I don’t know you, but I want to thank you for showing up. I admire your passion for tackling a problem few in the general public are thinking about – access to clean, affordable drinking water and sanitation. The organization is doing incredible and important work and I hope to see your efforts with Water.org and Stella Artois succeed. However, I was struck by the disconnect between a quote from you at the World Economic Forum in Davos which read, “Access to clean water and sanitation is just not something we think about, we solved this problem in the West 100 years ago…”, and the reality faced by many regions in this country – looming water shortages. You see, the problem is far from solved in the West. Indeed, while we have figured out the engineering behind drinking water and sanitation, we’ve done it at a high cost – for decades we’ve been borrowing from the future. And the “future” consequences? That future is now.
Our approach to water in this country has generally been one of unfettered use of water combined with infrastructure that sheds water extremely efficiently from our buildings and roads into nearby streams and rivers never to be seen again. But these human systems don’t take into account how and why the water got there in the first place, and don’t recognize why we are slowing running ourselves dry.
Water is life. Plants hold on to water. In drier places, if there is excess the plants store it away in aquifers below ground to access in times of drought (it’s called hydraulic redistribution). Come to a prairie in the summer during a rainstorm and you’ll find no runoff. In wetter places, the plants capture it, breathe it out as water vapor and release organic aerosols which induce the water to fall back down again. Step into a rainforest and you can’t help but feel the water surround you like a blanket and squish underneath you. These water cycles affect weather patterns that define ecosystems, and the ecosystems themselves influence those patterns.
Everywhere we live in the western world, our developments disrupt and displace these water cycles by taking away the species and systems that perform the functions of recharging groundwater and replacing them with agriculture or infrastructure that does not. The result is increasing costs and decreasing supplies. In my home region of Chicago, water shortages loom for huge populations living off increasingly concentrated aquifers. In our specialized world, no one seems to make the connection between our disruption of natural water cycles and our water shortages. Were we to try to build back in the functions embodied in native ecosystems present before development, starting with the principle of treating water as the precious resource it is and thus holding onto as much of it as we can, we would go a long way towards addressing our current water crises, especially in light of increasing uncertainty in weather patterns caused by climate change.
So if ending the “global water crisis” is really your goal, I implore you to think holistically about water as you work with Water.org and Stella Artois to bring drinking water and sanitation to millions of people around the world. Adopt a fundamentally different approach to your work than that embodied in western infrastructure – use one that learns from and encourages other to emulate the incredibly resilient and sustainable strategies embodied in ecological systems. Take this opportunity to partner with communities to create truly long-term water management solutions that ensure the availability of drinking water for generations to come. Otherwise, you will replicate the mistake of borrowing from an increasingly uncertain future. It’s a mistake these populations can’t afford.
Even if I can’t get outside, feasting my eyes on beautiful photos of the wild will brighten my mood, lower my blood pressure and give me a fresh start. When I do get outside, I love taking the time to actually look at what I used to pass by. Learning more and more about biology has planted a seed of awe for life deep inside me – the minutia of the natural world never ceases to amaze me and I love to capture its beauty. I’ve found that I’m not alone in this obsession. Get me together with kindred biomimic spirits and we’ll happily take a four-hour, one-mile hike (it’s hard to go far when you stop every few feet to explore)! How do you like to explore the natural world?
I hope you enjoy the photos I’ve been posting on my photography page with links to free downloads from flickr.com (more to come this month!). I encourage you to also check out free amazing photos from other biomimics on unwhirl.com. We biomimics love us some nature, and love to share our enthusiasm even more. Enjoy!
Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard there are serious challenges to the status quo in United States politics and the social fabric of our country. In the abstract, this is, of course, a disruption to a system (a topic I’m always interested in!). The clear million-dollar question at the moment is whether not only our system of democracy, but also our cultural norms of decency, can withstand the assault. The U.S. is an incredible experiment in human diversity coming together under one roof, and while some people fear diversity will tear us apart, lessons from biology tell us that diversity is critical for system resilience. Can our diversity actually save us?
My high-level foray into understanding how diversity plays a role in system resilience leaves me unsure but hopeful that the foundation of diversity to increase resilience is there. Can we harness it?
Our Age of (Increasing) Diversity
The context of the slew of offensive rhetoric directed at an incredible swath of the American public that has surrounded the ascension of Trump to the presidency of the United States, and Trump’s fascist and authoritarian style, have drawn comparisons of Trump to Hitler. There are dire warnings about the threat to our democracy should no one hold Trump accountable under the law, and should the Republicans, holding majorities in both the House and Senate, be complicit in letting Trump run roughshod over the rights of U.S. citizens. These warnings often come with a reminder of the slippery slope towards a state of affairs similar to that of Nazi Germany.
This comparison raises questions for me about the realities of today versus the realities of Germany in the 1930s. There are obviously many, many factors that shape a system, but the one I keep thinking about is the diversity of our population. In the 1930s, Jews made up less than one percent of Germany’s population – this translates to just over 500,000 people in a population of about 67,000,000. As far as I can find through online research, the populations of other targeted groups were also small in comparison to the total population. Thus the racial and ethnic diversity of populations in Germany was relatively low compared to that of the United States in 2017 – at least 36 percent of our population identifies itself as not white (including Hispanics or Latinos). That is over 115,000,000 people! And that block of people is made up of citizens from an incredible variety of backgrounds and religions and languages. (It’s also fascinating to look at the diversity of voters that make up political parties in the U.S. In 2016, whites made up only 57 percent of the Democratic party, compared to 86 percent of the Republican party.)
Diversity in our population isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact by the 2040s, it’s estimated that “minority populations” combined will make up a larger percentage of the U.S. population than whites. Fear about this change from some portions of our populace seems to engender fierce resistance in some people (check out this 2013 graph “Composite index of openness to diversity” here – it’s like reading the tea leaves for Trump’s election).
So if the diversity of our country is decidedly different than the last time someone like Trump came to power, my question then is, how will the striking diversity of our population shape our system’s response to this disruption? Does it make our democracy more resilient? Is it sufficiently diverse to create a buffer? What can we learn from the lessons of diversity in nature (non-human systems)? I thought I’d look up how biodiversity increases the resilience of ecosystems, and if there might be lessons learned that can help us understand how our diversity might help us through this current disruption. Here are my initial thoughts, which give me both hope and a reality check – a diverse population is only half the story.
How does diversity translate to resilience?
Being “resilient” is another way of saying that you have systems in place that allow you to recover after a disruption (whether that disruption is sudden or chronic) to a state similar, if not better, to that you were experiencing before the change. Diversity is an important component to resilience. High diversity in natural systems, whether with respect to species, ecosystems, genetics or functions, provides a kind of insurance against disruption.
The Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) identifies two critical elements that diversity brings to a system. Functional redundancy is “the presence of multiple components that can perform the same function” – if one component of the system fails, another that performs the same function will fill the void. They liken it to the common phrase, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
The second element is response diversity. Response diversity is the range of reactions to a disturbance among species that provide the same function within a system but at different scales or sizes. In other words, a disturbance might pose a risk to one group of species performing a function while not affecting another – their responses to the disturbance are different. SRC uses the example of seed dispersal – small mammals such as mice might be impacted by small local disturbances, while chimpanzees may be unaffected and continue to perform the function of seed dispersal. If both chimps and mice (and all other mammals in between) were equally negatively affected by a disturbance, seed dispersal would no longer take place and the ecosystem would start to degrade if sustained over time.
Another factor I came across is functional diversity. Essentially, this refers to the the diversity of functions between species within a system. Say you have 20 species on a savanna. If they are all grazers of grass the ecosystem would look very different than if there were 10 grazers that eat grass, 5 grazers that eat tree leaves and 5 predators, with additional variations between those groups that affect different parts of the ecosystem.
In biomimicry, diversity is addressed in Life’s Principles as:
Incorporate diversity – include multiple forms, processes or systems to meet a functional need. (functional redundancy)
Embody resilience through variation, redundancy and decentralization – maintain function following disturbance by incorporating a variety of duplicate forms, processes or systems that are not located exclusively together. (response and functional diversity)
What this all boils down to is that diversity has the greatest impact on system resilience when:
You have different components (i.e., species…or ethnicities, races, religions, sexes, political parties, you name it) each fulfilling different functions (i.e., seed dispersal, fertilization, decomposition, and carbon sequestration…or get out the vote, calling representatives, protesting, running for office, etc.) in the system.
For each function, you have a high number of different kinds of components (i.e., many different species…or many political groups, many get out the vote campaigns, etc.) that can perform the same function.
Each of these components that perform the same function do so in a different way and maybe in a different place in the system, so that in the event of a disturbance, some may be affected and go away, but others not affected will still perform the same function, allowing the system to continue generally how it was (which is resilience).
Are we diverse enough? A focus on function
Based on the information I provided above about demographics, it appears that we have great diversity in our population – a large number of different “components” in the system. But what I’ve learned from natural models is that it’s not just the number of components, it’s also what they are doing (their function) that matters. For example, if we have great diversity of people but they all serve the function of “non-registered (or purged!) voter”, then that diversity contributes little to the resilience of our political system.
So how can we leverage our incredible diversity – of all kinds including race, ethnicity, religion, political ideas, class, etc. – to shore up our democracy? If we are to learn and benefit from the lessons of nature (non-human) systems, it might be that the focus of those who want to defeat this potential threat to our democracy need to at a minimum:
Determine what functions are critical to the survival of the U.S. democracy at all scales while making sure that the functions identified are diverse (they don’t just address limited parts of the system): i.e., come into alignment on what makes for a strong well-rounded democracy. Important to note here that “function” is not synonymous with pushing a political ideology – rather just the “verbs” of democracy – what people need to actually do to make it work – such as vote, communicate, educate, etc.
For each function identify multiple existing, and develop new where necessary, components that perform each function to create redundancy at all levels of the system (be sure to identify areas without redundancy and address them by adding components that also perform the same function!). (Planned Parenthood comes to mind here – while not political, it is politicized and the fact that there are few if any organizations that can fill the void for the function of providing affordable, accessible medical care to women that would exist should Planned Parenthood not receive federal reimbursements for services rendered means that this aspect of the healthcare industry is not resilient.)
For each function, make sure that all the components performing that function are not all subject to the same risks (so they don’t all fail at the same time, undermining the system).
Applications of these lessons can be applied to all levels of our political system, no matter how big or small. All you political experts out there, how does our system of democracy and our political parties stack up with respect to these system design principles? Are these questions already being asked and addressed? Will we be resilient in the face of this challenge to our democracy? What are our strengths and weaknesses? Can we harness our diversity to write a new ending to this story? Biologists, what more do we need to know about diversity and system resilience? Let’s see where we can go from here.
A sliver of moonlight dimly lit up the sides of a cargo train that slipped through the dark night along the highway in the sleepy middle of Illinois on New Year’s. The movement grabbed my eye and in a flash, the juxtaposition of my family in the comfortable bubble of our car with the often hidden mechanisms that make it all possible reminded me of the complexity of our modern lives.
Even while we sleep in the United States, the world is moving to bring us our every desire. Humanity’s vast global interconnected non-stop network is truly a marvel of modern engineering and ingenuity, political dances and pure grit. The pace of change only seems to accelerate, and the limits of the future appear to be constrained only by the limits of our imagination.
In Chicago we have bananas, strawberries, kiwi, and tomatoes in our grocery stores in January. We don’t worry about the lights going out or not having water flow from our taps. We don’t think twice about what it took to get the millions upon millions of products on shelves in stores across our city. Nor do we consider how those same products are replaced by newer models every season (and where the old ones will go). We put our trash to the curb and it disappears.
For years I have been visiting random commercial and industrial properties to do assessments as an environmental consultant. Before I started, I never thought twice about what it takes to put a label on a bottle of Gatorade, create a veneer of wood for cabinets, put a chrome finish on a bathroom faucet, smelt ore into metal rods, manage a train yard, put fresh fruit on shelves in the middle of winter, manage product inventories on vast scales, manage a landfill over the course of its long life, or turn a grassy field into a giant warehouse. But having seen all that and more, I have a deep appreciation for the complexity of systems that support our every day and I know that I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. Most people never see any of it.
It’s my belief that if more of us are able to begin to scratch the surface of our daily lives to understand even superficially the life cycle of our disposable coffee cups or our shoes or the journey of a banana in January, we will begin to realize that while our modern marvel is amazing, it’s not magic. With globalization and technology, the often dirty and messy and hot and smelly and toxic occur at points in the supply chain that are increasingly further from our view. But the consequences are coming back to nip at all our heels in the form of climate change in ways we are only beginning to understand. And as we begin to accept not only the benefits but also the magnitude of both the known and unknown ramifications of those systems, we will begin to shed light on the fact that not only are we all driving blind in the dark, but we’re hurtling at 100 miles per hour down on a poorly maintained road.
If we limit our imagination to only picture a future filled with technology that anticipates and satisfies our every whim, one in which we are the center of a world that caters and bends to fulfill our wants, we are missing the larger picture. This same world will no longer fulfill our needs as a living species dependent upon the non-human systems that support us. We will imagine ourselves out of existence. If we allow our imaginations to integrate our needs with our wants, the future is what we make of it. Of course this requires an acceptance and clear understanding that our existence is intricately tied to the survival of all life forms and the finely tuned systems that life relies upon and creates.
It’s no accident that a prairie soaks up and holds onto water like a sponge. It’s how it defends against summer drought. It’s no accident that rainforests have rain, and lots of it, year-round. They create their own weather patterns. This too, while magical, is not magic. In biomimicry, we look from the small form to system-wide examples to understand how life works – not just to find fancy new technology, but to understand how life creates technology and systems that allow life to grow, regenerate and thrive so that we too can do the same.
So in this time of year when we imagine how we’d like to move forward into the future, it’s important to understand and appreciate what we have and where we are starting from. And while we appreciate the systems that have gotten us to where we are today, it’s clear that our vision for the future must include a deep reconsideration for how we can continue to do what we do but do it better. Do it smarter. Do it in a way that not only minimizes the consequences but also generates compounding benefits. Do it in a way that begins with and works backward from the most fundamental goal of all life – to create conditions conducive to life, to take care of the place that takes care of us and will take care of our children. It’s time to ask new questions and answer them with completely new solutions. We can get started by looking to the wisdom inherent in the world around us.