Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart

“Now there is one outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth, and that is that no instruction book came with it.
— R. Buckminster Fuller

At the university I attend, the Department of Packaging Science trains students in the production of trash while its department of waste disposal disguises itself with the grand title, Department of Environmental Systems Engineering. Despite their common interests, students in the two departments rarely meet sober and the faculties never meet cordially. McDonough and Braungart have written a book intending to get the two together.

Their thesis is that the design process builds in waste and the environmentally hip ways of getting rid of it, namely what we call recycling and what they call ‘downcycling’, are often outrageously expensive and so environmentally deleterious that it would be better to put the stuff in a landfill in the first place. For example, an aluminum can has different alloys of aluminum in the can’s tops, bottom and inside. Recycled, the alloys are melted together, producing a single inferior product. In any event, recycling doesn’t reverse the inevitable trip to the dump, it just delays it. McDonough and Braungart’s solution is to alter the design process so that that the very concept of waste is eliminated. Wear out your shoes, and the remains are melted-down to make a new pair of shoes of the same quality. Their discussion explores how this might be accomplished in everything from building design, to computers, to cars.

Ok, it’s a good idea. The best example as you read this book is the book itself since it is made of some sort of plastic that can be made over into a book again and again. Unfortunately, it is a flawed example. The ‘paper’ is a pain to write on. Librarians might like that, but the rest of us, assuming that when we buy a book we buy the privilege of writing in it, will just find it irritating. What librarians won’t like is that the design turns ephemeral books into heavy-weights and heavy-weights become unimaginable. The Library of Congress filled with a collection of these things would sink the entire states of Maryland and Virginia. Good idea, fellas, but, nope, we aren’t there yet.

McDonough and Braungart hope that their discussion goes some way in healing the rift between environmentalists and industrialists who too frequently seem to live on separate planets. You can have one or the other, but not both. Some readers might think that McDonough and Braungart have only mingled the worst of both those worlds. On the one hand, like much environmental writing, there is an excessive reliance on the conditional tense. If you rub your shoe sole on concrete, you might produce dust that could cause, possibly, cancer in laboratory rats who swill the stuff to the extent of several times their body weight a day. I favor banning the conditional tense from environmental writing as a matter of law and sending violators to an ‘ambigatory’ where they can spend the rest of their lives equivicating with each other. On the other hand, McDonough and Braungart are hucksters. Well, these guys are business executives and this book is a sales pitch so hawking could hardly be avoided. Readers skeptical of used car salesmen, however, will find the approach almost as irritating as the ‘paper’ it is printed on.

And sometimes they are just plain wrong. McDonough and Braungart see a world of abundance. A flight over Haiti or Romania would cure that delusion. Or they could drive from Baghdad to Amman with a quick stop at Shumari Nature Reserve to see what the landscape looked like when Abraham strolled through it, before it was grazed not down to the ground, but a good six inches beneath it.

Their version on the Industrial Revolution is a thing to behold, the kind of propaganda Brave New World‘s, Controller, Mustapha Mond, would die for. The glorious Industrial Revolution produced new wealth and material well being. Ok, I’m better off for it, but 60 percent of the word’s population isn’t. They do mention that things around London got a little dirty, but they fail to understand that the developed world’s industrialization was bought at a price, the virtual ruin of Scotland’s soils and the de-industrialization of India, Egypt and coastal Africa. And they seem to think that our wealth results from the altruism of capitalists and nothing more. They fail to understand that the West’s marginally equitable distributed of wealth arises from two centuries of mayhem, slaughter, wars and revolutions and the persistence of trade unions, Communists, socialists, Wobblies, anarchists and all manner of leftist, pinko slime. Unbelievable! They even come close to deifying Henry Ford.

‘Environmentalists’ fall into two groups: those who think we are hopelessly enmeshed in an utter catastrophe of our own making and those who think we have the technical know-how to cope with anything we create. McDonough and Braungart are definitely among the optimists, at least as far as solid waste is concerned. And their message is appreciated. Sure, let’s start designing things with the idea that they will never become waste but will always be reused in some form or another. Unfortunately, their entire argument could have been stated in a magazine article that probably would have reached a wider audience.