Principles of Life from Biomimicry: Tapping the Power of Limits

Given that I am facing the limits of my own little yet complex system as many will be forced to do over the next few years (this is inevitable given we live in an oil based economy and oil, gas and minerals are finite resources: food miles alone will cause the price of food to rise significantly) I’ve had cause to go back and look at Biomimicry and specifically Janine Benyus’ book which is aptly subtitled “Innovation inspired by nature”.  In parallel  I have been engaging in dialogue with Gaetan Dartevelle of around the theme of cultivating life principles as demonstrated by nature to enable greater collaboration and mutual understanding.

Everywhere I look it seems our systems are busting under the current pressures that we, the human species have created: we are facing the collapse or limits of our economic system, our energy systems and our environment crises, all of which are combining into the ‘perfect storm’. Chris Martenson, author of ‘The Crash Course’ points out that whilst our global economy is driven by consumption based on an assumption of continual growth, all growth comes from energy, and we have not been able to grow energy on a net basis for 5-6 years.

Think about it: every economic whim or dream is built on energy. Money was useful to drive and control growth when there was sufficient energy in the story. The story has changed and so these same actions of ‘driving and controlling’ growth don’t work today. The story has changed, but there’s a time lag or a gap where it seems we need sufficient critical mass of us to recognise the full implications of the new story: we need to change our deeply ingrained and somewhat dysfunctional habits. As my colleague Jon Freeman has written elsewhere:

‘Hands up who can honestly say they are not addicted to a western consumer lifestyle.’

The story that’s been driving us which we’ve been living has been one of exponential growth; anything based on any % of growth per year is exponential (even 1%) over time. We only have to look to nature to realise constant exponential growth is not a sustainable model for living on a planet that has finite resources and is in fact a delicately balanced system of interlocking forces. Luckily science has made available to us in the last decade or so the ability to see into nature at both the micro and the interstellar levels.

Biomimicry is the study of nature for solutions to our problems: from the Greek ‘bios’-life and ‘mimesis’-imitation.

• Biomimicry takes inspiration from natures models for example a solar cell inspired by a leaf

• Biomimicry refers to nature as a ‘measure’ in the sense of using an ecological standard to judge the ‘rightness’ of human innovations.

• Biomimicry introduces an new era based on what we can learn from nature as opposed to what we can extract from Her

“After 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature has learned: what works; what is appropriate; what lasts.”

Janine Benyus

If we really take on board Clare Graves’ thesis that human kind is preparing for a momentous leap which he described in his 1974 article in the Futurist, then we recognise that in solving the problems of one level of existence we create the problems at the next until we are faced with many of the conditions we are witnessing and living through today: that is, in solving our problems of existence to the level that we have, we have created the existential problems that cause our ability to continue to survive on this planet to be in question. Graves was clear that the first six levels of existence manifested in a world of abundance, where as ‘second tier’ life conditions are characterised by a world of scarcity.

And so we witness several ‘disconnects in demographics’ as we approach the limits of our systems and experience turbulence on several fronts:

• We have more debt than the world has ever seen compared to our productive capacity

• We have an aging infrastructure that will need fixing to cope with the demands of growing and (in the West) aging populations

• We are unprepared for a world of ever increasing energy prices

• The US currently has a 1.6 trillion fiscal deficit

• In the UK one person goes bankrupt every 50 seconds

There are many more conditions I could list but the point i am illustrating is: all of these conditions require vast resources in a narrow window of time: the question becomes: what are we going to prioritise?

Everything we’ve been doing has been geared around the belief that we can grow exponentially forever. Biomimics ask the question:

What would nature do here?

Biomimicry teaches us to imitate life itself because life creates the conditions conducive to life.

Benyus reminds us that we’ve been travelling in the opposite direction from our ancient ancestors who lived in harmony with nature, driven to gain our ‘independence’ from nature since the Agricultural Revolution which gave us freedom from the necessity of hunting and gathering as we learned to grow and stock our own cupboards. This journey then accelerated with the Scientific Revolution as we learned to ‘Torture nature for her secrets’ (Francis Bacon) followed by the Industrial Revolution where the age of the machine replaced muscle. Finally we culminated our frenzy of breaking free from earthly limitation with the Petrochemical and Genetic Engineering Revolutions. And we now consider we are autonomous in our ability to ‘arrange the genetic alphabet to our liking’ and manufacture what we need.

However, like all life forms on this planet we are subject to the laws of nature:

“The most irrevocable of these laws says that a species cannot occupy a niche that appropriates all the resources – there has to be some sharing.”

The outcome or result of continuing to ignore this law means that the species ends up destroying it’s community in order to support it’s own expansion.

However there is hope if we look to nature as model and mentor. Chaos and Complexity are the new sciences of our times and they are telling us that an unstable system is ripe for change. This is the power of tapping our limits. But we have to recognise and act on the information that is being fed back to us by the system we are a part of. If we can admit these limits and let go of our own human cleverness, be still in the face of nature in order to witness her miracles and lessons; if we can allow nature to be our guide and mentor and develop our will to change our unsustainable habits, then hitting the limits of the various interrelated and interlocking systems could be the best thing that ever happened to us yet.

Here are some of Nature’s Laws, Strategies and Principles that we could benefit from, if we can find ways to adopt them or at least allow them to inform our approach to life and living:

• Nature runs on sunlight

• Nature uses only the energy it needs

• Nature fits form to function

• Nature recycles everything: somebody’s waste is someone else’s food

• Nature rewards cooperation

• Nature banks on diversity

• Nature demands local expertise

• Nature curbs excesses from within

• Nature taps the power of limits

• Life in Nature competes within a collaborative framework

• Nature builds from the bottom up

• Nature uses simple building blocks: 96% of life on this planet is made up of Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Sulphur atoms

• Nature optimises rather than maximises: it devises systems that can adapt to face unknown situations

• Optimum Resilience is created with the right mix of flexibility and efficiency

• Nature’s systems are informed by feedback loops

• Nature engages in lots of experimentation: life creates success models through making mistakes


Rachel Castagne

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