We should all be more like ants

Cradle to Cradle Book Review
(as published in our Journal, summer 2008)

Introduction by Kevin Grady & Andrew Smiles

In Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, William McDonough and Michael Braungart present a manifesto calling for a new industrial revolution, one that would render both traditional manufacturing and traditional environmentalism obsolete. It’s a much-lauded clarion call for both business big whigs and environmentalists alike, so we were a little taken aback upon reading AIGA Book Group member Andrew Child’s rather critical review of the influential tome. (In fact, it’s so influential that it’s been adopted as government policy for building in China, which needs to house 400 million more people in the next 12 years.) Still, Andrew’s review brings up some provocative points, whether or not we agree with all of them, so we present it to you here.
What do you think? Let us know in your comments below.

We should all be more like ants.

By Andrew Child

At least, that’s the impression one gets from reading William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s book Cradle to Cradle. The authors repeatedly hold up the simple ant as a paragon of ecotopian virtue. Ants, the authors note: safely and effectively handle their own material waste; grow and harvest their own food while nurturing the ecosystem; construct their homes, farms and other “facilities” from truly recyclable materials; create healthy, safe and biodegradable disinfectants and medicines; and maintain healthy soil for the entire planet’s benefit (pg. 79). What the authors don’t mention is that ants can also display the following characteristics:

  • Rigid class and social structure in which most females are sterile and denied an opportunity to reproduce
  • Erode diversity of species (commit genocide) by decimating arthropods through predation and by causing extinction of native bird species through the elimination of their food sources
  • Engage in systematic starvation of competing colonies by denying them food sources and by stealing food from their workers
  • Disperse seeds of invasive plant species, thereby threatening native plant species
  • Recruit, train and deploy suicide bombers equipped with toxic chemical weapons for attacks against rivals
  • Interfere with plant pollination by successfully competing for nectar with ecosystem’s key pollinators and by robbing beehives and predating bees
  • Enslave and cannibalize the children of competing colonies.

And that’s really why the book is such a disappointment.

The authors spend most of the book’s 186 pages selectively choosing facts that support their point of view, glossing over real-world trade-offs and exaggerating logical arguments to the point of absurdity.

Do I really need to worry that the rubber abrading off my sneakers will give my child cancer when we go out for a walk after dinner tonight? I don’t think so.

Should I be concerned that “recycling” as it’s practiced today is really “down-cycling” to lower-quality raw materials with each cycle? Hmmmm, maybe I should.

The problem is that the authors make both arguments in Cradle to Cradle. While I’m inclined to agree with the latter, the former is just so dubious that it (and similarly extreme arguments) makes me question everything else in the book.

Which isn’t to say that McDonough and Braungart aren’t onto something. The fact of the matter is that I actually agree with most of the underlying principles they espouse. At the core of their book is the simple suggestion that we should try to be less bad (reduce, reuse, recycle) and should, instead, try to be good. We should design our things to be recycled from the beginning – separating organic, biodegradable “biological cycles” from inorganic “technical cycles” to avoid cross-contamination of both. This simple concept would shift the approach of consumer society from one in which products are disposed (cradle-to-grave) to one in which they are recycled (hence the title).

They offer several examples of simple manufacturing processes in which this could work. While the vision is enticing, they never really address complex manufactured goods. Sure, a shoe could be designed in such a way that its base components (organic and inorganic) can be recycled separately. I’m guessing a toaster oven could be, too.

But how about an automobile? Well, maybe. But at what cost? The authors conveniently skip from shoes to a utopian vision of environmentalists and industrialists celebrating new car sales.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, rather than bemoaning human industry, we had reason to champion it? If environmentalists as well as automobile makers could applaud every time someone exchanged an old car for a new one, because new cars purified the air and produced drinking water?

Sure that would be nice. I’m willing to go on record as being pro world peace, too. But, that doesn’t mean either can or will happen in my lifetime.

If cost effectiveness of the ‘Cradle to Cradle’ concept is given serious consideration, a good starting point might be the book itself. With a jacket price of $27.50 for a 186 page paperback, it’s well over twice the cost of the typical paperback on my nightstand. I suspect the reason is because it’s not really made out of paper. The authors point out that the (rather expensive) book I’m holding is a step in the direction they advocate, “the design of this…book is to tell a story within the very molecules of its pages.” (pg. 71) The book, you see, is actually made of plastic. Polypropylene, to be specific which, in theory, makes it a number 5 recycling plastic.

While McDonough and Braungart assert that this book can be recycled, I checked with my town recycling center and they’re not so interested. A couple of phone calls and a lot of Googling later, here’s what I was able to determine…

I called the publisher and was told that the book can be “upcycled”. Works in theory but, in practice, recycling centers like to recycle containers. Books don’t make them very happy and are considered contamination, polypropylene or not.

The fact that the book is made of plastic means that if it isn’t recycled, it will probably end its useful lifecycle in a landfill where it will take a very, very long time to degrade. It could, again in theory, be incinerated at high temperatures with the only chemical byproducts being water, carbon dioxide and carbon ash. I’m thinking that’s not very likely, though.

Interestingly, the book’s manufacturer doesn’t pitch environmental friendliness as much as it does the waterproof nature of its books. Apparently, the key sales point seems to be that you can have sex in a hot tub while reading one of these books without – and this is what makes it unusual – damaging the book. Really, I’m not making this up. Go to [http://www.melcher.com] and read the ‘About Durabooks’ section.

Eco-effectiveness gimmicks aside, Cradle to Cradle does close with some very useful suggestions. The last thirty-six pages, in particular, outline a process in which ecology, equity and economy can be assessed and balanced against each other within the framework of the design process. Broken into five stages, the process is simple and could be easily adapted to print as well as other design media. The book is worth the read for the last three dozen pages alone. If you choose to skip the first 150 pages, just say to yourself, “design to recycle” and you won’t have missed much.

Andrew Child [andrewchildphotography.com] is a freelance photographer and AIGA member. When he’s not shooting or stepping on ants he participates in AIGA Boston’s book group, which meets every other month at the Audubon Circle Restaurant.

By AIGA Boston
Published June 18, 2008