The Upcycle

From words to action

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

In The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability; Designing for Abundance, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart continue the work begun in Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, where they set forth various ingenious schemes for recycling, endlessly, everything humans use.
In the newer book—which was written in 2013 but translates well to the current day—the authors explore the interim success of their principles with industry, retailers and government agencies. They list possible practical applications, reiterate Cradle to Cradle ideas and goals, and suggest where these might take us.

Much has been actualized since the earlier book—including partnerships with big furniture and carpet companies; with Ford, Google, Walmart, environmental investment funds, the U.S. Post Office, and Goodbaby (the world’s largest manufacturer of children’s products), among others.

McDonough and Braungart have also pushed constantly for wind generators, and now there are so many manufactured in the United States that their power is cheaper than coal.

They’ve created a Cradle-to-Cradle Products Innovation Institute,  where individuals or businesses can locate ingredients and know-how, identify harmless and beneficial ingredients, and make these available in their own product lines.

The authors spend little time on the flawed status quo.  Big hydro dams, for instance, are hard to revise—the valley is already flooded. So replace these with many small, local reservoirs. Burn coal using “horizontal chimneys,” trapping the CO2 underground to grow algae to feed tilapia.

Regulations, they say, are design opportunities. Go beyond sustainability, zero emissions, etc. Replace “scarcity” with “safe and generous abundance.” Instead of having an energy problem, humans have a “materials-in-the-wrong-place problem” (like CO2 pluming into the air.)  

Since about a third of the average landfill consists of packaging, they suggest “goodbyers” at stores (instead of greeters) to remove packaging, so consumers don’t have to.

And it’s not true that the environment is insufficient for human activity and industry—positive intentions linked to good design can give us all we need. But, in a rare cautionary note, they add that getting to renewables will be “hard and different and surprising and uncertain.”

Take growing trees indoors in hydroponic walls to shade heat-stressed buildings, or growing food underground with winter winds above providing light and heat. Or 140 square miles of solar collectors illuminating the entire United States siting them along highways,  Amtrak routes, the length of the Mexican border. The Netherlands, astoundingly, ranks second after the United States in agricultural crops, thanks to one-fourth of their country being covered in greenhouses, where food can be raised year-round.

More whimsically, they detail a pharmaceutical lab in Barcelona, Spain, designed like butterfly wings, with real butterflies hatching in the lobby and visiting gardens throughout the city. “The goal of upcycle is a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world with clean air, water, soil and power—economically, equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed.”

How can we love all the children of all species forever?

Begin with an intention, which lets you get going now, always asking “What’s next?” by putting values before metrics—even costs. The goal is endless reuse, safe return to the techno-sphere (metals, etc.) or the biosphere without contamination or waste.

If cradle-to-cradle is to succeed, it will be as a business concept. It doesn’t matter how many factories there are, if each is self-sustaining and nonpolluting. Hence, “the more growth, the more good.” With better design the earth can support the 10 billion souls it will inevitably have by midcentury.

But the cradle-to-cradle folks can’t get it done alone. “It’s going to take all of us,” they write. “It’s going to take forever. And that’s the point.” 

If we humans use our intelligence to cooperate with nature, instead of trying to subdue it, we can indeed create a paradise on earth.

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