Heroes of Sustainability: Janine Benyus

When working to create a new process or product, Janine Benyus recommends asking one simple question: What would nature do?

The biologist and science writer coined the term biomimicry (from bios, meaning “life,” and mimesis, meaning “to imitate”) to describe the process of taking designs from our natural environment and using them to create more-efficient and sustainable products and processes. For example, think about a plane emulating a bird, a spider’s web that’s as strong as a bulletproof vest, pharmacists studying organisms that self-medicate, and buildings that model themselves after termite mounds that maintain a constant temperature despite fluctuating heat outside.

Innovation Inspired by Nature
Benyus’ love for all things nature started early in life. “I grew up in a part of suburban New Jersey where there were still some open spaces — forests, meadows, ravines, streams,” she told The Sun magazine in 2009. “Then suburbia rolled over us, and my parents moved us farther out. This happened several times. I was always a little naturalist. I would go outside in the morning with my lunch packed and stay out all day. My parents had to ring the dinner bell to get me back inside. Although I grew up in the suburbs, I always found wilderness to explore. I firmly believe that wilderness can be found anywhere, even in the cracks of the sidewalk; it’s just a matter of seeing it.”

Her way of “seeing it” that others don’t is what has made her ideas so revolutionary. In her most famous book, 1997’s Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, she introduced the masses to this discipline of seeking sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s designs.

It’s an idea that’s genius in its simplicity. All around us are answers to the biggest dilemmas that face designers, architects, and businesspeople — we try to make things bigger, better, and more efficient, yet the earth has already found ways to do everything in an optimal way.

A year after the release of Biomimicry, Benyus co-founded an innovation consultancy called Biomimicry Guild, which helps engineers, architects, business leaders, and others solve design and engineering challenges in a sustainable way. She also founded the Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit organization that aims to spread the ideas of biomimicry to a larger audience.

Model and Mentor
In the article that announced Benyus as one of Time magazine’s 2007 “Heroes of the Environment,” scientist Amory B. Lovins wrote: “Biomimicry isn’t biotechnology. Biomimicry learns and emulates how spiders make silk; biotechnology transplants spiders’ silk-making genes into goats, then sorts silk from milk and hopes the genes don’t get loose. Biotechnology is smart kids in an oil depot with matches; biomimicry is wise adults in a rain forest with flashlights. Biotechnology is pure hubris; biomimicry is luminous humility — treating nature as model and mentor, cherished not as a mine to be stripped of its resources but as a teacher.”

And like nature, that’s just what Benyus is — a teacher. Known for her engaging speaking style and ability to translate complex concepts into layman terms, Benyus hopes that by getting people to care about the lessons nature has to teach, she’ll also get them to care about preserving the environment.

“I believe that every organism that I can see is sweetening this place,” Benyus told CNN in 2008. “I think if we were to learn from their strategies, we too might be participants in that process, not depleting this place that sustains us, but actually enhancing it to the point where it becomes more and more conducive to life.”

For more information about Benyus, visit www.janinebenyus.com.

Share