Learning From Nature

Logo for the “On Being” Podcast

I fell asleep to a podcast last night, and then, they played all night. When I woke up, I heard this conversation between Krista Tippett and Janine Benyus on an episode of On Being — “Biomimicry: An Operating Manual for Earthlings.”

These were the first words I heard today, and I’d like to share them:

Krista Tippett: I’ve been thinking in these last years about how culturally, I think we essentially ask capitalist questions as our starting point just instinctively: “How soon?” “How much?” And I’ve been paying attention to the questions in the chapter you’ve mentioned and other questions you’ve thrown out there, like “What’s worth doing?” “How shall we live here?”… the questions, “What would nature do here?” “What wouldn’t nature do here?”

Janine Benyus: Yeah, there’s this set of questions that we ask because biomimicry looks at nature as “model for emulating” — measuring to judge the rightness of our actions… The questions that go with that are, “What would nature do here?” and “here” is the most important part of that, because that’s the context. “What would nature do here?” “What wouldn’t nature do here?” is that measure part. And then, “why?” and “why not?”

That’s the mentor part. That’s the part where, if you have a mentor at work, and you’ve been there a while, something weird happens. You don’t know what it is. You go in, close the door, and say to the mentor, “Why did that just happen?”

“Oh, let me tell you about that.”

So life knows how to live here. Over 3.8 billion years, you know? It does. We have spent 250 years of Western science, asking about nature, and now, we’re starting to ask to learn from nature. It’s exciting! It’s a completely different way to do science to learn from rather than to just learn about, right?

That’s the switch. That’s really the profound switch. It calls on us to sit down, get out our notebooks, and pay attention in a whole different way than when we were just measuring. You know, natural history — my field — started out with, you went out in the jungle, and you didn’t ask. You shot it and brought it back. Our natural history museums are filled with drawers, and that’s when we were asking the “What” question. “What are you?” Not, “How do you live here?”

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