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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

All “Stuff” Is Not Equal, Part II

(1) The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability, by Paul Hawken (NY: HarperBusiness, 1993)

(2) Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough & Michael Braungart (NY: North Point Press, 2002)

If you only want to read one of these books and want an exciting, fun approach and don’t have the patience for a lot of depressing detail supporting the argument for necessity (and who would pick up these books if not already convinced of the necessity for change?), I recommend McDonough & Braungart’s 2002 contribution. Cradle to Cradle is only 186 pages, its tone is very upbeat, and the physical book itself is an example of what the authors are talking about. In their “tale of three books,” they first compare a traditionally printed and bound book with one using soy ink on recycled paper. The first is handsome, a pleasure to hold and easy to read, while the second is flimsy and hard on the eyes. But why should these be our only choices? Let’s rethink the design, say the authors, and here is a description of book that breaks out of the false dilemma:
The pages are white and have a sensuous smoothness, and unlike recycled paper, they do not yellow with age. The ink won’t rub off on the reader’s fingers. Although its next life has already been imagined [the materials are fully recyclable], this book is durable enough to last for many generations. It’s even waterproof, so you can read it at the beach, even in the hot tub. It celebrates its materials rather than apologizing for them. Books become books become books over and over again, each incarnation a sparkling new vehicle for fresh images and ideas. Form follows not just function but the evolution of the medium itself, in the endlessly propagating spirit of the printed word.

Holding an example of good design in your hands while reading about good design makes the idea come alive.

Cradle to Cradle came out eight years ago, before the popularity of e-readers, and for some the new technology may seem a better solution. I wonder. I wonder not just because I sell books but because I love them (which is why I sell them). I also wonder about e-books because a future that doesn’t allow me permanent ownership of what I’ve “bought” (rented, really) seems like a future without books, and that scares me. What if the book I want becomes unavailable? There’s no way I can insure being able to read it again! Another reason? The real, physical book I choose now, to keep and love for the rest of my life, requires no batteries and (unlike the laptop I'm composing this post on) will generate no e-waste, so even with traditionally printed and bound books, I feel pretty good about what it is I sell, and I don’t see how I could possibly have the same good feelings about having my own business if I were selling electronic gadgets or cheap, imported, battery-operated plastic toys.

I said that Cradle to Cradle has an upbeat tone. I would love to see this book as required reading for high school seniors across the country, because it doesn’t send a message to young people that the “good old days” are over and that their future, because they were born too late, will have to be lived in dark caves. The inspiring, exciting, uplifting and spirit-freeing feeling this book imparts comes precisely from the fact that its authors have taken the big environmental questions and problems out of the field of ethics and framed them as design problems.

The old Industrial Revolution designed products with assumptions we now know to be false: that natural resources are in “endless” supply, that Nature can always restore itself, etc. Products were designed to last from “cradle” (the resource pile) to “grave” (the waste pile). Now that we see so clearly that our natural resource capital pile is shrinking and the waste pile growing, we cannot afford to continue designing on false assumptions. Designing for the life of the materials, assuring that everything used can be returned to the resource pile for future use, is designing from cradle to cradle, and the authors offer a challenge to creativity rather than a scolding.

Environmental ethics all too often boils down to using less and recycling. (Hawken put the recycling argument bluntly: “If the items used in households in America were all recycled, this would reduce our solid waste by only 1 or 2%.”) But recycling, buying less, using less—none of that alone changes the overall, linear, cradle-to-grave paradigm. (You might think of it like vowing not to tell lies seven days a week but cutting back to three or four.) And for every virtuous ecological decision I hold up over my neighbor, my neighbor can show some other way I am at fault and he isn’t, so the finger-pointing becomes tedious, and people end up sticking their fingers in their ears.

McDonough and Braungart are clear early in their book about the way they don’t want to approach the problem:
The environmental message ... can be strident and depressing: Stop being so bad, so materialistic, so greedy. Do whatever you can, no matter how inconvenient, to limit your “consumption.” Buy less, spend less, drive less, have fewer children—or none.

Bill McDonough writes of his own early work in design: “I was tired of working hard to be less bad.” What he wanted was to do good work.

Don’t we all? And don’t we want our children and grandchildren to have opportunities to do good work? The examples given in this book, from books to carpets to the renting and recycling (rather than purchase and disposal) of solvents, paint a vision of what the future could be, given intelligent design.

“Nature doesn’t have a design problem,” McDonough and Braungart write. “People do.”

Here are some of the important issues on which McDonough & Braungart agree with Hawken:

• Our supply of natural resources is finite but can be replenished given more intelligent production processes.
• Most bad consequences are not intended, and no one wants them. They are a problem for all of us. “In planetary terms, we are all downstream” (M&B).
• “Less bad” is not good and not nearly good enough.
• It is the nature of business and commerce to be creative.
• Production must shift from a linear process to a cyclical process.
• There is no universal, one-size-fits-all solution to any design problem. Good designs depend on specific location and use local materials wherever possible.
• Human beings have the ability to design processes that mimic nature, producing “stuff” that will not end up as waste.
• This is an exciting challenge!

They differ on at least two major points:

• Hawken sees overpopulation as a problem and takes the idea of “carrying capacity” seriously. McDonough & Braungart consider this gloomy and negative thinking, and they don’t buy it. They seem to think that good design will overcome natural limits. An indication of the distance between the two books on this point is B&M’s dismissal of sustainability as an unexciting goal. B&M want a lot more fun out of life than that.
• Where Hawken would have society, wortld-wide, design systems of fees and taxes to motivate internalization of all costs, McDonough & Braungart see any regulation at all as a signal of design failure, the issuing of a “license to harm.” Hawken agrees that existing attempts at fining polluters has amounted to “licensing to harm” but believes that is because the fines did not fully reflect costs. If all costs were accounted for, companies would be financially motivated to work toward better and better designs. B&M are confident that because we can build self-regulating systems, we will do it--without stick or carrot. Or rather, the carrot will be our own pride in accomplishment.

Both of these books contain bad news and good news. All three authors express more optimism than is usually heard from environmentalists. All three authors (of the two books) are very optimistic and excited about design challenges, and all believe in the creativity of business and commerce. Hawken is not as optimistic about a “limitless” world as McDonough & Braungart, nor does he see the “re-evolution” taking place without financial motivation coming at corporate concerns from the outside.

What do you think? The changes are imaginable, but do we have the will to make the changes?

One problem is that each individual human life is lived only in the short term, and there will always be people content to rob and pillage and destroy to enrich themselves for the short span of their own lives, little caring what happens when they’re gone. A more subtle motivation problem appears in an article in this week’s New York Review of Books, in a review of two books on happiness research. The reviewer is philosopher Thomas Nagel, the subtle problem that people don’t just want stuff, and they aren’t necessarily happy when they have as much stuff as other people. For some people, having more than other people is the whole point. Might there even be people (this would be the “dog in the manger” syndrome) who crave the luxury of wasting what no one else can use?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but they are things I wonder about. Readers determined to be pessimistic will resist even Hawken’s program, while the radically, radiantly sunshiny will go along with McDonough & Braungart all the way. (I tend to think more like Hawken, sustainability is plenty exciting for me, and yet I appreciate B&M's insistence on fun, too.) Whatever your personal inclinations, these are important books. These are important ideas. And both offer a positive vision for the future, challenges to be undertaken in a spirit of exploration and discovery. Isn’t that worth quite a lot?


Susan said...

Bravo! Bravo! I am ashamed to say I have owned "Cradle to Cradle" for some time (having bought it new from you) but haven't yet read it. (Ebooks don't nag you with guilt, do they?!?) My question: M and B make a great case for redesigning our stuff. but -- I'm not a product designer. In their vision, what can little people like me do besides what we're already doing: reducing, reusing, recycling?

P. J. Grath said...

Get out your copy and turn to the section at the end. There will be your answer!