Cradling the Limits
Pushing the Limits Interview with William McDonough.
In 2002, William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s book ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things’ shook up the sustainability world.
It talked about how our old system of production released billions of pounds of toxic material, “put valuable materials in holes…(that) can never be retrieved and was governed by thousands of complex regulations…(that aim to keep people) from being poisoned too quickly.” They had a completely different, healthier vision for how we design, a vision that is about to be updated next year when they release ‘Cradle to Cradle Two.’ In the meantime, here is was McDonough had to say about the limits we face.
What does the ‘Cradle to Cradle’ approach entail?
It looks at the world as an opportunity for closed cycles for materials that go back to soils or go back to industry forever. It has a number of fundamental questions that get asked of any product or system. Is the material meant to go back to the soil safely or back to industry safely? Then we ask, do we have the reverse logistics in place to get things back to wherever the recycling protocol will take place? Is it renewably powered? Because we see a perfect world as a renewably powered world. By following these principles you end up with a far more sustainable process and planet.
What do you mean by there is no ‘away’?
I think that when we saw the planet from outer space in 1969 we realized that ‘away’ had gone away. You cannot throw things away cause there is no such thing as away. Once you have that change in consciousness, it is time for a change in design. So we need to design things so that they do not get thrown away; instead so that they get thrown into systems that restore soil or restore industry as part of their design protocol.
I heard there was an interesting announcement made where you spoke at the World Future Energy Summit concerning renewables.
Something historic happened. Abu Dhabi committed $15 billion to this new town called Masdar and it will be a zero carbon city. In the last 40 years we have seen the prices of oil rise up and then dip occasionally, destroying all the investments in renewables. So the oil countries and OPEC have a switch where they can switch off renewables. Now, they can switch it on.
Are they acting out of concern for energy supplies, environmental concerns or something else?
It absolutely looks like common sense has started to take over. There is no reason in place like that with that much sun and sand not to be solar powered. I don’t know how much intentionality is in it but the crown prince of Abu Dhabi did say that they are in the energy business, [so] why wouldn’t they be in the future energy business? Now all of a sudden it’s in their interest to make sure that renewables are cost effective because they are investing in them.
You have said that “eco-efficiency only works to make the old, destructive system a little bit less so” and that it “presents little more than an illusion of change.” Could you please elaborate on these statements?
I think we have been misinterpreted as being against efficiency. We are totally for efficiency; in the short term it can yield tremendous results. The cheapest and fastest way to save energy and move towards renewables is to use less. The problem is that efficiency will be insufficient to get us to the new paradigm. If you posited that the goal was to be a 100% renewably powered planet, if we just simply are more efficient than what we are doing today with the coal and the nuclear, then we are still coal-powered and nuclear-powered. We are just more efficient about it. So it does not bring us to the renewable equation. That’s where we call for eco-effectiveness that goes along with eco-efficiency. Eco-effectiveness is doing the right thing instead of doing the wrong thing the right way.
Do you think we need to be concerned about global food supplies?