Reflections on Cradle to Cradle
By William McDonough & Michael Braungart October 1, 2014
“The earth will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation.”
Homesteading with my family, I often noted humorously to my friends that I had the most “environmentally friendly” lawn mower known to man.
“It is a self propelled mower that creates it’s own fuel, converts grass into human food, and its exhaust fertilizes the soil.” “What is it?” they’d ask with great intrigue? “It’s called a dairy goat.” I’d reply with a smile.
Modern society functions in an industrial paradigm that consumes nonrenewable resources rather than following nature’s example. In the natural world, “waist” on one level, is food on another level. In the natural world there is essentially no such thing as waist, because everything discarded by one life form is utilized by another. At the dawn of the industrial revolution, humanity broke with nature on this cycle, and formed a system that is, ultimately, not sustainable. We, who have grown up in this system, have come to accept the notion that the harm caused by our industrial paradigm is unavoidable. Environmental efforts have therefore focused on minimizing those destructive tendencies. Words that permeate the environmental movement like “reduce” “reuse” “minimize” and “limit” betray our underlying acceptance of the notion that industry cannot eliminate it’s negative effects. The notion that industry could go so far as being a benefit to the environment, then, has been completely foreign. Our challenge, our hope for evolving beyond our crisis, is to embrace nature’s example in leu of our crisis management mindset. We must allow ourselves to believe we can create a way of living in harmony with the world. In primitive cultures, humans felt the need to repent and make sacrifices for sins they had committed. When the complex system of laws that God or gods designed had been violated, a sacrifice was made to appease the god and to ease the conscious of the one that had broken the law.
Our current environmental consciousness is based on a similar response. We have offended God by the degradation of creation and there is this instinctual desire to offer a sacrifice (carbon offsets, self denial of comforts etc) to appease our minds and to defend our industries from the environmental doomsday prophets of our time. Yet, (to take this analogy a bit further) we know from the teachings of the Bible that such Old Testament annual sacrifices never permanently eliminated the consequences of the sins of the offerer, that they were rolled forward year after year-snowballed- until the “ultimate sacrifice” came to teach a new way of living- way without perpetual sacrifice- a way of peace with creation and the creator. This is the overall vision of the book, Cradle to Cradle. In its chapter, “Why being less bad is not good” the authors show that this appeasement by further limiting ourselves, only serves to perpetuate the problems in an ever growing industrial world, and stiffens the creativity needed to envision a new paradigm. The wheel must be reinvented. The lesser of two evils is still evil.
For most concerned with the environment, the issue of the exploding human population on this planet is a primary concern. As a Christian, it is an issue I have struggled with. In this book, the authors are far less negative than most on the issue of growing human population. Without disregarding the issue, they offer that “…as long as human beings are regarded as bad” then the reduction of human population is a “good goal.” But, humanity is not “bad.” Rather, it is the industrial paradigm we have been assuming as the only possible reality that is bad. The authors of Cradle to Cradle, offer 5 guiding principles and 5 steps to eco-effectiveness. Here are the positive suggestions they offer. First, the authors suggest we focus on “getting free of known culprits.” These are the chemicals that are obviously harmful to people or the environment. Implicit in this first step is to create an “X list” of items known to be hazardous. Second, they suggest that we “follow informed personal preference” by comparing our options and making the best informed decision. Next, they suggest making a “passive positive approach” through a preferred list. In this step, we are encouraged to list every item used in either an “x list,” (items we need to eliminate all together) “gray list,” (items not dangerous but not preferred) and a “P list” (positive or preferred list of items that are environmentally neutral or completely reusable). Then we begin to replace x and gray list items with as many P list items as possible.
In the fourth stage, we activate the preferred list by reengineering items based on these P list items that are renewable and completely reusable without degradation.
Finally, once the previous steps have been enacted, we can begin reinventing the wheel; reengineering the car to something to that benefits the environment through its emissions and creation of usable byproducts. The positive idea of a nutri-vehicle may sound outlandish to us now but, as the authors pointed out, a car sounded outlandish in the days of the horse and buggy. We have to renew our minds and free ourselves from the mentality of the “cradle to grave” and “less bad” approach and allow ourselves to envision a new and better way. We need to look forward, with inspiration and vision, to a new paradigm, rather than trying to minimize the devastation of our current industrialized society. The lesser of two evils is still evil. There can be a better way- a good way. My meditations on this today took me back to a day I stood on a hillside with a warm fresh glass of organic milk and looked at my field after moving my goat stakes to taller grass. I chuckled to myself as I thought of the thousands of debt dollars that my neighbors had spent on purchasing and maintaining their riding mowers- mowers that burned gas, polluted the environment, and gave nothing back to their owners or to the land. “I have a good mower!”