This past weekend was the Bioneers conference, now in its 19th year. It was every bit as hippy as people say it is, but it had some fantastic speakers, including Janine Benyus, Ray Anderson, Bill McKibben, David Orr, Naomi Klein, and others. Also, it was perhaps the first activist conference I've been to, which was interesting to experience. (Most of my time is on the design & engineering circuit.) My personal favorite part was that the day after it, the Biomimicry Institute had a post-conference, day-long session of its own where nearly a dozen scientists and entrepreneurs (most speakers were both) talked about their successes bringing bio-inspired designs into development, and the beginnings of bringing them into the real market. Below are some notes from some of the speakers that caught me from both Bioneers proper and the Biomimicry day:
Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan (Onondaga / Iroquois) mentioned that when he was young, there were 2 billion people on the planet; now there are 6.7 billion. It occurred to me that if anyone doubts we can radically change our impacts on the world, that statistic alone should tell them. Everyone shies away from declaring population shrinkage a primary objective for the sustainability movement, but it needs to be. As with reducing emissions, we need to reframe it not as a stifling of humanity, but as an opportunity to make our lives better. Just as reducing carbon isn't about saying no to industry but is about making industry better at producing what it wants (products and money) with fewer costs (environmental and economic), the population problem isn't about telling people they can't have babies but is about giving people access to birth control (more sex and fewer consequences, what's not to like?) and empowering women in developing countries (through economics & education).
Janine Benyus had a slew of biomimicry examples to trot out, some of which we've talked about before but others that were new. Notable ones were Regen Energy's bee-inspired software that reduces energy use by having appliances communicate to shutoff during peak times; the US olympic swim team's "fastskin" suits that imitate shark skin for lower drag; Qualcomm imitating structural color in butterfly wings to create color at low power in its Mirasol displays and advertisements, etc. She mentioned her upcoming book, Nature's 100 Best, where she specifically looked at biomimetic solutions to the world's most pressing problems, such as energy generation, carbon fixing (i.e. using CO2 to make things like plastics [Novomer] or concrete [Calera], not just sequestering it in a hole in the ground), water efficiency and purification, etc. She estimates that there's been a 93X increase in bio-inspired patents in the past decade.
Dune Lankard, another TIME hero of the environment, talked about growing up on a reservation in Alaska, seeing species get fished out before his own eyes throughout his childhood, then founding Redzone habitat preservation group and working with a startup making hybrid engines for boats that may triple fuel economy.
David Orr talked about the IPCC & Stern Report, then described how the US spends $45 billion a year to subsidize oil, gas, & coal. He and the Presidential Climate Action Project have developed a 100 Day Action Plan to Save the Planet, addressed to both candidates for US president (and presumably relevant worldwide) containing 300-some recommendations. It is several hundred pages long, and will not be fully released until November, but the distillation by William Becker (just about 100 pages) is already online.
Naomi Klein did not talk much about her new book "The Shock Doctrine," but rather talked about the economic crisis, why it's worth people's time to educate themselves about it, and why we should take it as an opportunity to massively restructure global financial systems. For those interested, though, the Shock Doctrine is about what she calls "Disaster Capitalism"--basically politicians acting as extortionists, saying things like "9/11 just happened, so I need sweeping unprecedented powers to make things better" or "the banks just failed, give me $700 billion or everything will collapse." Perhaps her most important point was that, as Milton Friedman said, crises are when change happens, but what gets done is whatever ideas are lying around; it's our job to keep the best ideas lying around, and keep them strong and ready for action.
Google showed how Google Earth has been used by activists to influence policymakers and the public by making impacts visible. One example painted a proposed logging site onto the map, showing it to be within a football field's width of an elementary school, and tagged photos of the area so people would see what would be gone, which ended up defeating the plan. Another showed before-and-after mountaintop removal for coal mining in Appalachia, using historical aerial photos for the "before" pictures that were seamlessly overlaid on the map; the activists also used video and text to tell geo-tagged stories about the area. Even a pre-industrial Amazon tribe learned how to use computers and the internet to put themselves on the map, showing the outside world how illegal logging was encroaching on their land.
The day of biomimicry was quite different from Bioneers--highly technical, and all about emerging technology and companies inspired by nature.
Jay Harman's PAX Scientific is the classic biomimetic invention for energy efficiency, partly because the physical forms of the impellers and fans are so beautiful, but also because they have now launched half a dozen spinoff companies commercializing various applications of the fundamental theory (PAX Streamline, PAX Water, and PAX Fan, for instance.) A long time in the making, these companies are finally beginning to see market success.
WhalePower is a small startup commercializing an invention we've mentioned before, imitating whale flippers for more efficient wind turbines. The curious thing about this company is the science is so new, no one can exactly say why the effect works, they just know that it gives significant measurable results.
Gillian Bond, professor emeritus at New Mexico Tech, talked about fixing carbon in calcium carbonates through enzyme-catalyzed processes. It was interesting to note that 1.5 x 10^17 metric tons of carbon are currently sequestered as limestone, far and away the biggest carbon sink in the world.
Novomer makes plastics out of CO2 and limonine, the spritz-juice from orange peels. Charles Hamilton, their president, said 50% of the material weight is from CO2 (though once in the polymer it is no longer CO2 but part of the hydrocarbon chain). All their products are biodegradable and use no food feedstocks, just industrial ones; however, they will not be making anything that consumers will see anytime soon (like PLA for packaging). When I asked him why not, he said it's simply a matter of economics--packaging plastics are manufactured at massive scales for very low prices, and there's simply no way they can compete in that market in the visible near-term. Instead, they are making binders & sacrificial copolymers, precursors to nylons, and other specialty materials.
John Warner, the co-father of the Green Chemistry Initiative along with Paul Anastas, described how it started, and pointed out that even today no university in the world requires any demonstration of understanding toxicology or environmental impact to get a chemistry degree. While shocking, this explains much about why industry and government run the way they do. Obviously, it needs to change. They are working with a university in India to create the first such program.
David Hammond of Go2 Water described their biomimetic wastewater treatment system that uses a fraction of the energy a normal treatment plant uses, cleans water better and does not clog with sediment, grows algae, captures methane for fuel, and works on an industrial / municipal-scale, not just individual building scale as Living Machines do. Their technology was the farthest along of any, having been in use for over thirty years.
Bob Hawkins of Eprida described their carbon-negative fuel system of gasification and biochar (similar to experiments we've described before, but further along with DOE studies and commercialization.) He described making hydrogen out of waste biomass (chicken manure, municipal wastewater, etc.), and making char similar to terra preta which not only sequesters carbon itself, but jump-starts natural soil-building (bacterial & other processes) so much that the carbon you put into the soil ends up being dwarfed by the carbon fixed by microorganisms (your carbon is less than ¼ the carbon you end up with; in fact, Amazonians who live in areas with terra preta soils dig it out and sell it to people, because they know it will grow back.) Hawkins pointed out that if we wanted to use terra preta to sequester all of humanity's excess CO2 emissions (1.9GT/yr), it would take an area about three times the size of Texas (2.2 x 10^8 ha), which I found surprisingly small. This was very encouraging.
image credit: Bioneers
All this craziness kind of makes me wish I had earned a degree in chemistry or engineering rather than political science. Its incredibly exciting and interesting. On the other hand, had I done a different course of study I may have never become interested in creating better industry.
Love this stuff. Why is it that the media doesn't tell us more about this? The average person's typical knowledge of our situation is that we are in a global environmental disaster. Period.
Thanks so much.
Just a detail correction -- I think that US subsidy number should $45 BILLION, not trillion.
"Biomimicry" is always such a mixed term for me.
On the one hand I am enraptured by biomimicry technology.
But on the other hand, as a dramatist I appreciate how "biomimicry" was once upon a time the way that human beings -- not machines -- "acted" in life. I mean, "biomimicry" is about as dramatic a concept as there is, creating things that 'mime' life.
In the ancient amphitheatres of Greece, there was a form of sacred comedy in which everyone became a 'biomime.' Everyone "acted like nature," (or, more specifically, the ancient Greek god of nature). I'd like to see biomimicry return to its roots in human action and develop the idea of 'acting like nature acts' into social and cultural systems.
Current approaches to social change on the "BEST" model (Biological Ecological Social systems Theory) are an important part of this process, but I think we need to get some language going that is easy for people to understand so that we can expand our human "repertoire" for how to "act" in life for life's sake.
David, good catch on the trillion vs. billion; I'm sure you're right. I fixed the text in the article.