By Russ Lawrence
Influential author and lecturer Janine Benyus will make a rare appearance before a Bitterroot Valley audience on Friday, Sep. 11, bringing home her message about solving human problems by emulating natural processes.
Benyus is the author of the 1997 title, “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature,” a groundbreaking work that created a new field of study. In it, she describes how photosynthesis, for example, produces energy from sunlight, while giving off oxygen as a byproduct. What other processes can be adapted for beneficial use, while mitigating or even reversing our ecological impact?
Her presentation, at 7 p.m. in Hamilton’s Community Room at City Hall, 223 S. Second St., is sponsored by Sustainable Living Systems, Bitterroot Audubon, the Center for Spiritual Living, and Bitterrooters for Planning. Admission is free, but donations to the sponsoring organizations are welcome.
Biomimicry 3.8 is the for-profit consulting business that Benyus created in 1998. The number refers to the collective wisdom generated by 3.8 billion years’ worth of life on earth that waits to be tapped.
It operates alongside the Biomimicry Institute, which she co-founded in 2006, to educate and “to catalyze open-source innovation around biomimicry.”
Her ultimate goal is “to organize the world’s biological information into a form that is really easy for people to access,” she said, for designers to have useful biological wisdom available to them “at the moment of creation.
“I want to make biomimicry more usable every day, to make it actionable,” she said.
Another goal is to tease out the deep patterns that are repeated in nature, that all organisms have in common. All life does chemistry in water, she pointed out, using a safe subset of elements, rather than using toxic solvents and high-temperature or high-pressure processes. “We try to identify those patterns, and have people adopt them not just to invent one thing, but to invent a ‘code of conduct’ for whatever they do.”
She is gearing her Hamilton presentation to an audience that may be unfamiliar with some of these concepts, and to equip listeners to go out and “do” biomimicry on their own.
“I want them to walk away thinking it’s not something happening in science labs, it’s a way of seeing things, and solving problems,” she said. The point is to learn from your place. It’s a new way of interacting with your landscape, she explains, as a teacher, not just scenery.
“A sustainable world already exists,” she continued. “The thing that’s cool about this talk is that we live in a ‘reference habitat,’ a model that works. The answers are in places like this,” she said, referring to the intact ecosystem bordering the Bitterroot valley. Such places provide what she calls “ecosystem services,” such as water and air purification, carbon storage, and the nurturing of biodiversity.
“One of the free ecosystem services we get from nature is a well worked-out solution set,” she said, that teaches us how to live well in place.
Locally, she points out that simple actions, when carried out on a large scale, have a cumulative positive effect when it comes to soil and water conservation, for instance.
Though she makes 20-30 presentations a year to business conferences, conservation organizations, and private businesses, she’s excited about speaking locally, though a bit nervous about talking to an audience of familiar faces. She’s planning a talk that features “some of the best case studies in biomimicry,” with a focus on local issues, such as agriculture and ranching, renewable energy, “green” housing, and sustainable ways of creating products.
She’ll take questions “with an eye toward local issues and solutions,” she said, “but first I want to get people on the same page.”
She also wants to let people know that biomimicry isn’t something happening in a far-away lab. Her headquarters is in Missoula, and they bring people to Montana from all over the world to teach the principles of problem-solving through biomimicry. Through Biomimicry 3.8 she’s even exploring her first joint venture, with the goal of manufacturing a product locally. It’s a business that has created a number of good-paying jobs, she said, that is committed to staying in Montana.
“I’m looking forward to it because I love sharing,” she said, and to presenting a hopeful message “in a time when we need radical solutions.”