Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Need for Biomimicry

The following blog post is a reflection upon my Sputnik Observatory path focusing on biomimicry: the process of mimicking biological processes in human technological design.
Sputnik Observatory is an online oasis of free-thinking scientists, ecologists, architects, and artists who are committed to informing and inspiring the public with biologically and ecologically based scientific findings.

[To watch the videos online you will need the latest edition of flash. The following wander essay (path) responds to these videos.)

Embarkation: Interconnection and Human Meddling
In his conversation, “Earth is the Place to Be,” Trevor Paglen (artist/writer) speaks about the most important observable phenomenon in social, philosophical, and ecological history: reciprocity, dialectic, feedback; aka, interconnectedness. Using corn as his exemplum, Paglen states, “we have changed nature in a very fundamental way planting all this corn; but the fact that we’ve planted all this corn also changes us in a very fundamental way, too. We are turning ourselves into corn!” (0:27). Although the piece doesn’t allow Paglen to explicate how we are turning into corn, I assume it is partially due to the cattle industry force feeding corn (and other unnatural chemicals) to the cattle which in turn we eat as beef. “We are what we eat:” that feedback loop is a common phrase; however, the twice removed, less common phrase is “We are what we eat eats.”

This second phrase pushes the feedback loop between consumer and consumed deeper into the interconnected web involving farmers and veterinarians, cardiologists and morticians.

It is interesting that Paglen does not mention cattle feedlot diets as a reason why we are physically transforming into corn given the advice of Freeman Dyson (physicist), who appears later on in the same conversation video. Dyson holds that we should genetically engineer usable-energy-producing plants if we obtain the ability to do so. He encourages scientists and engineers to produce 10% more efficient plants—say by genetically programming a black leafed photosynthesizer—that would only require one tenth the land to produce the same amount of energy.

In general I am distrustful of such ideas and practices; especially given that it was logic similar to Dyson’s that brought about the creation of feedlots. By all rationale, feedlots are marvels of efficiency, requiring only 10% of the land to needed to naturally feed upwards of 60,000 cattle at a time. Unfortunately, such efficiency is unnatural and requires hormones, and a cornucopia of other chemicals in order to keep the cattle alive while reconditioning their stomachs to digest corn. Of course corn is a vegetable suitable for consumption; but not for cows. When was the last time we witnessed cattle grazing the vast open corn fields of America?

Contrasting Dyson’s idea of actually engineering plants that would produce energy for us (notice the direction the dialectic is travelling); Janine Benyus (author, biomimicker) argues that a more responsible form of artificial photosynthesis involves us as humans evolving our technologies to mimic nature’s processes of energy production. Her argument about turning our excess carbon dioxide into biodegradable plastics changes the flow of the dialectic, encouraging us to learn and mimic plants and bacteria: the true masters of turning waste into food. Let us mimic natural biological process instead of forcing those processes to meet our needs.

Step 2: Starting at Home
Instead of deluding ourselves in thinking we can control nature—from the stomachs of cattle to the biogenetic make-up of as-yet-un-crafted artificial photosynthesizers—in order to live more comfortably in the world, we should look toward nature’s evolved designs for Gaia-responsible living inspiration. Spring boarding from Benyus’s biomimetic approach, architect Andreas Vogler provides us with visions of biomemic future homes. Worldwide, 50% of all energy is consumed by our homes (0:09), with the other 50% being used by industry. Lowering the amount of energy we use in our homes can radically reduce consumption of natural resources. Yet Vogler has more than energy reduction in mind for biomimetic homes: he would like to craft homes that function as organisms do—plants in particular. Vogler envisions a home that functions not only as a human habitat, but also as air purification centers. These respiring homes can intake waste from the atmosphere, purify through techno-chemical processes, and release a newly purified bioproduct into the home and later into the atmosphere using negative feedbacks. The ultimate vision is, I suppose, to create negative ecological footprint homes; or, phrased inversely: homes that actually benefit and act in concert with emergent Gaian feedback loops. Human technology has an opportunity, and I would argue an ethical responsibility, to direct a proportion of its innovative efforts towards greener living solutions. Our technology should adapt to Gaian sensibilities.

Step 3: New Conceptions of Beauty
Despite how illogical our current use and abuse of nature is, it is apparent that logic and reason are not enough to inspire a change in worldview. One central ingredient in lasting change is positive behavior reinforcement; and no matter how fuel efficient or biomimetic a car is, if it is ugly people will not buy it. What we need is a different kind of beauty; a bio-aesthetic. Michael Hensel (architect) argues for this new look at beauty by asking us to locate beauty not only in crafted products, but in emergent biological processes as well (0:06). With this conception of beauty in mind, Hensel tries to craft dwellings in ways that utilize Vogler’s eco-friendly technologies in a style that encourage intellectual and sensual appreciation of process integrated architecture. Hensel’s idea is to make environmentally responsible productions pleasurable and attractive to participate with (through ownership and dwelling).

[The following literary application draws from Joan Slonczewski's amazing book A Door Into Ocean.]

From Gaia to Raia
Shoran verbs demonstrate the ingrained interconnected worldview of the Sharers. Their language helps them effectively communicate about the world around them, and life on Shora is life in the web. All phenomena are natural and interconnected. Hence, when the Valan colonizers use toxins to ward off sea-swallowers the entire web of life is affected. Valans (at Realgar and Jade) view the world from the for us side of the dialectic. Instead being biomimetic (copying the Shorans living rafts) and adapting their floating death camps to handle swallower season, they decide to alter the web. They prefer separation from the web rather than integration. What else can we expect, they are not sharers. Valans, like the majority of Americans, would rather alter nature than work with her; we find more beauty in material items than natural processes. This latter point is not surprising, for our pursuit of natural resources is decimating what is left of our most primordial source of beauty: nature.

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