Posts Tagged ‘Energy’

Bill McDonough’s “Cradle to Cradle” redesigns how we think about sustainability

Rewriting our design assignment

“And to use something as elegant as a tree?
Imagine this design assignment:
Design something that
makes oxygen,
sequesters carbon,
fixes nitrogen,
distills water,
makes complex sugars and foods,
changes colors with the seasons,
and self-replicates.
…and then why don’t we knock that down
and write on it?”
~ William McDonough




Here is what Bill McDonough proposes is our ultimate design assignment.

Circles & triangles

Last night was a bit of a “full circle moment” for me, not only as a student learning about environmental issues and sustainability, but as a citizen of the world. I got to meet a hugely influential person in my life, Bill McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle (co-authored by Michael Braungart). I first read this book when I was 19 years old and staying on Nantucket with a family I nannied for. I went in a bookstore in town with the kids and they were giving away copies of it for free.

Hm. I thought. Well, that’s interesting. And I’m not one to turn down anything that is free. This book was also so smooth, pretty, different from other books (it’s made of polypropylene paper, is 100% recyclable, is more durable, has pages that don’t wrinkle/tear, and iswater-proof). I read it in three trips to the beach and ever since then, I’ve been interested in sustainability. I had never read anything like it before. It taught me the backstory of why we are where we are today (a rudimentary concept—the industrial revolution brought us here—but at the time, I knew next to nothing about this.) But it also made me think. It made me look around and see the way we do things and ask myself, “But wait, why don’t we do it this way, and then we don’t have to this problem or that problem AND we get this benefit and that benefit.”

Basic case in point: You can carry your groceries home in reusable bags, because they reduce unnecessary waste and buildup of plastic in our landfills and ecosystems. But you can also carry your groceries home in reusable bags, because carrying heavy objects over your shoulders makes your life easier and prevents loaded plastic bags from cutting off the circulation in your fingers as you carry them.

Just that story of how I came upon this book sort of mirrors exactly what Bill is all about: for me, a free book changed my life. Cradle-to-cradle design isn’t about making things more expensive or more difficult or less fun or less aesthetically pleasing or less loving. It’s not even about creating equitable and ecologically friendly ways of doing things in ways that fail to promote economic growth. He believes in the importance and power of the economy, equity, ecology as they can co-exist and work together. This is a relatively well-known concept in the field of development and the first thing we talked about in my Environment & Development class this year, but it’s not a balance often achieved in design.

Benefits of a cradle-to-cradle approach within food systems


  • More local agricultural jobs, less power concentration in hands of CEO’s/more in hands of people => more jobs, more money in the hands of people
  • More vibrant local economies => less hunger, less sickness, less violence
  • More vibrant local economies => more vibrant cultural activity => thriving people


  • Less soil nutrient depletion and erosion
  • More places for species to live and thrive, instead of less
  • Less waste, less use of packaging, less transportation/fuel needed, less carbon dioxide emitted => more up-cycling => best use of natural resources => healtheir ecosystems => survival of all species


  • Better food security and food access due to independence from industrial food systems elsewhere & less disparity between the have’s of fresh, local food and the have-not’s with processed, unhealthy foods
  • Better tasting, healthier, less processed, more nutrient rich, less pesticide/harsh chemical-laden food
  • Healthier people => happier people

Drawbacks to a cradle-to-cradle approach within food systems

Yeah. Cost-benefit analyze that one. Which is sort of the whole idea. If there is a drawback, it’s not really cradle-to-cradle design.

“The God is in the details”

The really fabulous thing for me and other American University students, is that Bill is the architect that designed our new School of International Service building. And he did so in a way that combined these three benefits, saying that, “the God is in the details.” Meaning that all of the parts that make up the whole of this transparent, innovative, progressive building, “where people can dream,” are working together in their own way, in a good way, to make things “more good,” instead of “less bad”. From the 100% recyclable carpeting and other building materials to the waste management system, from the rain collectors and solar panels on the roof to the underground parking garage that gives priority parking first to cyclists (and has shower rooms available for them), then motorcyclists, then hybrid vehicles, and last, other vehicles.

I had a few questions I would have loved to ask Bill, but I chose something specific, “Are there any plans in place to evolve other buildings on campus?” The short answer from the dean was basically, “There sure will be. We need funding first.” Which gets back to that triangle corner of economy. If it’s not economically viable, it doesn’t fit the cradle-to-cradle design question:

But the economic viability aspect is also a huge asset to cradle-t0-cradle design, and to agribusiness in general, simply because this is what businesses and corporations are solely interested in. So in order to convince them, all the “cradle-to-cradle minded” designer needs to do is convince them that they will save money, or that they will be able to make more money, and then they are basically obligated to embrace it. It would go against the basic law of capitalism not to.

Cradle-to-cradle is the sort of design model that we need to use for our food production AND our food waste upcycling in our cities, because one cannot exist in a well-designed system without the other. Local food production via green roofs, composting in homes and buildings, using that compost on the green roofs of the homes and buildings–this isn’t rocket science, it’s just, as Bill would say, interesting.

In one of my next entries I will go over some of these “details” in more detail, and talk about how they can work together to encompass sustainably designed and developed food systems within cities and habitats for humans and all other life.

Evolving design

The most important thing to remember is that that doesn’t mean cradle-to-cradle design is ever perfect. In fact, McDonough recognizes it is not ever perfect. Really, design must be constantly evolving as different methods and technologies become more economically viable and approaches are made more equitable while still remaining ecologically beneficial. What works now will have to work better in the future.

Just like all organisms must evolve to survive, so must humans, and so must the systems that we create and rely on.

After all…

“Sustainability takes forever. And that’s the point.” – William McDonough

“What if it’s a big hoax…?”

thanks to

I saw this a while back and had been meaning to post it. I love it.

Would you like to ask me something?

Happy Wednesday!

List: Why Valentine’s Day is awkward for me and bad for the planet

Here’s a fun post for today, because it’s almost V-Day and I know that makes some people depressed. (Not me.)

Now, I don’t like to be one of those people that thinks Valentine’s Day is great when I have a boyfriend and thinks it’s stupid when I don’t. Because I am not that kind of person. I’ll be honest, Valentine’s Day has always been a little weird for me. And I have no shame, so here’s my story.

One Valentine’s Day, when I was probably in about third grade, my older sister, who was about 14 at the time, was watching as I made my Valentines for the class. She looked at my photo of the class and pointed out this boy named Spencer, who was the kid in class with a year-round cold who looked like he never saw the light of day. She really wanted to send him a Valentine, from her. So I said OK. And I don’t know if I realized this beforehand or not, but she had written, “Love, your secret admirer” on it–so the next day when everyone took out all their valentines, there’s Spencer with his “Secret Admirer” valentine, which just so happened to be on the same Mickey & Minny Mouse valentines set as the rest of mine were. So for the rest of the year, everyone in the class thought I had a crush on the kid with the perpetual stuffy nose.

In high school, I think I went on one date for Valentine’s Day. To a pizza place I believe? I assume so, as there are no other kinds of restaurants in the town I grew up in. I don’t remember much, but it was most certainly awkward.

My freshman year of college, I received two dozen roses from no one. As in, no one signed the card. I was so excited, until I found out my boyfriend at the time didn’t send them. I asked him over and over again to tell me if he had sent them, for real. He hadn’t (and looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t believe him, the schmuck.) Then, sophomore year, the exact same thing happened, different colored roses this time. Only I was single, so I was even more confused. But oh well! Anonymous roses, how romantically frustrating. Then, last year, my Valentine’s Day was effectively spent saying good-bye to my boyfriend at the time, as I was leaving for Australia literally the next day. So very bittersweet and again, awkwardly emotional.

In conclusion, Valentine’s Day just never works out for me. And I would argue Valentine’s Day goes beyond just putting me in awkward situations, it really does much more of a disservice to the environment than if we were to celebrate February 14th as another regular day.

Oh, Cupid, how bad art thee for the planet and its people? Let us count the ways…

  1. Wasteful use of paper – According to the Greeting Card Association, (let’s just pause for a moment here, THE GREETING CARD ASSOCIATION!? Is that REALLY necessary?!)…ahem, excuse me. According to the “GCA,” over 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent worldwide each year. I don’t know how many trees would have to be cut down to produce 1 billion cards, but I bet heaps. And yes, I just checked, the GCA really does exist. And they have a “.org”
  2. Purchasing/supporting of blood diamond industry – Men often want to propose on Valentine’s Day (can you say “unoriginal”?). And I am going to venture out on a limb and say if you are the kind of guy that is going to choose Valentine’s Day to propose, you probably are going to buy your little future Mrs a diamond ring. Now, let’s talk about this for a second, because I have always been really pro-engagement ring and pro-diamonds, and my sister’s boyfriend is always saying how it’s an antiquated tradition and blah-blah women don’t need to sell their ring anymore if their husband dies because women have jobs and are independent. Well, I always just thought he was cheap, but turns out maybe he was just being progressive. I like this piece, because it suggest alternatives to buying a new diamond ring that are less wasteful of the energy it takes to dig up diamond. Not to mention, ever seen Blood Diamond? Yeah, enough said.
  3. Shipping of all those Valentines gifts – Like chocolate. Who would have ever thought about this statistic, but apparently someone figured out that 1,233 locations produced Valentine’s chocolate in 2007, and $14.4 billion is how much it cost to ship all that chocolate. We shouldn’t be eating all that chocolate anyway! Obesity-related medical treatment is costing our nation an extra $147 billion every year!
  4. Roses have to be shipped from far away – People always want to send roses on Valentine’s Day. Which sounds fine, except that most roses are grown in and transported from South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, which means they are far from local, and you might as well just fly to Buenos Aires for the same carbon footprint you’re making when you buy them. And I don’t know about you, but I would rather fly to Buenos Aires than get some stinky flowers that are going to die in three days. However, there are ways to purchase local organic flowers domestically, which I think is great, but likely much more expensive. In fact, in 2008, $24 million was spent on domestically produced cut roses in. GAWD, we could just not buy roses for each other and donate what we would have spent to Haiti! Or, just do something that is free. Which brings me to my next point…
  5. Unintended pregnancies – People always want to “make whoopie”–as The Newlywed Game would say–on Valentine’s Day. And of course, then they get pregnant and before you know it, we are overpopulating the world. And there are too many people in this world and we are using up resources faster than we can replace them and this is very bad. I sound sarcastic, and in fact I am sort of joking, but I am being totally serious about this problem. If you don’t believe me, you should read the book, Maybe One by Bill McKibben, which I haven’t read yet but I eventually may. It is a book arguing for people to have less children, like maybe just one. There is actually a much larger movement, known as the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, which I should mention I DO NOT support, but it is something worth reading about. Their basic M.O. is, “Phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed.” Though, it would do wonders for the condom industry if it ever caught on (which it won’t).

OK, I hope everyone enjoyed reading my fun little “Cupid is killing our planet” post as much as I enjoyed writing it.

What are you up to this Feb 14? Whatever it is, I hope you’ve been comforted by these facts. Or at the least by my ability to out-awkward any Valentine’s Day story you may have.