The next step in the sustainability journey: What would nature do?

mangrove grove
The view of a mangrove tree in the Caribbean. Mangroves provide essential services to their ecosystems.

Janine Benyus has long known how much smarter nature is than we are. She remains ever-ready to provide a thoughtful answer each time the sustainability movement turns another corner and breathlessly asks, “what next?”

In her sit-down with Joel Makower at the VERGE conference in Oakland last week, she gave all credit to her own source of inspiration — nature. Twenty-one years after her book, "Biomimicry," came out and established a new way of thinking about design, Benyus is still dispensing her unique blend of wisdom and inspiration at the forefront of a movement that shows no sign of slowing down. At the same time, she acknowledged that biomimicry has become "a meme," and is here to stay. In fact, last year, Fortune magazine called it "One of 5 Trends to Ride."

Looking for a way to remove particles from air? Take a look at mangrove roots. They capture waterborne soil for their own nourishment. The roots, it turns out, are spaced apart in a particular way that causes eddies — little miniature whirlpools, which cause the particles to spin and then drop. There are now buildings using this principle, with columns arranged in a similar manner.

Looking for a way to keep bacteria off your doorknobs and walls? Check out the structure of the skin on shark fins, to which bacteria cannot adhere. Hospitals are adding this type of texture to their walls.

But as we begin to crest the net zero buildings hill, guided by, among other things, answers to key questions about energy efficiency and water conservation provided by “the genius of the biome,” larger questions loom before us.

What comes next? How do we construct buildings that are net zero along every dimension? We’re talking about buildings that replace all the ecosystem services they displaced in their construction.

One solution is being explored by a joint effort between the Biomimicry  Institute and Interface Corporation at its Lagrange, Georgia facility, where they are instantiating the "Factory as a Forest" concept for the first time. The idea is that the building and its grounds (including the permeable parking lot) will provide the same beneficial impact on the surrounding area, which used to be a forest. Underpinning this audacious concept is what Benyus called "Ecological Performance Standards" which quantify impacts such as water purification and absorption, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, biodiversity and others. Surely, a city as a forest cannot be far behind.

This represents a new level in the sustainability journey, in which carbon negative products and systems are one type of milestone. Still, the carbon cycle is only one of several life-sustaining processes upon which life on our planet depends. There’s also the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorus cycle and perhaps others of which we are not yet aware.

At a deeper level, it’s the recognition of how everything we make and everything we do is deeply interwoven into the fabric of our local biome. And because there are so many of us, and because we are a species that is so capable of dramatically transforming our environment, we need to not just become more fully aware of our global impacts, but we also need to take action to ensure that the disruptions we produce will not threaten our very existence.

Much of this will fall on those who design these products and systems, who will have to carry a heavier burden. When they start to ask, "Do you really want me to consider everything?" we’ll know we’re getting close. The good news is that there will be a growing body of effective responses they can draw from, as well as jobs created to develop and implement them. If a building needs to replace the carbon sequestering services previously provided by the land it rests upon, trees can be planted, biochar buried, rooftops gardened, or even direct air capture machines installed. If it’s a consumer product, then its life cycle must be fully understood, circularity maximized, carbon neutral or carbon negative materials used, giving preference to those that can be grown rather than mined.

A few companies, such as Interface, Global Thermostat and Newlight Technology, are already doing this, with others lining up to follow. These are the leaders, who, as Benyus said, "are like the foot of the amoeba." They initiate a step in a given direction, "and the rest of the body eventually follows."

Thanks to people such as Janine Benyus, those amoeba-foot leaders have a good idea of where they might step next, based on solid principles as old as life itself.

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