Aquaponics and Biomimicry

By: Tawnya Sawyer

In the wine-infused post-dinner conversation with an out of town house guest this week, a rather profound statement was made. Our guest said “we need to quiet our cleverness” in response to some branch of our conversation. “Wow that is quite an interesting thing to say” was my response, or at least that is how I remember it. I was thinking at the time about my struggles with those who want to supplement, boost or otherwise goose their aquaponics systems rather than rely on Nature to find the balance point of their system.


Biomimicry bookHe clarified that he actually couldn’t take credit for it, but rather it was something that his boss often said. Who is his boss? Our friend feels fortunate to be the Chief Operating Officer for the Biomimicry Institute, and his boss is Janine Benyus, the author of the groundbreaking book ‘Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature’.

I am a relative newcomer to the concept of biomimicry and Ms. Benyus’s work, having been introduced to it in January by James Godsil of Sweetwater through a TED talk (see the video link below) but if ever there were a patron saint of aquaponics, surely she is it. This amazing lady has spent her adult life developing and promoting the following ideas:

  1. Nature as model: Biomimicry is a new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems (aquaculture waste or warehouse urban agriculture, anyone?)
  2. Nature as measure: Biomimicry uses an ecological standard to judge the ‘rightness’ of our innovations. After 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature has learned: What works. What is appropriate. What lasts.
  3. Nature as mentor: Biomimicry is a new way of viewing and valuing nature. It introduces an era based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but on what we can learn from it.

These components of the definition of ‘biomimicry’ are introduced before the first chapter of her book to set the stage for what is to come next. What intrigues me the most is point 3. I grew up with the notion that we should control nature a la the visual of God handing the keys to the Earth over to Adam with the implicit assumption that nature was put here to serve us. However, this myth has been busted and needs to be replaced with a mindset of humbleness and ‘child mind’, as my Buddhist friends would say. Benyus puts it so eloquently in her introductory chapter titled ‘Echoing Nature’:

If the age of the Earth were a calendar year and today were a breath before midnight on New Year’s Eve, we showed up a scant 15 minutes ago, and all of recorded history has blinked by in the past sixty seconds. Luckily for us, our planet-mates – the fantastic network of plants, animals and microbes – have been patiently perfecting their wares since March; an incredible 3.8 billion years since the first bacteria.

I love the direct connection between her identification of our ‘planet-mates’ as a network of ‘plants, animals and microbes’ and aquaponics. In an aquaponic system, we have indeed created a microcosm of our planet by constructing a living ecosystem which offers vibrant lessons in how to learn from nature rather than extract from it. We just need to ‘quiet our cleverness’ first.