Back in 2002, a decade ago, architect William McDonough co-authored a book with chemist Michael Braungart called “Cradle to Cradle.” This extraordinarily influential book recognizes that the concept of “waste” doesn’t actually exist. In all other species, one’s waste is another’s nutrition. They are called energy and material flows. I touched on this in my previous post, called Autopoiesis. McDonough points out that our current linear paradigm is one of cradle to death, where we harvest raw materials, ship them, store them, manufacture them into a new form, store them again, sell them, use them, and dispose of them into a landfill in a form that no other species can use. What he suggests is that our linear “Cradle to Death” mentality must change to a circular, interconnected “Cradle to Cradle” mentality, where the waste of any industrial/economic process becomes food for some other process. We must change our linear way of thinking in order to meaningfully participate in the web of life. Otherwise the planet has no use for us.
Chapter 2: “Why Being “Less Bad” is No Good, has particular meaning to me. In the book, and again in this video, McDonough describes an example where someone may be driving a car 100 miles per hour to the south, when their desired destination is to the north. No matter how much they slow down, they simply will not get to a northern direction, by driving south, unless they change directions. Similarly, if they are headed toward a cliff, slowing down might extend their lives, but they will still go over the cliff unless they change directions. A very large percentago of the green movement focuses on eco-efficiency, which is simply slowing down, and not changing direction. I am so tired of seeing figure heads and company advertisements for improvements in sustainable design, when, in most cases, they are continuing to make products and policies that are taking us further in the wrong direction, even if it is at a slower pace. Efficiency, for a hateful purpose, is still wrong.
For example, on April 1, 2010, the Obama administration officially kept their promise to raise the required fuel economy of all vehicles by 4 percent per year, which has officially resulted in new vehicles that are required to get an average fuel efficiency of 35.5 mpg by 2016. Environmentalists and democrats hailed it as a wonderful achievement. I agree that it is better than what it would have been, but unfortunately, it fails to deal with the deeper problem of transporting people in a healthier ways. The amount of energy that it takes (…and the greenhouse gases produced) to make, transport, and assemble a car with all of its associated tires, engines, electrical parts, windows, seats, and fluids, that come from manufacturing plants from around the world, is simply enormous. Additionally, the roads, parking lots, bridges, and parking structures divide neighborhoods, wilderness areas, and catch and concentrate toxic runoff. If we take a moment, and consider that concrete used to construct our transportation infrastructure can weigh up to 150lbs per cubic foot, and the making of concrete produces about 1 ton of CO2 for every ton of concrete made, we can conclude that the 10 yards of concrete that a typical cement truck carries represents 20.25 tons of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. The next logical question is to ask how many cement trucks does it take to build 10 miles of roadway? It is a staggering amount of greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere. Additionally, from a different perspective, the environmental damage caused by capturing, transporting, and refining oil has been recorded in many, many places. Finally, don’t forget about the insurance industry and the aftermarket parts industry that both have toxic energy and material flows as well. To suggest that raising the fuel efficiency of new cars is a major benefit to humanity is simply false. The benefits are just too little.
It is an extremely timid step. It is not even a step in the right direction. We are still burning massive amounts of fossil fuels. Where is the bold leadership in this country? Where is the vision? This same argument can be made for almost every product made. A walk through any discount store will immerse you in a world of labels claiming their “greenness.” Nearly every one of them are doing it simply as a marketing effort to keep up with the deception that their competitors are putting out into the world. Flourescent Light Bulbs are another great example. They all contain mercury, known to cause neuromuscular and organ problems, and they are sold by the millions. Yet, at the same time, we are getting warnings from the EPA about the increased risk of eating fish as a result of their increased mercury levels. Where is all that mercury being harvested from, how is it being processed, and how is it being recycled into natural (or man-made) systems? Flourescent bulbs are definitely a better energy solution, but not necessarily on the correct path because they are not fully integrated into the web of life. Almost non of the products sold today are healthfully participating in the energy and material flows of nature, and continue to sever our relationship with nature as a result.
Finally, I would like to consider the diagram above, reproduced from Bill Reed’s book, “The Integrative Design Guide to Green Buildings.” I will write more about it in the future, but it really shook up my ideas about sustainable design when I first saw it. At the time, I had been a central part of a small LEED designed building, and was intimately familiar with the requirements of such a rating system. I thought I was doing the right thing, and proud of the work, until I understood this diagram. It starts at the bottom, with Conventional Design, which is what nearly all buildings are designed to be. Market pressures compel most owners to design to minimum code standards, because the undereducated assumption is that anything else is going to cost more money. This lowest category has been described as being one step above breaking the law. What most people think of as “Green Buildings” or “High Performance Buildings”, are represented in the next group up. They would likely be those buildings that have achieved some level of LEED certification. They tend to be cleaner, more efficient, and do less damage to the environment, but are still using the same technologies and paradigms as conventionally design buildings. They are eco-efficient, but simply less bad. Above that, is the break-even level of sustainability, where our buildings are inert to their surroundings, neither helping, nor hurting them. And finally, at the top levels of the diagram, there are restorative and regenerative buildings. These designs will actually engage the networks of communities and environments that they sit within in a positive healthy way. Their material and energy flows will become always healthy for the organisms that are in their systems. It is a powerful diagram, and one that is applicable to all fields. I think it is the defining diagram of our time.
Can you imagine an economic system that incents industrial processes, transportation systems, and housing that produce healthy “waste” that can be used and sold as food for another organism or industrial process? It is huge mental shift, but there are inspired people who are working on it.