Heroes of Sustainability: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo EmersonFamous in life and death, Ralph Waldo Emerson is considered one of American history’s most noted writers, influencing countless people, including Heroes of Sustainability like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir.

The Harvard-educated lecturer, essayist, and poet — who also worked as a pastor in his younger years — had a way of inspiring his readers that was widely admired. As American poet and critic James Russell Lowell wrote in 1871’s My Study Windows: “We look upon him as one of the few men of genius whom our age has produced, and there needs no better proof of it than his masculine faculty of fecundating other minds. Search for eloquence in his books and you will perchance miss it, but meanwhile you will find that it has kindled your thoughts.”

Man and Nature
One of Emerson’s greatest works was Nature, an 1836 essay that delved into his thoughts on transcendentalism, the literary, political, and philosophical movement he was at the center of in New England in the 1830s and ’40s. One of the core ideas was that both people and nature are inherently good, and Emerson was keen on exploring this connection between the two.

To Emerson, nature was as important as it got, as it was tied to God in a way that couldn’t be separated from the deity. “In the woods, we return to reason and faith,” he wrote. “There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, —no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, —my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, —all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

A Far-Reaching Legacy
Many credit Emerson’s writing with influencing the foundation of today’s environmentalist movement and the creation of national parks. By writing so eloquently about the world around us — and showing through vivid description that it’s worthy of being preserved (a sample sentence: “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration”) — Emerson set the stage for others, like Muir, to take steps to protect the environment.

It’s tough to deny the insight in his words. As Emerson astutely wrote: “He who knows what sweets and virtues are in the ground, the waters, the plants, the heavens, and how to come at these enchantments, is the rich and royal man.”

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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.

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