August 11, 2003

Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough, Michael Braungart

Subtitle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

Two good things. One, the argument that recycling and melioration are not sufficient cures for toxic processes; we should make things so that at the end of their usefulness they are raw materials as good as the ones they were made from. (Many examples from biology, mostly poetic. When a brief for reuse of waste goes on about cherryblossoms and doesn't mention horseshit, they've drifted from Nature's reality.) The second, the physical book itself, made of a plastic claimed to be recyclable as a polymer of equal quality. The 'paper' is smooth and heavy and the printing clear; it purports
to be waterproof, but my copy had smudged a bit. I would have experimented, but it belongs to the library. I couldn't find instructions on how to recycle it. (It isn't more recyclable than any other polypro yet. Actually, the waterproof book was developed to publish erotica for the bath; just right for popularizing a new technology.)

The bulk of the text is examples of good or bad design, with sub-principles; for instance that there are technical nutrients (e.g., cadmium) and biological nutrients (e.g., starch) and that products made with only technological, or only biological, nutrients, will be easier to reprocess. I would like to have seen more data on successful redesign and reuse. This team seems to mostly have worked on building redesigns, many of them plausibly productive and embracing. The narration is a bit boastful, certainly unspecific about the successes of their projects vs. those of the "conventional" ecological design they badmouth. I think their scorn of dour, self-denying, pro-efficiency environmentalism is too much based on a strawman. For one thing, 'efficiency' the joyless blight is more a Gantt and Taylor creed than a Lovins and Waters one.

So it's okay as an introduction to the idea that we could produce more stuff with less harm if we planned in advance to do so. It won't be new to anyone who's heard of sustainable hedonism already, and it seems thin and timid after any book on permaculture. For techies, it has the signal flaw of providing no hook at all for do-it-yourself projects. On the other hand, it has smoothed away everything not perfectly conventional in Yuppie or BoBo success, so maybe it will carry the ideas to people otherwise immune to them.

ISBN: 0-86547-587-3

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