We Need to Recycle Our Thinking

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By Doug Studer
Galvanizer, Livelong Learner, Thoreauvian Naturalist, Deskey CEO

I recently spent nearly a week in Boston at the Sustainable Packaging Conference. I heard presentations about new plastics, attended workshops about how to motivate sustainable behavior in consumers, and heard how companies are impacting the waste stream by lightweighting their plastic bottles. 

All good, all necessary. And then Dave Rapaport, Ben and Jerry’s Global Social Mission Officer, remarked in his on-stage interview that “we can’t recycle our way out of our plastic problem.” That is the crux to me. It underscores the urgency of everything else I heard that week. He called Ben and Jerry’s “a social justice company that happens to sell ice cream” (really great ice cream, I might add). He is 100% right on in his thinking. Until companies stop saying “our customers will never pay for that” and start doing the right thing because it is right to do, we will not be able to change consumer behaviors enough to make a difference.

It is scary stuff. Our favorite poster child for ocean plastic, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, represents only 3% of all the plastic in the ocean. Removing it all would still leave an estimated 145.5 million tons of plastic in the seas, killing over 100,000 mammals annually and ending up in our food. Recent studies show we consume 10,000 particles of microplastic each year in the seafood that we eat. Human, land-based activity is responsible for 80% of the plastics in our oceans; all the waste in our rivers, if not removed, finds its way to our oceans.

Single-use plastics and ineffective non-global approaches are major offenders. Of the plastic going into the ocean, 60% comes from Southeast Asia, but the products themselves come from all over the world. It is everyone’s responsibility to push companies where feasible to use more recycled, bio-based or biodegradable plastic in the first place. 

The reality, however, is that is costs significantly less — nearly four times less — to use non-recycled, non-bio plastic in consumer goods. Plastics deliver significant societal benefits in energy, food storage and improving the quality of life. However, those benefits are lost when plastic litter harms our natural environment — our environment. We must remember that we, too, are natural beings. We are all part of nature, and we are fouling our nest.

Progress is and can continue to be made with legislation and goals being set, a focus on a vision for a circular economy for plastics, new technologies and infrastructures, and education to influence behavior. These are not options! If we don’t recycle our thinking and change our collective behavior, we may be the victims of our own inability to act.

From Saturn V to Maple Seeds

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Ok, I admit it, I am a space geek. Growing up in the 1960s I watched every rocket launch and every moon landing. So I was excited to attend Biocene 2018, a bio-inspired symposium jointly produced by Great Lakes Biomimicry, the Ohio Aerospace Institute and NASA. I was very curious to learn what biomimicry and space exploration could possibly have in common.

When President Kennedy declared, “We choose to go to the moon,” NASA became the place for innovation. They were doing things never done before, with materials and machines never tried before, to go places no one had ever been before. That vision united the NASA team in ways that to this day set the standards for mission, vision and values. There’s a story that’s told about a dignitary touring Cape Canaveral who came upon a janitor in the hallway. He asked the man what his job was at NASA and, with broom in hand, the man proclaimed, “I am helping to put a man on the moon.” July 20, 1969, 20:17 UTC, was in many ways the pinnacle of the industrial revolution in our country. Technology and brute force had triumphed with the words “Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.”

Now I guess you could say I am an Earth geek, and it turns out that our friends at NASA are too. Biomimicry has found a home in the cutting-edge science of our nation’s space program. I was surprised to learn just how much work is being done by, well, rocket scientists to learn from nature how to explore, travel and live in space and on the moons and planets we’ve yet to explore. It is a quieter technological revolution but a revolution nonetheless. Some of the amazing things scientists are studying include:

  • using the properties of reeds as acoustic buffers to absorb unwanted sounds
  • planetary shelters grown from a combination of algae and mycelium fibers
  • an exploration drone well-suited for the violent weather that could be encountered on other planets or terrestrially based on the autorotation flight mode of the maple seed
  • the processing and depositing of surface materials based on marine sponges
  • incorporating the structure of seal whiskers to improve aerodynamics and drag reduction on surfaces

Just as important as these advances is the core lesson from biomimicry: applying life’s principles and working within the planet’s operating conditions, even if that planet is not Earth.

Many of us are unaware of the everyday conveniences we enjoy as a direct result of the work done in the early days of the space program: the things that we eat, where we sleep and what we wear — even technologies to improve open heart surgery. In all there have been more than 2,000 spinoffs in the fields of computer technology, environment and agriculture, health and medicine, public safety, transportation, recreation and industrial productivity.

And NASA is not alone in their interest. I attended presentations from Lockheed Martin, GOJO, Owens Corning, IBM, the U.S. Air Force, organic architects, and numerous universities and institutions. My hope is that this latest exploration into the natural world will create a space-program level of energy and audience for advances made possible through the emulation of nature’s genius — biomimicry.

Perhaps the greatest benefit from the early days of exploring the space around our planet is a new perspective of the world on which we live. From space there are no borders, no lines, no politics. There is just the beauty of the planet we are fortunate to call home. In branding, we often say that you cannot see the label of the jar you are in. We need to keep that perspective and learn from the view outside our jars. We are just one part of a much bigger picture, and we still have much to learn.

The Earth Delights in Our Well-Being

Really? That might be a little hard to fathom with all the storms, forest fires, floods and other natural catastrophes that fill the news — or even our own lives. When we cling to an anthropocentric view of the awesome power of natural events, the “man versus nature” perspective, we’re setting ourselves up for trouble. However, if we live in union with Mother Earth rather than in conflict with her, we see her not as a spiteful bitch, but as the nurturer she truly is.

Still, you’re wondering how the planet delights in our well-being. The short answer is: When we delight in hers. A simple answer, perhaps, but not a simple task. Nature always follows Life’s Principles, which are present by varying degrees in every living organism. Life creates conditions conducive to life, not only for the next generation, but also for the thousands of generations that follow. Life does this by taking care of its offspring, and just as critically by taking care of the place that takes care of them. We need to open our eyes and learn from the elders of the planet, those species that have been around far longer than we have. Life has called earth home for 3.8 billion years, so it must be doing something right.

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If we can reframe how we choose to be present here on earth, we can better control our impact on the environment. It is our environment; we are responsible for the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. Nature renews selflessly. Trees will make our oxygen for as long as they can, the oceans will give us water for as long as they can, and the soil will provide food for as long as it is able. But our actions influence the ability of the planet to furnish all these gifts — they are not endless, they are not guaranteed. Even the earth has limits, and we are trying her patience. It’s time we start acting like the rest of the “mature” species on this spinning globe. When we respect and care for our planet, when we delight in the gifts she offers without ravaging her precious resources, then she will delight in us.

Humans by the Numbers: .00000001%

There are 7.5 billion people on our planet, and that number grows by 1.1% each year. Still, as a species, we make up just 0.1% of the total biomass on earth. And when you consider that life has existed here for approximately 3.8 billion years, it’s even more humbling to think that humans have been around for no more than 0.2% of that time.

If that doesn’t provide perspective, look at it this way: There are around 100,000,000 species sharing our planet today, yet that represents only 1/10 of 1% of all species that have ever been here. And with extinction now happening at rates 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than before humans evolved, we could lose up to 50,000 species each year. That equates to 137 a day — or 6 every hour! Lost forever, and many without us ever having a chance to really get to know and understand them. Which should truly shake us since it’s estimated that 99% of currently threatened species are at risk primarily due to human activity.

As a species, we are only .00000001% of the planet’s inhabitants. Yet we disproportionately affect the other species we share the earth with. We might not take diversity for granted, but it is much more integral to our existence than many people imagine.

From the Center for Biological Diversity:

“Beyond its intrinsic value, biodiversity is necessary to human survival. Ecosystem diversity is crucial to ecosystem integrity, which in turn enables our life support, giving us a livable climate, breathable air and drinkable water. Food-crop diversity and pollinating insects and bats allow agriculture to support our populations; when disease strikes a food crop, only diversity can save the system from collapse. Plant and animal diversity provide building blocks for medicine, both current and potential; almost half of the pharmaceuticals used in the United States today are manufactured using natural compounds, many of which cannot be synthesized. They also provide critical industrial products used to build our homes and businesses, from wood and rubber to the fuels that underpin our economies — even coal and oil are the products of ancient plant matter and preserved zooplankton remains.

Biodiversity plays a central mythic and symbolic role in our language, religion, literature, art and music, making it a key component of human culture with benefits to society that have not been quantified but are clearly vast. From our earliest prehistory, people have never lived in a world with low biodiversity. We’ve always been dependent on a varied and rich natural environment for both our physical survival and our psychological and spiritual health. As extinctions multiply, and cannot be undone, we tread further and further into unexplored terrain — a journey from which there is no return.”

In the past 25 years, the human population grew by a whopping 2 billion, while the populations of almost all other mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish have declined by nearly 30 percent.

We are an intelligent species, capable of recognizing the value that other species bring to our existence. Now it’s a matter of embracing the wisdom of biodiversity while we and those species still have time.

Practicing Humility

As a species, we’re in our infancy. Our time on this planet is brief compared to some of the millions of species that appeared eons before we took up residency. And there have been other dominant species before us: the dinosaurs, and the massive mammals that evolved after their extinction.

However, the end of our dominance won’t likely come in the form of a new species or a cataclysmic event — our demise seems destined to come at our own hand. In our rise to supremacy, we have lost touch with the lessons of the past, and are ignoring those that surround us today.

Species with ancestry much older than ours will teach us volumes if we just open our eyes. But that’s difficult for us humans, especially those whose Judeo-Christian teachings tell us that we have dominion over all creatures of the earth. In our quest for world domination, nature is more often swept aside than woven into our master plans.

I call it arrogance of species, for we are not in charge of nature — we are nature. Until we embrace that core fact, we will share the fate of every species cast into oblivion before its time by unnatural means. Altering our course means consulting experts who really know how to live here and have the track record to back it up.

Dayna Baumeister from Biomimicry 3.8 calls it “quieting our human cleverness.” Such a simple concept, but not easy to execute — because it has to stem from humility. One of the hardest things for any human to do is acknowledge our own inadequacies. We are taught from birth to be self-sufficient and self-fulfilling creatures. We cherish independence and autonomy for enabling us the freedom to do what we choose and be whomever we want to be.

We need not ignore these virtues, but instead channel them in a way that is more conducive to living as a part of our planet, not just unconscious consumers of its resources. If we can grow in humility rather than arrogance, we can grow more aware of our connection to nature and our dependence on the earth. There are experts eager to share with us, and if we listen to and value their wisdom, the answers will be ours as well.

Teachable Spirit

A teachable spirit has the potential to learn and understand nature. Thus, a teachable spirit is positioned to receive truth and has an attitude with more questions than answers. However, a teachable spirit recognizes truth when it comes knocking. It invites truth in to be examined, understood and applied. Truth invigorates the teachable spirit, and there is a rush of earthy adrenaline when it intersects with an open mind and heart.

In Biomimicry, wisdom comes from nature; therefore, a teachable spirit learns the ways of the earth. There is a tension that arises when truth begins to facilitate changes in behavior and attitude. This change of heart seems somewhat innocuous from the outside looking in, but most of us do not like to be told what to do. Change doesn’t come easily, even as you understand that it is in your best interest. But the transformation is telling. Your character and behavior fall more in line with nature; your patience, rather than your intimidation, becomes dominant; your bad beliefs and behaviors are replaced with good ones. Try a shift in your thinking and reflect on “How is nature experiencing me?” We can only change the world by changing our little corner of it.

This reconnection with nature, this alignment with an ethos beyond ourselves, opens us up to the wisdom surrounding us. There is so much to learn if we allow ourselves to be taught.

 

Part 3: Consumed by Emotions

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.”– Theodore Roosevelt

No matter which quarter of the eco-minded community a person is from, emotion has played a large part in recruiting and maintaining their interest. The quest to save the planet takes its first step in the human heart, whether in the form of a seabird covered in crude oil or an apple covered in manufactured pesticides. Often, the battle seems ever uphill, but the crusaders carry on.

And even the staunchest defenders of the planet engage in capitalism now and then, though consumption is something many of them (aspire to) eschew. Yet consumers they largely are, though what differentiates them from the general public is their skepticism of big brands and big business. They apply a deliberate scrutiny to what they buy: its origins, its ingredients, its sustainability, and so on. We call this group the Conscious Consumers.

These are curious people, often highly educated and well traveled. They’re activists, food experimenters, natural-solution innovators, gardeners, etc. They know their ecological footprint. They tend to shop using a much weightier process than the average consumer. Much thought is given to all that precedes and follows the moment of purchase: everything that was invested in bringing the item into being and then to market, and what’s left to address after the item has served its purpose. This approach consumes fewer goods but a lot more time, effort, and consideration.

So while they WANT to feel confident in their knowledge and the decisions they make, Conscious Consumers are generally inundated by their own wealth of information. The news out there—good, bad, confusing, conflicting—overwhelms them. Behavioral responses range from a willingness to spend more on sustainable products to abstinence from buying all but the most essential goods.

In the realm of emotion, impassioned reactions span the spectrum. On the positive end, Conscious Consumers are protective of the planet and the people that matter to them; they have an earnest desire for truth, which they sometimes feel is being intentionally obscured; and they feel the urgency to act. In the face of monumental challenges, however, the Conscious Consumer can struggle to gather enough fight in themselves, and they wrestle with guilt, fear, and the sense that they’re powerless to effect any meaningful change.

There is no dissociating emotion from the Conscious Consumers’ efforts to save the world. In gaining a better understanding of what motivates them, we find the voice we need to begin and carry on a rich dialogue. And the hope is that together we’ll discover the answers that leave us all feeling good that we’re doing the right thing.

Part 2: Spirits in a Material World

Part 2: Spirits in a Material World

What is biomimicry?

Biomimicry is an innovation method that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies, e.g., a solar cell inspired by a leaf. The goal is to create products, processes, and policies—new ways of living—that are well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul. 

Part 1: It’s Not Easy Defining Green

In recent years, the conversation about the relationship between humans and planet Earth has grown louder, and there’s no shortage of impassioned speakers: environmentalists, farmers, mothers, alternative energy proponents, special interest groups, protesters, minorities, liberals, hippies…. The list goes on, with new sincerely voiced subsets regularly joining the discourse.

This is becoming one of the largest movements the world has ever seen. The regard for our future as a single community crosses geographic and cultural boundaries, encompassing a large segment of the global population. The group concerned with what’s in our air might not have crossover membership with the group concerned with what’s in our food, but there’s a vague understanding that they’re cut from the same hemp cloth.

 
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People with a general eco-centric proclivity are often collectively referred to as “green”—and that’s part of the problem this movement faces in developing the focus it needs to build momentum. There are identifiers for the many parts, but not for the sum. There is, however, a commonality among them: to varying degrees, they are all consumers. And what sets some of them apart in the economic engine is the level of deliberateness they apply to what they buy: its origins, its ingredients, its sustainability.

Meet the Conscious Consumers. They’re skeptical of big brands and big business. They shun the traditional consumer approach of shopping only by price, quality, and brand loyalty. Yet the two Conscious Consumers filling their reusable shopping bags with locally grown organic apples might have entirely different motivations: One is sensitive to the ecological impact of industrial pesticides in agricultural runoff on water resources, and the other has a child with food allergies.

They might even smile at each other, sharing a power-to-the-people moment, even though they don’t know why. Such is the challenge the whole movement faces, as does our effort to reach them. We’re all speaking the same language, but dozens of dialects splinter the discussion. Nevertheless, saving the planet isn’t getting easier and the movement isn’t getting quieter—the Conscious Consumer will be heard.