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The Real Deal 

by Ann M. Colford


Delegates to the One Spokane summit in May came away from the event energized -- or at least intrigued -- by the words of keynote speaker William McDonough. An architect based in Virginia, McDonough has been one of the leading proponents of sustainable design since before the term was coined. Now, in addition to his worldwide speaking and consulting engagements, he has set out his principles of "eco-effective" design and his vision for a sustainable -- and abundant -- future in a new book, Cradle To Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, co-authored by German chemist Michael Braungart.


Long frustrated by the lack of environmentally sensitive building materials in the marketplace, McDonough teamed up with Braungart in 1991 to design sustainability into industrial products. They co-authored the "Hannover Principles," the guiding design philosophy for the 2000 World's Fair and one of the core documents of the sustainable design movement, and later founded McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry. Together they have worked with numerous large corporate clients including Ford Motor Company, Herman Miller and Nike to put their design principles into practice. McDonough is also consulting with the group that is planning to build a science museum on the north bank of the Spokane River.


Cradle To Cradle is not your ordinary book, in the physical sense. The authors decided to put their principles to the test with the design of the book itself. Printed on "paper" made of plastic resins and inorganic fillers, the book can be recycled and is a prototype for a future book that could be broken down and re-used in another industrial process.


On the book's smooth white waterproof pages, the authors first explain some of the philosophies underlying the Industrial Revolution. With a view of the natural world as either an endless source of "resources" or a hostile force to be controlled, early industrialists opted for efficiency, profitability and universal design. But the authors do not seek to lay blame at the feet of industry. Even being environmentally conscious often means simply being "less bad," in McDonough's words, and such efforts often are seen as hostile to the concept of profitability, one of the foundations of our economic system. The authors capture the frustration of the "green" shopper, whether industrial or individual. Even the simple question of "paper or plastic" at the grocery checkout holds a dilemma: do I draw down the Earth's finite stores of petroleum, or cut down a tree and add a soup of toxic chemicals to the waterways in the process?


McDonough and Braungart see this incremental "be-less-bad" approach as fundamentally flawed. If you're going in the wrong direction, they posit, just slowing down won't help you; a turnaround is necessary. So combining McDonough's big-picture view and Braungart's knowledge of molecules, they've created an over-arching vision for a world of the future, inspired by the diversity and fecundity of nature. Central to this vision is the idea that people need to stop seeing themselves and their creations as somehow separate from the natural world. McDonough asks, "How might humans see ourselves as tools of nature, rather than seeing nature as a tool of humans?"


The authors begin with the concept that waste equals food in ecosystems. Applying this notion to industrial processes, they see two "metabolisms" functioning, with "nutrients" within each one. Every material used would be designed to return to either the biological cycle, consumed by microorganisms in the soil and by other animals, or to the technical cycle of materials like plastics, metals and other inorganic components. Everything created by industrial design should cycle within these "metabolisms," benefiting the environment rather than degrading it, they suggest.


Not all the technology for such a system exists yet, but that's part of the fun, according to McDonough. When you start with the view that the natural world is a world of abundance, and that humans and our designs are an integral part of the natural world, then the growth of human design becomes part of that abundance. Within that abundance, though, McDonough stresses the idea of responsibility.


"How can we love all the children of all the species -- not just our own -- for all time?" he asks. "It does become a spiritual question. We need to engage that part of the human consciousness that's open to wonder, to encourage children to be wonder-full persons -- full of wonder. Because wonder is a very spiritual thing. It touches on not just the intellect and not just the physical, but that third dimension of feeling like what you're doing is meaningful."


Some of the innovations discussed by the authors have appeared before in other articles and books, notably Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, but Cradle To Cradle is more concise, more readable and ties the numerous concepts into a single vision. McDonough says he and Braungart hope to foment another kind of industrial revolution with the ideas laid out in the book.


"Archimedes once said, 'Give me a lever and a fulcrum and a place to stand, and I can move the world.' Problems can seem daunting, but you just need the right tools. Most people forget about the fulcrum in that quote, but you need to have that center of gravity. The Cradle To Cradle concept is our fulcrum."

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