Sustainability, Cradle to Cradle

I‘ve written before about the need to merge Bill McDonough’s cradle-to-cradle, zero-waste approach to the design of buildings, communities and systems, with a grassroots, bottom-up reinvention of business as natural enterprise, and cited his wonderful Hanover Principles for sustainable urban design. His famous question “What will it take for us to become indigenous once again — not as we were, but as we might be?” is one of my favourite quotes.

When I recently embraced David Suzuki’s model for Sustainability Within a Generation, coupled with my own 4-part model for bottom-up citizen involvement in sustainability (sustainability information exchange, natural enterprise education and certification, personal radical simplicity programs and model sustainable community development) a couple of readers reminded me of McDonough’s model and asked whether they were reconcilable. Good question!

Cradle to Cradle explains that most environmental programs today are designed essentially to “do less harm” by reducing, reusing and recycling etc. McDonough calls this eco-efficiency and says that, because it’s always fighting a rear-guard battle against a growth economy, it’s utterly inadequate to deal with the environmental problems we face today, and will face tomorrow. Just as one example, he says:

[With an eco-efficiency approach] many real-life decisions come down to comparing two things that are both less than ideal, as in the case of chlorine-free paper vs. recycled paper. You may find yourself choosing between a petrochemical-based fabric and an “all-natural” cotton that was produced with the help of petrochemically-generated nitrogen fertilizers and strip-mined radioactive phosphates, not to mention insecticides and herbicides. And beyond what you know there always lurk other troubling questions of social equity and broader ecological ramifications. When the choice is always between the frying pan and the fire, the chooser is apt to feel helpless and frustrated, which is why a more profound approach to redesign is necessary.

This more profound approach, McDonough says, is to follow nature’s model of eco-effectiveness. This entails separating the materials we use in human activity into biological substances (which can be sent back into the natural ecosystem, where they can actually benefit other creatures as nutrients) and technical substances (which can, with proper design, be 100% recollected and recycled or even upcycled (producing, in second use, products of greater value than their original use, with zero waste). Carpets and shoes, for example, could be made of two layers — a biological “outside” one that abrades over time, whose fibres could serve as nutrients in the soil or compost, and a much more durable technical “inside” layer that would be 100% recyclable, after its long life, into another identical product. McDonough has put his money where his mouth is, designing buildings whose water emissions are drinkable and purer than the water they use, and which produce more energy than they consume. He has proved that eco-effective, zero-waste products and processes are feasible, and surprisingly economic.

He suggests a 5-stage process for transitioning to eco-effectiveness:

  1. Free ourselves from the need to use harmful substances (e.g. PVC, lead, cadmium and mercury).
  2. Begin making informed design choices (materials and processes that are ecologically intelligent, respectful of all stakeholders, and which provide pleasure or delight).
  3. Introduce substance triage: (a) phase out known & suspected toxins, (b) search for alternatives to problematic substances, and (c) substitute for them ‘known positive’ substances.
  4. Begin comprehensive redesigns: to use only ‘known positives’, separate materials into biological and technical, and ensure zero waste in all processes and products.
  5. Reinvent entire processes and industries to produce ‘net positives’ — activities and products that actually improve the environment.

McDonough is a believer that there is no necessary conflict between ecology, economy (profit, and even growth), and equity (social fairness). Human ingenuity can, he claims, find win/wins that could eliminate our environmental problems and concerns without negatively affecting human wealth or well-being. All that is needed is awareness of the opportunities and a will to realize them, along with a realization that ‘all sustainability is local’ and that eco-effectiveness requires use of local materials and connection to local energy flows.

Well, perhaps. If everyone on the planet was as knowledgeable, open-minded and creative as Bill McDonough, I’d buy it. But humans don’t change direction, or their minds, that easily: That change occurs only when it has to, when there is unarguably no alternative. Even the realization that ‘all sustainability is local’ and the invention of zero-emission vehicles using renewable energy won’t eliminate the need for roads (which, besides being made largely of oil, have exterminated life on a large proportion of the planet’s surface). And McDonough doesn’t address our species’ passion for and dependence on antibiotics (a word that literally means ‘against life’), and its reliance on these ‘technical’ materials to inject and soak biologicals so that, in the massive concentrations we keep them in, they do not incubate continuous epidemics. And, most of all, while he touches on overpopulation early in Cradle to Cradle, McDonough doesn’t explain how even the most concerted application of eco-efficiency will allow human populations to continue to increase without the inevitable negative impact on biodiversity, and the ultimate impoverishment of all life on Earth.

So, getting back to the issue of how McDonough’s model fits with Suzuki’s and mine: I’m indebted to McDonough for proving that eco-effectiveness is not incompatible with economy and equity (though ironically, his book, made entirely of non-paper, technical, durable, 100% reusable without chemical processing materials, is printed in China). His principles can substantially inform several of the ten components of Suzuki’s plan, especially the four highlighted in green below:

  • Generate genuine wealth: Expand the narrow goal of economic growth to the triple-net objective of genuine wealth and well-being (ecology, economy, and equity).
  • Improve production eco-effectiveness: Increase the effectiveness of energy and resource use by a factor of four to 10 times.
  • Shift to clean energy: Replace fossil fuels with clean, low-impact renewable sources of energy.
  • Reduce waste and pollution: Move from a linear ìthrow-awayî economy to a cyclical ìcradle-to-cradleî economy.
  • Protect and conserve water: Recognize and respect the value of water in our laws, policies, and actions.
  • Produce healthy food: Ensure food is healthy, and produced in ways that do not compromise our land, water, or biodiversity.
  • Conserve, protect and restore nature: Take effective steps to stop the decline of biodiversity and revive the health of ecosystems.
  • Build sustainable cities: Avoid urban sprawl in order to protect agricultural land and wild places, and improve our quality of life.
  • Promote global sustainability: Increase affluent nations’ contribution to sustainable development in poor countries.
  • Introduce fiscal reforms: Shift taxes to promote sustainable and to discourage unsustainable production and consumption, and eliminate perverse subsidies that enable unsustainable business practices to be hugely profitable and which discourage innovation and inhibit competition from small enterprises.

They might also inform citizens engaged in the four complementary bottom-up activities that, with Suzuki’s, could produce a truly sustainable society:

  • Develop a Sustainability Information Exchange: which will allow all citizens to learn about, actively engage in discussion and create personal and collective action plans to help achieve sustainability within a generation. 
  • Develop sustainable enterprise training and certification programs: Develop and offer educational programs that show citizens, through visits to natural areas and sustainable enterprises and communities, how sustainability can work, and how to set up your own ‘natural enterprise‘. Create a method of certifying businesses as sustainable.
  • Design personal Radical Simplicity programs: Develop programs, networks and tools that will encourage and enable individual citizens to live a life of radical simplicity: how to use less stuff, reduce, reuse, recycle and refuse (to buy what’s not needed and not well and responsibly made), appreciate the virtues of a single-child family, relearn how to imagine and to trust our instincts, learn to become less dependent and more self-sufficient, become a vegetarian or vegan, find (or become) a role model of sustainability, and live a healthier, less stressful, more joyful life.
  • Design model sustainable communities: Encourage and enable the establishment and promotion of model sustainable communities, teach young people how to establish such intentional communities, and give them the opportunity to visit and learn about a living in a community that is wholly committed to sustainability and the well-being of all its members.

Perhaps most importantly, McDonough’s work shows that the task of achieving Suzuki’s ten sustainability plan elements need not involve a lot of political strong-arming of antagonistic corporations. It could be as simple as teaching corporate executives and bean-counters a few lessons in biomimicry, technology innovation, and business economics.

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2 Responses to Sustainability, Cradle to Cradle

  1. lugon says:

    “Develop a Sustainability Information Exchange”. I guess it’s just that what we’re doing at (a wiki). We’ve started to collect links and information on three aspects: 1) Data (how many people we are, how far does food travel, etc), 2) Possibilities (what others do), 3) Treassure map (what we’re doing right already). I’m trying to spread the very existence (and use!) of the wiki, so it serves as a, how do you call it, “Sustainability Information Exchange”. As it is in the public domain, I guess all are welcome! :)

  2. lugon says:

    Of course, if we create a “ring” of like-minded “imagine-yourplace” wikis, with content in the public domain, then we would be able to feed on each other and go faster after a while. This small thing is hosted in our Linux User Group’s machines so I don’t think we can host other “communities” (or maybe we can if there’s a fruitful cooperation until you can grow on your own).I’m still playing with the structure of the wiki. Ideas welcome!It’s perhaps not surprising that my vision includes making the information in the wiki available to people who may want to use it: individuals, businesses, etc. This is not about politics (football games are about winners and loosers, this thing is more like a library) so it will need some slow fire at first.

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