If you want the Prager who knows and values the outdoors, you want my brother, Richard: National Outdoor Leadership School, Outward Bound Minnesota, solo Appalachian Trail hiker from Georgia to Maine, scaler of all the 4,000-plus-feet peaks in New Hampshire, New York State School of Forestry graduate degree, all before age 25, and 10 years (maybe it was only 5) as president of the Simsbury (Conn.) Land Trust.
Me, I got nothin', as JS would say.
But two disparate sources this week made a strong case for the need to reconnect with nature, as if life depends on it. Like all of us, I'm a work in progress, but I'm starting to believe.
The more trusted source was a Ph.D. biologist I met this week, Dayna Baumeister, a cofounder of the Biomimicry Guild in Montana; she gave a speech Wednesday night at the Boston Public Library, and a two-day workshop with colleague Tim McGee through the BSA on Thursday and Friday.
Biomimicry is the practice of looking to nature for solutions to engineering and design problems, and I've now been exposed to the idea several times this year, beginning with the keynote at this year's ResDesign trade show by George M. Beylerian and Richard Lombard of Material Connexion, in which they described the property of lotus leaves that can be mimicked on building skins to make them self-cleaning.
Then I heard about Janine Benyus, also a cofounder, because she's joining with E.O. Wilson to give the closing talk of GreenBuild, the USGBC's national convention, which comes to Boston in November. They I saw her TED Talk. And then Dayna came to town.
As she closed her presentation Wednesday night, her first keystone prescription was simply to go outside. Clearly, mimicking nature begins with observing it, but her message was broader than that: "There is a disconnect of 25-year-olds and under. They haven’t been raised by just going out and exploring. We’ve created habitats that have separated us from nature."
OK, fine, what else is a biologist gonna say, right? I heard it, I listened, but I sure wasn't struck by the need to sit down and write about it. On the way home, though, I was listening to a Commonwealth Club podcast featuring Raj Patel, food activist and author of "Stuffed and Starved", and made essentially the same point, though through his own prism, of course.
Supermarkets, he said, also separate us from nature, from the seasons, from weather, by implying that everything is available all the time, that nature doesn't really have any role in what shows up on the shelves. A couple of different times during the workshop, someone commented that "humans do [fill in the blank] too," prompting Baumeister to dryly observe that humans are also part of nature too.
Even with all the Michael Pollan-izing I've (happily) undergone, I absolutely still need to be reminded of that, too. So, food/health and industrial design, both improved by a stronger connection to nature.
And then there's the gulf of disconnection of how food production relates to climate change (cows fart methane, a highly dangerous greenhouse gas, among other connections) and to our energy woes (Patel noted how much energy does down on the farm in fertilizers: "Fertilizer bombs [think Oklahoma City] exist because fertilizer is so energy-dense.") And then, of course, is all the fossil fuel expended to bring, say, kiwis from New Zealand.
When you talk energy, of course, you come back around to industrial design, since buildings use 70 percent of the electricity and are responsibility for 39 percent of all CO2 emissions (according to the US Green Building Council), and better design could cut that substantially. Consider the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe: Despite its tropical locale, it relies on passive cooling, save for some fans that suck cool air in at night. Architect Mick Pearce got the idea by observing termite mounds, which, of course, is a prime example of biomimicry.