Learning from Nature By Davie Philip
What do billions of years of resilience have to teach us?
“Those who are inspired by a model other than Nature, a mistress above all masters, are labouring in vain.” ~ Leonardo Da Vinci
What does it mean to live a good life, especially in a time when we face so many uncertainties? How do we maintain our health, happiness and collective well-being when the world seems to be unravelling? How do we make a living by collaborating and working together for the common good? These are some of the questions I have been exploring, and attempting to answer, in this column.
In my experience, being on a mission to “save the planet” is actually an unhelpful perspective to taking the action needed to reduce our environmental impact. It’s not the planet that needs saving. As nature is dynamic, always changing, turbulent and unforgiving, any “return to nature” thinking needs to be reframed to look at how we best cope with a rapidly changing world.
As natural systems are resilient, abundant and self-organising, I want to explore what we might learn by observing and emulating them. With nature as a teacher, we could make things in ways that don’t impact the environment anddo strengthen our resilience, and design systems that will allow our communities to flourish.
For three years, I have lived and worked in Cloughjordan, a small village in Tipperary and the 2012 winners of the national Green Community award. It is also the location of the Ecovillage, Ireland’s largest eco-neighbourhood, now home to over 50 families who have relocated in the hope of living a good life. The quality of life in Cloughjordan is indeed high. As a community, we have planted thousands of trees, have our own farm and live in efficient eco-houses that are bright and heated by renewable energy.
Although ecology is a focus of the community, it is definitely not our objective to get “back to nature”. We encourage the use of natural building materials, farm organically and aspire to reduce our environmental impact, but the Ecovillage project is more about community than saving the planet. The project’s original objective, building sustainable community, has been superseded by the idea of strengthening our community’s resilience.
In their book, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy point out that “a new dialogue is emerging around a new idea, resilience: how to help vulnerable people, organizations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.”
We need to cultivate our resilience, and transforming linear, wasteful and polluting ways of using resources is an imperative. In the search for genuinely green solutions that take us beyond conventional sustainability, we will find that nature got there first. By observing the way nature does things, we can learn so much.
Janine Benyus, an American biologist, coined the term biomimicry for the science of examining the natural world and mimicking it to create more sustainable ways of making and doing things. She describes it as “the conscious emulation of nature’s genius”.
The word is derived from the Greek words bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate. Architects, engineers and social innovators who use this approach always start with the question: “What would nature do here?”Biomimicry has already helped us to conserve resources, gather water, harvest energy more efficiently, and offers all sorts of innovative responses to the challenges we face.
The approach makes it possible to manufacture materials with no pollution, build more efficient structures, create zero-waste systems, make our constructed world more resilient to change and help us make the transition away from a fossil fuel economy.
One example of biomimicry is the development of coatings for ship’s hulls based on the ability of a shark’s skin to reduce drag. The coating creates a more streamlined surface, which reduces friction and saves on fuel. Speedo even makes a swimsuit that uses this technology called Fastskin, which US swimmer Michael Phelps wore at the Bejing Olympics in 2008. These suits allow swimmers to move faster through the water and are so effective that they have now been banned in contests.
Biomimicry is well established in the fields of industrial design, engineering and manufacturing, but what I am interested in is how we can use nature as the inspiration for any of us to create solutions for our own and our community’s well-being. We can do this through Permaculture, an “it’s-all-connected” whole systems approach to the way we design our landscapes and human systems.
The essence of Permaculture is the design of an ecologically sound way of living. It is not another “back to nature” movement; it is a very practical and effective way to emulate natural patterns and principles to increase our resilience and quality of life. In the development of a permanent culture, learning by watching what is going on in the natural world is a very powerful tool.
Permaculture is an approach that takes us beyond sustainability to a truly restorative design for creating human habitats and healthy ecosystems. It helps us to protect and enrich soil, boost biodiversity and use natural resources in a healthy way. Underpinning this is the simple idea of working with, rather than against nature.
Permaculture principles can even help us to design viable social systems. The quality of every living system, and its ability to endure, is determined by the quality of its relationships, both internally between its elements and with its environment. This profound lesson from nature can be applied not only to the way we design our gardens and farms but how we structure our organisations and society. Permaculture could be defined as the science of maximising beneficial relationships.
Diversification reduces risk and builds resilience and is essential to a Permaculture approach. Nature relies on a large variety of species, systems and organisms that allow it to withstand external shocks because diversity gives strength. Everyone can study and apply Permaculture design; it really is an application of common sense.
If resilience is about cultivating the ability to cope with shocks and to self-organise, to change and to adapt, then there is no better teacher than nature. As Janine Benyus says: “After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.”
Cultivate are offering a number of Permaculture courses over 2013. FEATAC accredited courses held over three weekends are being hosted in the spring and autumn, and a 9-day, full Permaculture Design Course is held in August with renowned US teacher Albert Bates. The courses will be held in the brand new WeCreate Centre in CloughjordanEcovillage. This setting provides participants with a unique opportunity to see many key sustainable systems in practice.
For full details, see www.cultivate.ie or call 0505 56063
Davie Philip runs the Community Resilience programme at Cultivate. He is based at the CloughjordanEcovillage and is a board member of GIY Ireland.