mcdonoughVirginia reader Myke Myers kindly brought to my attention the work of his fellow Virginian William McDonough. McDonough is an architect and designer who has garnered a lot of press for his bold yet pragmatic view of design. In a recent interview with New Scientist he says:

Consider this: all the ants on the planet, taken together, have a biomass greater than that of humans. Ants have been incredibly industrious for millions of years, yet their productiveness nourishes plants, animals and soil. Human industry has been in full swing for little more than a century, yet it has brought about a decline in almost every ecosystem on the planet. Nature doesn’t have a design problem. People do…

The Earth’s natural systems can probably support a few hundred million of our species, but soon there could be 10 billion of us… Eco-efficiency, where you try to reduce everything to zero, is not much fun. And nature itself is not that efficient. It’s effective. Take a cherry tree in the spring. It’s not efficient – how many blossoms does it need to regenerate? But it is effective: it makes cherries. We celebrate the cherry tree not for its efficiency, but for its effectiveness – and for its beauty. Its materials are in constant flow, and all those thousands of useless cherry blossoms look gorgeous. Then they fall to the ground and become soil again, so there’s no problem. We can celebrate abundance where it is ecologically intelligent. From my designer’s perspective, I ask: why can’t I design a building like a tree? A building that makes oxygen, fixes nitrogen, sequesters carbon, distils water, builds soil, accrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars and food, creates microclimates, changes colours with the seasons and self-replicates. This is using nature as a model and a mentor, not an inconvenience. It’s a delightful prospect.

When I’m working with business people I talk business. We talk about how much money can be made or saved, because that gets their attention. We never try to convert someone who is calcified: we never try to teach mules to play the violin. It sounds terrible and the mules don’t like it.

McDonough maintains four websites: His firm’s, his partnership’s, his own, and his intelligent design site. The sites are as effectively designed as his buildings — easy to browse, productive, engaging, and advancing the cause (the media are invited to select from ready-to-plagiarize materials that simplify writing about McDonough or his businesses). He’s won awards as a visionary and environmentalist, and his firm’s designs have won awards for eco-efficiency. And he’s written a book, Cradle to Cradle (itself made of recyclable polypropylene, not paper), with colleague Michael Braungart, that explains the vision that underlies all his work. It is, simply: Learn from, and imitate, nature — nature knows how to design and build things right, everything recycled, zero waste.

This is the kind of thinking we need — assuming we can somehow solve the fact that there are at least ten times as many people on the planet as it can healthily support, and that our culture, and its political, legal and economic systems are utterly dependent on an unsustainable concentration of wealth, abuse of power, ever-accelerating growth in consumption of resources, and subjugation of human will and dignity.

McDonough calls himself an optimist, and thinks we can turn everything around by just redesigning our world. But I think sooner or later in this century, whether we solve the population and culture problems quickly and intelligently, or go crashing into the wall of eco-catastrophe, we are going to need to radically redesign and rebuild our culture, our economy, and our social systems. We can only hope that with guidance from people like William McDonough — and also listening to nature and our own instincts — we will design and build the next human culture more responsibly and intelligently than we did the current one. So that those of us lucky enough to live in that brave new world will know only balance, beauty, harmony, abundance and peace. Just as our ancestors lived for three million years before we invented civilization, and just as every other species on our world has always done. Imagine.

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  1. Dave Pollard says:

    Just got a note from Brian Dear about Amory Lovins, father of Natural Capitalism and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute. Definitely a McDonough like-minded thinker. I’ll do a sequel to this post, on Lovins, in the next few days.

  2. SFC Brown says:

    Dave, you might be interested in Biomimicry by Janine Benyus, a scientist who is trying to spread the word on using nature’s designs for everything from energy to agriculture to manufacturing to computing etc.. You can hear her expound her theories in a fascinating two-part interview here [33 mins.], and here [36 mins.]. CBC’s Nature of Things featured a two-part documentary on this last November.

  3. SFC Brown says:

    Oops, got that first link wrong! Hope this works okay: Biomimicry

  4. My SOARA Process of Integrative Thinking based on our recently much-improved scientific understanding of the human mind makes it possible now to learn “thinking like nature” and, more importantly, apply that thinking in all we do. Please see for more about this and a free introductory article. If we are going to change the world each one of us ( not just exceptional people like William McDonough and Dave) will need to change our world in our minds because they have all been shaped by training and practice in critical thinking based on an unscientific misunderstanding of the human mind that we inherited from previous generations. We now know nature, our brains, our bodies and our minds all tend to be integrative yet we continue to practice and train people mostly in critical thinking which is about “parts”. On the other hand, the SOARA Process is about learning to make “connections” habitually and almost automatically. I would be happy to have people in any discipline conduct scientific evaluations of the SOARA Process of Integrative Thinking.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Cee – great link – thank you.

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