Biomimicry to the rescue of the world?

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The inextricable nature of the global systemic crisis forces us to cogitate, then to act, both with relevance and urgency. Difficult exercise! After sustainable development, prosperity without growth, the transition movement and degrowth(1), always acting in one way or another, we now have a newcomer. At a time when the techno-prophets of Silicon Valley intend to totally reconfigure the planet through convergent technologies, the discovery of biomimicry is a breath of fresh air. This original idea was born among ecologists close to those who have long advocated the use of renewable energies. But what else does it bring? The approach consists in observing the mechanisms of the « great laboratory » of nature and then taking advantage of them in productive activities (industrial or not), with the aim of saving resources and energy, as well as achieving greater efficiency and sustainability. In other words, to study and respect the « Principles of Life » as they apply to bacteria, protozoa, fungi, plants and animals. 

With the help of Michèle Decoust, Gauthier Chapelle, biologist and agricultural engineer born in 1968, offers the first popularization book in French, The living as a model. The path of biomimicry (ed. Albin Michel), prefaced by Nicolas Hulot and Jean-Marie Pelt (1933–2015), written in a style … alive! This is not his first time. At the International Polar Foundation, he specialized in the climate issue, before turning, for the last fifteen years, to practical solutions by attending courses given by Janine Benyus, founder of biomimicry. To explore this issue, he then co-founded the Greenloop consultancy with, among others, our collaborator Raphaël Stevens(2), as well as the association Biomimicry Europa, explaining that he sought a more radical approach than that of sustainable development.  » Biomimicry refers to that subset of biomimicry intended to provide us with an arsenal of technological and organizational tools, the principles of which have been tested by evolution and which can help us in the transition necessary to regain our place in the biosphere » (p. 28).

The book is at the same time an autobiography, a work of scientific dissemination and a political-philosophical essay. It describes the author’s travels, from Brittany to Antarctica, where he perceived for the first time the globality of the damage inflicted on the earth’s environment. Even if they are popularized, the numerous scientific information are not always easy to assimilate. The biologist author bridges the gap with sociology, particularly when he compares the advantages and disadvantages of the modes of ecosystemic relationship — symbiosis, competition, commensalism, coexistence, parasitism — by transposing them to the economic sphere. Quite naturally, his preference is for symbiosis, which is now studied by a new discipline, symbiology. This « demonstrates more and more each year that the major innovations in the evolution of living organisms result from symbioses » (p. 253). This is a scientific teaching that we should take into account in human organizations, which are, in contrast, steeped in the gospel of competition. 

Does biomimicry represent a real breakthrough? With sustainable development and the dogma of growth, certainly, says the author. And also more globally with the thermo-industrial society. However, « biomimicry is not an end in itself, but a tool for compatibility with the biosphere » (p. 108). Because it is indeed about concrete « solutions », sometimes focused on performance (including energy performance), but first of all on sustainability. Biomimicry is presented on three levels: the first is based on forms inspired by living organisms, for example, the bow of a high-speed train that evokes the beak of a kingfisher, to promote aerodynamics; the second is based on materials and natural chemical reactions — green chemistry -, which has a greater impact than the first; finally, the third is based on ecosystemic relations themselves, aiming to insert production into biospheric cycles. We discover with astonishment, and skepticism, that it would be possible to obtain organic electronics and photovoltaics where carbon would replace silicon (!). The reflections on agriculture are more promising, with the objective of a « post-carbon biomimetic agriculture ». The author uses the example of the Bec Hellouin farm in Normandy (mentioned in the film Demain), which he has studied closely (epilogue, pp. 293–315). The networking of hundreds of micro-farms of this type would be an answer to both unemployment and the desertification of the countryside. 

Ecosystem-based biomimicry also makes it possible to propose an integral reading of the current situation. G. Chapelle has the lucidity to link it to the various aspects of the coming collapse: the climatic disturbances, the fall of the biodiversity and the peaks, of metals and oil, since « biomimicry, by definition, includes the art of living without fossil fuels » (p. 129). He continues: « Like any ecosystem, civilizations are complex adaptive systems, just like a bacterial colony, an ant farm, a forest, a coral reef, a company or a city! These systems have in common that they are dynamic in nature, constantly evolving, throughout an adaptive cycle. For example, the growth phase of a forest will start with the installation of pioneer species, which will prepare the arrival of other species, gradually leading to the conservation phase and the so-called mature forest. If a major disturbance occurs — insect attack or fire — all or part of the forest will undergo a creative destruction, releasing matter and energy, before preparing for reorganization. But this evolution will not necessarily lead to the return of the forest, if certain thresholds have been crossed. When we apply this thinking to the thermo-industrial civilization, many researchers believe that we are now on the verge of a breakdown — at the end of the conservation phase — and that behind the collapse of this fossil fuel addicted civilization, the reorganization will lead to a « post-oil » civilization privileging the low tech, while associating ourselves with other species and leaving it to them to manage the high tech chemistry strategies compatible with the Living that they have mastered for so long, without fossil fuels… » (3) . Indeed, in his conclusion, he calls for a reconnection with the Earth and its millions of species, which should be symmetrical, I would add, with the largest possible disconnection from the technical macro-system! 

Bernard Legros

Notes et références
  1. La décroissance étant la proposition la plus intéressante dans la liste ! Mais cela est un autre sujet…
  2. Eco-conseiller, collapsologue et co-auteur avec Pablo Servigne de Comment tout peut s’effondrer, éd. du Seuil, 2015.
  3. Échange privé basé sur les deux derniers chapitres (15 et Conclusion, dont « La mort comme Principe du Vivant »).

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