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Bill McDonough’s “Cradle to Cradle” redesigns how we think about sustainability

Posted Apr 20 2010 9:04am

Rewriting our design assignment

“And to use something as elegant as a tree?
Imagine this design assignment:
Design something that
makes oxygen,
sequesters carbon,
fixes nitrogen,
distills water,
makes complex sugars and foods,
changes colors with the seasons,
and self-replicates.
…and then why don’t we knock that down
and write on it?”
~ William McDonough

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Here is what Bill McDonough proposes is our ultimate design assignment.

Circles & triangles

Last night was a bit of a “full circle moment” for me, not only as a student learning about environmental issues and sustainability, but as a citizen of the world. I got to meet a hugely influential person in my life,  Bill McDonough , author of  Cradle to Cradle (co-authored by Michael Braungart). I first read this book when I was 19 years old and staying on Nantucket with a family I nannied for. I went in a bookstore in town with the kids and they were giving away copies of it for free.

Hm. I thought. Well, that’s interesting. And I’m not one to turn down anything that is free. This book was also so smooth, pretty, different from other books (it’s made of polypropylene paper, is 100% recyclable, is more durable, has pages that don’t wrinkle/tear, and iswater-proof). I read it in three trips to the beach and ever since then, I’ve been interested in sustainability. I had never read anything like it before. It taught me the backstory of why we are where we are today (a rudimentary concept—the industrial revolution brought us here—but at the time, I knew next to nothing about this.) But it also made me think. It made me look around and see the way we do things and ask myself, “But wait, why don’t we do it this way, and then we don’t have to this problem or that problem AND we get this benefit and that benefit.”

Basic case in point: You can carry your groceries home in reusable bags, because they reduce unnecessary waste and buildup of plastic in our landfills and ecosystems. But you can also carry your groceries home in reusable bags, because carrying heavy objects over your shoulders makes your life easier and prevents loaded plastic bags from cutting off the circulation in your fingers as you carry them.

Just that story of how I came upon this book sort of mirrors exactly what Bill is all about: for me, a free book changed my life. Cradle-to-cradle design isn’t about making things more expensive or more difficult or less fun or less aesthetically pleasing or less loving. It’s not even about creating equitable and ecologically friendly ways of doing things in ways that fail to promote economic growth. He believes in the importance and power of the economy, equity, ecology as they can co-exist and work together. This is a relatively well-known concept in the field of development and the first thing we talked about in my Environment & Development class this year, but it’s not a balance often achieved in design.

Benefits of a cradle-to-cradle approach within food systems

ECONOMY

  • More local agricultural jobs, less power concentration in hands of CEO’s/more in hands of people => more jobs, more money in the hands of people
  • More vibrant local economies => less hunger, less sickness, less violence
  • More vibrant local economies => more vibrant cultural activity => thriving people

ECOLOGY

  • Less soil nutrient depletion and erosion
  • More places for species to live and thrive, instead of less
  • Less waste, less use of packaging, less transportation/fuel needed, less carbon dioxide emitted => more up-cycling => best use of natural resources => healtheir ecosystems => survival of all species

EQUITY

  • Better food security and food access due to independence from industrial food systems elsewhere & less disparity between the have’s of fresh, local food and the have-not’s with processed, unhealthy foods
  • Better tasting, healthier, less processed, more nutrient rich, less pesticide/harsh chemical-laden food
  • Healthier people => happier people


Drawbacks to a cradle-to-cradle approach within food systems

Yeah. Cost-benefit analyze that one. Which is sort of the whole idea. If there is a drawback, it’s not really cradle-to-cradle design.

“The God is in the details”

The really fabulous thing for me and other American University students, is that Bill is the architect that designed our new School of International Service building . And he did so in a way that combined these three benefits, saying that, “the God is in the details.” Meaning that all of the parts that make up the whole of this transparent, innovative, progressive building, “where people can dream,” are working together in their own way, in a good way, to make things “more good,” instead of “less bad” . From the 100% recyclable carpeting and other building materials to the waste management system, from the rain collectors and solar panels on the roof to the underground parking garage that gives priority parking first to cyclists (and has shower rooms available for them), then motorcyclists, then hybrid vehicles, and last, other vehicles.

I had a few questions I would have loved to ask Bill, but I chose something specific, “Are there any plans in place to evolve other buildings on campus?” The short answer from the dean was basically, “There sure will be. We need funding first.” Which gets back to that triangle corner of economy. If it’s not economically viable, it doesn’t fit the cradle-to-cradle design question:

But the economic viability aspect is also a huge asset to cradle-t0-cradle design, and to agribusiness in general, simply because this is what businesses and corporations are solely interested in. So in order to convince them, all the “cradle-to-cradle minded” designer needs to do is convince them that they will save money, or that they will be able to make more money, and then they are basically obligated to embrace it. It would go against the basic law of capitalism not to.

Cradle-to-cradle is the sort of design model that we need to use for our food production AND our food waste upcycling in our cities, because one cannot exist in a well-designed system without the other. Local food production via green roofs, composting in homes and buildings, using that compost on the green roofs of the homes and buildings–this isn’t rocket science, it’s just, as Bill would say, interesting.

In one of my next entries I will go over some of these “details” in more detail, and talk about how they can work together to encompass sustainably designed and developed food systems within cities and habitats for humans and all other life.

Evolving design

The most important thing to remember is that that doesn’t mean cradle-to-cradle design is ever perfect. In fact, McDonough recognizes it is not ever perfect. Really, design must be constantly evolving as different methods and technologies become more economically viable and approaches are made more equitable while still remaining ecologically beneficial. What works now will have to work better in the future.

Just like all organisms must evolve to survive, so must humans, and so must the systems that we create and rely on.

After all…

“Sustainability takes forever. And that’s the point.” – William McDonough

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