A Silky Demonstration of Sustainability
We had a lovely family day out at Alnwick Gardens yesterday. Part of the kids’ (and certain adults’…) entertainment was an animal show featuring scorpions, an evil looking black blood python and cute meerkats. But the highlight for me was a demonstration of one of the marvels of nature. The animal guys took a bird eating spider and let it crawl over his hand. These spiders, he explained, don’t like walking on anything other than their own silk and had immediately started spinning. He pinched the end of the thread from the spider’s silk gland, gave it to a father in the audience and walked across the room – getting at least 4 metres of silk straight out of the spider before he deliberately broke it.
Now spider’s silk is, pound for pound, stronger than steel or kevlar, yet spiders make it a room temperature, atmospheric pressure, without aggressive chemicals and using a supply chain of dead flies (or birds and mice in this case). A huge amount of effort has gone into trying to develop an artificial equivalent of this manufacturing marvel in that amazing branch of science and engineering known as biomimicry. Such manufacturing systems would have a much smaller environmental impact than our high temperature, high pressure, hazardous approach to producing materials. Biomimicry is also giving us breakthroughs in solar cell production – mimicking the dyes plants use to convert solar energy rather than out crude and energy intensive silicon equivalents.
But the highest level of biomimicry is to try to model the whole economy on natural principles. In such an economy, all materials would move in continuous cycles with the ‘waste’ from one element forming the raw materials for another. We would be dependent solely on renewable energy and the system would never poison itself. Life on earth has spent a 2 billion or so years creating this model and more than a billion demonstrating it is sustainable. You can’t argue with that.