Scenarios of Sustainability & Biomimicry

I don't really have a good image to go with this post, so here are some kangaroos.

Ok wonderful people out there, I need some input. I’m framing a discussion around scenarios of sustainability and the deeper I get into the issues of design, the further I get from inspiration from nature. It may be because I am in a process of trying to over simplify things and might not be seeing the wood for the trees, so I’m looking for some feedback.

Scenarios of Sustainability:

I want to qualify that my statements below are my first attempt at articulating what the scenarios of sustainability are from a product design perspective. I’m not sure all my generalizations below will stand up to Architectural investigation (yet), and am well aware that there are huge issues (social sustainability, cultural diversity) that are not being tackled (yet).

Scenario A: We stop consuming

  • Mass culling (reduced production) of things that are not “critical”
  • Repair / extend the life of what we already have
    • Could happen selectively – human choice / motivation
    • Could be enforced – through context; cost restrictions, material shortages etc…

Scenario B: Consuming becomes “sustainable”

  • What we throw out is biodegradable (at the same speed as production/consumption)
  • The lifespan of use matches the lifespan of the products (or cost of new production is more expensive than further extraction of raw materials
    • Biological nutrient cycles
      • “bio-degradable” materials – recycled through the earth
    • Technical nutrient cycles
      • “up-cycling” – repair – reuse

How do we feel about that?

Is that an over-simplification or am I getting close to reducing things down to their bare simplicity? Obviously there are huge conversations that run parallel to the statements above. In our current obsession of worldwide debt issues any conversation about reduced consumption that might slow economic growth is a little taboo, but perhaps it is a nice time to point out that the current system doesn’t work.

Help me biomimicry, you’re our only hope

I’m having a hard time trying to find really clear stories from biology that create positive entry points into the above concepts. Because let’s be honest, the above challenges are scary, daunting, and incredibly unsexy.

Are there good examples of biology that speak to up-cycling, or repairing? How can we discuss reduced consumption without using doomsday rhetoric? I need more than the obvious case studies – oak trees producing abundant acorns to nourish an ecosystem is not enough.

Translated questions of biology:

  • When does nature “up-cycle”?
  • How does bio-degradability “work” in natural materials? – I know it is usually triggered through context, are there good examples of this?
  • Does nature curb consumption? My understanding is that biology is very bad at preventing over consumption of resources, therefore triggering collapsing populations…
  • Are there good parallels for “repairing” in nature, without anthropomorphizing biology?

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts out there…


9 Comments on “Scenarios of Sustainability & Biomimicry”

  1. scelop says:


    super deep questions….you know that, right? But here are some things that come quickly to mind with respect to the last part of your post

    Nature constantly upcycles (unless i am misunderstanding what you mean). Every relationship between a consumer and a producer is an example. When a rattlesnake eats one of my lizards, some of that lizard becomes snake. Follow the links in a food web and you see example after example of upcycling. Moreover, the distinction between upcycling and recycling is interesting, important, and in reality hard to nail down and trace….some of that snake is going to end up as a source of raw materials for lizards to make more lizards through the actions not only of other organisms, but also from physical processes.

    Why not think of biodegradability as the combined fact of upcycling and recycling? I suppose we tend to think of it as our stuff turning into dirt in the landfill rather than lingering as a substance that locks up the energy/nutrients etc. into a relatively inaccessible form….removing it from the system even after it has ceased being usable/useful.

    I am not sure i understand what you mean by ‘curb consumption’ (difference between maximize and optimize?), but ecological systems can and do cycle without catastrophic collapse such as that observed when a predator over-consumes its prey population. There are properties associated with systems that do collapse versus those that don’t that ecologists have studied as the drivers of the system behavior. For example, in predator-prey relationships, when predators can switch between prey of different types, that can help decrease the probability that a predator will drive prey and then themselves locally extinct.

    ….repair….more later

    • Carl Hastrich says:

      Hey Peter,

      Thanks for the feedback.

      Thanks for the examples of up-cycling – I think the chain of material consumption and transformation in nature is important to properly map out for designers on two fronts:
      1 – We have not designed “trophic” levels in our recycling plants or landfills, which limits our capacity and processes.
      2 – We do not recognize the problems caused when “locking up” the nutrients in a form that decomposers can not access.

      The technical nutrient cycle is difficult to translate into language of biomimicry. In this regard the nutrients are “components” that can be manipulated between varying applications, and shared across multiple platforms. For example, the design of a wristwatch that at the end of use can also become the face for a bedside alarm clock, or integrated into engineering equipment that needs a built in timer.

      Are there examples in nature of “universal connections” that allow components to be interchangeable? Should we be looking at the genetic/molecular level for these insights? At a particular scale we’re investigating an area nature doesn’t do, unless there are species that swap internal organs…

      Perhaps that will be address in your repair discussion?

      • Tim McGee says:

        Hi Carl,

        This conversation happens with every client I have that produces something. There is always an internal debate as to if they should try to produce less or be more efficient or to make their product as you say “sustainable”. For “Sustainable” I would tend to actually refer back to the idea that a product should be ‘generous’ – in that in it’s creation, use, and disposal it is beneficial to the greater social, economic, and ecological systems of which it is a part (also a tough business model to sell).

        Both of these make sense depending on circumstances- and for me it then becomes an art of asking: “Where in nature does life try to reduce material and energy cycles, and where does it decide to be generous to the greater system?”

        I like the story of the Spider eating it’s spider web. I have heard that a spider, if it determines its web is just not in top shape, may decide to start over. It then goes about eating it’s own web as raw resources to produce the next one. This is about the closest example I have of direct cycling of materials. It makes sense, because it is highly local, highly specific, and even in a normal process of consumption the spider gets a bit of Web in it’s food (so to speak) so it is used to eating it (and has the process for doing so already in place).

        The Birch tree and the Rhododendron is a different tale. Rhodies, are fairly toxic, like the semi- shade found in type II ecosystems, and grow around Birch trees. Birch trees are sweet pioneer species that don’t have many defenses. However, it has been found that a birch tree growing near a Rhododendron will have some of the same toxins in it’s sap and tissues as a Rhodie. Did the Birch ‘steal’ the molecules? Is the Rhodie sharing? What are the system benefits of a Rhododendron sharing expensive molecules like that? Maybe it helps keep the Birch tree alive longer (safe from predation), so that the Rhododendron keeps it’s friendly environment? At any rate- we see these expensive molecules, or even expensive organs being ‘conserved’ between species or trophic levels.

        Another good example of this is the sea slug. When it eats a sea anemone, it doesn’t digest everything. There is a whole special mechanism that the sea slug uses to keep the sea anemone’s stingers (nematocysts) from stinging…and it actually takes the nematocysts cells and moves them to the outside of it’s skin so that it has stingers!! Keep in mind this is like me eating a full chicken and then my digestive system decides to take the feathers and move them to my arms…crazy!

        I also like the story of a Maple tree in New England in the Fall. As the conditions change from warm, wet summer it begins to pull the chlorophyl back out of the leaves, and stores the nutrients for next spring. Meanwhile, it let’s the cross-linked (hard to digest), and cheap leaves fall to the forest floor (where they act as a protection, water collection, and food/shelter for a broader ecosystem)..

  2. scelop says:

    maybe the translation of nutrient cycle is harder than it needs to be? perhaps we are forcing it into an inappropriate construct. What if the watch was consumed (whether it was at its life end or not) by the next product and then transformed by that same product? In the consumer-producer model, the consumer digests (biodegrades) the meal and then transforms (biosynthesizes) the new product. It seems to me that the difference between that and, say recycling plastic, is that the consumer has the recycling machinery built in (tear down and remake). Moreover, there is a lot of overlap between the chemistries of the producer and the consumer (that’s how why they are built in in the first place). So maybe our recycling programs are not so different from recycling in biological systems from a process standpoint….it is just that in the former that there are too many proprietary chemistries and too energy intensive.

    I think of the watch face example also as a kind of co-opting, not so much recycling. organisms that consume other organisms and then use components directly without reconfiguring them into basic building blocks are opportunistically repurposing because they can’t make it themselves. Lot’s of examples, but the fun ones that come to mind include some bugs eating specific plants to accumulate compounds that the plants make which are in turn poisonous to the things that would eat the bug.

  3. Tim McGee says:

    One interesting bit is that living systems share some basic core materials:

    5 Nucleic Acids (DNA has 4, RNA has 3 of the same Plus one different one)

    21 Amino Acids (out of the hundreds possible…all living organisms use these 21..more or less for all their proteins)

    You could start to go deeper (or take a different perspective), and look toward ‘technology’ systems that are based on:

    – POLYSACCHARIDES (Cellulose, Chitin)
    – PROTEINS (Collagen, Keratin)
    – POLYPHENOLS (Lignin)
    – LIPIDS (fats, oils, waxes)

    All in all- one of the benefits of having these limited platforms is that then the resulting materials can typically be re-used, or safely handled by existing systems.

  4. Carl Hastrich says:

    Have I ever said how much I love biologists?

    I am incredibly fortunate to be able to throw out a question last night and have two superb biologists throw information at me the following day. I am humbled by their knowledge and pushed by the insights they send my way, in turn inspiring more and more questions. In essence, this is why I continue to explore and experiment with biomimicry.

    Will need to re-read a few times, as my brain slows its spin out… there are some superb ideas that need to be translated and expanded within design from here.

  5. just a thought that was brought up in my mind reading this dialogue: why aren’t end-of-life scenarios part of design education? at least in my experience (in the realm of graphic design, learning print design) we never consider anything but the “thrill” of creation, getting our idea to the outside world via some kind of medium (usually books or posters etc). granted these mediums may be more biodegradable than plastic or metal but why not consider what happens to them after they’re produced. mostly they just sit around taking up space after we’re done making them.

    but my larger issue is that we don’t seem to have shifted our thinking to the end-of-life, why? fear of our own death? a perception of never-ending space? obsession with the new?

    what if we designed with the end in mind, like tadpoles that slowly ingest the eggs sacs they’re born with or butterflies that emerge from an edible chrysalis (need to watch life in the undergrowth again). it seems like the time has come – it probably came a few generations ago – to seriously consider product death. i’d love to see products that were ultimately dissolvable or could melt and be reformed at home.

    an aside – just finished reading “moby duck” by donovan hohn about how plastics float around the world on currents and in gyres, very informative and a great read. if those plastic toys had been wooden how different the world might be.

    • Carl Hastrich says:

      End of life seems like such an “un-sexy” concept… in my class last week we had a discussion about a future branding/design project that explores how to make secondhand sexy? The cult of the new as fostered by almost all existing advertising is so pervasive, it would be intriguing what kind of message would be required to look at this in a different light.

  6. […] and possibly even concepts around regenerative design. It’s taken me a little while, since Tim first told me this story, but here goes my first real attempt to put my money where my mouth is around the concept of visual […]

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