Back in 1997, now 15 years ago, Janine Benyus authored a very influential book entitled “Biomimicry – Innovation Inspired by Nature,” in which she proposed that humans can learn alot from the designs found in nature. She argues that, as high level species go, humans are the latest to arrive on the earth, and as such, we are rather like teenagers finding our way into the world. Many species have spent billions of years developing and refining their place in the web of life, occupying a niche that no other species can fill. When we look to understand how other species find their way through life, examining their processes and shared interactions, we can find better, healthier ways for humans to live.
Janine graduated from Rutgers University, top in her class, with degrees in Natural Resource Management and English Literature/Writing. She has written 6 books, co-founded the Biomimcry Guild, and the Biomimicry Institute. She travels the world giving lectures and doing consulting work with sustainably minded companies.
I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Janine Benyus back in 2005, for a magazine I was working on. Her responses to my questions were often very unexpected, because she would answer my social justice questions with examples from nature that just made sense. One of my favorite discussions we had was focused on the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird , and it’s relationship to energy use in architecture. This bird is often seen making the 500 mile, nonstop trip, across the Gulf of Mexico. Their migratory pattern takes them from eastern United States, where their breeding grounds are, to Mexico where they spend the remainder of the year. For a bird that has an adult weight of only 3 grams, this is an incredible, if not miraculous, undertaking. It happens every year. 3 gram bird. 500 miles. Non-stop. It would seem that the caloric intake that a tiny little bird would need to fly 500 miles across open water would far exceed the weight this bird, but throughout its history it has perfected every part of its body and refined its knowledge of how to make this trip safely. Talk about eco-efficiency! This bird really has figured it out! The most interesting thing is that it’s wings beat as much as 52 times a second while it is flying at 50 – 60 miles per hour, about 25 feet above the water. It is not gliding high, conserving energy, like a long-range migratory goose. This little hummingbird, about the size of an overgrown bumble bee, has an abundance of speed and energy. It has a unique perspective on efficiency that we don’t understand yet. W. E. D. Scott (1890) described seeing them “at considerable distance from land” while he was fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. “One morning,” he says, “I counted six pass by the boat. . . . At such times their flight was direct and very rapid and all were going in a northerly direction. They flew about twenty-five feet above the water and did not appear in any way fatigued, nor show any desire to alight on the boat, as small birds crossing the water so frequently do.”
Modern people, however, are anything but efficient. Automobiles, for example, are only about 15% efficient. In other words, 85% of the energy that is in gasoline, is lost in operating the car, and only 15% actually goes to moving the people to their destination. Most of this energy is lost in heat and various types of friction and drag. What if we, rather than taking 2500+ lbs of metal with us everywhere we go (in the form of a car – with all of its heat, noise, and toxicity), decided to transport ourselves with the efficiency and beauty of the Ruby Throated Hummingbird, only needing grams of fuel to get the job done. Could we do it? Maybe. Another disturbing example is the amount of energy that is lost in the generation, transmission and distribution of electrical power. Typically about 55% of the energy of coal is lost in the power plant itself, most of which is lost in heat. Another 7% is lost through the transmission and distribution through power lines, and another 2 to 3 percent is lost in the generators. Only about 25% of the energy in coal is available to you in your home. Finally, there are inefficiencies in the equipment on the user end that can range greatly. (For more info on these losses, check out this presentation). There are endless examples of our inefficient systems, but fixing these two would go a long ways toward our future survival on this planet. In the video above, and the 3 videos below, Janine Benyus gives many, many examples of how design has been influenced by the genius of nature.
In these videos Janine focuses primarily on product development, and better design, but I know that she is fundamentally interested in understanding the processes in which the species of the world live, and applying the lessons learned to human processes. The complex, interrelated, networked, co-dependent world that all other species live in needs to include us, if we want to survive. Understanding how other species make themselves relevent is critical to how we ensure our relevancy in the future. The leaders of our major institutions need to shape our global economy to reflect the new understanding of how the web of life works.