Saturday, July 19, 2008

Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart

This book sets forth the principles of eco-effectiveness. Basically, the authors argue that being less bad is not enough: we must create products and buildings that are actively good for the environment, people's lives, and businesses as well. Instead of following a traditional cradle-to-grave paradigm, in which products are designed to last until they are worn out and then thrown "away," products should be designed to go from cradle to cradle. All components should not only be safe, they should be food: either biological or technical nutrients--recoverable in such a way that they can either be used to nourish the earth or can be upcycled, used to create products of the same or better quality as their previous incarnations.

This book simultaneously makes me really happy and makes me really sad. The former is because I love these concepts and they sound like a great, viable way to stop and even reverse the harm we've been doing to our environment. The latter is because I don't think they'll ever be widely adopted. One that seems particularly useless is the idea of products of service, which is having people sort of lease items like carpets, televisions, and solar panels, so that they can be returned to the company and their components recovered. It's a great idea in theory, but people like to own things. I can't imagine that any but the most environmentally conscious will do this. Some principles are obviously (from their examples) being adopted by some companies, which is great, but what about all the others? The authors can't innovate for every company out there. Can anyone else do it and will they be willing to try?

There's also the fact that I feel rather helpless. I don't see what I can do to help. I wish I was an architect, an engineer, or a chemist... but I'm not, and I have no idea how to apply these principles. All I can think of to do within my vocation--writing--is to write stories set in a utopia in which all of these concepts are in effect, and even then, I think I'd have to be pretty vague about it. (I guess I could also go for a dystopia in which we've destroyed our environment. That's something I could probably do real research for.) At least I was a bit affirmed by the end, in which the language strongly implies that the book is intended for business owners and others who can do something, and not necessarily for ordinary people like me to read.

I guess the one concrete thing I can do is to get my sister to read this book. She's a business student, and she cares about the environment. Maybe she'll get some ideas out of it, and maybe she'll pass it on to her friends.

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