The Net Impact Conference finished up on Saturday with another round of sessions and a keynote with the director of sustainability for Wal-Mart. The first session I attended focused on “Funding Nonprofits Throughout Their Lifecycle” and featured panelists from New Profit, M&T Bank, SeaChange Capital, and the Robert and Elizabeth Mannweiler Foundation. The latter was most interesting to me, due to the Mannweiler Foundation’s recent focus on developing and championing the L3C, or Low-Profit Limited Liability Corporation. The L3C is a novel tax designation (analogous to the LLC, S corporation, or 501(c)(3) nonprofit) that is designed to attract program-related investments from foundations. L3C companies have to sign a charter that states that their two objectives are (a) to serve a social mission and (b) to earn a profit, in that order. They receive no tax benefit, but the tax designation serves as a signal to socially-minded investors, and the structure is significantly less burdensome than the nonprofit tax code dictates. The IRS has 90 days to challenge the establishment of a new L3C and L3Cs must file a “social annual report” every year detailing the mission-oriented aspect of its activities. The L3C was introduced in Vermont in April, has been passed by the Michigan Senate, and the consortium is now working on a federal law to propose to the Obama administration. One tidbit that I found interesting, given my previous writing on the economics of journalism, is that newspaper unions have expressed interest in joining the L3C consortium.

I also attended a fascinating and inspiring session on biomimicry, which is basically the study of how human processes (like businesses) can use nature as a model. It reminds me of when I visited Yosemite this summer and realized that supporting a healthy arts ecosystem is much like running a national park: you want to let the glory and diversity of life shine through as much as possible while providing a hospitable environment for the general public to enjoy it.

Some examples of biomimicry in practice include the Eastgate building in Zimbabwe by Mick Pearce, which was based off of termite cooling technology. This building stays so cool that it doesn’t even have air conditioning installed; it thus uses 10% of the energy cost of similar buildings. Another is the Mercedes Bionic, which takes its inspiration from the extreme aerodynamism of the yellow boxfish. The car gets 84 miles per gallon on the highway—and it’s not a hybrid. And of course, we’ve all heard about viral marketing.

So what does this mean for environmental policy? As one speaker put it, “We lose the prey, we lose the predator. We lose the pollinator, we lose the flower.” Every death of a species means much more than one fewer creature in zoos and aquariums—it’s also a lost opportunity for learning. The biodiversity adds a richness to our experience of the world; and I would argue that aesthetic diversity has the same role.

I asked the presenters about the tension between competition and cooperation in nature, and from a policy standpoint what nature tells us about when each is more desirable than the other. Panelist Daniel Arneman answered that competition takes energy, and that generally speaking, once species have moved beyond the survival stage, expending any excess energy on competition is potentially counterproductive and could backfire on you. He sees cooperation as the dominant theme in nature.

For more information about biomimicry, check out the Biomimicry Guild.

  • will m.

    I’m glad you mentioned the tension between competition and cooperation. Last year I attended a conference at which one of the keynote speakers was Elisabet Sahtouris, “an American/Greek evolution biologist, futurist, business consultant, event organizer and UN consultant on indigenous peoples.” [according to her website].

    One of her more evocative points, when she was asked a very similar question to your own regarding the omnipresence of war and international conflict, looking at the future evolution of humanity, was to look at natural evolution. She pointed out that ecosystems are very different when they are young or mature. An early-stage ecosystem is rife with competition — competition for air, light, soil, every aspect of eco-resources. A mature, evolved ecosystem which has been in existence long enough for the inhabitants to have found settled niches is mostly based on cooperation — one organism creates greater resources for other organisms, and each contributes to the whole in a complex, balanced system.

    Her conclusion? Humanity is simply an ecosystem which has yet to achieve maturity on an international scale. Once it does, cooperation will be found to be far more sustainable and rewarding than competition, and wars will become a thing of the past.