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and Michael Braungart

Reading is purely an abstract entertainment. You sit in your favorite chair, the lamp tilted at the ideal angle to spread the perfect amount of artificial light across the page. You read about worlds far removed or people you will never meet or situations you will never encounter. The words are mere symbols standing in for the real thing. It is only within you that they are transformed, via an explosion of biochemicals, into ideas that tickle your brain.

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, a rather clumsily titled manifesto by the environmental design team of William McDonough and Michael Braungart, contains enough stimulating concepts to flush your cerebral cortex with endorphins for weeks to come. But the book does more than that: It actually dares to make its abstractions real and tangible, right in your very hands. The book itself is a statement—its pages, its cover, its spine—a physical piece of evidence that a product can be designed for the betterment of the environment, the people, and maybe even business.

McDonough and Braungart’s main point is this: Human industrial progress is not the root cause of our environmental problems; human design is. The goal, therefore, is not to scale back production or to make manufacturing more efficient or even to convince consumers to buy less, as the environmental and “eco-efficiency” mafia would lead us to believe. The goal, McDonough and Braungart say, is to design products and buildings that take into account more than just the bottom line. Companies should look at how they can feed not only their shareholders’ wallets but also the community, the environment, and the people who interact with them. It is, they say, a design model based on nature.

After all, as the authors write, with the enthusiasm of a freshman poetry student:

If nature adhered to the human model of efficiency, there would be fewer cherry blossoms, and fewer nutrients. Fewer trees, less oxygen, and less clean water. Fewer songbirds. Less diversity, less creativity and delight. The idea of nature being more efficient, dematerializing, or even not “littering” (imagine zero waste or zero emissions for nature!) is preposterous. The marvelous thing about effective systems is that one wants more of them, not less.

If products and buildings were designed with nature in mind, we would not face the problems we do: limited natural resources, poisoned streams and lakes, global warming, polluted air, urban flooding…Pick your favorite environmental cause. Nature, McDonough and Braungart note, creates no waste, unlike human industry, which generates several hundred million tons of it a year, just in the United States. In nature, wastes become fertilizer or food or seeds for future growth. In human industry, they become hazards for future generations.

The authors laugh right in the face of recycling advocates. Recycling—really “downcycling,” they say—only prolongs the agony. Recycled items still ultimately dead-end at the municipal landfill; the process merely slows down their trip. And, of course, many materials are not suitable for repeated use. High-quality steels, for example, cannot be recovered from used cars, because the steel is hopelessly intertwined with other materials—copper, paint, and plastic coatings—that weaken the second-generation metal when melted down. This, McDonough and Braungart huff, is a classic design problem.

One answer, the authors say, is “upcycling,” in which products are specifically designed for repeated use without any degradation of the original materials”—hence the book’s title. These kinds of products would provide, in McDonough and Braungart’s chemical-culinary jargon, “technical nutrients” for industry; old products would serve as ingredients for new products in an endless loop of recycling. By necessity, the idea of “ownership” would undergo a radical transformation: When your television crapped out, you would simply take it back to the manufacturer, which would use its parts for the next line of sets, and you’d walk away with a new TV, probably at a fraction of the original’s cost. It would be like a perpetual loaner program, but with no waste at the end, no landfill stuffed with lethal chemicals, no groundwater seepage.

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The authors wonder aloud if Americans—a nation of people who live by the motto, “He who dies with the most toys wins”—could swallow such a socialist concept, but I, for one, wholeheartedly endorse the idea. (I still have a dead TV in the back of my truck awaiting a final burial place.)

The corollary to this concept is even simpler: Design products to provide “biological nutrients” to the environment. When you’re finished with such an item, you can literally toss it on the ground, and it will decompose and nourish the local habitat. Kind of like animal waste, only without the smell.

McDonough and Braungart provide a few examples during the course of their 193-page book, including an upholstery fabric that doesn’t harm the environment or the people who use it, but the most compelling example is the book itself. It was designed by Charles Melcher of Melcher Media, and it contains no wood pulp or cotton fiber. Its smooth, satisfyingly thick pages are made from plastic resins and inorganic fillers. “This material,” the authors write, “is not only waterproof, extremely durable, and (in many localities) recyclable by conventional means; it is also a prototype for the book as a ‘technical nutrient,’ that is, as a product that can be broken down and circulated infinitely in industrial cycles…”

I’m no businessman, but I’d have to guess a publishing house that uses an endlessly recyclable “paper”—without any loss in quality with each succeeding generation—would reduce its material costs in the long run. It would certainly save enough trees to create your own forest. Could this be the win-win situation for both business leaders and environmentalists?

It all certainly sounds promising, but then the authors concede late in the book that the prototype isn’t everything it should be. I contacted them to clarify this remark, and McDonough responded, via an e-mail through his PR agent, that the polyester in the plastic contains antimony catalysts, which can contaminate, and the inks are only the standard kind. “The future inks will be designed to wash off the pages for reuse,” he wrote.

Oh well, it’s a start at least. But I can say this: I love the aesthetics, and the practicality, of this plastic book. To borrow a phrase from the automotive press: It handles like a dream. When you underline a topic sentence, your ballpoint glides across the page’s surface with the ease and grace of a Formula One race car, never once getting stuck in the ruts of conventional wood-pulp paper. Though small in size and few in pages, the book also has a pleasing heft, like a really solid paperweight.

Yet, the best part of this “Durabook,” at least if you like to read in the tub or at the beach, is its waterproof pages. I actually tested this claim. I walked into the kitchen, turned on the faucet, and announced to my wife that I was going to soak this book. For five minutes. (“You know, this goes against every fiber in my body,” she said, as the sink filled with water.)

Eight minutes later, I fished Cradle to Cradle out of the sink. It was noticeably heavier than when it entered the water. I let it drip for a minute or so, then started squeezing the pages together. Beads of water formed on the edges, as if the book were sweating. Pages were stuck together, but not hopelessly so. I simply pulled them apart, wiped them with a paper towel, and was back in business. The ink had not smudged, nor had the notes I had scribbled in the margins. The following day, the book was unusually stiff, as if it had entered rigor mortis, but as it continued to dry, its pliancy returned.

If only the book were as much fun to read as it is to play with. But McDonough and Braungart are not writers. McDonough is an architect and the former dean of the University of Virginia’s school of architecture; Braungart is a chemist and the founder of the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency in Hamburg, Germany. Together, they founded McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry to help companies implement sustainable designs. The men are obviously well-educated and well-read; they breezily quote Thomas Malthus, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Dickens, Stephen Jay Gould, Albert Einstein, even Karl Marx. So why can’t they put together three straight sentences without tripping over their own clumsy syntax? And did anyone edit or proofread this manuscript? There are simply too many repeated thoughts, even a couple of typos.

The larger issue, though, is the book’s audience. Whom is it written for? It would seem to speak more to the businessperson than the general-interest reader. It could even be cynically viewed as a glorified pamphlet, designed to drum up customers for McDonough and Braungart’s company. But that’s not fair. The book proposes too many important ideas for it to be dismissed as mere marketing.

Still, these ideas are clearly framed for business leaders to ponder as they move into the 21st century. Maybe that explains why the authors tend to speak flatteringly about their larger corporate clients, such as Nike and Ford, even though there’s enough dung to sling at such companies to start your own compost pile. A book like this needs a more thoughtful and inclusive approach. I would have preferred a thorough case study of one of McDonough and Braungart’s projects, taking readers from the initial environmental-design conflicts to the solutions that pleased both business and community. Such an approach would have allowed the authors to make tangential points, but, more important, would have allowed them to be storytellers, not just proponents. CP