Episode 26: Biomimicry: Janine Benyus is Honored by TIME

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Janine Benyus, honored as one of TIME International's Heroes of the Environment for her innovative work in biomimicry is joined by Al Gore, David Attenborough, Mikhail Gorbachev, Robert Redford, George Schaller, Amory Lovins, and others in bringing extraordinary change to the world.

In part one of this two part series, Janine talks about receiving the phone call from TIME magazine,  why biomimicry allows us to see how nature’s best ideas are evolving the human spirit and some deep and soulful suggestions on how you can evolve your spirit.

Be prepared for a very intimate conversation that is unlike any interview Janine has ever done with the press.  You’ll hear new stories, new questions and amazing insights that will forever shift the way you experience nature.

Transcript

Announcer: This program is brought to you by www.personallifemedia.com.

This is Part 1 of a two part program

Meredith Medland: Welcome to “Living Green.” My name is Meredith Medland. Today, our guest is Janine Benyus. Janine is a science writer, innovation consultant, conservationist, and one of the most important voices in a new wave of designers and engineers inspired by nature.

By the end of our show today, we will learn how to increase our awe and respect for the natural world. We’ll learn the importance of creating standards for life’s best ideas and codes of conduct by using nature, and we’ll learn how biomimicry can lead to habitat conservation. Today our show is about the genius of the natural world. Let’s start by asking, what would nature do here?
 
[Begin interview excerpts]

Janine Benyus: Biomimicry is studying and then trying to emulate nature. The first step is this deep observation.

Meredith Medland: What’s the official definition of biomimicry?

Janine Benyus: It’s innovation inspired by nature. It is looking to the natural world for advice about how to live here more sustainably.

Janine Benyus: This plant’s harvesting solar energy. That’s one of the things it’s doing, and it’s something we need to learn how to do, too.

Meredith Medland: What was your secret? How do you do what you do?

Janine Benyus: Pure love. I do it out of amazing love for this sweet world.

[End excerpts]

Meredith Medland: I think we’ll start that off by first saying, hello Janine. How’s it going in Montana?

Janine Benyus: I Meredith. It’s beautiful here. It’s an amazingly late, still kind of twilight. Winter’s coming, I can really feel it in the air, but there’s still so much life outside. The insects are very busy today.

Meredith Medland: How are you noticing the insects are busy? That’s a really intense level of detail.

Janine Benyus: Before the call, I walked outside and I noticed that there were just these clouds of aphids--I’m pretty sure they are. They were huddling around the heat that was coming out from our pellet stove. We have a pellet stove, and there’s a pipe that pipes out from the wall and there’s heat that comes out, but no smoke at all because it’s really efficient. They’re just sort of floating on this thermal of heat and getting the last little bit of heat. They’re up to something. They’re probably finding a place to settle down for the winter. Crawl into some trees, into bark and settle down for the winter. They’re drafting a little heat at the very end here.

Meredith Medland: One of the reasons you’re on the show today is that I was at the Digital Be-In in San Francisco interviewing Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man, I believe that was episode 9, and Michael Gosney who created that event, in our episode 4. At that event, I saw you come through on video and you were showing pictures of students that you’d taken out into, I believe, somewhere in Costa Rica, and they were given cameras.

The shift in their photographs from the first day out to the second day out and then the third day out showed this extraordinary gift of distinction as they started to discover the small insects and all the different lines of leaves that weren’t evident in their awareness on the first day. That’s what I hear you saying when you talk about what the insects are doing in Montana. 

Janine Benyus: Biomimicry is studying and then trying to emulate nature. The first step is this deep observation. Well, the first step is quieting human cleverness so that you’re in a state and ready to learn. It’s a different kind of observation. When we take designers and engineers and architects on these workshops—these are people who everyday are inventing. They usually get their inspiration by looking at other human inventions. We got them outside, where they were surrounded in Costa Rica by the most amazingly sustainable system that one can imagine, and so much variety. Each of those organisms was solving amazing challenges, but they were solving them in very, very different ways.

What we try to teach is to look at those organisms and say, ‘What is it that you’re trying to do?’ The same things that we’re trying to do: you’re trying to move water around, you’re trying to filter clean water, you’re trying to keep yourself free of bacteria, on your leaves for instance, you’re trying to communicate, you’re trying to build homes, and you’re trying to pump water hundreds of feet in the air. Yet, you’re doing it in a completely different way. What we saw in Costa Rica was interesting. I collected all the photos from people’s digital cameras, and I saw this pattern of what they noticed, and how it changed. The first day, it was all scenic shots. It was like calendar shots.

Meredith Medland: I remember that. They were all like your classic sunsets and forests and the water.

Janine Benyus: Pictures of the resort we were in, very much focused on the buildings at the resort and then these calendar shots. Then by day 2 or 3, when all we did was sort of teach them a new lens, which was look closely at these organisms and ask them what they’re doing, you started to get these amazing pictures of close-ups of a beetle’s exoskeleton. There was somebody there who was working on packaging, and for them it was a revelation because here’s this packaging, which was the exoskeleton of the beetle. It breathes, it signals, it creates its beautiful color without toxic chemicals, it’s waterproof, it’s manufactured in a completely nontoxic way, and it’s abrasion-resistant. All the things they would love to have in packaging, and yet it’s made of one material that is completely recyclable.

Once you point that out to somebody whose job it is to try to come up with more sustainable packaging, then all they can do is they start to take pictures of all the packages in the natural world -- the seed coats, the bark of trees -- and they start to marvel at it. You could see their transformation documented in what they noticed with their cameras.

Meredith Medland: That was the most stunning event that I took home from that evening. Your presentation, I believe, is at www.be-in.com. We’ll have our links from today’s show on the episode page at www.livinggreenshow.com. So anything that we’re talking about today, if you’re not at your computer, just go to www.livinggreenshow.com, go to episode 25, and there’ll be Janine’s bio and lots of links. We’ll get those out after the show.

So, what’s the official definition of biomimicry?

Janine Benyus: It’s innovation inspired by nature. It is looking to the natural world for advice about how to live here more sustainably. It’s borrowing nature’s designs and nature’s chemical recipes and ecosystem strategies to improve our own designs and ways of living on earth.

Meredith Medland: This is a term that you distinguished, this is your term? You made this up, right?

Janine Benyus: I didn’t make it up.

Meredith Medland: The word?

Janine Benyus: Yes, I was in an amazing opportunity for a natural history writer. I was noticing that people were beginning to look to the natural world. People who were studying leaves and photosynthesis were suddenly saying to themselves, ‘I wonder if we could make a better solar cell by looking at a leaf?’

Very obvious, but way back in 1990 when I started collecting for the book, it didn’t have a name. It was called lots of different things in all kinds of fields. People in materials sciences were calling it one thing; people like Wes Jackson who were studying the prairie to come up with a new kind of agriculture were calling it something else. I was just able to give it language, give it a name, and that was in ’97 when the book came out.

Meredith Medland: I’ve been learning a lot about distinctions and how much that can change because we have a new lens to view life through, and that’s the gift that you’ve given, really with your life -- the distinguishing of biomimicry. Thank you for that. I will never forget the moment seeing those slides. It’s even changed the way I photograph since I’ve seen those slides.

Janine Benyus: Wow!

Meredith Medland: Yes, I love taking pictures. It’s totally changed. The only time I ever remember having a change like that is -- I studied body work, and when I understood the anatomy and the nervous system, that changed the way I interacted with human beings. That was a big moment for me, so thank you for that. 

Janine Benyus: You’re welcome. Thank the people who were at the course. It was amazing to watch. Some of them would set up photos and they would take three or four photos in a row, and one time we were in the mangrove forest. We were kayaking through the mangrove forest. There are these mangroves that have these aerial roots; they’re like stalks that come up through the mud. They can breathe through these because there’s a tidal flux. They took a picture of the stalks, these sort of whitish stalks coming up though the mud. Then they zoomed in and they zoomed in again and they go to this little crab that was sitting among the stalks. It was like an homage to both the mangrove system and to the organism within it.

Meredith Medland: That’s one of the things I’d like our listeners to take away from this show today. So, if you have children or if you’re on your own or if you’re with a friend or a spouse, get a camera out and go into nature. Janine, can you give us maybe three to five questions that would help open that lens if we’re  just out even in the backyard with a digital camera playing around, or somewhere outside?

Janine Benyus: Oh, sure. When I was just out walking around before this interview, I was noticing that…I do ask questions now. That’s what biomimics do. The questions they ask are ‘What would nature do here?’ and ‘What wouldn’t nature do here?’ to figure out what’s appropriate; then, ‘Why?’ and ‘Why not?’

One of things I noticed was that some of the plants -- even though it’s been very, very, cold at night here and we’re definitely moving into winter – some of the plants at the very base are still putting out green leaves and they’re photosynthesizing. What they’re doing, I would guess, is storing carbon. They’re putting a little bit ore into their roots because they’re overwintering plants. I think to myself, ‘How are those leaves that have to handle very, very cold temperatures and a swing of temperatures, how are those leaves different than the leaves that come up in the spring and summer and that have to deal with heat?’

So, I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to take a picture of these and then I’m going to take a picture of summer leaves. I’m going to wonder how they’re different, because we might learn something about how plants gather sunlight, for instance, at different times of year when the sun’s at a different angle. Maybe they put out different kinds of leaves. Maybe there’s a different kind of chlorophyll that pulls a different wavelength. Maybe there’s a different shape to the leaf or maybe they put out an array of solar harvesters that’s slightly different, tuned to a different time of year. When you start to say to yourself, ‘This plant’s harvesting solar energy.’ That’s one of the things it’s doing, and it’s something that we need to learn how to do, too.

Meredith Medland: Thank you for that. I’m looking forward to going outside with my camera and a new set of questions.

Janine Benyus: Good.

Meredith Medland: We’re going to take a short break to thank our sponsors. When we come back, we’ve got something very exciting to talk to you about. I’ll just give it away now. Each year TIME magazine produces a double issue that celebrated the year’s heroes, and they’re heroes from all walks of life. Some people famous, some people not, but mainly it’s people who’ve made a difference. This has been an extraordinary year for TIME magazine because what they decided to do was focus their whole issue o the environment. They looked at species depletion, air and water pollution and climate change, and noticed that it was changing everything in our world. So, this year, you have been named one of TIME magazine’s environmental heroes.

Janine Benyus: Yeah, that’s a humbling event in itself, to look at the other heroes that are out there Meredith.

Meredith Medland: When we come back from the break, Janine, we’re going to celebrate you as a hero. That’s what this show is all about.

Janine Benyus: Thank you.

Meredith Medland: We’re going to take a break and we’ll be right back. My name is Meredith Medland, and you’re listening to “Living Green.”

[Short break]

Meredith Medland: Welcome back from the break. My name is Meredith Medland and we’re here with one of TIME magazine’s environmental heroes, Janine Benyus. Janine, you’re a self-proclaimed nature nerd and you made it into TIME magazine.

Janine Benyus: Yeah…yeah. [Laughs]

Meredith Medland: Time to celebrate!

Janine Benyus: Yes, we did. We actually went to London. My family and friends came over and we decided to take a moment and say. ‘You know, this is really something.’ Because for me, it’s not so much a celebration of me as a hero, it’s a celebration of the fact that the design community in general has said, ‘we should be looking to nature for new ideas.’ So it’s a celebration of this idea, this meme called biomimicry, that I think has come into its own relatively quickly. Probably because it’s the kind of idea we need right now.

Meredith Medland: It is the kind of idea we need right now, yes. It’s absolutely amazing. I know that you have something that you’ve written in your book and I’m sure you know it by heart, but I have it here. It starts with, “Nature runs on sunlight,’ and there’s about eight sentences. Can I read that…

Janine Benyus: Sure.

Meredith Medland: …or can you say that for the audience?

Janine Benyus: Oh, sure. Go ahead.

Meredith Medland: I would just love to get your comments on this. So you say:
            Nature runs on sunlight. Nature uses only the energy it needs.
            Nature fits form to function. Nature recycles everything.
            Nature rewards cooperation. Nature banks on diversity.
            Nature demands local expertise. Nature curbs excesses from within.
Then you say, “The Birkenstocks are teaching the suits.” I’m so excited for you, for this in TIME magazine.

[Laughter]

Meredith Medland: This is a big deal. You’re being honored, and do many more people know you. What’s the main message that you’d like to get out to my audience and to everyone? What can we get out? What was your secret? How do you do what you do?

Janine Benyus: Pure love. I do it out of amazing love for this sweet world. It is an incredibly competent universe that we live in. This earth, this Eden, that we’re on is a living example of the fact that if we want to live here gracefully, as a welcome species, we can. That’s what gives me hope. Knowing what I know, reading the same warning signs as we’re all reading, I do know the existent proof of the fact that you can live abundantly in a way in which you sip energy, you use a minimal amount of materials to meet your needs, and you live as a community that actually is able to enhance the place that you live. Life creates conditions conducive to life.

As a biological species, which we are, I really believe that we can do the same thing. I think that for us it’s going to take some help. We’re going to need mentoring in it. But I take my hope from the fact that, whereas we’re a very young species, we are surrounded by at least 10–30 million species that are much older than we are, and they have figured it out.

There’s no lack of information about how nature works. We’re starting to really understand how life has managed to make this place a home. Now there are people who are taking what we know and actually saying to themselves, ‘Can we emulate that?’ That’s, where I think we could turn around and begin to come home to the planet.

Meredith Medland: Well, you’ve made a significant contribution in all of this, so thank you for that. I imagine the next three months are going to be quite different than the past three months due to all this publicity. I know you’re getting ready to go to Peru on Friday and do a training study there. Can we talk a little bit about what you do in Costa Rica and Peru?
Janine Benyus: Sure. We’ve got a company called Biomimicry Guild. Myself and Dayna Baumeister started this back in 1998, right after the book came out. People started to call us. People who were inventing communities, who were trying to find a new path, all kinds of people started to call and say, ‘We would like to do bio-inspired design, but we don’t know any biologists.’ So we started this company, Biomimicry Guild.

What we do is bring biologists to the design table. We work nowadays with some companies you know about, like Interface Carpet, Seventh Generation, and North Face, but also companies that you may not suspect. The people who come to these workshops, they may work at Boeing trying to figure out a way to reduce fossil fuel use in aerospace; or at Herman Miller, figuring out how to make a better office environment for us by looking to nature; even the healthcare group in General Electric. All kinds of companies came to us and said to bring biologists to the design table, and bring our designers out into the natural world so that they can get new ideas, so they can be surrounded by genius. And that’s what we do

Meredith Medland: We talked earlier about one of the things you teach, which is the Four Steps to Biomimicry. You spoke first about quieting human cleverness. Second is listening to nature. Can you talk about three and four?

Janine Benyus: The third one is emulating. That’s where the people we’re working with, who are trying to reimagine our world come in. With a biologist at their side, they take the deep patterns that we talk about in the natural world…Say they want to create a new way to preserve foods without preservatives. As a biologist, we would research all the ways in which life preserves. It’s a good time of year to be watching that, actually. How does life preserve? Say it’s a chemical idea. They would try to actually emulate that. So, the emulators are actually the inventors who try to put into place the blueprint, recipe or principle that they learn.

There are now hundreds of case studies of this. A simple but important I think, is the humpback whale, that you guys get to see out there occasionally.

Meredith Medland: Yes we do.

Janine Benyus: that’s your habitat.

Meredith Medland: Yes we do.

Janine Benyus: Well, go out there every chance you can.

Meredith Medland: I used to work on the Double Dolphin, so yes.
Janine Benyus: Oh, really?

Meredith Medland: Yes, big boat. So tell us more. Keep going.

Janine Benyus: Oh, gosh, the whales can teach us so much. One of the things is that when they, sometimes you’ll notice their flipper. Huge, enormous flipper, right? It looks really ragged, like it’s got bite marks out of it.

Meredith Medland: Yes.

Janine Benyus: Well, those are called tubercles. They’re bumps, scalloped-edged. A professor named Frank Fish, believe it or not, studied it. In a wind tunnel test, he put an airplane wing with smooth edges and one with scalloped edges, mimicking the whale. He found that there was a 32% reduction in drag. Drag is what causes friction.

Meredith Medland: Sure.

Janine Benyus: So you can imagine. In aerospace engineering, a 0.01% reduction would be a big deal, but 32% is enormous. There’s a company now that he’s helped start called Whale Power. They’re creating prototypes of this and thinking of putting it on wind turbines, the edge of a blade. That would allow the blade to rotate in very low winds. A whale teaches us how to capture wind. How amazing, right?

Meredith Medland: Yes.

Janine Benyus: So, those are the people who are emulating. It took a scientist who studied that to then say, ‘How might I learn from this?’ This is the new thing that’s happening in biomimicry. Instead of just what biologists used to do, and still do to a large extent -- just publish in an obscure journal and other biologists read it. Now there’s a few of them saying, ‘No, this is a wise pattern. What might we learn?’

Meredith Medland: Number four is protecting the wellspring of good ideas through stewardship.

Janine Benyus: This is where my real passion is. The fourth step is saying thank you, because these are not our ideas. They are ideas that have evolved over unthinkable amounts of time for us. Natural selection has just honed these to such a beautiful match of form to function. It’s amazing.

When we take these ideas and borrow them, how do we give thanks? To me, the best way to say thank you is to protect the habitat that the organism evolved in. That’s the wellspring of the amazing, wise ideas -- the habitat.
Biomimicry Guild is the company, and we also have an institute called Biomimicry Institute. One of the main reasons we started this was to figure out a way to do a program we’re calling Innovation for Conservation. What we’re hoping to do is ask the companies that are coming up with these inventions to donate a percentage of their proceeds to protect the habitat of the organism that inspired it. It’s a way of saying thank you. It’s good manners.

Meredith Medland: It is good manners.

Janine Benyus: It’s also a way of conserving wild habitats, which is one of the wellsprings of my passion. I’m lucky to live in a valley surrounded by Congressionally-designated wilderness. We need a lot more protected wild lands and well-treated settled lands, and I think that the Innovation for Conservation program will allow biomimicry to foster, to give rise to, a habitat conservation habit. This is not new to indigenous people; to say thank you for any wisdom they’ve received.

Meredith Medland: And that’s www.biomimicryguild.net, right?

Janine Benyus: www.biomimicryguild.com is the company and www.biomimicryinstitute.org is the institute that’s doing the Innovation for Conservation program.

Meredith Medland: Excellent. Good. Good stuff. I’m a big supporter of that. Thanks for joining me. My name is Meredith Medland, and I’m your host of “Living Green.”

Announcer: This concludes Part 1. The interview will be continued in the next episode of this show. Find more great shows like this on www.personallifemedia.com.