Posted by: Jon | 11/02/2010

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle

How can we avoid environmental disaster?

Nowadays most of us recycle. But what about industry, where the real damage is done? Its limited, if well-intentioned, approach maintains the one-way, ‘cradle-to-grave’ manufacturing model that creates vast amounts of waste and pollution in the first place. What the planet needs is a major rethink; a new approach which directly combats the problem rather than slowly perpetuating it. And the planet needs it right now.

An exciting, simple, groundbreaking new vision, Cradle to Cradle offers this approach. With clear, accessible – even humorous – arguments, celebrated chemist Michael Braungart and inspirational architect William McDonough challenge the notion that human industry must damage the world. Instead they look to nature and find a production system which mimics nature’s model to our commercial and economic advantage, a system in which waste equals food. This book’s theories will shape our future, and this updated edition is essential reading: a bold, practical and overwhelmingly positive manifesto for our planet’s prosperous future.

I didn’t write the above. It’s the back cover blurb to the 2009 edition of McDonough and Braungart’s very readable volume, Cradle to Cradle, outlining the ‘eco-effective’ industrial design concepts they have been propounding since 1995.

The book presents their vision for a future of infinite adundance in which the goods we consume are made from minimally toxic materials that are recycled into other goods at the end of their lives – even ‘upcycled’ into materials of an equal or better worth than those first utilised – and, when finally discarded, go back to nourish the earth. For instance, disposable cups that permit our littering habits because they are made not from oil-derived, non-biodegradable and polluting styrofoam but of compostable rice with built-in seeds that feed the soil and produce plants. Or buildings designed to produce more energy than they consume. Or cities powered by the sun where farmers cross high level walkways between buildings to farm their roof-top fields. You can watch Bill McDonough presenting Cradle to Cradle here.



So what’s not to like? As a concept, Cradle to Cradle is visionary and seductive. But, as a practical reality, it is utopian and impossible to imagine rolling out across global industry anytime soon. Its merits are that it builds on Biomimicry and our ever improving understanding of nature’s eco-systems to outline a model for ecologically-aware design and production that makes a beautiful and logical sense to us. And its danger is in prolonging our belief in solutions from technology and innovation that cannot possibly come true.

McDonough and Braungart rightly warn us of the inadequacies of ‘eco-efficiency’ – our current notion of making minimally disruptive ‘pale-green’ adjustments to our way of life in a vain attempt to mitigate our destructive impacts upon the planet. Instead, they propose ‘eco-effectiveness’ – redesigning our industrial living systems in such a way as to cease doing damage altogether.

On the face of it, I could not agree more. Except that some of us arrive at different conclusions as to what constitutes ‘eco-effectiveness’. If it means prolonging our assumptions for an abundantly supplied future whilst we wait for  ‘eco-effectiveness’ to be implemented by the world’s financial institutions and corporations – who are, when all’s said and done, the hand that rocks the cradle – then it offers no solutions at all. McDonough states that commerce is fundamentally honest and well-intentioned, echoing Adam Smith’s contention that wealth and productivity is led ‘by an invisible hand to promote the public good’. I tend to take a different view – particularly in times of diminishing cheap energy and global food and water insecurities.    

Had eco-efficient design concepts informed the outset of the industrial age, it is conceivable that in spite of – or even because of – our historically proven propensity for self-interest, we might not now be experiencing the downside of consumer capitalism and growth economics. Had we understood a hundred years ago the extent to which the systems we’ve created to supply our needs and desires do damage to the biosphere,  then perhaps Cradle to Cradle design – or something akin to it – would have informed civilisation’s progress since then. But we are on a treadmill of our own making, and we have now built up such momentum that we cannot possibly get off without hurting ourselves.

McDonough and Braungart are innovators who have fundamentally misunderstood the weight of this momentum in proposing that we can redesign and reconstruct our flawed treadmill whilst it is still moving. Common sense – and a good look around – tells us that we have run out of time. What has become clear now is that the treadmill is collapsing and we must adapt our lives to prepare for the inevitable breaks and bruises we will suffer, whether we choose to leap off it or not.

So they are right to seek to persuade us that we must redesign our industrial living systems according to nature’s model – and they present a radical and visionary paradigm for how to achieve this. But they are absolutely wrong to perpetuate the dangerous myth that through industrial and technological innovation we can enjoy abundance indefinitely.

Nature’s model informs us, first and foremost, that we must conserve our supplies of energy and the natural resources we depend on by drastically simplifying our lifestyles and reducing our massively unsustainable levels of consumption. Then just perhaps we may gain a little more time to re-make our plans for an eco-effective and sustainable future.


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