Book Review

Biomimicry : Innovation Inspired by Nature
by Janine M. Benyus


Hardcover - 256 pages
1 Ed edition (June 1997)
William Morrow & Company;
Dimensions (in inches): 1.14 x 9.61 x 6.53

Paperback - 320 pages
Reprint edition (May 1998)
William Morrow & Co Paper;
Dimensions (in inches): 0.90 x 9.21 x 6.09


by Philip S. Wenz, Publisher

I must have passed over Janine Benyus's volume 100 times as I scoured the bookstore shelves in search of the the latest works on ecological design. The book's cover and title attracted me, but I made an incorrect assumption about its topic. "Biomimicry," I imagined, was like bionics, the engineering of mechanical systems based on the designs of nature. Hydraulic systems that mimic the movement of fluids through plant stems- that sort of thing. Bionics, like Bob Dylan's flowers of the city, was "breathlike but deathlike at times."

Boy, was I wrong. More than any book I've read on ecological design, Biomimicry is teaming with life and what we can learn from it. Benyus tackles the major design problems facing humanity in the twenty-first century, from how we will feed ourselves and harness energy to how we will manufacture goods and conduct business- from a whole (eco)system perspective. (Which is, of course, how nature solves its problems- not through isoloated mechanical adaptations, but through designs honed by interactions between the components of whole living systems.)

Benyus's writing is as vibrant and fascinating as her subject. A forestry major in college, naturalist by predilection, and writer of four science books by profession, she tells an engaging story of nature's promise for redemption in each chapter. The book opens by describing how an Amazonian Indian traveled to Washington, D.C., to beat his bare chest and roar like a jaguar before a Congressional hearing on oil drilling in his homeland. Pre-industrial humans, Benyus opines, have lessons for us.

"What's going on here?" she continues. "My guess is that Homo Industrialis, having reached the limits of nature's tolerance, is seeing his shadow on the wall, along with the shadows of rhinos, condors, manatees, lady's slippers, and other species he is taking down with him. Shaken by the sight, he, we, are hungry for instructions about how to live sanely and sustainably on the earth."

Benyus's stylistic virtuosity doesn't let up. She proceeds to spin a series of captivating stories through which she spoon feeds us a very rich soup of biological information—the very information on the functioning of the natural world that we need to survive as a species. How do we produce food? By mimicing nature's tactic of diversifying in our crop selection. How do we produce energy? By mimicing the priniples of photosynthesis. And so on.

My only regret about Benyus's wonderful book is that it doesn't have pictures. As a designer, I like pictures and find that even simple sketches enhance my understanding of books on ecology. On the other hand, her writing draws forth such beautiful images from the imagination that pictures might have broken the trance. It was Benyus's call, and far be it from me second guess her.

If you want to read a discussion of ecological design that is at once personal and scientific, entertaining and demanding, don't miss Benyus's book.

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