Tag Archives: biomimicry

How green is my lawn

Or, what exactly is it we’re trying to do?

I recently moved from a semi-tiny apartment to a house (don’t ask). Included in the package is a relatively small lawn. Despite its smallness, it bothers me for at least two reasons. The first is personal; I grew up in a pretty large and definitely suburban house with a typically large lawn. It was before the days of lawn services, so it fell to my teenage self to mow the acre of really hilly and only sometimes green expanse. That, by the way, is one of the (many) reasons I vowed to never become a dweller in the supposedly idyllic ‘burbs.

I know many will disagree with this aversion, but let me have my rant.

My second distaste for lawns came about as I became increasingly (and I hope not obnoxiously) a proselytizing environmentalist.

In my classes, as I describe the goals of sustainability, starting from the 3Rs through the triple bottom line and beyond, I use lawn mowing and lawns as an example. I first show a picture of a lawn mower and ask the class how, if they were tasked with making it greener, they would go about it. I get the obvious answers regarding fuel efficiency and recycled materials.

But then I push them further and, usually with some prodding, get them to think about lawns themselves rather than lawn mowers. I do this by asking them to take a step back and question what it is we’re really trying to do. A pedagogical goal of  mine is getting my students to question assumptions and thereby arrive at more sustainable solutions. So, the answer, in this case, is that we are trying to create landscapes around our buildings. But, I ask them, are lawns the only or best way to go about this?

Because we take lawns for granted, they often seem to be the only approach. That means it takes a conceptual leap to get past traditional lawns.

So the question becomes not how to make a more environmental lawnmower, but how to landscape more environmentally. Lawns are nice for picnics, Frisbees and dogs (or dogs catching Frisbees while devouring our picnics). But that doesn’t justify surrounding our houses or, even more egregiously, suburban office buildings with innumerable acres of non-indigenous (virtually all lawn grasses are not native to North America), unnecessary and – here’s the big point – resource intensive artificial carpets.

This whole topic came to mind the other day when the blog Earther posted “Lawns Are an Ecological Disaster.” The article provided supporting data for what I’d been saying for years:

  • There are 40 million acres of lawn in the US, nearly half the total acreage of our major crops
  • We collectively spend more money on landscaping – primarily on lawns – than on foreign aid (roughly $50 billion dollars)
  • We use 580 million gallons of gas each year for lawn mowers.
  • We apply 67 million pounds of pesticides – many carcinogenic or untested – to lawns each year.
  • 30% – 60% of municipal drinking water is used for lawn watering

Image credit: David Bergman

Nor is this new news. Elizabeth Kolbert, among others, wrote about it in depth in the New Yorker back in 2008.

There are yet more issues with lawns, but, hey, this blog is about EcoOptimism. In the class discussion, we eventually get around to the alternative of indigenous planting, though it usually takes, as mentioned above, some prodding. I show them landscapes of wildflowers, xeriscaping and edible lawns.

An edible lawn. Image credit.

An office surrounded by wildflowers and indigenous grasses. Image credit: David Bergman

I also startle them a bit with images of goats, rather than lawnmowers, keeping grass to acceptable height.

Nature’s lawn mower. Available, of course, from Amazon. Image credit

This alternative to lawns can take some getting used to. When I recently tried to convince some clients to plant wildflowers in their small urban front yard, they said the pictures I showed them looked like weeds in the Southwest. (They also wanted paving instead of a lawn because it was easier to maintain.)

Many of us think of lawns as being part of nature and therefore something desirable. But unlike forests, lawns are carbon positive. (This is an unfortunate term and unintuitively means that something – grass in this case – emits more carbon into the atmosphere than is removed.) They are also “monocultures.” Forests and other ecosystems are diverse, with their many plants and animals creating self-sufficient, resilient regions. Lawns, on the other hand, can’t exist without being created and maintained – at great natural and financial expense – by humans.

Looked at this way, getting rid of lawns is, as we like to point out here, win-win-win: ecologically, economically and, harking back to my childhood lawn mowing nemesis, a time-saver.


A Tale of Two Trade Shows

A few years back, I attended the GreenBuild expo when it was in Boston. I try not to incur the footprint and cost of travelling to conferences (not to mention the discomfort that only begins to describe air travel these days), but this was a relaxing train ride from NYC. While there, I walked a few frigid (and empty) blocks to a meeting that was being held at the coincidentally scheduled Build Boston expo. As I entered that show’s exhibit floor, I noticed an immediate and distinct difference. There was a strong smell of new materials – akin to that new car smell – that was totally absent from GreenBuild. The eco-materials and products at the green show were devoid, according to my discerning nose at least, of the telltale scents that probably indicated the presence of volatile organic compounds and assorted endocrine disruptors.

GreenBuild 2008 in Boston

GreenBuild 2008 in Boston

I was reminded of that experience when I attended back to back trade shows this past week. On Wednesday, I spent the day at LEDucation 7, an industry show and conference revolving around the advances in LED lighting. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of the group that organizes LEDucation.) Then the next day I walked the Architectural Digest Home Design Show.

I looked at both through the lens of ecodesign and found both encouraging and discouraging points.

LEDucation, obviously, is about LEDs and, hence, concerned with energy efficiency. Having attended that show in each of its seven years, watching the growing number of exhibitors and attendees is itself an indicator of the level of interest. With the evolution of LED technology, some of the attention is shifting from displays of raw technology to more sophisticated characteristics like color rendition and control of glare – qualities that affect public acceptance of the mysterious new guy who’s trying to replace the familiar light bulbs we’ve grown up with and that have been the worldwide standard since the late nineteenth century. Not an easy task.

The evolution of LEDs has been exciting to see, and the emphasis is broadening from a singular goal of energy efficiency to embrace some of the wider goals of comfort: how does the lighting look and make you feel? How well does it do its job from both a technical and a perceptual gauge?

What was missing, with perhaps the sole exception of one of my favorite new companies, Little Footprint Lighting, was any attention to other ecodesign criteria such as sustainable materials and finishes, future upgradability or disposal/recycling.

Little Footprint’s LED desk lamp (at right) is made from recycled plastics from electronics (shown in bowls from left)

Little Footprint’s LED desk lamp (at right) is made from recycled plastics from discarded electronics (shown in bowls from left)

This is not entirely the industry’s fault. One rationale is that the biggest environmental impact of lighting – by far – is in energy consumption.  (I’ve personally confirmed this by creating LCAs or Life Cycle Analyses on some of my own lighting designs.) Another factor, at least until relatively recently, has been that LEED (the de facto eco-rating system for buildings) did not count eco-materials and finishes used in mechanical equipment including lighting.

So there is a narrow eco focus within the lighting industry. The cutting edge research and development at most companies is in new light sources, without involving the wider picture. On the other hand, there are inventive, usually smaller, companies producing light fixtures from recycled and renewable materials. Unfortunately, they tend to not incorporate light sources other than those incandescent “toasters,” as I call them, or problematic compact fluorescents. Until recently, I could lay claim with my Fire & Water designs to being the only company tackling both energy efficiency and ecodesign. Happily, with the presence of companies such as Little Footprint, that is no longer true.

But the separation between design and ecodesign remains; products, by and large, are either categorized as ecodesigned or “regular” design. I’ve posited the disappearance of this division in my “Green Design as (Un)usual” sequence. Prior to the 1960s or so, we had “Design as Usual,” in which environmentalism was not a concern.  To be more accurate, Design as Usual before the Industrial Revolution necessarily meant designing to accommodate nature because there was no other choice. The advent of modern building techniques and systems, like central heating and air conditioning, changed that dependency – for both better and worse – leading to the globalization of architecture; the same split-level or glass tower could be built anywhere, regardless of climate.

Image from the author’s book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide

Image from the author’s book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide

The sixties and seventies brought us “Green Design as Unusual” – experiments in ecodesign that, more often than not, were far from the mainstream. Earthships, adobe huts and the like. (That’s an unfair overgeneralization, of course.)

Our present period, with perhaps just a bit of rose-colored vision, could be called “Green Design as Usual” in that we’re beginning to see ecodesign included more frequently and in more (I hate to use the word) ordinary projects. On the near horizon, is a return to Design as Usual, redefined now to implicitly included ecological goals.

But we’re not there yet, as was made very apparent by my second trade show tour of the week, the AD Home Design Show. I went in expecting to find a growing emphasis on green design, with much of it falling into the category of greenwashing as businesses attempted to cash in on the movement. While I didn’t find as much greenwash, it wasn’t for the reasons I would have liked. Rather, there was appallingly little evidence of green design – not even the lip service green leaf signs that were sporadically displayed in previous years to flag the “earth friendly.” At one of the few booths that outwardly wore its green colors, Listone Giordano, I asked whether their product literature included information on their renewably sourced woods. When they answered no, I thought they were going to explain that their clients no longer needed it spelled out. Instead they said that their clients were not interested. Not a good indicator of our potential to achieve Green Design as Usual, let alone progressing beyond.

In fact, if there was a discernible theme to the show, I would have to say it was “excess.” Not what I would have expected amidst just the barest hints of recovery from the Great Recession (in which the building and design industries were among the worst hit). Stashed incongruously within the over-the-top and out-of-the-budget appliance displays, there was a lone small booth showing pervious paving. My bet is that no one outside of a few fellow greenies noticed it.

Perhaps the best (or is it the worst?) example of this excess was a display of color glass, flower-shaped urinals. Yes it’s a desirable goal to better integrate nature into our buildings. As the study of biophilia tells us, it generally makes us feel, work, learn and heal better. And there’s also the science of biomimicry: studying how nature does things in order to improve our own methods. But making a urinal look like a flower could constitute only the shallowest definition of biomimicry. (As opposed to a urinal that maybe used natural enzymes to break down the waste into nutrients.) You might say that, rather than learning from nature, these designs piss on it.

glass urinals

The observation is not an inaccurate metaphor, unfortunately, for the state of far too much design – even these days, more than 40 years after the first Earth Day. We still regard nature as a resource that we can endlessly take things from and dump things into. My complaint about lighting had to do with seeing light fixtures only in terms of their energy consumption and not as part of a larger system of flows of materials and energy, constrained by the finite limits of a planet. There’s only so much aluminum or oil or neodymium (a rare earth metal used in electronics) to be had. But if the LEDucation displays are any indicator, the lighting industry is at least addressing a part of the problem. Purveyors of brass encrusted commercial-style ranges for homes can’t even make that claim.


I know this isn’t exactly an optimistic observation for a blog called EcoOptimism, but it does no good to be blind to reality. The positive take-away is that there are still many eyes to help open, many businesses (and their customers) who do not yet realize that green business is (or can be) good business. What we’re seeing is not so much a direction that’s failed as one that is still finding its footing.




Of Slugs and Solutions

Bear with me through a somewhat circuitous train of thought here. It starts unfortunately, since we’re all pretty much politicked out, with the second presidential debate. I promise, though, the topic isn’t politics.

Politicians love to shift topics when faced with a question they don’t particularly want to answer. Generally, this frustrates the hell out of most of us. The town hall debate, where a question about regulation of assault weapons turned away from gun control to an apple pie discussion of parents teaching moral values, was no exception. This was, of course, a safe cop out of an answer. Who could be against the idea of parents instilling responsible behavior so the urge to violence might be stemmed in the first place? Whether you are for or against gun control (and I, for one, am pretty sure the founding fathers didn’t envision the invention of AK-47s), it’s certainly a valid point that guns wouldn’t be the problem they are if they weren’t used for the wrong purposes.  If, in formative years, children were helped to understand the implications of gun violence and to value lives more highly, then it stands to reason that shootings would diminish.

Yes, it’s a naïve, simplistic answer, and there are all kinds of reasons that it wouldn’t work, starting with the fact that too many parents were themselves raised in circumstances where guns trumped moral persuasion. But let me try to get to my real topic before I trap myself in a politically incorrect corner.

image credits: www.avenuek9.com and http://image.off-roadweb.com

In ecological terms, we might (reluctantly) put a positive spin on Romney’s and Obama’s answer avoidance by saying they were attempting to look at the problem systemically, getting at the root causes. NRA members have long said “guns don’t kill people; people do,” and there’s an element of truth to that, self-serving manipulation aside.

A core strain of environmentalism advocates thinking in and understanding systems, and there is indeed an environmental parallel here with the candidates’ attempt, politically motivated as it may have been, to get past what some would call the blunt instrument of government regulation in order to pre-empt the problem. The parallel occurred to me the day after the debate while taking one of my classes to an exhibit on “biomimicry” — the attempt to solve human problems by looking at nature’s methods. (More on that in a moment.) Toward the end of the visit, the BiomimicryNYC organizer asked us what we thought were the best ways to teach biomimicry principles and whether it should be in college or high school. Most of my students thought it needed (and deserved) to be a college-level course. I agree entirely, but piped in that perhaps there is a good reason to begin the discussion even earlier, in grade school.

That discussion, I suggested, might not be so much about specific examples of biomimicry and their applications, and instead might be about the wisdom embedded in nature and how we can learn from ALL aspects of nature. The point, implicitly or explicitly, would be that we can’t learn from something that doesn’t exist. (Not readily, anyway.) If bats hadn’t been around, would the concept of sonar have occurred to humans? If birds didn’t exist, would we have ever yearned to fly?

image credit: http: www.robaid.com



Both of these can be thought of as examples of biomimicry; figuring out how to do something by studying the experts — tapping nature’s 3.8 billion years of experience. It’s a fascinating developing field that holds the hope of leading us to solutions to our environmental – and other – problems. But what particularly intrigued me in the discussion during our field trip was the potential to instill in a new generation a different relationship between ourselves and nature. Many of the specific and advanced concepts to be found and explored through biomimicry are more suited for high school and college courses, but grade schoolers are not too young to get the idea that nature is really very smart, that that mildly annoying housefly or icky worm, for instance, oughtn’t be so quickly swatted to death. We get indoctrinated early on to think that humans are in a separate category and on a higher plane than the rest of the things that co-occupy the planet with us. You can blame that attitude on religious beliefs or on the teachings of various philosophers, or on an assortment of other cultural theories. But when you start understanding that, in many ways, nature has better answers than we do, the stage is set for a change in the assumed hierarchy. A new respect for other living things – and, in fact, for non-living things as well – can result.

When biomimicry comes up in my classes, we often discuss that there are many as-yet undiscovered species of life and that some of those species may provide clues or even direct answers to problems such as cancer. The logical outgrowth of that realization is that human-caused extinctions, such as the ones arising from the decimation of the rain forests, may well mean we never get the chance to make those discoveries. (There are, of course, many other reasons to preserve the rain forests as well.) In this era of the fifth mass extinction the Earth has faced – and the only one to be human caused – it isn’t only the threatened species and ecosystems that lose out.

Decline of species, from the Living Planet Index 2012, WWF



Equipped with the understanding that killing an animal or clearing a forest means harm both to others who may possess “useful knowledge” and to ourselves, perhaps children will treat creatures and surroundings differently. And more significantly, they may grow up to adopt those beliefs and put them into practice in their personal, civic and business endeavors. Imagine a developer or an oil company executive approaching an untouched ecosystem understanding that human needs don’t automatically outweigh nature’s.

That borders on what might be called a misanthropic attitude: believing that nature’s interests are more important than humans. While that might be misplaced, it is hardly likely. We are currently so far in the opposite direction, the anthropogenic approach that states nature exists primarily for our use and benefit, that a shift to biocentrism (giving equal emphasis to all species of life) or ecocentrism (emphasizing the systems by which life exists) is wholly necessary.

Remaining wilderness, per Living Planet Report 2004, WWF