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Biomimicry: designing with nature’s 3.8 billion years of research

Biomimicry: abalone shell interior by Betsey CrawfordThe first time I heard about biomimicry, it was the kingfisher’s eyelid that grabbed me. The largest hydroelectric dam in the world had problems with changing water levels. Nothing could grow well on the surrounding soil, so erosion was rampant. The down-flowing dirt and dead, decaying plants were causing water pollution. Four young designers decided to ask nature how she would handle such a situation. Their questions led them to spider webbing and kingfishers’ eyelids.

To see their prey underwater, diving birds have evolved a third eyelid. This almost transparent layer emerges to protect the eyes — but not block vision — underwater. The team designed domes that are pushed closed by rising water and open as it falls. The domes are embedded in a mesh system inspired by the Namibian dancing white lady spider. She spins a dense web inside her desert tunnels to keep sand grains from falling. The mesh for the dam holds the soil and secures plant roots.

The kingfisher inspired another design: the long, pointed nose on modern high-speed trains. As trains got faster, their rounded fronts created air-pressured sonic booms as they emerged from tunnels. A designer pondering this problem took a break at a local bird sanctuary. He found himself contemplating the kingfisher, whose beak and head are so sleek that they don’t make a splash when they hit water. Now fast trains share that design, and the tunnel noise is gone.

500 Series Shinkansen in Kyoto Station; photo by Sam Doshi via Flickr and Creative Commons

500 Series Shinkansen in Kyoto Station; photo by Sam Doshi via Flickr and Creative Commons

The photosynthesizing prowess and adaptability of kelp fronds and rain forests. The energy management of prairie dog burrows and termite mounds. The filtering capabilities of mollusks and peacock worms. The ability of the Saharan silver ant to reflect light. We are surrounded by geniuses, and the emerging science of biomimicry is open to them all. Nature has had billions of years to design her systems. Where better to find answers?

“Living things have done everything we want to do, without guzzling fossil fuel, polluting the planet, or mortgaging their future.” 

That’s Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry and c0-founder of the Biomimicry Institute. If not the mother of this particular invention, she named it and has been its greatest organizer and promoter. Humans have long been adept at harnessing nature. That, after all, is what agriculture is. In fact, nature has been good at using herself since life began. The first one-celled beings took advantage of the murky warmth of underwater volcanos.

But it is one thing to harness nature. We can put sails on boats, convince bees to live in accessible hives, use bacteria to clean oil spills. It’s another to mimic her processes, which far outstrip our own in skill and products. We have yet to create a ceramic as tough as the gorgeous abalone shell in the top photo. Or a power source to match photosynthesis. Or an approach to agriculture that creates the ecosystem of self-sustaining prairies. No steel cable can match the inherent tensile strength of spider silk.

Biomimicry: A banded garden spider (Argiope trifasciata) shows off two different kinds of silk, which, ounce for ounce, is stronger than steel. Photo by Arnie Battaglene

A banded garden spider (Argiope trifasciata) shows off two different kinds of silk, which, ounce for ounce, is stronger than steel. Photo by Arnie Battaglene, arniebattaglenephotography.com

When we do create products, we rely heavily on petroleum, high heat, toxic chemicals. Waste is rampant. We take raw materials and harass them into the shapes we want. Nature builds from within, at the ambient temperature, even underwater. An abalone shell forms by first creating a matrix of proteins and sugars. This structure allows minerals in seawater to crystallize into ‘bricks’, layer by layer. The soft body of the abalone assembles its shell around itself by secreting the needed ingredients.

Then it stops. Abalone shells, as big as they are, are self-limiting in size. Another protein slows the growth. Benyus describes bringing a group of sanitation engineers to the Galapagos Islands. There to study natural processes, they were polite but uninterested. During a walk on the beach, she asked them what their greatest problem was. Scale, they said, citing the mineral accretion inside pipes that narrows them. They hated using the toxic chemicals it took to dissolve it. She picked up a handful of shells. This is calcium carbonate, she said, naming the mineral that plagues the engineers. What makes it stop growing, she suggested, was their answer. From then on, she could hardly get them to stop exploring long enough to eat meals.

There are many crucial reasons to move beyond petroleum. Among them: toxic pollution, climate disruption, global politics, the fast diminishing supply. The same applies to blasting mountain tops for coal, another harsh polluter and climate disrupter. Mining of all kinds rips apart the earth in ways that endanger the people doing it and the planet we live on. We are using our resources in problem-creating rather than problem-solving ways, leaving wreckage in our wake.

Biomimicry: Blue mussels waiting for the tide to bring food, when they will float on tethers held by a glue that works on irregular surfaces and underwater. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Blue mussels waiting for the tide to bring food, when they will float on tethers held by a glue that works on irregular surfaces and underwater.

Instead, we could look at the mussel.  She does several things we’d like to be good at. She feeds herself as she filters water. She creates her own materials and builds her house around her. She takes only the room she needs. She has a leg-like foot that can tether itself to rocks or wooden piers. It then secretes proteins which create an adhesive that works in water. To protect this anchor she secretes specialized hardening proteins around the glue. From this tiny but sturdy base, more proteins form a thread-like link to the mussel so she can float and filter. All that takes a few minutes, so in a short time she has as many tethers as she needs to withstand any tidal force. No toxic chemicals, no heat, readily available materials, underwater. 

We can do none of these things. The chemistry of creating a mussel’s water-tolerant, stick-to-anything adhesive is still being explored. That’s largely due to a scientist Herbert Waite’s fascination with and dedication to them. Wes Jackson’s Land Institute is one of a handful of places trying to bring prairie ecology to agriculture. Another handful has been working on using our over-abundant carbon dioxide instead of toxic silicon in computer chips. Others are studying eggshells, beetle chitin, the bouncing abilities of hedgehogs. None of these explorers are getting widespread help.

My nephew graduated from Stevens Institute of Technology last year. The school is among the top fifty “Colleges that create futures” in the Princeton Review. Ira has a degree in engineering and a graduate certificate in sustainable engineering. But, he said, there wasn’t a single class that looked to nature for its design principles. I went to the Stevens website and typed ‘biology’ into the search tab. A curt ‘No results found’ showed up. Economist Kate Raworth noted this phenomenon in her revolutionary Doughnut Economics. The top schools are looking into the future with the same old eyes.

Biomimicry: Birds have so much to teach us from their eyelids to their talons. Their lightness of bones, the superb engineering of their skulls. Their tracking skills. And of course, flight. Photo by Ray Hennessey via Unsplash.

Birds have so much to teach us, from their eyelids to their talons. Their lightness of bones, the superb engineering of their skulls. Their tracking skills. And, of course, flight. Tern photo by Ray Hennessey via Unsplash.

Companies spend fortunes on research and development. Scientists and engineers are continually inventing amazing and life-enhancing products and methods. But by and large, we have ignored the 3.8 billion years of R and D that the earth has already gifted us with. Some of this stems from the lack of ability to peer closely enough into nature. Analyzing the bricks of a shell, the chemistry of mussel glue, or the DNA of spider silk had to wait for electron microscopes and genome sequencing. But you don’t need such tools to notice that grasslands and rainforests have learned to flourish without toxic imports. The Three Gorges Dam designers didn’t need fancy equipment to watch spiders weaving close webs or kingfishers’ eyes closing. They needed patience, curiosity, attention, an interest in biology.

What they lacked was hubris. It appears that it’s the rare human who can walk by a cluster of mussels and wonder what these geniuses have to teach us. As Benyus points out, every fish is a desalinization plant. Every leaf is an engine. Every tree is a water distribution system. The colors in peacock feathers are a result of structure, not pigment. The list of wonders is endless, the ideas they could inspire even longer.

Benyus wrote Biomimicry in the 1990s when the research was getting underway. In a 2015 video, she describes some of the companies that have based their work on designing with nature. They’re mostly small and new. One is producing a paint called Lotusin based on lotus leaves’ ability to self-clean, also a structural trait. Encycle designed a linked, energy-saving information system among appliances based on the way bees and ants communicateInspired by coral reefs, Blue Planet is making limestone out of carbon dioxide. Carbon is the universe’s most abundant building block. Limestone is the main aggregate in cement. Now buildings can actually sequester carbon rather than contribute concrete’s current 8% of global warming

Biomimicry: White clover (Trifolium reopens) belongs to the important Fabaceae family, which has the knack of taking atmospheric nitrogen and transforming it into crucial nitrogen fertilizer in the soil. Photo by Betsey Crawford.

White clover (Trifolium reopens) belongs to the important Fabaceae family, which has the knack of taking atmospheric nitrogen and transforming it into crucial nitrogen fertilizer in the soil.

Some large companies have come on board. Benyus’ newest project, sister to the Institute, is Biomimicry 3.8, focusing on consulting and training. Clients include already-green Patagonia, as well as giants like GE, Shell and the Environmental Protection Agency. The University of Ohio in Akron is the first school to offer a Ph.D. in biomimicry. Biomimics in northeast Ohio, once home to rivers so polluted they caught fire, are hoping to create the Silicon Valley of biomimicry there. These are a few among the many millions of companies, schools, and agencies in the world, but that’s how nature starts.

A few unicellular organisms in those hot vents became every living thing on earth. On the way, they rewarded diversity and cooperation. Understood their limits and grew into their opportunities. Kept their footprint small. Used readily available energy. Used a handful of proteins and elements for every function of their lives. Reabsorbed waste into the system. If they couldn’t sustain themselves and keep their environment favorable to life, they’re not still here to inspire us.
 
There are as many as 100 million species on our planet. They are our elders by up to 3.8 billion years. Become their apprentices, Benyus urges us.  Model our cities on the regenerative wisdom of forests. Nurture our agricultural land with the teeming cooperation of prairies. Power our lives with the chemical genius of chloroplasts. Biomimicry opens up endless possibilities. By embarking on this exciting, intensely creative, and limitless quest we are doing the first thing these elders teach us: creating life that creates life.
 
Biomimicry: a spreading tree in the Pepperwood Preserve, Santa Rosa, California by Betsey Crawford

Free of motors and pumps, trees are master water distributors. Their growth patterns build in resilience and adaptability. They are adept at communicating with the trees around them and the fungus growing at their feet.

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Saving seeds

Bags of seeds by RawpixelThere are legendary people and places in the drive to save seed diversity, and then there’s the legend. Nikolai Vavilov was a Russian plant geneticist who was active in the 1920s and 30s. Urbane and erudite, full of charm and curiosity, Vavilov made friends with everyone from local farmers to government officials. On a quest to prevent the periodic devastating famines that had plagued Russia for centuries, he traveled the world, collecting seeds. The seed bank that now bears his name grew to 400,000 seeds as a result of his vision and energy. 

A fascinating aspect of our agricultural history is that planting seeds to grow food happened in several disconnected areas 8,000 to 12,000 years ago. Like an evolutionary radiation, it was a sudden burst of activity across widely separated groups of humans. It was Vavilov’s genius to recognize the importance of discovering these cradles of cultivation. He was an avid explorer, with a love for the endless fieldwork his quests entailed, and adept at picking up languages and dialects. He rightly guessed that the areas where food plant species first flourished would be deep repositories of genetic diversity. His five areas were China, Ethiopia, the Andes region of Central America, the Mediterranean, and central Asia. Mountainous regions are particularly lush with biodiversity because they contain so many different ecosystems, each with their own genetic variants. 

His life ended tragically. Once the highly respected leader of Soviet agricultural science, he ended up in Stalin’s gulag for promoting the ‘bourgeois science’ of evolution and for the ‘cosmopolitanism’ of his international connections. There, Vavilov died of the starvation he spent his life trying to prevent.

But even Stalin knew not to destroy his seed bank. It survived the 900-day German siege of Leningrad in World War II because Vavilov’s employees locked themselves in the building. Despite having no heat or running water, and dying of starvation themselves, the survivors protected the seeds until the siege was over. That same deep understanding and love for what seeds bring us from their long genetic history inspire all kinds of seed activism today. 

Entrance to Svalbard Seed Bank. Photo by Einar Jorgen Haraldseid via Creative Commons

Entrance to Svalbard Seed Bank. Photo by Einar Jorgen Haraldseid via Wikimedia Commons

There are the ‘doomsday’ seed banks like Svalbard in Norway, the National Seed Storage Laboratory in Colorado, and the Millennium Seedbank in England. The United Nations has nine banks around the world. Many countries store their heritage seeds in national vaults. Hundreds of smaller banks often hold seeds of less commercially important plants. Their genes may prove crucial to the continuing vitality of agriculture, and thus to our existence as a species. Innumerable seed saving groups and exchanges keep heirloom seeds in circulation. Seed libraries allow you to check out seeds in spring and return in the fall with seeds from your harvest. 

Heroes are still with us, like the Iraqis who rescued seeds from an important Abu Ghraib bank before the building was destroyed by a bomb. The seeds, with genes from the beginning of agriculture, were taken to one of the United Nations banks, near Aleppo, in Syria. Later, as the Syrian war intensified, they were packed again and driven to Lebanon on the last open road. Some have now made it to Svalbard.

Organizations large and small have their own legends, like Andrew Kimbrell, founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety. Feisty and inexhaustible, Kimbrell spends his life taking corporations and government agencies to court to protect food, farmers, consumers, and the planet. We owe the fact that DNA itself cannot be patented to litigation by the Center for Food Safety. It was their series of lawsuits and collaborative campaigns that prevented the USDA from watering down organic standards. Last year they added a Global Seed Network to their existing Save Our Seeds program. The network provides a platform to connect smaller groups and individuals.

Citrus fruit colors by Edgar Castrejon

Nature loves diversity. Photo by Edgar Castrejon via Unsplash

Navdanya (‘Nine seeds’) was founded in India by another legend, Vandana Shiva, a force of nature and environmental warrior worldwide. Navdanya’s mission is to “protect the diversity and integrity of living resources – especially native seed.”  Dedicated to community resilience and social justice, Navdanya works locally throughout India. In the past twenty years, nine million farmers have been trained in sustainable farming and seed sovereignty. They have established 122 seed banks, and their own farm is a teaching center. Crucially, they are in the forefront on issues of biopiracy. International treaties guarantee national sovereignty over genetic resources. But it’s a constant, underfunded battle to protect native seeds and plants from corporate predators.

Once a seed has been patented it can no longer be used to create other crop varieties. To reduce competition for their genetically modified products corporations buy seed companies to take traditional seeds off the market. Modeled on the open source software movement, the Open Source Seed Initiative was created to “free the seed.” Seed growing and breeding partners commit to keeping OSSI-pledged seeds, their derivatives, and information about them available to all.

Vavilov’s solution to famine lay in seed diversity, which yields crop diversity. Farmers need a deep pool of traits to choose from. Then, as conditions change, they and their crops can adapt. At the best of times, there are changes in populations of beneficial and harmful insects. New plant diseases evolve. Rainfall and temperature vary. But global warming has made diversity a worldwide challenge. Warmer, drier climate not only makes drought more likely but brings changes in insect populations and diseases. Every change ripples through the ecosystem.

Vietnam market by Stephan Valentin

Vietnam market. Photo by Stéphan Valentin via Unsplash

The nature of Nature is variety. There are 400,000 species of beetles! But evolution takes time and needs available traits to work with. Right now we’re creating a dangerous bottleneck in the diversity of food species because corporate control has restricted access to 90% of our crop seeds. Seeds need to be planted and harvested to keep the gene lines mingling and flourishing, reacting to the conditions they’re grown in.  Limiting the gene pool makes no sense outside of corporate boardrooms. Local government agents urged farmers in Mexico’s Chihuahuan highlands to switch from their native corn to a white variety that produces more ears with larger seeds. But the white corn lacks the anthocyanins that turn the native corn blue. Not only do those polyphenols make the blue corn more nutritious, but they evolved to protect the seedlings from cold in that mountainous area. 

By the time we figure out these mistakes — and they are worldwide — we could lose precious genetic information forever. Seed banks are not the answer. They offer protection against catastrophic loss, but they are vulnerable. Svalbard was put inside a mountain in the Arctic so the permafrost would keep the seeds cold and prevent flooding. But the permafrost is melting, and water got to the door in 2017. Even if we could keep every seed in every bank safe, they exist in suspended animation. They’re kept viable, but the viability they inherited may not suit the growing conditions they meet in the future. Seeds in circulation and actively growing will adapt as circumstances change. 

Array of tomato varieties by Reseal Apacionado

Photo by Rezel Apacionado via Unsplash

The venerable Seed Savers Exchange is ensuring just that. Started in 1975 by Kent and Diane Ott Whealy, the organization has preserved over 25,000 heirloom seeds. SSE runs the largest non-government seed bank in the world and also stores seeds at Svalbard. But their mission is to continually grow out seeds on an 890-acre farm to keep plant genes ever renewing and mingling. Through what they call participatory preservation, gardeners worldwide grow with them, adapting plants to a wide variety of conditions. The resulting seeds are shared with Seed Savers and offered on the site’s Seed Exchange. 

The Italian agronomist Salvatore Ceccarelli is creating a similar movement with farmers: participatory plant breeding. He spent most of his career in the Mideast, working with cereal grain farmers in those dry conditions. When he had to leave during the Syrian war, he brought seeds with him to Italy to develop grains suitable for global warming. He works with farmers collectively to breed seeds that work best not only for their local environment but for all grain growing areas in a drier world.

Photo by Alfred Schrock via Unsplash

Genetic diversity is extremely subtle. Look at the fascinating array of our fellow humans. All those variations come from less than one percent of our genes. For the rest, we’re basically identical. So keeping a gene line pure while at the same time fostering its adaptive abilities is a delicate task. One that Native Seeds/Search has taken on. Their specialty is indigenous seeds of the southwest United States and northwest Mexico. They have a small bank and farm to protect, regenerate and supply 1900 seeds. Most are for food but some are from plants used for dyes, medicines, and shelter. Native Seeds’ mission is to keep the heritage seeds of local tribes pure and flourishing in the face of threats to their culture, ecology, and traditional farming practices.

Ultimately, all seed saving is cultural. Crop seeds evolved in intimate relation to the peoples who planted them. Whether saving Navaho corn, Syrian wheat, or Ethiopian teff, we are preserving the history of a region. It’s the story of our ancestors and their patient labor over the last 12,000 years. Blessedly, there are millions of seed savers all over the world. From card tables at farmers markets, backyard sheds, community exchanges, banks large and small, our heritage seeds are moving, growing, adapting. Will this stem the corporate juggernaut? Only by growing the movement not just to save seeds, but to grow community empowerment and activism. Corporate profits depend on our not understanding what’s happening to our inheritance.

By saving seeds we are keeping alive millions and millions of conversations. Between the soil and the seed, the farmer and the land, the earth and its beings. If we lose this priceless genetic history, we’re not only losing the brilliance of seeds but the ancestral genius that worked with them over millennia to create the foods we love and rely on. Men and women who noticed that this seed yielded sweeter berries, that one survived late spring frost, this one thrived despite a dry season. Who built on that knowledge, shared it, passed it down to us. Who sat down daily to meals we are still eating amid traditions we still cherish. Through this profound and nourishing legacy seeds become a door into what it means to be human.

Bowl of seeds by Joshua Newton

Photo by Joshua Newton via Unsplash

Photo at top by rawpixel via Unsplash

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

 
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