Scientists warn us that we have breached planetary boundaries and are currently consuming resources as if we have one and a half planets. We are further warned if we continue on the current economic trajectory by 2050 we will need three Earth-size planets to sustain human life. Is there a blue print for an alternative trajectory that we can realign to and avoid arriving where we are currently headed? Yes, a blue print to survive and thrive indefinitely on this planet exists and it is free and not encumbered by patents. Nature has been running a research and development laboratory for 3.8 billion years, testing and refining strategies to create conditions conducive to life. Whilst humans worry about population growth, have you ever heard anyone complain that there are too many trees in the forest?
If you plot how long life has been on earth on a calendar, humans are a very young species that arrived a few minutes before midnight on 31 December. However, in the short time of their existence humans have brought the planet to the brink. Therefore, the question we need to address is how can humans be enlightened to fit in with the rest of nature? Biomimicry (from Greek words bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) is a new discipline that studies nature’s best strategies and then emulates them to solve human challenges in a sustainable manner.
Whenever I suggest that humans should learn from and fit in with the rest of nature rather than try to control nature, my audience typically point out that humans have special needs that the rest of nature does not. Often they remind me about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and ask “if we fit in with nature that will slow progress; how would we feed ourselves? How would we provide shelter, water, health and transport?” You should watch how their jaws drop to the floor when I tell them how nature has already faced the same challenges that humans are only grappling with now and how over eons nature has evolved solutions that are there for humans to abstract and emulate for free.
Please join me on a short journey of discovery where we will look through Biomimicry lens and reflect on;
1. How human cleverness has tried to meet our basic needs, often in unsustainable ways
2. How nature has solved similar challenges
3. How pioneering humans are using biomimicry to develop innovative solutions
HOW WILL WE FEED OURSELVES?
Food production using human cleverness
About 10 thousand years ago the agricultural revolution ushered in a practice of destroying and clearing forests and grasslands to make way for large scale mechanised monoculture crop production. Over time the soil lost its fertility, necessitating use of human manufactured fertilisers. The crops became susceptible to diseases. Again humans responded by manufacturing pesticides. Whilst, short term gains were achieved these human practices have manifested in pollution of water sources and other unintended outcomes.
How nature provides food
Trees and plants in the forest grow without manufactured fertilisers and pesticides. How does nature achieve this? Diversity of plants is the secret as infections are often limited to a particular species rather than the entire forest as can be the case with human planted monoculture forests. Plants of the same and different species exchange nutrients underground in a process mediated by fungi and other organisms that aerate and breakdown decomposing organic material such as leaves and wood that replenish soil fertility. Furthermore, the location of some plants in close proximity deters insects and other organisms from attacking the plants, thus eliminating the need for pesticides.
Bio-inspired food production
The Land Institute in Kansas State in the USA has done research in nature inspired agriculture. It has replaced mono-culture cropping by poly-culture and annual crops by perennial ones. Admittedly, perennials are generally not as productive as annuals, but require less inputs and provide ecological benefits;
• Require less fuel, fertilizer and pesticides
• Reduce erosion risks
• Sequester more carbon
Whilst proponents of monoculture point out the harvesting challenges in poly-culture, solutions are emerging, such as production of bean hybrids that do not pop or drop when ripe. These are subsequently harvested with a combine harvester after which the seed cleaner separates or a centrifugal drum is used to separate the material according to density. In terms of climate change, the perennials are likely to be more resilient than annuals in variable conditions.
The Maya people plant fruit trees in the forest without first clearing anything. Over time the fruits trees grow into what is commonly referred to as and “Edible forest”.
The Songhai Centre in Porto Novo in Benin is a good example of agriculture practices that emulate nature in terms of a circular economy. For example, waste from toilets is discharged into a pond, under floating Hyacinth plant that is often a nuisance on water reservoirs like lakes and dam. The Hyacinth extracts chemicals that eliminate the smell. The remaining nutrients become food for fish grown in the pond. Droppings from chickens farmed on site are collected and passed through an anaerobic digester. The gas is passed to a cleaning process before being transferred to the kitchen as cooking gas. The other gas is transferred to run electrical generators. The bi product is sold as liquid manure. Palm trees grown in between the chicken run rows help eliminate the smell of chicken droppings. The centre also collects waste meat from airlines and abattoirs, which is kept in a mesh-fenced (to prevent entry of birds and animals) shade. Flies lay eggs in the rotting meat. The maggots are harvested and used as protein rich feed for chickens and fish. The centre also keeps bees that are used to pollinate the vegetable garden. Various plants are planted in combinations that repel insects and other organisms that attack the vegetables. This eliminates the need to pesticides.
HOW WILL WE PROVIDE SHELTER?
Provision of shelter using human cleverness
Most of the buildings in existence today were constructed using concrete and materials carted from elsewhere; with no plan on how they would be deconstructed when they are no longer usable or no longer needed. The main ingredient for concrete is cement. The process of manufacturing cement produces CO2 that contributes to about 6% of the Global emission.
Quite often, the demolition of high-rise buildings involves imploding them with dynamite, making it difficult to separate the constituent materials for reuse.
How nature provides shelter
Nature is resource efficient as it constructs using biodegradable and recyclable materials typically sourced in close proximity to where they are needed. This often eliminates the need for transport and associated pollution. Humans tend to build using a myriad of non-biodegradable and non-recyclable materials.
Bio-inspired provision of shelter
Calera, a USA based company has developed a bio-inspired process that uses CO2 as a raw material, rather than produce it as a waste by-product. The company is reported to use up to 90 % of the carbon dioxide emitted by a power plant as a raw material for the production of cement. The transportation of cement, a high-density product, results in additional consumption of non-renewable fossil fuels. Nature manufactures calcium carbonate and makes shells in water at ambient temperature.
Mitigation of climate change calls for innovation to achieve radical reduction in fossil-based energy demand. In the USA energy consumption associated with buildings is of the order of 40% of total energy consumption. Meanwhile nature has long figured out a way to use freely available energy. The Eastgate Centre  (in Harare, Zimbabwe) design emulates the ventilation system found in termite mounds such as those built by the Microtermes species. Conditions in a terminary, such as that of the fungus growing termites, have to be maintained at about 30 ⁰C for the survival and thriving of termites and the cultivation of fungi which they eat. They achieve this while external day/night temperatures vary as much as 30 ⁰C by using a ventilation system and the stabilising capacity of the thermal mass of earth. Their heat source is themselves and their fungal gardens. They have figured the perfect air-conditioning systems without use of fossil fuels. A cost comparison study showed that Eastgate Centre used 35% less total energy than the average consumption of six other buildings with full heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) in Harare. Eastgate Centre’s energy consumption per unit area is up to 83% lower than that of other typical buildings with full HVAC in Harare.
HOW WILL WE PROVIDE WATER?
Water provision and human cleverness
In my home City of Pretoria engineers have designed and constructed an efficient stormwater drainage system that channels water out of the urban centre as soon as it rains. About 4.5m3 of rain falls in the city. Ironically, the city and the country subsequently import water from across the border in Lesotho. Hopefully one day the silo approach to development will be replaced by integrated development whereby stormwater can be slowed down and be also used for other purposes such as agriculture and micro hydro-power generation.
Conflict over water resources is touted as the potential trigger of a future world war. Human practices including pollution of water sources and environmental degradation caused by deforestation are accelerating our downward spiral towards a water crisis. For example, the amazon forests are being commercially depleted in spite of them providing about 20% of the oxygen we breathe.
How nature provides water
Although the bulk of the earth’s surface is covered by water, drinkable water comprises only about 3%. 1% of the total available water is locked up in glaciers, 1% is underground water, leaving only 1% available for consumption by living organisms. Water is in a state of dynamic equilibrium as it continuously moves along the hydrological cycle.
Bio-inspired Water production
Whereas in the past it was common to cut coastal trees and level sand dunes in order to provide a sea view for built-up areas such as hotels, the new approach is to rehabilitate and use ecological infrastructure such as sand dunes and mangroves to mitigate the impact of storm surges and tsunamis.
The Namib Desert beetle utilises its surface texture and structure to convert air to water. It climbs sand dunes on cold mornings. It stands with its back to the breeze and head lowered. The bumps and depressions on its back attract and repel water molecules that role down its back as droplets that are collected by the mouth. Scientists are mimicking this process to create synthetic surfaces that capture water from the atmosphere. This should help people to harvest water in areas of water scarcity.
HOW WILL WE PROVIDE HEALTH?
Health provision using human cleverness
A large contribution to our wellbeing can be attributed to the food we eat. The agricultural and industrial revolutions empowered humans to process, package and preserve food for transportation to other places and storage for later consumption. The unintended outcome of processed food is its negative impact on our health. Even our medical remedies largely comprise intake of concoctions that have side effects.
How nature improves Health
Plants and trees communicate to share information and to share nutrients. For example, if a herbivore starts eating leaves a tree may release volatile chemicals that warn other plants of the same or different species to put up their defences. Defences may include release of toxins that make the plants taste horrible or be harder to digest. Under the ground roots communicate and share nutrients through the Wood Wide Web, which is mediated by soil fungi, which has a symbiotic relationship with soil organisms. The nutrient exchange helps maintain the health of plants with inadequate access to nutrients where they are located.
Bio-inspired health provision
In developing countries power cuts are common. Consequently, as much as 50% of antibiotics that need refrigeration have to be thrown away. A tiny organism that you have probably drank in water, the Water Bear (Tardigrade, Figure 3) can desiccate (dry out) and live in suspended animation for some 120 years and if rehydrated it can wake up and carry on with its life including reproduction. They achieve this through use of specific sugars. Inspired by the tardigrade’s ability to dry out and function again upon re-hydration sugar stabilised anti-biotics that do not require refrigeration are now being developed. This serves energy and allows transportation of vaccines to remote places.
HOW WILL WE PROVIDE TRANSPORT?
Transport using human cleverness
The transition from horse drawn carts to self-propelled cars was a technological milestone. A car typically consists of over 2000 components, most of which are not recyclable. Cars which are parked all day are not productive. Humans have invested in expensive infrastructure to transport people and goods. Pollution and traffic jam caused by cars become a major concern in high-population cities.
How nature provides Transport
Nature does not need roads to move on. Most materials are utilised close to where they are sourced. Sometimes movement is unnecessary as shown by most trees. Where movement occurs it often uses low energy processes like seed dispersal by water, wind, gravity, attaching to passing animals and pollinators, getting eaten by birds or animals and pooped elsewhere.
Bio-inspired Transport Solutions
Have you ever wondered why millions of insects like can swarm and move without collision. Scientists are emulating the anti-collision “rules” of swarms to design collision avoidance mechanisms for use in cars.
As we accelerate sustainable innovation and seek ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change we can look to Biomimicry and use nature’s biodiversity as a mentor; the focus of biomimicry is not what we can extract from nature but what we can learn from it. We can also use nature as a model; biomimicry uses the forms, processes, systems, and strategies employed by the natural world as inspiration for sustainable solutions. We can also use nature as a measure; looking at the standards set by nature, biomimicry aims to measure the sustainability of human solutions using ecology as a benchmark.
This article was originally published in the solutions magazine: