The Green Scene:

Vogt, Jess

After finally having a bit of time this spring to do some fun reading, I picked up a book that’s been on my shelf for a long time called “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature,” by Janine M. Benyus.
All right – it’s not exactly a new concept (the book was published in 1997), but it’s a field that I’ve recently become more aware of and interested in: Annie Leonard mentioned it when she was here during Earth Week, and a recent successful book on green business, “Green to Gold,” by Daniel Esty and Andrew Winston, features the concept in its chapter on designing for the environment. For me, the concept of biomimicry holds promise for integrating the lessons of the natural world into a new concept of global sustainability.
But what does “biomimicry” mean? Some of you in the natural sciences may have come across the term before. Essentially, biomimicry seeks to use the processes of nature to inform and inspire design and innovation in the sciences. Some examples of biomimicry are studying the workings of photosynthesis in an attempt to create a molecule that can capture the sun’s energy for human use, or examining the species composition of prairie ecosystems to allow us to redesign agriculture around perennial crops instead of annuals or even looking to mussels for clues to make an incredibly strong and durable underwater adhesive.
The premise of Benyus’ book is essentially this: Why should humans try to reinvent things – like underwater adhesive – when nature has already taken 3.8 million years of evolution to get it right? In writing “Biomimicry,” Benyus traveled around talking to scientists who were studying nature’s expertise and attempting to mimic the processes for use at a human scale. She calls these scientists – physicists, biologists, chemists, metallurgists, engineers, architects and more – “biomimetics.”
As I’ve mentioned, the book was published in 1997. After reading it, I was intrigued, but I wanted to know more about what’s been going in the field more recently. So I decided to check the Web. A Google search of “biomimicry” yielded about 300,000 hits. The top result: the Biomimicry Institute, created by the book’s author, Benyus.
The Institute’s mission statement, from its Web site, is “to nurture and grow a global community of people who are learning from, emulating, and conserving life’s genius to create a healthier, more sustainable planet.” They mostly provide educational materials and run events and workshops to inspire future biomimetics.
I wondered if anyone was actually executing any of these ideas. On the Google scale, 300,000 hits isn’t that plentifull – Googling my own name yields almost as many results – and it’s been a dozen years since the book’s publication. Searching The New York Times online doesn’t yield any relevant hits more recent than 2001.
I then decided to look up specifically some of the things Benyus mentioned in her book. Because it was to me the most interesting – not to mention the easiest to understand – I looked up one of the agricultural biomimicry initiatives.
The Land Institute is one of the premier agencies conducting research on perennial systems of agriculture. As of Benyus’ writing in 1997, “The Land” had only begun growing trial crops of perennial grains and crossing them with the traditional grains grown on conventional farms with the hope of getting something that has all the desired traits of a modern grain crop – high yield, pest resistance, large grains, uniform appearance – and has the ability to be grown in polyculture (more than one species per field, the opposite of conventional monoculture) and permaculture (permanent, perennial, harvestable, managed ecosystems).
In the decade since, The Land Institute has published five peer-reviewed papers on perennial systems, and it has recently launched a capital campaign titled “Perennials on the Horizon” in an attempt to raise more than $3 million for the continuation of their perennials research.
Perennial polyculture may seem like a pipe dream compared to conventional agriculture, but the people at The Land Institute believe that it will be necessary for a sustainable future. Essentially, The Land Institute seeks to make agriculture look more like a Midwestern prairie, sparing the land from the soil erosion, nutrient degradation, and pesticide runoff that modern agriculture perpetuates.
Biomimicry has applications and lessons for many disciplines, including biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, architecture, medicine, agriculture, commerce and business, energy and computing technology. In a sustainable world, the way in which nature works will ideally guide nearly every aspect of production and consumption. Biomimicry seeks to learn from nature, rather than about nature.
Today’s prevailing industrial view of nature as a bits and pieces that we can take and use at will in our industrial capitalist system is not at all conducive to ecological sustainability. Benyus and many others hold that in order to create a sustainable world, we must begin to view nature with higher reverence and to encourage the kind of interaction between humans and nature that will insure that a socially and ecologically healthy world for generations.