There is a better way. Nature will tell us. Let’s listen. Let’s start mimicking it.
By Peter Schwartzman
Regarding the environment and its health, people generally fall into two camps. Either they believe that on the whole things are good and getting better or they are convinced that major problems exist that deserve our immediate attention. Not surprisingly, both groups can put together a laundry list of examples to defend their respective positions. And all too often, people, from either group, spend more time ridiculing the other side’s position than on tackling the tasks at hand. I am here to say, “STOP!” Both groups should sit back, contain their self-righteousness for a while, gather all their senses, and listen to nature.
Two years ago, I introduced the concept of biomimicry to The Zephyr audience in a piece entitled, “Just when we thought we were intelligent.” Here, after a more thorough reading of the seminal book on the topic, Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry (published in 1997 by Perennial), I feel obliged to share more of its phenomenal insights with you. I truly believe it is a book that will be judged to be one of the most insightful and important books of the 20th century. (I realize that this is a very strong claim, but it stems from my belief that it contains many answers to our deep and perplexing questions about humanity, Earth, and the prospects for the survival of both.)
First, let’s have a quick refresher. Biomimicry is, as described on the back cover of the Benyus’ book, as “a revolutionary new science that analyzes nature’s best ideas . . . and adapts them for human use.” Typically, humans recognize that nature contains major feats of ingenuity. Inch for inch or pound for pound, what human can ever rival the jumping ability of a flea, the speed of a cheetah, or the flying mastery of a hawk? Yet, humans usually attribute these “skills” to purely physical advantages, not considering for a moment that they represent “intelligence” of any kind. Sure, we began building planes based on the physical, aerodynamic shape of bird wings—and this was/is an example of incorporating biomimic values/principles. However, we largely ignored the fuel the bird used to fly (I don’t see birds eating million year old carcasses buried deep within the earth—what we call “petroleum” today), and we certainly didn’t look at the birds everyday behavior in order to gain other insights as well (once again, birds don’t go around creating biologically-identical worms to eat, do they?). In short, biomimicry tells us that there are rules that nature follows and when these rules are broken, species typically vanish from the Earth. And while it is inconceivable for most of us to contemplate human extinction (especially when we are now larger in number than ever before), nature, if we would listen and learn from it, might tell us that our current course of activities (i.e., modern industrialization) is leading us precisely to this end.
Humans are collectively acting in ways that are antithetical to future living (what some call “sustainable living”). For example, nearly everything we eat contains poisons in it; poisons that we put in the food supposedly because we have to. Nearly all consumption of “stuff” produces huge amounts of throw away, unusable, and toxic materials. When we are sick, what do we do? We take pills to make us better rather than attempt to determine why we got sick in the first place. Most things we manufacture require that we burn huge amounts of fuel (which puts toxins in our air), use toxic chemicals (such as glues, heavy metals, and lubricants), and attain unnatural temperatures (in factory ovens) that produce deathly compounds (like dioxin). Thus, in the modern age, it is nearly impossible to do anything that isn’t contributing to the detriment of our environmental well-being. Yet, as obvious as this observation is, and as significant its impact, we live as if there is no other way, as if this is the only way w can live. STOP! It doesn’t have to be this way. And, there are better ways and we can realize them if we want to.
If we were to look at the natural world without preconceived notions of its simplicity and inferiority, we might just learn something that will allow us to survive (even flourish as a full humanity in) this millennium. In Benyus’ book, she outlines and explains many of these lessons. Simple as they are, most are so profound that once they settle in and really bounce about the skull a bit, you are left wondering why it took so long to figure this stuff out. And more importantly, why is it that our civilization is seemingly so far from realizing or acting on any of its wisdom? So let’s take a look at some of these ideas and see if you too come to a similar conclusion.
In chapter 7 of her book, Benyus lays out a prescription for better ways to conduct business. And since modern business (industrial style) is so great a presence on our landscape and in our lives, we might as well start by reconceptualizing it. There are 10 rules that govern how nature conducts business; we’ll look at a few of these (and I hope you’ll be motivated to read the book for the remainder).
“Gather and use energy efficiently” is something worth doing, no? We actually know this, but how often do we do it? Anyone who has seen a satellite photograph of the Earth at night probably marveled at how amazing it is to see how our civilization has expanded and how big corridors (e.g. the region from Washington, D.C to Boston, MA—known as “BoWash”) appear completely white. But, another way to look at that image is with horror. All of that light (visible from above the Earth’s atmosphere) is simply wasted. It serves no purpose at all (unless we want little green people to visit us soon) and all of it is associated with the release of poisonous particulates and climate-changing gases (from coal-fired and natural gas power plants). We also waste so much of our gasoline in our cars. Consider that 87% of the gas that is burning in your automobile is not used to move the car (which is the primary goal, isn’t it?); it is wasted on inefficiencies of motors, brakes, traffic patterns, and air conditioning. After more than 100 years of automobile technology, this is the best that humans have come up with? (And some think that drilling in Alaska is the best way to tackle our energy crisis?) Perhaps it is time to look elsewhere for a solution.
Plants, yes, plants—those brainless life forms that we have a love-hate relationship with—are extremely economically and efficient organisms. All the plants on the planet use only 2% of all the sun energy which reaches the surface. Yet, with this seemingly trivial amount, they are extremely frugal. They are 95% efficient (compared to our cars at 13%) with the energy that they absorb! Who are the best engineers on the planet? (Hint: They aren’t the ones with degrees from MIT or Harvey Mudd—where I went to school.) Thus, if we could learn how the photosynthetic process maintains such a high efficiency, we would be able to reduce our climate impact of cars (overnight) by at least 82% (95-13)! So, how much money is going into photosynthetic research (from a technological point of view) as compared to the internal combustion engine? Do we recognize how important the answer to this question is relative to the impending climate change crisis or the thousands of our neighbors who die prematurely because of emissions from cars, trucks and SUVs?
“Don’t draw down resources” is a mantra rooted in the souls of life forms. Organisms live on “harvestable interest, not principal” (Benyus). Tearing up our agricultural lands (for coal, as is recommended by our Democratic governor) and drilling in Refuges or continental ocean shelves (as has been prescribed by Republican-led Congresses over the last decade) are activities clearly at odds with nature’s ways. No wonder then, our current energy policy (or, “addiction to oil,” as the President himself has described it) has us spending hundreds of billions of dollars annually (to keep a military presence in the country with the second largest oil reserves on the planet), destroying beautiful mountain tops (in Appalachia), and planning to destroy vast areas of Illinois (for “clean” coal, a clear oxymoron when it requires the devastation of huge tracks of agriculturally- or biologically-productive land). There has to be a better way. And there is.
Nature relies on renewable resources to survive (not finite, fossilized ones). We will need to do the same to survive this millennium. Why not start ASAP and avoid all the wars, pollution, scarring of landscape, and risk (of nuclear meltdown or terrorist nuclear “suitcase” bombs) that are now firmly imbedded in our energy economy? How might we jump start this transition? Not by increasing subsidies to oil and coal (that is for sure). If we shifted the billions of dollars of subsidies (which today is on the order of $20-$30 billion) that currently go to the oil and gas industries to renewable energy R&D, this would be a great start. Kudos to the recent U.S. House of Representatives who in its first 100 hours actually did something beneficial to all of us—cutting billions of dollars of subsidies to Big Oil and earmarking much of the revenue created for the promotion of renewable energy forms; the vote was 264-163, by the way, so it wasn’t just “wacko” liberals who were for it. This policy is a start, and it still has to pass in the Senate (and get the President’s signature), but perhaps it represents the beginnings of a wholesale change in perspective, a recognition that what we’ve been doing isn’t working and a better way is possible. Let’s hope biomimicry also plays a role in how future renewable resources are developed, extracted, disseminated, and used.
“Don’t foul one’s nest” is another principle organisms live by. Do we? The even more amazing aspect of plant genius is realized in the environmental conditions (temperature, pressure and chemical soup) in which they secure the sun’s energy. While we “smart” beings “must” burn coal, gas, and ethanol (or extract radioactive materials from the ground—in nuclear power) to get sufficient energy to live the way we do, plants do everything at livable temperatures, with chemicals that are safe. Furthermore, the byproducts of our fuel burning/use contaminate the air, water, and soil, whereas plants produce oxygen as the major byproduct of their energy extraction. In fact, name a species, other than homo sapiens, which harnesses the energy that it needs by destroying landscapes, producing toxins, and defiling their neighborhoods. Thus, it is clearly unnatural to have coal power plants in urban centers (there are two inside Chicago’s city limits, both of which are grandfathered out of the Clean Air Acts of the 1970s) and to use toxic chemicals to get our foods to grow (which pollute our bodies when we eat, not to mention the unnecessary killing it does to nearly all organisms attempting to coexist on this planet—the only one currently known to contain life).
However, as absurd as all this sounds, the clearest example of how ridiculous we are came to our attention fairly recently. Our homes are one of the most toxic places we know of! Air quality in most homes is much, much worse than air quality outside. Why? Well, we fill them with toxic paints/lacquers/varnish, carcinogenic PVC flooring and toys (even teething toys!), formaldehyde-laced particle board, petroleum-based rugs/curtains/couches, toxic cleaning chemicals (what an oxymoron), etc. Since these products all aerosolize (meaning that they go from liquid/solid to gaseous form), they fill our interior air with toxic substances. There has got to be a better way, doesn’t there? Once again plants (and their natural fibers) show us how.
“Diversify and Cooperate to Fully Use the Habitat” is something we definitely aren’t doing. Field after field of genetically-modified (and homogenous) corn/soy crop symbolizes a system so broken it is hard (or potentially impossible to fix); some have argued that the irreversibility of “advanced” forms of agriculture is done consciously (by those who seek to monopolize off our dinner plates for the foreseeable future). Biological research has shown, time and time again, that organisms are often working in tandem to secure sufficient resources. And while we have found numerous examples where two species (such as the goby fish and grouper or the oxbird and the hippo) have developed such symbiotic (i.e., mutually beneficial) relationships, there is mounting evidence to suggest that all species in an evolved ecosystem (such as a prairie) are actually working together to survive. Our inability to fully appreciate these supportive relationships is primarily a function of the complexity of systems with more than two members (similar to the “three-body problem” in physics). This “supportive” tendency flies directly in the face of the dominant perspective that drives our economic models and our relationships with other species—the one that says that this is a “dog-eat-dog” world where everyone is in competition with another and only the most fiercest and most stubborn survive. Fortunately, this isn’t how mature ecosystems act and survive.
We can look to our relationship with soils for a poignant example that drives home how transformative might be the incorporation of a simple biomimic principle—cooperation. Currently, to grow our crops, in our “advanced” agricultural system, we attempt to eliminate all other plants from our fields (based on the assumption that they will undoubtedly compete for limited resources and therefore lower production levels). By forcing the issue this way (i.e., allowing only one plant species to exist), we greatly diminish the diversity of the soils as well. Soils do not just consist of dirt (some brownish stuff containing nitrogen). Rather, they are extremely diverse, incredibly intricate networks of living and non-living material which contain thousands of different chemicals and microorganisms. It is these chemicals that have been produced by the microorganisms (or abiotic weathering) which reside below the surface acting in synergy with the hundreds of larger plants and animals which live above it. When we decide to treat soils solely as storehouses for nitrogen, we are really missing the point. Recognizing how we have destroyed (and continue to destroy) diversity (and the millions of interconnections as well) in the name of monocultural profiteering, are we surprised to find out that: (1) “In Iowa, up to six bushels of soil are washed out to sea for every bushel of corn produced”; (2) Over the 20th century, by “tilling the prairie soils of North America, we have lost one third of their topsoil, and up to 50 percent of their original fertility” (Jon Pipers in Benyus); (3) Society “spends ten kilocalories of hydrocarbons to produce one kilocalorie of food”; or, (4) Despite “pounding the United States with 2.2 billion pounds of pesticides annually, crop loses have increased 20 percent” since 1945 (Benyus)? There has to be a better way, doesn’t there?
Throughout the world today, and throughout human history, farmers have been practicing much more natural methods to produce crops—without the need of petroleum-based pesticides, without the need to create monocultures, and without the need of artificial fertilizer (which is also made from petroleum). Today, for instance, some Japanese farmers have reverted back to traditional ways of farming rice. These methods which allow for the growth of rice, fish, and duck eggs, all on the same field, produces much more protein and calories than monocultured-rice fields, and does so with very limit petrochemical input. Sounds incredible? Sure it does, but that is because our arrogance has driven us to “decouple ourselves from nature” (Benyus) rather than assuming that it knows best and we should spend more time trying to understand (and mimic) it.
Biomimicry isn’t just valuable in creating new principles by which to guide our actions, it has many immediate practical uses too (a few of which were mentioned above). Ultimately, it provides the needed paradigm shift that may allow us to live more in keeping with our environment and all of its members. All of the principles described here are the laws that nature follows. If we are arrogant and continue to think that we are somehow superior to nature, we will eventually (and perhaps sooner than any of us think, if the extreme predictions of climate change bear out, or other unknown thresholds are passed) go the way of the dinosaurs. At least the dinosaurs didn’t perish by fault of their own arrogance (they were just unfit to live in a post-meteorite world). Wouldn’t it be a tragedy if the “smartest” species to have roamed the planet was actually the first to consciously eliminate itself from it? When one considers that we have willfully created enough nuclear weapons to destroy all of humanity, it should be abundantly obvious how misdirected we have been (especially considering how much money, and natural resources, were used to manufacture all of these weapons). It is time to try another pathway.
Consider that I have only touched the surface of the insights and wisdom contained in Janine Benyus’ book, Biomimicry. As such, don’t you think it would be worthwhile to pick it up and read it? Don’t you think it deserves to be read in every high school and college biology class as well? So, read it, then pass it on to someone else who might do the same. Forty-six years ago, Pete Seeger wrote/sang, “When will we ever learn?” Isn’t time that we really began to learn from the other 30 million (yet diminishing quickly) species that coexist on the planet we call Earth? If not now, when?
Peter Schwartzman (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate professor and chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Knox College. Father to two amazing girls, Peter hopes that their lives will be lived on a cleaner, more just, more environmentally-aware planet. A nationally-ranked Scrabble® player, he is also the founder and maintainer of websites dedicated to peace, empowerment, and environmental well-being: www.onehuman.org; www.blackthornhill.org; & www.chicagocleanpower.org.