BIOMIMICRY and NATURAL CAPITALISM: Room to Grow

Every once in a while, a book of great wisdom and import goes largely unnoticed in the drowning deluge of new information. Biomimicry by Janine Benyus was first published in 1997, but has recently re-surfaced as citation after citation in Natural Capitalism, Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins’ primer on having it all, sustainably, in the new millenium.

Benyus, a Montana science writer with totally prodigious polymath powers, takes the reader from agriculture through sixth generation computers to ‘industrial ecology’ in describing the revolutionary potential of mimicking nature.

Searching out just the RRSP pure plays from the emerging 21st century technologies that are described in illuminating detail in Biomimicry could make you millions (if you were so unevolved as to be still using compounding interest to wreak havoc on our small, blue planet), but Ms. Benyus is in to much more interesting stuff..

Benyus’ biomimicry is biology as cosmological metaphor - a unifying, inspirational world view. Three billion years of evolution offers living technologies for energy and resource production, information processing and even business organization. These technologies promise a cornucopia of wealth with no limits to growth (because the science isn’t reductionist, outside of nature, Conquistador science), without the HEAT, BEAT and TREAT with noxious chemicals mantra of factories, and without the factory plan and resulting gridlocks imposed upon human societies.

Benyus introduces myriad examples of biomimicry as a basis for developing new technologies. Consider Halobacterium, a billion year old lifeform that is the subject of hundreds of science articles annually since it was discovered in the Seventies. It is now commercially used in bioplastics, de-salinization, enhanced oil recovery, cancer screening and many other applications. This proton harvester and pump, spread as a thin film on a regular 5 floppy disk, could store 200 million megabytes of data - your iron-oxide coated floppy now stores 1.2 megabytes - and, using future generations of improved lasers, could process this info beginning at a thousand times faster than conventional magnetic devices.

Like Natural Capitalism, and Paul Romer’s invocation of the unlimited potential of a weightless economy, Biomimicry opens hopeful, expansive room for growth. Nature is not a machine and neither are we. Benyus’s wisdom is light years more evolved than stock market tipsheet information. Her future is the prairie, microtubules, humble bacteria and business organized as a redwood ecosystem. Get this book and open your mind to the possibilities - your brain isn’t just a computer, and wisdom is very energizing food indeed.

 

Limits to growth. Ecological footprints. Four new planets needed for a North American lifestyle for everyone. Two books: the eagerly awaited NATURAL CAPITALISM by Paul Hawken, Amory and Hunter Lovins and BIOMIMICRY: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine Benyus, cast this perplexing problem in an entirely new light . If we stop trying to subdue and remake Nature into a factory for human use and reaffirm that man and human culture are completely within Nature, and then carefully mimic Nature’s processes, there may be sources of energy, productive but non-polluting technologies, and Natural Step integration with Nature that allows incredible potential for a cornucopia of growth without overwhelming ecosystems, biosphere sinks and regulation .

Paul Hawken is the foremost articulator of Green Capitalism, of converting corporations to sustainability. Amory and Hunter Lovins are a husband and wife duo who (creating their Rocky Mountain Institute) are on the cutting edge of new sustainable technologies. Together they have written a primer for having it all, great jobs, fast cars, beautiful homes, etc., sustainably , in the new millenium. Natural Capitalism is a very hopeful book that opens up new vistas for growth that do not pollute, that do not contribute to ‘slow motion catastrophes’ such as global warming and biodiversity loss, that do not rob and corrode developing world cultures for developed world opulence.

How does this miracle of having it all sustainably work? Let’s look at the chapter on forestry as an example. Use wood and paper products more efficiently and rationalize the production of fibre. Electronic substitution, more complete recycling, rethinking packaging, and developing new engineered wood products (engineered wall frames can reduce the wood needed for framing by 70%) can greatly stretch the utility of fibre produced.

"Very high yield plantations covering the equivalent of one half to one percent of current forest area - 57-99 million acres..- could in principle meet today’s demand for wood fibre." Forest economist Roger Sedjo estimates that plantations on a small fraction of degraded land in tropical countries could supply the majority of the world’s future fibre demand. Ecological economics is quantifying nature’s services from forests - forest degrading logging will be increasingly uneconomical.

Closed loop production, where waste becomes raw material for new product, the only sustainable solution to pulp and paper pollution, is discussed in chapters on new, efficient, biology-as-metaphor, manufacturing.

The chapter on forestry and fibres has the most relevance for British Columbians, but their proposal of a Hypercar which uses a hybrid engine to propel an ultra-light vehicle without gridlock is the American Dream metaphor that pervades Natural Capitalism. The one caveat is that this sustainable utopia is so American and Corporatist - suburbs and Wonderbread. Hawken and the Lovins are leading advocates of pathways to a future that is practical - possible - as well as sustainable, but they rarely show consciousness of how deeply these pathways are embedded in their American Dream. In a very interesting paper contrasting energy efficiency in Europe and America, David Nye points out how path dependent are different visions of sustainability, how different histories and worldviews limit consciousness of possibilities. (David Nye, Path Insistence in EBSCOhost)

You can find out more about the book, download every chapter and order the book if you want from the naturalcapitalism.com website. "Natural Capitalism is the most important book of the century, a handbook of solutions and restoration that will have CEOs and ecologists cheering together." David Brower Earth Island Institute

Natural Capitalism cites Biomimicry in almost every chapter; Janine Benyus’ over-looked 1997 survey of scientists and innovators carefully studying biological processes for new technologies starts with a superb chapter on farming, recultivating the diversity and structure of the prairie and the jungle, and continues with very interesting chapters on energy, communication and even business organized as an ecosystem, a giant redwood ecosystem.

Ms. Benyus has prodigious polymath powers but her underlying wisdom is biology as cosmological metaphor, as unifying, inspirational worldview. Recreating the prairie can not only provide sustainable farm produce, but rich, productive lifestyles and healing ecosystems for diverse non-human values.

Three billion years of evolution offers living technologies for energy and resource production, information processing and even business organization. These technologies promise a cornucopia of wealth with no limits to growth (because the science isn’t reductionist, outside of nature, Conquistador science), without the HEAT, BEAT and TREAT with noxious chemicals mantra of factories, and without the factory plan and resulting gridlocks imposed upon human societies.

The brain in the birth canal is the most illuminating metaphor for our position at the beginning of the new millenium. Exponential growth of populations and human economies - too big, too fast - threatens Mom and all our futures, but if we learn how to grow without degrading ecosystems and the biosphere -how to mimic nature and invent a natural capitalism - there is a human future with unlimited potential..

NATURAL CAPITALISM Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins; Little, Brown; 1999 416 p; $27US hardcover - website $18US paperback - Amazon

BIOMIMICRY Janine M. Benyus William Morrow and Co. 1997 308 pages $18US paperback - Amazon

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