By EarthSky. Her company, The Biomimicry Group, encourages biologists at the design table to ask: how would nature design this? She says our human society will create a more sustainable world in part by emulating the natural organisms all around us, which have already gone through billions of years of trial and error to find elegant and amazing solutions to process and design problems. Biomimicry is innovation inspired by nature. Biomimicry has been going on for a long time. Think about the Wright brothers looking at turkey vultures to learn about drag and lift in flight.
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We must draw our standards from the natural world. He roared like a jaguar in the hearings, teaching a roomful of jaded staffers where real power comes from and what homeland actually means. Both were about urban Westerners whose lives are changed forever by the wise teachings of preindustrial societies. Shaken by the sight, he, we, are hungry for instructions about how to live sanely and sustainably on the Earth.
The good news is that wisdom is widespread, not only in indigenous peoples but also in the species that have lived on Earth far longer than humans. Luckily for us, our planet-mates—the fantastic meshwork of plants, animals, and microbes—have been patiently perfecting their wares since March, an incredible 3. Collectively, organisms have managed to turn rock and sea into a life-friendly home, with steady temperatures and smoothly percolating cycles. In short, living things have done everything we want to do, without guzzling fossil fuel, polluting the planet, or mortgaging their future.
What better models could there be? Innovation inspired by nature. Unlike the Industrial Revolution, the Biomimicry Revolution introduces an era based not on what we can extract from nature, but on what we can learn from her.
In a biomimetic world, we would manufacture the way animals and plants do, using sun and simple compounds to produce totally biodegradable fibers, ceramics, plastics, and chemicals. Our farms, modeled on prairies, would be self-fertilizing and pest-resistant. To find new drugs or crops, we would consult animals and insects that have used plants for millions of years to keep themselves healthy and nourished.
In each case, nature would provide the models: solar cells copied from leaves, steely fibers woven spider-style, shatterproof ceramics drawn from mother-of-pearl, cancer cures compliments of chimpanzees, perennial grains inspired by tallgrass, computers that signal like cells, and a closed-loop economy that takes its lessons from redwoods, coral reefs, and oak-hickory forests.
The biomimics are discovering what works in the natural world, and more important, what lasts. After 3. The more our world looks and functions like this natural world, the more likely we are to be accepted on this home that is ours, but not ours alone. This, of course, is not news to the Huaorani Indians. Virtually all native cultures that have survived without fouling their nests have acknowledged that nature knows best, and have had the humility to ask the bears and wolves and ravens and redwoods for guidance.
A few years ago, I began to wonder too. After three hundred years of Western Science, was there anyone in our tradition able to see what the Huaorani see?
Especially tree growth. As I remember, cooperative relationships, self-regulating feedback cycles, and dense interconnectedness were not something we needed to know for the exam. In reductionist fashion, we studied each piece of the forest separately, rarely considering that a spruce-fir forest might add up to something more than the sum of its parts, or that wisdom might reside in the whole.
There were no labs in listening to the land or in emulating the ways in which natural communities grew and prospered. This hand-in-glove harmony was a constant source of delight to me, as well as an object lesson. In seeing how seamlessly animals fit into their homes, I began to see how separate we managers had become from ours.
Despite the fact that we face the same physical challenges that all living beings face—the struggle for food, water, space, and shelter in a finite habitat—we were trying to meet those challenges through human cleverness alone.
The lessons inherent in the natural world, strategies sculpted and burnished over billions of years, remained scientific curiosities, divorced from the business of our lives. But what if I went back to school now? Could I find any researchers who were consciously looking to organisms and ecosystems for inspiration about how to live lightly and ingeniously on the Earth?
Could I work with inventors or engineers who were dipping into biology texts for ideas? Was there anyone, in this day and age, who regarded organisms and natural systems as the ultimate teachers? Happily, I found not one but many biomimics. They are fascinating people, working at the edges of their disciplines, in the fertile crests between intellectual habitats. Where ecology meets agriculture, medicine, materials science, energy, computing, and commerce, they are learning that there is more to discover than to invent.
They know that nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved the problems we are struggling to solve. Our challenge is to take these time-tested ideas and echo them in our own lives. Once I found the biomimics, I was thrilled, but surprised that there is no formal movement as yet, no think tanks or university degrees in biomimicry. This was strange, because whenever I mentioned what I was working on, people responded with a universal enthusiasm, a sort of relief upon hearing an idea that makes so much sense.
Biomimicry has the earmarks of a successful meme, that is, an idea that will spread like an adaptive gene throughout our culture. Part of writing this book was my desire to see that meme spread and become the context for our searching in the new millennium.
I see the signs of nature-based innovation everywhere I go now. And yet I wonder, why now? Our journey began ten thousand years ago with the Agricultural Revolution, when we broke free from the vicissitudes of hunting and gathering and learned to stock our own pantries.
But these revolutions were only a warm-up for our real break from Earthly orbit—the Petrochemical and Genetic Engineering Revolutions. Now that we can synthesize what we need and rearrange the genetic alphabet to our liking, we have gained what we think of as autonomy.
Strapped to our juggernaut of technology, we fancy ourselves as gods, very far from home indeed. We are still beholden to ecological laws, the same as any other lifes-form.
The most irrevocable of these laws says that a species cannot occupy a niche that appropriates all resources—there has to be some sharing. Any species that ignores this law winds up destroying its community to support its own expansion. Tragically, this has been our path.
We began as a small population in a very large world and have expanded in number and territory until we are bursting the seams of that world. There are too many of us, and our habits are unsustainable. But I believe, as many have before me, that this is just the storm before the calm.
The new sciences of chaos and complexity tell us that a system that is far from stable is a system ripe for change. Evolution itself is believed to have occurred in fits and starts, plateauing for millions of years and then leaping to a whole new level of creativity after crisis. Reaching our limits, then, if we choose to admit them to ourselves, may be an opportunity for us to leap to a new phase of coping, in which we adapt to the Earth rather than the other way around.
The changes we make now, no matter how incremental they seem, may be the nucleus for this new reality. Our fragmentary knowledge of biology is doubling every five years, growing like a pointillist painting to a recognizable whole. We can probe a buttercup with the eyes of a mite, ride the electron shuttle of photosynthesis, feel the shiver of a neuron in thought, or watch in color as a star is born.
We can see, more clearly than ever before, how nature works her miracles. We realize that all our inventions have already appeared in nature in a more elegant form and at a lot less cost to the planet.
Our most clever architectural struts and beams are already featured in lily pads and bamboo stems. Humbling also are the hordes of organisms casually performing feats we can only dream about. Bioluminescent algae splash chemicals together to light their body lanterns.
Arctic fish and frogs freeze solid and then spring to life, having protected their organs from ice damage. Black bears hibernate all winter without poisoning themselves on their urea, while their polar cousins stay active, with a coat of transparent hollow hairs covering their skins like the panes of a greenhouse. Chameleons and cuttlefish hide without moving, changing the pattern of their skin to instantly blend with their surroundings.
Bees, turtles, and birds navigate without maps, while whales and penguins dive without scuba gear. How do they do it? How do dragonflies outmaneuver our best helicopters? How do hummingbirds cross the Gulf of Mexico on less than one tenth of an ounce of fuel? How do ants carry the equivalent of hundreds of pounds in a dead heat through the jungle? These individual achievements pale, however, when we consider the intricate interliving that characterizes whole systems, communities like tidal marshes or saguaro forests.
In ensemble, living things maintain a dynamic stability, like dancers in an arabesque, continually juggling resources without waste. After decades of faithful study, ecologists have begun to fathom hidden likenesses among many interwoven systems. Nature fits form to function. Nature recycles everything.
Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature
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