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.

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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 $)

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March 13, 2010

“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.

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