Published 5 years ago.
About a 8 minute read.
This is the first in a series of posts by Dr. Gregory Unruh about geomimicry and its implications for sustainability.
Anyone immersed in the world of sustainability has heard of biomimicry — the design and manufacture of products inspired by nature. It's a powerful philosophy being used by businesses to tackle some of the sustainability challenges of products and production processes. But behind the idea of biomimicry lies a riddle — an implicit recognition that our current approach to production does not mimic nature. And that leaves a question: What is our current approach to manufacturing? If we are not doing biomimicry, what exactly are we doing? The answer is Geomimicry.
Every time we chisel a brick, forge an iron beam or distill a hydrocarbon for fuel, we're engaging in acts of geomimcry, which can be defined as the imitation of physical geological processes in the design and manufacture products and services — it's been the basis of human industry since our prehistoric ancestors first picked up a rock to use as a tool. The modern industrial world and our success as a species is thanks to geomimicry. And that's part of the challenge: Because geomimicry is so ancient, so embedded, we don't really notice it. Humans were using geomimcry before we were using fire or writing. But recognizing geomimicry is crucial to addressing the sustainability challenges of modern industry.
To understand geomimicry, we have to understand the Earth’s physical systems and how they operate. The geosphere is in a constant cycle of construction and destruction. It's continuously fabricating new rocks deep in the Earth’s crust and then pushing them up to the surface of the planet where they are worn back down again. It's a cycle we don't perceive, because it over eons.
So, what exactly are we geomimicking? At the most basic level, we are mimicking the Earth’s physical weathering processes. Mountains seem like permanent features of the landscape, but physical forces are constantly wearing them down. Wind, rain and ice are really just instruments of gravity, continuously breaking up and washing away the landscape; if you give them long enough, they can carve a Grand Canyon.
Humans mimic this physical weathering process through a variety of subtractive manufacturing methods. Some of the first human artifacts know to archeologists are Clovis points — arrowheads carved by indigenous peoples of North America 13,000 years ago. The ancient art of flint knapping is one of the earliest forms of geomimcry. Over time, our techniques tools evolved, but even today, anytime we're shaping an object by carving, whittling, washing or grinding away material, we're mimicking the geologic processes of physical weathering.
But it’s not just subtractive manufacturing. Nature also engages in additive manufacturing. Take a stratovolcano such as Japan’s Mount Fuji. The beautiful symmetric cone is formed by volcanic processes adding layer upon layer of lava and ash, building up to mountainous heights. Humans have also mimicked these additive processes. Sun-dried bricks — made by adding compounding layers of clay into a mold and then leaving out in the sun to harden and dry — are some of our oldest building materials; early forms of pottery also relied on the additive shaping of clay to create jars and containers.
While this type of additive manufacturing was an advance, it took a giant leap forward when humans discovered they could mimic the heat and pressure found deeper in the Earth's crust to create much higher-quality materials. By firing clay and subjecting it to intense heat, clay minerals are transformed into a glassy ceramic, a technically superior material. Over time, our geomimetic methods were refined, and we developed kilns and that allowed us to intensify and control the heat and pressure with greater precision. But no matter how sophisticated our technology, in the end we were still merely imitating the geologic processes that create, form and metamorphose rocks and minerals.
Geomimcry is also the basis of metallurgy and our metal use. Humans were pounding raw copper into useful shapes as far back as 10,000 years ago, but modern metal-making is pure mimicry. Melting metal is no easy feat; it requires creating plutonic conditions up here on the surface temperatures with temperatures exceeding 1500° centigrade.
Even our world of plastics, gasoline and pharmaceuticals are built on geomimcry: Industrial chemical processes are replicating and controlling forces that only occur naturally at great geologic depth. Most of the work of a chemical plant is fractionation — or fractional distillation — the use of intense heat and pressure to break hydrocarbons up into components including gases, diesel or kerosene. Other industrial processes are then used to recombine those components to produce plastics and pharmaceuticals. But again, no matter how modern or sophisticated, a petrochemical plant is merely aping the geologic forces at work deep in the crust that are responsible for natural oil and gas deposits.
Even nuclear power — the radiogenic heat arising from the decay of radioactive elements that heats the earth's interior — is geomimicry. We take this nuclear heat that drives plate tectonics and creates volcanoes and hot springs and concentrate it up here on the surface to create nuclear energy for our own purposes.
So, as you can see, geomimicry is pervasive; the success of our modern industrial world is largely thanks to geomimetic processes and we are fortunate for the material comforts it has provided. But as you can probably guess from the last few examples, there is a major downside to geomimcry, lying in many of the pressing environmental sustainability problems we face.
At the very basic level, there is the straightforward environmental degradation that comes from geomimicry’s dependence on the extraction of natural resources, be it mining for minerals or logging for lumber. Resource extraction produces large-scale surface disruptions, so extensive that they can often be seen from space. But extracting resources is just the first step — industry then transforms the materials through geomimetic processes that rely geologic temperatures and pressures generated through the use geologically derived fossil fuels (petroleum is Latin for “rock oil”), which are also responsible for substantial amounts of environmental degradation in their own right.
The intense conditions of industrial forges don't occur naturally on the planet’s surface, except perhaps at volcanoes and hot springs, so life in the biosphere is not adapted to them. When things get out of control, catastrophic deadly consequences ensue — such as an oil refinery explosion or nuclear meltdown. But it is the slow-motion consequences that are perhaps most disastrous.
Geomimicry depends on the extraction and dispersion of substances from the Earth's crust that were once sequestered away below the surface, many of which are hazardous to humans and life. Add to this geomimicry’s ability to formulate synthetic substances through petrochemistry and you begin loading the biosphere with elements that life that was never adapted to deal with. The biosphere has no way to process these wastes, so they accumulate in the environment, wreaking havoc on natural systems. In the United States, there are over 1,300 active Superfund sites, which are no-man’s lands contaminated with the detritus of geomimcry. We have been we've been working to clean these up old industrial sites for more than four decades and yet, after billions of dollars, only 375 have been cleaned up and closed.
As bad as Superfund sites are, at least the pollution is concentrated in a single location. Bigger problems ensue as these chemicals disperse over time and dissipate into the environment. A study by the Environmental Working Group showed where they are going: Scientists tested the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies and found it contaminated by over 200 industrial chemicals. The chemicals come from pesticides, consumer products and the wastes arising from the burning of fossil fuel. When they get into the bloodstream of a living creature, the body protects itself by secreting the toxins away in body fats, a process that leads to the bioaccumulation of pollutants in living things. And not just humans: Everywhere scientists look, from Arctic polar bears to Antarctic penguins, they find industrial chemicals. The full implications of this great geomimetic experiment are still unclear.
Our mimicking of the planet's nuclear processes also has its consequences. Of course, there are horrific consequences from the explosive release of one the most destructive forces on the planet, but another slow-motion problem arises from the accumulation of depleted nuclear fuels. In the seven decades since the first nuclear power plant went online, we've made almost no progress in figuring out what to do with the generated waste. In nature, nuclear isotopes are found on the surface in low concentrations, something that makes natural radiation relatively harmless to life. But we failed to heed these lessons. Our solution is to concentrate this very long-lived material, then dig holes and bury it back in the ground. By doing so, we are implicitly turning the waste back over to the geosphere to deal with it.
What we'll discover in the next article is that this is not as crazy as it sounds. The Earth already has a fully functioning circular economy, one that we implicitly rely on at our folly.
Published Nov 5, 2018 11am EST / 8am PST / 4pm GMT / 5pm CET
Dr. Gregory C. Unruh is the Arison Professor of Values Leadership at George Mason University in the Washington DC Metro area, and the Sustainability Editor for the MIT Sloan Management Review.