In the homo ecos: library, you can find a whole bunch of ‘green classics’. These books (and magazines/films) are available to browse and borrow for any bookworm who considers themselves a friend of homo ecos:. For those people who do not enjoy the art of reading, our EVS volunteer Janny will read and review one sustainable page-turner every month.
This month: “Cradle to Cradle: remaking the way we make things” by William McDonough & Michael Braungart.
This might be a bit painful to hear. But according to the authors of the green design manifest “Cradle to Cradle”, we are doing it all wrong at homo ecos:. Energy efficiency, waste recycling, and creative upcycling; they should all be thrown out the window.
Designing an unsustainable system
The authors take a much more radical view to sustainability. They see most of the common approaches to environmentalism, such as ‘energy efficiency’, as being ‘less bad’. And recycling (usually rather downcycling a high-value product into a low-value one) is just postponing the inevitable; the moment when a product has outlived its usefulness and is sent to the grave.
Rather comically, McDonough and Braungart imagine what the assignment might have been of the people that designed our post-Industrial Revolution society. Their task might have been something like: “Design a system that (…) puts billions of pounds of toxic material into the air (…) results in gigantic amounts of waste (…) requires thousands of complex regulations (…)”. Similarly, the system commissioned by traditional environmentalists asks for “FEWER pounds of toxic waste (…) SMALLER amounts of useless waste” and so on.
Waste = Food
Instead, Cradle to Cradle (C2C) calls for a completely different approach to designing products, houses and even societies. It requires designers and engineers to consider not only the useful life of a product, but also its ‘death’ and ‘afterlife’. Rather than becoming waste, the materials which make up the product should become new resources, or food, for new products.
The image which the authors invoke throughout the book is that of a cherry tree. Trees can hardly be called efficient. In spring, they grow thousands if not millions of blossoms, only some of which actually become fruits. And out of those fruits, only a small percentage manages to grow into a new cherry tree. But still, the tree is environmentally friendly. The superfluous blossoms, leaves, cherries and branches become nourishment for the insects, birds and plants around the tree. In turn, the environment sustains the tree.
Theory to practice
McDonough (an architect) and Braungart (a chemist) share many examples from their work as sustainability consultants to big companies. Every time, instead of trying to get rid of some of the most toxic or harmful ingredients, they go back to the basics: what does the product have to do? And how can its materials be re-used afterwards? Instead of designing a low-emissions car, they would think of a more sustainable way of getting people from A to B, or even avoiding travel altogether.
And they practice what they preach. The book itself is not made from recycled, non-chloride paper, with natural, non-toxic ink. (The authors remark that is very strange that companies list such traits. You don’t serve your guests a ‘hearty pumpkin soup without arsenic’, either, do you?) Instead, the book is printed on a new kind of synthetic paper that is durable, water-proof, and can be recycled into new books without loss of quality. But C2C does not need to be space age. The authors mention Henry Ford’s first car factory as an early example of C2C: the wood from the shipping crates was re-used in the car’s bodies.
Thirteen years after the first publication of the book, ‘Cradle to Cradle’ is a term that has gained widespread fame and acceptance. The book itself is quite fun and inspirational to read. However, it does not really offer the general reader many tools to work with. C2C really is a concept that only designers and producers can work with – all we as consumers can do is try to buy and use products that have a more promising afterlife. And, aside from a few gimmicks like compostable running shoes, such products are not widely available yet.
For now, all we can do is be less bad.
The Latvian version “No šūpula līdz šūpulim – Zaļā domāšana lietu pasaulē” is also available in the homo ecos: library.