English review - Biomimicry: a Promising Future
Humans have a highly problematic relationship with the environment. We suck dry the riches hidden in the earth’s crust, we release toxic gases into the atmosphere and we trim the forests that cover the planet. However, the very nature that we exploit might also aid us in refiguring our relationship with the earth. This is, at least, what biomimicry argues for. After a short introduction by philosopher Cees Leijenhorst, biomimicry expert Saskia van den Muijsenberg explained the opportunities that biomimicry gives us. She was followed by environmental philosopher Martin Drenthen who gave a slightly less optimistic account of the movement. Both, finally, joined on stage to enter into a dialogue, led by Cees Leijenhorst.
Van den Muijsenberg divided biomimicry into three elements: emulation, ethos and (re)connection. Emulation represented the kind of innovation that bases itself on biological phenomena. An example is imitating spider webs in the creation of strong materials, given that, in the same quantity, the former are five times stronger than steel. However, emulation could lead to all kinds of environmental problems, if it would not be accompanied by ethos. The latter revolved, according to Van den Muijsenberg, around our “deep desire to fit in on earth,” where we use biomimicry to create a viable relation between nature and humanity. Our ethos, in other words, makes sure that biomimicry is not used to improve weapons, but is used for innovations that further sustainability.
(Re)connection, in turn, was about biomimicry changing the way we look at the world. Normally, we have a tendency to shut ourselves off from nature. Van den Muijsenberg pointed to the square, windowless lecture room she was standing in. “We think nature is something out there,” she said, waving to the wall. (Re)connection, then, is about going out there and examining the intricate ways in which nature functions. In this way, we can “discover life’s genius” ourselves, leading to a recognition of the grand and intricate biological systems that are present around us.
In the concrete applications, Van den Muijsenberg was clear that there are certainly more and less impactful cases of biomimicry. One can merely mimic the form of a natural object, or one can imitate the entire system in which such a form is embedded. One of the many illustrations that Van den Muijsenberg gave was ‘Interface’. On the level of form, this carpet company imitates nature in the way that all carpet tiles are allowed to look different. The ground in a forest, after all, does not have one continuous pattern. On a systemic level, Interface, in turn, attempted to imitate the circular processes in ecosystems. Amongst other things, they utilized used fishing nets from Asia for the carpets and recycled the waste products of their own production process, reducing their carbon footprint to zero.
After Van den Muijsenberg’s plea for biomimicry, Drenthen gave a more critical analysis. He began by opposing biomimicry to the traditional way that we understand modern technology. We normally think that the latter “formulates laws of nature to render nature predictable and controllable,” leading to machines that do exactly what we want them to do. Biomimicry, however, emphasizes that the downside of such an understanding of nature is exploitation. There is a tendency to think of nature as something that must be bend to the human will. Biomimicry contrasts this calls for a collaboration with nature.
As to the specific form of collaboration, Drenthen noticed, biomimicry is divided. For some, collaboration means to discover nature’s treasures. There is, in this view, a wealth of technology hidden in nature, which we just have to uncover. However, as Drenthen argued, there is always a risk for such treasures to be used for egoistic means and damaging humanity or the earth. Others therefore proposed that we use “nature as our mentor” towards new ideas. Rather than extracting treasures, we let nature teach us the principles behind the ideas. One downside, however, is that it is difficult to know if we are ready for certain ideas. How does nature tell us that we know the principles well enough to develop certain ideas without unleashing powers that we cannot contain?
In any case, it must be asked, Drenthen emphasized, why mimicking nature necessarily has a positive impact on our environment in the first place. This is only true if we assume that nature itself is a kind of cosmic harmony. Humans, then, must only adjust to that harmony in order for their environmental problems to dissipate. The fact is, however, that nature is not really harmonic, but full of battle, chaos and competition. Big catastrophes occur regularly, showing that emulating nature is not in and of itself inherently beneficial for humanity.
In the dialogue that subsequently opened up a lot of room was given to Van den Muijsenberg to react to the critical remarks of Drenthen. She ceded that mimicking nature does not in itself lead to sustainability. It is all about the ethos and diligence with which one approaches biomimicry. At the same time, however, Van den Muijsenberg regarded the view that nature only revolves around battle and competition as mistaken. Quite contrarily, the animal kingdom shows lot of collaboration and avoidance of battle. As such, with the right attitude, nature can certainly be a model to copy.
In conclusion, biomimicry may be, following Van den Muijsenberg, a promising direction for innovation to go in. Not only can it pose options for more sustainable technology, but it has the power to alter the general way we relate to nature. Through biomimicry, we might discover conducts with respect to nature that are sustainable rather than exploitative. However, as Drenthen made clear, it is not self-evident that taking nature as a model leads to more sustainability. In this way, biomimicry ultimately has to be grounded on a more fundamental ethos, which is that nature must only be mimiced for the greater good of the earth.
This report was written by Niels van Henten, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.