Cradle to Cradle
By William McDonough and Michael Braungart
North Point Press, 2002

Review by Marc Auerbach

When I heard Bill McDonough speak at the 2002 American Solar Energy Society's (ASES) conference in Sparks, Nevada it was a revelation. For people who have an environmental consciousness and are tired of the seemingly never ending struggle to get people to consume less, waste less, produce less, pollute less, drive less, water less, flush less, eat less, and just generally do with less, Cradle to Cradle asks, "why?" Why when one looks at nature and finds abundance and fecundity and growth being beneficial? While the industrialists and the environmentalists battle over reducing the levels of the next toxic substance in the environment, McDonough catapults beyond this skirmish and invites us to imagine a world in which all growth is good. In which we look to nature as inspiration for our own primitive processes. By way of mimicking a McDonoughesque example, when we enjoy eating an ear of fresh summer corn on the cob, do we ever wonder why each corn stalk needs to produce some 600 niblets per cob, and over 6000 seeds per stalk just to reproduce one plant? Do we say, "corn sure uses too much energy and produces too much waste"? Growth and abundance in harmony with nature is good, indeed delicious. Corn becomes corn becomes corn.

All the ideas from his talk and more are artfully captured in Cradle to Cradle. The book itself moves in a direction of this re-imagined role of mankind in the world. Not printed on paper, it is itself a DuraBook. An early example of a "technical nutrient". The DuraBook is meant to be truly recycled into a new book without the use of toxic chemicals. A point Cradle makes is that it is easy for us stay-at-home environmentalists to think that we recycle when in fact we mostly down-cycle products. Our plastic shopping bags and food containers become Trex decking. But ultimately it all ends up buried in a landfill somewhere. It is staggering to contemplate that 99% or more of everything mankind has ever made in 5000 years of civilization has or will be thrown away. Cradle to grave. Thus the concept of a technical nutrient; "a book becomes a book becomes a book." The inks boiled off in water, recovered and reused. The pages infinitely returnable to crisp new pages (something not currently possible with paper); not turned into raised highway lane markers for a few years before they end up in a landfill.

These ideas can be traced to such works as Small is Beautiful (E.F. Shumacher) and Natural Capitalism (Hawken, Lovins), but Cradle to Cradle goes more to the essence of the issue and is more inspiring. McDonough is an architect by training and by practice and so there are several examples of architecture that use these principles. In 1995 he teamed up with co-author Michael Braungart to create MBDC to redesign industrial processes with cradle to cradle principles. A stunning example in the book draws from their experience redesigning a fabric line for a Swiss manufacturer. The revelations and implications are as shocking as any in "Fast Food Nation", Eric Scholsser's expose of the fast food industry. This memorable anecdote once read, you will find repeating over and over to friends.

If the book has a weak point it is its description of the "fractal" system of decision making that balances ecology, equity and ecology. This could be the subject of books and courses, and is more interesting than the scant space it occupies.

Ultimately Cradle to cradle is a great, elevating read that defines the elements of an environmental promised land. And as with any new land, the first to arrive are the ones who are building the path.