Emulating Nature (Because All Life Depends On It)

Janine Benyus is the president of the Biomimicry Institute. She also teaches interpretive writing, lectures at the University of Montana, and works towards restoring and protecting wild lands. In all of her work, her basic thesis is that human beings should consciously emulate nature’s genius in their designs. Below she introduces the concept of Biomimicry for a general readership in the hopes that each reader will develop the principles of Biomimicry in their own life.

The first time I explained biomimicry to a stranger was not in a talk or a workshop, but in a big-box bookstore just after Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature had come out. I was searching the shelves for the spine, always a breath-held-in moment for a writer. I checked the nature section, environment, design, and engineering, but it just wasn’t there. Before I could slink away, the bookseller appeared, and I asked him where it might be shelved.

He came back with a perfectly normal but impossible question: “What’s it about?”

After you finish a book, a pack of ideas race to your lips, nipping and barking to be the first one out. It’s hard to choose. “OK” It’s about looking to nature for inspiration for new inventions,” I blurted. “It’s learning to live gracefully on this planet by consciously emulating life’s genius. It’s not really technology or biology; it’s the technology of biology. It’s making a fiber like a spider, or lassoing the sun’s energy like a leaf.” The growing alarm on his face confirmed it; I was postpartum and probably shouldn’t be out.

Then he lifted his palms as if weighing two packages and said something I will never forget. “Look lady, you’ve got Nature and you’ve got Technology; you’ve got to choose one.” He was referring to the category scheme in the store, but I realized that the deep, deep separation between those two ideas in our culture was why biomimicry was squirming to be born.

The fact that you are reading this blog means that there’s a chance you may already suspect that organisms are the consummate physicists, chemists, and engineers, and that ecosystems are economies beyond compare. You’re on your way to becoming nature’s apprentice, learning from and emulating life’s designs to solve worthy challenges. Around the world, biomimics like you are consulting life’s genius to create new products, processes, and policies—new ways of living—that are well adapted to life on earth over the long haul. They’re learning to grow food like a prairie, adhere like a gecko, sequester carbon like a mollusk, create color like a peacock, and run a business like a redwood forest. As apprentices, they, you, all of us are birthing what will be biomimicry’s greatest legacy—a profound and deepening respect for the natural world.

The respect at the heart of this field is what differentiates biomimicry from past efforts to dominate, domesticate, or steal nature’s secrets. Biomimicry ushers in an era based not on what we can extract from nature, but on what we can learn from her. This shift from learning about nature to learning from nature requires a new method of inquiry, a new set of lenses, and above all, a new humility.

So, given its depth and breadth, how does one categorize biomimicry? Is it a design discipline, a branch of science, a problem-solving method, a sustainability ethos, a movement, a stance toward nature, a new way of viewing and valuing biodiversity? Yes, yes, and yes, which is why biomimicry is an idea that acquires people, a meme that propagates in our culture like an adaptive gene. Biomimicry captures our imagination because of its promise, because it is at once pragmatic and culturally transformative. At its most practical, biomimicry is a way of seeking sustainable solutions by borrowing life’s blueprints, chemical recipes, and ecosystem strategies. At its most transformative, it brings us into right relation with the rest of the natural world, as students learning to be a welcome species on this planet.

Your own understanding of biomimicry is bound to expand as you practice its principles in your own life, but as a starting point, here’s something of a more formal definition:

“Biomimicry is learning from and then emulating natural forms, processes, and ecosystems to create more sustainable designs. It’s studying a leaf to invent a better solar cell or an electric eel to make a better battery. The core idea is that nature has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with: energy, food production, climate control, benign chemistry, transportation, packaging, and more. Mimicking these earth-savvy designs can help humans leapfrog to technologies that sip energy, shave material use, reject toxins, and work as a system to create conditions conducive to life.”

Janine Benyus is a natural sciences writer, innovation consultant, and author of six books, including her latest Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. In 1998, Janine co-founded an education and innovation practice called Biomimicry Guild, which has helped clients such as General Electric, HOK Architects, Levi’s, NASA, and Seventh Generation create sustainable products, processes, and policies based on nature’s principles. She has received several awards including Rachel Carson Environmental Ethics Award and the Lud Browman Award for Science Writing.

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  1. Fantastic article and I look forward to reading the book. I’ve always thought to myself “wow, Mother Nature really has it figured out” and I love that you’ve put a name and some provocative thoughts behind that sentiment. Thank you!

  2. Janine, beautiful & elegant article! Every time I’m at Paul H’s house he mentions you and speaks so very highly of you. Thank you for doing what you do–all of life needs it. I’m on your team … quietly, in Phoenix, working so hard to highlight the beauty, intimacy, and interconnectedness of the symbiotic relationship between flowers and our state of mind. We collect flower essences most needed by humankind today, and infuse them into as many products as possible to brighten everyone’s mood and create a positive worldwide ripple effect. Your work is a great inspiration; we are helping to spread your message. And I’m looking forward meeting you one day soon.

  3. Hi Katie and Rebecca,

    Thanks so much for the kind words! Whatever we can do to (re)connect people with the natural world is vital to our homecoming. Thanks, Janine

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