Friday, April 11, 2008

Principles of Ecomimicry

"Those were great days to be a night elf"
--Nina Fefferman, concerning the WoW "corrupted blood" outbreak

Ok, so the quote wasn't necessary, but I feel as though it adds to the flavor, since it was from our ecomimicry lecture. Second, despite the post title, I'm not writing a textbook. Instead, I'm going to reminisce, starting with a tangent.

In linguistics, one of the biggest unanswered questions is how to figure out if you're talking about the same thing as someone else. Linguistics is a bit of a funny field, as you can see already, but the point is, we all have different connotations when we come to the table with a word like ecomimicry, which, incidentally, we all made up. So I'd like to add my two cents to its definition.

To me, ecomimicry is the study of large-scale natural systems for application in human engineering. It is quite analogous to the biomimicry of plants and animals. When we look at plants and animals for inspiration, we look at what they do well, and then extrapolate that to human building materials, human construction techniques, and a human mode of understanding. When looking at ecosystems, we look at the same sorts of things. Nature is pretty good at keeping itself in line, and it hasn't been until the last few decades that we've managed a half-decent punch (in the form of 10 billion tons of CO2 per year-- take that earth; we are the champs!).

So what sort of things can we learn from nature? Well, one of the biggest principles, in my opinion, is the large amount of negative-feedback loops woven into the system. For instance, take a forest fire. From a human perspective, that's something that would throw an ecosystem off (and perhaps by some definitions, it does). But wet climates and cool temperatures keep fires relatively at bay most of the time, and if one should break out, its effects will immediately be counteracted by a handful of pioneer shrubs that need have minimal needs for life, and would, why yes, just /love/ to live in the newly fertilized soil. So nature does everything it can to counteract the effect of any major disruption-- or at least in the case of forest fires. Can we similar effects in tornadoes, hurricanes, viruses, etc?

Another theme of ecomimicry, in my eyes, is that of high and low level complexity. In other words, systems often appear extremely complex at one level, but much less complex at another level. Let's take a look at the weather. Yes, the weather is certainly difficult to predict (and that could be a defining characteristic of high/low level complexity), but we know some simple rules that are useful for predicting weather given location, past conditions, etc. For instance, near the water, we'll often have more snow in colder climates, but bodies of water temper weather changes that are more severe elsewhere. Also, in the rocky mountains, it will rain almost every afternoon for a few minutes to an hour or two. In southern India, it will every almost every year for well over a month. Haha.

But at a very low level, there are trillions of smaller systems that make up each part of the weather we normally think about. Whether atoms or molecules, the heat generated by a tree, the heat kept by the sea, or the effects of an undersea vent opening, every smallest thing plays into an incredibly complex system we cannot even begin to comprehend at that level. So we turn to weather as a very large system, where it is governed by "simple rules with unpredictability" (which I would call a trademark of high/low level complexity).

These are some of my thoughts. I'm curious to know what others make of ecomimicry. Undoubtedly, some of it will differ vastly from the connotations the word has in my mind. Any linguists here?, enjoy. I'll leave you with a comment from my friend Nik, who watched the Matrix and understood things in a different way than the writers.

Trinity: Sentinels are killing machines designed for one thing-
Dozer: -search and destroy!
Nik: Way to not know how to count to two, idiots!

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