In his capsule reviews of four new books dealing with how industry might be altered or persuaded to co-exist more benignly with the environment [“Small Leaps Forward,” February 9], Harold Henderson states: Even if…big plans for protecting the environment are just too 20th century, we still need to come up with modest plans–plans that, if they turn out to be mistakes, will at least be smaller mistakes. I appreciate the exposure he is giving the topic, but he’s doing Paul Hawkin, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins a disservice by characterizing their book Natural Capitalism as a smorgasbord of themes and then picking apart one of them, “biomimicry,” as ambiguous. In case anyone comes away thinking the whole book is so afflicted (I haven’t read the other three books and can’t comment on H.H.’s interpretation of them), I would argue it has an overarching thesis and agenda of which biomimicry is only a part. To summarize: Our present industrial system emerged approximately 200 years ago at a time when natural resources appeared to be infinite, while the pool of available human labor was finite. Ergo, it developed methods that used as much of the former as possible while striving to make the most efficient use of the latter as possible. Today the situation is reversed: natural resources (and natural water and air filtration services) are constrained, while human resources number six billion and counting. The original model won’t work under these circumstances and has to be changed: industries must concentrate on minimizing the use of natural resources and not worry about maximizing worker productivity. So much for making modest plans. The bulk of Natural Capitalism details how this alternative form of industrialism can be brought about, and yes, biomimicry is a significant principle in the mix.
To be fair, Henderson is right that “nature” is a big subject easily misapplied or misappropriated as a template, but I think Lovins et al make it pretty clear what they’re getting at when they say “there is no waste in nature”: every effluvia of one natural process is used as an input for another natural process. Unlike Teddy Roosevelt, one must look at and understand a whole system’s behavior, not just the parts of it that seem useful to us. It’s possible, as Henderson suggests, to interpret the massive number of tadpoles that are born every spring only to die without becoming a frog as wasteful, but only if you stop thinking about what becomes of them after that. They do indeed, as Henderson notes, become food for bacteria (or larger predators). Perhaps a better example of what the Lovinses are aiming for is represented by an apple tree. It grows hundreds of flower blossoms every April, only a tiny portion of which are ever going to produce an apple that becomes a new apple tree. Are these flower petals wasted? No, they fall to the ground and become nutrients for the tree again. With notable exceptions, human industry is not following this practice. Natural Capitalism argues that it could and should be.