Biologist and science writer Janine Benyus helped chart a new path for industrial designers in 1997 with her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (Harper Perennial). Since then, she says, her job has been to teach engineers, scientists, and inventors how to “consult life’s genius to create sustainable designs.” She coined the term “biomimicry” from the Greek bios, meaning “life,” and mimesis, meaning “to imitate.” The first step she advises in solving a problem is to look at the solutions that can be found in nature. Time magazine named her one of its “Heroes of the Environment,” and physicist Amory Lovins wrote in Time that her work “will change your life. It has already changed mine. And it may save the world.”
Born in 1958, Benyus grew up in New Jersey on the edge of suburban development, near forests and meadows. From a young age she was entranced by wilderness, and her parents indulged her passion with field guides, leaf presses, and microscopes. In the early 1980s she graduated summa cum laude from Rutgers University in New Jersey with degrees in writing and natural-resource management, and she began working for research labs, translating scientific jargon into layperson’s English. Her first book was an ecosystem guide to northern Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, which led to a series of field guides for different regions of the U.S. In 1992 Benyus wrote an interpretive guide to animal behavior called Beastly Behaviors (Addison-Wesley). By then she was already researching the book that would define her career.
A year after the publication of Biomimicry, Benyus cofounded, with Montana biologist Dayna Baumeister, the for-profit Biomimicry Guild, a consulting firm whose clients have ranged from Patagonia and Seventh Generation to General Electric and Nike. She is also the founder and board president of the nonprofit Biomimicry Institute, which promotes the spread of biomimicry concepts in the broader culture. The institute runs the website AskNature.org, a public-domain resource for anyone looking for nature’s answer to a design problem. Benyus is a sought-after speaker, delivering energetic, optimistic talks on sustainable conservation and industrial ecology. Most recently she has been working with entrepreneur and environmentalist Paul Hawken to commercialize nature-inspired, sustainable technologies and make them affordable and readily available, especially in developing nations.
In person Benyus is funny and downright hopeful. She lives with her partner of twenty-one years on eight acres of grassland in western Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, surrounded by the largest designated wilderness in the lower forty-eight states. From her east-facing windows she can see the forested Sapphire Mountain Range, and to the west the U-shaped, glaciated Big Creek Canyon. The peaks surrounding the valley have snow on them year-round.
When not working, Benyus spends a good portion of her time taking care of her land. Over twelve years she and her partner have restored their property from dry, caked soil infested with knapweed back to a rolling meadow of native grasses. Benyus serves on several county land-use committees and is active in protecting and restoring wild lands. She and her partner have four cows and three cats and lead a self-described “foraging lifestyle,” sharing resources with neighbors and obtaining nearly all their food locally. When Benyus encounters a problem on her land, she seeks advice from the local elders: the packs of wolves that roam the valley, the bald eagles that swoop down on her cows’ afterbirths, the twenty-eight turtles that inhabit a nearby pond, and the cottonwood trees that grow along the Bitterroot River.
Kupfer: What is biomimicry?
Benyus: Biomimicry is the practice of borrowing nature’s design principles to create more-sustainable products and processes. When designers, engineers, architects, chemists, city planners, and so on have a problem to solve, I encourage them to ask, “What part of the natural world has already done what I’m trying to do?” With biomimicry we look to design principles in nature as examples for good behavior. I think of it as becoming nature’s apprentice.
Kupfer: How did you discover this idea?
Benyus: I had written five books — natural histories, wildlife guides, ecosystem guides, animal-behavior studies — and I’d been watching how nature knits itself together. In 1990 I asked myself, Are any designers and inventors trying to mimic the designs of the natural world?
Once I’d asked the question, a blizzard of examples arrived at my door: people studying photosynthesis to create better solar cells; engineers examining how spiders make their webs; pharmacologists researching how organisms self-medicate. I learned about such burgeoning fields as industrial ecology, which looks at ecosystems as models for new economic patterns. In agriculture I heard about how Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, says we could replace our monoculture crops of annuals with a mix of perennials based on the natural ecology of prairies.
I started collecting these examples in a file I labeled “Biomimicry.” Then there were two files, then a whole drawer, and then a whole filing cabinet. Finally I wrote a book about this new field, never imagining it would catch on the way it has. The architecture community picked up on it first, and then the industrial-design community. Suddenly all these groups wanted a biologist at their tables.
Dayna Baumeister, who was working on a PhD in coevolution biology at the University of Montana, called me up and said that as soon as she’d read my book, she knew: This is what I want to do. We became partners, teaching workshops for designers, architects, and engineers and doing consulting for companies. For instance, if a company wanted to invent a new glue, we would tell them how geckos adhere to walls and how mussels glue themselves to rocks underwater — examples of nature’s nontoxic ways of adhering. The plywood used to build most houses is stuck together with an adhesive that emits formaldehyde. But with the help of scientists who study nature’s adhesives, Columbia Forest Products, the largest plywood manufacturer in the country, switched to a glue that mimics the adhesive mussels use. They make it out of soy flour.
Today we have twelve full-time biologists on staff. We create “Amoeba through Zebra” reports, in which a designer, inventor, or architect asks us a question — like “How does nature reduce vibration?” — and we answer it. Biomimicry is not about harvesting nature’s resources but about sitting at her feet as students.
Kupfer: What was the beginning of your fascination with the natural world?
Benyus: I grew up in a part of suburban New Jersey where there were still some open spaces — forests, meadows, ravines, streams. Then suburbia rolled over us, and my parents moved us farther out. This happened several times. I was always a little naturalist. I would go outside in the morning with my lunch packed and stay out all day. My parents had to ring the dinner bell to get me back inside. Although I grew up in the suburbs, I always found wilderness to explore. I firmly believe that wilderness can be found anywhere, even in the cracks of the sidewalk; it’s just a matter of seeing it.
Kupfer: Who inspired you?
Benyus: Nature writers Rachel Carson and E.O. Wilson taught me that being a naturalist is a worthy profession. They also taught me that it’s OK to put poetry into science. If you’re writing about this earth, you want your language to be as lyrical as possible, in order to adequately describe it. I’d thought it was forbidden to write in poetic language about a scientific subject. They gave me permission to do that. They also inspired me to make my voice heard. Carson was a rather timid, quiet person, and Wilson is a very gentle, humble man, but they were both fierce and willing to set aside their timidity and do what is necessary.
Kupfer: You’ve done extensive studies of the animal world. Are there any species that have served as mentors to you?
Benyus: I love unlikely species, especially ones found in bogs. Most people don’t see a lot of beauty in bogs, but I think they’re amazing. I’ve spent time in “quaking bogs,” which are green mattresses of sphagnum and other mosses — sometimes called “peat” — floating on cold, acidic water. As you walk on the mattress, it literally undulates. In bogs there are stunted trees and spruces and small, elfin plants that hang their roots in very cold water, which makes it difficult for them to photosynthesize. Some bog plants are carnivorous, and their leaves have special hairs that secrete droplets of sticky adhesive: insects land and get stuck, and the plant releases enzymes to digest the body of the insect. I’m attracted to life-forms like this, which survive in adversity.
Kupfer: Humanity is facing adversity on a global scale. Do you think we took a wrong turn with the petrochemical-fueled Industrial Revolution?
Benyus: I think fossil fuels were discovered before our consciousness had evolved enough to know what to do with all that energy. We’ve been mesmerized by internal combustion, enthralled by fire. It’s given us almost supernatural powers, multiplying our muscle power by thousands and enabling us to move mountains, literally. People think all we need to fix our predicament is a free source of energy, but I think we need to change our behaviors. More energy would just help us deplete the earth’s lifeblood faster.
For the most part life operates on very small amounts of energy. When you look at the natural world, you see that organisms do not use high heats or high pressures or toxic chemicals to achieve their ends. A few do use toxins, such as venoms, in small amounts, but none heat anything with explosive force. Biomimicry asks whether we can accomplish our goals without heating things up and smashing them together. Can we start to appreciate the subtle energies around us?
Nature really knows how to use energy efficiently. An insect, for instance, has a protein in its wing called “resilin.” As it flaps the wing down, the resilin compresses like a spring and stores 98 percent of the energy from the downward thrust. So the insect doesn’t lift its wing again; it just rides the expansion of the “spring.” Butterflies surf wind vortexes of their own making; that’s why they flutter. When you look up and see flocks of geese in the sky, each goose is surfing the vortexes created by the wings of the goose in front of it. Meanwhile it’s creating a vortex for the goose behind, pulling that one forward. A hawk that’s circling is riding on top of what’s called a “thermal,” a big column of air rising off a warm field. After it swoops down on its prey, it doesn’t muscle its way back up; it finds a thermal and rides it like an elevator. These are the sort of subtle, free-energy opportunities that we humans have to learn to find.
I think fossil fuels were discovered before our consciousness had evolved enough to know what to do with all that energy. We’ve been mesmerized by internal combustion, enthralled by fire.
Kupfer: In your writing you speak of “coevolutionary loops” between two species. What are these?
Benyus: They are relationships that increase both species’ rate of adaptation. Take the bee and the flower. The flower needs to be pollinated, and the bee needs the flower’s nectar. So the flower shapes itself in a way such that the bee can reach the nectar; it’s constantly adapting to the bee. In the meantime the bee’s body is changing to meet the needs of the flower. Those two are evolving at a faster rate than they would if they weren’t in a coevolutionary loop.
In the current global situation we’re going to have to adapt pretty quickly to avoid disaster. Forming those coevolutionary loops is one way to do that. We often tell our corporate clients to form loops with their customers, especially the ones who care about sustainability. Offer them a green product and ask them what they think; if they say it’s not green enough, get greener.
Kupfer: To what degree has the business world embraced sustainability?
Benyus: We’re still early in the process, just starting to shift our strategies. Ecologists often speak of different stages of ecosystems. Say you take a field and plow it up completely. The first species that come in — called “type one” — are weeds. Our economy is what you might call a “weed field.” These small annual plants put all their energy into seeds and very little energy into roots, because next year those seeds are going to blow away and seed another field. Type-one species are pioneers, and we humans have been a pioneer species, going from open field to open field instead of learning how to live in one place, recycle everything, and develop symbiotic relationships. We just keep moving.
What comes in after those pioneers are perennials such as berry bushes. These type-two plants put down roots and hook up with other species. A type-three ecosystem is a mature forest that will last for hundreds of years, or until the next big fire. A forest’s material resources are mostly limited to what’s in the soil. Some migrant species might come in, and a little bit of material falls with rainwater, but that’s it. The forest learns to adapt, because it is not going anywhere; it doesn’t race off to the next open field. The strategies of the organisms in a mature forest are very different from the strategies of pioneering type-one organisms: Organisms in type-three ecosystems become very efficient. They make the most of limited resources and develop cooperative relationships.
When we humans were a small population in a large world, it made sense for us to be a pioneering species and keep moving on to the next horn of plenty. There were always virgin environments to be had. Now things have changed. We are a large population in a crowded world with limited resources. Our strategies have to shift. We have nowhere else to go.
Kupfer: Do you think that people are gradually coming to understand this?
Benyus: I’m not sure there’s any collective understanding. I look forward to the day when the hairs stand up on all our necks at once, and we realize that we have to shift as a species. I think first we need to get back in touch with our biological vulnerability, which is something we used to think about more. In the Stone Age, when you’d leave the cave, you knew there might be a saber-toothed tiger out there. The early hunter-gatherers were at the mercy of their environment. Agriculture gave us some control over the food supply and made us more secure. Then of course came the petrochemical revolution, in which we learned to synthesize whatever we wanted, protecting ourselves even further. But conditions have changed. We are vulnerable in new ways. With climate change and environmental refugees and disappearing species and increasing flooding, perhaps we are starting to feel some of that vulnerability again.
Kupfer: Do you think we will adapt?
Benyus: Pockets of people have already read the early-warning signals and are responding, creating plans for how to get through the evolutionary bottleneck. I think of them as seedlings in the understory, waiting for the overstory — the old paradigm — to fall and allow light through, so that they can have their day in the sun.
I think we’re starting to see the old paradigm crumble. When it falls, the adaptations that seemed odd — permaculture, solar cells, gray-water recycling, growing heritage tomatoes — will suddenly make a lot of sense. And they will spread.
Kupfer: Will biomimicry be part of that collective salvation?
Benyus: Absolutely. Biomimicry is an ancient idea. Hunter-gatherers looked to the natural world for inspiration and emulated successful organisms. Native Alaskans still hunt using the same techniques that polar bears use, crawling over the ice fields. We’ve forgotten this old idea of imitating nature, but we are waking up to it again. We have deeper knowledge now of how nature works her miracles, so we can better emulate what we see. There is so much biological information available. We just started a website called “AskNature.org,” on which we are trying to collect and organize biological literature so you can type in, “How does nature remove salt from water?” and up will come descriptions of how mangroves desalinate water, not with nine hundred pounds per square inch of pressure or huge amounts of electricity, but with solar energy.
Designers can use the website to contact the biologists who’ve studied these crucial issues, and the two groups can begin to work together. It’s sort of a Match.com for biologists and engineers.
We’re also trying, with AskNature.org, to ensure that biological information remains free by making it openly available on the Web. That way no one can patent, say, the way a gecko walks on walls, because the science behind it has already been published in the public domain.
People think all we need to fix our predicament is a free source of energy, but I think we need to change our behaviors. More energy would just help us deplete the earth’s lifeblood faster.
Kupfer: What are some specific ways that biomimicry can help us avoid global climate catastrophe?
Benyus: The humpback whale’s flipper is being mimicked in wind-turbine design. We also have dye-sensitized solar cells — which are inexpensive, nontoxic, and very thin — based on photosynthesis. Plus we can put a film over those cells that will help them hold in light. The film is based on the eye of a moth, which lets light come in and then traps it, so that the eye’s reflection doesn’t alert predators at night. So you have a solar cell based on photosynthesis with a film on top of it that mimics a moth’s eye.
There is a new kind of gas diffuser in fuel cells that imitates the branching patterns of leaves and trees and increases power by 16 percent. A company called BioPower is making an energy harvester whose shape is based on giant kelp, which use holdfasts to anchor themselves against the tide. BioPower also makes a tidal generator based on the tail of a tuna. Both of these devices literally wave back and forth and generate energy. People are looking at how we can use solar energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen for use in a fuel cell. Every leaf you see is already doing this. A company called Regen is creating “smart grids” that let appliances within a neighborhood talk to each other, telling one another how much energy they need and when, so the neighborhood reduces its power use during peak periods. Their software is based on how swarms of bees operate.
Kupfer: What about carbon-dioxide sequestration or carbon fixation?
Benyus: Six to eight percent of all carbon dioxide, or CO2, emissions comes from the production of cement: one ton of carbon is released for every ton of cement made. Brent Constantz, from a company called Calera, is a biomineralization expert; he studies how bones, coral reefs, and shells form. He’s mimicking a coral-reef recipe to cut the amount of CO2 released during cement production in half. There’s also a company called CO2 Solution in Canada that is using an enzyme that manages CO2 during mammal respiration to create a flue scrubber that takes CO2 out of smokestack emissions and turns it into powdered limestone, which is the main ingredient for concrete. So you’re not only reducing carbon emissions but also creating the very raw material that you need on-site, instead of mining for it.
Kupfer: Mining has a huge impact on the environment. Can biomimicry help reduce mining or make it safer?
Benyus: That’s a personal issue for me. I live in an area that’s been mined for a century, and I’ve fought one mine after another. What mining does is go down and get metals from beneath the earth’s crust. Instead of going down to where the ore is, we need to learn how to gather and concentrate all the metal that is already on the earth’s surface. Some bacteria need to gather small amounts of metals, such as iron, for their metabolism, so they use chelating molecules to catch metals. Our dream is to mimic these molecules to pull metals from water in industrial-waste streams, landfills, and polluted rivers. You can make a specific chelator for iron, mercury, or gold, and you can actually gather enough molecules to produce solid metals.
We should think of river remediation not as cleaning water but as mining metals. A community can actually make money by mining its river and create clean water as a byproduct. That’s how organisms view the process: they want to obtain the metal. But the byproduct of the organism meeting its needs is clean air, clean water, and better soil. Everything that an organism does in a natural setting also creates conditions conducive to life.
Of course we also need to stop putting the toxic materials into the water. Upstream is where the real change must be made.
Kupfer: Speaking of cleaning, hasn’t someone used biomimicry to design self-cleaning walls and paints?
Benyus: The company Seventh Generation, which sells environmentally friendly cleansers, asked us to help them improve their product, and we told them the natural world doesn’t use soap to remove dirt. But if leaves get dust on them, they are not going to be able to photosynthesize. So how do they stay clean? A lotus leaf has little “nanobumps” to which dirt particles adhere very loosely. When rainwater comes, the dirt balls up on these bumps and rolls away, picking up remaining dirt particles as it goes. The plant uses the kinetic energy in rainwater to clean itself for free. It’s called the “lotus effect.” Now companies have designed all kinds of self-cleaning products — exterior house paint, roofing tiles, fabrics, cement, glass — with this nanobump structure in them.
Kupfer: Can biomimicry help address the world’s water crisis?
Benyus: Sure, here’s an example: There is no groundwater in the Namib Desert, but there’s an organism there, the Stenocara beetle, that grabs water out of fog. The fog that drifts over the desert is so light that normal condensation is difficult, so you need something specially designed to hold and collect water molecules. In the morning the beetle goes up to a ridge and lifts its wings up, and the bumps on its wing scales have water-attracting tips and waxy, water-repelling sides. Fog particles come blowing across the wing scales and ride up the sides of the bumps, then get grabbed by the tips like by a magnet. These tiny water droplets, fifteen to twenty millionths of a meter in diameter, start to accumulate into a drop on the beetle’s back. When the water drop grows big enough, gravity takes over, and it slides down the waxy sheet to the beetle’s mouth.
People are now mimicking this process, creating sheets to grab water out of the air. In tropical places we should be removing the water from the air before it enters buildings, because it takes far less energy to cool dry air.
There’s a company called Aquaporin in Denmark working on a water filter inspired by the water-shuttling pores in red blood cells. These pores allow only water molecules to move through the membrane, but nothing else. Instead of pushing water against a membrane and sieving out salt — a high-energy process — Aquaporin’s membrane actually pulls water through the membrane, leaving salt behind.
Kupfer: Do you have concerns about biomimicry being used for weapons design and manufacturing?
Benyus: Sure, it’s been happening for a long time. Torpedoes are based on penguin bodies. Eleven years after the Wright brothers built their flying machine, enabling humankind to fly like the birds, we were shooting at people from planes. All we can do is point clients in the direction of sustainability.
Kupfer: What are some innovative new fields to keep an eye on?
Benyus: There’s the growing field of “green chemistry,” which is an alternative to industrial chemistry. Terry Collins, a green chemist at Carnegie Mellon University, has said that industrial chemistry uses every element in the periodic table, even the toxic ones, and employs brutish, simple means to force these elements together — what material scientists call “heat, beat, and treat.” This method has created more than eighty thousand synthetic chemicals that the world has never seen before. Most chemical reactions in industrial chemistry yield only a little of what you want, and the rest is waste. That’s our adolescent species’ early attempt at chemistry.
And then you have nature’s chemistry, which, instead of using every element in the periodic table, uses a small, life-friendly subset and employs elegant recipes to combine them. It’s all done with water as a solvent, whereas industrial chemistry uses mostly “organic solvents,” like sulfuric acid. The dream of green chemistry is to replace the industrial cookbook with nature’s cookbook; to look at every type of reaction in industry — oxidation reactions, reduction reactions — and ask, How does nature oxidize? How does nature reduce?
Another exciting field is green architecture. We’re working with the architecture firm HOK to survey areas before they build there. We ask the client, “What are all the functions that you want your building to perform?” and then we examine the ecosystem in the area and see how the organisms that are already there are accomplishing these functions. Say you’re building in Phoenix, Arizona, where there’s little water. We might look at how cactuses save water and reduce their cooling load. Some cactuses are pleated, and the pleats actually shade the other parts of the plant. So the architects might follow that example and design a building that’s pleated and self-shading, thereby reducing its cooling load. In India HOK is building a development in an area that gets hit by monsoons. They’re looking at the root structures of the plants that hold the soil in place to inspire building foundations that have horizontal components.
We are also developing ecological performance standards, which go way beyond green-building standards. We say that your building project should deliver the same level of ecological services as the intact ecosystem that it’s displacing. Before construction begins, we take the whole building team to visit an intact ecosystem of that region. Sometimes we have to leave the site to find a fragment of an intact ecosystem.
Kupfer: I would think it might be a challenge to find one in a city.
Benyus: Absolutely. We did this in Atlanta, Georgia, which you might think of as a pine-dominant land type, but it’s not. The forest of the Piedmont region is an oak-hickory forest. The pines are pioneer growth after the cotton farming of the last century. So we took the architects and builders to a forty-acre plot of preserved oak-hickory forest and discussed its ecological performance standards: How much carbon dioxide is sequestered every year? When a storm hits, how many gallons of water are absorbed by the soil in a day? How much cooling occurs as a result of the trees? How much new soil is built every year? How are pests and diseases reduced by the native ecosystem? We want the building project to aspire to meet those numbers and metrics.
Kupfer: What are the greatest challenges you face in your work?
Benyus: Biological knowledge has been doubling every five years, so there’s an enormous amount to keep up with. We’re also very busy. We are getting requests from all over the world, and every project seems as if it could help save the planet. It’s a challenge to make sure I maintain a balance and spend time by myself in the natural world. To facilitate this, everybody in our company gets to choose one month each year in which he or she will not travel.
It’s also a challenge to keep thinking about the entire system rather than just a particular component of it: to go in with a “macroscope” instead of a microscope. We now lead businesses through a “web workshop,” in which we try to map the flows of materials and energy in and out of a business and then either reduce the flows going out or direct them to other industries, so that it works like an ecosystem.
Biology is a complex field that covers life from a molecular level, to a cellular level, to whole organisms, and all the way up to the biosphere. In my job I have to know all these scientific languages and be a good translator, so I can communicate with lay clients. Higher education tries to force us to become specialists, but this field requires one to be a good generalist and know how life works at many scales.
We all need to become students of a teacher who’s been here much longer than we have. There’s no time for untested technologies that may not be a fit for the earth. We’ve got to use technologies that have already been tested by nature herself.
Kupfer: Are more schools and universities teaching students how to learn from nature, as opposed to learning about nature?
Benyus: We started the nonprofit Biomimicry Institute to encourage just that at both the K-12 and the university levels. So far we have twenty university professors teaching nonbiology majors about biological functions: How does nature filter? How does nature pump? How does nature send and receive signals? It’s a completely different way of teaching biology, and it’s important for engineers and designers to take such courses and know how life works. Our goal for next year is to have biomimicry available as a minor in three universities.
On the K-12 side we just finished a children’s CD called Ask the Planet, which features Bruce Cockburn, Ani DiFranco, and others. There is a curriculum that goes along with it. And we are developing biomimicry educational modules for the San Diego Zoo, which is visited by four hundred thousand schoolchildren a year.
We all need to become students of a teacher who’s been here much longer than we have. There’s no time for untested technologies that may not be a fit for the earth. We’ve got to use technologies that have already been tested by nature herself.
Kupfer: It’s an ethical lesson for our species. We need to learn to borrow from nature rather than steal from it.
Benyus: That’s a good way to put it. Francis Bacon, one of the founders of the scientific revolution, talked about “torturing” nature for her secrets. Biomimicry tries to practice a very different method. The first step is to quiet human cleverness. Then we listen. Then we echo what we hear. And finally we give thanks.
Our mission, in both our business and our nonprofit, is to increase respect for the natural world. Creating more-sustainable products and processes is just an extension of that. To learn from nature, you have to become involved with what Wes Jackson calls the “deep conversation.” To learn how to take carbohydrates and water and turn them into a fiber as strong as steel, as a spider does, you go to a spider and respectfully ask, “How are you doing that?” Then you go and try to do it yourself. And when you fail — it’s very hard to do! — you go back to the organism and ask again.
I have a friend who for thirty-five years studied ocean mussels. The last time I visited him, he was studying the transparent filaments that attach the mussels to rocks, like tendons outside the body. He had only just realized that the threads are also communication devices. The mussels that settle together form a collective, and if a snail comes along and drills a hole into one mussel’s shell to eat it, that mussel, before it dies, tugs on its threads to alert the one next to it about the threat, and the one next to it tugs on its threads, and the message travels through the entire colony until they all jettison away. He was amazed to discover this after so many years.
So practicing biomimicry is a process of becoming more deeply in awe of the organism that you are trying to emulate. Participants in our workshops experience this awe when they see nature solving the same problems that they want to solve, and doing so elegantly. They see other organisms for the first time as elders, as mentors, rather than as crops, or livestock, or a source of raw materials. In the old way of doing things, if we wanted mother-of-pearl, a beautiful natural ceramic, we would harvest the abalone mollusks that make it. The next step was to domesticate the abalone, so that we didn’t have to go into the wild to get the ceramic. Now it’s possible to leave the abalone in the ocean and learn from it how to make strong, beautiful ceramics without a kiln.
Kupfer: Extraction is almost inherent to the concept of resource.
Benyus: Exactly. We have to change that. Biomimicry is as much about having a new outlook as it is about designing new technologies. I don’t think new technologies alone will save us. What will get us through the evolutionary bottleneck is a change of heart, which will come about when we begin to see nature not as a resource but as a sentient master.