Brzzzzt! You know that sound effect of taking the needle off the record player? I’m pretty sure if you were in the room you would have heard that sound actually come out of my ears the other day. I’ve written about the biomimicry-inspired flame retardant MHE® before, but there was something that hadn’t fully registered in my brain before a couple weeks ago – MHE® is designed such that during a fire, the ONLY gases to escape from BOTH the host material and the flame retardant are water vapor and carbon dioxide. What?? Mind blown.
If you know anything about flame retardants, you might know that the gases released during a fire from the flame retardants (let alone the host materials) can be more toxic than the flame retardant themselves (which is saying something). When breaking down under the heat of a fire, conventional flame retardants, such as organohalogen and organophosophorus flame retardants, can release gases like dioxins which are incredibly toxic, threatening the health of the inhabitants as well as firefighters. So to have a flame retardant that not only itself is non-toxic (made from chemicals derived from food no less!), but also reacts with the host material’s gases so that the only gases emitted during combustion are water and carbon dioxide is nothing less than incredible. Talk about life-friendly chemistry!
With the terrible fires in northern California the last couple weeks – in wine country where the waste product from the winemaking process provides a perfect raw material for the manufacture of MHE® (I’m loving the circular economy potential here), and with flame retardants that may cause environmental health risks when dropped on forest all across the western United States, I can’t help but think the time is right to bring this technology to the U.S.
Trulstech is looking to bring MHE® to the United States market – they need a buyer for their patents in North America and the products are shelf-ready. Know of any interested parties?? I’d like to see MHE® completely disrupt the flame retardant industry for the sake of my health, your health, our children’s health, and the health of all life on this planet, wouldn’t you? Can you help? If so, email me at the link on the bottom of this page!
My Biomimicry Chicago partner, Amy, and I were fortunate to have a fantastic group of participants attend our workshop last Friday. They were incredibly diverse and all committed to sustainability with an interest in how biomimicry fits into the current conversation. My brain is still swirling from creating and organizing the workshop content and the feedback we received throughout the day.
Below is somewhat of a brain dump of my thoughts. While this is specific to me and our workshop, I think it’s important to realize that even those of us who are steeped in biomimicry and trying to get our ideas out there still have lots of unanswered questions, ideas to test out and many challenges that we face as biomimicry takes shape and evolves.
At our workshop we had architects, engineers, scientists, landscape architects, sustainability experts, county agency representatives, community organizers and university researchers, many of whom have multi-disciplinary backgrounds themselves. Of course each participant brought a wealth of experience to the table about the challenges and opportunities in their respective industries, and a mindset of trying to understand how they can take our ideas back to what they do. At an individual level, this process is valuable. Get them all talking together about an idea and the interplay between everyone creates a space in which ideas have the potential take shape – this is invaluable.
Because biomimicry is an iterative process that requires translating ideas between vastly different disciplines to make sure both the design and implementation have a chance at success, having such diversity at the “design” table for our kickoff event means that from the start our initiative includes a brain trust thinking about how to make it successful at multiple scales and points in the design and implementation process. This is something Amy and I could never do on our own.
Science for Designers, but what about Design for Scientists?
A former researcher at Argonne attended our workshop. Her observation was that the workshop content was geared towards designers – educating non-scientists about the science that can inform their design. Her question was, how can we engage more scientists in biomimicry? They know the science, but they don’t know design at all. Her suggestion was to perhaps conduct workshops to teach scientists design.
Her comment has me thinking, what are the opportunities for scientists in biomimicry? Other than needing scientists’ expertise as it applies to understanding the biology relevant to a design challenge (the “Biologist at the Design Table” role), what would the desired outcomes be of flipping the discussion from science for designers to design for scientists? A clear advantage if you can find the right scientists would be more “Biologists at the Design Table” who understand why and how to translate biology to design. But what else? Research that can be written to more easily be accessed for the purposes of biomimicry and design? (e.g., explicitly identifying functions, using functions as metatags, etc.?) I’m not sure, but I’m sure scientists could tell me. 😉
What do people really need to know?
With biomimicry being new and exciting but also therefore unknown to most people, Amy and I constantly play with how to move an initiative forward while at the same time educating people on biomimicry as we go – without spending our time constantly doing Biomimicry 101 events.
Our workshop centered around a concept Amy and I are developing, meaning we were not simply holding a “biomimicry workshop”, but trying to get them to understand how we want to use biomimicry concepts, methods and tools to help work towards our goals. This presents a bit of a quandary – in a one-day workshop, how do you address participants’ likely gap in biomimicry knowledge? What do they really need to know to get started and engaged?
We had a group with a wide range of exposure to and knowledge about biomimicry at our workshop. It is a challenge to create content that both provides enough basic biomimicry information that those with zero background can participate in and add value to the day’s activities without having to spend a huge block of time doing Biomimicry 101. We also needed to address people’s lack of knowledge about the science we are using to shape our ideas. At the same time, we wanted to provide enough new content that the group would actually get somewhere with developing ideas around the challenge presented in the workshop.
In setting up the flow of events for the day, Amy and I went back and forth several times about what we would be able to achieve and what core ideas we could realistically get across to enable participants to explore our ideas. To some degree, we threw caution to the wind and decided to put some onus on the participants to educate themselves somewhat on biomimicry before the workshop. There is quite a bit of information out there on the web which can serve as a Biomimicry 101. (But of course, people have to read/watch it prior to the workshop – sometimes (often?) that’s not going to happen!) Instead we spent time at the workshop on educating people about the science that informs our idea by talking about it through the biomimicry function lens.
In the end, I think we struck a balance at our workshop. Certainly some people were left behind at times, but fortunately those with more knowledge were able to bring them up to speed enough to allow them to participate in the activities (again, thank you diversity!). We also got feedback from someone who had attended several biomimicry workshops before that she thought after this workshop the biomimicry concepts were finally starting to sink in and make sense for her.
My current thought is that we find ways to educate people on the biomimicry process as we go – we have people participate and contribute to the effort while also learning the skills for doing biomimicry – a win-win. As I said in my previous post, that might be a messy way to go, but in the end we could have an engaged and educated group who can go off and do great things in whatever they do. So maybe educating the masses first is not required – an “educate-as-we-go” model might work. The challenge will be to make sure we do things in the right order – build skills and knowledge that enable participants to be successful in our next steps. Wish us luck!
Amy likes to tell stories about how things work (i,e., strategies and mechanisms) to try to get biomimicry concepts across to designers who don’t have a science background. As I thought about how the workshop went after the fact, I think she’s right about stories, and I’d add to it that we need to spend time on crafting the right stories for each audience and project to further our cause. The value of a good story that gets across an idea well enough to get people really excited is key to getting people to take the leap with us.
In the day and age of constant access to information that details change at a fast pace, we are watching the “story of biomimicry” unfold. Biomimicry is promising, and the incredible products resulting from biomimicry innovation processes are impressive and inspiring to learn about. People get excited. News articles get written. But the reality is, as is the case with many new products, these promising products often don’t have widespread commercial success and the reasons are widely varied. Implementation seems to be where the story of biomimicry gets murky and needs to be addressed if we want better stories to share.
I’m thinking it’s critical to figure out just what stories are important to tell and how to tell them. We can tell all the stories we want, but if we aren’t talking about the parts that ignite people’s imaginations, if we aren’t telling it in a way that enables people to see the world we want to create, if we get the “why” wrong, we will leave a lot of potential on the table.
I think we need to tell the story not just about how innovations came to be through the biomimicry process and how they differ from other products in their category, but also about how those innovations change our world and what that looks like. Not just the percentage performance improvement, but the amount of energy saved and what that means for each of us, or what would happen if the whole industry switched. Not just that toxic chemicals aren’t being used, but the resulting improvements in a person’s health and well-being, and the cumulative impact if the entire system worked that way. Not just creating new community networks, but improving local resilience in the face of global uncertainty. We can’t assume that others have the background and expertise to know how to put the dots together and see the potential of biomimicry. We need to set up the framework of stories to enable people to get from where we are now to where we want to be. This vision can be a rallying point for people to come together to figure out how to make it happen.
You ready to sharpen your storytelling skills? Let’s change our story.
I want more people to think and do biomimicry – okay, I want a lot of people to think and do biomimicry in whatever it is they do whenever and wherever they are doing it. I want them to have a basic understanding of what biomimicry is, how it’s done and how it might apply to what they do. Then I want people to do a deep dive like this bee pictured above – to discover for themselves the potential for biomimicry to transform what they do. So I often ask myself, how does someone like myself go about doing that? Is what I’m about to do at any given time going to help me achieve that goal? And if not, how can I change my approach so that it does?
Let’s be real – there are a lot of challenges (which may also be opportunities!) to meeting this goal. I’ve been thinking about how to solve for (1) the broad appeal of biomimicry to people of vastly different backgrounds with vastly different interests, (2) people’s lack of knowledge on how to do biomimicry, (3) lack of capacity to spend time and money on learning the biomimicry methodology, and (4) potential inability to travel to “nature” (i.e., parks and preserves often well outside urban areas). These are not small challenges.
Biomimicry’s Broad Appeal
First, the reality of biomimicry is that it can be applied to every challenge in any context – it is at its core a tool for innovation, evaluation and measure at any scale. The concept itself is something that people seem to instinctively get – it makes perfect sense. This gets a lot of people from a lot of very different backgrounds excited because it is super cool – you can’t deny that the fact that making an LED lightbulb, which is already considered highly efficient, 55 percent more efficient (brighter) just by mimicking the firefly abdomen microstructure on the light cover is amazing and ignites a sense of wonderment and potential.
So after the excitement of discovery, the next question people always seem to ask is, “How can I do biomimicry?” We also have many people come to our Biomimicry Chicago network to say they want “to be involved.” If we want to be locally attuned and responsive (Life’s Principle!) as biomimicry practitioners and leaders of the network, the next logical question is, how do we transform the interest and excitement about biomimicry into something. And what is that something? But with such a wide variety of people with equally widely varied interests and expertise coming to the table, it can be hard to focus efforts without cutting people out and turning them off. Is it possible to provide something for everyone?
However, most people are not going to take university biomimicry classes or get a degree in biomimicry. And it’s often hard to get away to attend a multi-day workshop that requires travel to a remote place, especially for people with families, and especially when the cost of the workshop and travel itself is high. These are serious barriers to entry for the majority of people interested in biomimicry. So what other opportunities are there? How can we bring people along where they are?
Time and Energy
I do think biomimicry, with its undercurrent of “doing good”, taps into people’s desire to help. Biomimicry solutions benefit people and the planet, and I do believe people definitely come to biomimicry with that hope and promise in their hearts – we all want to see better outcomes. Even more, we want to be part of the solution, a participant in creating better outcomes, especially if it aligns with our personal and professional lives.
However, the desire of people interested in biomimicry “to be involved” has caveats – the ability to be involved is limited by the person’s capacity to commit time and energy to something. And if that something doesn’t pertain to what they are interested in, either in their professional or personal lives, they will probably be less likely to find the capacity to contribute to that something, no matter their interest in or passion for biomimicry (and if they do, they’re probably seeking out formal education opportunities!). And certainly when we are passionate about something, we seem to be able to find greater motivation and energy to sustain us over the long run, even if/when the something is complicated and/or takes time.
Access to “Nature”
Last, I know I for one am not able to get much “real nature time” these days, and the lack of it makes me depressed (Chicago is not known for its nature to say the least). But this is the reality for most people in large urban areas – we are stuck with the wildlife, for better or worse, that lives in our neighborhoods, parks and places of work (some people have it better than the rest of us based on their location!). And while it’s nice to think about getting people out of urban areas and “into nature” to hold workshops, the reality is that on a day-to-day basis, the urban wildlife is the majority, if not the only, wildlife at least more than half the United States population ever sees. So how can we incorporate the reconnect to nature in our own backyards? If we strengthen people’s awareness of the life that shares their home, in the end will local nature experiences be a more powerful way to get people to recognize the need and reimagine the possibilities? I’m not sure, but for most local people we are likely to reach, this approach is a necessity.
My Solutions (so far)
Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that actions I take as a biomimicry professional/ practitioner, need to be attuned to these caveats (limited knowledge, time, energy and money), focus on local nature experiences, and also tap into this desire (and energy) to participate and be a part of the solution. So when I think about potential future projects, I think about how I might involve others, tap into and leverage their expertise to find solutions while also teaching them about biomimicry in their own backyard along the way. The benefits are twofold (or more) – the project gains invaluable knowledge from a diversity of people, and those same people gain experience with biomimicry (while gaining an appreciation of local wildlife) which they can then take back and apply to whatever they do (my goal!).
Consciously thinking about how to do this for projects has opened up new ways of thinking about the potential of projects.
Leverage the desire to help, participate in something larger than oneself. For example, to address the desire to participate, to “be involved”, I believe if possible every workshop should include a significant component (if it’s not the entire focus of the workshop) where participants are given the opportunity to learn and apply the biomimicry methodology to contribute their knowledge and expertise to real challenges. Even better if the workshops are set up to solve for challenges of, and therefore benefit, non-profit organizations or communities. How would your interest in a workshop change if you knew that not only were you going to learn biomimicry but at the same time you’d be contributing potential solutions to a good cause?
Meet people where they are. Combine that with the idea that these workshops need to be held at a cost, schedule and location that makes it easier for more people to participate (to meet my goal anyway!), and I’m really talking about holding workshops for people in the communities in which they (and I) live. Working with urban wildlife deepens respect for nature at home. Being creative about funding, timing and partners opens up all kinds of possibilities. IF you can work out the funding (always a challenge!), the end result would be a group of people who understand the biomimicry methodology better, understand the benefits of using the tool to come up with innovative ideas and approaches to real challenges, and are hopefully inspired to continue to work to actually apply the ideas resulting in improved outcomes for the nonprofits and communities in the place in which I live and work. That sounds pretty good to me.
Find out what people are most interested in! Use feedback loops to ask network members what brings them to biomimicry, what they want to get out of the network and or biomimicry, but maybe even more importantly, what really floats their boat. Because perhaps if we can tap into that energy the rest will fall into place.
Other ideas to get people involved include crowdsourcing projects and hackathons (similar to a workshop but much more fluid and experimental and perhaps a different crowd) where people learn how to do biomimicry while they are contributing to collective projects or solving for local challenges/needs.
I do think taking these ideas into consideration in the projects/programs I am working on will likely result in much bigger, messier projects because there are more collaborators and they include the x-factor of individuals giving their time (potentially even paying to give their time) to learn and participate. But isn’t that the point? Don’t we want more people involved? Don’t we want more people exposed to biomimicry? Don’t we want increased opportunity to have more people participate in creating beneficial solutions to real challenges? And don’t we want them to internalize this thinking and take it back home or work where they can continue to shift norms? Maybe it’s time to take the leap.
Of course doing what I’m trained to do – using biomimicry to help solve challenges – when I evaluate my current thinking against Life’s Principles I see this approach hitting on several LPs:
Be Locally Attuned and Responsive
Use feedback loops
Cultivate Cooperative Relationships
Integrate Development with Growth
Build from the Bottom Up
I’ll have to explore how other LPs might improve my approach. What do you see? How can I expand and deepen my ideas?
How do you address these challenges, and are you willing to share your solutions? What’s been successful or not? How can our community learn from you?
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.
Dynamic non-equilibrium means things change unpredictably, at times more drastically than others, but change nonetheless. To the non-biomimic, it’s easiest explained by the common phrase we can all relate to – shit happens. You don’t know when, but you know at some point all your best laid plans…yep, gone to hell in a handbasket. Well, not only has shit happened, but it’s hit the fan, so I thought I’d acknowledge it, write about, and hopefully get motivated.
In biomimicry we consider dynamic non-equilibrium a fact of life for any system and it must be taken into consideration in any design (because as we all know, all designs live within a larger context!). Dealing with change is no easy matter. More often than not, the human response in the face of change is to hold on tighter and ignore the increasing warning signals, eventually resulting in huge releases in the system. Fires? Don’t let them burn. Until you’ve built up so much fuel you can’t stop them anymore and the fires kill everything. Floods? Channel them. Until you can’t control the water anymore and entire cities are under water for months. You get my drift.
A current acknowledgement of this phenomena in human systems is the addition of the concept of “resilience” to the sustainability conversation. Resilience is the ability to successfully respond to and recover from acute shocks (think floods, earthquakes, disease outbreaks, spike in oil prices) and chronic stresses (think high unemployment, continuing crime and violence, chronic water shortages, uncertain regulatory climate). The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative is an outgrowth of this conversation for helping cities deal with what we biomimics call dynamic non-equilibrium. Businesses’ increasing attempts to come to grip with system risks is another outgrowth of recognition of the need for “resilience.”
There is also the potential to develop elements within your system to take advantage of disruption, to actually accelerate growth of the system in a new preferred direction. It’s not always the case that the preferred direction is to the benefit of the entire system (think the strategies and outcomes covered in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine). What outside events might disrupt your systems? And how do you plan for responding to and recovering from them? And what are the opportunities for new growth that arise out of a disturbance?
I’ve been experiencing dynamic non-equilibrium lately. Illness, holidays, work deadlines, and a sick babysitter are the elements of chaos (acute shocks) I’ve been grappling with. Hence the lack of posts for several weeks. I’m still figuring out how to make the blog work with the uncertainty that each day/week brings. It’s on my list of 2017 New Year’s resolutions!
I’m also recognizing that I was ill-prepared for the most recent mega disruption in my life and that of pretty much every other life in this country – the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States (whether one is happy about it or not is beside the point, it’s still a disruption). I have been inexplicably unable to get myself to do anything beyond what I need to. I feel unmotivated and consumed by something I cannot put a finger on. It’s not just the daily barrage of news about Trump’s latest tweet or cabinet pick and the doom it spells for our country. This feeling started a couple months before November 8 actually, although it’s gotten worse since (a chronic stress as it turns out, and one that is just beginning since we have at least 4 more years of this disaster).
The closest I can come to understanding how I feel is this New York Times opinion piece by Neil Gross, in which the author discusses collective trauma. “The concept of collective trauma was rooted in the thought of Émile Durkheim, a turn-of-the-20th-century French sociologist and an architect of the field. Durkheim argued that norms, values and rituals were the linchpins of social order; they provided the basis for solidarity and social cohesion. Collective trauma occurs when an unexpected event severs the ties that bind community members to one another.” In the article, Gross suggests that the (chronic stress of) loss of jobs in manufacturing and production resulting from globalization and automation is one trauma a group in our country is experiencing, while Trump’s win is another trauma (acute shock) to a different group of people. Gross concludes that, “If research on other collective traumas is any indication, it may take years, and a great deal of political imagination, for us to figure out where to go from here.”
I don’t know where to go from here. A good friend of mine from Biomimicry Australia, Jane Toner, suggested that perhaps those of us in biomimicry are already on the regeneration path of the adaptive cycle, while the old world is trying to conserve the status quo – a last grasp or gasp. Just like suppressing fire until a spark ignites that kills everything, or a waters that are channeled for so many miles that when the levees break the floods are catastrophic, I think we are in for one hell of a collapse and release stage of the cycle. The way we have been ignoring significant consequences of our current economic and social systems with the thought that future generations will brilliantly and seamlessly somehow figure it out, I’m guessing that Trump’s election and the other rumblings happening around the world (such as Brexit) are just the beginning of the current dynamics of increasing non-equilibrium. Forget the relative steady state. The question is, how will we prepare ourselves now to come out the other side of this cycle? What do we need to do to make sure our efforts at regeneration become the alternative?
How would nature do it?
Life deals with dynamic non-equilibrium all the time in a way that allows species to adapt to changing conditions, rebound from disruptions, and often take advantage of change. One Life’s Principle sums up nature’s overarching design principle (employed at all scales) for achieving resilience in the face of change – “embody resilience through variation, redundancy and decentralization.”
But if we look to life more specifically regarding how to respond to, recover from or actually take advantage of disturbance, we can find numerous strategies at all scales. I’m thinking along the lines of my potential options – the urge to flee or or the reality of staying put. If you think of a fire in an ecosystem like a forest or a prairie, you have two general overarching scenarios that species have to deal with – those that can’t move (plants) and those that can (most everything but plants!).
We could all be animals that flee our homes. Perhaps I should migrate to another country for at least four years and come back when the system has rebounded enough that the resources I need are restored. Or maybe I flee and just don’t come back – make a new home somewhere else. But neither of these is easy, or even that appealing. Starting over somewhere new is really hard – new people, new cultures, new jobs, new systems and the risk that those systems may not be able to support me. And considering that the disruption we are facing will spill over beyond our borders, I’m not sure fleeing will work anyway.
Of course, for animals that can’t go far the reality of a charred landscape presents significant limitations – food gone, home possibly gone, cover vegetation gone. Risk of being picked off by predators? Waaaaaay up. It’s a dangerous world out there. But these animals aren’t the only ones staying put. Plants also can’t get up and run or fly away or hide, so they’ve developed an incredible array of adaptations to deal with and recover from a disturbance. So if we stay put and realize we can’t hide (even though we may want to!), what can plants teach us about dealing with and taking advantage of disruptions? Well, without going too in depth while still providing inspiration to keep keeping on, here are a couple thoughts.
1 – Protect your roots.
Prairie plants have been dealing with fire for thousands of years. They have massive, deep, interconnected roots that store and share resources with wider communities within a rich soil. Those roots aren’t affected when fire burns off the exposed stalks, leaves and flowers. Thus they have sacrificial parts. But the part where life comes from – their roots – are protected underground where they continue to access stored resources and draw support from their community of plants, fungi, worms, ants and other microorganisms. Thus, it’s not just the individual plant roots that are protected, but their community and the associated life-giving resource flows are safe too. So in the face of this disaster, what can we sacrifice? And what must we as individuals and communities protect at all costs to continue living such that we can rebound from disruption?
2 – Have resources ready to sprout new growth in the sudden opening.
Whether it’s a new light gap in a forest or a fire in a prairie, disruption brings a new abundance of resources. The question is, how do plants prepare to take advantage of sudden new resources made available by disruption?
Some, such as pioneer tree species in the tropics, produce a boatload of small seeds that spread everywhere in the hopes that they will be there when that abundance of light occurs in a light gap – being in the right place at the right time. By increasing the number of seeds, the plant increases the chances of getting lucky…so, not so much leaving it to chance.
Others, like the giant sequoia, produce seeds that are triggered by disruption – in the giant sequoia’s case, fire – so that they initiate growth right away and beat others to the punch. The giant sequoias have fire resistant bark to protect the trees, and the rising heat from the fire causes the tiny cones high up in the canopy to open cones and litter seeds to a freshly cleared ground. Fires clear out underbrush and thus reduce competition for sunlight for the seedlings as well as a nice bed of fertilizer (ash).
And still others, like the aspen, have adapted to changing conditions by developing strategies that allow an aspen stand to actually benefit from disturbances such as fire, mudslides and avalanches. After a disturbance in which trees in an aspen stand die, the root system, which is continuous and protected underground, is untouched and able to immediately send up new suckers for rapid regrowth and recolonization, beating out other trees that may have been encroaching on the aspen stand. In addition, because one organism’s tree stand may cover a large area, portions of the mature tree stand may remain untouched by the disturbance. Lastly, seedlings from fertilized seeds will often germinate and grow after a disturbance.
So what are the opportunities with this disruption? What is our “sunlight”? What is our “ash”? E.g., what are the abundant resource(s) that will come out of the disruption ahead? (This is a tough one to imagine for me at the moment.) What are the low-investment “seeds” we can spread to increase the chance (and not rely on luck) that they will be in the right place to flourish after this disruption devastates our systems? How can we develop “seeds” or “suckers” that are triggered by disruption so they are ready to take advantage of the new opportunities, and how and what do we need to feed them to make sure they succeed?
3 – Finally, support diversity.
Invasive species often have more success in systems that are in decline or are disrupted, but it’s harder to get established in diverse, stable and thriving ecosystems (see Invasion Ecology by Julie L. Lockwood, Martha F. Hoopes, Michael P. Marchetti). Perhaps our institutional bureaucracy, while sometimes maddening because of its…bureaucracy, is perfect for thwarting quick change from sudden invasions like Trump. And perhaps the very diversity of our country’s citizens that Trump and his supporters seem to revile will provide significant enough resistance to make it less likely Trump will succeed in shoving unwanted and uncontested change down our throats. This diversity also forms the basis for something potentially totally new – in ecosystems, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and those parts are diverse and connected in myriad ways. In preserving and being grounded in our diversity, not only might we stop the inferno, but perhaps we might come up with something the world has never seen.
Where do we go from here?
Of course the above thoughts are relatively superficial. The next questions to take biomimicry to the next level are, how do the prairie grasses, giant sequoias and aspens of the world actually do it – what is the nitty gritty of the biology? And then what are the very specific and clear parallel and divergent metaphors we can draw from these examples? What is our fire, sunlight and ash? What parts of our community do we protect above all else? What are our necessary resources, signals for exchange, sacrificial parts, triggers for growth? What packets of information do we disseminate far and wide in the hopes that we can take advantage of this disruption and the disruptions to come, and how do we learn from our natural models on how methods for improving our chances?
Any biologists out there who can help? We need you! Understanding how it’s done by fellow species is where the rubber hits the road and the really interesting learning begins. I’d love to hear your thoughts and have answers at the ready to take advantage of the pending abundance of resources after the crash. Let’s plan for regeneration.