Indian citizens, like American citizens, are all well aware– perhaps sometimes painfully aware – that their country is growing at a remarkably rapid rate today. This growth is economic, and of course also physical: new structures are being built, and in many cases old structures are being destroyed to make way for them. Sometimes natural structures are being destroyed too: wetland vegetation, riparian ecosystems and the like. Some aspects of this growth are clearly very positive, offering benefits of sanitation, education, quality of life, and new opportunities for people who have lacked them for too long. Some aspects are less positive, and are even worrisome contributors to unhealthy processes that may soon become catastrophic – climate change, resource depletion and other grave threats to the welfare of the human species.
We talk about growth as if it were one undifferentiated thing, but we are learning today that this is not at all the case. In the natural world, there are highly variable forms of sustainable growth, which create dynamic equilibrium; and there are also variable forms of runaway growth that cause decay or collapse– for example, metastatic cancer, or runaway infections, or the collapse of underlying resources.
Christopher Alexander, a Cambridge-educated mathematician and physicist who became an architect and builder, has spent some four decades thinking about this question of the nature of growth, our understanding of it from a scientific point of view, and our ability to shape it in more desirable and more humane ways. From the beginning of his career Alexander has been preoccupied with the problem of morphogenesis: how forms are created, how parts create wholes, and how this happens in nature and also in human constructions. Importantly, he has sought to understand the difference between the two, and the lessons this may offer us for our current challenges.