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Looking for a roadmap to a sustainable future

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When the Hy-Fi structure opens in New York City in June, it will demonstrate how self-assembling organic materials form into bricks without releasing any carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Korky Koroluk
Korky Koroluk

Construction Corner | Korky Koroluk

When the Hy-Fi structure opens in New York City in June, it will demonstrate how self-assembling organic materials form into bricks without releasing any carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

When it is taken down in the fall, it will demonstrate how those bricks can be composted into the earth, feeding the soil instead of degrading it.

Hy-Fi, grown with bioengineered “bricks,” its curved chimneys creating a micro-climate, will show us one more way in which we can build better by mimicking nature, not polluting it.

If you’ve been watching the world construction scene, reading research reports and listening to the many people trying to find a roadmap we can follow into a sustainable future, you will have spotted a trend.

Cut through the noise of the naysayers, who claim to doubt that our earth is warming. Cut through the partisan politics that poisons the air in Washington and Ottawa. Set all that aside and listen because something is happening.

Start with biomimicry. That’s the notion that if we analyze nature’s best ideas, we can adapt them for human use.

Janine Benyus gave the idea its name.

She also founded the Biomimicry Institute, in order to facilitate the transfer of ideas, designs and strategies from biology to the design of sustainable human systems.

She, perhaps more than anyone else, is providing the philosophical underpinning for what’s happening.

William McDonough and Michael Braungart excited a lot of people with their book, Cradle to Cradle, putting forth the idea that we should be making things so they can be returned to the earth without harming it.

Now, a decade later, they are back with a second book, The Upcycle, which expands on the original idea and explains how we can design for abundance in a society in the face of a degraded environment, a warming world and explosive population growth.

David Benjamin, an architect and professor at Columbia University, is convinced of the merits of biological engineering. Cells, he said, will soon become our factories, thanks to an emerging trend that combines biology, computer sciences and human intelligence.

And Steven Chu, who won a Nobel Prize for physics, and later became energy secretary in U.S. President Barack Obama’s first-term cabinet, has mused from time to time about what he calls the global “glucose economy.”

He was head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory when he hatched the idea.

Fast-growing crops grown in the tropics would be the key. Convert those crops into glucose, a simple sugar, which can be shipped much as we now ship oil.

The glucose would eventually be converted into biofuels and bioplastics. Imagine a global economy based not on fossil fuels, but on glucose.

Don’t hold your breath, though. Those heavily invested in fossil fuels will fight the idea tooth and nail.

But, all the emphasis we’ve had lately on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide makes the idea of a glucose economy sound like the next logical step.

These people are merely among the more visible proponents of drawing lessons from nature.

There are many others, among researchers, academics and business people.

There’s a much-misused word — paradigm — that is defined as a way of viewing the world which underlies the theories and methodology of science, among other things.

Thomas Kuhn, a physicist, historian and philosopher of science, has said that the progress of scientific knowledge doesn’t proceed in a linear fashion.

Instead, he has said that progress undergoes periodic paradigm shifts, and that these shifts open up new approaches to understanding things scientists may have never considered before.

Listen to people like Chu and you are hearing the beginning of a paradigm shift, the change of approach we must take if we’re to cope with the problems we all face in a warming world.

Korky Koroluk is a regular freelance contributor to the Journal of Commerce. Send comments or questions to editor@journalofcommerce.com.

by Journal Of Commerce last update:May 5, 2014

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