Cradle to Cradle

Also published in a less critical version on Alternet at www.alternet.org and in Catalyst, an alternative monthly in Salt Lake City.

William McDonough’s and Michael Braungart’s new book “Cradle to Cradle” doesn’t feel like a book – literally. It’s a different size and shape, the pages are thick, the thing feels significantly heavier than it looks, and it’s waterproof.

The design of the book is making a point also made in the text of the book: the current state of recycling generally turns higher quality products into lower quality ones useful only for purposes other than the original product, and then eventually discards them. This is not recycling; it’s slow motion waste.

“Cradle to Cradle,” the object, is intended to be easily and completely recyclable into a new book of the same quality.

“Cradle to cradle,” the phrase, is contrasted to “cradle to grave.”

“Cradle to Cradle,” the text, argues in favor of making all human productions either recyclable in the way this book is or completely biodegradable so that they can be used as fertilizer.

In the future envisioned and partially created and described by this pair of authors, packaging will be tossed on the ground in response to signs reading “Please litter!” Appliances will be leased and returned to manufacturers to be completely recycled. Objects that must contain both biodegradable and inorganic recyclable elements will be easily separable into those respective parts: you’ll toss the soles of your shoes into the garden and give the uppers back to the shoemaker. And the water coming out of factories will be cleaner than what came in, motivating the factory owners to reuse it and eliminating the need for the government to test its toxicity.

These authors teamed up on the 1991 Hannover Principles to guide the design of the 2000 World’s Fair. McDonough has an architecture firm in Charlottesville, Va., and from 1994 to 1999 was dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture. Braungart is a German chemist who for several years headed the chemistry section of Greenpeace.

This book is superb and should be read by those familiar with the issues of environmental design and those completely new to the topic. It draws on themes common in a long list of books ranging from “Ishmael,” by Daniel Quinn to “Natural Capitalism,” by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins. But McDonough and Braungart make no acknowledgements of any such influences and present themselves (just as these other authors have) as the vanguard of a change as radical as the industrial revolution.

Their idea is incredibly important and well stated, but it’s not the clear break from current environmental (or for that matter industrial or “Third Way”) thinking that they maintain – and for students of evolution why should it need to be, what’s wrong with evolving our thinking a helpful bit further, as they have done? What McD and B propose as revolutionary is — instead of reducing pollution and consumption and having fewer children — making increased economic activity actually beneficial to the planet.

Three comments. First, this book does not suggest any radical change in behavior for the typical reader. (Have lots of kids, drive lots of cars, buy lots of stuff – what a break through!) This book is, rather, advice for architects, corporations, and municipalities. It is intended to free the typical reader of guilt. I think it should do something else as well, namely urge us to political action, to demanding of our democratically elected representatives that the earth-saving innovations described in the book be taken advantage of. All the descriptions in this book of common household objects, such as sofas, “off-gasing” toxic particles makes me want to take action to change things or at least buy a mask, not go shopping.

Second, the examples of new materials and building and product designs described in the book all build on the environmental thinking that McD and B so loudly reject. Reducing pollution to zero is not a “new paradigm” from reducing pollution to a teeny bit – it’s just better.

Third, the vision of rendering mad self-indulgence completely beneficial to all other species is far from a reality, and even the dream described by McD and B would not, in any way that I can imagine, make it possible to place an unlimited number of humans on the planet without hurting anything – more humans than under current practices, yes — an infinite number, no. But let’s remember that most of the people now on the planet do not do nearly as much damage as we do in this country. How many billion Americans the Earth can hold has not been answered.

There is also a disturbing thread of anti-government corporatism in the book. Ford and Nike and other corporations for which the authors have worked are described as heroes for their positive efforts, while their destructive practices are passed over. The authors repeat a distinction (citing Jane Jacobs’ “Systems of Survival”) between Guardians and Commerce, i.e. paternalistic government and noble corporate heroes:

“Commerce is quick, highly creative, inventive, constantly seeking short- and long-term advantage, and inherently honest: you can’t do business with people if they aren’t trustworthy.”

Is this a joke? Do these guys believe press releases they read from, say, Enron? (Apparently so, because later in the book they write: “…the summer of 2001, when unusually high energy demand in California led to rolling blackouts, skyrocketing prices, even accusations of profiteering….” Accusations! High demand or restrained supply? What rock have these intelligent authors been naturally cooling themselves under? Well, at least they recognize the concept of profiteering, even though it fits poorly with the inherent honesty of commerce.)

Immediately following the “inherently honest” comment (page 60) Mc D and B go on to equate regulation with partial pollution reduction, and to conclude that because complete pollution reduction is desirable and possible, regulation is bad. Instead they should conclude that rather than allowing limited pollution, regulators should ban it entirely (through whatever stages of phasing in that policy prove feasible). Later the authors claim that their design to allow a factory to reuse its effluent as influent “eliminated the need for regulation.” This should at the very least have been stated more clearly: it eliminated the need to monitor effluent. It did not eliminate the need to ban harmful effluent. Nor did it provide any reason to think making environmental behavior “voluntary” would cause other factories to employ similar solutions, however easy or profitable they might be.

I also have concerns about McD and B’s lack of worry in many instances about the factor of transportation. They advocate designing crates and packaging materials to be useful in whatever part of the world a shipment of stereos or toasters is headed for, but fail to question the wisdom of shipping such crap from continent to continent – despite their laments over diminishing cultural diversity. And this is an example of a more frequent challenge to the vision of this book. A solution to one problem often remains part of a bigger problem until another solution is in place. In this example, once we create ships and trains that don’t damage the earth, reusable crates will seem more like part of a holistic solution – though some may still have cultural concerns about homogenization, obsessive consumption, and unnecessary labor.

But I’m arguing with scattered details of this terrific book because it is stimulating and packed with intriguing questions, such as:

“What would have happened, we sometimes wonder, if the Industrial Revolution had taken place in societies that emphasize the community over the individual, and where people believed not in a cradle-to-grave life cycle but in reincarnation?”

Although McDonough and Braungart urge no political action and seem to imply a power-to-the-corporations agenda, they provide plenty of inspiration for people-oriented activism:

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, rather than bemoaning human industry, we had reason to champion it? If environmentalists as well as automobile makers could applaud every time someone exchanged an old car for a new one, because new cars purified the air and produced drinking water? If new buildings imitated trees, providing shade, songbird habitat, food, energy, and clean water? If each new addition to a human community deepened ecological and cultural as well as economic wealth? If modern societies were perceived as increasing assets and delights on a very large scale, instead of bringing the planet to the brink of disaster?”