[Written for one of my horticulture classes]
“The Upcycle”, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, is an upbeat and positive book about the environment. Before reading this book, I thought that the words “positive” and “environment” were rarely to be found in the same context. For that reason, in choosing a book to review, I deliberately set out to find something that would not get me depressed. When looking to see if this book was worth buying, the following part in the book clinched the deal: After the book describes the extremes that “ecologism” might go to, such as being charged for an airplane ticket according to your weight, requiring everyone to have short hair so as to minimize shampoo consumption, or outlawing regular ties and requiring bow ties because they use less fabric, the authors state, “Think about attempting to fall in love less wastefully … Who would want simply a “sustainable” marriage? Human beings can certainly aspire to more than that. In all of life, people can think big. (page 30)”
The book is loaded with what I would call “gems of alternative thinking about the environment”. Here’s one: “Human beings don’t have a pollution problem; they have a design problem. If humans were to devise products … intelligently from the start, they wouldn’t even need to think in terms of waste, or contamination, or scarcity. (page 7)” Well, of course, we DO have a pollution problem, but this statement is one of many that the authors make about how to rethink our current environmental problems.
Here’s another gem: ‘A “Regulation” Means “Here is Something to be Redesigned” (pp. 15-17)’. For many of us who are averse to the proliferation of government regulations, the authors contend that material goods should be designed so that they don’t have to be regulated, that is, without toxins, pollutants, or anything that cannot be safely reused.
The authors discuss not only the well-known concept of biological nutrients (for example, dead animals become food for microbes, fungi, plants and trees), but also a concept new to me called “technological nutrients”, by which they mean “products not continuously created by the biosphere … they could become food for another product, and that product would also become “food” again – endlessly (page 14)”. I’m still trying to get my brain around that one, but I understand the importance of manufacturing things so that they don’t end up in a garbage dump but can be used in other ways.
Under the heading “Believing We Must Leave a Smaller Footprint (Because We Are So Bad) (pp. 27-29)”, the authors pinpoint one of the problems I sometimes see in the environmental movement: “In the old model, companies [struggling] to meet their bottom line might reject what they consider the luxury of environmental thinking. Outsiders respond by demanding more government oversight and control. Resentment builds on both sides. Blame and shame. It’s an emotional quagmire, one that seems impossible to escape.” In other words, people who mainly want their company and jobs to survive are pitted against people who mainly want a cleaner environment but who often don’t have any business experience. But the book goes on to give many examples of how companies can be “clean” and still make money and provide jobs.
They give the example (pp. 73-80) of the Steelcase company, which in 2003 started to develop a chair that would be “comfortable … original … [and] completely environmentally sound and very profitable.” At one point in its development, they had to decide between a non-toxic material that took a lot of energy to make and a toxic one that took less energy. They chose the non-toxic material. In 2005, the chair came out. It became the first product to receive Cradle to Cradle certification, “And it has made the company lots of money. ” [“Cradle to Cradle”, besides being the name of the authors’ previous book, is a phrase pointing beyond the idea of “cradle to grave” (making a product last for an average human lifetime). It means that beyond an item’s first use, it can cycle through biological and/or technological systems and never become waste, just as in nature nothing is wasted. “Cradle to Cradle Certified” indicates that the product has “gone through a process to identify the chemicals and processes used to make the product”, that every ingredient has been identified and assessed, and that the product is “on its way to its beneficial optimization of materials, logistics, energy, water, and social fairness.” (page 7)]
The chapter entitled “Soil Not Oil” would obviously be highly relevant to those involved in horticulture or agriculture. The first problem pinpointed is simply the loss of the quantity of soil, because of modern agricultural techniques of monoculture, overtilling, overwatering and overuse. Second, the depletion of soil nutrients is discussed. Their solution to this problem is to properly transform human waste products (urine and feces) into fertilizer. Not only must this be done properly and safely, but it has to be marketed properly. Both San Diego, California, and Sydney, Australia, made a mistake of giving their sewage reclamation efforts unfortunate names. San Diego’s was “Toilet to Tap”; citizens understandably balked at this, even though the water was cleaner than the previous supply. Singapore called theirs NEWater, which now accounts for 30% of the country’s needs. (pp. 130-131)
The use of human “emissions” as the authors use the term, ties in with their idea of “eliminating the concept of waste” (#6 of the Hannover Principles developed for the 2000 World’s Fair). In their view, people need to get rid of the idea of waste, and learn to find ways to design and use everything produced and created by humans so that they “approach the state of natural systems, in which there is no waste.”
I was especially pleased that the authors really celebrate life – all life, including human life. Unlike many environmentalists, they are not advocating Zero Population Growth. After writing about the need to learn to live in harmony with our environment by observing other species (for example, ants, which have a biomass five times that of humanity), they make the astonishing statement, “This is why we believe that a population of 10 billion living comfortably and fruitfully in a Cradle to Cradle world is not a pipe dream. (pp. 32-33)”
This statement, like many others by the authors, may seem fanciful and overly optimistic. I’m not sure I fully agree with it, but I truly appreciate that the authors do not see people as problems per se. It is the ways in which people live that are the problem, not the people themselves. Why should a person feel ashamed of the fact that he/she is human? On the other hand, I don’t think I have as much vision and optimism as they do, perhaps because I don’t know much about chemistry and engineering.
I also appreciate the authors’ vision of the elegance of nature and how it can be applied to human issues. On page 82, they contrast the way fabric dyes have been traditionally made with how brilliantly-colored birds in nature produce color: it is by light refraction; their feathers are nearly colorless. They ask the challenging question: “So who will develop a new set of polymers that are refractive, so the color will actually be in the reflected light and not in the dye?”
I believe every person concerned for the environment, and those who may not be (but today, I think most educated people are), needs to read this book. While arguably it is overly optimistic, it offers some workable solutions to the environmental problems (or crisis) we face today. The most positive aspect of the book was that the authors seem to understand the full spectrum of the issues: the need for businesses to at least make enough money to stay in business and employ people, all the way to the need to make the physical environment safer for humans, and indeed, for all life.
I was highly encouraged by two lines near the end of the book: “You are a known positive. No need to think of yourself as misplaced in the natural world, or that you cause destruction with your presence. You can contribute. (page 217)” While I might not be as passionate about the environment as the authors, I believe that today, when so much of the news is discouraging, this is the approach we need if we are to face the huge environmental issues we all share.
1. “The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance”; McDonough, William and Braungart, Michael; 2013; Melcher Media / North Point Press, New York, New York
2. “The Hanover Principles: Design for Sustainability” – 2012 November (20th Anniversary) – [Internet] Website: McDonough Innovation: Design for the Circular Economy™. URL:http://www.mcdonough.com/speaking-writing/the-hannover-principles-design-for-sustainability/#.VQtCvdLF_ng, — retrieved 2015 Mar 19
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