McDonough and Braungart. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.
Design problems with “universal” design solutions
- One size fits all
- Products are designed for worst-case scenarios (guarantees widest possible market–also reflects assumption that nature is “the enemy”)
- Logic of brute force – make universal solutions “fit” local conditions through chemical brute force & fossil fuel energy
Natural systems rely on energy from the sun, but people extract and burn fossil fuels without energy of harnessing local natural energy flows.
Burning fossil fuels leads not only to greenhouse gases and global warming, but production of particulate matter, which can cause respiratory and other health problems.
You wouldn’t want to depend on savings for all of your daily expenditures, so why rely on savings to meet all of humanity’s energy needs?
Culture of monoculture
- Diversity is treated as a hostile force and a threat to design goals
“Brute force and universal design approaches to typical development tend to overwhelm (and ignore) natural and cultural diversity, resulting in less variety and greater homogeneity.”
- Modern urban areas replace natural land cover with asphalt and concrete
- Conventional agriculture
Native plants help prevent erosion and provide habitat for insects and birds, some of whom are natural enemies of crop pests. Loss of pests’ natural enemies results in an increase of pests (and monoculture can become vulnerable to widespread destruction if the wrong pest gets introduced, whether that be insects, fungi, etc.)
Increase in pests has led to increase in use of pesticides, which in turn has led to increase in pesticide resistance.
Here’s a link to the ABC News story on pigweed, “Super Weed Can’t Be Killed” (Oct. 6, 2009):
(The pesticide industry’s basic reaction: “You dumb farmers! You need to use additional herbicides and not just Roundup.”)
Glyphosate-Resistant Weeds: Can We Close the Barn Door? (Weed Science Society of America)
Researchers say cost-competitive management techniques can slow weed resistance to the herbicide and improve crop yields
And Monsanto’s take on this – http://www.monsanto.com/pdf/science/weed_management.pdf
And now there are reports that Monsanto’s genetically engineered Bt cotton (Bacillus thuringiensis) is failing because pink bollworms in India are developing Bt resistance as well.
Hmm, maybe if Monsanto hadn’t bred glyphosate-resistant plants (Roundup Ready!), thereby encouraging farmers to use more Roundup, we wouldn’t have this problem. It kind of infuriates me that they’re now saying, “We knew this would happen! We tried to warn people!” If they knew that, why did they go ahead and develop genetically-modified (GM) plants in the first place?
The problem according to McDonough and Braungart? Simplified systems actually require more maintenance because they can’t survive without intervention.
Activity equals prosperity
McDonough and Braungart note that the 1991 Exxon Valdez oil spill actually increased Alaska’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). They note that GDP only takes one thing into account, economic activity. They note that:
…if prosperity is judged only by increased economic activity, then car accidents, hospital visits, illnesses (such as cancer), and toxic spills are all signs of prosperity.
They note that loss of resources, cultural depletion, negative social and environmental factors, and reduction of quality of life can all be negated by a simplistic economic figure.
The authors define these as products that are not designed particularly for human and ecological health because they are unintelligent and inelegant. Because little attention is paid to the design of products, we end up with what they call “products plus.” You get the item or service you wanted, plus additives you didn’t ask for and didn’t know were included. For example, examining a number of high-tech products, they discovered that during use they off-gassed carcinogens and/or chemicals that cause birth defects.
They claim that high-tech products are usually composed of low-quality-materials, including cheap plastics and dyes that would be banned in Europe or the U.S., but are used in materials made in developing countries where their use has not been banned.
As a result of emissions from these “crude products,” indoor air quality is often more contaminated than outdoor air. They cite a Scientific American story by Wayne R. Orr and John Roberts, “Everyday Exposures to Toxic Pollutants,” Feb. 1998, that notes that levels of toxic chemicals found in households were high enough to trigger a formal risk assessment at a Superfund site.
They note that even products designed for children can contain high levels of toxic chemicals which can be absorbed. Not only can these include carcinogens, but they can also include chemicals that stress children’s bodies and also weaken the immune system, making children more susceptible to cancer-causing chemicals and other stressors. Citing Our Stolen Future, they note that many of these chemicals can also disrupt the endocrine system and that only a small fraction of industrial chemicals have been tested for their effects on living systems.
They say that it might be tempting to try to turn back the clock, but that
the natural materials to meet the needs of our current population do not and cannot exist.
Also, even “natural” products are not necessarily safe and healthy. (Some of the strongest poisons are natural in origin.)
A Strategy of Tragedy, or a Strategy of Change?
McDonough and Braungart argue that the poor designs created by today’s industrial infrastructure are not sustainable. They say that most industrial methods and materials are unintentionally depletive. (That might be true for agricultural practices, but I don’t actually see how they can say that about resources like petroleum and coal. We clearly know that we’re depleting such resources.)
So how they propose we get out of this cycle of what they call intergenerational remote tyranny?
At some point a manufacturer or designer decides, “We can’t keep doing this. We can’t keep supporting and maintaining this system.” At some point they will decide that they would prefer to leave behind a positive design legacy. But when is that point?
We say that point is today, and negligence starts tomorrow. Once you understand the destruction taking place, unless you do something to change it, even if you never intended to cause such destruction, you become involved in a strategy of tragedy, or you can design and implement a strategy of change.
They then note that many people probably think such a strategy already exists. After all, don’t a number of “green” and “eco-efficient” movements already exist?
Isn’t such a strategy viable? (The short answer, No.) In the next chapter, they make an argument for “Why Being ‘Less Bad’ Is No Good.”