, and on the new societal arrangements that will be necessary to attain the necessary changes in human activities. This second phase will entail consideration of various options, including legislation, financial incentives, changes in urban planning and transport arrangements — as well, of course, as a major restructuring of the economic system.

This crucial aspect of the reform process is beyond the scope of this book. Our emphasis is on the pivotal first phase — promoting biounderstanding across the community. In fact, the most essential feature of the second ‘how’ phase will be the requirement that the bionarrative be firmly entrenched in the mindsets of all those involved in the dialogue, whatever their area of specialisation.

The third phase in the transition will be implementation of the new societal arrangements.

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