I read an interview with Janine Benyus in the September, 2009 Sun. Benyus is a biologist, the author of both the term and book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. The idea of biomimicry has a lot of appeal to me. (Benyus has a website, asknature.org, where you can ask how nature would accomplish some task, removing salt from water, say, or cleaning an oil spill.)
The Sun is a monthly, nonprofit magazine, published in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Carrie gave me a subscription as a thank you gift for letting her give me the MMPI or some other psychological test when she was working on her PhD. She’s been working in chemical dependency for a dozen years or so, and the selection of the Sun seems apt. It’s about fifty pages thick, and full of stories, poems, and black and white photographs by readers. Maybe you noticed the slogan, “Personal. Political. Provocative. Ad-free.” above the name. It’s all those, the political being an environmental-leftist bent, but if I were to choose a word to describe The Sun, it would be “Vulnerable,” and vulnerable in a way that frequently jibes with Alcoholics Anonymous’ “Twelve Steps:”
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
(By way of disclosure, I personally smoked enough pot over twenty-five years to stabilize the state of Michouacan’s trade balance, but the habit seemed to fade on its own. Scotch, bourbon, gin, vodka, and vermouth reside in my cupboard, but they’re usually safe from me.)
The September, 2009, Sun contains, beside the Janine Benyus interview, an essay by the late Passionist priest, Thomas Berry, four personal essays, including one recalling the author’s thoughts the night after learning she had cancer, and that she would be in surgery the next day, three poems, and a short story told, by an urbanized Inuit, about confronting himself among his still-traditional kin. The “Readers Write” monthly feature is a collection of anecdotes from readers, in September about being in “The Middle of Nowhere,” both literaly and metaphorically. A world traveler docks the Flying Dutchman to listen to coyotes in the wilderness; a Vietnamese boat refugee comes to America; a harbor seal guides two divers out of a fog-bound kelp forest; three writers suffer three different kinds of abuse from lovers; a driver finds beauty, broken down on a sparsely traveled road; an American Jew experiences kindness from a gruff Egyptian cabdriver in the Sinai desert; a stroke victim waits by the hospital door for her ride; a teenager repeatedly runs away to the airport, then returns home to abuse; naive college graduates become counselors at a desert boot camp for juvenile delinquents; two hitch-hikers find a sign announcing the middle of nowhere in the desert; a religious-nut father takes his children into the sticks to await the rapture, then changes his mind; an Alzheimer’s patient has a moment of lucidity; a woman has her first orgasm house-sitting a trailer full of show dogs.
I think you get the idea. My inner Bogart thinks it’s kind of cloying, but probably apt, and any reservations are his own problem. “Yielding is the way of the Tao.”
Biomimicry is the idea that we should borrow design principles from nature to make the things we use. Permaculture, about which I’ve written a lot, is an example: mimic and integrate with the local ecosystem. Examples include adhesives based on the ones mussels uses to anchor themselves to rocks, self-cleaning paints, and ceramics based on abalone shells. Biomimicry has helped scrub smokestacks at cement plants, and reduce the power used to manufacture cement. Benyus says, “People are looking at how we can use solar energy to split hydrogen and oxygen for use in a fuel cell. Every leaf you see is already doing this.”
The word “addiction” doesn’t appear in the interview, but Benyus would probably accept a diagnosis of human addiction to poison, high heat, and pressure. She says she believe that we discovered fossil fuels before “our consciousness had evolved enough to know what to do with all that energy.” We are “mesmerized” by internal combustion, “enthralled” by fire. “People think all we need to fix our predicament is a free source of energy, but I think we need to change our behaviors. More energy would just help us deplete the earth’s lifeblood faster.”
Benyus mentions researchers’ studying how spiders spin their webs. Here’s a little animal that extrudes something with greater tensile strength than steel from its body. In a different part of the interview, Beyus points out the amazing thing about this. “(Chemist Terry Collins) has said that industrial chemistry uses every element in the periodic table...and employs brutish simple means to force these elements together.” She goes on to stress the ecological novelty of these compounds, and the disproportionate waste that comes from their manufacture. “And then you have nature’s chemistry, which, instead of using every element in the periodic table, uses a small, life-friendly subset and employs elegant recipes to combine them. It’s all done with water as a solvent.” And every product of each process is an input in another.
The Elegant recipes are the hitch. Darn it, I wish I hadn’t taken the Stewart Brand book back to the library. I may have the particulars of this example wrong, but the argument is something like this: Nature does indeed do marvelous things using just a fraction of the 92 non-human-made elements. It goes without saying that this is desirable, but it is/would be a monumental engineering achievement, were we to cut our use of the elements back to the ones that the rest of life uses. The spider’s thread, for example (here’s where I’m not sure of the particulars), is a composite, combining strands from three separate organs. Spiders can do what they do, because of countless adaptations over unimaginable lengths of time. The interference of three separate organs to produce the thread, and the chemistry within each of the three, is a puzzle that would tease a lot of researchers for a lot of years.
Which isn’t to say it’s out of reach. Computers routinely whip the John Henrys of the chess world, forty years after it was a commonplace that myriad possibilities would overwhelm a machine at each move.
An article in the May 4, 2009 New Yorker, “Open Channels,” by Jerome Groopman, discusses a promising treatment for cystic fibrosis -- and potentially other genetic disorders -- developed because computers could look for both the responsible gene and the compound that would correct for its mutant disability.
Cystic fibrosis is a fatal genetic disorder, in which the responsible gene fails to produce a protein which channels chloride ions. The sufferer’s internal organs become clogged, preventing nutrition, and limiting respiration.
US and Canadian researchers located the cystic fibrosis gene, in 1985, using a technique called “chromosome jumping.” In 1998, other researchers began to use a robotic technique called “high-throughput screening” to find a way of moving the harmful ions. In 2008, patients showed dramatic improvement in lung function in a test of a drug produced by Vertex Pharmaceuticals.
It seems ironic that we would need computers and robots to mimic nature, but there’s also the problem of an infrastructure that’s adapted to great gobs of energy, and a population of seven billion, headed for eight, that needs to eat. You and I are in touch via a network of who knows how many computers. Benyus, herself, lives out in the sticks where she can apprentice herself to the trees and coyotes, and that takes energy. Of her firm, she says, “It’s a challenge to make sure I...spend time by myself in the natural world. To facilitate this, everybody in our company gets to choose one month each year in which he or she will not travel.” In other words, the author of Biomimicry uses a lot of jet fuel.
There’s no more important human task before us, than mimicking and integrating with nature. We may, just, be able to do it. It’s a priority, and we can’t turn up our noses at any tool.