It was one of those smack-on-the-forehead, why-hadn’t-I-seen–that-before moments.
All forms of life either use solar energy directly, like plants, or use plants that already have stored the sun’s energy to carry out all of their life functions.
All life on earth — except for a few bizarre life forms around deep sea thermal vents — uses the sun.
I had never realized all the implications of these everyday observations until I watched Janine Benyus’ TED talk, www.ted.com/talks/janine_benyus_shares_nature_s_designs.html. (TED talks are fascinating ideas, presented by the innovators themselves to a live California audience, then distributed on the Internet. See www.ted.com. Sharing ideas is a topic for another time.)
Benyus is a self-described “nature geek” with a love of nature that shines through as she describes what happens when you’re inspired by nature.
When facing a challenge or examining some knotty problem, first consult Mother Nature. “There’s not a problem in the world that life itself hasn’t solved,” says Benyus, and all of nature’s solutions come with more than 3.8 billion years of field testing.
Life forms already know how to remove salt from water with minimal energy. They routinely self-assemble materials that far exceed what humankind can manage, from ultra-strong flexible spider silk or seashells able to resist more force than a bullet-proof Kevlar vest.
Mother Nature already accomplishes what we’d like to with simple materials — like minerals and proteins — with as little energy as possible.
By contrast, when human beings manufacture things, we heat up the material we’re using, beat it into shape and treat it with chemicals or coating to preserve it.
Mother Nature’s secret is adding information to matter, Benyus explains.
Benyus has been defining a new approach to biomimicry that is light years beyond what you may remember from biology classes or National Geographic specials.
No doubt we all know of innovations sparked by copying nature’s designs: Velcro was inspired by the way cockleburs hitch a ride on your socks when you walk past.
Benyus has redefined biomimicry beyond simply copying from nature to learning from nature herself. Her book, “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature,” presented scholarly evidence.
Now the Biomimicry Institute offers opportunities to “imagine nature’s most elegant ideas organized by design and engineering function.” So, for example, you can type in “remove salt from water,” and see how mangroves, penguins and shorebirds desalinate. Without fossil fuels. Without damaging their environment. At normal temperatures and in real-world operating conditions. (See www.biomimicryinstitute.org.)
Consider redesigning the human world by asking ourselves, “How would nature do this?”
We now get the energy we need and want by burning stuff, throwing pollutants into the air and water and wrecking our ecosystems.
We burn stuff. Like wood. Gathering wood has deforested huge sections of Africa. Whole civilizations, like the original inhabitants of Easter Island, have vanished after destroying their forests.
We mine coal to burn, sacrificing the lives of countless miners, removing mountain tops or tunneling beneath the surface, poisoning streams with heaps of mining waste and savaging the landscape.
We drill for oil on land and in the sea, pumping it to the surface and distributing it around the globe at an enormous cost in terms of energy expended and the impact on every aspect of our environment. The social and geopolitical costs of oil include the wars our country now is waging in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East.
We’ve barely begun to follow Mother Nature’s guiding principle and use the sun’s energy to create the life we want and need. In that regard, humankind doesn’t have the technical savvy of a shrub or a barnacle.
Diana Somerville writes about creating more sustainable communities and our personal connection with the environment. A Clallam County resident, she’s a member of the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Environmental Journalists and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Reach her at www.DianaSomerville.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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