What a year! Such exultant highs and crushing lows. Here we stand, on the brink of a sixth wave of extinction, staring down the barrel of a 10 billion-human population explosion, as the summers get hotter and the winters weirder. Someone ought to do something! we think––but it seems that systems protecting and supporting us are breaking down, right when we can least afford it. How do we keep hope alive? How do we find the strength to keep working for a better future? For me, hope isn’t hard to find. It stems from the fact that every creature encountered on the trail is a survivor, whose ancestors passed down the strategies that serve them today. Living things have always faced shifting climates, dwindling resources, deceptive predators, parasites and competitors. After nearly four billion years of life, natural selection has sculpted tens of millions of winning solutions. Learning from these solutions, or applying biomimicry to our daily life, seeds hope for the future.
Biomimicry is the art and science of observing these strategies, finding the deep patterns that work, and applying them to our own challenges. Bumps on the leading edge of the humpback whale’s flippers minimize turbulence––wind turbine blades that mimic them are 60 percent more efficient. Lotus leaves are completely water-repellent––Lotus-San Paint mimics the way water beads up and rolls off, cleaning dirt from the surface in the process. A chip in your smartphone copies the way your ears and brain work together, to separate signal from noise. In the tide pool and the rainforest, and every place between, nature’s ancient R&D labs offer transformative, surprising, and radically disruptive ideas. Each one is a compelling story of survival, hope, and resilience, succeeding despite the odds.
We humans love a good story. Nothing beats a taut, linear narrative with escalating tension and a satisfying ending where the hero prevails. But life just isn’t that way, and that’s why we despair. No, no, no! We exclaim. We already fought this battle, we already passed this milestone. This is not progress. But take a look at the male junebug, zooming around crashing into things, backing up just to smack into something else like a kid in a bumper-car. He doesn’t know where his destination lies, so he must rely on comparing one patch of air to the next, heading for the one with more molecules of the female junebug’s scent. It looks crazy––stupid, even––but eventually, he finds what he seeks, and furthers his future. Living things are like this––they just move to the next best possibility, the next open door, zigging and zagging on their way to success. For us, focused as we are on destinations and goals, it’s hard to accept all this blundering. What a crummy story, with no climax or end. But that’s life.
Nature defies the hero’s journey we crave, but fear not––a singular, powerful purpose really does drive every living thing. Nature relentlessly hones regenerative systems that make more for the future. Ultimately, these are the strategies that make more and survive.
Humans are no different. Each of us struggles to make a better future for our family, our community, our country, our world. Progress may feel slow, zigging and zagging on our way to success, but our innovations actually evolve very quickly—much faster than genes do. We aren’t limited to accidentally stumbling on the open doors of the future. Our imagination and shared intentions blow them wide open. Humans can’t help but step back and ask how things could be different.
What if we put a man on the moon? Ended polio and small pox, AIDS or malaria? What if cars ran on sunlight, and garbage was like fallen leaves, feeding the next generation of insects and fungus and bacteria, making more soil for new life to grow? What if we made things the way the plants do, growing them from sunshine and water and carbon dioxide? What if consumption and production created more opportunities, more life? You can’t stop us from dreaming and doing.
As Michael Pollan writes, “as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.” Wherever distributed networks of diverse and independent individuals come together around a compelling shared purpose, surprising things happen, and resilience prevails.
The snow may press cold, and the rains pelt down hard, but beneath it all, masses of tiny seeds stir. The time for new beginnings draws near. Each day dawns a little brighter, stays a little longer. A tree falls, and the canopy opens––new light streams down on the soil. Last summer’s wildfires fertilized the earth and left it bare––hope for new growth is here. Destruction and disturbance bring opportunity for the next generation to thrive, and as Charles Darwin once said, it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. Change is inevitable, and life is resilient to it. The solutions are everywhere, and all we need do is look. We zig and zag on the way to success, but life persists, and hope succeeds, despite the odds.