Learning from Nature How to Inhabit the Earth

Henry Dicks

Earth Month provides an opportunity not just to raise environmental awareness but also to think more deeply about alternative ways of inhabiting the earth. In my new book, The Biomimicry Revolution: Learning from Nature How to Inhabit the Earth, I argue that we are in the early stages of a profound revolution–based on the simple but powerful idea of learning from nature–that is underpinning not just a radically new approach to technology but also, and more importantly, the basic ethical framework we need to inhabit the earth in a way that is genuinely sustainable.

Biomimicry is bigger than you think it is

To get a feel for the power and significance of learning from nature, or, in a word, “biomimicry,” consider the following exchange I had with ChatGPT, the AI chatbot taking the world by storm:

Is ChatGPT biomimetic? 

Yes, ChatGPT is biomimetic to some extent. GPT stands for “Generative Pre-trained Transformer,” which is a type of artificial neural network that is modeled after the structure and function of the human brain. The architecture of the GPT neural network is based on the transformer model, which was inspired by the attention mechanism observed in the human brain. The attention mechanism allows the brain to selectively focus on certain parts of an input, and the transformer model uses a similar mechanism to generate high-quality text. In addition, GPT is pretrained on massive amounts of text data, much like how humans learn from exposure to language and other forms of sensory input. This pretraining allows ChatGPT to generate responses that are similar in style and content to human language.

This answer should not really come as a surprise. For how else – other than by imitating and learning from nature’s strategies for generating high-quality text – might a chatbot produce such convincing prose? And yet the answer surprises nevertheless, for it is far from widely known that ChatGPT is “biomimetic.” This points to one of the curious things about the biomimicry revolution: it has thus far been taking place largely unnoticed and untheorized. Learning from nature is increasingly the design strategy of choice in all sorts of fields, from AI and robotics to architecture and urban design, from synthetic biology and evolutionary computing to permaculture and agroecology. And yet we haven’t managed to join the dots together and understand that these shifts are all part of what, following Janine Benyus, I call the “Biomimicry Revolution.” No longer is innovation taking place, as has generally been the case since the Industrial Revolution, by imposing forms and ideas dreamed up by the human mind onto raw materials extracted from nature; the ideas and design principles for new technologies–from artificial intelligence to artificial photosynthesis–are increasingly coming from nature.

A new approach to environmental ethics

There is much more to the biomimicry revolution, however, than just a radical shift in how we think about technology. At the heart of biomimicry lies one simple phrase: life creates conditions conducive to life. Nature does not only provide us with a set of designs we may seek to imitate or take inspiration from, but a general principle capable of guiding our actions. Like other lifeforms, we should seek to create conditions conducive to life. Simple as this idea may sound, it actually opens up an entirely new approach to environmental ethics. In addition to affirming that it is not just for humans but for life in general that we should be tackling the environmental crisis, biomimicry also tells us that we must do more than just protect conditions conducive to life, for we must also seek to follow nature in creating such conditions. No longer can we limit out ambition simply to letting nature be; we must henceforth seek also to be like nature.

What would “being like nature” involve exactly?

It would involve imitating and emulating the beings and systems that were there before us and that still endure–even if only in patches–on the margins of the human-built world. Farming would take inspiration from prairies or forests, recycling nutrients, growing crops in polyculture, and working with natural predators for pest control. Industry would eschew violent temperatures, pressures, and toxic solvents and instead follow life in working with natural materials at life-friendly temperatures and pressures without recourse to toxic substances. And the urban environment could be transformed through the poetic idea of “imagining a building like a tree, a city like a forest.” Each building, in this scenario, would generate its own energy, sharing any excess with neighboring ones, as occurs between trees in the rhizosphere. Water would infiltrate naturally into the soil, rather than being sent down drains and overflowing sewage treatment plants whenever it rains. Even the sewage treatment plants themselves would be transformed–on the model of natural wetlands.

The universal appeal of learning from nature

One of the main advantages of “learning from nature” is that it holds near universal appeal. Indigenous people typically see the knowledge and wisdom they possess as deriving in the first instance from nature. The first recorded instance of biomimetic innovation dates back over three thousand years to when the Chinese tried to make artificial silk, and imitating and learning from nature is an important part of the Eastern philosophy of Taoism. As for Western culture, the ancient Greeks thought that all human craft – from house-building to weaving – arose through imitating and learning from nature. Even the Christian Middle Ages and the Renaissance accepted the idea. In fact, it was only with the Industrial Revolution, which not coincidentally marks the onset of our present destructive relation to nature, that the arrogant belief that humans would be better off ignoring nature and inventing a world entirely of their own making was exported around the globe.

The biomimicry revolution–a story for our times

As it stands, the story I have just told remains almost entirely unknown. This is a problem, for despite growing awareness of the need to transition to renewable energy, circular economies, and the like, as long as we haven’t identified the fundamental cause of our current problems or the key to resolving them, it is far from clear that our efforts to transition to a different way of inhabiting the earth will be successful. Just as a doctor will be unable to cure an ill patient as long as they have not correctly diagnosed the illness, the same is true regarding the environmental crisis. The problem is not simply that we are burning fossil fuels, consuming resources unsustainably, destroying natural habitat, and polluting air, soil, and waters, but the basic reason we are doing so – we deliberately set out to disregard nature and replace it with designs of our own. By recognizing this and looking instead to do things in nature’s sustainable and life-friendly ways, the earth may become not just something we turn our attention to for one month a year but for all twelve.

Henry Dicks is an environmental philosopher and philosopher of technology and the author of The Biomimicry Revolution: Learning from Nature How to Inhabit the Earth.

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