Turning the Anthropological Lens on Biomimicry

by Veronica Davidov | Jul 7, 2020

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I am an environmental anthropologist, and I have spent my career studying human-nature relations and natural resources from a social science perspective, grounded in ethnographic research. This basically means I study nature, the habits found in ecosystems, cultures, and our mutual similarities and differences — which also happens to be an illuminating study from a biomimicry lens as we understand the interconnectedness of systems.

While the concept of “ethnographic fieldwork” may evoke images of anthropologists with pipes, colonial-era hats, and malaria nets surrounded by natives in African or Indonesian villages, contemporary fieldwork has a much richer repertoire of subjects, and a science laboratory at an American research institute is as likely to be of interest to an anthropologist as an indigenous community in the Amazon.

From a social science perspective, nature and society are concepts that cannot be separated from each other, but many cultural narratives do just that.

Generally, getting a doctorate in Anthropology involves a year or so of ethnographic fieldwork — a disciplinary standard dating back to the early 20th century anthropologist named Bronislaw Malinowski, who, essentially, pioneered the model of long-term fieldwork (though he did so unintentionally and under duress, while stranded in the Trobriand Islands and unable to return to Europe during World War I).

The Amazon is, in fact, where I did my dissertation fieldwork, on the subject of ecotourism. Initially I wanted to understand how the development of the tourism industry affected indigenous communities in Ecuadorian lowlands, and I designed my research to focus on tourism as a space of interaction between Western tourists and native hosts, and the culture emergent in that space. But what ended up capturing my interest above all else was the environmental aspect of my anthropological research.

Economist Erich Zimmermann famously wrote, “resources are not; they become.”

The Amazon is a place of incredible biodiversity: its ecological significance is such that it is often referred to as “the lungs of the world”. At the same time, the subterranean layer of the Amazon is rich in oil and gold. Consequently, for the last several decades, environmental conservation projects have co-existed side by side, often in uneasily entwined configurations, with extractive industries.

My fieldwork in the Amazon is what turned my focus to environmental anthropology. Economist Erich Zimmermann famously wrote, “resources are not; they become.” And in line with that, above all, I wanted to understand certain parts of how nature becomes natural resources and how that process, or assigning certain kinds of value to certain facets of nature, affected the relationships between humans and their natural habitat on both local and global scales.

After years of studying these topics in places as diverse as the Amazon basin, the Andean highlands, and the Russian North, this intellectual thread eventually led me to biomimicry as my next object of inquiry. It is a fascinating topic for an anthropologist. From a social science perspective, nature and society are concepts that cannot be separated from each other, but many cultural narratives do just that. As a result, studying human-nature relationships means giving light and voice to links that sometimes go unacknowledged by humans.

Biomimicry is different: as a field of study, it is fundamentally dedicated to thinking through how the human and non-human worlds are interrelated. In a sense, studying biomimicry as a field of practice means that I get to focus my ethnographic lens on people who are themselves studying similar topics, from a different perspective.

I am far from the first anthropologist to engage processes of scientific knowledge production anthropologically. Anthropologist David Graeber pointed out: “Because anthropology studies human beings, there really isn’t much that’s not covered by it. I suppose you can’t study astrophysics, but you can study astrophysicists.” And indeed, ethnographers in both anthropology and adjoined field STS (Science and Technology Studies) have studied experimental psychologists, oceanographers, marine biologists, and the international team of scientists attempting to recreate an Ice Age ecosystem in Siberia in the “Pleistocene Park.”

Another reason that makes biomimicry fascinating as an anthropological subject for me is how it conceptualizes the idea of nature — the nature of nature, if you will. Both myself and my environmental anthropology colleagues have dedicated a lot of time to studying nature as governed by an economy of scarcity, which makes sense if we think about the conventional meanings of what a “natural resource” is in many instances. When the resource in question is crude oil or a biodiverse ecosystem housing rare mosses, as lenses through which we see nature, they make us think of terms like “non-renewable” or “danger of extinction”.

An approach to human-nature relations that reframes the concept of “natural resource” as a site of abundance, rather than scarcity, is a departure from our established cultural understanding of a “natural resource” away from something that is material, territorial, and finite.

There is an ethos of precarity in how “thinking with resources” has traditionally shaped our perspective of nature. When it comes to biomimicry, on the other hand, it is a philosophy and a practice within which nature, reified as life itself, is construed as an infinitely renewable and regenerative resource, and is thus governable by an economy of abundance instead. Imagine millions of years of research and development provided by the species alive today that are available for free.

These blueprints are available to any sustainability innovator in the world. An approach to human-nature relations that reframes the concept of “natural resource” as a site of abundance, rather than scarcity, is a departure from our established cultural understanding of a “natural resource” away from something that is material, territorial, and finite.

As an anthropologist then, I am fascinated by this shift, and I want to find out whether approaching nature as an infinite meta-resource of intellectual inspiration can transform our cultural understanding of what it means for nature to be — to become — a resource. What value can be placed on its potential to inspire interventions aimed at climate stability and ecosystem balance? I plan to answer this question through an anthropological analysis of how the category of “natural resources” has been constituted in our society, and how biomimicry fits within — or pushes beyond the limits of — those parameters.

Interested in what I find? Stay tuned for the next part to come!

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Veronica Davidov is an environmental and visual anthropologist. She is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Monmouth University and co-chair of the Ecology and Culture Seminar at Columbia University. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

The Biomimicry Institute empowers people to create nature-inspired solutions for a healthy planet. www.biomimicry.org

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