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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."

To go through your own hard times, you can from Crade to Cradle from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to submit yours, read the book review guidelines, then hit the submission page.

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Cradle to Cradle

Comments Filter:
  • waste == cost (Score:1, Informative)

    by oogoody ( 302342 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @11:46AM (#3645346)
    Any waste produced means the you are being
    inneficient with resources which means you
    are losing money. This type of design can be
    cheaper beacause it is far more efficient
    in the use of resources.
  • by Denny ( 2963 ) <> on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @12:10PM (#3645544) Homepage Journal

    There is a world summit coming up (a 10 years later follow-up to the Rio Summit) in which many issues related to this topic will be discussed.

    I've been working as a contractor on a website project recently for a UK university. The site uses the Slash code, and is aiming to focus discussions between special interest groups in the time before the summit (groups like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, etc).

    The site is called Earth Summit for All [], and there is quite a lot of background information there relating to sustainable development in general and the summit in particular, as well as the discussions powered by the Slash software which are only just starting to take shape...


  • by commonchaos ( 309500 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @12:12PM (#3645572) Homepage Journal
    What seems to be a missing point is durability. I would think that something that easily decomposes would be less durable than something that "lasts forever", almost by definition.

    Not really a departure from the status quo, fabric furniture nowadays still need to be reupholstered every decade or so.

  • by tg_schlacht ( 570380 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @12:25PM (#3645671)

    I guess you don't use solar power then.

    Down in Austin (I think, but am not certain, I saw it on the news about a week ago) there is a business that sells solar power equipment; they also use solar power for their shop. They produce more power than they use, which leaves the power company owing them money. Apparently the power company replaced the power meter a couple of times thinking there had to be something wrong with it.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @12:34PM (#3645728)
    I don't know, seemed to work fine on this planet before we decided we owned it. For millions of years, the planet revolved quietly around the sun, surviving. And then around 500 years ago we decided that we shouldn't live by nature's rules and we began trashing the planet.

    Millions of years... to our hundreds. One of my favorite quotes from the Matrix was the one about us being a virus. It fits so perfectly its scary. In the end, all we are is an evolved virus.
  • by Mac Degger ( 576336 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @12:37PM (#3645751) Journal
    First of all, he's not discounting the influence of the sun. You even quote the part where he says that :) And he's right: the only input to the system we call earth (with it's system boundary at, let's say, the upper startosphere) is the energy we get from the sun. For the rest, the system has no input; heavy elements only get input into the system when stars go nova :) Secondly, the fact that the water came out cleaner was a result of the process itself, not because they tagged an extra water purification plant to the end. The only extra energy expended was smart process design. As usual, it pays off to spend some time and energy in the design phase. And as we all know, implementing something like this later on would entail a lot of money and effort. You should have read and thought before you quoted something which disproved your own point :)
  • by bcboy ( 4794 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @01:50PM (#3646462) Homepage
    > Name industries where ecological improvements resulted in better revenues, or other tangible benefits.

    This has happened in the paper industry. I can't find figures for profit increase at the moment, but here's a link to one of the mills involved:

    A lot of technologies like this are just sitting on the ground, waiting for industry to use them even though there are strong financial benefits. I believe in the case of paper the methods were known and used outside the US for some time before someone got the bright idea of doing it here.

    You might also check the book "Natural Capitalism", which discusses industrial scenarios where moving to environmentally friendly solutions have led to a doubling of output with a halving of energy use.

Someday your prints will come. -- Kodak