What Is Biomimicry?

By Helen Marie Casey

In early 2004 author Janine M, Benyus delivered the third lecture in the Women of Courage Lecture Series. Called the Rachel Carson Lecture, Benyus's talk covered key themes from her best-selling book of 1997, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. The lecture was cosponsored by the Boston Research Center and the Wellesley Centers for Women.

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“We lost our way,” science writer Janine M. Benyus told the audience of more than 160 people assembled to hear the Rachel Carson Lecture on Environmental Ethics in late February at the Center. “Tonight I want to talk about how we're fighting our way back.” Her remarks focused on the wisdom of nature and adapting nature’s best ideas for human use to enhance life on Earth. They were introduced by Center president Masao Yokota in a spirit of respect, hope, and conviction: “This dialogue is a way of changing a century of war to a century of peace.”

Virginia Straus, Center executive director, reflected on the life and environmental accomplishments of the “fountainhead of the environmental movement,” Rachel Carson, who was “a revolutionary spokesperson for the rights of all life.” Both Janine Benyus, who would be inspired by Carson and would follow in her footsteps, and Rachel Carson had a single mentor: Nature.

In a magazine article that Rachel Carson later turned into a book, The Sense of Wonder, the preeminent environmentalist wrote: "A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood . . . If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last through life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength." Both Carson and Benyus have been gifted with the ability to experience wonder and to communicate to others the beauties of Nature that inspire wonder.

Susan McGee Bailey, executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, confided that she could not help but think of her own mother on this evening. Her mother was always environmentally sensitive, and she would have loved the opportunity to honor Janine Benyus as a woman of courage and an environmental activist. Reflecting on her mother’s love of Nature, Bailey quoted her as having said, “There’s no need to interfere with Nature. Just find ways to work with what is in front of you.” Likening this spirit to that of Rachel Carson and Janine Benyus, Bailey welcomed the speaker.

“I am honored to be mentioned in the same breath with Rachel Carson,” Janine Benyus said. “I go to her for guidance. She taught me to be brave enough to put poetry into science writing.”

As she showed slides of organisms of all sizes and shapes, Benyus spoke of biomimicry as a guide “to find our way home.” She stated firmly that “We need the ideas of the winged, the furred, the four-legged, the single-celled. In order to be open to their ideas, it takes a change of heart and stance.” She has no doubt that we can live on Earth and enhance Earth, adapting to it rather than depleting it. After all, she declared, “We are nature. We're trying to figure out how to live gracefully here.”

We have to learn not just about Nature but from it. We must learn to borrow Nature's own strategies.Among the questions Benyus placed before her listeners was this fundamental one: Is our technology well-adapted or mal-adapted for life on Earth over the long haul? As she discussed her slides of Nature's wonders in the eco-system, the author underscored one of her themes: “There are clues everywhere we look. Living well in place: this is what these organisms know how to do.” She observed that we have to learn not just about Nature but from it. We must learn to borrow Nature's own strategies. We could, for example, learn from the structure of plants and end by building better “skins” for our buildings. We could look to slugs, which travel on slime that they continually create, to learn about lubricants. Nature itself will lead us to better designs for filtration systems, if we will simply take the time to decipher what she has to teach.

There are three levels to biomimicry, Benyus indicated. We mimic form and ask: What's the design? We mimic process and ask: How is it made? We mimic ecosystems and ask: How does it fit? Further, she said, “We have to learn to mimic at a community level.”

Life thrives, the author reminded her audience, in surprising ways. If we are diligent students of Nature, we can learn to clean without detergents, to color without dyes, and to operate pumps, fans, propellers, mixers, and turbines without friction. We can learn to make objects adhere without glue, and we can learn what the abalone has to teach us so that we can make ceramics as tough as the mother-of-pearl of the abalone. We can learn to make fiber optics that self-assemble. If we learn bio-production, we can move away from an oil economy. From the prairies, we can learn how to grow a variety of species on the same plot of land. “We are surrounded by genius,” Benyus said. “And there are clues everywhere in the 30 million species willing to gift us with their best ideas.”

“The more we function like the natural world, the more likely we are to fit in,” the founder of the Biomimicry Guild declared. Using Nature as a model, we must learn to ask: What would Nature do? What wouldn’t Nature do? Why? Why not?

Benyus reminded the audience of Yeats’s observation that "the world is full of magic things patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” She concluded her remarks by returning to her mentor, Rachel Carson: “She woke us up and gave us hope.”

To provide a bridge from Benyus's lecture, called "Echoing Nature: Lessons for a Sustainable Future," to the question and answer portion of the evening, Sarah Conn, director of the Ecopsychology Institute, provided a guided reflection on connecting with the web of life. She suggested the audience reflect on the ways in which we can know ourselves as part of the whole.

When asked about political action and biomimicry, Benyus asserted that we should not look to other species for our moral bearing because we are a very different kind of organism. What biomimicry provides is a set of strategies for survival and an awareness of limits. As she says, toward the end of her book: “Restraint is not a popular notion in a society addicted to ‘growing’ the economy, but it is one of the most powerful practices we can adopt at this point in history ... we are ultimately dependent on the existing natural pattern, a pattern that we only partially understand.”

The author welcomed personal discussions with guests as she signed copies of Biomimicry after the lecture. Like Rachel Carson, Janine M. Benyus has sounded a wake-up call for all of us and has become a spokesperson for another way of seeing and of being that is guided directly by Nature.

Sidebar From the Original Piece:
What Is Biomimicry?

Nature as Model 
Biomimicry is a new science that studies nature's models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems, e.g., a solar cell inspired by a leaf.

Nature as Mentor 
Biomimicry uses an ecological standard to judge the "rightness" of our innovations. After 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature has learned: What works. What is appropriate. What lasts.

Nature as Measure 
Biomimicry is a new way of viewing and valuing nature. It introduces an era based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but on what we can learn from it.

From Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Janine Benyus (1997)

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