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The Next Economy
COVID-19 Offers ‘Utopian Glimmer’ of New World, But We Must Give Back to Nature

“We’re seeing a bit of utopian glimmer coming through, and natural selection chooses what works over and over. So, when we get back to normal, we get this glorious choice to put back in our lives only what is best, only what we found made life worth living.” — Janine Benyus

Janine Benyus is happy to be at home. And with her Montana abode nestled within the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48 states of the US, who can blame her?

The “great pause,” as she refers to the COVID-19-enforced lockdown in many corners of the globe, presents a great opportunity for reflection. It’s also a great chance to think and ask questions.

“When we’re sick, we pause,” she said during a virtual chat hosted by the Biomimicry Institute on Thursday. “And it gets you to thinking about the system that you’re in and what you are doing that is making you get so sick all the time.”

Benyus has been asking these types of questions all her life.

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Today, at the heart of her work as a biologist, author and innovation consultant is her development of biomimicry concepts. In fact, she has written six books on the subject, championing human beings’ emulation of nature’s genius in their designs — something that has captured the business community’s imagination as it aims to create a healthier, more sustainable planet.

“I was that kid who was sent out to get a bottle of milk and never made it back. I was in the grass with the ants and outside all the time. My childhood was very much a Wind in the Willows kind of thing, with real live characters that happened to be rabbits and butterflies. That wasn’t just the case at three or four, but all the way through high school and into college. Basically, I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Benyus was in candid conversation with Azita Ardakani, a serial entrepreneur and biomimicry Masters student, as part of a YouTube-streamed fireside chat. The digital nature of the meeting triggered a discussion as to the role of the natural world during the pandemic. It is a situation that made more of us realize how we get sick when we have underlying conditions — and that the planet has underlying conditions right now, as well. As Ardakani offers by way of introduction, COVID-19 is like Mother Nature sending everyone to their rooms.

“Our planet has these comorbidities,” Benyus says, pointing to ecological collapse and climate change as two conditions that have created a greater risk of global pandemics.

“We’ve just been eating through [the planet] and colonizing it. And we’re spillover prone — or virus prone — right now. So, 76 percent of our forests are fragmented. Because we have iPhones, we need new minerals, so we build roads and we mine. [All of this] brings us closer to these populations with organisms that we’d never been before.”

Life’s natural defences — its immune system — which normally keeps everything in balance, has been frayed, she argued.

“Viruses are all around us. In a square meter, 800 million viruses a day fall from the sky. They are a hugely important part of our world and our evolution. But these pandemics happen when the natural defences are broken. [Meanwhile] climate change is just putting everything under stress. So, we’ve got this natural system that is out of kilter.”

While Benyus is not anti-economic progress, she says our current plight should encourage a rethink about how our human systems — both economic and social — might ease the strain on our natural system.

Unlike learning as a scientist, where the focus is on learning about something, the practice of biomimicry is all about learning from something.

As Benyus explained: “You go out, and you say, ‘Wow, look at that butterfly’s wings; they are really bright in the sun and then [they become] iridescent.’ Biomimicry is the step of asking, ‘What are you trying to do?’ It’s erasing the false boundary between you and the other organism.” The butterfly is working to survive, to mate or to communicate — all of the things us humans must do, too.

Benyus is delighted that biomimicry is being picked up as a foundation for cities to reimagine how they might operate in a post-pandemic future. Might economies be remade to work more like ecosystems — with principles of robust circulation whereby money acts like blood, reaching every cell, rather than facing blockages as currently happens, for example?

Similarly, our social systems are struggling, too, with disconnected community networks that fail to support people that need help the most: “That whole picture of inequality really helps me when I think about, ‘What if nutrients couldn’t get to one part of an ecosystem? What would happen to them? What if they were hoarded somewhere?’”

Benyus has spent plenty of time considering one of the biggest systems we have: our homes, to propose new ways of existing in tandem with nature, rather than in contrast or opposition. Yes, net-zero buildings are great. But can we go further?

“We’re saying, ‘Let’s make ourselves as small as possible and not harm anything around us.’ But let’s break that open and say, ‘Let’s put the wellness not just inside our homes, but outside the walls,’” she said. “How can we go from meeting our own needs to doing what other organisms do, which is hailing goodness and benefit to everything around us?”

This so-called Project Positive is clearly what is getting her fired up the most right now. Healing the planet, rather than having a less negative impact upon it, is the answer. “This is the opposite of eating the world and giving nothing back. It’s reciprocity. It’s what people who tend to the wild, such as the Native Americans in my part of the world; they knew you couldn’t keep taking [from nature].”

In the meantime, the pandemic has helped to reset our natural world — and our mindsets — and Benyus could not be happier. “I don’t know care about the economy roaring back; I want the land to roar back, and it is. Watch it heal.

“You don’t have to leave this planet. [But] you might just have to change your busyness imperative.

“The paradox with our systems is that, even though we can see a lot of the ways it doesn’t work for a lot of people, we’re seeing massive cooperation; people are doing things differently.

“We’re seeing a bit of utopian glimmer coming through, and natural selection chooses what works over and over," she said. "So, when we get back to normal, we get this glorious choice to put back in our lives only what is best, only what we found made life worth living.”