Hope on the Environmental Horizon

Authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart show how we can go from being merely “less bad” in eco-behavior to being totally good.

Reviewed by Alice Cherbonnier
“Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things”
by William McDonough
      and Michael Braungart
New York: North Point Press, 2002
186 pages, not exactly a paperback, $25

In the midst of all the bad news thats swirls around us much like toxic waste—war, hurricanes, mayhem, starvation—the amazing book Cradle to Cradle details the environmental catastrophe humankind is heading toward. You’d expect to feel pretty discouraged, given the facts the authors lay out, but instead they manage to make the reader feel that the huge problems looming ahead of us actually can be solved.

That’s right: this is one environmental book that won’t make you completely depressed. You come away from it with some hope for the future.

An architect and chemist are calling for eliminating the whole concept of waste through the use of real intelligent design.

Charlottesville, Virginia-based architect William McDonough is a hero among those who believe we humans have to change our ways if the Earth is to survive. He and his co-author—Michael Braungart, Ph.D., a German chemist who leads the multinational Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency—don’t just talk about clever ideas, they actually make positive things happen by convincing corporate moguls to invest in smarter technologies and more energy-efficient buildings and processes.

When not working in their separate businesses, this duo joint venture as MBDC, a “product and process” design firm they founded in 1995 to advance what they herald as “the next industrial revolution.”

They call their paradigm “cradle to cradle design,” underscoring their belief that, to be environmentally responsible, the entire way we humans do things must be re-examined.

This book itself is a testament to the authors’ determination to find better ways to live on this planet. Instead of being printed on paper, which they point out is not the highest and best use of trees to begin with (not to mention that it’s harmful to the environment to bleach paper during manufacturing, then expend energy to gather it for recycling and then bleach it yet again), this book is printed on synthetic paper made of plastic resins and inorganic fiber that’s waterproof and durable as well as recyclable. Even better, though, it’s a product the authors classify as a “technical nutrient” because it can be broken down and reused indefinitely, and not just for synthetic paper.

Heftier than a tree-paper book of comparable size would be, the book’s bright white pages are smoother and stiffer than usual. The material is easy enough to write on, but there’s no “tooth” as the pen drags across it. You can bend the pages, but the creases don’t hold. Those of us who share a concern that “physical books” may become “virtual” only—as text on electronic readers, for example—will take heart that there may be an environmentally acceptable way to continue to obtain information in print.

In the introduction, McDonough explains how he got to the point of seeking new paradigms for living: “I was tired of working hard to be less bad. I wanted to be involved in making buildings, even products, with completely positive intentions.”

These authors are far from Pollyannas; from the very first page of this book, they lay out the horrors we humans are visiting on the planet: the toxic substances in computers and printer toner; the off-gassing of tires and tennis shoes; the cancer-causing substances commonly present even in baby rattles; the new breed of substances called endocrine disruptors; “Frankenstein products, nuclear waste.” Their unique premise, however, is that we need not live this way. “Imagine what a world of prosperity and health would look like,” they challenge after laying out the compelling need for change, “and begin designing it right now.”

They call for eliminating the whole concept of waste through the use of real intelligent design. Whatever we make should be considered part of a digestive stream; its components should be amenable to indefinite, non-toxic re-use: cradle to cradle, not the current cradle to grave model that has crammed the world’s landfills with billions of dollars’ worth of materials. By some accounts, they write, “more than 90 percent of materials extracted to make durable goods in the United States become waste almost immediately.”

In addition to this kind of waste, they note that manufacturers make one-size-fits-all chemical products: “...detergents are designed so they will lather up, remove dirt, and kill germs efficiently the same way anywhere in the world—in hard, soft, urban, or spring water, in water that flows into fish-filled streams and water channeled to sewage treatment plants....imagine what happens when that detergent [that can strip day-old grease from a greasy pan] comes into contact with the slippery skin of a fish or the waxy coating of a plant.”

By designing for a worst-case scenario, a manufacturer can sell to the widest possible market. The authors note that this attitude is an outgrowth of a longstanding tradition of humans seeking to dominate nature, which—for some “advanced” cultures—has been viewed as an enemy.

Can change come fast enough? The authors make no guarantees, but they point out that some industry leaders are catching on. Dupont, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Ford, Daimler Chrysler, Texaco and General Motors are among the companies that have acknowledged the reality of global warming and have dropped out of Global Climate Coalition, an organization of industrialists called that seeks to discount it.

Paraphrasing Einstein, they note, “If we are to solve the problems that plague us, our thinking must evolve beyond the level we were using when we created the problem in the first place.”

The authors propose a five-step program to manufacturers to get them started on the way toward a new way of making things:

First, they must get free of known harmful substances, starting with what they call “X substances,” such as PVC, cadmium, mercury and lead.

Second, they need to get informed about what they’re consuming and using in the manufacturing process, and consider what other options are available that would be more environmentally safe.

Third, manufacturers should assemble three lists: “X products” (with a high-priority phase-out), “gray list” products, and “P” (for positive) products. They stress that they’re not rethinking what the product is, but what it’s made of. This process is not without pain, they acknowledge. “Imagine discovering (as we did) that a simple, everyday product used widely in manufacturing has 138 known or suspected hazardous ingredients.”

Fourth, the manufacturer seeks to activate the P list: “stop trying to be less bad and start figuring out how to be good.”

And fifth: Reinvent. The authors challenge clients to assess their customers’ needs, consider how culture is evolving, and figure out how they can meet anticipated needs with new, different, and appealing products and services.

This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to learn about how things could work; how we can roll back the damage that’s been done and stop adding to the problem. We can turn to solar and wind power; we can design more efficient structures; we can produce products of safe substances that can be completely re-used. This can create exciting new industries.

Buy this book, and make sure it gets passed around to plenty of other people. Luckily, it’s really durable. And when you’re done with it, it won’t do any harm wherever it may end up.

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This story was published on September 17, 2005.