"The biomimicry movement emerged around Benyus’s (1997) publica-tion of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Although Benyus did not invent the term biomimicry, her book popularized it while articulating the initial principles of a biomimicry method, about which I will say more below. Benyus has worked tirelessly over the last fifteen years to promote the biomimicry message, giving countless interviews and a Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) talk, most of which is accessible on the Internet. Benyus is a master of her trade. She speaks eloquently, conveying passion, calm confidence, and charisma. As a result, her efforts to spread biomimicry’s message have paid off. Over the past decade, her work hasspurred a wealth of biomimetic research projects alongside a rapidly expanding body of biomimicry literature in academic, business, and popular forums. Biomimicry has also made significant headway into popular dis-course and has even been the subject of several special features aired during primetime on National Public Radio in the United States (Frank 2014).
But biomimicry is not just about optimizing technological design. It presents itself as a social movement in every sense of the word. It insists that we become “nature’s apprentice,” with the emphasis not only on natureas a source of genuine knowledge of craft but, more importantly, as an ethical system. Biomimicry thus aspires to be not just a technique but also a new science of nature that will inform a novel and ethical political, economic, and social order. Not surprisingly, such aspiration is not without a utopian tinge.
Consider, for example, how Benyus envisions a biomimetic world in her 1997 publication:
- In a biomimetic world, we would manufacture the way animals and plants do, using sun and simple compounds to produce totally biodegradable fibers,ceramics, plastics, and chemicals. Our farms, modeled on prairies, would be self-fertilizing and pest-resistant. To find new drugs or crops, we would consult animals and insects that have used plants for millions of years to keep themselves healthy and nourished. Even computing would take its cue from nature, with software that “evolves” solutions, and hardware that uses the lock-and-key paradigm to compute by touch. (Benyus 1997, 3)
I find this vision compelling, particularly for the sense of optimism it con-veys at a time when discussions regarding our ecological crisis and imminent planetary demise in the age of the Anthropocene tend to leave us with a sense of helplessness. What is more, while there has been significant work in recent years to criticize the complex relations of capitalism and environ-ment, the aim of much of this work has been to foster a form of political and cultural intervention by revealing the often difficult and messy imbrications of capitalist political economy and toxicity (see, e.g., Fortun 2001; Klein2014; Murphy 2008). Insofar as such efforts endeavor to raise conscious-ness, they do not necessarily try to imagine alternatives. Biomimicry, by contrast, is more active than reflective, as it wants to establish an actual alternative relation with nature and a commensurate social ethics. At the same time, biomimicry distills the central theme of sustainability, which is that there is a “nature” out there that we can learn from, whose so-called intelligent design holds the secrets to the survival and future well-being of the human race. This premise is ultimately at the root of so many ecological arguments and practices that look to so-called traditional non-Western societies to discover indigenous forms of knowledge with the hope of recovering modes of ecological being supposedly lost with the onslaught of mechanized industrial modernity in the West. Such thinking is encapsulated in the deep ecology movement, which hopes to recover nature, asserting that “only a basic shift in humanity’s self-understanding and its attitude toward nature will prevent social and ecological catastrophe” (Zimmerman1994, p. 185)."
"In a series of highly insightful and critical analyses of biomimicry, the environmental geographers Elizabeth Johnson and Jesse Goldstein take the movement to task for such conceptual and methodological shortcomings, calling attention to its failure to overcome the human conceit and ontological dualisms that it sees as responsible for Western civilization’s deleterious relationship with nature (Johnson 2010; Johnson and Goldstein 2015, 2016). In this context, they present an especially compelling argument demonstrating biomimicry’s collusive entanglement with corporate capitalism. Biomimicry, contends Johnson in a single-authored piece, merely shifts capitalism’s extractivist register from nature as a source of raw material to nature as source of “endless possibilities for solving barriers to production” (Johnson 2010, p. 187). Part of what makes Johnson’s and Goldstein’s critique so persuasive is that they also want to take biomimicry’s attempt to produce an alternative and sustainable future with nature seriously but at the same time believe that this demands subjecting its categories and claims to rigorous scrutiny. Unfortunately, biomimicry does not fare well under their scrutiny. What emerges from these analyses is a clear understanding of how biomimicry succeeds marvelously in producing new sources of wealth for capitalism along with innovative design for military defense, while failing spectacularly to live up to its promise of producing an alternative ethical system of politics. It is worth adding here that one of the less enthusiastic participants in the biomimicry one-day educational workshop that preceded the main conference in Boston in 2013 distilled these contradictions perfectly when he confided in me his view of biomimicry as “claiming to be all about nature but what it really wants to do is just mine nature for Intellectual Property (IP). And in the end, someone uses that to build a fucking drone."
* Article: The Nature of Biomimicry: Toward a Novel Technological Culture. Michael Fisch. Science, Technology, & Human Values 1-27, 2017
"Biomimicry is a rising popular ecology movement and method that urges the derivation of innovative and environmentally sound design from organic systems. This essay explores the notion of nature in biomimicry as articulated by the movement's founder, Janine Benyus, and the nature of biomimicry as practiced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) media ecologist Neri Oxman. Benyus's approach, I show, promotes bio-mimicry as a science of nature in which nature is treated as a source for innovative design that can be emulated in technological apparatus. Such an approach is problematic, I argue, for its valorization of organic form, which results in both a rigid system of ethics demanding absolute separation of nature and technology. By contrast, Oxman's work, I show, pursues bio-mimicry as a technology of nature. In so doing, I argue, it mobilizes a neo-materialist style of interaction with organic materials that ultimately enjoins a radically different way of thinking nature."