Biomimicry, (1997, New York: William Morrow and Company).
Written by: Janine Benyus
Reviewed by: David Fribush, December 2007
It is quite amazing to think that during the lifetime of my grandmother, human technology advanced from the first rickety airplane flight to walking on the moon. The easy lifestyle we take for granted today was virtually unimaginable two generations ago, and much of the credit for that remarkable feat belongs with the technology we have developed.
Yet like a kid with new toys, we have become a bit too proud of our technology, and a bit too forgiving of its darker sides. Janine Benyus’s Biomimicry is a well-needed lesson in humility. She shows that for all that we have invented, human technology still wilts in the presence of “natural” technologies. Photosynthesis captures energy from the sun with 95% efficiency. Spider silk is five times stronger than steel and can absorb five times more energy than Kevlar. Our brains achieve more computational brilliance doing the most mundane task than the fastest silicon-based computer ever made.
Unlike human technology, Nature’s technology is inherently life-friendly. There are no toxic byproducts of production. Every atom is 100% recycled. No material is wasted. Structures self-assemble and repair themselves. Embedded in us and everywhere around us is the stored intelligence gleaned from a few billion years of experiments. Nature has already met and solved many of the problems we are desperately looking to solve now. So why are we not looking to Nature for guidance? That is the question that underlies every page of Biomimicry.
Seeking to shine the laboratory light in Nature’s direction, Benyus takes us on a journey through agriculture, energy, materials, computing, and business to visit researchers who see living organisms not as creatures we can exploit, but as geniuses we can learn from. The examples she highlights are provocative illustrations of the fantastic technologies found in Nature, and their potential for transforming the way we interact with the Earth.
The “green revolution” in agriculture has been responsible for a massive increase in the amount of food we harvest, yet it comes with a hefty environmental price. Benyus points out that based on the amount of hydrocarbon inputs used to produce one kilocalorie of food, each of us eats the equivalent of thirteen barrels of oil a year. Our agricultural technology perpetuates a cycle of dependency on chemical fertilizers, insecticides, artificial irrigation, and most recently genetically modified seeds.
She visits a group of agricultural scientists at the Land Institute in Kansas whose goal is to create a new type of farming in the U.S. breadbasket based on seed-producing perennial prairies as opposed to the current massive corn monoculture. In their studies, perennial polycultures have exceeded monoculture crop yields because plants in a diversified crop do not compete for exactly the same resources, as do those in a monoculture. Most importantly, they do this without the need for chemical fertilizers, insecticides, or massive artificial irrigation.
Benyus gives a brief survey of other examples of natural farming, but concentrates primarily on the Land Institute’s work. She makes only passing reference to the widespread growth of Organic foods; perhaps this was phenomenon that began after publication. She does, however, capture the return-to-nature and community-focused ethos that seems to be powering the Organic revolution, if it can be called that.
Many challenges remain to the widespread adoption of more natural farming techniques, and Benyus points out the danger that small farmers will be wiped from the agricultural landscape, complete with their intimate knowledge of the land, before the necessary changes can take place to enable them to compete with the hydrocarbon and Monsanto-fueled industrial farms. Natural farming has enough hurdles to overcome without tax breaks and subsidies that promote destructive farming techniques. At least for now, however, those influences persist.
Considering that our economy runs on the energy that organisms have captured from the sun over the past several billion years, it is quite puzzling why more research has not been done on how photosynthesis works. This is especially so considering that photosynthesis is 95% efficient in capturing the sun’s energy, while typical solar panels are only 10% to 15% efficient.
Benyus finds a small group of researchers who are trying to understand exactly how photosynthesis works, and how to recreate it. Chloroplasts work like electron pumps, taking photons of sunlight and moving electrons to create a charge separation that allow the cell to do useful chemical work. While researchers have made progress in the lab getting light to generate electron transfer, they are not anywhere near being able to create an artificial cell that actually does electrochemical work. What is convincing, however, is that we should be doing more research in this area and it is unclear why almost all of our sunlight-capturing efforts are directed toward the silicon wafer when carbon-based life clearly does a better job.
Nature builds materials that assemble themselves at room temperature, have no toxic inputs, last a lifetime, and are completely closed-loop. This is opposed the “heat, beat and treat” human method that is responsible for industries like paper, plastic, metals, and chemicals causing 71% of toxic emissions in the U.S. Benyus talks in detail about three of Nature’s material miracles: an abalone’s shell (twice as strong as high-tech ceramics), a mussel’s adhesive (works underwater and sticks to anything), and a spider’s silk (ounce for ounce stronger than steel, highly elastic, and won’t become brittle even in very cold temperatures). Rather than requiring large energy inputs like our materials processes, Benyus explains, Nature’s structures self-assemble on a protein template via energetically positive reactions, without a molecule of waste.
Benyus looks at a company, funded by GM, which is using abalone for inspiration for an auto windshield coating that improves glass strength and resistance to breaking. Adhesive companies are looking to mussels for advice on how to create adhesives that can get wet and still hold – a major problem with currently available products. Benyus even visits some materials scientists who are trying to replicate rhinoceros horns in an effort to save the rhinoceros, which is being hunted to extinction for its highly prized horns.
She notes the interdisciplinary nature of materials scientists working in materials biomimicry. They are engineers working alongside microbiologists, protein chemists, and Renaissance thinkers. Materials certainly seem to have the most promising near-term success potential of all the areas she explores.
It is a testament to the magnificence of the brain that we know very little about how it actually works. Benyus meets with scientists who are looking to the brain for insights about computing, a topic that quickly moves from brain vs. computer comparisons to the question of what is consciousness – perhaps the most fascinating section of the book.
Unlike silicon-based computers, which process information by sending electrons through a series of switches and compute symbolically, the brain works in parallel through the physical manipulation of molecules. In physical computing, nerves form connections, chemicals move to desired destinations, and proteins change shape to slot into different receptors. Some believe that each nerve is a computer unto itself and the brain itself is essentially a massive network of these nerve-sized computers. This system is dynamic, robust, allows for creativity and randomness, and can manage something as dizzyingly complex as color vision while walking and chewing gum at the same time.
Molecular computing is still in its earliest stages and most of it is purely theoretical.
Benyus’ interviews makes it clear, however, that molecular computing will likely revolutionize the way we store and process information.
Biomimicry further explores how we might conduct business using principles gleaned from Nature. These ideas will be old news to Erb students, but present a credible and worthwhile vision for what a sustainable business environment might look like.
In Biomimicry, Benyus is essentially advocating a philosophy about how we might more wisely view our relationship with Nature. It is unclear exactly how she has chosen the technologies and people she writes about; at times it seems a bit random. In the agriculture section, for instance, she spends most of the pages discussing the work of the Land Institute in Kansas, while giving only brief mention of agricultural biomimicry in other climates and locations. One would imagine that there are many more stories to tell, especially of indigenous people who have a history of harmonious land management In some sections, such as that discussing photosynthesis, she will go into great scientific detail – likely too much detail for the average reader. In others, her analysis is shallow and quick. The book often reads like her personal journal of a somewhat haphazard journey, one more anecdotal than authoritative, at times lacking cohesion in substance and style.
Those criticisms aside, Biomimicry is an inspiring work, and Benyus does a great job getting the reader to see just how marvelous Nature’s inventions are. It is disturbing, however, to put that knowledge in the context of the findings of the Millennium Ecosystem Report. One thing that Benyus did not discuss in her section on the brain is in what human cells or processes we might locate pride or greed. Our overabundance of these particular characteristics seems to be one area where we might wish Nature had not been so bountiful. While it seems like ideas are shifting and the concept of looking to Nature for guidance is taking a greater place in our collective consciousness, we still have a long way to go.
Biomimicry is an excellent effort to accelerate the shift. While the book requires a little perseverance, its ideas will stay with you and be useful in promoting sustainability, especially to those who need to see clear economic value in Nature to value Nature. For me, I found myself thinking that while planes, Gore-Tex, and the iPhone are pretty neat, human technology is downright primitive compared to what Nature is quietly showing off right outside my