Nature, Biomimicry, Economics, etc.

by Yule Heibel on February 6, 2005

If you live in Victoria…

Betty Krawczyk will be speaking at the Central Library (main downtown branch) on Wednesday February 16th at 7 pm.

This month’s Focus magazine has another batch of great articles and interviews. For the time being, the interview with David Suzuki (conducted by Focus‘s editor, Leslie Campbell) is online here. It’s part of a series Campbell has put together, “The Quest for True Security” — worth reading. Following are some choice bits from Suzuki:

The problem is the politicians are not held in thrall by the electorate. They are really impacted by whoever pays campaign money. We’ve become much more like the U.S. with lobby groups. It really pisses me off to see these former politicians who set up their own lobby companies because they know all the ins and outs and they’re right in there working on behalf of the forestry or mining industry.

Canadians say nature is absolutely crucial to what we are as Canadians. That we have to do everything we can to protect nature, that we’re willing to have more taxes in order to protect nature. Overwhelmingly—85 to 90 percent. But when it comes to actual action we fall down dismally. In [our action plan and report] Sustainability Within a Generation we looked at the 29 OECD countries in terms of their policies towards clean water, forests and so on. We are 28th out of 29—pathetic!


Shareholders of companies are interested in the bottom line—that is, how much am I going to make on my investment? Now the problem is the forest grows at the rate of two to three percent a year. What investor is going to say “that’s fine—you just log two to three percent of the forest and I’ll be fine with that”?

Money grows faster than trees so there’s nothing in it for an investor if you stay within the sustainable level. So [the investors say in effect] “clearcut the forest; we’re not going to be around to harvest another crop 150 to 200 years from now; put the money in the bank and you’ll make five to six percent (or clearcut Papua New Guinea or Borneo and you’ll make 30 to 40 percent). And when the trees are gone, well, we don’t care, we’ll put the money into fish and when the fish are gone, something else.” So there’s nothing in it to encourage sustainability. And that’s the problem with the whole system we’ve bought into.


Underlying all of the issues is a mindset that sees the world a certain way. We think we’re at the top of the heap and have somehow escaped the normal bounds that limit other species. Every ecosystem has a carrying capacity. Only so many dandelions can live within this ecosystem sustainably. Too many and they’ll crash; too few and they may disappear. Every species has a carrying capacity but humans have always said “but we’re different, we’re unlike other species because we’ve got trade.”

Here in B.C. we’ve got a lot of trees and minerals and fish. So we trade them for bananas, coffee and other stuff from other areas—it’s believed that through trade we can rise above our ecosystem’s limits, its carrying capacity. That’s the great boast. So what happens? We’ve bloated ourselves and we’re living with more and more people and taking more resources.


[In response to Leslie Campbell’s comment that Suzuki has said that the GDP is “woefully inadequate” as a tool for measuring economic growth, Suzuki replies:]

Right. The GDP measures all the money that changes hands in a country—this includes money to clean up oil spills, treat illness caused by smog, clean up car accidents and more. So oil spills, smog and car accidents are good for the economy, but bad for us. [More…]

That last bit reminded me of Joseph Heath’s argument, in his book Efficient Society (which I’ve blogged about before, and also discussed in my comments board). What Suzuki describes (smog, oil spills, etc.) are “negative externalities,” counted as “positives” in GDP measurement (which is just insane!). Heath writes:

Whenever there are negative externalities, it means that markets will stubbornly overproduce the goods that create these externalities as by-products. Even worse, producers have a constant incentive to find new and better ways to externalize their costs. (…) What we call ‘environmental problems’ are for the most part market failures of this type. If firms do not have to pay for waste disposal, they will generate too much waste. This sort of pollution is clearly a bad thing. However, when a firm is polluting, it also suggests that too much of a certain good is being produced. The fact that the firm is polluting shows that its cost structure is out of synch with the social cost. Thus society takes a double hit from an efficiency standpoint — first through the pollution itself, and then through the overproduction of unwanted goods. [ Pgs.127-128, Efficient Society]

At another point in the Focus Magazine interview, Suzuki notes:

The problem is that companies do not see one of their main responsibilities as employing people. It used to be that companies were valued in a community because they were the major employer. I was amazed at the outpouring of affection when Eatons closed down. There was a sense that part of what it was about was employing people.

Now a company will lay off 500 people in a minute, not because they’re going belly up but to increase profitability. That’s become the bottom line.

We’ve seen that in B.C.’s forest industry. They have brought in as much mechanization as they can. So even when the cut was going up, the number of jobs in the industry was falling. The head of the IWA, Jack Munro, was blaming environmentalists for the lost jobs but it was mechanization that was responsible. The companies were bringing in feller bunchers and they automated the plants so they didn’t really need men. [More…]

That reminded me of a letter-to-the-editor by Betty Krawczyk, published just recently, but which I stupidly didn’t save. She made the point that BC’s loggers are experiencing the same fate that sharecroppers in her native Louisiana did when automated cotton-picking put them out of business. The letter made a point about the stench of slavery, and how, if present, it’s recognisable no matter where you go — Deep South or Great White North, eh?, don’t matter.

We’re deeply and to the point of unreason committed to an economic system based on a model that’s unsustainable. In the interview, Suzuki says,

“You and I could buy money today and two weeks later sell it and make money. We’ve added nothing to the well-being of anybody; we’re just buying and selling money. Money grows faster than real things and doesn’t stand for anything but itself.”

Models and economics….

The penultimate chapter of Janine Benyus’s excellent book Biomimicry is called “How Will We Conduct Business?” I want to quote from the chapter that immediately precedes that one, “How Will We Store What We Learn?”, which is all about computing and biomimicry. Benyus profiles, among others, Michael Conrad, head of the BioComputing Group at Wayne State University in Detroit. The closing section of her chapter gets back to Conrad (after discussing several other workers in this emerging field); the section is called “To Unflatten Biology: The Real Quest,” and here’s what Benyus writes:

When I ask Michael Conrad what desktop computers will look like in the era of molecular computing, he hedges. For him, the real carrot is not the device. “The last thing the world needs is another device,” he says. “As an aesthetic thing [i.e., simply how it looks?] I can understand technology, but except for some medical technologies, I don’t really see technology as a human need. Our perceived need for technology is mostly generated by the competition of countries for export. I think it’s economies, not people, that need devices in order to grow.” This man, the head of a major computer center, doesn’t drive a car, nor does he need to. He walks to work from the Victorian apartment he and his wife, Debby, have lived in for fifteen years. If he misses a phone call while he’s walking, he doesn’t know about it; he’s beeper-free.

Conrad’s agenda, and the prime directive in his vision for the future, astoundingly enough, is to offer people a new paradigm by which to understand biology — a biological rather than a mechanical paradigm. (…)

(…) We have a habit of making theories about organisms and basing them on the machine of the hour. We used to say that the human body worked like a clock, but that was when the clock was the ultimate machine. There was also a time when we said it worked just like levers and pulleys and hydraulics. Then we said it was like a steam engine, with a distribution of energies. After the Second World War, when we began to devise feedback controls for our factories, we said our body worked like a self-regulating governor or servomechanism. Now, predictably, we’re convinced that the body works like a computer. We’re using theories from computer science — theories that come from the machine world — to explain how the brain works, and that disturbs Conrad.


“This view of the organism as a digital computer has flattened biology, and I’d like to unflatten it. When I build the tactilizing processor, I hope it will make people stop and consider that there is more than one way to compute. Nature’s computers don’t work the way ours do. To think that they do is very bad for society — it makes us use digital computers for tasks we ought to be asking our brains to do — tasks to which digital computers are not suited.” [ Pgs. 235-6 from Biomimicry]

Benyus concludes her chapter this way:

Will we be able to replicate exactly what happens in our brains by using carbon-based devices [vs. silicon-based] like the tactilizing processor, the microtubule array, a cube of BR [bacteriorhodopsin], or a thimbleful of DNA? Michael Conrad laughs. “Remember, I have no illusions. I come from an origin of life lab and I know how fantastic life is. To emulate nature, our first challenge is to describe her in her terms. The day the metaphors start flowing the right way, I think the machine-based models will begin to lose their grip. Natural processes and designs will finally be the standard to which we aspire. On that day, I’ll feel like I’ve done my job. [P.237]

And that’s also bound to change the economic model, because at present, we’ve got an economics based on a mechanical vision that works like a dream for some and is a nightmare for the rest.

Sorry about the l-o-n-g entry — I guess that means this isn’t a blog, eh?, but who cares. Call it a bricolog, from bricolage (putting disparate pieces together in weird ways). Suzuki, Heath, Benyus — what next?

How about a walk in the rain, smelling the air, feeling the ground beneath her feet? How about a bit of nature, and maybe a sense of her?

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