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?” Just as we are beginning to recognize all there is to learn from the natural world, our models are starting to blink out – not just a few scattered organisms, but entire ecosystems. A new survey by the National Biological Service found that one-half of all native ecosystems in the United States are degraded to the point of endangerment. That makes biomimicry more than just a new way of viewing and valuing nature. It’s also a race to the rescue.
Biomimicry (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) is an evolving discipline that studies nature’s “best ideas” and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. Studying a leaf to invent a better solar cell is an example. Think of it as “innovation inspired by nature.” The goal is to create products, processes, and policies – new ways of living – that are well-adapted to life on Earth over the long haul.
The core idea is that nature, “imaginative” by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers. By natural selection, they have found what works, what is appropriate, and most important, what lasts here on Earth. Like the viceroy butterfly imitating the monarch, we humans are imitating the best adapted organisms in our habitat. We are learning, for instance, how to harness energy like a leaf, grow food like a prairie, build ceramics like an abalone, self-medicate like a chimp, create color like a peacock, compute like a cell, and run a business like a hickory forest. The conscious emulation of life’s genius is a survival strategy for the human race, a path to a sustainable future. 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. This approach introduces an entirely new realm for entrepreneurship that can contribute not only innovative designs and solutions to our problems but also awaken people to the importance of conserving the biodiversity on Earth that has so much yet to teach us.
Businesses, communities, and organizations that are at the cutting edge of the new economy are finding new ways to make old products more efficiently, with less energy and fewer non-renewable resource inputs. They are also using lessons from nature to develop new products that are more resilient and successful than those that corrupt and exploit the natural world. These new products and services are more competitive because they are using increasingly costly resources more efficiently. That saves money, which can in turn go to higher salaries, enhanced community services, better working conditions, and all the things that make companies and organizations places where people like to work.
An intriguing thought involves trying to learn a new economics from the way nature functions. Instead of our traditional approaches to advancing technologies, we could consider the idea of biomimicry, imitating the chemistry and biology dynamics of nature to produce materials and products by methods that are non-harmful and produce wastes at the end of their lives that can be benignly returned to nature for degrading/decomposing. In this sense biomimicry is a form of economic development. Nature affords the foundations for economies and sets their possibilities and limits. All kinds of people are now coming to understand that their success depends on working knowledgeably with natural processes and principles. Thus the need for an ecological perspective on the economy.
Resources are considered a free gift of nature, but some free gifts are easier to unwrap than others, and earn a rent determined by their relative ease of unwrapping (extraction), as measured by labor and capital costs saved. But, labor and capital remain the source of all value, nothing is attributed to nature. Supplies of natural resources, however, are our ultimate means without which we cannot satisfy any of our ends, including that of staying alive. We cannot produce natural resources in net terms, but only use them up as they are supplied by nature. They are scarce and becoming more so. To omit this necessary contribution of nature (its tangible value or costs), both from our theory of production and from our accounting of value, is a monumental error.
“Economic growth” is simply the expansion of what we call “the economy”, i.e., production and consumption of goods and services. The economy is basically the human niche within the ecosystem, what we have called its scale. It is measured either by the stock of people and their artifacts, or by the flow of resources necessary to maintain and add to this stock. That, in physical terms, is the economy. When it gets bigger in scale we have growth of the economy, and refer to it in quite normal English usage as “economic growth”.
“Economic development” is any change in the economy for which extra benefits are greater than extra costs. Benefits and costs are not physical concepts in this regard, but refer to psychic experiences of increased or decreased welfare or enjoyment of life. The changes in the economy that cause changes in costs and benefits may themselves be either physical or non-physical.
In public discourse we shift easily from one meaning of “economic growth” to the other, and thereby introduce a lot of confusion. Quantitative increase in size (growth) and qualitative improvement in well-being (development) are very different things, and should not be lumped together, as done in calculating GNP.
Produce more with less, minimize waste, reduce, and similar dictates advance the notion of a world of limits – one whose carrying capacity is strained by burgeoning populations and exploding production and consumption. Eco-efficiency tells us to restrict industry and curtail growth – to try to limit the creativity and productiveness of humankind. But the idea that the natural world is inevitably destroyed by human industry, or that excessive demand for goods and services causes environmental ills, is a simplification. Nature – highly industrious, astonishingly productive and creative, even wasteful – is not efficient but effective.
Consider a cherry tree. It makes thousands of blossoms just so that another tree might germinate, take root, and grow. Who would notice piles of cherry blossoms littering the ground in the spring and think, how inefficient and wasteful? But in reality the tree’s abundance is useful and safe. After falling to the ground, the blossoms return to the soil and become nutrients for the surrounding environment. Every last particle contributes in some way to the health of a thriving ecosystem. As Bill McDonough states: “waste equals food” – the first principle of the Next Industrial Revolution.
The cherry tree is just one example of nature’s industry, which operates according to cycles of nutrients and metabolisms. This cyclical system is powered by the sun and constantly adapts to local circumstances. Waste that stays waste does not exist. Human industry, on the other hand, is severely limited. It follows a one-way, linear, cradle-to-grave manufacturing line in which things are created and eventually discarded, usually in an incinerator or a landfill. Unlike the waste from nature’s work, the waste from human industry is not food at all – in fact, it is often poison. Thus the two conflicting systems: a pile of cherry blossoms and a heap of toxic junk in a landfill.
But there is an alternative—one that will allow both business and nature to be fecund and productive. This alternative is what Bill McDonough calls “eco-effectiveness.” The concept of eco-effectiveness leads to human industry that is regenerative rather than depletive. It involves the design of things that celebrate interdependence with other living systems. From an industrial-design perspective, it means products that work within cradle-to-cradle life cycles while mimicking nature, rather than cradle-to-grave phases.
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