I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

March 21, 2010

You say you want an Industrial Revolution (Cradle to Cradle, part 3)

McDonough and Braungart.  Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.

Remember the assignment McDonough and Braungart gave?  To design a system that creates enormous amounts of waste, lots of pollution, and burying or burning the results?  (Summarized in Nature doesn’t have a design problem. People do.” (Cradle to Cradle, part 2)

To explain how such a system evolved, they summarize the history of the Industrial Revolution, plus consequences of development of new technologies, increase in urbanization, and the design decisions that accumulated over time. Focus on selling the greatest volume of goods to the greatest number of people.  Shift from manual labor to efficient mechanization.  Mass production (for example, of automobiles).

Industry and natural “capital”

Western society had conflicting views of nature.  On the one hand, nature was a source of natural “capital” that seemed practically bottomless, a “mother earth” that was perpetually regenerative and could absorb all things and continue to grow.  On the other hand, it was also viewed a hostile and dangerous, as something to be conquered and tamed.

The Industrial Revolution was linear—making products and getting them to consumers without thinking about much else.  We now have a much different view of the world, one that recognizes that ecosystems are delicate, complex, and interconnected, and more vulnerable than we ever imagined.

The Industrial Revolution brought about many positive changes such as higher standards of living, increased life expectancy, improved medical care, and more widely available education.  However, fundamental flaws in the infrastructure design have resulted in devastating consequences.

The industrial system was designed on a linear, one-way “cradle-to-grave” model.  In such a system resources are extracted to make products which are sold, then eventually disposed of in a landfill or incinerator.  (Resources that are extracted include coal, oil, natural gas, iron, and so on.)

Buyers are called “consumers,” but McDonough and Braungart point out that consumers actually consume very little.  Most things are designed to be thrown away.

But where is “away”?  Of course, “away” does not really exist.  “Away” has gone away.

And we’re not very efficient at using what we do extract.  According to some studies, more than 90% of materials extracted to make durable goods in the U.S. become waste almost immediately.  (And only about 5% of the raw materials involved in the process of making and delivering a product end up in the product.)

It just occurred to me that McDonough and Braungart’s use of the Titanic as a metaphor for our industrial infrastructure may been appropriate in another way.  Did the Titanic sink itself?  No, it hit an iceberg, 90% of which lies below water.  In other words, the waste and trash we see, the 10%, is just the tip of the wasteberg.

McDonough and Braungart note that “built-in obsolescence” is part of the design of many products.  In fact, reflecting on this, I realized that the selling point of some products is their disposability.  That is to say, our desire for convenience has been an important part in developing the linear cradle-to-grave model.  I believe this also drives our approach to many diseases.

Rather than deal with a problem at the source, we look for a silver bullet, or a magic pill of some kind, to get us out of situations.  In some ways, this brings to mind Aron’s discussion of the role of Highly Sensitive Persons in society.  She notes that immigrant societies like those of the U.S., Canada, and Australia tend to value sensitivity (awareness) less than more mature societies.

So we charge blindly forward, expecting to be able to figure out some creative way to get ourselves out of any situation we find ourselves in.  (This is reinforced by the TV shows we watch, where many problems are solved in 30 to 60 minutes.)

In the short term, it’s easier to deal with things after the fact.  Responding comes naturally to us.  To be fair, we need to be able to respond appropriately to all sorts of different situations.  We can’t prepare for every contingency.

But when we’ve gotten to the point where business as usual is slowly killing the planet we should realize that we need to rethink the way we make things.  For example, in a recently published review of the scientific literature on plastics and health risk [1] (press release), Prof. Rolf Halden points out that the 300 million tons of plastics  produced would fill a series of train cars encircling the globe. He notes: “We’re doomed to live with yesterday’s plastic pollution and we are exacerbating the situation with each day of unchanged behavior.”

There is also a growing consensus that plastics and their additives are not always the benign companions we once assumed them to be.  Bisphenol A and phthalates, used in the production of many plastics, are thought to present risks to human health.

In addition, for many years, scientists assumed that polymers like plastics would not be much of a problem in terms of chemical effects.  However, it was discovered that chemicals associated with the production of such polymers such as Teflon® are accumulating in people’s bodies.   So-called perfluorochemicals were listed in the CDC National Exposure Report for the first time.

Future post – More reasons why the old industrial infrastructure’s approach has gotten us where we are.

Halden, R.  “Plastics and Health Risks,” Annual Review of Public Health, Vol. 31: 179-194 (March 2010) – Abstract | Full Text | PDF (183 KB) – full text costs $)



  1. Hi Myles,
    Very informative post. I’m just letting you know the link to (Summarized in “Nature doesn’t have a design problem. People do.” (Cradle to Cradle, part 2)“ doesn’t work.

    Will visit again,
    Lynn from Living in a Chemical Soup

    Comment by Lynn — March 21, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

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