biomimicry and the lament of slow learning

I first came across biomimicry when Janine Benyus spoke and led a workshop at a forum I attended last year. When I discovered that her book Biomimicry was published back in 1997, I felt ripped off that it was taking so long for this work to filter down to the masses! This has happened to me often before … I get energised by what I thought was a new idea, only to discover someone has been thinking, researching, writing and teaching about it for years, even decades.

Biomimicry is certainly an idea whose time has come. For decades we have developed a growing awareness that our approach to industry and western life is unsustainable. We extract natural, non-renewable resources from the earth’s crust, turn it into stuff that doesn’t break down and decay, and pile it up, bury it, let it escape into the atmosphere or try to hide it. It is a bit like our early attempts at flying &#8230 we have strapped some wings to our arms and jumped off the cliff &#8230 the cliff being so high that for a hundred years or so we have thought we were flying. We’ve caught sight of the ground beneath us getting closer very rapidly. Gulp. We are now all caught up in humanity’s struggle to come up with plan B. Flapping harder is unfortunately not going to cut it.

Biomimicry will be part of ensuring the long term sustainability of human development. So what is it? Benyus identifies three dimensions: (quoted from the introduction to Biomimicry)

  • 1. Nature as model: Biomimicry is a new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems. Eg., a solar cell inspired by a leaf.
  • 2. Nature as measure: Biomimicry uses an ecological standard to judge the ‘rightness’ of our innovations. After 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature has learned: What works. What is appropriate. What lasts.
  • 3. Nature as mentor: Biomimicry is a new way of viewing and valuing nature. It introduces an era based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but on what we can learn from it.

This is not brand new. We are already aware of, or are using countless innovations derived from biomimicry; from Velcro – based on the grappling hooks in seeds to Ian Thorpe’s shark suit – literally inspired by the design of shark skin.

One of the striking things I ‘learned’ was how, from the 100 elements in the periodic table, nature has essentially used just four – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen – to produce all living things. (With dashes of sulphur and phosphorus.) Think of the of magnificence engineering and design that has been accomplished with these basic elements; look no further than the strength and flexibility of the spider web. Maybe we have been too clever for our own good, inventing a whole bunch of ways of doing things that have made sense in the short term but have ultimately taken us in a direction that is not sustainable.

At last we are beginning to see the wisdom of biomimicry filter into the public conversation. March’s Australian Financial Review Boss Magazine reproduced an article from The Harvard Business Review called The Biosphere Rules – an excellent introduction if you can get your hands on it. Of course, Benyus’ book is the obvious place to start along with other really good titles that are emerging such as McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle or my favourite, Paul Hawken’s Natural Capitalism.