Biomimicry is the art and science of mimicking the designs of nature. Why is it an important strategy for sustainable design? Nature’s organisms have managed to make all the things we want to make but without:
- requiring dirty fossil fuel as an energy source
- polluting the planet
Nature recycles everything while human designs, until recently have followed open loop processes with start and end points. When we manufacture, we mine resources but end up producing waste. By emulating natures closed loop processes, we eliminate the concept of waste. The end of a product becomes feedstock for the beginning once again. Biomimicry is very closely related to cradle-to-cradle design.
Through the field of biomimicry, human Beings are learning that our few millenia of manufacturing expertise is no match for natures billions of years of evolved intelligence. For an example, let us look at a few technologies and compare the way humans manufacture vs the way nature does.
Strong, lightweight fibres
Manufacturers use a process commonly called “heat, beat, and treat” to make many materials. As an example, Kevlar is considered one of our lightest and strongest high-tech materials – the material found in bullet-proof vests. The industrial process to manufacture it, however, leaves much to be desired when compared to how a spider makes its silk:
- Pour petroleum-derived molecules into a pressurized vat of concentrated sulfuric acid
- Boil the solution at several hundred degrees celcius
- Apply high pressures to force the fibers into alignment as it is mechanically drawn out
- Kevlar has a large amount of embodied energy and toxic byproducts are created in its manufacture
- Spiders manufacture silk in water, at room temperature, using no high heats, chemicals, or pressures
- The spider IS the manufacturing plant, honed over 380 million years
- It takes flies and crickets at one end and produces waterproof silk at the other end
- Spider silk outperforms Kevlar for toughness and elasticity; it is five times stronger than steel
We have destroyed natural praries of polyculture plants and replaced it with monocultures to grow food for the planet.
- We replace perrenials with annuals and we must plow each year, leading to soil erosion
- To make up for poorer resulting soil, we apply tons of chemical fertilizers
- To protect monocultures from pests, we spray tons of oil-based pesticides
- An average kilocalorie of food requires 10 kilocalories of petroleum
- We apply high pressures to force the fibers into alignment as it is mechanically drawn out
Prarie-like Polyculture, Perennial
- For thousands of years, prairies have, without any outside intervention: preserved the soil, resisted pests and weeds & sponsored its own fertility
- Praries manage this through a diverse mix of perennial plants growing in polycultures
Wes Jackson of the Land Institute champions the breeding of perennial crops that we can eat and grow in a prairie-like polyculture. Unlike our current mono-culture system:
- plants would overwinter – no need to plow and plant every year, or worry about soil erosion
- no need to add synthetic fertilizers because nitrogen-fixing plants are already part of the polyculture
- different plant species act to slow down pest outbreaks, reducing or eliminating the need for pesticides
Over thousands of years, we have bred wild perennials and turned them into annuals with narrow gene pools. We must now go back in the opposite direction and widen those genetic pools by breeding perennial traits back into edible grains.
For other examples of biomimicry, go to: