Nature as Mentor

What is biomimicry?  The term is made up of the Greek words bios for life and mimesis for imitation.  It is an approach to science and product development that relies on learning from and imitating nature.  This is in stark contrast to our usual practice of forcing nature to do our bidding, usually by way of harsh chemicals, high temperatures and/or intense pressure.  (This is how we synthesize plastics, alloys, and many other products in this industrial age.)

The environmental costs of such brute force technologies are so devastating that scientists, engineers, and manufacturers are looking for alternatives.  Many are asking the question, “How does nature do it?”  For instance, certain plants filter water to purify it; no chlorine needed.  How can we mimic that?

Science writer Janine Benyus described biomimicry in her book by that title as “a new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems, e.g., a solar cell inpired by a leaf.”  Nature provides myriad models and possibilities for us to consider.

Biomimicry also uses nature as a measure, a standard to meet in finding what works and what is most sustainable.  An animal or a plant cannot afford to pollute or otherwise ruin its own environment, its home, so it finds low impact methods to survive and thrive.  Why not learn from billions of years of innovation and development (aka evolution)?

Benyus goes a step further and says that nature can be a mentor, which is what I have been thinking about for a few years now.  “Biomimicry,” she writes, “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.”

What can we learn from prairies and clouds?

What a concept–working with nature!  This is what Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” requires.  This is the way many indigenous people live, or were living, not because they were more virtuous but because cooperating with nature is what works in the long run.

My previous post told the story of learning from burrs in order to invent hook-and-loop fasteners, currently used in virtually every household in America.  Now products are being invented based on the self-cleaning properties of lotus leaves and the amazing “stickiness” of gecko feet.  (Those little lizards can run straight up a plate glass window!)  This is in part due to high-powered microscopes that allow us to see such things as the tiny bumps on the leaves of the lotus plant, and in part due to our willingness to pay attention to the intelligence of nature displayed all around us.

What can we learn from trees and insects, water and stone? We’ve just begun to find out.

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