By William McDonough and Michael Braungart sitting on my bookshelf for about a year. I started reading it last winter but didn't finish. I was looking forward to having a chance to dig back in and have recently done so.
I'm starting into this theme of writing up little book reports and this post will be the second entry in that pattern. Once again I'm going to have to quote pretty big chunks of the text in order to capture the ideas I'm interested in. If you find any of this fascinating I would suggest taking the time to read the whole book as I'm just skimming the surface of a couple of ideas.
I've highlighted my comments in blue throughout the text below. The italics in the text are transcribed from the book. The bold is my editorial emphasis.
There are a couple of ideas that I picked up on in this book. The first one is the difference between eco-efficiency (loosely defined as optimizing our current systems to pollute less, produce less waste and burn more fuel) and eco-effectiveness (loosely defined as designing systems up front to be healthful for profits, the environment and the people involved) and the implications that each approach has for our societies.
Environmental destruction is a complex system in its own right - widespread, with deeper causes that are difficult to see and understand. Like our ancestors, we may react automatically, with terror and guilt, and we may look for ways to purge ourselves - which the “eco-efficiency” movement provides in abundance, with its exhortations to consume and produce less by minimizing, avoiding, reducing and sacrificing. Humans are condemned as the one species on the planet guilty of burdening it beyond what it can withstand; as such, we must shrink our presence, our systems, our activities, and even our populations so as to become almost invisible. (Those who believe population is the root of our ills think people should mostly stop having children.) The goal is zero: zero waste, zero emissions, zero “ecological footprint.”
As long as human beings are regarded as “bad,” zero is a good goal. But to be less bad is to accept things are they are, to believe that poorly designed, dishonorable, destructive systems are the best humans can do. This is the ultimate failure of the “be less bad” approach: a failure of the imagination. From our perspective, this is a depressing vision of our species’ role in the world.
What about an entirely different model? What would it mean to be 100 percent good?
These two simple questions may be the most powerful idea in this whole book and I believe are worth looking into more deeply. Reframing our industrial and social systems to be 100 percent good for people, the planet and our economy is a wild idea that taps into deep energy. Continuing...
Is our goal to starve ourselves? To deprive ourselves of our own culture, our own industries, our own presence on the planet, to aim for zero? How inspiring a goal is that? 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?
We would like to suggest a new design assignment. Instead of fine-tuning the existing destructive framework, why don’t people and industries set out to create the following:
- Buildings that, like trees, produce more energy than they consume and purify their own waste water
- Factories that produce effluents that are drinking water
- Products that, when their useful life is over, do not become useless waste but can be tossed onto the ground to decompose and become food for plants and animals and nutrients for soil; or, alternately, that can return to industrial cycles to supply high quality raw materials for new products
- Billions, even trillions, of dollars’ worth of materials accrued for human and natural purposes each year
- Transportation that improves the quality of life while delivering goods and services
- A world of abundance, not one of limits, pollution and waste.
And the second main theme has to do with how we can change our approach to design with the idea of eco-effectiveness squarely in the center of the process.
The overarching design framework we exist within has two essential elements: mass (the Earth) and energy (the sun). Nothing goes in or out of the planetary system except for heat and the occasional meteorite. Otherwise, for our practical purposes, the system is closed, and its basic elements are valuable and finite. What ever is naturally here is all we have. Whatever humans make des not go “away.”
If our systems contaminate Earth’s biological mass and continue to throw away technical materials (such as metals) or render them useless, we will indeed live in a world of limits, where production and consumption are restrained, and the Earth will literally become a grave.
If humans are truly going to prosper, we will have to learn to imitate nature’s highly effective cradle-to-cradle system of nutrient flow and metabolism, in which the very concept of waste does not exist. To eliminate the concept of waste means to design things - products, packaging, and systems-from the very beginning on the understanding that waste does not exist. It means that the valuable nutrients contained in the materials shape and determine the design: form follows evolution, not just function. We think this is a more robust prospect than the current way of making things.
As we indicated, there are two discrete metabolisms on the planet. The first is the biological metabolism, or the biosphere - the cycles of nature. The second is the technical metabolism, of the technosphere - the cycles of industry, including the harvesting of technical materials from natural places. With the right design, all of the products and materials manufactured by industry will safely feed these two metabolisms, providing nourishment for something new.
Products can be composed either of materials that biodegrade and become food for biological cycles, or of technical materials that stay in closed –loop technical cycles, in which they continually circulate as valuable nutrients for industry. In order for these two metabolisms to remain healthy, valuable and successful, great care must be taken to avoid contaminating one with the other. Things that go into the organic metabolism must not contain mutagens, carcinogens, persistent toxins, or other substances that accumulate in natural systems to damaging effect. (Some materials that would damage the biological metabolism, however, could be safely handled by the technical metabolism.) By the same token, biological nutrients are not designed to be fed into the technical metabolism, where they would not only be lost to the biosphere but would weaken the quality of technical materials or make their retrieval and reuse more complicated.
In the long run, connecting to natural energy flows is a matter of reestablishing our fundamental connection to the source of all good growth on the planet: the sun, that tremendous nuclear power plant 93 million miles away (exactly where we want it). Even at such distances, the sun’s heat can be devastating, and it commands a healthy respect for the delicate orchestration of circumstances that makes natural energy flows possible. Humans thrive on the earth under such intense emanations of heat and light only because billions of years of evolutionary processes have created the atmosphere and surface that support our existence - the soil, plant life, and cloud cover that cool the planet down and distribute water around it, keeping the atmosphere within a temperate range that we can live in. So reestablishing our connection to the sun by definition includes maintaining interdependence with all the other ecological circumstances that make natural energy flows possible in the first place.
The third major theme has to do with how our concepts of how things should work can be taken to extremes to the point of not functioning.
A Diversity of “Isms”
Ultimately, it is the agenda with which we approach the making of things that must be truly diverse. To concentrate on any single criterion creates instability in the larger context, and represents what we call an “ism,” an extreme position disconnected from the overall structure. And we know from human history the havoc an ism can create-think of the consequences of fascism, racism, sexism, Nazism, or terrorism.
Consider two manifestos that have shaped industrial systems: Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), and The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848). In the first manifesto - written when England was still trying to monopolize her colonies and published the same year as the Declaration of Independence - Smith discounts empire and argues for the value of free trade. He links a country’s wealth and productivity with general improvement, claiming that “every man working for his own selfish interest will be led by an invisible hand to promote the public good.” Smith was a man whose beliefs and work centered on moral as well as economic forces. Thus, the invisible hand he imagined would regulate commercial standards and ward of injustice would have been working in a market full of “moral” people making individual choices - an ideal of the eighteenth century, not necessarily a reality of the twenty-first.
Unfair distribution of wealth and worker exploitation inspired Marx and Engels to write The Communist Manifesto, in which they sounded an alarm for the need to address human rights and share economic wealth. “Masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers…they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the foreman, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself.” While capitalism had often ignored the interest of the worker in pursuit of its economic goals, socialism, when singly-mindedly pursued as an ism, also failed. If nothing belongs to anyone but the state, the individual can be diminished by the system. This happened in the former USSR, where government denied fundamental human rights such as freedom of speech. The environment also suffered: scientists have deemed 16 percent of the former Soviet state unsafe to inhabit, due to industrial pollution and contamination so sever it has been termed “ecocide.”
In the United States, England and other countries, capitalism flourished, in some places informed by an interest in social welfare combined with economic growth (for example, with Henry Ford’s recognition that “cars cannot buy cars”) and regulated to reduce pollution. But environmental problems grew. In 1962 Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring promoted a new agenda – ecologism - that steadily gained adherents. Since then, in response to growing environmental concerns, individuals, communities, government agencies, and environmental groups have offered various strategies for protecting nature, conserving resources, and cleaning up pollution.
All three of these manifestos were inspired by a genuine desire to improve the human condition, and all three had their triumphs as well as their perceived failures. But taken to extremes - reduced to isms - the stances they inspired can neglect factors crucial to long-term success, such as social fairness, the diversity of human culture, and the health of the environment. Carson sent an important warning to the world, but even ecological concern, stretched to an ism, can neglect social, cultural and economic concerns to the detriment of the whole system.
“How can you work with them?” we are often asked, regarding our willingness to work with every sector of the economy, including big corporations. To which we sometimes reply, “how can you not work with them?” (We think of Emerson visiting Thoreau when he was jailed for not paying his taxes - part of his civil disobedience. “What are you doing in there?” Emerson is said to have asked, prompting Thoreau’s famous retort: “What are you doing out there?”
Our questioners often believe that the interests of commerce and the environment are inherently in conflict, and that environmentalists who work with big business have sold out. And businesspeople have their own biases about environmentalists and social activists, whom they often see as extremists promoting ugly, troublesome, low-tech, and impossibly expensive designs and policies. The conventional wisdom seems to be that you sit on one side of the fence or the other.
Some philosophies marry two of the ostensibly competing sectors, propounding the notion of a “social market economy,” or “business for social responsibility,” or “natural capitalism” - capitalism that takes into account the values of natural systems and resources, an idea famously associated with Herman Daly. Clearly these dyads can have a broadening effect. But too often they represent uneasy alliances, not true unions of purpose. Eco-effectiveness sees commerce as the engine of change, and honors its need to function quickly and productively. But it also recognizes that if commerce shuns environmental social, and cultural concerns, it will produce a large-scale tragedy of the commons, destroying valuable natural and human resources for generation to come. Eco-effectiveness celebrates commerce and the commonwealth in which it is rooted.
When people hear about the work that I want to do in renewable energy they often seem to assume that I will be working for a non-profit. This assumption seems to reflect the sentiment expressed above by the questioners that ask "how can you work with them". I believe that for "alternative energy" to be able to drop the alternative label these energy sources will have to be developed in a way that allows prices to be competitive with or better than fossil fuel sources for both the consumer and producer, therefore making them very lucrative. This pretty much means that I'm going to be working with or for "them" and I'm looking forward to it.
And the fourth theme has to do with turning the Triple Bottom Line into the Triple Top Line. Again a much more positive way of shaping things that seems to provide for much more interesting outcomes.
“The Triple Top Line”
The conventional design criteria are a tripod: cost, aesthetics, and performance. Can we profit from it? The company asks. Will the customer find it attractive? And will it work? Champions of “sustainable development” like to use a “triple bottom line” approach based on the tripod of Ecology, Equity and Economy. This approach has had a major positive effect on efforts to incorporate sustainability concerns into corporate accountability. But in practice we find that it often appears to center only on economic considerations, with social or ecological benefits considered as an afterthought rather than given equal weight at the outset. Businesses calculate their conventional economic profitability and add to that what they perceive to be the social benefits, with, perhaps, some reduction in environmental damage - lower emissions, fewer materials sent to a landfill, reduced materials in the product itself. In other words, they assess their health as they always have – economically - and then tack on bonus points for eco-efficiency, reduced accidents or product liabilities, jobs created, and philanthropy.
If businesses are not using triple bottom line analysis as a strategic design tool, they are missing a rich opportunity. The real magic results when industry begins with all these questions, addressing them up front as “triple top line” questions rather than turning to them after the fact. Used as a design tool, the fractal allows the designer to create value in all three sectors. In fact, often a project that begins with pronounced concerns of Ecology or Equity (how do I create habitat? How can I create jobs?) can turn out to be tremendously productive financially in ways that would never have been imagined if you’d started from a purely economic perspective.
In the book William and Michael provide numerous examples of their ideas in action. I won't even begin to try to summarize those examples. These ideas I've sketched out here are going to tumble around in my head for a while and I hope to write about them again in the future.