When I first saw William McDonough on a tv documentary titled Waste = Food (available as the full 60 minute DVD) the depth of his message struck me as being on a par with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. In The Wisdom of Designing Cradle to Cradle he asks what our design intention is as a dominant species? And what is the first question for designers? Because so much design is begun from the wrong question which leads to products which ultimately pollute the environment and poison our children.
Design should be asking the first question – not growth or no growth but what do you want to grow?
Cradle to Cradle, a book written with the German chemist Michael Braungart, discusses these concepts of waste = food and how we should be designing everything from the ground up. Our designs should be looking to maintain two systems, the biological systems of sustainable resources which return back to the environment (for example decomposable packaging with native seeds that replant as we dispose of our goods) and technical systems which take back our technical waste and re-use it as technical inputs into our products. An example of a technical system would be where a component can be taken back by a company and re-used at its current quality (not down-cycled to a lesser quality resource which is our current paradigm of recycling).
I particularly like the quote from William in The Wisdom of Designing Cradle to Cradle which goes:
Imagine this design assignment. Design something that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, accrues solar energy to make fuel, makes complex sugars and food, creates microclimates, changes colour with the seasons and self replicates. Why don’t we knock that down and write on it?William McDonough
The book Cradle to Cradle tracks all the way back to the Industrial Revolution and rethinks why those decisions were made by men like Henry Ford in the first place. Black paint because it dries faster and mass production because it made economic sense at the time. In the context of history our industrial design processes, and how we think of business success, is based around that paradigm of cradle to grave design, and is a legacy of a time and place where the nature of the world was amazingly dissimilar to our world today. We know better now but the momentum of industry is hard to stop even in the face of scientific sense. We could join that surge of mass extinction as a species if we stay glued to our economic theories (our flat earth). Quite easily when you think about it. Some of the canaries in our mineshaft have already died and its time to think seriously about our options.
What is that saying the native americans have about when the last blade of grass is gone and the last river runs dry? I think it has something to do with that handful of money!
There is another saying that human beings individually can be the smartest creatures on the planet but collectively we are nearly always the most stupid. We need to work on that aspect of our world as well. Education and ecologically effective governance. Why are we smiling when scientists are stating as cold fact there will be no edible species of fish left in the oceans of our planet in as little as 50 years time! What is to think about in that statement?
Yet we hold to those truths of business success (economics) unquestioningly and with a doggedness reminiscent of times when scientific fact told us the earth was indeed flat. And good people went to their deaths suggesting otherwise. We need to rethink our concept of business success to include the finite resources of our planet. We promote homogeonous culture and beat back the very diversity which has provided an environment in the first place! Does that really make sense? And, seriously, is the current way of thinking really working for us beyond the 5 year business plan?
As you progress through the chapters it is made clear that these systems we’ve evolved are flawed and what we need to do is rethink our idea of waste. Why shouldn’t water coming out of a factory be cleaner than going in? We need to be thinking about designing buildings and environments within the context of their locality. What is our one size fits all design of soap putting into the water systems at a chemical and biological level? Is there a better way? Can we devise systems to possibly capture and re-use the soaping agent? Our current design paradigm of cradle to grave doesn’t even consider to ask the question. It only asks can we make it economically with resources available in the market at a profit to our owners or shareholders? That is a flawed design philosophy.
This is not just an environmentalist book. It is a design book for designers and architects and engineers and environmentalists. The problem is that we’re designing products with a fixed lifetime and absolving ourselves from the consequences. Whereas cradle to cradle has you thinking about the components of your design, the inks and resins and types of metals. Why the hell IS a rubber duck made out of carcinogenic material? And why ARE cars just crushed and melted into sub-grade metal instead of being re-used in technical cycles?
And, like Al Gore’s message, we are going to have to get it right eventually. How much soil is on our planet? How much water? If we don’t want to end up looking like Jordan (once the food bowl of the civilized world) then we really have to think. Cradle to cradle is about using our minds to make smarter technology. Sustainable design.