[Scpg] Sustainable extravagance William McDonough and Michael Braungart

Santa Barbara Permaculture Network sbpcnet at silcom.com
Mon Mar 7 16:05:57 PST 2005

Sustainable extravagance        
William McDonough and Michael Braungart         
This article appeared in Ode issue: 18 
A new vision of the industrial economy sees the world as a cherry tree

Nature is nothing if not extravagant. Four billion years of natural design, 
has yielded such a profusion of biological forms we can barely grasp the 
diversity of life on Earth. Responding to unique local conditions, ants 
have evolved into nearly ten thousand species, several hundred of which can 
be found in the crown of a single Amazonian tree. Fruit trees produce 
thousands of blossoms—an astonishing abundance of blossoms—in order that 
another tree might germinate, take root, and grow.
  For most of our history, the human response to this living earth has 
expressed the same flowering of diversity. Bearing the unique human ability 
to imagine and create, we entered the show and developed our own 
extravagant gestures. We built not just shelter, but beautiful, elegant 
responses to local conditions—the amazing breathing, shade-providing tents 
of desert Bedouins along with the ornate temples of Japan. We designed not 
just wraps against the wind but tailored garments for ritual, celebration, 
and our own delight.

Over the past 150 years, however, human ingenuity has resorted more to 
brute force rather than elegant design. But a renewed emphasis in recent 
years on design inspired by nature means we can still express the 
extravagant gesture of life on Earth in the marketplace, in the human 
community, and in the natural world.

For many advocates of sustainable development, the notion that the 
production of goods can be a positive force is not only alarming, it’s 
downright heretical. Our age is widely perceived as an age of limits. The 
conventional wisdom holds that the rate of consumption of natural resources 
by the world’s developed nations is damaging the Earth’s ecosystems and 
consigning the Third World to poverty. While many industrialists still use 
brute force to gain short-term profits, growing numbers of business leaders 
have come to realise that an economic system that takes, makes, and wastes 
is not sustainable in the long-term.

In response, we all try to limit our impact. We “reduce, reuse, and 
recycle” at home and in the workplace. Enlightened business leaders strive 
to “produce more with less”, “minimise waste” and release fewer toxic 
chemicals into the air, water, and soil. These industrial reforms, which 
have come to be known as eco-efficiency, are an admirable attempt to come 
to terms with the conflict between nature and commerce—and they may well 
help resolve it. But they don’t really get to the root of the problem. 
Eco-efficient reforms slow industry down without reshaping the way products 
are made and used. In effect, industry is simply using brute force more 
efficiently to overcome the rules of the natural world.
  Using fewer resources, people may feel a bit less “bad.” Yet it feels 
that every consumer choice contributes to the erosion of human and 
environmental health: The carpet makes your children sick; the car burns 
fossil fuels; the TV is loaded with toxic materials. When it seems anything 
you buy does damage to the world, we feel cut off from a sustaining vision 
that celebrates pleasure, abundance and delight.
  Yet a vision for healthy, sustaining commerce does exist. Nature—highly 
industrious, astonishingly productive, extravagant even—is not efficient 
but effective. Design based on nature’s effectiveness, what we call 
eco-effective design, can solve rather than merely soften the problems 
industry creates, allowing both nature and business to creatively 
extravagant and ecologically sustainable at the same time.

How is it possible for industry and nature to fruitfully coexist? Well, 
consider the cherry tree. Each spring it produces thousands of blossoms, 
only a few of which germinate, take root, and grow. Who would see cherry 
blossoms piling up on the ground and think, “How inefficient and wasteful”? 
The tree’s abundance is useful and safe. After falling to the ground, the 
blossoms return to the soil and become nutrients for the surrounding 
environment. Every last particle contributes in some way to the health of a 
thriving ecosystem. Waste that stays waste does not exist in nature. 
Instead, waste equals food.

As a cherry tree grows, it enriches far more than the soil. Through 
photosynthesis it makes food from the sun, providing nourishment for 
animals, birds, and microorganisms. It sequesters carbon, produces oxygen, 
and filters water. The tree’s limbs and leaves harbor a great diversity of 
microbes and insects, all of which play a role within a local system of 
natural cycles. Even in death the tree provides nourishment as it 
decomposes and releases minerals that fuel new life. From blossom to 
sapling to magnificent old age, the cherry tree’s growth is regenerative. 
We could say its life cycle is cradle to cradle—after a useful life it 
provides nourishment for something new. In a cradle to cradle world—a world 
of natural cycles growth is good, waste is nutritious, and nature’s 
diversity is the inspiration of intelligent design.
  Industrial life cycles, on the other hand, tend to be cradle to grave. 
Typically, the production and consumption of goods follows a one-way, 
linear path from the factory to the household to the landfill or 
incinerator. Wasted materials and harmful emissions trail products from the 
cradle of the industrial plant to the grave of the local dump, where 
products themselves are thrown “away” or burned for energy. Recycling and 
regulation are often employed to minimise the negative impacts of industry 
and they do help ease the conflict between nature and commerce. But why not 
set out, right from the start, to create products and industrial systems 
that have only positive, regenerative impacts on the world? Why fine-tune a 
damaging system when we can create a world of commerce that we can 
celebrate and unabashedly applaud?

Commerce worth applauding applies nature’s cycles to the making of things. 
It generates safe, ecologically intelligent products that, like the cherry 
tree, provide nourishment for something new after each useful life. From a 
design perspective, this means rather than designing products to be used 
and thrown away, we begin to imitate nature’s highly effective systems and 
design every product as a ‘nutrient’.
  Cars, computer cases, washing machines, televisions—in fact , all 
industrial products—can be designed to be a value in technological 
production after they are no longer useful in their original form. In this 
way, our economic and industrial systems can become a cherry tree, writ large.
Fanciful? Not at all. Notable leaders of companies all over the world have 
begun to move from the old industrial system to a new vision of commerce 
based upon eco-effective design.
  As early as 1993, the textile Industry, fed by the Swiss firm Rohner and 
the textile design company Design Tex, had already developed examples of a 
textile that is a biological nutrient—a product so safe you could literally 
eat it. The carpet industry, meanwhile is focusing its business on the 
concept that carpet can be a technical nutrient retrieved again and again 
from loyal customers. Companies such as Milliken, Collins & Aikman, and 
Interface—major commercial carpet companies—are telling customers they want 
to replace used carpets with new ones and retrieve their technical 
nutrients. In effect, the companies continue to own the carpet material 
while a customer uses it. Eventually the carpet will wear out like any 
other, and the manufacturer will reuse it’s materials in new carpets.
The age of ecologically intelligent design is beginning to emerge. These 
changes are within our grasp. Some day soon we will be able to celebrate of 
a world in which people and nature thrive together, abundantly, 
delightfully, extravagantly

Excerpted from the book Sustainable Planet (Beacon Press), an anthology of 
21st century solutions to social and political issues from The Center for 
the New American Dream (www.newdream.org).

American architect William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart 
are authors of the book Cradle to Cradle (North Point Press), from which 
these ideas are drawn. They are founders of McDonough Braungart Design 
Chemistry, a firm pursuing ecologically intelligent design (www.mbdc.com).

Corrina McFarlane (Santa Cruz)  
Bill McDonough's work represents one of the most refreshing uplifting 
threads in the sustainability movement, precisely because he brings an 
unfettered energy to the conversation. The whole idea that 'conserving' has 
a negative edge that does not dynamically in-form LIFE, was a liberating 
concept to me when I heard Bill speak to this at a Bioneer's conference 
some years back. That was the first time I heard him use the analogy of a 
blossom tree in spring time; it's magnificent fecundity, its no-holds 
barred bursting forth, in absolutely appropriate abundance - we too can be 
this full-on, and not compromise the integrity of the ecosystem in any way. 
This is in fact in accordance with our own biological imperative. Bill 
McDonough ranks as one of my heros.     
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