Daily Archives: October 12, 2011

Biomimicry: Technology’s Return to Nature

In our technologically advanced, forward moving society, nature and technology often times seem to be in conflict with one another. The word technology brings to mind metallic machines and glowing displays, images that are anything but “natural.” However, with the emergence of biomimicry, there is a chance to change that association and help reinforce the connections between nature and technology instead of emphasizing the differences.

The scope and scale of the environmental problems we face today is sometimes scary. Environmental groups are constantly looking for new and innovative approaches and technologies to solve these issues. Yet at a very basic level, the concepts of technology and nature do not seem to go together.

View of Hong Kong Rising Above the Trees ACarvin/EdWebProject.org

A technological world is one with big buildings, computer screens with pictures of flowers, and TVs that sometimes have more vivid colors than the ones you can see outside. It may seem impossible that a world like this could live in harmony with nature as it by definition pollutes, invades, and destroys the nature around us.

As it is impossible and impractical for us—a society that relies on gadgets, cars, modern medicine, etc.—to give up our lifestyle, we look for alternative methods (from energy saving light bulbs to solar panels on our movie theaters) in order to maintain our technological advancement without hurting our planet too much. Yet none of these efforts have dramatically helped as our own technological growth threatens our planet’s survival. Therefore, perhaps it is not a new technology we need in order to revolutionize society’s relationship with nature, but instead we need to change our view of technology itself.

Biomimicry is the idea that after 3.8 billion years of the earth evolving, nature has solved many of the problems that we are now grappling with. All we need to do is look around and be inspired. This innovative  and interdisciplinary approach not only has given society some extraordinary technological advances, but it generally provides extremely sustainable solutions. The field of biomimicry reminds us that technology and nature are in fact intricately related. Without nature we could never be where we are today.

The recognition of the intimate relationship between technology and nature has taken off in the past ten or twenty years, but it’s nothing new.

A Sketch of Leonardo DaVinci's Airplane Inspired by Birds

Leonardo da Vinci (mid 15th to early 16th century) saw birds as inspiration hundreds of years before the Wright brothers first invented the airplane (early 20th century). Yet even though the term biomimicry has been used since the 1950s it was truly Janine Benyus’s book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature that helped biomimicry transform into the growing and thriving field it is today.

When Benyus talks about her discovery of the field of biomimicry, she describes her shock that biomimicry had not yet emerged as a formal movement. So Benyus took the lead. She founded the Biomimcry Guild, the Biomimicry Institute, and is currently combining a group of biomimicry initiatives into one large organization, Biomimicry 3.8. Her TED talk on biomimicry does a phenomenal job of illustrating what biomimicry is and how it can revolutionize our approaches towards problem solving in design and engineering.

The innovations that have already come from nature, from velcro to swimsuits modeled after shark skin, have already begun to inspire people. Brent Drabek, a senior at the United States Air Force Academy, is this first to admit that he only vaguely knows what biomimicry is from a high school science class.

Yet when asked about examples of technology inspired by nature, he immediately thought of an article he read about unmanned aerial vehicles’ flight and communication patterns being modeled after an insect swarm, an innovation he remembers because he thought it was fascinating. As he says, “[biomimicry] gives you a different perspective that…hard science doesn’t really allow for.”

Insect Swarm PHocksenar/Vermin Inc/Flickr Creative Commons

Even if we do not realize it, we appreciate and benefit from nature’s influence on technology. Biomimicry is already present in our lives, people just need to learn to recognize it so they can begin to consciously connect nature with technology instead of continuing to think of them as separate entities. As more people are introduced to biomimicry, whether formally or informally, there will be more people like Brent who are excited and inspired by the relationship between the modern day world and nature.

There are biomimicry educational programs that have formed everywhere from zoos to grade schools and universities all around the world. These programs all hope, just as I do, that through learning how much nature has already given our growing technological world (and how much more it has to give) society can learn how to embrace, respect, and protect the natural world around it instead of disconnecting from it.

Over the next couple of weeks, this blog will explore biomimicry. This is my effort to join the biomimicry movement that can bring us back to our roots while also helping us work towards an advanced, yet sustainable, future.

California Seeks to Lessen the Conflict of Minerals

California uses the impetus of the federal Dodd-Frank Act to take action on a state level against conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo. What impact can one state have?

On July 15, 2010, the United States Federal Government passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act). The Act’s mission is “to promote the financial stability of the United States by improving accountability and transparency in the financial system, to end ‘too big to fail’, to protect the American taxpayer by ending bailouts, to protect consumers from abusive financial services practices, and for other purposes.” Embedded in this 848-page, Wall Street-focused document are five and a half pages that address the conflict minerals trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This brief mention provides just enough space for the United States Federal Government to require companies who file with the Securities and Exchange Commission to disclose their mineral sources, as well as to demand the State Department confront this illicit minerals trade.

This trade refers to the gold, tin, tungsten, and tantalum internationally exported from mines in the DRC. These minerals are incorporated into everyday electronics, such as cell phones, computers, and digital cameras. Many consumers have voiced their concerns regarding the involvement of electronics companies in this corrupt trading system. The trade is ridden with controversy because of the violent Congolese and Rwandan militias in Eastern Congo that control the mines. They take advantage of the DRC’s natural resources to personally profit from the land’s raw materials. In the process, they rape and kill Congolese citizens, subject mineworkers to desolate conditions, and construct an environment of economic hardship. As chronicled by several human rights organizations, such as Jewish World Watch and Enough Project, these militiamen constantly seek to reinforce their position of control and to keep citizens impotent.

“Gold from eastern Congo. The war in Congo is fueled by a thriving gold trade today, with armed groups controlling mines and earning an estimated $50 million last year from selling gold and minerals. This gold is from a day's work at Kaniola mine” Photo and Caption Courtesy of ENOUGH Project / Flickr Creative Commons

The State of California uses this federal act as momentum in its construction of state Senate Bill 861, authored by Senate Majority Leader Ellen M. Corbett. The goals of this bill surpass those established in the Dodd-Frank Act. According to a press release from Senator Corbett’s office, this bill “prohibits the state from contracting with companies that use minerals sold by the militias in their products.” The bill takes national legislation and applies stricter enforcement on a local level. Naama Haviv, Assistant Director of Jewish World Watch, explains in an e-mail the relationship between the national and state regulations saying that SB 861 terminates “State contracts with companies that fail to comply with the Federal reporting requirements laid out in Dodd-Frank.” “California becomes first state to pass conflict mineral legislation,” boasted a The Christian Science Monitor headline on September 14, 2011. This article, as well as a previous one from April 13, 2011 entitled “California takes decisive step against Congo’s conflict minerals,” applauds California for using the impetus of the Dodd-Frank Act to create further restrictions for businesses whose mineral sources are involved in the environmental and humanitarian conflict in the Congo.

A representative in Corporate Responsibility at Intel deflected any potential concerns regarding business repercussions from SB 861 stating, “If you are in compliance [with the Dodd-Frank Act], the California [legislation] is irrelevant.” Thus, unless electronics companies fail to comply with national legislation, they will not be deeply affected by SB 861. Furthermore, it appears California consumers need not fear negative outcomes on their electronics products as a result of the state bill. At the same time, it is crucial to note the way in which SB 861 strategically implements another layer of enforcement and ensures businesses remain aware of their global impact.

Within the activist community, California’s efforts are being seen as a decisive step forward to terminate the corrupt Congolese mineral trade. Laura Heaton, writer and blog editor for the non-profit Enough Project, and author of last month’s The Christian Science Monitor article, praises California’s deeper enforcement of the Dodd-Frank Act as “indeed a step forward” and “a huge victory for activists.” She also commends the immense progress of the federal act itself: “the fact that [this] piece of legislation was championed by a broad bi-partisan coalition in Washington is no small accomplishment.” Activists and consumers have long been pressuring the government to take action on this matter and to hold electronics companies responsible for their financial contribution to major human rights violations.

With regard to Senate Bill 861 specifically, Senator Corbett was quoted in a press release from her office saying, “This legislation will help cut off the cash flow, and support, for lawless militias engaged in heinous human rights violations.” Congressmen Henry Waxman (D–CA) also commented on this bill in an e-mail saying he “appreciate[s] the California State Assembly’s efforts to end the trade of these tainted commodities.” Even though companies such as Intel do not appear concerned about economic implications of the bill, it is important to note that California has the eighth largest economy in the world. To display the economic weight of this bill, Senator Corbett’s press release reveals, “California spends $8.9 billion annually in state contracts. The legislation is supported by 28 U.S. investment firms with assets totaling $130 billion.” SB 861 was passed in the State Assembly on September 8 and was signed by California Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. on October 9.

An Oasis in the Desert

The rise of community gardens and their potential impacts

In a quiet, peaceful corner, I navigate around garden beds growing everything from snap peas, to heads of lettuce, to sunflowers. In the shade of a large tree sits a picnic table and several lounge chairs, inviting me to sit down and relax and enjoy the tranquility of the garden. All of a sudden, I hear the rumble of a train in the distance getting closer and closer until it rushes by, and I am reminded that despite all appearances, I am still in New York City. The small section of green that lies in the midst of concrete is the La Finca del Sur community garden in the South Bronx, an urban farmer cooperative led by Latina and Black women.

There are over 600 scenes like this in New York City – ranging from little plots of land built on previously vacant lots, to rooftops looking over hundreds of apartment buildings, to extensive gardens tucked away in one of the city’s parks. Over the last twenty years, community gardens have flourished in New York, providing one solution to the lack of fresh, healthy, food in low-income areas in New York City. According to the New York City Department of Recreation, community gardens currently make up over 32 acres of land in the city . The gardens occupy areas of the city that would otherwise become areas of filth, litter, and urban decay.  (http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_about/parks_history/gardens/community.html)

Many areas of the region are food deserts, areas where it is impossible to find fresh, healthy food at affordable prices. “There are many places in NYC where you can buy a whole meal at McDonald’s for less than the price of 3 apples” says Adi Segal, author of “Food Deserts: A Global Crisis in New York City”. “Therefore, especially in poor communities and neighborhoods, this leads to very bad diets.” Poor diets lead to many serious health problems, including high rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Community gardens not only offer a solution to this problem, but also allow urban citizens to become connected to their food in a way that, today, most people are not. When ordinary consumers are able to literally get their hands dirty and grow their own food, they develop a connection with the food they are eating. Julia Caine, a member of a community garden in Boston, Massachusetts says, “When I am brushing the dirt off the leaves of the plant that I myself have planted, I feel closer to the food that I eat.” People learn to appreciate the long and tiring process that farmers and gardeners partake in order to provide people with food. Community gardens, and especially school gardens, offer New Yorkers ways to be involved in the production and consumption of their food. In the coming weeks, this blog will explore school gardens in New York City, and examine the ways in which they educate students about food, sustainability, and nutrition.

Art: An Incredibly Powerful Tool to Reach People

What is the relationship between art and social change? (How) can environmentalism be communicated through art?

This blog is my space to explore, over the next several weeks, how to bring my artist self, my activist self, and my environmentalist self together. They are all woefully under-cultivated aspects of me, and I want to nurture them by learning about art’s role in social change in general and art’s potential to communicate an environmental message in the future. But I have an admission to make: I am starting this blog completely torn.  The more I have thought about the topic, the more conflicted I have become: what does it mean to create art to address social ills? As an artist, how can you possibly do that—art is not and should not be propaganda. Right?

The dilemma is not mine alone. As a writer trying to spark a revolution through art in the way African Americans were perceived in popular culture, W. E. B. DuBois addressed this question:

“Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists… I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.”

In a world where we are constantly attacked by advertisements repeating that we are not enough because we do not have enough, maybe environmentalist art is a necessary tool to remind ourselves of where the world is headed, given all of our excess. But, still, wouldn’t it hurt the art? Does art that deliberately addresses social ills still have integrity as art apart from the societal context; doesn’t it risk becoming heavy-handed, preachy, and obsolete?

Cave Art from the Lascaux Caves photo courtesy of Peter80, wikimedia commons

Meyer Tanenbaum’s one-bedroom apartment in a prewar building a little more than a block west of central park, is full of paintings—thousands of them. They lay stacked in floor to ceiling shelving units, and lean against the shelving units and patches of free wall; there are canvases collectors are considering buying in his bedroom, and unfinished paintings next to open jars of cadmium red and burnt sienna against the wall right where you walk in. They date back to the 1960’s (check that!!!!) but not before then—when he started painting abstract art, he burnt all his old, realist paintings. I called him to ask his opinions about the integrity of art that has a message. He surprised me by saying that while the bulk of art is separate from social change, some artists can use their art to address social ills and do it well—the message of the art does not affect its merit as art. He had another point, too. “There are paintings on caves,” he said, “and no one is quite sure why they are there, but one of the theories is that painting hunting scenes gave the people courage. That is a social function. Art is universal. Even kindergarteners can paint.” Art, as he was saying, is an incredibly powerful tool to reach people.

I turned this around in my head for a while and began to search for artist activists who make their message work. Mallika Sarabhai, a pioneer of using arts, especially dance, for social change, makes a similar point in her TED talk “Dance to change the world.” Watch the whole lecture—it is excellent—but she makes a point starting at 4:20 saying, “Art can go through where other things can’t. You can’t have barriers, because it breaks through your prejudices, breaks through everything that you have as your mask…And it reaches somewhere where other things don’t. And in a world where attitudes are so difficult to change, we need a language that reaches though.”

So there we have it: Here is my blog to document my journey in creating environmentalist art that reaches through.