An ecologist’s critique of two concepts of biomimicry

Vincent Blok and Bart Gremmen published an article in the January 2016 Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics titled “Ecological Innovation: Biomimicry as a New Way of Thinking and Acting Ecologically”.  In the article, Blok and Gremmen distinguish and reflect on two concepts of biomimicry. The authors identify a strong, but simplistic, concept of biomimicry that eschews the industrial revolution’s characteristics of domination and exploitation of nature in favor of learning and exploration. Janine Benyus’s philosophy of a second biomimetic industrial revolution and McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle design are examples of this strong concept of biomimicry.  The authors sum up the strong concept as nature is seen as an engineer that has 3.8 billion years of research and development experience and biomimicry is imitation of nature’s models to solve human problems. The weaker and more sophisticated model was developed by Joanna Aizenberg and does not consist of duplication of natural systems, but as inspiration from nature to abstract function, structure, and processes for creative solutions.

The authors critique the strong concept of biomimicry driven by Benyus’ philosophy by identifying three problematic presuppositions.  Their first point is that the strong concept has a strict distinction between copying natural principles and invention.  The authors take an Aristotelian perspective and claim that mimesis includes perfecting what nature is not capable of producing itself.   The authors also critique that natural systems are not fully accessible and understood and limit our capability to copy nature’s models to solve technological problems.  The last presupposition is that nature is complex and temperamental and humans translate and interpret natural phenomena as the standard for ecological health to explore application to technological problems.  Since the resulting technology has been filtered through human understanding, the authors question if the resulting technology is truly ethically right.  The authors feel that the weaker concept of biomimicry is less problematic but does not distinguish between exploitive and dominating technology verses explorative and ecologically ethical technology.

The authors point out that we cannot exactly copy nature and humans are limited by our understanding, materials and manufacturing process.  Technology cannot copy exactly nature’s models, but we can strive to be as ecologically right as possible, further our ecological understanding, and mimic nature’s principles when producing technology.  Nature constructs from the building blocks that are the essence of life.  Humans create with the building blocks nature gives us.  Benyus’ advocates for core life’s principles of adapt to changing conditions and evolve to survive.  I agree that human abstraction of natural phenomenon is limited by our understanding of the system, however human understanding is always evolving and our technology should evolve concurrently.  The Earth’s environment is not static as evidenced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2015 Global Analysis report stating that “For the 15th consecutive month, the global land and ocean temperature departure from average was the highest since global temperature records began in 1880. This marks the longest such streak in NOAA’s 137 years of record keeping”. Just as organisms adapt to changing environmental conditions, human technology must adapt and evolve as well.  I feel that the author’s simplistic view on the production of technology produced under the strong biomimicry concept does not acknowledge that human invention and understanding evolves and is reflected in the production of technology.  In other words, we aren’t there yet!

Will we ever have a full understanding of nature’s principles?  I don’t think humans ever will but I do not agree that the strong concept of biomimicry is as problematic as the authors state.  The authors argue that 3.8 billion years of zero tolerance R&D creates a lot of waste in the idea that fossils are failures and the fittest to survive is not automatically the most ecologically good.  The authors also do not acknowledge that the environment can change drastically.  Catastrophic events are difficult to prepare for and humans will face their own catastrophic event someday.  The earth will carry on and humans will become evidence in fossil records.  Life forms will carry on and the most fit will likely look different from beings we know now.  Hopefully another sentient being will be successful on the planet; I’m rooting for dolphins! We are buying time with nature by striving to be ecologically good and hopefully, the catastrophe will not be brought on by us.

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