Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Creative Paradigm for Environmentalism

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
William McDonough & Michael Braungart
2002, North Point Press

Where to get it: 
From Amazon

Why this book?:

I picked up this book at a second-hand store, intrigued by the back cover blurb that said:

"McDonough and Braungart explain how products can be designed from the outset so that, after their useful life, they will provide nourishment for something new.  They can be conceived as 'biological nutrients' that will easily reenter the water or soil without depositing synthetic materials and toxins.  Or they can be 'technical nutrients' that will continually circulate as pure and valuable materials within closed-loop industrial cycles."

Back in 1991,  I had attended an environmental conference of manufacturers beginning the discussion on just this topic, yet less extensive.  They were trying to save money by re-using water in industrial plants, recycling,  instead of throwing out, side-materials created during production (metal and wood shavings, e.g.), finding better ways to recycle metals, etc.  So this book was right up my alley.

The book had an interesting feel - and I don't mean the style or the tone - the first chapter  "This Book is Not a Tree" explained it.   The book itself was designed for complete recycling, and is made out of recyclable plastic, as is its ink.   All of a sudden I felt very hopeful -- that maybe at last the environmental movement was on a new track, not discussing constantly what was wrong, but coming up with new solutions in real-time.

Some quotes from the book:

"The design intention behind the current industrial infrastructure is to make an attractive product that is affordable, performs well enough, and lasts long enough to meet market expectations.  Such a product fulfills the manufacturer's desires and some of the customer's expectations as well.  But from our perspective, products that are not designed particularly for human and ecological health are unintelligent and inelegant  -- what we call crude products...

The key is not to make human industries and systems smaller, as efficiency advocates propound, but to design them to get bigger and better in a way that replenishes, restores, and nourishes the rest of the world...

Our questioners often believe that the interests of commerce and the environment are inherently in conflict, and that environmentalists who work with big businesses have sold out.  And businesspeople have their own biases about environmentalists and social activists, whom they often see as extremists promoting ugly, troublesome, low-tech, and impossibly expensive designs and policies.  The conventional wisdom seems to be that you sit on one side of the fence or the other."

The downside:

Designers often are criticized for not being able to get down to reality enough.  Architects are often criticized when their big dream projects turn out to have glitches (one person I met who worked in physical plant operations for a stylish building near Boston, complained bitterly that the architect liked this cool kind of lighting, but the bulbs were impossible to get, and very expensive and they wished architects had a practical bone in their body).  There is some of that here.  Getting from the big idea down to practical terms may be a challenge, but in this case, they have a lot more savvy than most environmentalists I've met, who often think having the big idea is the same as building it.  They have built the projects they talk about, and have obtained results,  They also talk about the forces that conspire to keep change from happening, so I think readers can catch the ideals as well as see the challenges that re-making an entire infrastructure bring.

My take:

This book explained (to me at least) why it was that, of all the US auto makers, Ford was the one that said "No Thanks" to bailouts.  It explained how buildings could work to save water and energy by growing grass on the roof, and designing to bring in natural light, with industrial buildings done completely differently from the ugly, dark things we've been used to.

Here we are, nearly 10 years later, and I see no signs that these incredible ideas have taken hold anywhere here in the US, the ground zero of the environmental movement. In fact, at last count, the authors were working in China.  I attribute it to the fact that this book has not had wide enough circulation, because these are powerful ideas that deserve more attention.

This is a great read for those that want to understand why we keep missing the target on environmentally-intelligent manufacturing, why we keep getting more and more throwaway products, and how we can turn that around, and it should be required reading for anyone who plans to go into industry or architecture.  This book that speaks to the concept of "intelligent design" that matters to the environment, and to our futures.

More info:
From the authors:


  1. thanks alot 'sunday smith'for joining my blog,i really like to make new and good friends,and one thing i want to say, please do not mind,you have a resemblence of Elizbeth taylor,thats i like, as concern to your post,its informative and cool,well done

  2. My husband would LOVE this book. He is a vegan/environmentalist. He recycles. He is a mini hoarder (he would disagree, though). Any opportunity to keep his footprint on this earth at a minimum, he tries. Why he married a "waster" like me, I don't know.

    Anyway, he loves books like this so I will pass this information along. Great post and review.


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