The Globe and Mail, Review 


'We ask questions like, which paint is less toxic?
A biomimic would ask, how does nature paint?'


The Globe and Mail - Thursday, May 25, 2000

"Grown men weep," says Janine Benyus from her Montana mountaintop. The science writer is talking about the reaction to her seventh book, Biomimicry. "Really, I'm not kidding. I spoke to a group of architects and afterwards, a very, very distinguished gentleman told me he had started to cry when I explained how life self-assembles. The response has been both surprising and gratifying. Audiences react with waves of euphoria; people stand up to cheer."

Benyus is open, friendly and laughs a lot. She has a casual frankness about her that is truly modest, and her writing, in a jargon-rich medium, is light and funny and clear as a bell. "I don't think I'm saying anything new. I just asked the question: How do animals live sustainably on the Earth, the same Earth on which we are trying to grow our food and build our houses? I wondered if anyone is consciously trying to emulate nature."

Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature was the answer to her questions and, since its publication, Benyus has spent much of her time lecturing and consulting. She's given talks and workshops at Nike and Natural Step. She is on an advisory "Dream Team" at Interface Carpets, who make 70 per cent of the formerly petroleum-based commercial carpets in the world, and whose CEO vowed recently never to take another drop of oil out of the ground. She's going to Japan this summer to talk to their corporations. She's consulted at clothing company Norm Thompson, Shell, AT&T, Novell Networks. "They see biomimicry as a competitive niche, part of their sustainability program, the buzzwords of which are: People, Profits and Planet."

I shake my head. I didn't even know that Fortune 500 corporations had sustainability programs. Well, yes, apparently some do.

"Nature has done just about everything we want to do. We're off on our own thinking we made all this stuff up, when, of course, we haven't. And nature, very often, has chosen a different pattern of doing things. And that pattern is not only effective, but does no harm, and creates conditions conducive to life. Because those are the rules nature plays by. And more and more companies are realizing that these are the rules that eventually they're going to have to play by."

Okay, short answer: How does biomimicry work? "Usually when we face environmental issues, we ask questions like, which paint is less toxic? But that's not the real question. A biomimic would ask, how does nature paint? And very quickly, the answer comes that nature doesn't use paint. Then the question becomes, how does nature create colour on purpose? You'd start looking at a peacock feather, for instance: How does it create that colour, and how do we create that colour on our cars, say? And you realize that a peacock feather is brown."

"It's brown," I repeat.

"It's brown," she replies. "That colour is caused by layers of simple keratin. Your fingernails are made of keratin. Layers are laid down at 90-degree angles, and the light which is bouncing through them and bending back out, creates the colour. Nature uses a free energy source, light, and lays it down. What if we were to use lightweight composite car bodies, which they are moving towards anyway, and just lay the composite down in certain layers that would create the colour? Then you'd get away from the question of which paint is the best to use. That's what businesses are so excited about."

Benyus spent a year traveling, seeking out the men and women who, in small university towns and labs all over North America, are deciphering the actual designs of nature, showing us a future that uses the mimicry of nature's processes to produce products from cancer-curing drugs to the cars of the future to DNA-based computers that can execute a thousand trillion operations per second. Today, even our supercomputers can only execute a trillion operations per second, and every product we make increases the toxicity of the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. At one point in her search, she took a summer off, sat down and read textbooks so she could speak to the multidisciplined scientists in their own language. When she emerged she found thousands of them, many working independently and publishing only in obscure technical journals. They were bent on answering these kind of questions: We cannot make glue that we can lay down in water, but how does a mussel glue itself to an underwater rock?

Taxol, Diogenin, Digitalis, and extracts from a host of other plants have given us cancer drugs, and treatments for congestive heart failure. What pharmaceuticals still exist to be found in fast-disappearing species? Animals self-medicate in nature. How can we imitate them to find drugs in plants quickly?

How do howler monkeys predetermine the sex of their children?

Compared ounce to ounce with steel, dragline silk is five times stronger, and elastic. How does spider silk "bungee" 30-per-cent farther than our stretchiest nylon? Imagine a living-room window that is as rigid as glass, yet able to bounce back when assaulted by your neighbour kid's baseball. Or a car body capable of the same thing. Created without toxic chemicals or indeed any waste at all.

"A small group of industry leaders see biomimicry as part of the mosaic of tools that people are looking for to increase sustainability. It's not just avoiding expensive regulations any more. It's a search for legacy. What will the company stand for, how will they attract the best talent? This is a new competitive niche for them. They say, 'This is the right thing to do, and I'm going to make money doing it.' It's still expensive for a company to be an early adopter on this. But what if we reimagined the economy? What if the economy actually rewarded this behaviour? What if we discouraged using virgin raw materials, and encouraged companies like Interface, who won't use oil any more? From the relief I see during my lectures, I think people's behaviour would change overnight."

From her mouth to God's ear.