Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute


Posted 03 Jan 2010 / 0

I just finished re-reading William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s book “Cradle to Cradle”. For those not familiar with the 2002 book, it has become the “go-to” spiritual reference for sustainable design. I say “spiritual” because the book reads more like a manifesto than a set of instructions; if you are looking for a how-to guide this is not your text, but if you are looking for a where-to inspiration this book will be of great interest.

Those familiar with various facets of the sustainability movement won’t find that much revolutionary in this book: much of what it presents is a collection of things sustainably-minded people have been thinking about for decades. But what it does bring that is highly novel is a fresh perspective on how to think about designing a sustainable human economy.

The books brings several valuable metaphors into the sustainability dialogue. My favorite is that of “technical nutrients”, a new term describing all the materials that we use to make stuff. Braungart and McDonough introduce the word “nutrient” to draw an analogy between ecosystems and industrial systems, and to bring to light the ridiculousness of our single-use, non-cyclic economic system. The book strongly advocates that we try to design our industrial systems to mimic ecosystems by thinking of raw materials as nutrients that need to be effectively cycled.

I also appreciate another central message of this book, which is that old ideas like “the solution to pollution is dilution” and “reducing impacts” will never lead to a sustainable economic system. In order for an economic and industrial system to work, it will need to be truly closed loop, and so simple “less bad” solutions won’t work.

There’s also a good basic treatment of the “three E’s” concept: that sustainable design considers ecology, economy, and equity (this is similar to the concept of the overlapping goals of life cycle analysis, which I discussed in a previous post). Cradle-to-cradle walks the reader through the different ways that these priorities can incorporated into design and strongly advocates against the extremes of any particular “corner” in this triangle, but doesn’t provide a lot of examples of this principle in practice. Still, this is a valuable way to think, and I particular like their argument against “isms”, their way of labeling design that focuses on one of the priorities exclusively. That we need to unite the goals of industry, social justice, and environmental stewardship is clear.

I also appreciate the fact that this book is inspirational and optimistic. Throughout the text we get almost nothing but a “can-do” attitude, and I must admit that my usual skepticism was swept out from under me for most of my reading of this book. Upon reflection, though, the optimism of this book is also a bit vacuous. To me the real optimistic thing is to explain the pathway to the sustainable outcomes we wish to see, and there is very little of this here. We learn about their work in helping Ford Motor Company redesign their manufacturing infrastructure, but the real drivers of this change (and the actual value of this change) are not explained. Cradle to Cradle champions the idea that sustainable practices can also be cost-saving measures, but this is hard for me to swallow: almost eight years since this book was published, is it really just ignorance that is preventing widespread adoption of these practices? If being more sustainable actually is a win-win, why aren’t more companies jumping on the bandwagon?

Maybe it is a little to much to ask such an aspirational text to address questions like “will we ever be sustainable without some sort of major curb on fossil fuel consumption?”, but that’s what I felt was missing from this book: an honest appraisal of the major obstacles that prevent us from becoming truly sustainable. I agree with their idea that eventually we will be forced to use renewable and available energy sources like wind and solar and that materials will become valuable enough that we will no longer take a “cradle-to-grave” approach to design. I just wonder how many species, including many members of our own, will have to be in the grave before we actually have the incentive to return to the “crade-to-cradle” methods of our ancestors.

A Major Post, Books, Closed Loop Systems, Life Cycle Analysis, Resource Consumption, Reviews, Sustainability

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