Pushing the Limits Interview with Janine Benyus.
Montana-based biologist and author Janine Benyus pioneered a new way of solving our world’s problems: Biomimicry, or as she explains it, “innovation inspired by nature.” She puts forward the simple idea that we look to the natural world to find the solutions for many of our problems. Like how we can use a leaf’s technology to some day fuel a hydrogen economy, or how we could use models based on neurons to revolutionize computers.
Is capitalism in its current form sustainable over the long-term?
No, I do not think capitalism in its current form is mature enough to look with a clear eye at the opportunities and the limits of the earth. Capitalism has focused on the opportunities, but has not been as truthful with itself at looking at the limits. Until it matures to the point that it truly incorporates into its economic models the true limits of what the earth offers us and will tolerate from us in terms of behaviour, its growth will be a depletion of our natural capital.
What does a sustainable economy look like?
I am a biologist, so I would have to go back to a biological model. I think it would look a lot like the self-sustaining mature ecosystems that we see in the natural world. Ecologists define a successionary model with three types of systems, from Type 1 to Type 3. The Type 1 system emerges from a disturbed environment, such as a turned-up farmer’s field or a wind gap in a forest. In this system, all resources are available and it is colonizing time. Species use an opportunistic strategy in which they take as many raw materials as they can and put them into products and waste and move on to their next set of raw materials. It is a linear process. In this Type 1 system, little energy is used for putting down roots, recycling loops or feedback loops. Or, for that matter, symbiotic relationships with other organisms or cooperative relationships. Because the intent is to move on. In the natural world this is a strategy that works well, but it is not the dominant strategy. It is a strategy for healing scars on the landscape and it prepares the landscape for the next kind of species. Type 2 and Type 3 are the mature systems that we should be emulating. These are systems like the large mature forest or the established prairie. Their biggest characteristic is that they are not going anywhere. They take what is given, the opportunities, and they acknowledges their limits. They start to recycle the nutrients over and over again.
I am describing what a sustainable system would look like. All the niches are filled. There is full employment. There are many diverse sorts of jobs and the jobs centre around using every single crumb of nutrients in that system. The interactions among organisms are complex. There are a lot more symbiotic and cooperative relationships than you see in a Type 1 system. The emphasis is on quality instead of quantity.
It is not a leaky system. The system itself creates more and more opportunities for life and that means that more and more niches are created. The fleas have fleas have fleas, as someone once said. Also, the system itself actually enhances the place rather than depletes it.
Have we been undercutting our resources and our ability to move on to a Type 2 system?
Well, that is it. Type 1 species actually wind up creating the conditions conducive to the next stage but, for us, there is something new in the equation. We have over-harvested to the point that we have eaten our seed corn in a lot of ecosystems. Type 1 systems don’t stay in place long enough to do that. They move on quickly. We have used a Type 1 strategy for too long and we have tipped over to the point where we are not enhancing the place, we are actually depleting it.