• Permalink Bees, like sharks and Hadza hunter-gatherers, forage in a pattern called Levy walks. Photograph: Jacky Naegelen/ReutersGallery

    The sharks and the bees: what nature’s patterns teach us about sourcing

The sharks and the bees: what nature’s patterns teach us about sourcing

January 24th, 2014|

First posted in the Guardian, January 22, 2014

“Although human subtlety makes a variety of inventions by different means to the same end, it will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple, or more direct than does nature, because in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous.”

– Leonardo da Vinci

When sharks, honeybees and other animals forage for food, they move in a pattern of short movements in one area combined with a few longer treks to more distant areas. This pattern is called Lévy walks (or flights).

National Academy of Sciences study released last month, “Evidence of Lévy walk foraging patterns in human hunter–gatherers”, also found that the Hadza, hunter-gatherers from northern Tanzania, perform Lévy walks when foraging for a wide variety of food items.

The authors suggest that this type of movement profile is a “fundamental feature of human landscape use, regardless of the physical or cultural environment, and may have played an important role in the evolution of human mobility”.

We can see the same kind of pattern closer to home: in Saturday Night Fever and HBO’s Girls, young people seek their mates in their local Brooklyn neighborhoods, with an occasional jaunt to Manhattan. And in Law & Order: Criminal Intent, brilliant detective Robert Goren often solves the crime by identifying the movement patterns of serial murderers.

Nature, our subconscious master, is very, very powerful. Nature’s intricate web is the genius embedded in every breath we take and every morsel we eat. It’s incumbent upon us to start looking more closely at its patterns and constraints.

Many scientists and investors are already doing this. Janine Benyus, who named the emerging discipline of biomimicry, describes “seeking sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s designs and processes (for instance, solar cells that mimic leaves)”. This new understanding of our movement patterns can help us design everything from our food pipelines to our electricity grids.

It also has implications for business supply chains and sourcing. As commerce grows ever-more global, it’s clear that – like the long treks embedded in honeybee, shark and Hazda foraging patterns – global cooperation, competition and collaboration will remain key to business. All industries, as well as all biological systems and environmental impacts, are intertwined at this point in world history – with many symbiotic advantages. But for the most part, going local is where it’s at.

Decentralizing food and energy sourcing and disposal would make us safer, saner and more in tune with our natural inclinations. It could also reintroduce social exchange into everyday commerce.

Meet the producers

In many US regions, the only option for buying groceries, clothing, hardware or meals is a global mega-chain. Occasionally, these are franchises owned by local businesspeople. More often, these serve to completely separate us from anyone who has cultivated, made or transported our daily bread, our clothing, our gadgets or – even, most of the time – our energy.

Just 50 years ago, shopping in most neighborhoods, both rich and poor, involved buying from a Mr and Mrs Somebody, whose children went to school with their customers’ children. Shopping was a social foray.
Why is Seattle’s Pike Place Market so enticing? As welcome sign says, “Meet the producer.” Why are farmers’ markets, where the produce is often double the cost of mega-chains, on the rise everywhere? This is foraging in the modern age. This kind of shopping fosters a relationship between one’s food and one’s farmer, but remains a speck in the western world’s economic balance sheet.

Some countries, such as India, demand that up to 30% of multibrand retailers’ products be procured from Indian small industries. Walmart is fighting this requirement in India. However, in 2010, Walmart in committed to sourcing $1bn a year of produce from local farmers, and promised a premium price for smaller farms. Walmart’s low pricing remains a contentious issue with its suppliers, but the program has doubled Walmart’s local sourcing to 11% of its total food purchases.

The fact that Walmart even considers the importance of local products gives me a glimmer of hope. Hats off to the activists that forced this issue. It’s up to all of those working in large global business to create sourcing pipelines that allow regional eco and economic systems to support one another, which is no easy task.

Three places to buy local

But here are three areas where local is absolutely preferable to global. Firstly, garbage disposal – you chuck it, you live with it. Secondly, electricity – the closer to the source, the less waste in the transmission grid. And thirdly, water – the more one appreciates its source, the more one protects its sanctity.

The miraculous patterns of nature sustain us, and our natural foraging inclinations propel us in ways that enhance our ability to survive. As the National Academy of Sciences study shows, our movement tendencies are close to other creatures’ in profound and striking ways.

As businesspeople, we cannot ignore these patterns as we strive to both protect and profit from agricultural bounty. These patterns are stronger than the most intricate supply chain created by the smartest Harvard MBAs. Nature means business.

Mutually Assured Survival

January 14th, 2014|

By Amy Larkin and Siddhartha Velandy

This post was originally published on the Huffington Post on January 10th, 2014 and co-authored by Siddhartha Velandy, a Major in United States Marine Corps Reserve and author of The Green Arms Race: Reorienting the Discussion on Climate Change, Energy Policy, and National Security, 3 HARV. NAT’L SEC. J. 309 (2012). The views expressed here are his own.

It’s official. Climate change has opened a new frontier. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently announced the Pentagon’s first ever “Arctic Strategy,” which is designed to protect American security interests as rising global temperatures melt polar ice. He noted that climate change is “transforming what was a frozen desert into an evolving navigable ocean.” This increased access will heighten tensions in the region as nations compete for newly-accessible natural resources and trade routes.

We are creatures from different ends of our nation’s cultural spectrum — one from the military and one from Greenpeace. Even so, we share a vision for the United States in order to safeguard our environment and best provide for the future security of the nation. We call it Mutually Assured Survival, and we are encouraged that Secretary Hagel asserts his intention to address the long term in his short-term Pentagon decision-making. But he did not mention the most important piece of a long-term strategy — the R&D funding necessary to eliminate American dependence on oil — not just fossil fuels from foreign sources. This will prevent the need to engage in conflict in the Arctic (and elsewhere) as well as help prevent runaway climate chaos.

Responding to this threat requires decisive action and consistent funding. Melting ice caps and the corresponding rise in sea levels will increase global instability as coastal populations around the world lose land, food and water. The only real recourse to protect any nation from future resource conflict is to decrease dependence on oil and gas, and increase alternative energy sources.

Framing climate change squarely in national security terms is essential. Doing so de-politicizes the discussion, unifies seemingly disparate constituencies and allows R&D for enhanced energy capability to be properly prioritized. The military’s experience as an innovator is urgently needed.

The Department of the Navy, in order to accomplish its mission – -win wars, deter aggression and maintain the freedom of the seas — is at the forefront of this energy innovation. In December, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the “Farm-to-Fleet” program. This groundbreaking program adds biofuels, for the first time, into the regular Defense Department fuel procurement process. There is one controversial issue here worth highlighting. The program requires that biofuel feedstock not interfere with food production. In the past three years, consistent demand has yielded groundbreaking innovation in this area, but fuel from waste remains expensive. Instead of corn-based biofuels, the industry can move to biomass derived from waste material, whether scrap lumber, forest debris or manure. With waste as the primary source of the new biofuels, this partnership between the Defense and Agriculture Departments can increase national security, benefit the environment, and in the long run, result in energy cost benefits for the American people.

The Department of Defense is the biggest consumer of petroleum in the nation, and by favoring biofuels from waste, it will advance the technology and enhance the market for the next generations of energy technologies. Congressional budget hawks are concerned that fuel from waste is too expensive, and are gunning for this R&D budget. Just as early computers cost more than the magical ones in your pocket today (also brought to you by the Defense Department’s invention of the Internet), new technologies become cost-effective only after pioneers stick their necks out. Aggressive Department of Defense R&D will eventually use the market to incentivize cost-effective energy production, and then all of us will be able to diversify our fuel supply without paying a premium.

U.S. Marines are not often referred to as ardent environmentalists; however, Marines have taken on energy innovation as part of their ethos as America’s professional warriors. By fielding alternative energy technologies like solar blankets and hybrid power generators in some of the most austere and dangerous places on earth, the troops are safer and less dependent on resupply.

There is nothing more important for peace and stability than a transformation to a thriving low carbon economy — one not based on fossil fuels or biofuels that compete with food for land and water. Those in Congress who want to starve or underfund this research are terribly misguided. Fossil fuels cost society trillions of dollars, paid by taxpayers, other businesses, and individuals. Recent studies show that air pollution costs more in health care than does tobacco.

Every military engagement, whether full combat operation or disaster relief, requires tremendous amounts of energy to execute. Last year, the Defense Department burned 4.3 billion gallons of fuel at a cost of approximately $20 billion. As the single largest consumer of energy in the United States, the Pentagon is uniquely positioned to intensify innovation and drive global demand for alternative and efficient energy technologies. Clean energy innovation is inexorably tied to national security. As a peaceful successor to the Cold War’s Mutually Assured Destruction defense, the Pentagon’s race to advance clean and efficient energy is key to our Mutually Assured Survival.

We cannot be timid. The myriad consequences of climate change are already compromising national security and financial stability. Only strong leadership and decisive action can protect our food, water, health and economy. We must support a Defense Department that empowers Mutually Assured Survival.


Social impact: the Guardian’s top 5 stories of 2013

January 6th, 2014|

Amy’s column “How West’s throwaway culture destroys basic freedoms in China” was listed as one of the Top 5 social impact stories of 2013 by the Guardian Sustainable Business.

See all of Amy’s contributions to the Guardian here.