8 Ways Nature is Changing the Future
And how they may impact you
I call it “orange light anxiety.” That angsty anticipation of having to slam on the brakes at any moment to avoid running a red light. “There is no such thing as a leisurely drive to the beach when traffic lights are involved,” I think to myself as I watch the car ahead of me blast through a red light.
Rolling to a stop with a sigh of annoyance, words from a presentation I’d watched earlier come back to me: “This is a locust” the presenter said, pointing to a photo of what looked like a giant cricket. “80 million of them can be in a square kilometer, and they don’t collide into one another… And yet we have 3.6 million car collisions a year.”
How do animals like locusts do this? What secrets are they hiding? How do birds fly in formation without hitting one another, how do schools of fish move in such synchrony? How has life become so intricately woven into its environment?
To put it in human terms, think of this:
On April 1st, 1976, the tech company Apple was formed. Today, 41 years later, the company has created everything from iPod’s, iPad’s, iPhone’s, and iTunes to Macbook’s, Apple watches, and much, much more. The impact this one company has had in barely 4 decades of work has drastically changed the lives of people all over the world.
Now try imagining a company with 1 million years or even just 1,000 years worth of research and development. Think of all it would have learned, the products it would have created and the problems it would have solved. The impact of a company like that would verge on the incalculable. So much so in fact, we may not even be aware of the ways it affected us.
Now, what if I told you that company exists? And what if I told you that “company” wasn’t actually a company at all, but rather life itself?
The oldest records of life on the planet date back 3.8 billion years. That’s nearly 95 million times the life of Apple. Ever since the first single-celled organisms evolved, life has persisted, creating millions of different species in order to solve millions of different problems, all culminating in the amazing web of life we call planet Earth.
With this in mind the question then becomes…
Is there anything we can learn from life forms, other than our own, that can help us solve the problems of today?
In short, the answer is absolutely. It turns out, when humans first stepped onto the scene roughly 200,000 years ago, we walked into a room full of geniuses. An entire planet full of them in fact. Roughly “10–30 million, well adapted species” inhabit the face of the earth today, and each one has something to tell us.
This practice of intentionally learning from and emulating natural systems has come to be known as biomimicry. Biomimics — the practitioners of biomimicry — can be thought of as “nature’s apprentices” or as I like to think of them, nature spies. Much like corporate espionage, biomimicry is essentially the art of spying on and learning from the natural world so that we can create more effective and sustainable solutions to our problems.
As I continue on my drive to the beach, thoughts of espionage and R&D rattle around in my head, casting a trip I’ve made hundreds of times in a new light. No longer is a tree just a tree. It’s a water pump, a solar array, a respirator, a shade provider and a wind barrier, a breathing organism able to communicate with its neighbors and share its resources. I couldn’t help thinking as I drove that the answers to many of our problems might — almost embarrassingly — be right in front of our eyes, and with this human-centric filter removed, the feeling of confinement goes with it. What else is there to learn?
Lessons can lie in even the smallest of things:
1. The lotus plant has superhydrophobic leaves that resist water, allowing it to be cleaned by water droplets as they run down the surface of the leaves. Imagine not having to wash your house or car, but rather having rain wash it for you.
2. Birds such as peacocks and blue jays get their color not through pigments like our paints, but through structure. The way light bounces off and through them reflects certain wavelengths which gives them color — no painting or dying necessary.
3. Moth eyes are considered anti-reflective, something that is inspiring scientists to work on cell phone screens that don’t have a glare and solar panel arrays that absorb sunlight more efficiently.
4. Bacteria extract metals from water. Researchers are working to use these bacteria to “mine” metals out of desalination brine. The byproduct of making freshwater from saltwater. Imagine collecting all our minerals passively through bacteria rather than open-faced mining pits.
5. Kingfishers were the inspiration behind the shape of bullet trains. The trains would initially give off what was effectively a sonic boom when entering and exiting tunnels, so the engineers turned to the kingfisher, a bird that dives into water without a splash, to solve the problem. The result was a train that not only didn’t generate a sonic boom when entering or exiting tunnels, but also one that was “10 percent faster and used 15 percent less electricity.”
6. Gecko toe pads allow them to adhere to any surface, vertical or horizontal, upside down or rightside up. Scientists have learned from this and created a tape called Geckskin, which is “so powerful that an index-card sized piece can hold 700 pounds on a smooth surface, such as glass, yet can be easily released, and leaves no residue.”
With a final turn of the wheel, I pull into a parking spot. Getting out of the car, I’m immediately greeted by the sound of the ocean spilling into the lot. According to NOAA, less than 5% of the oceans have been explored. That’s 5% of something that covers 70% of the planet! This means, if we assume that we’ve explored everything above sea level — which we haven’t — we still would have only explored 33.5% of the earth. It’s hard to even begin imagining what we have yet to discover.
Walking up to the edge of the ocean, I breathe in the flat blue expanse with relief before slipping into its embrace. The ocean is a classroom; it’s lessons are everywhere. Ideas are encased in shells, ensconced in scales and ingrained in sands. The creatures inhabiting this seemingly alien world have done so with the grace of connectivity. At once using the world that holds them up and being a part of it too. As I swim, I wonder what we might learn from those who call this place home.
7. Shark skin is an incredible thing. It’s covered in what’s called dermal denticles, which are effectively teeth, not scales. The shape and texture of these denticles allow them to be both antifouling as well as antimicrobial, meaning, not only does it resist barnacles and algae, but also germs as well. This is leading to companies creating surfaces for places like hospitals that are antimicrobial purely because of their shape and texture, no disinfectant required.
8. Humpback whales are some of the most graceful creatures to swim the seas, and scientists are now starting to decode their secrets. Structures on the leading edge of their pectoral fins, called tubercles, have been found to make there fins drastically more efficient at reducing drag and creating lift. When applied to wind turbine blades, the structures have been shown to not only reduce noise from the blades and generate electricity at lower wind speeds, but also increase electrical output by 20% in tests(Study).
These are just a few examples of ways that nature can teach us how to live more sustainably on this earth. The kicker in all of it though
“is that these organisms have figured out a way to do the amazing things that they do while taking care of the place that’s going to take care of their offspring… That’s the biggest design challenge.” — Janine Benyus
We live in an amazing world. One filled with beauty and mystery, where we are not the biggest, strongest, fastest or even the most numerous. In the world Olympics, we will almost always be outdone, but what we are one of the best at is problem solving. In other words, learning and acting upon what we’ve learned, and there has never been a better time in the course of human history to act upon those insights.
The world is cloaked in genius just waiting to be noticed; we need only to look and listen to uncover it.