Early October, Daphne, Emily, Kelly and I had the opportunity to attend the Biomimicy Education Summit and the Biomimicry Track at SXSW Eco in Austin, TX. Both Janine Benyus and Dayna Baumeister, two of the most influential thought leaders in Biomimicry, were there, and we were fortunately enough to be there with them.
Biomimicry is a disease, and you’re not warned that you have been infected.
This is the analogy that Dayna used in her SXSW Eco Talk; perhaps not word for word, but you get the idea. Indeed, like a pathogen, the biomimicry revolution started by only infecting individuals prone to the disease. The MEME alone attracted people who love Mother Nature and our planet; people who are deeply moved by “The Blue Marble,” a famous photo of Earth taken by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft in 1972.
Similar to a pathogen, when an initiative is still small and weak, all the resources should be used to grow bigger and stronger quickly to minimized the risk of being wiped out completely. The path of least resistance promises the most success. In this case, it means to attract like-minded people, people who get Biomimicry. When the PhD in Biomimicry first started at The University of Akron, we didn’t promote the opportunity extensively because we wanted to attract students really passionate about Biomimicry who made an effort to find out about this opportunity.
However, if a pathogen of a disease stays this way, the disease will never be pandemic. At some point, the pathogen has to evolve to become more potent, starts to attack more resistant individuals, and infect them even if they initially fight back. Only then, does the pathogenic disease have a chance to become pandemic. Since Biomimicry is now evolving from a MEME to a movement, I believe the timing is right for us to make this kind of strategic change. The question is: Are we (the Biomimicry community) prepared for the change? Let’s read along to find out!
The environmentalist vs. technologist dichotomy
Honestly, this dichotomy doesn’t make sense to me. However, for the purpose of illustrating the point, let’s stick with it for now.
I already mentioned that most people in the current Biomimicry community share a similar mindset. We care about environmental issues: sustainability, global warming, carbon footprints, conservation, food, water, etc. When we get together, we talk about our connection with nature, share our childhood stories of running in the woods/fields or whatever our local biome is. And we believe that if we don’t take actions immediately, altering the trajectory of where we’re heading as a species, our civilization is doomed to self-destruct soon. Those are all important issues and urgent action items, I get it. But it’s a little too pessimistic, isn’t it? Nobody likes to hear bad news all day long. No wonder outsiders tend to see us as a bunch of tree huggers, or people who want to revert back to Stone Age life. It’s a distorted perception, but we cannot deny the fact that that is how some people out there see us.
When the CEO of Biomimicry 3.8, Chris Allen, visited The University of Akron with Janine three years ago. We asked him the question: which group of people, in his opinion, don’t mix with Biomimicry people? “The Singularity* people,” he answered, “because they’re all about technology.” I didn’t really understand what he meant, since I also considered myself as a techie. I always think of Biomimicry as a perfect bridge to bring the technological way and the environmental heart together. I envision that one day, human civilization will become Nox-like. Nox is a member of the Alliance of Four Great Races in the sci-fi TV series: Stargate SG-1. At first the Nok look primitive and helpless, but that’s only because their technology has evolved to work in harmony with its surroundings, therefore merging with the environment and becoming invisible. However, after SXSW Eco, now I clearly understand why Chris would acknowledge the tension between the Biomimicry and Singularity movements back then.
Outside of the Biomimicry track at SXSW Eco, you can say there was another “technology” track: ideas about harvesting asteroids, tissue engineering meat, the Hyperloop, electric and autonomous vehicles, …, etc. This “technology” track was most prominent at the conference. Since I’m a techie, I’m familiar with those ideas (though not completely convinced by them yet) and see them as potential and reasonable options. However, to my surprise, though not totally unexpected, many people in the Biomimicry community were upset (or even a little mad) about the idea of harvesting asteroids. Janine even made a little fun about it in the opening of her speech. Of course, I knew why they were mad. Since Biomimicry is all about learning from, rather than extracting/taking from nature, people in the Biomimicry community tend to shy away from using natural resources (or “bioutilization”). Although I agree completely that we should treat Nature with respect, and see it as our teacher rather than as a property to claim, the line between Biomimicry and bioutilization, to me, is not that clear cut. For me, all resources are natural; there are no unnatural resources. And unless we’re trying to recreate Big Bang, we can’t create something from nothing! We have to USE resources. Other life forms use natural resources as well, but use them respectfully, mindfully, and only taking what’s needed. Human civilization became greedy and misused natural resources since the Industrial Revolution – and that’s the true problem! Hence, Life Principles tell us to be “resource (material and energy) efficient”.
Now, let’s go back to the idea of harvesting asteroids. What’s wrong with it? Is it really that bad? The main reason that people would want to harvest asteroids is that our technologies depend on rare earth metals (e.g., platinum). They are called rare earth metals for a reason… not only they are scarce, but they are also hidden in the earth’s crust, far from our reach. In order to get to them, we need to drill deeply into the crust. Mining, extracting and purifying rare earth metals uses a lot of energy and creates heavy pollution. On the other hand, rare earth metals are abundant on many asteroids, and now we have the technology to get to them. If harvesting rare earth metals from asteroids uses comparable energy to mining them from earth, and the asteroid harvesting doesn’t create pollution on Earth, then wouldn’t utilizing rare earth metals from asteroids be a no-brainer? I think the lesson here is that we must keep reminding ourselves to keep an open mind for different ideas.
Hope vs. Crisis
My last point is what my friend J (an architect and a Biomimicry Specialist) brought up during the Hyperloop session. There is a common thread among Silicon Valley Tech Startups: optimism, hope. In their presentations/pitches, they’re selling their vision, their dream. And that makes people feel good and attracted to it with little effort. Biomimicry can be a hard sell because often times, we act as a warning bell, urging people to change the status quo to avoid crisis. This deters people. Of course, selling dreams has its own pitfalls, but we have rung enough warning bells. Now it’s time to change the strategy to disseminate the idea of Biomimicry even further. It’s a coincidence that J brought up this point. Because recently, I submitted an application with Biomimicry (You’ll hear about it if it gets selected. :p ) that was reviewed by Peter (the director of Biomimicry PhD Fellowships here at UAkron) before submission. One of his comments on my application brought up exactly the same point as J had!
– “Why not turn the perspective around on this one and emphasize your point from a positive perspective. …… If that is a reasonable point of view, then you can make your point as forcibly, maybe more to the people you really need to convince … The people you need to convince are those that are most likely to reject the idea that we need to save our planet….but if you give them a reason to see how it would help us explore beyond, you would have more supporters, instead of just singing to the choir.”
The Biomimicry community is changing, Janine brought up the “aspirational goals” in her SXSW Eco Talk, and this Biomimicry video of Janine is full of hope. If we keep moving this direction, Biomimicry will become viral in no time!!
* The singularity as in the book “The Singularity Is Near” written by Ray Kurzweil.