Excerpt from the members' report Crumbling Pillars: Four Threats to the Global Status Quo. The excerpt is part of chapter four of the report, which examines accelerating environmental change and asks the question how we price nature.
Biomimetics and the Case for a Refined Ecosystem Valuation
Each year, the WWF publishes a report, the Living Planet Index, which measures of the state of the world’s biological diversity. Perhaps not surprisingly, things are not looking too good. Since 1970, 60% of the world’s mammals, birds, fish and reptile populations have disappeared. Sometimes described as the sixth mass extinction and the first to be caused by humans, this reduction in biodiversity may have ramifications beyond the sad recognition of our inability to coexist with other species. It may threaten human life itself as many of our crops are dependant on insects for pollination. This is, however, not the only consequence for loss of biodiversity. It may also impact innovation.
Biologically-inspired design, also called biomimetics, is a relatively new field founded on the principle that nature contains a wealth of untapped potential for engineers, designers and scientists. Biomimetics has given us robust housing construction based on ant and termite colonies, sharkskin-inspired bathing suits that minimise drag, windmills with blades that imitate whale fins and cut through the air faster, and new ship design that uses ‘oscillating foils,’ (or penguin-like flippers) for propulsion. Nature continuously provides both inspiration and usefulness for the man-built world. Seen from a utilitarian perspective, the argument against environmental degradation and the destruction of eco-systems is that it will rob future generations of innovations based on the biodiversity nature contains.
The story of the horseshoe crab may serve as an example of how nature often holds hidden innovation potential. These unique animals were roaming about 200 million years before dinosaurs walked the Earth. The horseshoe crab (also-called the “living fossil”) is one of the planet’s oldest species and has survived several mass extinction events. From a classical, environmental-economic perspective however, the odd-looking crab has been of little value to humans for most of history, and it has mainly been used for fish bait.
That all changed in 1971, when scientists examined the horseshoe crab’s blood and found that it was incredibly useful for detecting gram-negative bacteria such as E. coli. This trait is now used by the medicinal industry to make sure that implants, injections such as insulin, scalpels, and other things that are put into the human body are free of bacteria. Blood from horseshoe crabs has become so valuable that one litre of the coagulant has been reported valued at high as USD 14,000. Not bad for an animal that used to be worthless.
The story of the horseshoe crab illustrates, as so often before, that nature has developed solutions which can be studied and contribute to creating a more innovative society with considerable associated economic effects. Nature has done the most thorough engineering research imaginable for millions of years, so no wonder that the results of innovation through natural evolution are astonishing — and sometimes better than the solutions thought out by human engineers. Beyond being a vital threat to the health of ecosystems, the loss of biodiversity is also the loss of genuine possibilities of innovation.