What would nature do?

The emerging science of biomimicry promises inventive breakthroughs in nearly every field of technology and design

Janine Benyus | November 2004 issue

Biomimicry is innovation inspired by nature, looking to nature as a teacher. One language caveat here: Inherent in the phrase “looking to nature” is the lonely idea that we are not nature—that we’re peering in from the outside. But that’s not what I believe. I see us as biological organisms, and that means we are nature. There’s no separation. So forgive the awkward rhetoric, but when I say “nature,” I’m referring to what writer David Abrams calls “more-than-human” nature—our biological elders who have been here much longer than we have. Compared to them, we just arrived and have everything to learn about how to live gracefully on this planet. If the age of the earth were a calendar year beginning on January 1, and today were a breath before midnight on December 31, it would mean that Homo sapiens got here fifteen minutes ago and all of recorded history blinked by in the last sixty seconds.

Bacteria bootstrapped themselves up out of the chaos in March of that theoretical year, and in the 3.8 billion years since, life has learned to do some amazing things—to fly, circumnavigate the globe, live at the top of mountains and the bottom of the ocean, lasso solar energy, light up the night, and make miracle materials like skin, horns, hair, and brains. In fact, organisms have done everything we humans do or want to do, but without guzzling fossil fuels, polluting the planet, or mortgaging their future. So yes, we are part of nature, but we’re a very young species still trying to get it right. We need to study more, look at the world around us and ask: How well adapted is that product, that technology, that process or practice or policy, to life on earth over the long haul? That’s the key question. Ninety-nine percent of species that have been on earth are now extinct because their products or their processes were not well adapted.

Together, the amazing adaptations life has created spell out a pattern language for survival. Think of the wood frog that can freeze solid in winter and hop away unharmed in the spring. Or the much maligned garden snail that builds its own highway of slime, a lubricant that absorbs 1,500 times its weight in water almost instantly, allowing the snail to climb up and over a thorny branch without hurting itself. Banana slugs can do the same thing. We humans don’t have anything close to that in terms of an effective lubricant. Rhino horns surprise us by healing when cracked, even though the horn has no living cells in it. We don’t know how it manages to do that, but what a great model for resilient materials that would never have to be thrown away.

Another of my favorite examples is the hummingbird, an organism about the size of my thumb. It flies up to 35 miles an hour (faster than you can get around most cities in a cab) and migrates about 2,000 miles a year. Those journeying down the eastern flyway reach the lip of the Gulf of Mexico and then pause for a while, fueling up on 1,000 blossoms a day. Finally, they burst across 600 miles of open water without stopping, on a whopping 2.1 grams of fuel. And that’s not jet fuel: it’s nectar.

But here’s what amazes me even more. In the process of fueling up, the hummingbird manages to pollinate its energy source, ensuring that there will be nectar next year—for itself, for its offspring, or for completely unrelated species that feed on nectar. And of course, when the hummingbird dies, its body decays and nurtures the roots not only of flowers, but of mushrooms, grasses, trees, and shrubs. In the process of meeting their needs, all organisms manage to fertilize the soil, clean the air, clean the water, and mix the right cocktail of atmospheric gasses that life needs to live.

What life, taken all together, has learned to do is to create conditions conducive to life. And that’s what we have to learn. Luckily, we don’t need to make it up. We need only step outside and ask the local geniuses that surround us. The key question for anyone interested in biomimicry is “What would nature do here?” But that’s a hard question, even for ecological designers. We tend to puzzle instead over how to improve our conventional solutions. For instance, when we want to clean a surface, we get hung up on questions such as “What’s the least toxic detergent to use?” or “How can I reduce the energy involved in sandblasting?” A more helpful question might be “How does nature stay clean?” Other organisms don’t use detergent or sandblasters at all, and yet many of them depend on staying clean for their survival.

A leaf, for instance, has to stay dirt-free so it can breathe and gather sunlight. Botanists in Germany looked to the lotus, a symbol of purity in Asia because it rises from muddy swamps yet remains dry and pristine. Under a microscope, they saw that instead of being smooth, for easy cleaning, the leaf surface is incredibly bumpy. Dirt particles teeter on the peaks instead of sticking strongly, and raindrops ball up instead of spreading out. As the drops roll, they lift the loose dirt particles. And it’s not just lotus; many leaves are like this, it turns out. The question then becomes not which detergent to use but how to keep things from getting dirty in the first place. A German company called ispo makes a building exterior paint called Lotusan based on the lotus effect. The dried paint has the structure of the lotus leaf, and rainwater cleans the building.

And how does nature power itself? Obviously, not the way we do. Of course we all rely on photosynthesis, on sunlight captured by plants. But in our case, it’s ancient sunlight trapped 65 million years ago by plants that we now dig up and ignite in the form of oil or coal or natural gas. We burn 100,000 years of ancient plant growth every year. We’re fueling our civilization with ancient sunlight. What we need to learn is how to tap into the current sunlight streaming down all day long. So we’re turning to the masters of capturing sunlight—green plants—and asking them, “How are you powering yourself?”

A leaf has tens of thousands of tiny photosynthetic reaction centers. They’re like molecular-scale solar batteries operating at 93 percent quantum efficiency, which means that for every hundred particles of light that strike the leaf, ninety-three are turned into sugars. That’s remarkable in terms of effectiveness. The best part is that these solar cells are manufactured silently, in water, and without toxins. So plant biologists and engineers are now looking to leaves to help them make a smaller, better solar cell.

One of the many gifts of biomimicry is that you see nature as model and mentor, which changes the very way you view and value the natural world. Instead of viewing nature as warehouse, you begin to see her as teacher. Instead of valuing what you can extract from her, you value what you can learn from her. And this changes everything.

The practice of biomimicry requires community, not just with other organisms, but with people in other disciplines. We need to bring together fields of study that have been kept separate. As it stands now, we educate biologists to learn how life lives. We then educate different sets of people to find out how we should feed ourselves, power our society, make our materials, and run our businesses. I’ll call these people the engineers, for want of a better word: people who design human systems. So we have the biologists and the engineers, and, very sadly, few people get to work in the fertile crescent between those two intellectual habitats. Yet the rest of nature revels in these in-between places. In fact, some of the most fertile habitats on Earth are estuaries, where freshwater and salt water come together.

Yet cross-disciplinary encounters are beginning to happen in field after field. Cell biologists, for example, now realize that every cell in our body is, in a sense, a sophisticated computer, responding appropriately to signals and information from enzymes, antibodies, antigens, and so on, which attract or repel one another, scan one another and then hook together. Computer scientists are starting to take note of this, and it may lead to a whole new paradigm for computing, because what our computers can’t do very well right now is pattern recognition, and what living molecules do so well is pattern recognition, adapting, and learning.

On the broader, macroeconomic level, some leading-edge planners, industrialists, and entrepreneurs, concerned about the enormous waste generated by our economy, are starting to look at ecosystems where interconnected species fill every niche you could ever imagine and eat every crumb before it even falls off the table. They are trying to envision how we might shift our economy from a linear model, which uses a lot of resources at end and produces a lot of waste at the other, to a highly interconnected, closed-loop system in which only solar energy comes in, and very little waste goes out. This emerging discipline has a name, which I hope will someday not seem such an oxymoron: industrial ecology.

It’s big news that this type of work is actually happening, that some scientists are starting to move into that estuary between biology and engineering. I’ve gone to their labs and spent time with them. They’re trying to process wood like a fungus, stick to surfaces like a gecko, make color like a peacock, create ceramics like an abalone, cool a building like a termite, and wick water from air like a desert beetle. It’s very exciting to see the fruits of these cross-pollinations.

In the course of thinking about all this, I often ask myself what adaptive traits humans have. One thing that seems to make us different from other creatures, as far as we know, is our ability to act collectively—as a whole species—on what we’ve learned. We can decide as a culture to listen to life, to echo what we hear, to not be a plague upon the earth. Having this will and our considerable brains, we can make the conscious choice to follow nature’s lead in living our lives. The good news is that we have plenty of help. We’re surrounded by masters. They are everywhere with us, breathing the same air, drinking the same water. Learning from them will take some humility and listening on our part, so we can hear their symphony of good sense. What biomimicry offers us, in learning from nature instead of just about nature, is the opportunity to feel a part of, rather than apart from, this genius that surrounds us.

Mimicking natural forms and processes is only the first step of a broader understanding of nature’s lessons. We can imitate the self-opening and -closing hooks on an owl feather, say, to get a backpack that opens anywhere without the need for a metal zipper. But if we make that backpack out of petroleum-based nylon, and we make it in a sweatshop, and we put it on a cross-continental truck spewing diesel fumes, what’s the point? Mimicking natural forms is a start, but really learning from nature means embracing and embodying nature’s processes and ecosystem strategies.

We can’t forget that a wellspring of good ideas is available to all of us all of the time. Everyone is a designer in one way or another and we all have an innate knowledge of the biological world. So when you are designing something and you want to ask, “How would nature do this?” go right ahead: Turn the doorknob, step outside, and enjoy the sun, the wind, the rain, the trees, the insects, the leaves, the frogs, the hummingbirds, yes, even the snails and slugs.

After all, it’s not a new gadget that’s going to make us more sustainable as a culture; it’s a change of heart and a new set of eyes, a new way of viewing and valuing the world in which we are embedded and on which we depend. We’re a young species, but we’re very adaptable, and we’re uncanny mimics. With the help of our ten-to-thirty million fellow species on this planet, I believe we can learn to do what other organisms have done, which is to make of this place an Eden, a home that is ours but not ours alone.

Adapted from the book Nature’s Operating Instructions: The True Biotechnologies (Sierra Club Books, $16.95 U.S.) edited by Kenny Ausubel, founder of the Bioneers with J.P. Harpignies. Highlighting visionaries in many fields who use nature as their guide for innovation and invention, the compelling and important essays here were drawn from speeches delivered at the annual Bioneers conference in San Rafael, California.

Janine Benyus is the foremost champion of the idea of biomimicry. A writer and educator, she holds degrees in forestry, natural resource management and English literature. She is an environmental activist, and part of the Eco Dream Team at Interface Inc., an American carpet company that has embraced innovative sustainable practices. She collaborated with David Suzuki on a film about biomimicry that aired on public television in North America and is the author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. She lives in Montana.

Solution News Source

What would nature do?

The emerging science of biomimicry promises inventive breakthroughs in nearly every field of technology and design

Janine Benyus | November 2004 issue

Biomimicry is innovation inspired by nature, looking to nature as a teacher. One language caveat here: Inherent in the phrase “looking to nature” is the lonely idea that we are not nature—that we’re peering in from the outside. But that’s not what I believe. I see us as biological organisms, and that means we are nature. There’s no separation. So forgive the awkward rhetoric, but when I say “nature,” I’m referring to what writer David Abrams calls “more-than-human” nature—our biological elders who have been here much longer than we have. Compared to them, we just arrived and have everything to learn about how to live gracefully on this planet. If the age of the earth were a calendar year beginning on January 1, and today were a breath before midnight on December 31, it would mean that Homo sapiens got here fifteen minutes ago and all of recorded history blinked by in the last sixty seconds.

Bacteria bootstrapped themselves up out of the chaos in March of that theoretical year, and in the 3.8 billion years since, life has learned to do some amazing things—to fly, circumnavigate the globe, live at the top of mountains and the bottom of the ocean, lasso solar energy, light up the night, and make miracle materials like skin, horns, hair, and brains. In fact, organisms have done everything we humans do or want to do, but without guzzling fossil fuels, polluting the planet, or mortgaging their future. So yes, we are part of nature, but we’re a very young species still trying to get it right. We need to study more, look at the world around us and ask: How well adapted is that product, that technology, that process or practice or policy, to life on earth over the long haul? That’s the key question. Ninety-nine percent of species that have been on earth are now extinct because their products or their processes were not well adapted.

Together, the amazing adaptations life has created spell out a pattern language for survival. Think of the wood frog that can freeze solid in winter and hop away unharmed in the spring. Or the much maligned garden snail that builds its own highway of slime, a lubricant that absorbs 1,500 times its weight in water almost instantly, allowing the snail to climb up and over a thorny branch without hurting itself. Banana slugs can do the same thing. We humans don’t have anything close to that in terms of an effective lubricant. Rhino horns surprise us by healing when cracked, even though the horn has no living cells in it. We don’t know how it manages to do that, but what a great model for resilient materials that would never have to be thrown away.

Another of my favorite examples is the hummingbird, an organism about the size of my thumb. It flies up to 35 miles an hour (faster than you can get around most cities in a cab) and migrates about 2,000 miles a year. Those journeying down the eastern flyway reach the lip of the Gulf of Mexico and then pause for a while, fueling up on 1,000 blossoms a day. Finally, they burst across 600 miles of open water without stopping, on a whopping 2.1 grams of fuel. And that’s not jet fuel: it’s nectar.

But here’s what amazes me even more. In the process of fueling up, the hummingbird manages to pollinate its energy source, ensuring that there will be nectar next year—for itself, for its offspring, or for completely unrelated species that feed on nectar. And of course, when the hummingbird dies, its body decays and nurtures the roots not only of flowers, but of mushrooms, grasses, trees, and shrubs. In the process of meeting their needs, all organisms manage to fertilize the soil, clean the air, clean the water, and mix the right cocktail of atmospheric gasses that life needs to live.

What life, taken all together, has learned to do is to create conditions conducive to life. And that’s what we have to learn. Luckily, we don’t need to make it up. We need only step outside and ask the local geniuses that surround us. The key question for anyone interested in biomimicry is “What would nature do here?” But that’s a hard question, even for ecological designers. We tend to puzzle instead over how to improve our conventional solutions. For instance, when we want to clean a surface, we get hung up on questions such as “What’s the least toxic detergent to use?” or “How can I reduce the energy involved in sandblasting?” A more helpful question might be “How does nature stay clean?” Other organisms don’t use detergent or sandblasters at all, and yet many of them depend on staying clean for their survival.

A leaf, for instance, has to stay dirt-free so it can breathe and gather sunlight. Botanists in Germany looked to the lotus, a symbol of purity in Asia because it rises from muddy swamps yet remains dry and pristine. Under a microscope, they saw that instead of being smooth, for easy cleaning, the leaf surface is incredibly bumpy. Dirt particles teeter on the peaks instead of sticking strongly, and raindrops ball up instead of spreading out. As the drops roll, they lift the loose dirt particles. And it’s not just lotus; many leaves are like this, it turns out. The question then becomes not which detergent to use but how to keep things from getting dirty in the first place. A German company called ispo makes a building exterior paint called Lotusan based on the lotus effect. The dried paint has the structure of the lotus leaf, and rainwater cleans the building.

And how does nature power itself? Obviously, not the way we do. Of course we all rely on photosynthesis, on sunlight captured by plants. But in our case, it’s ancient sunlight trapped 65 million years ago by plants that we now dig up and ignite in the form of oil or coal or natural gas. We burn 100,000 years of ancient plant growth every year. We’re fueling our civilization with ancient sunlight. What we need to learn is how to tap into the current sunlight streaming down all day long. So we’re turning to the masters of capturing sunlight—green plants—and asking them, “How are you powering yourself?”

A leaf has tens of thousands of tiny photosynthetic reaction centers. They’re like molecular-scale solar batteries operating at 93 percent quantum efficiency, which means that for every hundred particles of light that strike the leaf, ninety-three are turned into sugars. That’s remarkable in terms of effectiveness. The best part is that these solar cells are manufactured silently, in water, and without toxins. So plant biologists and engineers are now looking to leaves to help them make a smaller, better solar cell.

One of the many gifts of biomimicry is that you see nature as model and mentor, which changes the very way you view and value the natural world. Instead of viewing nature as warehouse, you begin to see her as teacher. Instead of valuing what you can extract from her, you value what you can learn from her. And this changes everything.

The practice of biomimicry requires community, not just with other organisms, but with people in other disciplines. We need to bring together fields of study that have been kept separate. As it stands now, we educate biologists to learn how life lives. We then educate different sets of people to find out how we should feed ourselves, power our society, make our materials, and run our businesses. I’ll call these people the engineers, for want of a better word: people who design human systems. So we have the biologists and the engineers, and, very sadly, few people get to work in the fertile crescent between those two intellectual habitats. Yet the rest of nature revels in these in-between places. In fact, some of the most fertile habitats on Earth are estuaries, where freshwater and salt water come together.

Yet cross-disciplinary encounters are beginning to happen in field after field. Cell biologists, for example, now realize that every cell in our body is, in a sense, a sophisticated computer, responding appropriately to signals and information from enzymes, antibodies, antigens, and so on, which attract or repel one another, scan one another and then hook together. Computer scientists are starting to take note of this, and it may lead to a whole new paradigm for computing, because what our computers can’t do very well right now is pattern recognition, and what living molecules do so well is pattern recognition, adapting, and learning.

On the broader, macroeconomic level, some leading-edge planners, industrialists, and entrepreneurs, concerned about the enormous waste generated by our economy, are starting to look at ecosystems where interconnected species fill every niche you could ever imagine and eat every crumb before it even falls off the table. They are trying to envision how we might shift our economy from a linear model, which uses a lot of resources at end and produces a lot of waste at the other, to a highly interconnected, closed-loop system in which only solar energy comes in, and very little waste goes out. This emerging discipline has a name, which I hope will someday not seem such an oxymoron: industrial ecology.

It’s big news that this type of work is actually happening, that some scientists are starting to move into that estuary between biology and engineering. I’ve gone to their labs and spent time with them. They’re trying to process wood like a fungus, stick to surfaces like a gecko, make color like a peacock, create ceramics like an abalone, cool a building like a termite, and wick water from air like a desert beetle. It’s very exciting to see the fruits of these cross-pollinations.

In the course of thinking about all this, I often ask myself what adaptive traits humans have. One thing that seems to make us different from other creatures, as far as we know, is our ability to act collectively—as a whole species—on what we’ve learned. We can decide as a culture to listen to life, to echo what we hear, to not be a plague upon the earth. Having this will and our considerable brains, we can make the conscious choice to follow nature’s lead in living our lives. The good news is that we have plenty of help. We’re surrounded by masters. They are everywhere with us, breathing the same air, drinking the same water. Learning from them will take some humility and listening on our part, so we can hear their symphony of good sense. What biomimicry offers us, in learning from nature instead of just about nature, is the opportunity to feel a part of, rather than apart from, this genius that surrounds us.

Mimicking natural forms and processes is only the first step of a broader understanding of nature’s lessons. We can imitate the self-opening and -closing hooks on an owl feather, say, to get a backpack that opens anywhere without the need for a metal zipper. But if we make that backpack out of petroleum-based nylon, and we make it in a sweatshop, and we put it on a cross-continental truck spewing diesel fumes, what’s the point? Mimicking natural forms is a start, but really learning from nature means embracing and embodying nature’s processes and ecosystem strategies.

We can’t forget that a wellspring of good ideas is available to all of us all of the time. Everyone is a designer in one way or another and we all have an innate knowledge of the biological world. So when you are designing something and you want to ask, “How would nature do this?” go right ahead: Turn the doorknob, step outside, and enjoy the sun, the wind, the rain, the trees, the insects, the leaves, the frogs, the hummingbirds, yes, even the snails and slugs.

After all, it’s not a new gadget that’s going to make us more sustainable as a culture; it’s a change of heart and a new set of eyes, a new way of viewing and valuing the world in which we are embedded and on which we depend. We’re a young species, but we’re very adaptable, and we’re uncanny mimics. With the help of our ten-to-thirty million fellow species on this planet, I believe we can learn to do what other organisms have done, which is to make of this place an Eden, a home that is ours but not ours alone.

Adapted from the book Nature’s Operating Instructions: The True Biotechnologies (Sierra Club Books, $16.95 U.S.) edited by Kenny Ausubel, founder of the Bioneers with J.P. Harpignies. Highlighting visionaries in many fields who use nature as their guide for innovation and invention, the compelling and important essays here were drawn from speeches delivered at the annual Bioneers conference in San Rafael, California.

Janine Benyus is the foremost champion of the idea of biomimicry. A writer and educator, she holds degrees in forestry, natural resource management and English literature. She is an environmental activist, and part of the Eco Dream Team at Interface Inc., an American carpet company that has embraced innovative sustainable practices. She collaborated with David Suzuki on a film about biomimicry that aired on public television in North America and is the author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. She lives in Montana.

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