Three billion years is a pretty long time to learn things. So why do we humans want to keep “reinventing the wheel” – or, in this case, virtually everything but the wheel?
I'm talking about the fact today's scientists, at long last, are beginning to seriously look at the fact our technology does things using toxic chemicals, high heat and physically destructive, wasteful processes to do the same things that Nature has evolved to do using low-temp methods and simple materials.
Think about it: the living world managed to create DNA, a multi-million-atom molecule, using just CO2, water, nitrogen, sunlight, and a little phosphorus, sulfur and iron. No petri dishes. No microscopes. Nobody carefully toggling the dials to get it just right. No waste that can't be reused safely. Just life gradually building itself over the long course of time.
Biologist Janine Benyus calls the process of turning to Nature for its solutions to problems we face “biomimicry,” and it could conceivably give us ideas for almost everything. According to her recent talks at www.ted.com (a source of all kinds of fascinating science and cultural ideas, if you've never heard of it), researchers have begun to go out to the real world to see how to duplicate spider silk's strength, how leaf structures can be adapted to keep paint clean and store wind or solar energy, how to grow simple but effective lenses the way starfish do, how the construction of termite mounds in the Australian desert could keep humans cool, how to do complex chemistry in water, etc.
Sound strange? It shouldn't, since we're distant cousins to all of these lifeforms. But we've allowed our own hubris to make us forget that, converting an ancient “live and let live” relationship where the living world was kin (with some necessary hunting, like any other carnivore) into seeing Nature as a bunch of disconnected “things” to exploit. We benefit short-term both ways, but the former ensures a long-term existence, while the latter is, as we're now seeing, self-destructive in an accelerating manner.
A strong case in point comes from another TED talk by Marla Spivak on why bees are disappearing. If you haven't heard, the last couple of winters in the US have seen bee colony losses of around 30 percent a year. Spivak and others attribute that in large part to our giant monoculture farms overusing pesticides, which either kill them outright or, in low doses, confuse them so they can't find their way home.
While we don't have such farms in our area, the fact our yards are similar monocultures of grass sprayed liberally with common pesticides has a similar impact. From an ecological point of view, a lawn is essentially well-watered green desert – very little plant variety to attract pollinators, root-length variety to work the soil, or food to attract birds or small animals.
That's why Maureen and I decided a few years ago to let our land revert to meadow in the areas we aren't actually growing food. I'm sure some people driving by see it as chaotic, but it's a riot of fertility, with all kinds of flowers blooming at various times pollinated by dragonflies, butterflies, bees, wasps and other insects. We routinely see small mammals, frogs, snakes, multiple bird species and a turtle or two, and have been visited by turkeys, deer, opossum and even a fox.
To us, that's not disorder – it's a healthy living world, one we know is safe for our young niece and cousins. And if the minimal control we exercise means we lose a few zucchini to squash bugs, some beans to unknown eaters, or a couple tomatoes to hornworms, we'll live with it. They need to eat, too.