Book Review: Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart
Cradle to Cradle is one of those book that changes you. In other words, it is not a book that merely informs the reader. It is a book that precipitates a paradigm shift in how one things about ecology, design, economics, business and human relations. It is a book that seeks to change the very nature of how we do business and how we interact. It is a model for a new type of industrial revolution as well as a philosophical argument against nature as a tool of man and for man as being a tool of nature. What does that mean in practical terms? It means that we design buildings that clean the air, purify the water and produce more energy than the use, because then we are providing things to nature rather than simply taking things away from her and then converting those things into products that cannot be returned to nature because they are now toxic and often do not biodegrade. Thus the authors argue that products should either be able to return to the biological cycle (basically, soil and water) and safely biodegrade, or to the technical cycle to be infinitely recycled.
The best example of this is the book itself. When you pick it up it has a pleasant sheen to it, a certain crispness that is nice to hold and nice to look at. But it isn’t made from a tree. Rather, it is made from plastic polymers and inorganic fillers which not only make the book waterproof and highly durable, they also mean that when the book’s useful life ends it can be sent back to the manufacturer to be safely remade into a new book! In fact, the first chapter is called “This Book Is Not A Tree.” Why is it not a tree? Why not just use paper? Because, they argue, trees are far too precious resources to be used for writing down our ideas. The services trees render to us and other species is far greater than the benefit gained from cutting them down and writing on them. Furthermore, the plastic paper that they use is safe and infinitely recyclable, and in addition it is highly durable, pleasant and waterproof (you can read the book in the tub or at the beach without any worries!).
I want to go through some of the best chapters just to give an overview of the ideas, but i want to emphasize that this is one of the most important books I have ever read and, in my opinion it is crucial that all people from all walks of life read, enjoy and understand it.
First off, before the book even begins there is a wonderful quote by Albert Einstein, another one of my heros. It reads “The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation.” The introduction, as I have mentioned, is entitled This Book Is Not a Tree.
The first chapter is called “A Question of Design.” It describes our current “cradle to grave” system in which we extract raw materials from the cradle of nature, turn them into some sort of product, and then throw them into the grave of the landfill. It notes, for instance, that based on our current methods of measuring prosperity, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, actually increased Alaska’s GDP. What kind of a system have we created where an oil spill that devastates an ecosystem somehow is measured as having added to our wealth? Clearly something is wrong here. The chapter deals with many of the toxic chemicals found in all sorts of products: furniture, toys, paints, etc. Because today’s economic system favors growth at the expense of concern for human and ecological health, the authors term it a “strategy of tragedy.”
The next chapter is called “Why Being Less Bad is No Good.” This is where the paradigm shift comes in. Up until now you might say “well, we have these problems, we just need to become more efficient, reduce waste, regulate toxic materials, etc.” But Cradle to Cradle offers a different vision, one in which growth is good because what we create is safe, nutritious, just and joyful. The authors argue that if we merely work to make our present system less destructive than all we are really doing is perpetuating the system by allowing its fundamental principles to go on unquestioned. They give an example of a textile plant in Switzerland whose effluent water (the water coming out of the plant) was so dirty that it had to be shipped to Spain and dumped there, because Swiss laws considered it toxic waste. This is not a victory for regulation; it is a problem of design. The authors went it and looked at the chemicals the factory was using, and eliminated the vast of majority of them, and by the time they were done redesigning the plant the water coming out of the plant was clean enough to drink. What’s the message? proper design eliminates the need for costly and wasteful regulation. The central message is that growth can be good if we design it to be so, and then we don’t need to feel guilty about consuming, we don’t need to admonish people to drive less, spend less and buy less. If cars cleaned the air (which hydrogen cars can )then driving would be good and we could enjoy it, for instance. This is truly a message of hope.
The last chapter I want to discuss is chapter four: waste equals food. In nature waste equals food. The leaves fall off a tree and decompose in the soil, providing nutrients. The authors call what human beings produce “monstrous hybrids” because they can neither biodegrade in the soil nor can they be returned to industrial cycles. They give the example of shoes that are laden with toxic chemicals and designed in such a way that the only thing to do with them once their useful life is over is to throw them in the garbage. They are thus working with Nike to create shoes with cloth uppers that can be removed from the sole once the useful life of the shoe is over and then thrown into a compost bin, and the soles can be recycled into a new shoe. By designing products from the beginning to be easily disassembled and safely recycled or composted we can eliminated the concept of waste and return to nature’s practice of “waste equals food.”
I highly recommend this book. It truly changes how one thinks about the world and what humans do with and on it.