How to Use Nature to Save Our Environment

In this episode, I discuss how nature inspires innovation.

We humans love to congratulate ourselves on our ability to innovate, to create what we see as new solutions to old problems. Yet often we don’t realize that Nature evolved something similar millions of years before primates first appeared on Earth. Almost every technological problem that we encounter was solved long before we made an appearance.

There is no doubt that as a species we are innovative. Sometimes we are so innovative that we manage to do irreparable harm to our environment. We look at forests and we see fuel for fires, timber for homes and food for our supper. What we don’t always see is that as we use that resource, it becomes increasingly scarce. At some point, the resource is gone, taking with it the timber to build homes, the fuel for the fire, and most notably, the animals that sustained us.

The end of the Second World War brought with it a burst of innovation. This creative explosion introduced us to technologies never seen in human history. It also radically changed our relationship with our environment. Before that, we spent millennia systematically destroying our natural environment. After that, our relationship with the natural world became toxic.

Much of what we produced before the war was, at least in some part, biodegradable. We created garbage and dumped that garbage, most of which was foodstuff. That created composts, which slowly returned to the environment. We certainly produced air pollution from fires and lead pollution from smelting operations, but the effects were somewhat limited. Raw sewage in rivers also caused outbreaks of typhoid and cholera throughout history. Leather tanning and butchering also polluted rivers.

The Industrial Revolution made things a lot worse. Factories discovered water sources and dumped their waste into the rivers.

After the war, things became incrementally worse. The medical industry produced drugs that ended up in water sources. We started producing plastic, (PCBs), an organic pollutant and inorganic pesticides like DDT. Where before the war much of what we produced was absorbed by natural processes, these new chemicals do not break down easily. As a result, they accumulate in the environment and affect natural lifecycles. PCBs are known human carcinogens, that is they increase the risks of cancers. This contamination remains in schools, parks and other sites and becomes a threat to any life.

When we realized the harm that we are causing our environment, we should have taken steps to change that. We have taken some steps, like banning PCBs and CFCs, which affect the ozone layer that protects Earth from radiation. For the most part, our garbage dumps now contain billions of tons of toxic chemicals. These chemicals ultimately leach into the soil and into streams and rivers.

This causes havoc with all the life that depends on that water, including human life. Plastics now clog our waterways, and our rivers and oceans. Even our drinking water now contains minute particles of plastic. This has an impact on our lives, on our ability to reproduce and our future. Our world is becoming increasingly toxic.

The emergence of life through evolutionary processes 3.8 billion years ago created a planet filled with life. That life was not without problems. Anaerobic bacteria produced oxygen as a byproduct. Over hundreds of millions of years, that oxygen built up in the environment and became toxic to bacteria. Evolutionary processes ensured that over time, resistance built up in many organisms. That laid the groundwork for the emergence of life that depended on oxygen for survival.

As life progressed, it evolved the ability to conserve nutrients like nitrogen or phosphorus. This is essential to the environment. If that were not true, unusable matter will accumulate, and eventually becomes toxic. That is what we have done. We have disrupted the natural cycle and created an environment that is becoming increasingly toxic to all life.

We need to return to those natural recycling processes. In order for humanity to survive and flourish, we need to find innovative ways to recycle what we produce. Just as nature contains intricate cycles of recycling, so we can do the same thing. We can do this by studying the processes that nature uses to recycle. We can then apply those processes to our products.

In nature, when a plant grows, it absorbs nutrients from the soil, from the air and from water. Herbivorous animals consume these plants in order to survive, and carnivorous animals in turn consume them. A host of microorganisms live on and within these animals, providing digestion and oxygen and consuming the byproducts of the animal. When the animal or plant dies, natural processes ensure that no nutrient is wasted.

There is no reason that we cannot do the same with every chemical process we use. Some nations, often in Northern Europe and Scandinavia manage to recycle most of their products. The United States alone recycles very little, preferring to waste resources because of the availability of natural wealth.

When we produce a chemical, lets say like DDT, we ought to show how that chemical will break down over time, and the impact that it has on the environment. Other than regulation, there is no apparent way for this to happen. If a hermit crab, which has a long, soft abdomen, can salvage an empty spiral snail shell, why can’t we use cardboard, or empty beer cans to build our homes? Bowerbirds salvage colorful objects from the environment to adorn his nest and attract a mate. Plants use energy from the sun to sustain themselves.

There is no reason that we cannot look at our landfills and find a vast array of uses for the things we throw away. We have become used to extracting everything we need from natural resources, but why not mine our own waste to create new products? In a limited way, some nations do this with paper, glass and metals. Innovative approaches to the things we throw away every day might produce fuels for vehicles or homes. We could return composts to the natural world. We could provide clean water for our rivers and streams to help our natural friends.

Instead of creating toxic products for use in thousands of industrial processes, can we produce chemicals that readily recycle themselves? Can we emulate natural processes in everything that we produce? Sweden recycles nearly 100 percent of their waste. They even import waste to use as fuel. Recycling stations can be found everywhere in Sweden. In a way, they have returned to their natural roots. Right now they use their waste to produce energy, but there are other ways to use that waste by creating new products instead of relying on dwindling natural resources.

Sweden produces paper mass from newspapers, melt bottles into new items, and create raw material from plastic and composts from food. Special trucks move around cities to retrieve electronics and hazardous waste. Pharmacies accept reused medicine. Furniture is turned in to recycling centers. Even products burned for energy are safe. The smoke produced is non toxic carbon dioxide and water, which is run through filters. Sludge is used to fill abandoned mines. Metals are retrieved from the ash. Only about one percent of waste is stored in waste dumps.

In the United States we create enormous landfills that are toxic to the environment. The landfills in Staten Island outside New York are so full that the City no longer has anywhere to store its garbage. Yet, they have not yet turned to innovative approaches to reduce garbage. Our planet is drowning in waste, when with a little forethought and a little work, we can create a clean world.

This is a topic to which I will return in later episodes. I think it is fascinating how nature manages to reuse everything. Every life form produces waste, and some other form of life uses it to grow and live. Humans need to learn to do the same. I will examine some of these processes as we go forward.

I encourage you to continue to enhance your life with the Power of Three and search for a more innovative way to live.

Until next time, go well my friends.