The solutions to climate change—indeed, to most of humanity's environmental challenges—are all around us. Nature has already devised, after 3.8 billion years of testing, the most efficient ways to filter water, clean air, avoid toxins, stabilize the climate, and otherwise sustain life. If humans emulated nature’s practices, we could not merely halt environmental degradation but reverse it. This is the promise of biomimicry.
Example: Photosynthesis offers a way to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thus reversing global warming. When trees and crops grow, they take in CO2 via photosynthesis and store it in stalks, leaves, and roots. Bury those materials in soil, where they no longer trap heat, and you begin to turn down the global thermostat. And, equally important in a hungry world, you improve the soil’s fertility—boosting crop yields—and its resilience to droughts and floods, which will intensify in years ahead even if climate change’s momentum is slowed.
“We ask, ‘What would nature do here?’” says Janine Benyus, the biologist and natural historian whose 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature popularized the term. Benyus argues that the fossil record shows what happens to species that don’t create conditions conducive to long-term survival: extinction.
If all this sounds a bit esoteric, tell that to General Mills, Boeing, GE, and Johnson & Johnson. They're some of the global companies that have collaborated with Benyus's Biomimicry Institute. They aren't just burnishing their green cred; they use biomimicry to make more profitable products. For example, “swarm technology,” by which ants and bees communicate, enables British Telecommunications to route phone calls efficiently, avoiding congestion despite heavy traffic.
But Blue Planet, where actor-activist Leonardo DiCaprio is an adviser, illustrates what a company that’s explicitly dedicated to sustainability can achieve. Blue Planet utilizes biomimicry to turn CO2 into concrete, essentially by mirroring the process that builds coral reefs. The carbon embedded in the limestone makes the resulting concrete “carbon negative,” turning buildings and highways into another means of reversing global warming.
The reason such technologies are not yet commonplace, Benyus argues, is that “we as a society do not ask, ‘Is this good for life—good for the greatest number over the longest time?’ [Instead] we’ve chosen an economic system that demands exponential returns over short periods of time. That’s our natural selection device, and sometimes we reward very much the wrong things.”