Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature EVSS 695 Sustainability Class 10: biomimicry P. Brian Fisher
About the Author • Benyus is Gaia-oriented • Background in natural resource management and literature • President of Living Education • Organization combines education and community
"The more our world functions like the natural world, the more likely we are to endure on this home that is ours, but not ours alone." ~ Janine Benyus Biomimicry [is] 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. ...
Quotes from Benyus (interview) • We humans are at a turning point in our evolution. Though we began as a small population in a very large world, we have expanded in number and territory until we are now bursting the seams of that world. There are too many of us, and our habits are unsustainable. • Having reached the limits of nature’s tolerance, we are finally shopping for answers to the question: “How can we live on this home planet without destroying it?” • Now it’s a “race to rescue”
Biomimicry • Promotes the transfer of ideas, designs, and strategies from biology to sustainable human systems design. • Great potential to create sustainable solutions • Focus on innovation • Requires research and funding
What is to prevent using this “technology” against earth itself? • Right now we tell ourselves that the Earth was put here for our use. That we are at the top of the pyramid when it comes to Earthlings. But of course this is a myth. We’ve had a run of spectacular luck, but we are not necessarily the best survivors over the long haul. We are not immune to the laws of natural selection, and if we overshoot the carrying capacity of the Earth, we will pay the consequences. • Practicing ethical biomimicry will require a change of heart. We will have to climb down from our pedestal and begin to see ourselves as simply a species among species, as one vote in a parliament of 30 million. When we accept this fact, we start to realize that what is good for the living Earth is good for us as well. • If we agree to follow this ethical path, the question becomes: how do we judge the “rightness” of our innovations? How do we make sure that they are life-promoting? Here, too, I think biomimicry can help. The best way to scrutinize our innovations is to compare them to what has come before. Does this strategy or design have a precedence in nature? Has something like it been time-tested long enough to wear a seal of approval? • If we use what nature has done as a filter, we stop ourselves from, for instance, transferring genes from one class of organism to another. We wouldn’t put flounder genes into a strawberry plant, for instance. Biomimicry says: if it can’t be found in nature, there is probably a good reason for its absence. It may have been tried, and long ago edited out of the population. Natural selection is wisdom in action.
Deep vs. Shallow biomimicry • The first level of biomimicry is the mimicking of natural form. For instance, you may mimic the hooks and barbules in an owl’s feather to create a fabric that opens anywhere along its surface. Or you can imitate the frayed edges that grant the owl its silent flight. Copying feather design is just the beginning, because it may or may not yield something sustainable. • Deeper biomimicry adds a second level, which is the mimicking of natural process, or how it is made. The owl feather self-assembles at body temperature without toxins or high pressures, by way of nature’s chemistry. The unfurling field of green chemistry attempts to mimic these benign recipes. • At the third level is the mimicking of natural ecosystems. The owl feather is gracefully nested---it’s part of an owl that is part of a forest that is part of a biome that is part of a sustaining biosphere. In the same way, our owl-inspired fabric must be part of a larger economy that works to restore rather than deplete the earth and its people. If you make a bioinspired fabric using green chemistry, but you have workers weaving it in a sweatshop, loading it onto pollution-spewing trucks, and shipping it long distances, you’ve missed the point. • To mimic a natural system, you must ask how each product fits in—is it necessary, is it beautiful, is it part of a nourishing food web of industries, and can it be transported, sold, and reabsorbed in ways that foster a forest-like economy? • If we can biomimic at all three levels—natural form, natural process, and natural system—we’ll begin to do what all well-adapted organisms have learned to do, which is to create conditions conducive to life. Creating conditions conducive to life is not optional; it’s a rite of passage for any organism that manages to fit in here over the long haul. If we want to keep coming home to this place, we’ll need to learn from our predecessors how to filter air, clean water, build soil—how to keep the habitat lush and livable. It’s what good neighbors do.
Farming • Grow crops in polyculture • Place-based agriculture • Thomas Jefferson envisioned many small farms • Is this concept possible? • Farming in the United States • 1935: 6.8 million farms in US • Currently, 2 million farms • 90% family-owned; not “small farm” US EPA: Ag 101. <http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/ag101/demographics.html>
Wes Jackson – Land Instit • The way to get off this “treadmill of vigilance”is to breed perennial crops that we can eat and grow them in a prairie-like polyculture. The edible prairie would not merely be new; it would be the polar opposite of what we have now. The plants would overwinter, so we wouldn’t need to plow and plant every year, or worry about soil erosion. We wouldn’t need to add synthetic fertilizers because nitrogen-fixing plants would be in the mix. We wouldn’t need to spray biocides because the presence of lots of different plant species would slow down pest outbreaks.
Artificial Photosynthesis • Technology is young • Price of PV cells dropping • Potential to build chemicals efficiently and cleanly; without high energy inputs required for uphill reactions • 2011: MIT developed 1st artificial leaf • Can supply a house in developing nation with power for a day American Chemical Society. “Debut of the first practical ‘artificial leaf’.”
Materials • Most new materials created using high temperatures, high pressures and strong chemical treatments • Materials in nature: spider silk, rhino horn, mussel adhesive • Self-assembling materials • Similar to C2C design; reduction in waste • Nanotechnology: materials, computers, medical • Molecular manufacturing
Medicine • Rainforests and oceans offer potential drugs and medicines • Diversity in danger due to species loss • Analyzing plant compounds in time consuming • Need to narrow search • Animals find remedies in nature • Shuman and folk medicine can provide guidance
Further Examples • Bullet train designed after kingfisher • Bird dives with little splash • More efficient, faster, quieter train
Further Examples Cnt’d • Tsunami warning system from dolphins • Transmitting signals for early warning is difficult • Dolphins utilize sound waves to communicate, recognize each other
Further Examples Cnt’d • Building AC designed after termite mound • Pax Scientific Inc. designed fans after seashells; mimic shape • Optimize materials with lessons on strength from trees and bones
Opportunities for Entrepreneurs • Businesses have formed around many of these ideas • Investment from venture capital • What role should government play in research? • Will businesses accept these ideas?
Other Topics • Serves as inspiration; inspire a new generation of designers • Encourages creativity • Should biomimcry be taught in schools? • Importance of education in biology and science • Beyond invention. Calls for new processes.
Lessons from the Honey Bee • Christopher Mathias • Lessons from beehives • Temperature control • Thermal storage • Indoor air quality • Passive ventilation • Energy Efficiency