–by Janine Benyus (Mar 09, 2012)
Wisdom is widespread, not only in indigenous peoples but also in the species that have lived on Earth far longer than humans. If the age of the Earth were a calendar year and today were a breath before midnight on New Year’s Eve, we showed up a scant fifteen minutes ago, and all of recorded history has blinked by the last sixty seconds. Luckily for us, our planet-mates–the fantastic meshwork of plants, animals, and microbes–have been patiently perfecting their wares since March, an incredible 3.8 billion years since the first bacteria.
In that time, life has learned to fly, circumnavigate the globe, live in the depths of the ocean and atop the highest peaks, craft miracle materials, light up the night, lasso the Sun’s energy, and build a self-reflective brain. 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? […]
Biomimics are men and women who are exploring nature’s masterpieces–photosynthesis, self-assembly, natural selection, self-sustaining ecosystems, eyes and ears and skin and shells, talking neurons, natural medicines, and more–and then copying these designs and manufacturing processes to solve our own problems. I call their quest biomimicry–the conscious emulation of life’s genius. Innovation inspired by nature.
In a society accustomed to dominating or “improving” nature, this respectful imitation is a radically new approach, a revolution really. 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. […]
The biomimics are discovering what works in the natural world, and more important, what lasts. After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival. 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. […]
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. […]
Despite our technological inventions, we haven’t escaped the gravity of life at all. 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. When we emerge from the fog, my hope is that we’ll have turned this juggernaut around, and instead of fleeing the Earth, we’ll be homeward bound, letting nature lead us to our landing, as the orchid leads the bee.
It may be a troubled conscience that is pushing us toward home, say the biomimics, but the critical mass of new information in the natural sciences is providing an equally important pull. Our fragmentary knowledge of biology is doubling every five years, growing like a pointillist painting to a recognizable whole. Equally unprecedented is the intensity of our gaze: new scopes and satellites allow us to witness nature’s patterns from the intercellular to the interstellar. 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.
When we stare this deeply into nature’s eyes, it takes our breath away, and in a good way, it bursts our bubble. 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. Our central heating and air-conditioning are bested by the termite tower’s steady 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Our most stealthy radar is hard of hearing compared to the bat’s multifrequency transmission. And our new “smart materials” can’t hold a candle to the dolphin’s skin or the butterfly’s proboscis. Even the wheel, which we always took to be a uniquely human creation, has been found in the tiny rotary motor that propels the flagellum of the world’s most ancient bacteria. […]
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. From their notebooks, we can begin to divine a canon of nature’s laws, strategies, and principles:
Nature runs on sunlight.
Nature uses only the energy it needs.
Nature fits form to function.
Nature recycles everything.
Nature rewards cooperation.
Nature banks on diversity.
Nature demands local expertise.
Nature curbs excesses from within.
Nature taps the power of limits.
This last lesson, “tapping the power of limits,” is perhaps most opaque to us because we humans regard limits as a universal dare, something to be overcome so we can continue our expansion. Other Earthlings take their limits more seriously, knowing they must function within a tight range of life-friendly temperatures, harvest within the carrying capacity of the land, and maintain an energy balance that cannot be borrowed against. Within these lines, life unfurls her colors with virtuosity, using limits as a source of power, a focusing mechanism. Because nature spins her spell in such a small space, her creations read like a poem that says only what it means.
Studying these poems day in and day out, biomimics develop a high degree of awe, bordering on reverence. Now that they see what nature is truly capable of, nature-inspired innovations seem like a hand up out of the abyss. As we reach up to them, however, I can’t help but wonder how we will use these new designs and processes. What will make the Biomimicry Revolution any different from the Industrial Revolution? Who’s to say we won’t simply steal nature’s thunder and use it in the ongoing campaign against life?
This is not an idle worry. The last really famous biomimetic invention was the airplane (the Wright brothers watched vultures to learn the nuances of drag and lift). We flew like a bird for the first time in 1903, and by 1914, we were dropping bombs from the sky.
Perhaps in the end, it will not be a change in technology that will bring us to the biomimetic future, but a change of heart, a humbling that allows us to be attentive to nature’s lessons. As author Bill McKibben has pointed out, our tools are always deployed in the service of some philosophy or ideology. If we are to use our tools in the service of fitting in on Earth, our basic relationship to nature–even the story we tell ourselves about who we are in the universe–has to change. […]
At the same time that ecological science is showing us the extent of our folly, it is also revealing the pattern of nature’s wisdom reflected in all life. This time we come not to learn about nature so that we might circumvent or control her, but to learn from nature, so that we might fit in, at last and for good, on the Earth from which we sprang.
We have a million questions. How should we grow our food? How should we make our materials? How should we power ourselves, heal ourselves, store what we learn? How should we conduct business in a way that honors the Earth? As we discover what nature already knows, we will remember how it feels to roar like a jaguar–to be a part of, not apart from, the genius that surrounds us.
Let the living lessons begin.