Please Litter!

William McDonough and Michael Braungart's new book "Cradle to Cradle" doesn't feel like a book. It's an odd size and shape; it has unusually thick pages; it feels significantly heavier than it looks, and it's waterproof.

The book's peculiar design is deliberate, a point its content drives home -- the current state of recycling generally turns higher quality products into lower quality ones useful only for a purpose other than the original product that are eventually discarded. This is not recycling; it's slow-motion waste.

"Cradle to Cradle," is intended to be easily and completely recyclable into a new book of the same quality. The book's authors argue in favor of making all human productions either recyclable in the way this book is or completely biodegradable so that they can be used as fertilizer.

In the future envisioned by McDonough and Braungart, packaging will be tossed on the ground in response to signs that read "Please litter!" Appliances will be leased and returned to manufacturers to be completely recycled. Objects that must contain both biodegradable and inorganic recyclable elements will be easily separable into those respective parts: You'll toss the soles of your shoes into the garden and give the uppers back to the shoemaker. And the water coming out of factories will be cleaner than what came in, motivating the factory owners to reuse it and eliminating the need for the government to test its toxicity.

The authors teamed up on the 1991 Hannover Principles to guide the design of the 2000 World's Fair. McDonough has an architecture firm in Charlottesville, Virginia, and from 1994 to 1999 was dean of the University of Virginia's School of Architecture. Braungart is a German chemist who for several years headed the chemistry section of Greenpeace.

This book should be read by those familiar with the issues of environmental design as well as those completely new to the topic. It draws on themes common in a long list of books ranging from Daniel Quinn's "Ishmael" to "Natural Capitalism," by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins. But McDonough and Braungart make no acknowledgements of any such influences and present themselves (just as these other authors have) as the vanguard of a change as radical as the industrial revolution.

While their idea is important and well stated, it's not the clear break from current environmental (or for that matter industrial or "Third Way") thinking that they maintain. What the authors propose as revolutionary is that instead of reducing pollution and consumption and having fewer children, why not make increased economic activity actually beneficial to the planet?

The book is packed with intriguing questions, such as: "What would have happened, we sometimes wonder, if the Industrial Revolution had taken place in societies that emphasize the community over the individual, and where people believed not in a cradle-to-grave life cycle but in reincarnation?"

Although McDonough and Braungart are not themselves activists, and seem to imply a power-to-the-corporations agenda, they provide plenty of inspiration for people-oriented activism: "Wouldn't it be wonderful if, rather than bemoaning human industry, we had reason to champion it? If environmentalists as well as automobile makers could applaud every time someone exchanged an old car for a new one, because new cars purified the air and produced drinking water? If new buildings imitated trees, providing shade, songbird habitat, food, energy, and clean water? If each new addition to a human community deepened ecological and cultural as well as economic wealth? If modern societies were perceived as increasing assets and delights on a very large scale, instead of bringing the planet to the brink of disaster?"

This is all stimulating stuff, but I have a few quibbles with the book.

First, "Cradle to Cradle" does not suggest any radical change in behavior for the typical reader; rather it offers advice for architects, corporations and municipalities. It is intended to free the typical reader of guilt. I think it should do something else as well, namely urge us to political action, to demand of our democratically elected representatives that the earth-saving innovations described in the book be put to use.

Second, the examples of new materials and building and product designs described in the book all build on the environmental thinking that McDonough and Braungart so loudly reject. Reducing pollution to zero is not a "new paradigm" from reducing pollution to a teeny bit -- it's just better.

Third, the vision of rendering mad self-indulgence completely beneficial to all other species is far from a reality, and even the dream described by McDonough and Braungart would not, in any way that I can imagine, make it possible to place an unlimited number of humans on the planet without hurting anything.

There is also a disturbing thread of anti-government corporatism in the book. Ford and Nike and other corporations for which the authors have worked are described as heroes for their positive efforts, while their destructive practices are passed over. McDonough and Braungart repeat a distinction (citing Jane Jacobs' "Systems of Survival") between Guardians and Commerce, i.e. paternalistic government and noble corporate heroes:

"Commerce is quick, highly creative, inventive, constantly seeking short- and long-term advantage, and inherently honest: You can't do business with people if they aren't trustworthy."

McDonough and Braungart go on to equate regulation with partial pollution reduction, and to conclude that because complete pollution reduction is desirable and possible, regulation is bad. Instead they should conclude that rather than allowing limited pollution, regulators should ban it entirely (through whatever stages of phasing in that policy prove feasible).

The authors claim that their design to allow a factory to reuse its effluent as influent "eliminated the need for regulation." At the very least this should have been stated more clearly: It eliminated the need to monitor effluent. It did not eliminate the need to ban harmful effluent. Nor did it provide any reason to think making environmental behavior "voluntary" would cause other factories to employ similar solutions, however easy or profitable they might be.

I also have concerns about the authors' lack of worry in many instances about the factor of transportation. They advocate designing crates and packaging materials to be useful in whatever part of the world a shipment of stereos or toasters is headed for, but fail to question the wisdom of shipping such crap from continent to continent -- despite their laments over diminishing cultural diversity.

This is one example of a more frequent challenge to the vision of "Cradle to Cradle." A solution to one problem often remains part of a bigger problem until another solution is in place. In this example, once we create ships and trains that don't damage the earth, reusable crates will seem more like part of a holistic solution -- though some may still have cultural concerns about homogenization, obsessive consumption and unnecessary labor.

The authors recognize that their dream is a work in progress. They conclude the book by offering five guiding principles that allow room for an evolving plan. They call on designers and business leaders to publicly commit to a goal of eliminating waste, to restore our damaged environment, to constantly innovate, to prepare for new learning curves that will allow innovations to lead to further innovations, and to assume intergenerational responsibility.

"What would it mean," they ask, "to become, once again, native to this place, the Earth -- the home of all our relations? This is going to take us all, and is going to take forever. But then, that's the point."

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