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Biomimicry: A Necessary Eco-Ethical Dimension for a Future Human Sustainability

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Biomimicry: A Necessary Eco-Ethical Dimension for a Future Human Sustainability

Human irrationality in patterns of consumption and production of the current capitalist system are unsustainable and are also causing serious consequences in the environment: climate change, desertification, destruction of natural resources, pollution of water and air, global warning, etc. In this sense, if we reclaim the principle of biomimicry as political, educational, and epistemological proposal to achieve a sustainable development, it should be made a small mention with the intellectual work of some thinkers who have proposed to learn from nature to build a more just, democratic, and better integrated with the biosphere society. A good example is the British biologist and ecologist Barry Commoner [Commoner, 1973], with the formulation of the basic “laws” of ecology:

  1. Everything is connected to everything else. There is one ecosphere for all living organisms and what affects one, affects all.

  2. Everything must go somewhere. There is no “waste” in nature and there is no “away” to which things can be thrown.

  3. Nature knows best. Humankind has fashioned technology to improve upon nature, but such change in a natural system is likely to be detrimental to that system.

  4. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Exploitation of nature will inevitably involve the conversion of resources from useful to useless forms [Commoner, 1973: pp. 33-45] (own translation).

In his later book “Making Peace with the Planet”, Commoner [Commoner, 1992: p.15] notes that techno-sphere prevalent in industrialized societies “is in war” with the biosphere, causing a global ecologic crises impossible to be hidden. Basic laws
of ecology that harbor a strong link of similarity with the notion of “ecoliteracy” or “ecological literacy” developed by Capra [Capra, 1998; Capra, 2005], consist of the understanding the five organizational principles of ecosystems to build sustainable human communities: 1) Interdependence. 2) Cyclical nature of ecological processes.

3) Tendency to associate, establish links and cooperate as essential characteristics of life. 4) Flexibility. 5) Diversity. In short, Capra [Capra, 1998: p.20] argues that “understanding the life must be seen as the scientific vanguard of the paradigm shift, from a mechanistic world conception through an ecological conception”, postulating that human systems should be governed by the key criteria of a living system: a) organizational pattern or configuration of relationships that determinate the essential characteristics of the system; b) structure or physical embodiment of the organizational pattern of the system; c) vital process or involved activity in the continuous physical embodiment of the organizational pattern of the system [Capra, 1998: p.175]. In words of Capra:

Reconnecting with the web of life means rebuilding and maintaining sustainable communities in which we can satisfy our needs and aspirations without diminishing the chances of future generations. For this task we can learn a lot from ecosystems, true sustainable communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms. To understand them, we must turn first the basic principles of ecology; we must, so to speak, become ecologically literate. Being ecologically literate, being “ecoliterate”, means understanding the organizing principles of ecological communities (ecosystems) and use these principles to build sustainable human communities. We need to revitalize our communities including education, business, and policies [Capra, 1998: p.307] (own translation).

Furthermore, according to the Capra´s eco-literacy, also deserves special attention the six basic principles for the ecological reconstruction of economy that Jorge Riechmann [Riechmann, 2014: p.211] suggests from the concept of biomimicry:

  1. Homeostasis or “steady state” in biophysics terms. 2. Living from sun as energy resource. 3. Close material cycles. 4. Not carrying too far the materials. 5. Avoiding xenobiotics as POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants), GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms). 6. Respecting diversity. Principles which according to Riechmann [Riechmann, 2014: p.35], imply an “inflection toward eco-socialism”:

Ecological Theory describes how biotic communities go for a process of development (or ecological succession) from youth to maturity (or climax). The interesting thing for us is that this maturity state is characterized by stability, decrease of net production of biomass (more energy is consumed in respiration), decrease of entropy, complexity (increased information), closing cycles of minerals, increased nutrient conservation, and increasing the global efficiency in the use of energy and nutrients. So, it does not seems unreasonable to derive -by biomimicry-, from the maturity ecosystem concept, the idea of economic homeostasis or steady state (in biophysical terms) to human systems [Riechmann, 2014: p.212] (own translation).

In other words, what Riechmann [Riechmann, 2014] defines as economic homeostasis or steady state means stop growing economically to focus more on qualitative development. At the same way as there is no living species in nature which

grow all time, the economy (as transversal axis of human systems) must steady, only consume necessary natural resources and focus on human capabilities in a broaden form. This means stop using the GDP and GNP as a compass to guide progress, because they do not take into account the number of hours that parents devoted to their children, or insecurity in the streets, or the quality of education, quality health systems, etc. In addition, those countries with a high GDP have done it by destroying the environment, as has been the case of China or Taiwan in the last years. An economic vision that, in short, is in harmony with the line of thinking of the philosopher and economist Amartya Sen [Sen, 2000], awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998:

If instead of focusing our attention only on income poverty we focus on the global idea of a lack of skills, we can understand better the poverty and freedoms of human lives from a different basis of information (which implies a kind of statistics that the prospect of income tends to set aside as a benchmark for analyzing the economic and social policy) [Sen, 2000: p.37] (own translation).

Although in this article I have no interest in discussing the development of appropriate indicators to measure the development and welfare of global citizenship, I want to note that, since 1990, the theoretical assistance of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum resulted in the annual publication of the Human Development Report by UNDP. A first step would cause a broad socio-political debate of global nature characterized by the birth of new sophisticated index, as Human Development Index, Gender Empowerment Index and Gender Development Index, Capability Poverty Index, Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare, Genuine Progress Index, etc. A socio- political debate that would arrive to all corners of the world with the strong contrast provoked in the comparison of the numbers from the United Nations and the doctoral thesis of Mattew Bentley in 2003. The United Nations [United Nations, 2003] estimated that 2,800 millions of citizens (46% of the world population) subsisted on less than $2 per day, of which 1,200 million (20% of the world population) did with less than a dollar per day. In contrast, Bentley [Bentley, 2003] estimated as “global consumer class” to 1,700 million people (28% of the world population) living in the European Union (350 millions), USA and Canada (270), China (240), Japan (120), and India (120). In such sense, we live in the world risk society [Beck, 2008] where “the total world consumption of natural resources is already about 20% higher than the annual rate of recovery” [Riechmann, 2014: p.2011]. A question of human inequality that clashes with the idea of justice of Amartya Sen:

Distribution of the benefits of global relations depends not only on domestic policies, but also in a variety of international social arrangements, as trade agree- ments, the rules of the industrial property, global health initiatives, international educational agreements, facilities for the dissemination of technology, the treat- ment of accumulated debts (often caused by irresponsible military rulers in the past) and the control of conflicts and local wars. All these are questions eminently debatable that may be propitious issues for the global dialogue, including criti- cisms come from near and far [Sen, 2010: p.442] (own translation).

Responding to with Sen´s reflection, I consider that GCED should stimulate a global dialogue that addresses these issues from new virtual and physical modalities. Certainly, the use of measuring indexes of quality of life, which take into account

environmental conditions, will promote a critical and planetary consciousness through global solidarity reflections that, ultimately, will favor the creation of new social organization proposals associated with the principle of biomimicry. Having mentioned just a few examples of authors who have proposed that human economy shouldmimicthe“naturaleconomy” ofecosystems, Iconsiderthebiomimeticapproach is one of the most innovative responses in recent years to protect the environment and improve the quality of life through new sustainable habits of consumption and production. The term biomimicry comes from the ancient Greek βίος (bios), life, and μίμησις (mīmēsis), imitation. In the nineties, the term biomimicry would be used in disciplinary fields of material sciences, cosmetic research, and robotics, until the American science writer Janine M. Benyus popularized it with her book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature”. Since then, biomimicry emerged as a new science that considers and values of nature as model, measure, and mentor [Benyus, 2012: p.13]: looking for the inspiration and imitation of the natural process to be applied into social systems, and thus find innovative solutions to complex problems (such as SDGs). “Biomimicry uses an ecological standard to judge the correctness of our innovations. After 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature has discovered what works, what is appropriate, and what endures” notes Benyus [Benyus, 2012: p.13], affirming that biomimicry “begins an era based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but what it can teach us” (ibidem). In this line of thought, Benyus founded the “Biomimicry Institute” (http://biomimicry.org/) and recognized nine basic operational principles of Life in the Nature that can be used as example of beneficial model for human behavior. In words of Benyus:

The communities of living things maintain a dynamic stability, as a choreography, juggling the resources without accumulating waste. After decades of persevering study, ecologists have begun to understand the hidden similarities between many interconnected systems. From their notes, we can begin to guess a canon of laws, strategies, and principles that resonate in every chapter of this book:

Nature runs on natural sunlight.

Nature uses only the energy and resources that it needs.

Nature always fits form to function.

Nature recycles everything. Nature rewards cooperation.

Nature depends on and develops diversity. Nature requires local expertise and resources. Nature avoids internal excesses.

Nature taps into the power of limits [Benyus, 2012: p.22] (own translation).

The nine principles of Life from Nature identified by Benyus [Benyus, 2012], invite us to reflect and compare the inherent characteristics of ecosystems with the culture of human production. From the reports of the Club of Rome in 1972, The Limits to Growth, the situation in which we are currently in the biosphere has worsened dramatically. Anchored in production models where reign the “planned obsolescence” to increase consumption, we continue without considering that biosphere is finite, with natural resources that have limits to regenerate, and that degradation (entropy) is manifested through the second law of thermodynamics. “There are alarming
indicators about the brutal climate imbalance that we have implemented, and which consequences will be terrible (ecocide more genocide, if you want to express it in a synthetic formula)” notes Riechmann [Riechmann, 2014: p.333]. With such future prospects, there is no doubt that our grandchildren will suffer, during the second half of this century, the climatic consequences of global warming caused by our consumer culture and irrational production.

Consequently, future goals for 2030 of SDGs force us to act urgently to transform the current view of environmental degradation for a feeling of belonging to a common heritage that we must protect and regenerate. For this reason, following the political sociology of education that Carlos Alberto Torres [Torres, 2009; Torres, 2005] proposes to make a “transformative reading of the world”, GCED should constitute a transformative tool that promotes new symbiosis between ecological sustainability and human rights through the notion of common identity with a large ecosystem: the Homeland-Earth [Morinand Kern, 1993]. A line of thought in harmony, among others, with the work done by UNESCO Vietnam under the program “Man and Biosphere”. In words of the current Representative of UNESCO to Vietnam, Katherine Müller-Marin: “Bioliteracy is the ability to understand the language of life. A bioliterate citizen seeks a continuum of understanding, enabling individuals to develop their knowledge and innovative potential in order to coexist fully with their surrounding community and natural environment” [Collado, 2014: p.13].

From this bioliteracy vision which harbors the hope to plant a better world, GCED must disseminate in pedagogical contents the idea of biomimicry to inspire global citizens to observe and learn from nature, rather than exploit and destroy it. Sustainable development is not a goal, but a continuous process of proper management with all natural goods of the biosphere. For this reason, the nine principles of life from nature that Benyus [Benyus, 2012] identifies, are in fact, a source of ecoliteracy inspiration [Capra, 2005] to create new forms of eco-ethical conduct with respect to life. As such, we have to make a small synthesis of them to develop deeper conclusions:

    1. Nature runs on natural sunlight: the energy absorbed by almost all natural communities comes from the nuclear fusion that sun makes at 150 million kilometers.“Thesolar, windandtidalenergies, aswellasbiodiesel, allderivefrom the current sunlight” [Benyus, 2012: p.321]. When we burn fossil as oil, natural gas or coal, we are using the old sunlight which remained trapped (compressed in an environment without oxygen) in the bodies of animals and plants of the Carboniferous period. When the combustion is made, we are completing “the decomposition process suddenly, pouring the coal stored into the atmosphere in large quantities, ignoring the ecosystem precept of no big flows” (ibidem). Taking into account that our biosphere is a closed and autopoietic system, this attitude would be equivalent to burn the furniture inside our home with the windows closed. Unfortunately, fossil fuels are too cheap and the current consumer society, addicted to energy, goes to full exploitation of these natural resources. A good example would be the leaves, which perform photosynthesis (biochemical decomposition of solar energy in nutrients) “with amazing 95% of quantum efficiency” [Benyus, 2012: p.319], four times more efficiency than solar panels built by human.

    1. Nature uses only energy and resources that it needs: While it is true that second law of thermodynamics converts energy into heat, and a portion of energy is no longer usable, nature knows how to get energy efficiently through different ecosystem connections. In order to make an optimum use of limited habitat, each organism has found a niche and only uses what it needs to survive and evolve. Thus, the lessons of natural systems can guide us to establish new uses for energy. We must consider what we are maximizing (production) and focus more on optimization, as natural systems do when they invest their energy in maximizing diversity to become more efficient in the process of recycling organic nutrients and minerals [Benyus, 2012: p.322].

    2. Nature fits form to function: nature is a highly cooperative system made by dense interactions between its components. The whole ecosystem network has been built in the limits of available resources and as a result, the entire ecosystem has reached an internal coherence of intricate organic patterns which form is adapted to the function. The nature optimizes rather than maximizing. On the contrary, our industrial ecosystems “continue betting on higher rates of productivity and growth, for a maximum flow of material extracted from Earth and converted into shiny new items. 85% of manufactured goods quickly becomes waste” [Benyus, 2012: p.323]. Indeed, the current globalization economy defines its success by fast growth and creates the illusion to measure progress and human development by indicators such as GDP and GNP. By contrast, organisms co-evolving in nature adapting themselves into the changes of others, that is, making that structure play several functions in its environment. “The lesson is that we have to delay the material manufacturing and put the emphasis on quality and not quantity of new items” (ibidem).

    3. Nature recycles and finds uses for everything: “One of the key lessons of ecology systems is that when a system accumulates biomass (total weight of living matter), it needs more recycling to avoid collapse” [Benyus, 2012: p.312]. The existence of trophic chains in ecosystems has a circular organizational scheme where producers, consumers, and decomposers have evolved together in a closed loop to prevent the loss of resources: “all waste is food, and everyone is reincarnated into the body of other” [Benyus, 2012: p.313]. The problem of human culture of production and consumption is that it continues accumulating biomass without a network of closed loops. In this sense, Benyus [Benyus, 2012] explains several examples of “zero waste economy” in European Nordic countries (especially Denmark) where there are small trophic networks of industrial ecology with closed loops, where the exchange of information and the mutual wish to utilize the waste causes that all manufactured products coming from market, re-entering into the production system through legislation recovery and reimbursement systems.

    4. Nature rewards cooperation: in mature ecosystems the cooperative strategies among organisms are as important as competition. According to the endosymbiosis hypothesis of Lynn Margulis [Margulis, 2002], the symbiosis between two species is a fundamental element of evolutionary progress from billions of years ago. Natural ecosystems operate in a complex symbiotic network of mutually beneficial relationships and when they grouped a large

number, they make up organs and organisms. In fact, the endosymbiotic theory postulates that our body is actually a combination of unicellular organisms that have conformed a huge pluricellular organism. Translated into the human production system, the Japanese industrial ecologist Michiyki Uenohara, notes that “we have plenty arteries (main tracts where flow products from the industrial heart to the body of economy), but we also need veins, return tracts of used products to purify and reuse their materials” [Benyus, 2012: p.318]. The lesson learned, therefore, is to build an economy where the arteries and the veins have the same importance, what would imply the imitation of ecological systems of closed loops that reuses the resources. According with Benyus [Benyus, 2012: p.319], an example of pre-competitive cooperation is constituted by the American brands Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors, developing partnerships for the manufacture of standard material that allow them to reuse parts of each other.

    1. Nature depends on and develop diversity: the enormous development of diversity in nature is due to their experience of billions of years in “trial and error”. Nature is characterized, in consequence, by the multi-referential approach that randomness produced by the entropy (rupture of the order) has enabled with its flexible opening to new anomalies. This eco-biological flexibility has enabled a large variety of animals and plants over billions of years around the entire habitat of planet Earth. Therefore, the lesson we learn from nature is that our industrial system must be flexible to be adapted to the emerging needs of global citizenship, and be as diverse as its own environment to respect regional, cultural, and material uniqueness of the place.

7. Nature requires expertise and resources: generally, natural ecosystems are connected in a relatively closed manner in the space-time. There is a rich biodiversity in the local ecosystems where many local species co-evolve together to be adapted to the changes. Unfortunately, the current capitalist trend is a global economy without frontiers where manufactured goods are produced in far countries geographically separated. In this sense, we must learn from the local knowledge and experience that indigenous people have, because “the idea of an adapting economy to the land and take advantage of its local attributes would bring us closer to the organisms that have evolved until become local experts” [Benyus, 2012: p.339].

  1. Nature avoids internal excesses: “The biosphere (the layer of air, land, and water that sustains life) is a closed system, meaning it is not imported or exported materials (apart from the naughty meteorites)” [Benyus, 2012: p.332]. The autopoietic character of the biosphere get that life maintains the necessary conditions to regulate itself through a constant exchange between organisms (photosynthesis, respiration, growth, mineralization, decomposition, etc.). Unfortunately, the global industrial system is an opened system where “nutrients” become “waste”, without any significant recycling process. This exploitation dynamic of natural resources and pollution is changing drastically the natural process because they cannot recycle the huge amounts of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere (currently 355 of each million of molecules). The only answer is an industrial ecosystem that can be integrated in the biosphere without harming it.

  1. Nature taps into the power of limits: nature has learned that living with finite resources is a powerful resource of creativity. In nature there are internal feed- back mechanisms which optimize the use of resources of the environment in constant balance, with moderation and without devastating it. That means not mortgaging the future because, otherwise, it would die. The lesson is that our current production system cannot continue to push the limits of the planet. Natureteachesustoflourishwithinbiologicallimits, withoutbeingincontinuous predatory expansion. On the contrary, we must “adapt human systems to ecosystems (biomimicry), managing greater efficiencies (eco-efficiency) and act on the demand with self-containment measures (generalized demand management)” [Riechmann, 2014: p.28].

The nine principles of life from nature that Benyus [Benyus, 2012] identifies are incompatible with the current capitalist socio-economic order. “It could even be said that capitalism is the metaphorical antithesis of the natural process of life: in it prevails exclusion, squander, deregulation, what we call today as relocations, as well as unaware speculative flows to real production of goods and services” notes the natural philosopher Luciano Espinosa [Espinosa, 2007: p.66] compared to natural systems of the biosphere where “operate inclusive circuits of all member of the network, which are attached to the ground, tied to the satisfaction of the basic needs and the constant recycling of matter and energy” (ibid). This comparison lead to suppose the eco-ethic understanding of their own life in its multidimensional complexity. An eco- ethic understanding that should be promoted by the GCED to face the global techno- economic dynamics that are destroying life on Earth. GCED should aim to establish itself as the political, educational, and epistemological tool able to modify the socio- ecologic metabolism through new symbiosis between natural ecosystems and human cultures systems of production.

To do this, we must address the principle of biomimicry in a broader sense, “to understand the operating principles of life in its different levels (particularly the eco- systemic level) with the goal to rebuild human systems in order to fit them in the natural systems harmoniously” [Riechmann, 2014: p.171]. Then, we could define the GCED metaphorically as a living organic structure in constant process of adaptation and co-evolution with the environment. Therefore, GCED should not only think about how to integrate the eco-bio-ethical principles of biomimicry in the political structures and the national/regional/local educational curricula. GCED should also think about how to apply them in terms of networks. Since the scholarly microcosm embodies the macrocosm of social structures, the common future of humanity among the planet Earth requires a true political, epistemological, and educational transformation which implies the emergence of a new civilizational paradigm characterized by the change of hierarchies to networks in the social organization field.

This vision of social organization around networks provides a new perspective to understand better the natural ecosystems, which are organized as networks of networks [Capra, 1998]. Ecological literacy should also include adults, media, and policy makers. In this regard, it is important the Article 16.B of the Declaration of Aichi-Nagoya on ESD, where the Director-General of UNESCO is requested to continue to “harness partnerships and mobilise networks including the UNESCO ASPnet, UNESCO Chairs,
Centers under the auspices of UNESCO, the World Network of Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage Sites, as well as UNESCO Clubs and Associations” [UNESCO, 2014b]: 2). Undoubtedly, all these associations partners should develop and interact in form of networks, as a “constellation of twinned NGOs-Schools” [Collado, 2013a], to face the glocal challenge to build a GCED which promotes a cosmodern perspective of the human condition/identity in the Homeland-Earth, as well as the formulation of new biomimetic systems of economical production sustainable with the environment.

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