Biomimicry

I’m currently reading this book: The Story of Stuff. How Our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health – and a Vision for Change by Annie Leonard.

I’m ashamed to say that I picked it up in a charity shop about 4 years ago, started to read it, stopped and then it went back on the shelf for years! Let’s just say it’s quite heavy going and American-centric, but there are a lot of relevant points to anyone, living anywhere in the world.

Today, I was interested to learn of the concept of ‘biomimicry‘. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard that term used and described in this particular way before. But I wanted to make a note of it for future reference. Biomimicry is apparently a trend in modern design, in which designs are influenced by nature.

There is even an organisation called the Biomimicry Institute which has noticed that “nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers. They have found what works, what is appropriate, and most important, what lasts here on earth. This is the real news of biomimicry: After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.

Biomimicry experts have identified the following list of core principles in how nature functions:

  1. runs on sunlight and uses only the energy it needs
  2. uses a water-based chemistry
  3. fits form to function
  4. recycles everything
  5. rewards cooperation
  6. banks on diversity
  7. demands local expertise
  8. curbs excesses from within
  9. taps the power of limits

So, the art and science of biomimicry takes these principles and figures out how to make human technologies, infrastructure, and products that adhere to them as well.

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Some examples given in the book, are that the peacock’s brilliant feathers are not created through pigment, but through shape. They have many layers that allow light to bounce off them in different ways, which translate as colour to the naked eye. I had to Google this a bit further, it’s known as ‘structural colouration’ and was first discovered by Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton (2 English scientists). It describes microscopically structured surfaces, fine enough to interfere with invisible light (sometimes in combination with pigments). So, peacock feathers are actually pigmented brown, as you can see when you turn them over. But it’s their microscopic structure that makes them reflect blue, green and turquoise light and they are often iridescent. Butterflies also use this ‘technique’. Perhaps this could avoid the need for toxic dyes to be created, if we could harness a similar technique?

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Mother of pearl is created in cold, salt water – a substance twice as strong as ceramic. Perhaps we could eliminate the use of fossil fuels, in heating kilns to make ceramics? Maybe we could learn to extract metals from cold water?

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The threads that hold a mussel shell to a rock naturally dissolve after 2 years. Perhaps we could study this and learn to create compostable packaging? (I think this one is starting to occur, approx 10 years after the book was written).

I’m not a product designer, but I did once study art. I think it’s fascinating to look at the natural world more closely, even if I was just doing it for beauty’s sake. I would have no idea how to create the intricacies of a leaf, for example, with veins running through it to carry water and nutrients, or cells that contained chlorophyll and knew how to grow, and goodness else knows whatever else goes on in there! But I bet there are scientists who could begin to work on these dilemmas. Perhaps artists could work with scientists to create truly beautiful, functional designs that remained harmless to us and our planet?

It seems to me that there is more to being a designer than just knowing about technology, or engineering, or science. Everything in the natural world seems to hold some innate beauty within it too. I can’t help but come back to the Christian ideas of intelligent design or things being created by someone far cleverer than us. Perhaps the plants and animals haven’t found out what works by trial and error over time? Perhaps they were designed that way from the outset? By someone who already knew the delicate balance of the earth’s chemistry and systems? It’s an interesting thought isn’t it?

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Things that have gone – 22

Decluttering continues apace – an imminent new arrival will give you added motivation I have found!

This week I’ve sold items, given them away on Freecycle, passed them onto other people after I spotted specific requests for that item and given items to charity shops.

  1. Book – given to family member after I finished reading it
  2. Book – sold, Facebook group for that subject area
  3. Turf- specific request spotted on Freecycle, given away (would have just left it to decompose otherwise!)
  4. Cat radiator bed – sold via Facebook Marketplace
  5. Ornamental Flute-  sold on eBay
  6. Oasis blouse – sold on eBay
  7. Bag of clothing, books, DVDs and craft items – sent to charity shop
  8. Glass worktop savers- given to someone after specific request seen
  9. Wooden chopping board- given to someone after specific request seen
  10. Selection of cleaning products, scourers and cloths (I no longer use these items, since switching to greener methods)- given to someone after specific request seen
  11. Baking tray- given to someone after specific request seen

I literally have only 17 items left on eBay now, some of which I will give away if they don’t sell soon. And then I would honestly struggle to find something around the house to sell or give away, since I have pretty much got it down to items I need or use regularly (she says now). I am sure I will re-evaluate that point of view a few months down the line!!! But for now, I am happy and have totalled almost £3K back in the bank from this frenzy of selling over the last 18 months. I think that’s about what eBay reckon most people have tucked away in their houses/ lofts, storage etc.

The British Shopping Habit

I’ve just finished reading Shopgirls: True Stories of Friendship, Hardship and Triumph From Behind the Counter, after picking it up a few months ago in a charity shop. It is a thoroughly well researched book and I find this kind of social history very interesting. What surprised me was  this little bit at the end of the book which I shall share with you now. It was nothing like the historical accounts that compiled the rest of the book and I thought it was pertinent.

      “Over the past two centuries shopping has become nothing less than our national past time and many will find it a hard habit to break. Collectively, we still spend more time shopping than we do on any other single activity outside work. – as much as eighteen hours a week according to one recent survey and a combined total of eight years of our lives, according to another.

Part of what drives us to do this, of course, is that we shop out of necessity for the food, clothes and other essentials that we cannot get any other way. After all, most of our nineteenth-century ancestors didn’t become consumers for fun; if they were among the working poor, they became consumers to live. But along the way, together with the better-off, they found new pleasures and developed new kinds of sociability in and around shopping. And it’s arguably these things that continue to draw so many of us to the shops today: we have strong emotional attachments to both the stores and, very often, the people who help us within them.

Shops suffuse our earliest memories. As babies and children, it’s quite likely that we spent a fair amount of time in and around shops for the simple reason that shopping is one of the few tasks that can be achieved with young children in tow. Beyond that, particular visits to specific shops are often markers of personal milestones: being taken to buy our first pair of shoes, school uniform, wristwatch or teenage party outfit; spending our first wage packet; choosing gifts for birthdays, engagements, weddings and retirements. Equally, being unable to afford to be part of these modern rituals of buying and giving can hurt and be a source of shame.

The fact that shopping allows us to give to others – and to give much more than formal gifts and presents – is hugely important. Everyday shopping is nothing less than an act of love. Buying things for others – food, clothes, toys, or treats – is an everyday way of showing we care, that we’ve thought about what others need or want. In effect, we ‘say it through shopping’. To view consumer culture this way – as an intensely social part of life, built on relationships – is to challenge the more wearily familiar line that it is shallow, self-centred and individualising. Perhaps the pursuit of small personal pleasures, alongside the promise of the ‘experience’, may yet keep our shopping rituals alive.”

I don’t know what your thoughts are? I have to say that I feel I disagree with the authors, I don’t think that much of the buying that goes on is for others. I think most people buy for themselves, much of the time. It’s admirable that they have tried to put a more positive spin on consumerism, but I think they’ve missed some other huge elements around sustainability and the environment, debt and finance, slave labour and so on. I also think it would be terribly sad if all a child’s key moments in their life revolved around the acquisition of stuff in some form. Sure, I remember being taken to buy school uniform but I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly fond thought. I’m far happier re-calling many a childhood experience – holidays, sporting activities and time spent with significant people than I am visits to shops!

I would say that in the UK we have largely turned every religious festival into an excuse to buy stuff and there is nothing left that we celebrate for celebrations sake. Wouldn’t we be far richer as a culture if we had shared traditions that we all participated in, where we could feel a connection with the past and our roots, than a ritual of buying every-changing stuff only to dispose of it a short-time later?