Erik van Lennep’s entrepreneurial spirit has taken him around the globe in an effort to “design organizations, campaigns, education strategies and more.” Ever since graduating from Conway in 1983, Erik Van Lennep has focused on international issues of sustainability. He worked initially with indigenous people worldwide as cofounder of the Rainforest Action Network and then founded and became director of the Arctic to Amazonia Alliance. He subsequently moved to Ireland where he cofounded the Cultivate Sustainable Living Center. In 2007, Erik established TEPUI Ltd., a consultation and design collaborative to research, promote, and apply living technologies as as grounded responses to climate change, beginning with energy, waste, and water issues throughout Europe.

Now Erik is moving from Dublin to Barcelona, Spain, where the new Dutch NGO he cofounded, Circle Squared Foundation, will focus on restoring ecosystem services in Mediterranean climates worldwide. In addition to the Mediterranean itself, similar climatic zones are found in South Africa, Australia, Chile, and California.

Nearly all Mediterranean climate areas lie between about 15 and 40 degrees of latitude. They are all near the coast on the western edge of continents.

The foundation’s focus on marine environments recognizes the important ecological and economi interactions of the dynamic interface of land and sea. “Mediterranean climates are among the oldest and most densely poplulated and are thus most degraded, so our impact can be largest there,” Erik writes, adding, “There is much to be done to restore fisheries, clean up pollution, and develop shared management strategies.”

In addition, Circle Squared will work on green infrastructure, carbon farming and forestry, and design and system learning. As with his prior efforts, Erik will build networks and alliances, develop metrics to evaluate measurable outcomes, and integrate systems thinking trhough regional centers of excellence.

A version of this profile originally appeared in the 2013 issue of con’text magazine.

More information about Erik:  

What were you doing before you applied to the Conway School?
Finishing my B.S. at U.Mass, a self-designed degree in plant breeding.

What brought you to Conway?
I wanted to explore and understand systems dynamics, and it seemed a landscape approach would enable that. Also, I was already doing garden design on the side, and thought it would be fun to elevate that to something income-producing, so I hoped a full immersion in that would take me there.

Imagine we just met, and recognized we had common interests. How would you describe Conway to me?

The most leading edge ecological landscape degree program I know of. It doesn’t even matter if you see yourself as a future landscape designer or land planner, because what you will learn about systems thinking and design processes is transferable to almost anything you might do afterwards. (But the Earth needs millions more qualified and passionate land stewards now, so even better if you take that road.) And it’s fun. Awesome people. You’ll leave transformed in a very good way. Said another way: Conway is a school for applied learning in Design. We learn best when it is contextualized. Conway’s context is land, ecosystems, communities and spatial organization. You can take your learning from that into any dimension you like, perhaps especially, your life as a whole.

What are you doing right now, and what do you love about it?

I design strategies for organizations I believe in, and help build movements. I apply design principles and processes to this as a matter of course. I do some teaching (lots of topics, from permaculture to project design, team building) and I design ‘catalytic events’ to help leverage social change. I love it all, because I can feel I am making a difference in the subjects that concern me. Longer term, I’m developing a series of learning centers (prototyping, early stage) for change-makers. These are themed around eco-design and ecological regeneration. The goal is to proliferate an adaptable template that will enable thousands of people to go forth and repair the planet.

List one or more books that you find influential in the field of ecological design and/or planning.

My professional library has thousands of titles in it at this point. There are far too many to list, and I’m filling this in between other tasks today. You’ll have to ask me later. But I would say, it’s more useful to read broadly. Specific texts on ecological design and planning are more like cookbooks. A wider exploration will help understand key principles and stimulate deeper observation, will provoke better questions. It’s the pursuit of questions that open learning, drives innovation and feeds creativity.

What book changed your life?

Again, where to start? Here is one that made a big impact, and that I continue to give to my friends and close colleagues. It opened a new dimension for me, and underpinned my own experience of heart-connected work with Nature. Secret Teachings of Plants – The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature by Stephen Harrod Buhner

What is your favorite tool? 

Here’s a gardening tool I like a lot: the ‘Ho-Mi’ (aka: Korean hand plow). I always had one over many decades.

What blogs or podcasts do you recommend? Particular posts or episodes?

There are so many now (and I am launching my own, “Designers of Parad’ise” focused on Regenerative Agriculture). I have been following and learning a lot from Raleigh Latham’s series on permaculture. Check out his recent one: Rain For Climate: Restoring Global Ecosystem Stability.

How do you think ecological design and planning can help make positive change?

Humans are the most disruptive force on the planet….we have become equal to geological forces. We are neck deep in the Anthropocene era, and staring down the barrel of our own extinction, like a vat of bacteria whose waste products build up to the point of auto-suffocation. It’s long past time for us to own the fact our manipulation is both intentional and system-tipping. Let’s seek to manipulate wisely, as healers now. We can use our super powers to ‘Re’ everything: REbuild, REgenerate, REcover, REstore, and crucially, REthink. Ecological design is how we get there. A principal cause of the issues we face today is our obsession over material gain and hoarding. We’ve developed an economic strategy at odds with Natural Law and the way our living planet operates. In a system which is driven by abundance, fertility, diversity and generosity, we created an economy driven by fabricated scarcity, poverty and greed. We’ve now reached peak toxicity and extreme capitalism. Ecological design is how we get out of this. It seems that humans are very good at obsessiveness. The obsession we’ve focused on capitalism could / must be turned to obsession over regenerating ecological abundance. There is no reason it can’t be, and every reason we should. In the most immediate sense, Ecological design and planning are lenses and processes that are illuminating and engaging, and very good for community building. Positive change requires engaged, informed, committed community activity.

What advice do you have for someone just starting out in the field?

For students and wannabe students:

  • Narrow down your focus, because the moment you start to explore it, it will explode into so many possibilities that if you don’t start out “tight” it could get very confusing.
  • Read and explore projects and people’s work you find exciting. Then contact some of those people and talk with them. (Don’t worry, they will say “yes”. If they are excited about their own work, they will be happy to talk about it).

For students and grads:

  • Never. Ever. Stop. Learning. When we stop learning we start dying. Pay particular attention to Life and how it operates through biomimicry, ecology, biology, earth systems, soil sciences…. The rest is all down to politics and psychology. (Better learn about these too, because those two are what drive decisions).
  • Do what feeds you and fills you. It sounds trite, but it’s true. You’ll have plenty of challenges and false starts, disappointments and failures. If you don’t have a compelling motivation to see what’s around the corner, what lies beneath the surface, and what to tomorrow might bring, you’ll give up. Or your work will be mediocre.
  • Find ways to connect your work to a bigger cause. What is the overall context to which your efforts could contribute? We all need meaning and relevance. Find it and let that inspire you.
  • Find, join, build, make, nurture your communities. These will be communities of practice, communities of thought, and communities of nurture. You need them all for different reasons.
  • Think about creating value. In business too few really consider this, but creation of value is at the heart of the concept of business. Create value where it is needed, and find ways to make it available and accessible to those who want it.
  • Even as you focus your skill sets and insights to create identifiable specialties (and you should), at the same time, use your design thinking to identify more generic skills and values that your ‘toolkit’ can offer to new opportunities and needs. You will probably have to pivot many times over your career, so be aware of other ways your skills can add value.
  • Find a mentor.
  • Be a mentor.

Which aspects of your Conway education do you use in your current work? Which aspects do you use to address urgent challenges related to climate change, environmental justice, etc.?