Designed By Nature: A Sustainable Home

The day was too pretty not to stop. We parked the car in a mostly deserted lot next to the lakefront. It was quiet: summer lake-goers had long since returned home and put away their boats. The edge of the water was glass.

I walked out on the dock, trying to capture with my camera the lake and the cloudy fall skies in all their glory. All of a sudden, a flock of Canadian Geese extended their wings and one by one they took off into the sky. Their honking reached my ears, muted and now far-off. The water was a mirror—there was one flock in the air and its opposite in the water. 

Often it’s just luck: you’re in the right place at the right time. Or maybe extraordinary things are all around, and all we have to do is look to see them.

Looking to Nature

Humans have always looked to nature for designs. 

In the late 90s, engineers remodeled the Japanese bullet train to closely resemble a Kingfisher. In its original design, the bullet train collected air as it passed through tunnels at speeds of up to 300 km per hour. Upon exiting the tunnel, the shift in air pressure would cause a loud booming sound, waking up people nearby and disturbing wildlife. 

Kingfishers dive into water at great speeds to catch fish. (This picture of a Kingfisher dive was taken by Alan McFadyen and shows this phenomenon up close.) Because of the shape of a Kingfisher’s head, the splash created from its impact is not very big. Engineers used the bird as a model, and the new trains were less loud. 

Using nature as inspiration for design is called biomimicry. Throughout human history, we’ve used biomimicry as a means to an end—to modify nature to use the planet for human needs. But more and more, we’re learning that acting as though we are apart from nature has led to some pretty dire circumstances.

Scientists have reported that the earth is losing its biodiversity in direct response to human activities—deforestation, urbanization, and agriculture. Only about 23 percent of the world’s landmass can still be considered wilderness. Species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate—so much so that scientists have begun to refer to the age we live in as the Holocene extinction, or the sixth mass extinction. The Earth is out of balance.

It could get really bad, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. Countries all over the world have agreed to work together to lower carbon emissions. Looking at how species work together, for example, is one way we can develop technologies and ways of living that can help to make our planet liveable again.

With Nature in Mind

After studying the classic V formation of many migratory birds, scientists discovered there is a very good reason birds fly this way—it saves energy. This idea is somewhat intuitive, and humans have been utilizing it already. For example, cyclers ride in formations to save energy and gain speed. But energy is only saved for those who are in the rear. Birds in the front shield those in the back from the strongest winds.

Here’s what researchers wanted to know: how do the birds figure out who is in the front and who is in the back at any given time? 

The scientists followed a flock of Northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita), and in their minds the most compelling social structure seemed to be one of direct reciprocity, meaning at given moments individual birds volunteered to be in front and take the heaviest hit of wind current, and then later they would reap the benefit of being behind other birds.

To me, this highlights that in a balanced ecosystem it’s not always “right equals might”. To bring about a world where the highest quantity of individuals are living at the highest level (with the birds, the highest number of individuals arriving to their migratory destination), sometimes people have to step up and volunteer to do the hard work—perhaps in the case of humans by giving up some of their gains. To me, this is particularly potent for the very small percent of the human population who maintain most of the wealth. With a redistribution of wealth, more people would be raised out of living in poverty. Since poverty is linked to higher population levels, a reduction in poverty would equal less population to feed—and less resources needed from the planet. 

The sooner human beings internalize this truth, the better. The sooner we start looking around us and seeing what’s already there—both the beauty and the innovations—the more likely it is that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have a world that can still be called home.