A New Design for Human Enterprise – Designing a Better Civilization by William McDonough
When we look out today at the design of our world, we see tragedies in the making: global warming, persistent toxification, endocrine disruption, heavy metal contamination, drought, pestilence, ozone depletion and so on. We see that the design of our current system of industrial production, and the design of the buildings in which we live and work, is leading us to tragic consequences . . . . Where it is not [yet practiced], it is coming . . . . We discuss global warming and nuclear hazards, while we produce global warming and nuclear hazards . . . . We are no longer in a position to imagine that these tragedies are not of our making. The question is, did we intend for them to happen, and if not, do we intend to go on behaving as we are, and allow them to continue to happen?
Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Perhaps this is the moment in our history when we realize that if today’s tragedies are perpetuated by our everyday acts, then our cultures have adopted a strategy of tragedy. Any enterprise that recognizes that it has become strategically tragic must begin to determine an appropriate strategy of change. Only a strategy of change will give human enterprise an enduring strategy of hope.
A strategy of change requires us to understand that we must become humble, because we do not know what to do. This is new . . . . if we see the tragic consequences of these [old] designs, we recognize the need for innovation and creativity, open-mindedness and new intentions. Humility allows us to approach design from a new perspective . . . . we need a new design.
In order to do this we need to ask new questions. In my offices there are two questions guiding our work.
- “How do we love all the children, of all species, for all time?” Please notice that I am not just saying our children; I am saying all of the children. And notice I am not just saying our species, I am saying all species. And notice I am not just saying now, I am saying for all time. When we integrate this question into our designs, wonderful and beautiful things begin to happen.
- “What does it mean to be native to this place?” How many of us feel as if we are indigenous people? How many of us have a deep knowledge of our home landscape, a deep connection to our place? What would it mean for all of us to imagine that our cultures will still be here five thousand years from now? What would it mean for us to imagine that all of our acts should be seen in that context? This suggests what it will mean to be native to this place.
Both in “dominion” and “stewardship” there is the idea that human being is somehow separate from the rest of nature. In truth, humanity is interdependent with other life, as bound to living systems as fish and birds and trees. And so the question today is “How do we become part of the natural world, as one of its species, and celebrate our kinship with other life?” This perspective allows us to see that we are participants in a complex living system, a world in which abundant solar energy, photosynthesis, natural hydrology, geology, physics, and chemistry provide both sustenance and exquisite models for human designs. Following nature’s laws, human creativity can elegantly and effectively address not simply of the survival of the human species, but the health and prosperity of a natural world in which we are an integral, essential, healthy part.
What would this look like? What would it mean to rethink our relationship to the world strategically?
In contemporary parlance, we might say he (Thomas Jefferson) believed that “all sustainability is local,” which implies the importance of local knowledge to every human endeavor. He believed circumstances that undermined this essential value called for a new design, a new social framework for a free, sovereign people . . . . Today Mr. Jefferson would perhaps be calling for freedom from intergenerational remote tyranny, the idea that one generation might pollute the earth and destroy the ability of future generations to celebrate its abundance. He wrote in 1789: “The earth belongs to the living, no man may by natural right oblige the land he owns or occupies to debts greater than those that may be paid during his own lifetime.” If he could, then the world would belong to the dead, and not to the living. The world belongs to the living.
Nature itself must be seen as having the right to exist. That right is not simply an expression of benevolence toward nature. Nature’s rights are intrinsic to our human rights and our ability to exist, for we are part of the natural world. This idea generates the central questions of intelligent design: What is our relationship to the natural world? How do we follow nature’s laws? How can our designs reflect the abundance and productivity of the natural world? As our understanding of nature grows through the practice of design, we can also better understand the impacts of human activity on nature, and perhaps begin to create designs that actually enhance human and environmental health.
As I work with clients to change the design of the world, we are guided by The Hannover Principles, a set of design guidelines I developed in 1992 with my colleague, the German chemist Michael Braungart. You will see as I show you the Hannover Principles and some examples of our work that I am not talking here about environmental design at any cost. The principles inspire designs that achieve social benefits, ecological intelligence and economic value simultaneously. Indeed, both businesses and communities have found our designs to be immensely profitable and beneficial :
- Insist on the rights of humanity and nature to coexist in a healthy, supportive, diverse and sustainable condition. Notice we used the word “insist”, which clearly doesn’t mean please hope that someone else will do if for you.
- Recognize interdependence. The elements of human design interact with and depend upon the natural world, with broad and diverse implications at every scale. Expand design considerations to recognize even distant effects.
- Respect relationships between spirit and matter. Consider all aspects of human settlement including community, dwelling, industry and trade in terms of existing and evolving connections between spiritual and material consciousness.
- Accept responsibility for the consequences of design decisions upon human well-being, the viability of natural systems and their right to coexist.
- Create safe objects of long-term value. Do not burden future generations with requirements for maintenance or vigilant administration of potential danger due to the careless creation of products, processes or standards.
- Eliminate the concept of waste. Evaluate and optimize the full life-cycle of products and processes, to approach the state of natural systems, in which there is no waste.
- Rely on natural energy flows. Human designs should, like the living world, derive their creative forces from perpetual solar income. Incorporate this energy efficiently and safely for responsible use.
- Understand the limitations of design. No human creation lasts forever and design does not solve all problems. Those who create and plan should practice humility in the face of nature. Treat nature as a model and mentor, not as an inconvenience to be evaded or controlled.
- Seek constant improvement by the sharing of knowledge. Encourage direct and open communication between colleagues, patrons, manufacturers and users to link long-term sustainable considerations with ethical responsibility, and re-establish the integral relationship between natural processes and human activity.
Now let me show you some designs, ranging in scale from the molecule to region. In Switzerland, at a mill where textile trimmings had been declared hazardous waste-they could not bury or burn them in Switzerland, they had to ship them to Spain to burn-we designed and introduced a new, completely compostable upholstery fabric. Working with a giant chemical company we looked at 8,000 chemicals used in the textile industry, and using the intellectual filters of no more cancer, no more birth defects, no endocrine disruption; no heavy metal contamination or immune system damage or allergies; no persistent toxification or ozone depletion, we discovered 38 chemicals with benign or beneficial effects. We designed and produced the entire fabric line using those 38 chemicals. It was hugely profitable, with costs reduced by 20 percent. It did not require regulation: the water coming out of the textile mill is as clean as or cleaner than the water going in. The mill’s clippings, formerly considered hazardous waste, are now used to build and enhance soil for local garden clubs.
Industrial support could include developing intelligent design protocols, which would include a full lifecycle assessment so that products and materials can be truly recycled, creating health and enduring value rather than sickness and waste. There is a great and ancient tradition in China for the return of nutrition to the fields. This concept can be equally applied to industrial systems, where the technical nutrition-the polymers and chemicals and mineral resources-can be returned for reuse. Michael Braungart and I look at these organic and technical resources as the two fundamental kinds of nutrition that feed manufacturing systems. We call organic products biological nutrients, which are materials designed to be returned to the earth after their useful lives to regenerate the organic vitality of the soil. In the high-tech sphere, technical nutrients are designed specifically to return to industry to provide high quality materials for new products. Products such as these, like our biodegradable fabric, are examples of what we call cradle-to-cradle design-a system in which all products are designed to provide nutrition to biological and technical systems, eliminating the concept of waste.
On the architectural front, I want to show you a building in Oberlin, Ohio: an environmental studies center designed to eventually make more energy than it needs to operate, and purify its own water. Imagine a building like a tree. Imagine a building that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, provides habitat for hundreds of species, accrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars and food, builds soil, creates habitat and microclimates, changes colors with the seasons, and self replicates. Compared to a tree, how sophisticated is human design? At Oberlin we took a few steps towards the tree’s elegant participation in the landscape.
When we designed all the windows to open, we thought fresh air was simply a good idea. The Wall Street Journal, our biggest financial newspaper thought it was news. We told the Wall Street Journal’s reporter that when a window that opens becomes news, we have reached a low point of civilization.
This is rice straw. China has rice straw in abundance. China, like the United States, has a problem with air quality and here it is partly due to the burning of rice straw. What if instead of burning rice straw, we built super-efficient homes with it? Instead of waste and poor health, an intelligent building material.
A city could be the home of technical nutrition, and the countryside the home of biological nutrition. And as the city brings in biological nutrition-its food, its natural resources-from the country, it utilizes them to good effect to support its people, and then it returns them to the countryside to rebuild the health of the soil. On the other hand, the city could be the place where we make things, where the industrial producers of cars, tractors, computers and communication devices send beneficial goods out into the world and accepts them back as resources for new products that only cities can make. What a marvelous prospect for the billions of people in China and the United States.
I’d like to finish by telling a story from Curitiba, Brazil. Curitiba is an amazing place. It has grown from 6,000 people to two and a half million people in the last 20 years. With a growth rate not unheard of here in China, it has multiplied its green space by a factor of 50. It has found ways to provide all of its people, especially its poor, with safe, nutritious organic food from the city’s farms. It has built a public transportation system that is second to none in the world. In fact, they make their busses at their own factories. And when they built a library for the city, instead of building a central building, the Mayor decided to put little libraries all over the city, so that all the children could get to the library by walking for no more than twelve minutes. If a child was too poor to buy books, she could collect garbage on her way to the library, recycle it and get paid in all the books she ever needed for school. Every child was given access to the World Wide Web where they can communicate for free and research subjects of interest internationally. Some of the citizens complained that children from outside the city were coming to use the libraries. They said the parents of these children weren’t part of the city and did not pay taxes. When the mayor heard this, he said, “When we begin to love the children, we must love all of the children. And if the city does not love these children too, then these children will grow up hating the city. And if these children hate the city, they will destroy the city.”
And what I would like to say tonight to all of us, as designers signaling our intentions, is that it is indeed time for us to imagine what it would be like to love all the children-all of them. Chinese children, American children, children of pandas, children of cranes. Because, if the world cannot love all of its children, then those children may grow to resent the world. And if they don’t love the world, they may begin to hate the world. And if they hate the world, they will destroy it.
Keywords : humility, design, appropriate scitech, civilization, ecosocial crisis, capitalism, industry, commerce, man, nature, unity in diversity, love, hatred, children, planet, complex system, complexity theory, panarchy, cradle to cradle, co-intelligence, economy, life-cycle assessmet
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- 4.28.07 / 11am
- Appropriate Science and Technology, Change in Change, Democratic Democracy, Ecosocionomics, Global Governance, Life's Necessities, Means, Paths, Ends, Spirituality, Unity in Diversity