Tag Archives: biomimicry

How do living systems ‘prepare, leverage and bounce back’ from times of crisis?

Rachel Hahs posted some amazing biomimetic analogies and questions for understanding how we respond to our current time of crisis and transformation through a contemplation of how nature expresses resilience after catastrophes like fire — such nutritious food for thought in this solstice season!

…[H]ow do the prairie grasses, giant sequoias and aspens of the world actually do it – what is the nitty gritty of the biology? And then what are the very specific and clear parallel and divergent metaphors we can draw from these examples? What is our fire, sunlight and ash? What parts of our community do we protect above all else? What are our necessary resources, signals for exchange, sacrificial parts, triggers for growth? What packets of information do we disseminate far and wide in the hopes that we can take advantage of this disruption and the disruptions to come, and how do we learn from our natural models on how methods for improving our chances?


Here are some preliminary responses I had to her article:Seedlings and old cone after fire, Yellowstone NP, USA; Wikimedia Commons

For the weedy, pioneer species strategy, I suspect that one of the most important things to think about as ‘seeds’ are small packets of information that are inexpensive and easy to broadcast (e.g. blogs and other social media). The trick is to produce seeds/memes that can easily reach and germinate in the disturbed ground, then grow and reproduce successfully from there. If the disturbed ground in question is the disrupted and uncomfortable mental spaces that many of us find ourselves in, we need to consider what structure is most likely to reach such a target. What resources are likely to be available when the seed reaches that ground, to nourish and support its growth and reproduction?

Espengruppe (Populus tremula) in der Nähe der Lahnquelle, Gemeinde Netphen, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Deutschland; Wikimedia Commons - selbst fotografiert von Nikanos CC BY-SA 2.5In terms of the prairie’s and aspen’s strategies, thinking deeply (pun mostly intended) about what safe, underground networks we already have in place is an important strategy.
We can be grounded (ooh, there’s another) in the community connections we already have; strengthening this existing network, sharing resources, signaling one another about dangers and opportunities we have detected, we do the same work as the rhizosphere in many thriving ecosystems to preserve the resilience and diversity of the community. The idea that this rhizosphere must be protected from the devastating changes at the surface might be an argument in favor of finding ‘underground’ ways to keep these communities strong (be they old-fashioned face-to-face meetings or A. One end of a trench used in excavating root systems. B. Distichlis spicata, showing the long rhizomes and shallow roots. J. Weaver (1919) The ecological relations of roots.conscientious privacy measures and enhanced encryption of key electronic communications for more extended communities). I also really appreciate Rachel’s question about ‘sacrificial parts’ – what can we safely give up to survive the time of crisis, without risking the roots? My inclination here is to think about the parts of our lives that we have normalized, but that on deeper consideration we could get by without (perhaps even do better without).

There is much deeper that this biomimicry work can go, seeking even more analogies based on the biology of resilient species and ecosystems. What ideas arise for you? What ways for responding to catastrophe can we learn by engaging nature as model, measure and mentor?

Sustainability Strategies Sampler

I had to throw together a presentation for a Sustainability Salon at the beginning of this otherwise-very-busy-with-grant-writing week. Despite its hasty nature, I think there are some interesting and useful things in there. I tried to explain and organize some of the current sustainability mindsets/movements in terms of their visions of the future, whether these were more or less complex, globalized and high-tech, and how extensively they believed social, economic and cultural norms need to change to accomplish sustainability goals.

Sustainability Future Visions M Merrill 24 Aug 2015

I posted the description, with a PDF of the slideshow and my notes, at 24 Aug 2015 Sustainability Strategies Sampler.

Celebrate Life’s B(earth) Day 25 Feb!

A little dash of perspective, from


We need perspective. And no where is this perspective more obvious than in Earth’s Calendar Year.

Earth's history into one calendar year


Biomimicry responses to climate change challenges

It’s always great to see Janine Benyus spiral forth some of the ways that nature can collaborate with us and suggest solutions to our most vexing problems.

Learn more about Biomimicry here.


The geometry of the human handprint

Take a moment to observe a scene somewhere not crafted by human hands: a forest, a creek bed, a meadow, a hillside, a leaf.  How often do you see right angles?

A snake seen near the MacRitchie reservoir on Singapore (probably a Wagler's pit viper Tropidolaemus wagleri, see Figures 5 & 6 at http://www.ecologyasia.com/verts/snakes/waglers_pit_viper.htm).  Photo by Erik S. Peterson colorjedi.tumblr.com

A snake seen near the MacRitchie reservoir on Singapore (probably a Wagler’s pit viper, Tropidolaemus wagleri; see Figures 5 & 6 at http://www.ecologyasia.com/verts/snakes/waglers_pit_viper.htm). Photo by Erik S. Peterson colorjedi.tumblr.com

There is one place you can easily find a right angle.  Hold your hand out flat, and stretch out your thumb.  Coincidence?  Maybe….

Looking a bit rectilinear, hmm...

Looking a bit rectilinear, hmm…

The human handprint has a long history of being associated with our creativity.

The human handprint has a long history of being associated with our creativity.

#inyourpalm The Power is In Your Palm - to protect wild orangutans from deforestation for palm oil production. Photos by me (M. Merrill).

“The Power Is In Your Palm” What are we choosing to do with our amazingly dexterous hands and spectacularly opposable thumbs? Choose wisely. (See http://inyourpalm.org to learn more about how to protect wild orangutans from deforestation for palm oil production.)

Biomimicry Design Challenge 2014 Winners

The winners of the 2014 Biomimicry Design Challenge have been announced.  The theme this year was to design something related to transportation.  I worked with a couple of students here at Nanyang Technological University, but we didn’t have a large enough team to really produce anything beyond some intriguing ideas about how to rethink air-conditioning for buses (elephant ears?  gular fluttering? Dimetrodon sails?  honeybee fanning?).  But there were a couple other Singapore groups, and one received a prize for their video on demand-responsive bus systems that work like our demand-responsive digestive systems (there could be a bad pun in here about taking some guts to propose something like that, but that would just be tacky).

I also really like the idea of bike whiskers:

Congratulations to all the teams and their bio-inspired innovations!


Nourishing Sustainable Networks in Singapore

In a few weeks, I’ll be participating in Sustainable Networks: The Enlightenment to the Contemporary Conference.  I’m giving a talk about the network of sustainability educators I’m already a part of here, which spans from India east to Japan and from Indonesia north to China.

Why here?  Well, this map pretty much sums it up:

More than half the world's population lives within 4100km of Guiyang, Guizhou Province, Southwest China.

There are more people living inside this circle than outside of it.

I’m also facilitating an interactive workshop, where we’ll try to map and grow the network of individual humans who are working on the problem of providing sustainability-focused higher education.  Here’s the plan:

Participants are invited to discuss and contribute to the construction of a physical model of the network of people who are engaged with education for sustainability.  As we realize the social network that has already begun to self-organize, we can discover opportunities to nurture and grow this resource.  Our work together can promote and revitalize sustainability efforts throughout the region and across the globe. These activities are based on the work of June Holley of Smart Networks (www.networkweaver.com) and Keith McCandless of Social Invention Group and Henri Lipmanowicz of Plexus Institute (www.liberatingstructures.com).

So that’s cool.

I was realizing I wanted a way to get people to really be in a good mindset to engage this process.  And I was looking at the brilliant item I learned about in a Bioneers workshop last October about Biomimicry for Social Innovation. Late that Saturday evening, I was exchanging Life’s Principles Leadership Cards with some new and old friends in a small gathering for a cacao ceremony (hey, it’s the kind of event where you do things like that, and raw cacao is amazing – never pass up opportunities for chocolate).  In a classic California-hippie, I-Ching sort of way, we were passing the cards back and forth, and then trying to understand what the one we held at the end was trying to tell us about how we could better dedicate ourselves to the Great Work.

I got this card that says “FIT FORM TO FUNCTION” with a picture of a kangaroo with a joey in her pouch.  This was a tricky one for me.  I didn’t grok it at first, but after a while I realized that the thing I was interested in was inspiring people to become change agents.  That’s the FUNCTION I was after.  And where I was right then, in some way, was the FORM that FITs it.  Ceremony, in every human culture, is how people strengthen their social networks and commitment to important transformative action.  Often, but not always, that ceremony is what in our culture is glossed as “religious ritual.”  But Western hegemonic culture includes a strange separation of “religious” activity from other forms of social and cognitive experiences; most human cultures have not made such distinctions.  Is it possible, I wondered, that it is time to reclaim ceremony without hanging so many religious bags off its saddle?  How can we use ritual to create a sense of connection and purpose to do important collective work?

So, I think I’m going to give it a spin.  Nothing heavy or overt, no candles or incense or chanting.  Just an invitation to get “centered” and think about the work we will undertake together.  Here’s a draft of the script with which I’ll open the workshop:

  1. Get all the seating into a circle.
  2. Invite participants to close their eyes or look down, to relax and let go of the stress and hurry of the conference, and try to be fully present in the space.
  3. Invite participants to think about one thing that they truly cherish.  This could be a person, a place, a song, a species; go as large or as small as you want.  Think about how grateful you are for that thing or phenomenon.  Remember that when we talk about sustainability, we’re talking about the health of the complex biological and social systems that can enable that cherished thing to thrive.
  4. Now look around the room, and make eye contact with someone.  Once you have your partner selected, I want you to consider that this person also has something that they cherish deeply.  Your work is helping to protect what they love.  Their work is helping to protect what you love.  So, silently thank this person for the amazing work that they do.
  5. Choose a second person in the room.  Repeat the process above.   Then again for a third person.  Then say thank you and applaud all the amazing people here for the work they do.

This script is inspired by the work of Joanna Macy and others, and by all the delightful ceremonies devised by my dear departed friend Judy Bloomgardener.