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We don't need to Save the Planet
It is well understood by now that we need not worry about saving the planet. The Earth, and the complexity of life that calls it home, will outlive us. Life on Earth first emerged in a seemingly toxic atmosphere, and went on to survive ice ages and meteors, tectonic shifts and drifts. The diversity and disbursement of flora and fauna have changed dramatically over the past few billion years, but life has managed to continue. Human-induced climate change, biodiversity loss, mass extinction, ecosystem destruction, macro and micro plastics, and forever chemicals will — already are — changing conditions for life on Earth, but life in some form will go on. It is well understood, then, that we need not worry about saving the planet, but we do need to worry about saving ourselves, humankind.
Human-induced inequities mean that the peoples of the global south, as well as black and brown people everywhere — those that did not initiate this destruction — are and will continue to be hit first and hit hardest. But none of us are safe. Even in the most affluent countries, babies are born with myriad unnatural chemicals in their bodies. Sperm counts are down and cancer rates are up. Floods and fires take turns consuming real estate. While the physical threats are real, increasing, and inescapable, there is another sort of threat that is both a cause and an effect of our own making that we tend to ignore. That is the existential threat of our dominant cultural paradigm — what we believe to be true about the world, the way it works, and our role in it.
If you grew up in and live in the western developed world, you will, no doubt, leave the Earth worse off than when you found it, regardless of how you choose to live, what you choose to buy, and what you choose to do for a living. Whether you consume 5 times or just twice what the Earth can sustain, you’re still part of the problem. We all are. That is because almost all of our ‘sustainable’ products, processes, principles, practices, and policies are created in and require leveraging an economic system that is dependent on burning fossil fuels and exploiting peoples and places around the world for profit.
I am not being righteous or judgmental. Far from it. I am as depressed as the rest of you about the state of the world and the damage I have caused. I live in a big house and drive an electric car. I love to travel. I buy “sustainable” personal care products that come in plastic containers. I’m too cheap to always buy local and organic. So I’m writing this from, I believe, a shared sense of desperation and desire to do something impactful and effective. I’m also coming from a place of empathy. Empathy for you, for myself, for them, for us, and for Nature.
When I started searching for sustainable solutions early in my career as a civil engineer, I was focused on technical solutions. I later expanded my search to include frameworks and philosophies, tools and strategies. I wanted to find something that was based in science and actionable, but that also resonated with my soul. Biomimicry — innovation inspired by Nature — seemed to be the thing I was looking for. If we designed all of our products, processes, and even policies to emulate Nature’s strategies and to follow Nature’s rules for sustainability, then surely we could create a sustainable and even beautiful human-made world.
As I spent more time working with and teaching biomimicry, I encountered numerous barriers — the same barriers that suppress most radical ideas and innovations. But I also saw how simply being exposed to the concept of biomimicry gave people surprisingly wild hope. Often after a workshop, participants would be so enthusiastic, so positive, so inspired, so bursting with possibilities, it was like watching people fall in love. After a while, I realized that is exactly what was going on. People were falling in love. They were falling in love with life, with curiosity, with emergent thinking, with systems thinking, with co-creativity. For just a little while, they got to see the world, how it works, and their role in it from Nature’s perspective, from Nature’s paradigm.
Unfortunately, when they tried to bring this perspective back to the “real world”, the resistance and rejection were all too predictable: That will never work in the real world. As a practitioner of biomimicry I faced this often myself, and it was incredibly frustrating. How could something with so much potential be so discounted, and even ridiculed, by those in power? I wanted to understand why. What is it about the “real world” that makes implementing biomimicry almost impossible?
Colleagues and I explored the innovation process, looking for potential failure points. We evaluated business models, organizational structures, and leadership styles against Nature’s strategies and systems. We came up with new nature-inspired principles, processes, and practices. These all seemed to be scientifically sound and were certainly inspiring, but something important was still missing, something deeper. What was missing was an understanding of the underlying paradigm, the belief and value system that drives behaviors and decision-making.
The Conventional Paradigm — the dominant cultural paradigm of the “real world” — is based on valuing scarcity, individuality, competition, greed, resistance, and fear. This paradigm is reflected in capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy, Christianity, Enlightenment, Manifest Destiny. This paradigm separates and elevates man above Nature, some men above others, and all men above all women. It requires people to be selfish and paranoid, exploitative and victimized. The curious, and in this case sad, thing about dominant cultural paradigms is that we are often unaware of them, unaware that we subscribe to them even when they are at odds with our personal values. It is my belief that sustainability solutions that emerge from and engage with the Conventional Paradigm can never be successful. They always do more harm than good.
By contrast, Nature’s Paradigm values abundance, systems, synergies, trust, resilience, and curiosity. Evolution has eliminated species that didn’t reflect and express these beliefs. The result is life that creates conditions for life and that adapts and evolves. Each and every living thing is interconnected and interdependent. Life is based on respect and reciprocity in an “ecology of caring.” All are valued, empowered, and equipped to participate, to contribute, and to regenerate. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
What’s the answer?
It is my belief that the only way for us to address the personal, environmental, and social challenges that we have created for ourselves is to begin living from our Natural Paradigm, to re-align ourselves with Nature. Living from our Natural Paradigm will give us new clarity about the world, the way it really works, and our appropriate role in it. It also, beautifully, empowers us to tap into the individual and collective inspiration, creativity, and wisdom that already exists within ourselves as natural living beings. It will allow us to save ourselves, humankind.
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