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Remaking the Way We Make Things
By William McDonough and Michael Braungart
North Point Press
208 pgs. US$25/C$39.95
Towards a new elegance
By Steven Martinovich
William McDonough and Michael Braungart have less of a problem with our society's level and style of consumption than the cure that the environmentalist movement offers. For decades environmentalists have pushed the three R's -- reduce, reuse, recycle -- as a balm for the violent harm they claim has been done to Earth. For McDonough and Braungart that approach is irresponsible and only serves to perpetuate the cradle to grave industrial model -- that is, things are created, used and then ultimately thrown away. In Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, the two are proposing a new industrial process that is either revolutionary or the stuff of unrealistic dreams.
What McDonough, dubbed the "Prophet of Bloom" in a February 2002 Wired profile, and Braungart propose is an industrial process where all materials are continually reused and recovered to lead new lives in new products, or as they refer to it, things are "upcycled". Why, they ask at one point, are the running shoes we wear created out of unhealthy materials that are destined to end up in a landfill? Why not design a product that after it has lived out its useful life as a shoe, that the materials can be reused in another shoe or as a disposed of safely and biodegrade completely.
The two point out that the current favourite manner of reducing the environmental load we place on the planet merely postpones the inevitable. Given the way we construct things, it is difficult to properly reuse or recycle any product. Although, for example, much has been made out of the auto industry recycling steel in older vehicles, McDonough and Braungart point out that the recovered steel is never again used in vehicles because it's no longer of a high enough grade.
"At some point a manufacturer or designer decides, 'We can't keep doing this. We can't keep supporting this system.' At some point they will decide that they would prefer to leave behind a positive design legacy. But when is that point?" they ask at one point, answering their question in the next sentence," write McDonough and Braungart.
"We say that point is today, and negligence starts tomorrow."
Their manifesto, to create things that are both environmentally friendly and cost effective, is something that McDonough and Braungart have attempted put into practice through their firm McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry. Citing examples from their own work, including the massive undertaking of turning Ford Motor Co.'s River Rouge factory into a more eco-friendly facility, they build an interesting case for the possibility of being profitable and ultra-clean.
Where Cradle to Cradle fails badly, however, are the author's habit of providing little in the way of specifics to back up their claims. It's one thing to write a manifesto as an intellectual exercise and quite another to trigger a revolutionary change in the fundamental way that humanity goes about creating the things that they use. It's a process that we have using for over a century and if we are to shift direction, it's incumbent upon the manifesto authors to build an airtight case for how that shift is to be undertaken. It's also disappointing to see McDonough and Braungart cite Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Rachel Carson and the Club of Rome as unimpeachable sources, something that inevitably weakens their authority given the lack of esteem those names are held in less environmentally partisan circles.
Still, McDonough and Braungart bring something unusual to the table. They refuse to consider business and consumption as evil, a rarity from those in the environmentalist movement, they believe that environmental unfriendliness is simply a design issue that can be rectified by considering again what we want from our products and manufacturing processes and redesigning them to be both friendly to the planet and profitable.
Ultimately though, where Cradle to Cradle works best is imparting the belief that you don't have to be an environmentalist to appreciate the pleasure someone would have in designing for general use elegant products and procedures that do not create inefficient waste. The world McDonough and Braungart want to bring about is one where the products we use are ones that are designed from the ground up -- literally in some cases -- to be healthy to both us and the planet and can live life again and again before finally being returned to the planet to replenish it. While McDonough and Braungart have much more work to do before this eco-effective world comes into being, Cradle to Cradle makes a compelling argument about why we would want to make the effort.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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