The Age of Biology

Fort Bragg, a lovely community on California’s North Coast, made the New York Times last week. The community and its people, like so many on the North Coast, lived by the timber industry for over 100 years. Six years ago, the Georgia-Pacific lumber mill in Fort Bragg closed and left behind ash pits loaded with dioxin and other toxins. In order to take advantage of a $4.2 million grant from the California Coastal Conservancy for building a trail system in and around the area left behind by Georgia-Pacific, Fort Bragg has to come up with a plan for cleaning up the ash pits. By the way, Georgia-Pacific will have to foot the bill for whatever Fort Bragg decides to do.

It looks like they’re going to use bioremediation with two mushroom species common to the North Coast—turkey tail mushrooms and oyster mushrooms. A pilot project will start soon to demonstrate that it will work.

The alternatives faced by Fort Bragg are either to have the ash pits hauled away to a landfill or to have the soil wrapped in plastic and buried. These are the mechanical, engineered solutions to fixing poisoned soil. In contrast, the biological processes of bioremedation break down the toxins and revive the soil. Very nice.

But biology’s superiority goes way beyond cleaning up the mess made by industrial processes.

Biomimicry is a field of study that looks at biological processes as the model for how to do things right in the first place. The concept is described in Janine Benyus’s book Biomimicry with more information on the website There you’ll find information on the Biomimicry Institute, which researches ways to incorporate biological thinking and processes into our culture and economy, and the Biomimicry Guild, which looks for ways to find biological solutions for the work of engineers, architects, industrial designers, and other professionals responsible for our built and manufactured environment.

The biomimicry movement goes beyond replacing mechanical with biological solutions. Its explicit objective is to find sustainable solutions. William McDonough and Michael Braungart demonstrate this mode of thinking in their book Cradle to Cradle.

Virtually every production and consumption process produces waste—that is, stuff that we can’t use and that might even be toxic. McDonough and Braungart argue that our production and consumption processes need to be designed so that what’s waste to the process is food to some other process, whether it’s production or consumption in our built and manufactured environment or a biological process in the natural environment.

Fort Bragg is on its way to this kind of solution: turning toxins like dioxin into food for mushrooms.

However, McDonough’s and Braungart’s point is that genuinely sustainable solutions should be non-toxic to begin with. While biomimicry and its pursuit of sustainable (and non-toxic) solutions hold great promise, an Age of Biology will not by itself solve problems of human health. It only makes it possible.

What we’re talking about are biological or biology-inspired solutions to social problems. In our culture as it is now, that means those solutions must reach us as commodities. A commodity is something that’s produced for sale so its producer can make more money from its sale than it cost to produce. A commodity is not produced to be biomimetic. Nor is it produced to become food to a production process, consumption process, or natural process. Nor is it produced to be non-toxic or health promoting.

That disconnect between the purpose for which something is produced and its useful (and harmful) qualities is how dioxin wound up in the ash pits that Fort Bragg now has to get rid of and that then made it possible for Fort Bragg to choose bioremediation as a solution and with that solution take a step toward the Age of Biology. Personally, I think mushrooms deserve better than to be fed dioxin.