Understanding Planet as Household: Janine Benyus and Kate Raworth
What the world needs now, in addition to love, is a vision of a world that works. Art can give us a glimpse of that world.
A conversation between two leading thinkers whose work calls for us to look beyond artificially-imposed boundaries in order to consider the whole, learn from other species, and find new ways to thrive.
Janine Benyus is a biologist and co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8, while ‘renegade economist’ Kate Raworth is the creator of the Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries. Seated beside the summer meadow of Hackney Downs, a park in East London, they discuss the origin stories, mentors and inspirations that helped them to reach more holistic ways of thinking at a time when profound systems change is urgently needed by people and planet.
This conversation was originally part of Equilibrium, a public gathering on 9 July 2022 at the Serpentine Pavilion which brought together interdisciplinary artists, campaigners and thinkers to address questions of environmental justice and the role of culture in cultivating it. Curated by Radical Ecology in collaboration with Back to Earth LIVE, Equilibrium was part of the continuing programme around the 2022 Back to Earth exhibition which was at Serpentine North from 22 June to 18 September. Both the exhibition and the live programme share projects and perspectives from some of the artists and thinkers involved in Serpentine’s long-term Back to Earth project addressing the climate emergency.
Kate Raworth: So, we are sitting in Hackney Downs in London, and we’re meeting in person for the first time. And I’m really aware that we’ve come from very different places: you’ve come in from Montana, I’ve come from Oxford. Rather than only thinking, where have we come from physically, I want to start by sharing where we’ve each come from, psychologically, and in our worldview. In the early 1990s, I went to university to study economics. I believed that economics as the mother tongue of public policy was going to give me the framing, the language to help transform the world. I quickly became very frustrated and disillusioned because it began with supply and demand, on day one: Welcome to Economics. Economics, meaning oikos nomos: the art of household management. A much-needed art.
Janine Benyus: But where’s the household?
KR: Where’s the household! The household was brought down to probably the level of the nation, actually, thanks to Adam Smith’s framing: the household being the nation. How do we make a nation thrive? We focus on the market. That puts price at the centre of our concern from day one, and anything that falls outside that price contract is called an ‘externality’.
KR: If you ask an economist, how should I talk about climate change? How should I talk about ecological breakdown? How should I talk about air pollution? They’ll say, “Oh, yeah, we’ve got a frame for that. It’s an environmental externality.” There begin all the problems.
If we don’t begin with supply and demand, if we begin by saying that human economies are part of human societies and humanity is part of the living world, and if we begin to understand the oikos, the household, as the planetary household, we would have an utterly different view of economics.
But we’re still not there. I found myself rebelling against what I was taught, not knowing what I was seeking until I stepped outside economics and found work like yours in biomimicry. I found work like Herman Daly’s and Donella Meadows’, and found systems thinking, in which we are reframing from the whole and then moving in.
JB: The real world!
KR: The real world, the living world, and what makes sense in the living world. The economics that I was taught is still taught in so many universities, and I still find myself having to explain an alternative frame. I want to know where you are coming from and what led you to do this.
JB: You know, I grew up in a time in the environmental movement when we pitied the polar bears. Pity was the emotion for the natural world. So much of what I read was about pitying these organisms.
The most competent organisms on the planet are not always this big-brained one. They’re the consummate engineers, these organisms. Consummate physicists, consummate chemists.
I have nothing but respect for them, not pity. I’m trying to find our mentors, in these evolutionary elders. You know how you feel – do you have a mentor? Can you think of mentors in your life?
KR (smiling at Janine, who is sitting across from her): She’s sitting in front of me!
JB: Oh, cute! Uh oh, now we’re in trouble! If you were somewhere, and someone stood up and began to belittle me, what would Kate Raworth do? I think you’d probably stand up in the audience, march over to that person and say, “I beg to differ.” Because that’s what we do for our mentors. We are so grateful, and we have such respect, right? I’m trying to put these organisms back into our everyday consciousness as phenomenal beings – and I’ve always been trying to do that.
With biomimicry, I was writing all of these books about wildlife habitats and not just live in these habitats, but make and create their habitats and how the habitats co-create them, and what you might find in the natural world.
I was writing all these books about other species. Then I thought, wait a minute. These organisms are so competent in everything we’re trying to figure out how to do. Surely there must be a profession in which a botanist sits down with a solar engineer and says, “Oh, this is how photosynthesis works. Very ubiquitous, common raw materials – the solar cells are these leaves.”
“They’re also heat radiators and they’re also protecting the tree from pests. There are lots of things they do. But they also are the solar harvesters that turn the solar energy into stored chemical energy.” I thought, surely they must work together. That was just naivety. I didn’t know much about how things were really designed or how engineers really worked. They don’t take biology classes, and they didn’t have biologists there.
So, I went looking for that. Anytime I saw a scientist learning about biology talking to somebody who makes our world, I would copy the paper and then I had enough of them that I had to put them in a folder – and I named the folder. I went to the Webster’s Dictionary. Bio means life, mimesis means ‘to imitate’ in Greek. That’s a mouthful, biomimesis. I think I’ll say biomimicry. I named the folder that. Then I just collected and collected and collected, wrote another book. I had four drawers in a filing cabinet, and I walked by it one day and I said, “This is a field that has no name.”
KR: The work I do with doughnut economics asks: “How can we meet the needs of all people within the means of the living planet?” And from the first day, I drew this diagram, a doughnut-shaped diagram. Leave no one in the hole, falling short on essential life. Don’t overshoot the life-supporting systems of our planetary home. One of the first things that happened was that people wanted to bring it down to a place, because the idea was for the whole world, and people in cities and towns said, “Well, what would it mean to aim to do that here?”
The ambitious question for any 21st century place is, “How can this place be a home to thriving people in an ecologically thriving place, while respecting the wellbeing of all people, and the health of the whole planet?”
So, it’s got local aspirations – thriving people in an ecologically-thriving place – but recognising, through global supply chains and through the teleconnections of climate change, that we are impacting people and planet worldwide and have a responsibility for that, too. One of the questions we invite places to explore is the question that comes right out of your work: How can this city aim to be as generous as the wildland next door? So, we’re sitting in a city. What would it mean if we said, “how could this city be as generous as the wildland next door?” Where do we begin with approaching that?
JB: Well, we change our desire, first of all. We want to live in a lush and liveable place. So, your work about thriving and our work together – that’s the right goal. That’s our goal that makes natural selection really work, right? It always goes towards more thriving. So, you start there. Then somebody comes to you and asks, “What’s a biomimetic city? If you use biomimicry to make a biomimetic city, what would it be like?” Well, come with me to the wildland next door. I know that healthy means a certain thing. When you go into a healthy ecosystem, it’s not just about how it feels there, but what it produces: the outcome, this exhale of goodness.
Can we, with all of our brains, design in a way, that – per acre or hectare – we store as much water, we cycle as many nutrients, we support as much habitat as the wildland next door?
Now, how do you do that? You’ve got the building and you’ve got the landscaping around it. And most people would say, “just plant more trees.” And we’re definitely going to, it’s going to be green and leafy and lovely. Believe me, this will be a lush place when we’re done. But I think that the buildings, the sidewalks, the parking lots, may they rest in peace…
JB: They all have to pull their ecological weight. Every surface becomes important, if you look into the natural world. That park that I’m staring out right now has all these lichens on it. Every surface is important, on all the crevices… What if our buildings were designed to be welcoming to wildlife? Inviting it to nest on them. It’s called habitechture.
JB: Habitechture. People are actually doing it, but when it happens, it usually happens accidentally. Like in Austin, Texas. Have you ever been to the bridge that has the bats? It was an accident. They put the bridge struts in, and they happened to be so close together that the bats dug ’em! And then all the bats now come out like beautiful smoke rings at a certain time of evening. The whole community comes down and plays music, and it became a celebration for the community, right?
Imagine if we designed in a way that encouraged other species and worked with the environment. Imagine if storm water was a welcome thing because it was soaking deeply into bioswales.
Imagine if you have a metric – and I’ve seen it happen, you give somebody a metric. It’s hot as heck on the interface in a factory in Georgia, hot as heck, and we go to the wildland next door, and it’s 15 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than in the hot factories.
KR: Under the trees!
JB: Under the trees. So, interestingly, we say, okay, how can we make this happen, in the building shell and beyond? We can put solar awnings up, we can put in trees, there are all kinds of ways you can make it cooler. We’re gonna get rid of that black asphalt. There are all kinds of ways. Well, interestingly, the folks inside the factory say, “Hey, wait a minute. Why are you stopping outside the building? It’s hot and dirty in here. We would like it to be cool in here, too and to have ventilation in here, too.”
So, this is Biomimicry 3.8. We do this work where we study the reference habitat, we study the current performance of the spot that we’re building or retrofitting, and then we begin to design into the gap. We started from the outside, from the shell out, but very quickly realised – this is about health and wellness for the people. This is social justice for the people within the building as well. So, now we’re bringing in these phytoremediation walls, meaning walls that take some of the pollutants and phytoremediate them. We’re putting oxygen-producing plants nearer and closer to people. All of the things that we want to happen outside the walls, we’re also starting to bring into the walls as well.
KR: Some research has shown that in neighbourhoods that have very low tree coverage, you have this great heat island effect. Kids are sitting in schools where they are sweltering, and research has shown that with every degree increase in temperature, the child’s ability to learn and to retain goes down. So, there’s a very direct connection between who lives in neighbourhoods that do have the shade of trees, and how the kids from low-income neighbourhoods that do not have the shade can’t learn in school.
You’ve got a direct connection between the ecology of place and the social injustice of opportunity, with children not being able to transform their future. For me, it so strongly connects.
JB: That’s right. And the asthma rates! It’s the greenest parts of cities that are the richest or have the highest real estate value. We learned it during the pandemic. How many people had to walk around their block and began to notice what they didn’t have, and what they did have? There’s huge inequality. I see this as a big environmental justice piece.
KR: Yes. What do you see as the role of art: in words, in image, in all forms of art? How can art be part of helping us?
JB: It’s a huge part of it. What the world needs now, in addition to love, is a vision of a world that works. We are all, as Joanna Macy says, a part of the great unravelling, and we know we are. I think that looseness that we have right now, it’s like when an ecosystem collapses from a fire, or whatever. All of those nutrients become available. There’s a looseness now. The great resignation, the fact that we’ve had a pandemic and realised, “Oh, we can do something very, very different here.” Right? We are primed for the next reorganisation, into the world we actually want. And art can give us a glimpse of that world.
Kate Raworth (sounds like ‘Ray-worth’) is a renegade economist focused on making economics fit for 21st century realities. She is the creator of the Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries, and co-founder of Doughnut Economics Action Lab. Her internationally best-selling book Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist has been translated into over 20 languages and has been widely influential with diverse audiences, from the UN General Assembly to Pope Francis to Extinction Rebellion. Kate is a Senior Associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, where she teaches on the Masters in Environmental Change and Management. She is also Professor of Practice at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.
Janine Benyus is a biologist, author, innovation consultant, and self-proclaimed ‘nature nerd.’ She popularised the term in her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, in which she identifies an emerging discipline that emulates nature’s designs and processes to create a healthier, more sustainable planet. Since the book’s release, Janine has evolved the practice of biomimicry, speaking around the world about what we can learn from the genius that surrounds us. In 1998, Janine co-founded the world’s first bio-inspired consultancy, Biomimicry 3.8 (formerly the Biomimicry Guild), and in 2006, she and Bryony Schwan co-founded the Biomimicry Institute, a non-profit dedicated to making biology a natural part of the design process. The Institute hosts annual global biomimicry design challenges on massive sustainability problems, mobilising tens of thousands of students and practitioners and providing them with the world’s most comprehensive biomimicry inspiration database, AskNature, to use as a starting place.
Curator, Radical Ecology, Ashish Ghadiali, Lucia Pietroiusti
Producer, Holly Shuttleworth
Cinematography, Will Hazell & Arushi Chugh
Sound Recordist, Cathy Marriott-Brown
Editor, Guy Wigmore