by Amory B. Lovins
Late Summer 2005
In 1999, two colleagues and I worked out what it takes to meet a single American family's annual needs. Each year, for a four-person, middle-class household, industry extracts, processes, refines, manufactures, burns, pumps and wastes four million pounds of material. That's approximately 20 times an average person's body weight per day. Of this vast flow of stuff, only 7 percent gets into products at all, only 1 percent into durable products and only 0.02 percent into durable products that later get recycled, remanufactured or reused. Thus U.S. materials flow is about 99.98 percent pure waste.
To produce a liter of Florida orange juice, for example, requires a thousand liters of water and two liters of gasoline – plus paper for the carton, plastic for the screw top, ink for the label, boxes to hold the cartons, pallets to hold the boxes, trucks to deliver the pallets, fuel and power for the factories and trucks, and so forth.
Nature, by comparison, has no waste. Everything that organisms produce is reused by other organisms; one's waste is another's food. Recycling is 100-percent efficient, and toxic leftovers are unknown.
What if we used nature as the model for our next industrial revolution?
Biomimicry is a new science that studies nature's models, designs and processes, then imitates or takes inspiration from them to solve human problems. Biomimicry uses an ecological standard to judge the "rightness" of innovations. "After 3.8 billion years," writes Janine Benyus, a biomimicry scientist, "nature has learned: What works. What's appropriate. What lasts."
If you want to stick to something smooth, emulate gecko feet (nano-scale hairs on their feet allow them to cling to smooth surfaces). If you want to glue things underwater, ask barnacles. If you want to collect dew from night air, check out Namibian desert beetles. Show color without dyes? Ask birds about their feathers. Self-cleaning surfaces? Lotus flower leaves keep themselves clean in muck. Or examine the inner shell of an abalone, which is self-assembled in seawater at 4 degrees Celsius, yet is twice as tough as our best ceramics. Filaments stronger than steel and tougher than Kevlar are made at ordinary temperature from digested bugs: Just ask spiders.
Commercial products that mimic nature are now forming the leading edge of what's called "biomimetic design." The biggest commercial building in Harare, Zimbabwe, is the nine-story, 31,600-square-meter Eastgate complex. Inspired by termite mounds, architect Mick Pearce and design firm Arup came up with a clever passive way to cool and ventilate the building: same comfort as other buildings its size, half the electricity. Prototype rotors from PAX Scientific in San Rafael, California – modeled on the spiral ramps in seashells – can make pumps and fans quieter and more efficient.