February 14, 1996
Business and technology have long learned from nature. There are signs that we are finally graduating from primary school, as we turn our attention from parts and creatures to ecosystems.
Biomechanics and bioengineering have studied the workings of living things to design everything from prostheses to submarines. Fermentation industries, from beermaking and cheesemaking to pharmaceuticals, are sophisticated ranches managing microbial ecologies. Genetic engineering is on the enthusiastic ramp-up of a grand game of mix-and-match with life’s family jewels. Now, genetic algorithms are attempting to mimic the processes of natural selection in developing computer software through a guided process of trial and error. But these fields have generally studied parts, not systems, elements, not principles, with genetic engineering perhaps the extreme case. (Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute, once mused that biological science took a profound wrong turn when it shifted its emphasis from natural history to molecular biology. But that’s another story.)
This may be changing as innovators in a number of fields are studying and emulating the design principles of natural ecosystems, in order to boost efficiencies, enhance resilience and reduce environmental impacts. These “ecomimetic” (mimicking ecosystems) strategies draw on billions of years of evolutionary trial and error as their primary design palette. Often dismissed as fringe or impractical, they are in fact as conservative as it gets, since their underlying philosophy seems to be “use what works”‹and do the minimum required to gain the desired result. Yankee ingenuity meets “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”
Organic agriculture is probably the granddaddy of ecomimetic strategies. Some people think of organic farmers as folks who use don’t use chemicals or do use manures. In fact organic farmers are sophisticated ecosystem managers–managing soil ecosystems to ensure adequate nutrition for crops, and managing diversified crop/insect/soil ecosystems to minimize pest losses and optimize yields. Their models are often the native ecosystems of prairie or woodland. A good eye for pattern–including physical structure, food chain relationships, and functional interactions–enables a skilled practitioner to replace energy intensive inputs with natural flows.
Ecomimetic design in architecture steers by the same key principles as ecological agriculture: live on current solar income; disbelieve in “waste” (eliminate it, or feed it to something useful); encourage rich and diverse interconnections of multi-functioning organisms/elements; and adapt design to the region, rather than force a standard pattern onto highly varied landscapes and climatic regimes. The result–buildings that cut energy and water use as much as 90%, while improving productivity.
In industrial systems, “zero emissions” strategies and ecological industrial parks (EIPs) are two attempts to turn the “waste equals food” analogy into profitable reality–the first by focusing on the individual company as ecosystem, the second by focusing on the inter-firm ecosystem of tightly coupled materials exchanges. There are not yet many examples to point to, but the concept has developed a considerable momentum. The Zero Emissions Research Initiative will soon host its second internal conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and EIP projects are in development across the US (see NBL 4.23).
These ideas aren’t new, of course. Even the sophisticated expressions of modern ecological agriculture are advanced expressions of the sophisticated understanding of natural history common to farmers around the world before cheap chemicals temporarily displaced knowledge of place and seasoned wisdom. Even the current buzzword of industrial ecology has roots that go back at least to the work of Ian McHarg, Peter van Dresser and others.
But perhaps the most important implication of the ecomimetic philosophy is in economics and accounting. The currency of economies is an abstract representation of value–and only of a portion of value at that. This abstraction is both the strength and weakness of economics. The great innovation of money was its ability to serve as a universal medium of exchange, but now, increasingly divorced from real wealth, it distorts value, becomes an obstacle to intelligent choices.
The currency of ecosystems, in contrast, is not abstract. Far from it. That currency is the direct physical exchange of energy and nutrients, with consequences of interactions that are physical–and inescapable–as well. Economic and enterprise management focused on the physical flows may yield far different insights, and performance, than management based exclusively on the abstract representations of dollars, Yen and ECUs.
This is also not new territory. Georsecu-Roegen and HT Odum laid important groundwork in the 1970s; Daly, Henderson, Holmberg and others continue it today. Michael Rothschild’s “Bionomics” has helped popularize the metaphor (though perhaps by standing it on its head). At long last the momentum has brought the challenge of environmental accounting to both SEC regulators and CFOs. More on that in a future column.