Mother Knows Best…Mother Nature, That Is

Upon entering the lecture hall in the Marsh life sciences building this past Wednesday I was taken aback by the turnout. “Am I in the right place?” I asked myself. Why would so many fun-loving college students subject themselves to an extra two hours of school? Every seat housed a body. People packed every inch of the auditorium, crowded the isles and many stood for nearly two hours…all to hear renowned environmental crusader Janine Benyus preach her groundbreaking philosophy: Biomimicry.

Janine, a writer and Professor at the University of Montana, has published four books in total, the latest of which is named after the new method of applying natural science to the problems which plague our world.

She began by speaking fervently about a necessary shift in our disposition towards the natural world that facilitates our very existence. “We must change our attitude from what is at best indifference towards the earth, and at worst arrogance, to one of awe and respect for our environment.” Janine recounted her first memorable experience of this awe: “When I was growing up in New Jersey, there was a large field next to my house in which wild asparagus grew.

We shared the field with a group of Italian immigrants who spoke little English, and through a kind of sign language they showed me how, by cutting the asparagus at an angle and slightly below the surface, it would grow year after year…and these people regarded this as no less than a miracle. That if they treated this plant correctly, they would be rewarded almost perpetually.” Janine points to this encounter as an early catalyst and inspiration, eventually propelling her to the head of her field. As a species, we must come to terms with the fact that we are dependant on the world that surround us…from the smallest microscopic organism to the largest oxygen producing redwood.

Biomimicry takes this truth to a whole new level by applying the question “What Would Nature Do” to practical, everyday problems. For example, a common problem which affects nearly every modern edifice is the buildup of calcium in underground water and sewage pipes. Over a period of years this calcium can significantly reduce water flow through pipes, which causes clogs and necessitates toxic cleaning materials that hurt the environment. In many cases whole plumbing systems must be excavated and replaced, a costly procedure. The answer to this problem came from an unexpected place: the ocean.

Marine biologists noted that seashells are formed by the same process of calcium solidification, and wondered why calcium buildup in pipes can grow indefinitely yet sea-shells stop growing once they reach a certain mass. After looking closer at the subject, researchers discovered that there is a protein produced by the shellfish that curtails calcium buildup. This protein, which is virtually harmless to the environment, is now being synthesized and sold in place of conventional pipe cleaners.

One of Janine’s desires is to change the way we manufacture materials in this country. While nature in general is overwhelmingly efficient, human industry is just the opposite. On average only 4% of used materials become product, leaving 96% as waste. “Right now, we use what’s called ‘heat, beat and treat’ to make materials. Kevlar, for instance, the stuff in flak jackets, is our premier, high-tech material. Nothing stronger or tougher. But how do we make it?

We pour petroleum-derived molecules into a pressurized vat of concentrated sulfuric acid, and boil it at several hundred degrees Fahrenheit. We then subject it to high pressures to force the fibers into alignment as we draw them out. The energy input is extreme and the toxic by-products are odious. Nature takes a different approach,” she continues. “Because an organism makes materials like bone or collagen or silk right in its own body, it doesn’t make sense to ‘heat, beat and treat.’ A spider, for instance, produces a waterproof silk that beats the pants off Kevlar for toughness and elasticity. Ounce for ounce, it’s five times stronger than steel! But the spider manufactures it in water, at room temperature, using no high heats, chemicals or pressures. Best of all, it doesn’t need to drill offshore for petroleum; it takes flies and crickets in at one end and produces this miracle material at the other. In a pinch, the spider can even eat part of its old web to make a new one.”

A pioneer in the generation of re-usable materials, Geoff Coates of Cornell University, wanted to develop a practical alternative to harmful synthetics like plastic and styrofoam. Applying the “WWND” (What Would Nature Do) philosophy Coates began to analyze the way plants turn carbon-dioxide into organic matter, and eventually discovered how to synthetically link CO2 strands together, creating fibers which are strong yet 100% biodegradable. We spend vast amounts of time marveling at humanities’ accomplishments, yet these victories seemed trite and un-substantial when compared to the incredible innovations of Mother Nature, and Professor Benyus exceeds at putting this in perspective. For example, while many lizards secrete sticky liquids to climb on vertical surfaces, this is not so with the gecko. How then does this amazing creature excel at climbing? The answer is pretty impressive.

Scientists took a closer look at the gecko’s feet and found that they are covered by microscopic fibers. Fibers so small in fact that they use Vanderbilt forces, the smallest forces in nature, to magnetically attach themselves to surfaces at an atomic level! The geckos feet are literally covered in tiny magnets! Scientist are already imitating this incredible adaptation, and the possibilities for the application of these technologies are endless.

While these breakthroughs warrent celebration, Benyus realizes the potential for misusing such technologies: “Any technology, even if it’s a technology inspired by nature, can be used for good or bad. The airplane, for instance, was inspired by bird flight; a mere 11 years after we invented it, we were bombing people with it. We tell ourselves that the earth was put here for our use. That we are at the top of the pyramid when it comes to earthlings. But of course this is a myth.

We’ve had a run of spectacular luck, but we are not necessarily the best survivors over the long haul. We are not immune to the laws of natural selection, and if we overshoot the carrying capacity of the Earth, we will pay the consequences. Biomimicry says: if it can’t be found in nature, there is probably a good reason for its absence. It may have been tried, and long ago edited out of the population. Natural selection is wisdom in action.”