In Zambia last month, I saw two species of antelope (Impala and Puku) grazing together. One has strong vision and the other has strong hearing. They share their different strengths to more effectively look out for predators
"When nature has work to be done, she creates a genius to do it." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Animals, plants and bacteria are engineers, and biomimicry (designing structures and systems modelled on natural processes) allows us to benefit from this. Last month in Zambia I saw complex termite mounds with advanced internal heating and cooling systems, enabling termites to thrive in desert environments. Architects have adopted these techniques in building design.
But could we go beyond biomimicry in design and engineering, and model leadership and politics on nature?
Learning from nature is no new thing. But I worry that this small, patient notion has been confused and overshadowed by the faceless behemoth that is ‘sustainability'. We have become obsessed with the notion of sustainability. But we bend and use it for our own benefit. The concept is suitably broad to be used by economists and international development agencies; conservationists and businesses; tourism agencies and farming bodies.
Sustainability is a big and clever-sounding word. It is helpful and necessary in long-term planning, but in the wrong hands, it becomes ingratiating and sycophantic. It can mean whatever you want it to mean or worse, it can mean nothing at all. Gift-wrapping for business as usual. It is human-centred, yet hard to make specific (the recent 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and corresponding 169 targets are aspirational and cross-cutting, but vast).
It is too broad to help us with our small dreams - our back garden, our neighbours, our seeds of ideas that need nurturing.
‘Sustainability' convinces people and planet that their priorities have been addressed, whilst it slips out the back door and lets us get on with complex detail. Meanwhile species become extinct, oceans acidify, inequality rises, and we stop caring for strangers. Sustainability has big brains but little heart. Nature is brains and heart and soul. It has a wise but ever-changing sustainability built into it (change is part of ancient natural cycles).
In the recent UK election campaigning, words seemed hollow and leaders disoriented. They, and we, are facing crises from all sides (Michael Gove - the man who tried to get Climate Change removed from the curriculum when he was Education Secretary - is the new Environment Minister). But still we hear the well-trumpeted solution to everything: growth, at all costs.
Kate Raworth in her book Doughnut Economics proposes a new economic model - one that embeds the human economy within the natural world and within society, rather than being distinct from either. GDP is an okay measure of a nation's economic growth (though still doesn't reflect inequality), but it's an unhelpful indicator of anything else. We do not grow as people, communities and leaders if our natural world declines. We are interconnected.
I've been in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Sierra Leone recently with the charity I co-lead. And I've been transforming my tiny balcony in Exeter from grey to green. I've been thinking beyond sustainability, and watching nature in all kinds of contexts. I've been wondering what biomimicry in politics might look like. Here are a few observations.
The notion of a progressive alliance has gained momentum at a local level in the UK recently. Alliances are complex, but we do not need to ‘settle' for traditional two-party politics because we can't conceive of the unknown.
In Zambia last month, I saw two species of antelope (Impala and Puku) grazing together. One has strong vision and the other has strong hearing. They share their different strengths to more effectively look out for predators.
Alliance thinking does not mean acting like we're the same species and agreeing on every issue. But it can be better than simply ‘tolerating' each other. I don't want to just ‘tolerate' my neighbour - I want to know them, walk in their shoes, and hear their worldview.
Good alliances could be about creating common spaces in which understanding and trust is built, where communication is improved and where strengths are shared for the common good. One party and one leader cannot fix everything or please everyone.
Nature shows us that symbiosis works. I'd like to see us evolve alliance thinking towards symbiotic politics. I'm going to start using the Twitter hashtag #Symbipolitics to explore this more -- please join in!
Natural ecosystems are kaleidoscopes of order and chaos. Research shows how underground fungus connects trees to each other. When we see that trees are not individual entities that work alone, forests take on a new shape - a communicative network of supportive living things, collaborating to find water and nutrients, and fend off infection. The trend of ‘self-actualisation' - apps and products and retreats that promise to help you find and develop yourself - is important, but nature shows us that the concept of self can only be defined when connected with a wider ecosystem.
As individuals, how do we thrive whilst existing in a ‘forest' of other selves? What is our role, what are our strengths? How do we share and protect?
Political leaders could focus on supporting community (and therefore national) ecosystems to root and thrive, enabling local networks to share resources and support individuals. When good solutions to challenging issues are found in one place, they could be shared via connected community networks so that far away communities thrive too.
Nature has gone through almost 4 billion years of research and development - the solutions it has found are well tested. When we look for solutions to our challenges, we might first look into nature. Where is this challenge mirrored in nature, be it housing shortage, or uncompassionate global corporations? What solutions can be found there? e.g. beehives that inspire supportive communal housing in return for work, or more effective organisational management inspired by self-organising natural systems.
More broadly, biomimicry in evolving politics must look beyond simply ‘taking' the best ideas from nature and fitting them to our own human purposes. We must look beyond ‘sustainable' solutions to purely human challenges. The world is more than just humans, and its story is ancient. We need to listen for that story, those songlines. We can hear them in nature.
Author, farmer and activist Wendell Berry seeks work compatible with nature, asking for patience and love, which lights everything (see his prayer below). Perhaps a call for ‘love-led' political leadership, mentored by nature, is the bold new direction our politics could take.
Teach me work that honors Thy work,
the true economies of goods and words,
to make my arts compatible
with the songs of the local birds.
Teach me the patience beyond work
and, beyond patience, the blest
Sabbath of Thy unresting love
which lights all things and gives rest.
Elizabeth Wainwright is the Ecologist's Nature Editor. She spends her time between Devon and London, and loves wild spaces. She also co-leads a global community development charity.