I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

August 7, 2010

Ecological Intelligence

I recently began reading Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, who  is probably best known for his books on Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence.  He puts ecological intelligence in a different category that some of the other intelligences identified by Howard Gardner in that ecological intelligence has to be developed because the activities, and the impacts they have, are beyond our awareness and occur at such slow rates that there was no need for humans to develop that type of intelligence.  Climate change is one such example.

The subtitle is “How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything.”  He focuses on many of the same issues that William McDonough in Cradle to Cradle and Annie Leonard in The Story of Stuff do.  I found it delightfully surprising that a book by an author known for books on issues like emotional intelligence starts right off with a discussion of Life Cycle Assessment and industrial ecology.  (In fact, he refers to William McDonough’s “cradle to cradle” approach in several places.)

His discussion of why “green” isn’t always as green as it seems is useful for anyone wanting to make ecologically responsible purchases.

Goleman argues that one of the best ways to increase our ecological intelligence is through full disclosure of the impact of the products we buy, the notion of radical transparency.  He cites examples such as companies being required to disclose their financial workings as examples of how that disclosure helps investors make better decisions.

He weaves together stories about the effect of synthetic chemicals on our bodies, especially on our immune systems, and discusses how inflammation and oxidative stress could be at the root of all sorts of diseases (going well beyond cancer).  Body burden, toxicology, epigenetics, and green supply chains are all covered, even if only briefly.  He weaves together these topics in a very readable, understandable fashion.

Postscript: Just checked out his website for the first time.  His latest blog post is entitled “Leading sustainability” and discusses how consumers can use resources like GoodGuide.com to make more informed choices.  And I’m encouraged by the fact that he is working with folks like Peter Senge, a management guru.

March 13, 2010

Permaculture

This is a relatively new concept to me.  The article covers a lot of ground, but also includes a critique of the concept.

I decided to post something on it because I think there are parallels between it and the “cradle to cradle” approach.

The “design” aspect of both this and “cradle to cradle” seems, in one sense, a bit ironic.  Ecosystems have evolved.  The design aspect enters in because the designers are trying to use the natural world as their model.

From the Wikipedia article on Permaculture

Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in natural ecologies.

The word permaculture is a portmanteau of permanent agriculture, as well as permanent culture.

Modern permaculture is a system design tool. It is a way of:

  1. looking at a whole system or problem;
  2. observing how the parts relate;
  3. planning to mend sick systems by applying ideas learned from long-term sustainable working systems;
  4. seeing connections between key parts.

In permaculture, practitioners learn from the working systems of nature to plan to fix the damaged landscapes of human agricultural and city systems. This thinking applies to the design of a kitchen tool as easily to the re-design of a farm.

OBREDIM design methodology

OBREDIM is an acronym for observation, boundaries, resources, evaluation, design, implementation and maintenance.

  • Observation allows you first to see how the site functions within itself, to gain an understanding of its initial relationships. Some recommend a year-long observation of a site before anything is planted. During this period all factors, such as lay of the land, natural flora and so forth, can be brought into the design. A year allows the site to be observed through all seasons, although it must be realized that, particularly in temperate climates, there can be substantial variations between years.
  • Boundaries refer to physical ones as well as to those neighbors might place, for example.
  • Resources include the people involved, funding, as well as what can be grown or produced in the future.
  • Evaluation of the first three will then allow one to prepare for the next three. This is a careful phase of taking stock of what is at hand to work with.
  • Design is a creative and intensive process, and must stretch the ability to see possible future synergetic relationships.
  • Implementation is literally the ground-breaking part of the process when digging and shaping of the site occurs.
  • Maintenance is then required to keep the site at a healthy optimum, making minor adjustments as necessary. Good design will preclude the need for any major adjustment.

Article includes design principles from David Holmgren, one of the early advocates of permaculture.

“Nature doesn’t have a design problem. People do.” (Cradle to Cradle, part 2)

Continuation of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (Part 1), book by McDonough and Braungart.

One of the themes of Cradle to Cradle is that in nature there is no such thing is waste.  In their words,”Waste equals food.”  They note that ecosystems truly recycle materials.  (They seem particularly fond of cherry trees and ant colonies as examples of how nature operates.)

In contrast, what society calls recycling, they call “downcycling” since in almost all cases, the “new” product recreated from the old is of lower quality each pass through the recycling stream.

In Chapter One, “A Question of Design,” McDonough & Braungart describe the use the example of the Titanic as a symbol of how we perceive technology and how it is a metaphor for the industrial infrastructure on which our society is built.

In what I found an intriguing perspective on the Industrial Revolution and the infrastructure produced by it, McDonough & Braungart ask you as the reader to imagine being given the assignment of retrospectively designing the Industrial Revolution—with the following requirements for the system:

That it:

  • put billions of pounds of toxic material into the air, water, and soil every year
  • produce some materials so dangerous they will require constant vigilance by future generations
  • result in gigantic amounts of waste
  • put valuable materials in holes all over the planet, where they can never be retrieved
  • require thousands of complex regulations—not to keep people and natural systems safe, but rather to keep them from being poisoned too quickly
  • measure productivity by how few people are working
  • create prosperity by digging up or cutting down natural resources and then burying or burning them
  • erode the diversity of species and cultural practices

Intentional or not, that’s what we’re doing.  Not wanting this to be taken out of context, I should note that McDonough and Braungart do discuss how this whole system developed.  I’ll cover that in the next part.  (Wow, I’ve managed to get through the first two pages of Chapter One.  ;-)  )

Links to these posts, as well as posts from other blogs, will be added to the Cradle to Cradle page.

March 12, 2010

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (Part 1)

I’ve decided to try to summarize Cradle to Cradle over a series of several posts.  (And I’ve created a Cradle to Cradle page where I’ll post links to my posts, as well as posts from other blogs.)

I won’t be able to do it complete justice, but I think it’s an eye-opening approach to a critical problem.  Having been published in 2002, a lot of progress has been made in the last eight years and many of the ideas are starting to be recognized as a better approach.  Green chemistry, design for the environment, pollution prevention, and sustainable design and materials management (and lots of variations on those terms and concepts) are starting to catch on as being better approaches.

William McDonough and Michael Braungart.  Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.  North Point Press, 2002.

Going beyond “reduce, reuse, recycle”

McDonough and Braungart argue that this approach to waste actually perpetuates the one-way “cradle to grave” approach of traditional manufacturing.

As co-authors of The Hannover Principles (PDF) (Wikipedia article), design guidelines for the 2000 World’s Fair that were issued at the World Urban Forum of the Earth Summit in 1992, they state that foremost among the guidelines is eliminating the concept of waste.  (For more background on related issues, see Agenda 21 documents from the Agenda 21 Global Programme of Action on Sustainable Development from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development–aka the Earth Summit.)

This book describes the steps society can take to do that, as well as why the reasons our current approach will ultimately fail.

The limits of scientific research (my term, not theirs)

Braungart notes that “science as a whole is more invested in research than in implementing strategies of change.”

The scientific community is usually paid to study problems, not solutions; indeed, finding a solution to the problem under study usually brings an end to funding for research.

That, Braungart notes, puts an odd pressure on scientists since they must, like everyone else, make a living.  Which is part of the reason we keep making products containing chemicals that we know are toxic.  We’ve been unable to think of a better approach.

Rethinking the question

Well, as they ask on the back cover of the book, “Why not challenge the belief that human industry must damage the natural world?  In fact, why not take nature itself as our model for making things?”

More on The Hannover Principles

From the Foundation for P2P Alternatives.  (I found this interesting because of this statement on the Foundation’s home page: “We study the impact of Peer to Peer technology and thought on society.”)

[Summary of] The Hannover Principles, 1992

Originally posted on the U.S. General Service Administration (GSA) website (link on the Mindfully.org website no longer works)

Note: GSA is responsible for purchasing or managing many tangible assets of the U.S. government.

Copied from Mindfully.org’s Hannover Principles page (unfortunately the Mindfully.org site does not appear to have been updated recently, but it does contain links to older articles on plastics, sustainability, etc.)

Developed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, the Hannover Principles were among the first to comprehensively address the fundamental ideas of sustainability and the built environment, recognizing our interdependence with nature and proposing a new relationship that includes our responsibilities to protect it. The Principles encourage all of us – you, your organization, your suppliers and customers – to link long term sustainable considerations with ethical responsibility, and to re-establish the integral relationship between natural processes and human activity. When you make decisions in your organization, remember these essential Principles:

  • Recognize interdependence. Simply put: everything you do personally, in your organization and through your work interacts with and depends upon the natural world, at every scale, both locally and across the globe.
  • Eliminate the concept of waste. Are you considering the full, life-cycle consequences of what you create or buy?
  • Understand the limitations of design. Treat nature as a model, not as an inconvenience to be evaded or controlled

Next installment: “Nature doesn’t have a design problem.  People do.”

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