How can we learn to better design as nature?
“If you do not rest upon the good foundations of nature, you will labour with little honour and less profit. Those who take for their standard any one but nature — the mistress of all masters — weary themselves in vain.”
— Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519)
Life has sustained its presence on Earth for about 3,800 million years. Life has done more than sustain itself; life has flourished, diversified and created the conditions for more complex life to evolve. During the vast time span of evolution, life has gone from strength to strength, overcome some catastrophic setbacks and continued to innovate, adapt to change and shape the conditions of the environment and the biosphere in ways that have allowed for more life to thrive. Life, as a process, is the grand mistress of transformative innovation.
What are life’s operating principles that ensure long-term survival?
We would do well to ask this question and to pay attention to what we can learn from nature, as she expresses herself in a breathtaking diversity of species in interdependent communities of collaboration and symbiosis.
Here is where language lets me down again. When I say “learn from nature”, I do not mean to create a distinction that sets us — humanity — apart from nature. We are nature, and as such we can design as nature. As a matter of fact, we can’t do anything else. The main difference is that just as many of nature’s ‘design experiments’ in the course of evolution have ended up in the dead-end street of extinction, so are we as a species along with our current version of industrial culture heading towards an early demise unless we pay more attention to the lessons we can learn from life’s evolution. As Janine Benyus (2002) has put it so well, life has a 3.8-billion-year head start in research and development, so we might as well combine human ingenuity with the humility to become nature’s apprentices.
[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]
Some of the most basic lessons we can learn from ecosystems everywhere are that almost all energy that drives ecological cycles flows from the sun. Even the kinetic energy of wind, waves and marine currents ultimately derives from the sun’s energy reaching the Earth. Our industrial civilization, on the other hand, is driven by fossil fuel reserves in the form of coal, gas and oil, along with some other non-renewable sources like nuclear energy.
Fossil fuels are nothing but ancient sunlight (Hartman, 1999) stored in the Earth’s crust. These energy carriers are the compressed and transformed remains of plants and animals that populated Earth millions of years ago. The amount of fossil fuel humanity is currently using in a single year took approximately 1 million years to build up in the Earth’s crust (Fischer, 2012: 36).
The word ‘non-renewable’ gives us an important hint: this pattern is far from sustainable! We have already seen that one of the first lessons we can learn from nature is that the biosphere’s vast solar-chemical industry that drives bioproductivity and almost all energetic processes within the biosphere is based on current solar income rather than fossil reserves. Learning to better ‘design as nature’ means creating a solar powered, regenerative civilization based on current solar income and renewable energy and material resources.
Our industrial culture is not only addicted to the wrong kind of energy resources and therefore badly attuned to appropriate scale, it is also almost entirely based on the wrong kind of material resources. Life has evolved a diverse range of organic molecules and bio-chemical synthesis processes which are the building blocks and production processes of nature’s design, tested over many millions of years.
For most of human history we used relatively few non-organic materials, apart from small amounts of minerals and ores, and stone for construction. With the industrial revolution we decided to take a perilous detour from life’s tested metabolisms and began to create an energy system and a material culture that was based on fossil materials dug up from the Earth’s crust and an ever increasing-variety of minerals and ores that we were able to mine because of cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels.
In the first half of the 19th century, the use of coal as a transportation fuel and energy source for heating and industrial production increased rapidly. In particular, the use of coal-based coke in steel production created a vast amount of waste in the form of coal tar. As this toxic, reeking paste started to build up we set about trying to find new industrial uses for it and, shortly afterwards, our fossil-fuel-based industrial chemistry was born.
It is not even 200 years since the German chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge, in 1834, invented chemical paints and dyes from the aniline contained in coal tar (Fischer, 2012: 30). In 1889, the French chemist Hilaire de Chardonnet commercialized the first artificial fibre called rayon — an ‘artificial silk’. In the early 1900s the Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland created ‘bakelite’, the first thermoset plastic. Polyethylene and polystyrene were not invented until the 1930s.
In less than two centuries we have created a material culture almost entirely dependent on oil and coal as its key raw materials. Most of our textiles, plastics, paints, fragrances, cosmetics, detergents, fertilizers, technological gadgets, medicines and even food items contain chemicals derived from fossil fuels. The global chemical industry is now the most powerful industrial lobby on the planet and closely linked to the fossil fuel industry.
The 118 chemical elements can be combined into many millions of different chemical compounds and tens of thousands of new compounds are being created every year without stringent regulation on testing their effect on living organisms. All of us carry trace amounts of hundreds of human-made chemical compounds in our blood and fatty tissues; many of them are toxic and/or carcinogenic (Ewing Duncan, 2014).
The relatively new discipline of ‘Green Chemistry’ (Anastas & Warner, 1998) aims to create plant-based, non-toxic alternatives to many of our fossil fuel-based materials. It is of paramount importance to the redesign of our material culture. We should not make the mistake of seeing biomass simply as a possible energy source or as a way to make biofuel. If we humble ourselves enough to become apprentices of nature again, we can unlock the secrets of life’s chemistry. Biomass, especially agricultural, forestry and organic household wastes, will become a precious resource for 21st-century chemists.
Understanding life’s chemistry will help us in transforming our material culture — currently based almost exclusively on fossil, non-renewable material feedstock — into a material culture that will largely rely on plant-based chemistry, which is less toxic, requires relatively low energy inputs (from renewable sources), and does not create waste products which cannot be metabolized in other industrial processes. One of the biggest challenges for transformative innovation in the 21st century is to reinvent chemistry based on nature’s metabolic processes.
From green chemistry, biomimetic product design, renewable energy systems and biomimetic architecture, to cities and industries that function like ecosystems, learning to better design as nature is one of the most exciting creative challenges in the transition towards regenerative cultures. In essence, by aspiring to design as nature in ways that create whole-system health we are aiming to learn how to participate appropriately in the life-sustaining cycles of the biosphere. This means meeting human needs within planetary boundaries while acting as a responsible keystone species that maintains and regenerates life’s capacity to create conditions conducive to life. By aspiring to do this in local ecosystems everywhere, we will create resilience, health and the conditions for life to thrive across the globe.
If we truly live into the fact that we are life, that we are nature, and as such are bound by kinship and interdependence to the community of life that human and planetary health depend upon, we will come to regard the creation of a globally regenerative civilization expressed in exquisite locally adapted diversity as the creative challenge of our times. This is a challenge that not only unifies the human family behind a common vision of co- creative thriving rather than just survival, but also unites humanity with the ground of its own being — nature’s genius unfolding through the diversity of life and the evolution of consciousness.
Once we understand that appropriate participation is the goal, we are at one and the same time empowered (as participants in nature we cannot but design as nature) and humbled (we still have so much to learn about how to creatively fit a vast global population of humans onto a planet with a fragile biosphere). Rather than forcing a natural world separate from us to fit our human needs, as the narrative of separation would have us do, we have to fit-in as a species that has a lot to learn from the rest of nature in trying to discern which design solutions better serve the whole system.
We need humility to use technology wisely. Living the questions together as a means to access collective intelligence will help us to distinguish which paths are conducive to life and which are maladaptive and will not only jeopardize the future of our children and our species, but the health and diversity of our wider family — life on Earth.
Learning to design wisely as nature is a pilgrimage and an apprenticeship that will never end. How can we measure our success? We are doing well if we observe an increase in human thriving and planetary bioproductivity, a reduction in greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere, and the spread of elegant, regionally adapted communities of vibrant biocultural diversity in global solidarity and collaboration.
[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016. The book contains a thorough review of biomimetic and regenerative design practices at different scales of design from green chemistry, product design, architecture, industrial ecology, community planning, urban planning, to circular bioregional economies and beyond.]