Nature’s clue

Always mimic the earth's cycles, even in disposing of garbage

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When American author Janine Benyus speaks at the U of T for the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy on October 26, she’ll be confronting a city that’s taken a giant step backward from her vision of the future with its decision to dump all its garbage in a distant hole in the Canadian Shield.

Where city council sees trash as festering filth to be disposed of at a cost of millions, Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired By Nature, touts a modern economy that models itself on the many-billion-years-old efficiencies of nature.

Vital resource

In the natural order, she says, all waste is a vital resource needed in the closed loop of non-polluting production. “Biological knowledge is doubling every five years,” she tells me from a conference in Atlanta. “We know so much more about how nature manages to clean water, build soil and sustain life.”

In a biomimetic world, she says, “we would harness energy as a leaf does, conduct business as a redwood forest does and manufacture the way plants and animals do.”

Indeed, if the majority of city council had clued in to Benyus’s proposition that “life creates conditions conducive to life,” they never would have gone the dump route.

Rather, they would have listened to the ecological voices favouring innovations like methane digesters that use organic garbage to generate electrity — a true mimicry of the earth’s habit of recycling its treasures.

Waste exchange

Or they would have taken inspiration from Benyus’s description of eco-industrial parks where several companies make use of each other’s waste steam, water, gas and chemicals to feed their own processes. Or the growing trend toward industrial waste material exchanges, communication networks by which companies can turn their trash into someone else’s fortune.

“We’re beginning to realize that the answers (to all ecological problems) may be in the 30 to 100 million different creatures all around us,” says Benyus, who has a degree in natural resource management from New Jersey’s Rutgers University and is the author of six books.

“The reason I wrote the book was to attract research dollars to this kind of work. I’m trying as much as I can to create jobs for biologists,” she says.

Copycat humans, she says, long ago learned to borrow from nature. That’s how we came upon making bread, cheese, beer and wine with yeast, mould and bacteria.

But with the mounting environmental crisis, other earth-inspired experiments are being tried: attempts to model farms on prairie ecosystems so they’ll be self-fertilizing and pest-resistant efforts at unlocking the secrets of photosynthesis to produce energy, chemicals and other products naturally, without toxic waste.

“All day long, as a nature writer,” she tells me, “I was learning about amazing things. It seemed like a natural step to start looking for people who were consciously trying to emulate nature. People hear about biomimicry and sort of intuitively get it and then start applying it to what they are working on.”

Examples? Abalone shells, twice as indestructible as any manufactured ceramic, are being studied to develop high-tech tank armour coatings. The structure of spider silk, by weight five times as strong as steel, is being explored as a protective material.

Nature inspired

New hearing aids have been developed, she says, that for the first time can detect sound direction using technology inspired by a species of fly with specialized hearing abilities for hunting chirping crickets.

Also under development are insecticides based on natural plant defence chemicals such as nicotine, which, unlike synthesized petroleum-based pesticides, will not accumulate in the environment. Snake and spider venoms are being used to help create new drugs for nervous-system disorders.

“There is more to discover than to invent,” she says. “Nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved the problems we’re trying to solve.”

Will someone please buy her book for the mayor?

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