Up until last year, I lived in a megacity where skyscraping rectangular panels extended so high up, only a small sliver of the smog-greyed sky peeked out. And even then, our urbanite heads were likely facing forward (to navigate through the constant flow of people) or downward (to our screens).
I share the experience of waking up to a built-up landscape with 3.9 billion others. This number will only continue to increase, with the UN predicting that close to 90% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. So, it’s inevitable that the amount of greenspace most of us see on a day-to-day basis is fairly limited, and because of this, I rarely see our world as a natural, living entity. Out of sight, out of mind, right? This sense of detachment is perhaps why many — admittedly, myself included — tend to neglect nature in everyday thought. Instead, we pay attention to the headlines detailing the latest innovation or tech gadgets that promise exciting digital realms and endless capabilities.
But throughout the history of technological development, our innovations have not had a great track record of being harmonious with nature. For example, we might think of the Green Revolution; an increased use of pesticides helped bring in more crop yields, but at the cost of surface runoff and other polluting means. These topics are framed to resemble a tug of war, with environmental conservation on one end, technological development at the other, and a whole lot of debate in between.
Fortunately, this dichotomy of human versus nature can turn into a more productive relationship of coexistence, if we first shift the focus to learning. At this point, you may be anticipating a sermon about the importance of education, especially in care for our natural world. But, I’m sure we already know all that (and we also know there’s still a lot of progress to be made). Founder of Biomimicry Institute, Janine Benyus, believes that instead of simply learning about our environment, there’s also a lot to be learned from it.
[Image Source: Slovenia Times]
There are actually many anthropogenic principles that function the same way as nature does — and profits from doing so. You’ve probably heard of the circular economy, a system that enables companies to regenerate inputs while recycling outputs, with the goals of long-term resilience and economic efficiency in mind. It’s a win-win situation that imitates Mother Nature’s own cyclic functions. If we can establish this connection, then it shouldn’t be difficult to imagine a relationship with nature where we benefit learning from it and the environment simultaneously benefits from our increased care.
[Image Source: O’Reilly]
There is an area of study that follows this concept and has truly taken off in the last decade, coined biomimicry. Biomimicry, or biomimetics, is exactly as its name suggests: imitating the biological design of existing species to enhance or influence technologies of our own. Perhaps you’ve heard of speed-maximizing swimsuits modeled after shark skins’ very own drag reduction properties. Another well-known example of this is Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train, which was designed like the Kingfisher bird’s beak and achieves a noise-cancelling effect. The smoothness of a penguin’s belly was also cited as inspiration for the smooth-gliding shape of the train. What about a microbot that can swim, fly, and hover like a puffin, but can also help pollinate like a bee? Wouldn’t it be cool to have echolocation software or ultra-light spiderweb chairs?
Biomimetics is a fascinating field of study that I barely just grazed the surface of — with many more awe-inspiring innovations I strongly encourage you to explore further, in order to satisfy that inner technophile. More importantly though, this shift in approach can also harness a deeper appreciation of nature and, in turn, urge improvement upon its nurture.
Learning from nature doesn’t end there. Sometimes, it’s a matter of paying attention to the messages our environment communicates to us. What I mean by this is Mother Nature knows itself best. If so many existing flora and fauna today have survived through millennia of Earth’s history, then surely our natural world is proof of the key to sustainability, resilience, and adaptation. As such, we can observe and take environmental cues as guidelines for how to better maintain the planet. There are different methods that people have begun to adopt in order to do so, like permaculture, where agricultural and social designs are informed by the patterns of naturally occurring phenomenons. Say, for example, we had to log for wood. We can follow permaculture principles in a way that ensures continued survival for that particular forest, by selectively logging a certain type of wood instead of clear cutting an entire area. This best mimics what happens naturally — a single species may get wiped out in extinction, but the rest of the ecosystem may learn to adapt.
Permaculture resembles biomimicry and the circular economy in that all three place great significance upon the functions of existing nature. This way, we can continue to develop, innovate, and be aware of our actions, instead of adhering to our own will and ignoring the signs of an environment under stress. I love the way this book sums it up:
“The idea […] is simple: take care of the Earth,
and the Earth will take care of you.”