I’ve always been more interested in organisms that can move on their own than in stationary plants. But when I canoe or hike along the edge of lakes or oceans and see trees that seem to be growing out of rock faces, I am blown away. How do they do it?
Think about a seed. Once it lands, it’s stuck. It can’t move to find better soil, moisture or sunlight. It’s able to create every part of itself to grow and reproduce with the help of air, water and sun. After it sprouts and sends out roots and leaves, other species want to eat it. It can’t run, hide or fight back. It’s a wonder trees are able to survive at all, yet they can flourish and live for hundreds of years. They’re evolutionary wonders that have developed a bag of chemical tricks to ward off predators, infections, storms and fires, and ways to communicate and even share scarce resources. In Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, I saw a tree that is reputed to “walk”!
We have much to learn by studying nature and taking the time to tease out its secrets. Biomimicry, a word coined by biologist and writer Janine Benyus, means to copy nature. It’s a science that asks “What does nature do?” instead of “What’s it for?” — the question usually posed by human endeavour.
Since life originated some 3.9-billion years ago, organisms have been confronted with strikingly similar challenges: where to find nourishment, how to keep from being eaten, what to do when infected by a parasite or disease, what to do with bodily wastes, and how to reproduce and ensure offspring survive. Over billions of years and in billions of species, the solutions to these problems have been myriad, often subtle — even surprising — but always highly informative.
Almost all species that have existed are estimated to have gone extinct within an average of a few million years. Humans are an infant species, a mere 150,000 years old. But, armed with a massive brain, we’ve not only survived, we’ve used our wits to adapt to and flourish in habitats as varied as deserts, Arctic tundra, tropical rainforests, wetlands and high mountain ranges. We’ve accelerated the rate of cultural evolution far beyond the speed of biological or genetic change.
Technological creativity has been critical to our success. From the time we first picked up a stick or rock to get at something or defend ourselves, we’ve devised tools like bows and arrows, knives and axes, and needles and pottery. Those often took decades, centuries or millennia to hone and improve. Now, new technology comes along weekly. These powerful innovations affect our lives, and the way we live and think of ourselves.
When I did my first television series in 1962, the medium was denigrated as the “boob tube”. We said it jokingly, but it reflected an anxiety about the negative aspects of this new instrument. Over and over, we have become enamoured with the immediate benefits of technological innovation without recognizing deleterious consequences.
When DDT and other pesticides were introduced, we knew nothing of biomagnification, that molecules could be concentrated hundreds of thousands of times up the food web. And no one had a clue that the sun’s ultraviolet radiation would cleave chlorine free radicals from CFC molecules and ravage the ozone layer. Think of all the psychological and social effects, to say nothing of ecological impacts, we now see from the ubiquity of computers, cellphones and video games.
We need to look at the way we create and introduce technology. Perhaps it’s time to ask, “Why do we need this?” “Does it improve our lives in a significant way?” And then we may ask, “What are the wider repercussions of this invention throughout nature and over time?” If we asked, with greater humility, “How does nature solve problems?” we might find solutions that would avert or minimize negative consequences.
I’ve always been struck by the fact that when an animal poops, insects and fungi immediately jump on and start feasting. Nature doesn’t waste. If all the “waste” we create could become another organism’s food or the material for another useful process, we might even eliminate the word waste altogether.