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Cradle to Cradle 406

Logic Bomb writes: "Human progress since the Industrial Revolution has been one big design error. Really. In 'Cradle to Cradle,' architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart have crafted a compelling explanation for why humans need a completely new framework for how we interact with the world around us. Our model of technology and development is completely counter to the natural cycles and principles that worked for millions of years to create the environment we so cleverly manipulate. Sound like typical 'environmentalist' rhetoric? Not by half. This book actually contains reasonable explanations and practical solutions." Read on for the rest of Logic Bomb's review.
Cradle to Crade: Remaking the Way We Make Things
author William McDonough & Michael Braungart
pages 186 plus notes
publisher North Point Press
rating 10/10
reviewer Matt Rosenberg
ISBN 0-86547-587-3
summary Changing how humans relate to our environment

According to the authors, current human technology is a product of "cradle to grave" design. We pull resources from the Earth, shape them into a product, use it, and throw it away. The problem, we've noticed as we've spread all over the planet, is that there really isn't any "away." This is certainly not the first time our endless cycle of resource destruction and waste creation has been brought to light. But the whole point of this book is to show why the usual responses we've developed are useless, and what to do instead.

Consider the typical "recycling" program. What is presented to the public as a way to endlessly reuse raw materials is in fact a downward spiral of degradation in material quality until, just as before, it becomes unusable. Sometimes the recycling process itself produces additional toxic waste. Most Americans have probably heard of "the 3 Rs": Reuse, Reduce, and Recycle (to which the authors add a fourth, Regulate). These are measures that only aim to slow the destructive cycle. In the end, the result is the same. As the authors put it, Less Bad is No Good.

McDonough and Braungart's proposed strategy is called "eco-effectiveness". It revolves around the idea that in nature, waste equals food. Other than incoming energy from the sun, our environment is basically a closed system. Whenever (non-human) life on our planet uses a resource, it is left in a form readily useable to other life. Humans must do the same. The authors envision a world where, when a material item gets worn out, you simply throw it on the ground to decompose. Buildings should produce more energy than they use. Eliminate the concept of "waste" entirely.

The authors put their money where their mouths are. In 1994 they started a design firm that puts these principles into practice. Examples of their work are downright astonishing. The firm was once hired to design a compostable upholstery fabric. According to their principles, not only did the finished product have to be environmentally neutral, so did the production process. In the end, an entire line of fabrics was put into production using a total of 38 chemicals (selected from a list of almost 8,000 commonly used in the industry). Water leaving the factory, originally drawn from the local water supply, tested cleaner than when it went in. And the fabric, of course, could be readily disposed of by tossing it onto the ground where it would decompose back into the soil without leaving toxic chemicals behind. They include plenty of other cases that illustrate how eco-effectiveness can both improve the quality of life and make for a more profitable business.

We live in a complex world, and it is absurd to think that every product and production process could be converted to produce similar results overnight. What about items that consist of metals and other elements that organic life doesn't usually process? There is a whole section of the book to address such issues. The authors also go beyond pure chemistry and physical health to discuss how environment affects the intangible quality of human life, and how applying these same philosophies to architecture and urban planning can produce amazing results. Unlike many environmental advocates, McDonough and Braungart both acknowledge the difficulties and provide a clear path for reform. They include a framework for eco-effective planning and decision-making so their ideas can be implemented as much as is practically possible at any given time, always with an eye for continued improvement down the road.

The writing in this book is extremely clear and articulate. The authors provide explanations of their ideas from historical, scientific, and business perspectives. They even manage to rip apart typical corporate and environmentalist thinking without pushing blame on anyone. And of course, the book is far more detailed and comprehensive than I could cover in a short review. It's hard to read it and not come away convinced, and I think that's a good thing.

One final note for anyone thinking it hypocritical to waste trees so these ideas could be distributed: the book is not made out of paper or printed using a conventional process. It's plastic -- waterproof, resilient, eligible for recycling in most locales, and an early step towards what the authors hope will be infinitely recyclable synthetic book-making materials.

Links: McDonough's architectural firm; the design firm mentioned in the review; a webcast of NPR's National Press Club at which McDonough talked about their ideas far more eloquently than I have."

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Cradle to Cradle

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