Follow Slashdot blog updates by subscribing to our blog RSS feed


Forgot your password?
Science Books Media Book Reviews

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.

This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Cradle to Cradle

Comments Filter:
  • Hmmmm... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Black Aardvark House ( 541204 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @11:49AM (#3645370)
    One final note for anyone thinking it hypocritical to waste trees so these ideas could be distributed:

    Actually, I thought trees were a renewable resource, and when disposed of properly, paper can be biodegradable.

    The only problem I see is the bleaching in some papers.
  • by tg_schlacht ( 570380 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @11:49AM (#3645373)

    Finally someone makes a book it is safe to read in the bathtub.

    I wonder how a plastic book would stack up against a paper book for longevity?

    And just to keep on topic here, I think that looking at the way we manufacture things with an eye to increasing the potential for recycleability is a good thing. Landfill space is finite and we definitely don't want to wind up living in a sea of disposable diapers, plastic 6-pack holders, discarded hot-dogs and stale twinkies.

  • Hmm... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by TweeKinDaBahx ( 583007 ) <tweek@nmt. e d u> on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @11:50AM (#3645382) Homepage Journal
    Maybe a book like this could get people who live in places like New Mexico to look at how we use our EXTREMELY limited resources.

    Not to mention how wasteful the rest of the world is...

    Now I don't want to come off as some Tree-Hugging Hippy, but there is a lot of substance to this whole conservation thing. Just look at LA. If they don't find another way of getting water, there are going to be a lot of thirsty people in the near future. (This is the case with much of the west/southwest US).

    There is more to be said for clean technologies too. They may be more expensive to implement initially, but in the long run not only do they save money, you're saving the planet so future generations don't have to clean up you mess (fuel-cells and fusion anyone?)...

    *Glares at the baby boomers...*
  • by Ars-Fartsica ( 166957 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @11:52AM (#3645396)
    People rarely change their behavior unless a clear signal tells them to do so in one discrete visible event.

    The affects of environmental damage are incremental, so it will take an enlightened authority to force these changes on society.

  • by OwnedByTwoCats ( 124103 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @11:52AM (#3645399)
    Why is energy an issue? We get lots of energy every day... from the sun.

    It's the chemistry that's important; the material cycle must be closed.

    I quibble with a couple of the reviewer's (or maybe the author's) points: life has not evolved so that waste products are inputs to other reactions; it's the other way around. Life has evolved to make use of whatever resources are available; frequently, another creature's waste is exploitable somehow. And recycled paper, even if it degrades, is still part of a closed cycle: eventually, someone or something burns (or metabolizes) the cellulose back to CO2 + H2O, and trees photosynthesize that back into "high grade" cellulose.
  • Re:dreaming... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by LBrothers ( 583483 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @11:53AM (#3645406) Homepage
    But a building with a green top, that being trees, grasses, etc would help reduce ambient temperature caused by normal metallic/asphalt roofing materials. Furthermore rainwater falling on such a building could be used to at least flush toilets and water plants. Additionally there are new solar cells being constructed that could easily be incorporated onto new construction to help it reduce / eliminate its need for an electrical power grid. It doesn't seem that the authors are against progress or power grids, but they want to see more logic and thought go into creation processes. Rooftop gardens actually save the owners money over time (temperature regulation), but how often are they considered?
  • 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.

    What's to stop the fabric from decomposing in my living room? It doesn't matter whether I leave a steak outside or in my living room, the steak is going to decompose.

    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.

  • Re:waste == cost (Score:3, Insightful)

    by DennyK ( 308810 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @11:55AM (#3645417)
    Not really, in the way the authors are referring to waste. If a business producing non-biodegradable, disposable products, and sells 90% of the material the business produces, they wouldn't consider that waste, they would consider it profit. But that 90% will still end up in a landfill, accomplishing nothing, in a few weeks/months/years/whatever, and that is what the authors are referring to as "waste". If it cost twice as much to make those products environmentally friendly, what incentive is there for a business (whose primary goal is probably to make as much money as possible in the short term, remember) to take those steps, when all it does *for them* is reduce their profits and increase their costs?

  • by TweeKinDaBahx ( 583007 ) <tweek@nmt. e d u> on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @11:56AM (#3645435) Homepage Journal
    Sure a plasitc book would be nice, but look at it this way:

    Plastic (at least most plastics) do not biodegrade. There are exceptions to this, such as plastics made from corn/soy/(and if many people would pull thier heads out of their collective arses)hemp which can biodegrade.

    Also, most plastics are petroleum based, so when the oil runs out, so does our gross overuse of plastic (back to the basic conservation of resources debacle...).

    To make a general point, maybe we should be more concerned with auditing our resource usage and pollution than with creating a book one can read while wasting water by taking a bath.

    (I'm just bitter because I live in a desert and people waste water which they shouldn't. These people in the hills with their lawns and swimming pools are going to be sorry when they have a pretty lawn but nothing to drink...)
  • Re:Hmmmm... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by DennyK ( 308810 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @11:57AM (#3645440)
    Trees are renewable, but it takes a *long* time to renew the amount of tree that goes in to a reasonably successful book printing run... ;)

  • Re:Yes, but... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Jeffrey Baker ( 6191 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @11:59AM (#3645458)
    The key solution to your proposed problem is to properly account for externalities like pollution and waste. It is cheap to use toxic chemicals in manufacturing because the manufacturer doesn't have to pay to dispose of the wastewater. They usually just dump it. The cost is payed by society as a whole. Obviously, if we had a way to account for the cost of this waste, the cost of the manufactured good would also increase.

    People must understand the complete cost of their actions, as this book tries to point out. If you harvest a tree, you have gained some wood and removed from the world some habitat and a carbon sink. You should have to pay to harvest that tree, because a cost is incurred by society. The same principle applies to clearcutting 100 acres, except the cost is much greater. The same principle applies to polluting bodies of water, paving land, taking game, etc.

    If you carefully consider my point, you will see that it actually fits best with libertarian free market philosophy. The market is the best system, but our current market is imperfect because it cannot account for externalities.

  • This is not how nature works. Nature is not a harmonious system where all waste is designed as "food". There is no intelligent design in nature. Rather, evolution uses fundamentally random changes, with negative modifications being discarded, and positive modifications being kept, through survival of the succesful. Efficency is important. Not minimal environmetal impact.

    Environmetal impact only matters if it threatens the survival of the species. Thus, locusts can not do their thing unchecked. This is the same with most other species. There are checks and balances against everything. Except us, but if we can determine most environmental externalties and associate them with economic production costs, our economic system will 'weed' out net (environmental/economical) producers.

    The Problem, of course, is correctly analyzing externalities. This is what needs more work, and even with more work, will probably prove impossible in some cases.

  • by pubjames ( 468013 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @12:00PM (#3645464)

    This review reads like a Wired article - "visionary thinkers with groundbreaking ideas set to revolutionize the world!", whereas in actual fact these type of ideas are fairly mainstream in some parts of Europe.

    I don't want to start off a USA vs Europe thread, but it's true that in some countries in Europe (not all) the level of environmental awareness and recycling is extremely high in industry as well as the government and public spheres.
  • by fruey ( 563914 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @12:06PM (#3645508) Homepage Journal
    Buy now, pay tomorrow. Do now, pay tomorrow... procrastination and put off until tomorrow.

    Anyone earning large amounts of money exploiting other people, materials, chemicals that are bad for the environment... they're all doing it

    Anyone consuming the cheapest product, without any care for production... they're doing it

    Nobody calculates the REAL cost of anything any more. Look at the dot com crash. Before that there were investors buying in to exploration trips on ships that would never get a crew and sail. It comes back again and again.

    This book sounds like a great read. Will you read it? Probably not. Will you buy more expensive, eco friendly stuff? Probably not.

    And who is most to blame? World leaders. Corruption. You name it. But the only person you can really blame is yourself. For that, indeed, is the only thing you can really change.

    Global attitudes have to change. These things are possible. Stop chasing the money dragon, and get into a more zen life.

    Or you could just say bollocks to it, and get run over by a bus tomorrow... you can't be a finite being in a (to all intents and purposes) infinite world and still contribute to the greater good, really, can you?

  • Re:Hmm... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by iuyterw ( 255460 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @12:33PM (#3645718)
    You're assuming that once the water runs out, the thirsty hordes of less fortunates who can't get bottled water are going to let you drink yours.

  • by xtal ( 49134 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @12:40PM (#3645770)
    I can't believe that got modded up. Anyone who thinks that solar energy can provide energy at anywhere near the current consumption rate is insane. Look around you. Oil is millions of years of stored solar energy - current theories about bacteria in the earth's core aside - consuption of oil is exceeding discovery of new reserves 4:1.

    Solar energy in it's current form is not concentrated enough. Nobody has proposed a solution that can change that, and ALL environmentalist solutions don't discuss potenital yields vs. current consumption.

    The planet is BIG. There is near infinite room to put garbage and waste, and there's so much aluminum and silica on this planet it will never come close to being all used. What will run out is the energy to process that material. Of course, it's easier to toss that can in a bin than it is to give up a car, now, isn't it.

    Everything! is about energy. How much energy does X consume. If it takes less energy to throw something away, we should do that instead - because it's the energy consumption (oil, coal) that's ruining the environment.

    The real environmental saviour is safe nuclear (fission and fusion) power. The lobby did a good job on that on in the 70's, though.

  • Re:Hmmmm... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Bearpaw ( 13080 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @01:16PM (#3646089)
    Trees are renewable, but it takes a *long* time to renew the amount of tree that goes in to a reasonably successful book printing run... ;)

    [nod] Yup. Unfortunately, a good possible alternative -- hemp -- makes the people who benefit from the War on Some Drugs freak out. And given that some of them have used the WoSD to get and/or stay in power ...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @01:27PM (#3646227)
    In the future, oil reserves will diminish.

    Mmm yes eventually. We've already begun to run out, but instead of trying to solve the problem, our oil comp... oh sorry, our goverment, under the leadership of George W. decided to find another source. So instead, we're gonna drill under a national wildlife preserve, and go to war against people in other countries that can supply us a good route for an oil pipeline to Uzbekestan, etc.

    People are stupid enough to believe the "War on Terrorism" is about freedom, when all we've done is destroy a group of people that opposed our capitalist "me, me, me" ideology, and coincidently resided in an area that would work great for an oil pipeline. Hell, we even put in their new leader, who fully backs the pipeline because of his past work in... oil. In fact if I'm not mistaken, he came up with the idea.

    What's scarier is the fact that since now we have secured our oil supply for the next few hundred years, our government has decided it doesn't even need to answer to us anymore. Cointelpro, and by it's own admission this administrations policy of misleading it's own people, as well as Bush's new "We'll go wherever we need to to fight terrorism", will work out great for the Olligarchy that has come to rule this country. Now we can't stand against them, they won't tell us the truth, and they'll go do all the things that they've wanted, but havn't had political ground to do so.

    If it keeps goin this way, we won't be able to change it. If half of the disenfranchised voters in this country started voting, they'd overwhelmingly overpower the current voting class. But no one cares.
  • by Jhan ( 542783 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @01:35PM (#3646309) Homepage

    You seem to be completely missing the point. Making a green product is harder. Therefore, it will be less cool or more expensive.

    Even if you managed through sheer brain sweat to produce a product that is green, cheaper and cooler, then company B could just rip off your design and replace the eco-flogiston with spun plutonium, halving the price.

    Suppose everyone, everywhere bought one Gizmo a day. You can select between the $1 standard Gizmo and the $2 Eco-Gizmo. Will most people but the standard version? Hell yes!

    Unfortunately, that's exactly what people are doing in the real world. They don't bother the read the fine print on the standard Gizmo that says:

    After buying 10.000 standard Gizmos, our friendly customer relations people will hunt you and your family down and kill you with very dull edged implements. Enjoy!
  • by Omega996 ( 106762 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @01:35PM (#3646318)
    so what's the correct terminology to use when corporations and funded special interests run the government? republicanism? democracy?
  • by 5KVGhost ( 208137 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @02:17PM (#3646658)
    The affects of environmental damage are incremental, so it will take an enlightened authority to force these changes on society.

    There's no need to "force" changes on anyone, in fact that's probably the surest way to garner further resentment and skepticism toward your cause. In fact, I don't think you can find a single example of an authoritarian government with a good environmental track record. Russia's littered with toxic mistakes, China's building the world's largest dam project depite lots of protests, and the formerly communist and socialist countries of eastern Europe are only now recovering from the messes they made. Abuse and neglect are the inevitable result of granting that kind of power to anyone, no matter how "enlightened" they might allegedly be.

    You simply can't force people to do anything really worthwhile, at least not for very long. Yes, businesses can be regulated, but the costs of each regulation have real-world impact that must also be weighed.

    You have to use persuasion. The only enlighted authority that will make individuals change their behavior for the better is good old fashioned enlighted self-interest.
  • by markmoss ( 301064 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @05:31PM (#3648525)
    What is really needed isn't decomposing upholstery, it's a lot fewer ideas like this. []

Thus spake the master programmer: "When a program is being tested, it is too late to make design changes." -- Geoffrey James, "The Tao of Programming"