What Made Us Stray from Nature?

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Paul Hawken was brought to my attention purely by accident. While I was broke and homeless after a two-year stint in Asia and was bouncing around as a house sitter on different houseboats in Sausalito, California, Hawken was riding the wave of his own success. His multi-colored houseboat sat at the end of the dock like a pot of gold that I would eventually land in and included an extensive book collection that gave me a glimpse into his life’s work.

That was five years ago, long after Hawken had left Smith & Hawken, his catalog and store chain, which may very well have started the home and gardening craze. Now Hawken has expanded his passion into making the world a much greener place. His popular books, The Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism, have been published in twenty-seven languages in more than fifty countries and have sold more than two million copies. His newest release, Blessed Unrest: How The Largest Movement In The World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, is an extension of his work up until now. Here he has researched organizations that are committed to restoring the environment and fostering social justice throughout the world.

I ran into Hawken, virtually, at the 15th Digital Be-In in San Francisco on Saturday, April 21, 2007 in honor of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. He was a keynote speaker during the Biomimicry Symposium to talk about his new endeavor, Wiser Earth, a sort of MySpace or DivineCaroline, but for people and organizations who are working toward a greener planet. Biomimicry, the focus of the Be-In, is defined as “the application of methods and systems found in nature to the study and design of engineering systems and modern technology.” What was presented at the event was a literal and virtual gathering of technologists, environmentalists, and scientists to explain what new innovations and ideas have used nature as their model through development.

Speaking live from Hawaii, Hawken explained that there were thousands of organizations around the world that he had never heard of during his fourteen years of speaking on the environment. These organizations were all working toward social justice and bettering the environment and ran as a list projected on a screen like movie credits. Hawken acknowledged the impact of the number of these organizations in the world by saying, “I would have to let this list of organizations run for a whole month before we reached the end of the list. That’s how large this movement is, it’s the largest the world has ever seen.” The real audience clapped and screamed, launching the two-hour long Biomimcry Symposium.

This “Be-In” concept, both real and virtual, originated in 1967 when San Francisco’s intellectual hippies gathered in Golden Gate Park for the first western “Human Be-In.” The cover of San Francisco’s Oracle—which had been the psychedelic newspaper of the city’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood—announced, “A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In.” It featured Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Richard (Ram Dass) Alpert, Dick Gregory, Lenore Kandel, Jerry Ruben, and a sampling of San Francisco’s rock bands, including The Grateful Dead. Thirty-thousand people showed up to see Leary, in his first San Francisco appearance, utter the unforgettable sound bite, “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.” Oracle publisher and Be-In co-organizer Allen Cohen characterized the event as “a necessary meeting-of-the-minds, bringing together the philosophically opposed factions of the late 1966 San Francisco-based counter culture. There were the Berkeley radicals, who had grown militant in response to the U.S. government’s Vietnam war policies, and then there were the Haight-Ashbury hippies, who, with psychotropic compounds and various spiritual guides, saw the cosmic karma in it all, and urged peaceful protest and ongoing joyful celebration.”

Janine Benyus, the founder of Biomimcry Institute, followed with a virtual talk from Costa Rica, and explained how a group of tourists had discovered that nature was more interesting than tourist snapshots. She took a tongue-and-cheek approach to explore Eco-travel, noticing that this group, once taken into the jungle and out onto the reefs, found the simple beauty of nature as the most interesting focus of their trip. She flashed photos of crabs, exotic insects, plant life and fungus, unlike any that most of us had ever seen. With her group in Costa Rica, she reported on the kinds of probing questions she might ask while they observed nature. “How does nature grow in twenty to thirty minutes? How does it grow in harsh habitats? How does nature mimic society?” She went on to explain that she and the group were “consciously being nature’s student.”

I was able to understand the Biomimicry concept further once Jay Harman, founder and CEO of Pax Scientific and Pax Water, took the stage. He has taken real-life models from nature in order to create his own inventions, which give nature a hand in correcting the damage caused by outdated inventions. He began his talk by mentioning that alternative energy is the fastest growing business right now and explained that the innovations of pumps and fans, from years ago, are what use half of all of the world’s energy (many from air conditioners used in the United States). His company has taken steps to decrease this energy consumption. He held up a contraption that looked like the part that you might attach to a high-end restaurant mixer, except that it had been designed as a tool to help clean our water supply, which can deteriorate if left stagnate in holding tanks by creating microbial contaminates.

The invention is the Pax Water Mixer, and it was created using Biomimicry, by copying nature’s efficiencies. As the Web site states, “In nature, this design is the optimal shape for fluid movement. It’s found everywhere you look in the natural world, and nothing works better.” Pax takes natural designs and mixes them with state-of-the-art engineering and rigorous testing to create optimal devices. In this water mixer case, they looked at the eye of a hurricane, the inside of a snail shell, and other spiral forms in nature as inspiration. As he put it perfectly, “Nature’s already modeled the solutions for humans; we have the technology.”


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