November 15, 2011


Technologies to Save the Earth -- Learning from Nature (Part 2)

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.110 (October 2011)
"JFS's 'Get Inspired by Nature' Project" (No. 2)
Interview with Prof. Emile H. Ishida, Tohoku University

JFS/Technologies to Save the Earth -- Learning from Nature (Part 2)
Copyright: Japan for Sustainability

Following last month's article, we present here an interview by Junko Edahiro with Professor Emile H. Ishida of Tohoku University's Graduate School of Environmental Studies and Eco-material Design & Process Engineering.

Technologies to Save the Earth -- Learning from Nature (Part 1)


Professor Emile H. Ishida (EI): Many talk about eco-friendliness, but I'm afraid that they might be caught in an "eco-dilemma." Japan has various leading-edge technologies, and the environmental awareness of ordinary citizens in Japan is the highest level in the world, but the environment is still getting worse. This is the "eco-dilemma."

I think there are two reasons for this. One is that using or selecting eco-friendly technologies and eco-friendly products has become an excuse for more consumption. The other is that such technologies and products claim to be eco-friendly, but their instruction manuals never explain how to use them in an eco-friendly way. What is even worse, some manuals say that you can leave the machines on because they are eco-friendly. It is almost proven that these two situations cause an eco-dilemma.

In fact, the more eco-friendly technologies that can be used as an excuse for more consumption are invented, the more seriously the environment is deteriorated. We must cause a stir about this situation. I have been insisting on it for about two years, and an increasing number of companies are starting to accept my idea. As a result, the concept that technologies should be responsible for supporting a certain lifestyle has emerged.

Junko Edahiro (JE): We should also pass on this concept to the world, shouldn't we?

EI: It might be difficult to make the world understand when we start talking about lifestyles. It would be better to take an approach that using such and such technology would naturally change your lifestyle.

JE: Specifically, what is the relationship between lifestyle and technologies?

EI: Let me talk about an example involving dragonflies and wind power generators. When we look at our lifestyles first in the study of wind power generators, by taking the "backcasting" approach (see Note), we do not think about large wind power generators. We can imagine nothing but small ones that operate on the edge of the eaves of our houses.

Note: The concept of backcasting is a way of planning in which a successful outcome is imagined in the future, followed by the question: "What do we need to do today to reach that successful outcome?"
(Quoted from the Natural Step website:

Just imagine. When a child says to her mother, "Mom, I want to play a video game," she answers "You can do it, but only with the electricity you produced." We can imagine such a lifestyle. And if we can make this a reality, then children would understand what energy is, and use it more carefully. That's it.

I wonder, what technology is needed to lead to that kind of lifestyle? Our approach is to knock on the door of nature. With this approach, we find a kind of a dragonfly that can fly at the slowest speed of all insects. Then, while thinking about making blades that copy the wing mechanism of this dragonfly, we go out to find dragonfly researchers. Now we have dragonfly wind generators, which start operating at a wind speed of 20 centimeters (about 7.9 inches) a second [this works out to about 0.7 kilometers per hour].

JE: A wind speed of just 20 centimeters second!

EI: Yes, that's much less than the typical wind turbine that starts at two meters per second (about 7 kilometers per hour). These ones I'm talking about run full blast even at a wind speed of 80 centimeters per second (less than 3 kilometers an hour). It's really possible.

JE: Can you commercialize the generator?

EI: Yes. We can make it in a couple of years. It may sell for about 10,000 yen (about U.S.$130).

JE: How much electricity can it produce?

EI: It produces several watts of electricity, so you need five to six generators per home. They start operating at a speed of 20 centimeters per second, meaning they can continue operating 24 hours a day. While a large-scale wind power generator operates less than 10 percent of the time, this generator is always operating. Generated power can be stored in spare cell phone batteries. Systems to move stored power to large batteries have already been developed.

Younger people, including elementary school children, are somehow instinctively aware that something is wrong with the world we live in. Their tendency to not buy unneeded things shows that they are heading in the right direction.

Our mission is to do something to create a spark; otherwise, I feel sorry for our children. Elementary school children of today will be about 30 years old in 2030. The most horrifying thing is that developing countries are heading in the direction of the same development process as developed countries went through. We have only about 10 years before we can show new lifestyles to developing countries, saying, "It's much cooler this way. Why don't you 'leap frog' over such past development processes?"

For Japan, a country with little raw energy and few resources, the only way to survive is to live in a way that deserves the respect of other Asian countries. Japan does not need to be respected by the United States, but having the respect of Asian countries is important. To do this, we should enhance our lifestyles on the intellectual level and maintain them so that other people may admire them. This way of living will be very different from the glittering type of lifestyles seen in the United States and Europe. I believe that the Japanese people will be able to create this. The March 11 disaster made me realize that we still retain the origins of such a way of living. We haven't lost it yet.

JE: That's hopeful, isn't it?

EI: Yes, it really is. We still have the seeds of such a way of living. I think we must create it, now, before the door of opportunity closes. I don't think though that we should necessarily stick to technologies solely based on nature; I am just suggesting nature-based technologies because an enhanced lifestyle cannot be created with technologies based on resources extracted from the ground.

Probably, there may be another level of technologies before nature-based technologies; that is, "trans-technologies" based on resources from the ground but used to create a new civilization here on Earth. The trans-technologies will then be followed by technologies based on nature, such as biomimetics. I think that the transition of technologies is very likely to be done in this way.

I also think that people need to be "affluent" enough in order to live a decent life. Assuming that technologies ensure this affluence, their role is to provide people with support. The relationship between them, however, has reversed these days. Many people believe that they cannot live properly without being affluent. Sellers tout their products, saying, "You can't become affluent without having many technologies around you." Most people believe this.

We should correct this notion. To be exact, people need to be affluent enough to live a decent life, and this can be created through various technologies. In this sense, technologies can actually contribute to supporting people. That's what "technology being responsible for supporting a certain lifestyle" means.

Written by Junko Edahiro

This project is supported by Hitachi Environment Foundation

See also: JFS "Get Inspired by Nature" Project