Insights: Lessons from nature

June 16, 2014
Stephanie Harrington

Put aside your old way of thinking about the environment. School of Environment and Sustainability associate faculty member Liza Ireland says to be sustainable, we need to change our mindset. That means integrating the environment into social and economic concerns and planning. By looking at the full picture, we place ourselves within nature, we can learn from it, adapt to change, and create a sustainable future. Read on for Ireland’s advice to inspire real change. 

Change the way you think

For sustainability, we need to understand and use systems thinking. We need to emphasize and recognize there are three imperatives – social, economic and environmental. By recognizing this we get away from adversarial paradigms. Systems thinking is about interdisciplinary thinking. There’s an integration of our traditional thinking in separate silos, so we bring multiple lenses onto every topic or issue. It also means we need to think about different scales and how they’re all nested together and interconnected with each other. In systems thinking, we think of larger systems we’re a part of and smaller systems that are impacted. So we’ve got multiples senses and multiple scales.

Look to nature for the answers

We can look at the natural world and mimic it to find new ways forward. It’s called biomimicry and it basically changes the game. Through biomimicry we can rethink and redesign how we do things. Janine Benyus, who coined the term biomimicry, says we can look to nature as our model, mentor and measure. We don’t have to invent it, nature’s already done that. We just have to look at nature to learn.

For example, how do lotus leaves stay clean without using harsh chemicals? How are the beautiful colours of a peacock created without toxic dyes? How is everything powered by using current sunlight? How does nature create the strongest building materials or the strongest, waterproof glues with minimal energy, at air temperatures, so they can be recycled when they are no longer needed? By mimicking nature we are learning how to make coral-inspired cement that sequesters rather than emits CO2, leaf-inspired thin film solar cells, termite inspired buildings that are warm in the winter and cool in the summer without furnaces or air conditioners, and we’re learning how to eliminate waste by turning it into a resource.

Adapt to change

To develop sustainably we need to foster adaptive capabilities and creative opportunities. Natural systems continually adapt and change as conditions change. Sustainability is a process and we need to recognise it’s developing our ability to be adaptive, and to have that mindset. We try to keep our systems the way they are instead of looking at change as an opportunity for growth and development. For example, how can we become resilient in our energy needs and how can we adapt and change our paradigms so they’re in line with living within the environment?

Support local planning and community initiatives

Systems thinking is about collaborative, multi-stakeholder initiatives instead of top-down command and control approaches. It’s about creating a vision for the future. In order to get to the future, how do we back-cast to see what our next moves are now? It gives us the vision and a pathway to get there. The main thing is it’s not about individual action; it’s collective action and collaboration.

Change the way you communicate

We have to get past the fear and doom and gloom, which just makes people disengage and feel guilty. Positive, empowering communication taps into people’s emotions and values. One of the most important aspects of inspiring communication is how we frame our messages, using ecological metaphors rather than the old dominant paradigm of controlling nature. We should talk about interdependence, community, diversity, cycles, adaptation and emergence. These ecological principles form the basis of sustainable living systems and can guide us in developing sustainable and prosperous socioecological systems.