Environmental Hero McDonough Proffers Green Design Solutions
Architect William McDonough's list of accomplishments is long and distinguished: author of Cradle to Cradle, Time Magazine "Hero" for the environment, founder of William McDonough+Partners, and professor at Stanford, Cornell, and the University of Virginia. In the following speech, delivered at the Always On Going Green conference in California earlier this month, Mr. McDonough described the inspirations for his efforts to design solutions for currently destructive environmental practices.
I decided to call the talk today, "Something Lived, Something Dreamed," because I think we do need to live our dreams, and entrepreneurs certainly need to live their dreams... Looking at the list of the companies and people that are represented here, this is an astonishing list of accomplishments. But what's really exciting to me is the legacy that will be left by the group that's represented by this conference. To understand that, we realize that it's almost actually an issue of human rights at this point, that the kind of entrepreneurialism that's going on, the kind of venture capital that's been deployed, is actually in motion. We won't be able to have human rights if we can't share. Everything that I've seen that has to do with the entrepreneurialism going on at this conference has to do with sharing something really rather wonderful with each other.
There's no reason that humans leaving behind an ecological footprint at this point in history couldn't leave behind a positive ecological footprint. We're so terrified of our negative footprints, and we realize that when we stomp around and all we leave behind is asphalt, the world loses its ability to transform photosynthetically into living organisms that allow for us to celebrate our very being. What we've recognized is that human design as it's presently practiced, in general, is strategically tragic... So I'd like to talk about a strategy of hope. It would involve not looking for a simple endgame, but imagining an infinite game, a game that can go on forever, and we can celebrate for many generations. Because design is the first signal of human intention.
What do we intend for ourselves and our future, and what is our intention at this point in history as a species? We now realize that we dominate the planet; 99 percent of large mammals are under human management. What is the first question? The first question we ask is how do we love all the children of all species for all time? That's the first question while we're designing, and it has an amazing effect on the design. But we need a technological goal to go with this so what we've given ourselves is one sentence long. Our goal is a "delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world, with clean air, water, soil, and power, economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed." Period. And which part of this don't we like? For me, the dreaming of building cities of this kind requires people like you producing the products and the systems that you're conceiving. We are an open system waiting to hear from you with all of your best ideas around this framework, because we don't have the tools we need to deploy in this world as it comes at us with high speed.
When we looked at it from a design perspective as a sort of framework for grounding our design, we realized that the sun is really energy in physics, and we have, variously estimated, five- to ten- thousand times as much sun as we need to operate human systems. We will solve the energy problem. You will solve our energy problem. We have solar income coming from the sun. If we all went home tonight, and the bank called and said we all had five thousand times more income than we needed, we would solve our home economics and our venture capital problems. So we will solve the energy problem. What we have to watch out for is the mass problem, which is chemistry. We can take all of the chromium out of South Africa, put it into our little products, sprinkle them around the world, drop them in holes in the ground, throw them away, so to speak. What will happen is the toxification of the mass, and the loss of the valuable nutrients, the technical nutrients that are involved in that transfer. So we have to really understand that we don't want mass income except for the occasional meteorite. And when we put chemistry together with physics, we get biology. We get us. And we can celebrate this design by design. That would mean that we would have to ask the question, "Could human artifice become like a living thing where we could celebrate its growth and its free energy from sunlight, and an open metabolism of chemicals operating for the benefit of the organism and its reproduction?"
Then the question is no longer growth or no growth, but what do we want to grow? We can choose the things we want to grow. Is this going to be easy? Of course not. Is it going to require a different kind of process? I hope so. It's a complicated thing. If you look at France, for example, there are 400 kinds of cheese in France. Is that very efficient? No. We have a much more efficient way of doing it here in the U.S. We have processed cheese, little threeand- a-half-inch squares of soft PVC masquerading as cheese. But we need to debate this issue of a celebration of diversity. In biology we want diversity. We want 400 kinds of French cheese. What we don't want is 400 kinds of French plastic. In technology we need coherence. In biology we need diversity. As we work with technologically coherent materials, we realize that the human can take "waste equals food," use current solar income, and celebrate diversity's design principles, which would mean that you would then design into a biological metabolism and a technical metabolism.
We understand the biological system from third grade, but the technical one would just simply be that we see things as being objects of use and utility. So we would use a television or a computer or a car or a carpet, and then when we'd finish using it, we'd turn it back and it would become part of the technosphere once again. Now this may sound obvious to everyone, and it is obvious. But it wasn't so obvious when we first presented it. We first started presenting it to the carpet industry, saying that the carpet was what we called a "product of service," and that what you wanted was the acoustics, the appearance underfoot, cleanability, and so on and so forth, and what you ended up with was toxic waste, because an institution like this one would have the asset of the carpet in use and then it would have the liability of the carpet when it was finished with it. They would have to pay a guy to remove it because it's a liability. Wouldn't it be marvelous if the carpet was seen as a technical nutrient, it was always an asset, a product of service?
That would mean then, also, if we want to be like a living organism, we have to get down to fine criteria for human and ecological health. So we've developed five knockout criteria: no more cancer, no more disruption of our endocrine systems, no more genetic mutation, reproductive toxicities, or birth defects. We want additional criteria around sensitization, immune system disruption, and irritations. And environmental health criteria: we want to know if something is toxic in water to vertebrates, invertebrates, plants. Does it bioaccumulate? Is it persistent? Does it have heavy metals? We want to know its production process, exactly how it's made, where it comes from, where it goes, and so on and so forth. Does it affect the climate? So the first product we started investigating in 1993 was the textile industry. We looked at fabrics for furniture for Steelcase Corporation, working with Siba-Gaygy, the chemical giant in Switzerland. We looked at 8,000 chemicals in the textile industry through those intellectual filters I just told you about. We had to eliminate 7,962. We were left with 38 chemicals with which we could do the final textile, which we did. Now the textile is clean enough to eat. It's been selected by the Airbus 380 as the fabric for the Airbus, which is great news for frequent fliers, because if you find yourself at 40,000 feet with a fiber deficiency, you can eat your chair. The water coming out of the textile mills is cleaner than the water going in, which is Swiss drinking water. The workers are no longer exposed to cancer. The cost of the fabric has dropped by 20 percent because there's nothing regulated in the entire system.
As a result of this and other work with companies like Nike, Ford, Google, and so on, we now have databases of 104,000 chemicals used by humans. We have 6,000 of them characterized down to the parts per million, parts per billion. We have stoplight systems that characterize a "green product," or "red" or "yellow." For example, this is a fire retardant that's carcinogenic, so we characterize it as red. We can now look at products through the databases, which grow daily, as you can imagine with all these different chemicals. We've got a supply chain tool, so supply companies that work with the companies that use this system can communicate up and down the supply chain. Nike uses it to communicate with 3,000 suppliers. We characterize the materials as biological nutrients... Hycrete, was the very first product to be certified cradle-to-cradle. It's a concrete additive that makes it hydrophobic and preserves the steel from corrosion. The furniture companies in this country have taken it up with vigor: Steelcase and Herman Miller first, so all the major furniture companies are taking cradleto- cradle views. The chairs can all be taken apart and go back to the industry forever.
New textiles are using polyesters without antimony. The antimony has been removed. There's an antimony residue in a bottle of PET from a catalytic reaction, and it's a highly problematic, carcinogenic substance if it was burned for example, or put into your lungs through combustion. New wall coverings, window shades, kitchen counters, building systems—we've developed criteria for certification, and we're now certifying products vigorously. The first question is, "Are you biologically and technically nutrient? Are you compostable or do you have reverse logistics? Does your material come from renewable sources? Is your water drinkable? And are you practicing social fairness?"
I'll finish with China and the cities, and why we found ourselves working at that level...When I was born, there were 86 cities of a million people. We're expecting from the 400 we have today to rise to 550 in the next ten years. One million people per week are moving to cities. When they get there, 35 percent of them aren't finding water, food, shelter, power, or labor. So we find ourselves focused on the work of cities today, and I've chosen China specifically as a place to work because I grew up there. China will house 400 million people in the next 12 years. This is like re-housing the entire United States in the next seven years, if you can imagine that. They're making bricks illegal in many jurisdictions, because if they use brick, they'll lose all their soil and burn all their coal. I work with Madame Deng Nan, who's the daughter of Deng Xiaoping, with the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development, which I co-chair with her, set up by the two governments. This is a statement from the President of China, Hu Jintao: "We should optimize the economic structure and advocate an environmentally friendly way of production, life, and consumption and bring about a virtuous cycle in both our ecological and sociological systems, resolutely stopping all practices that are detrimental to nature." This is the president of the most populous country in the world, one that is suffering astonishing environmental devastation. It represents opportunities at the same time that it represents one of the biggest problems.
I'm going to finish with a thought piece that we've done for a city in the South of China. We did the master plan for the city of Liuzhou for their expansion. But we were also inclined to imagine what a future of the city might be like, and here's the existing site we were given. This was our proposal. What we're looking at is the idea of "waste equals food" cities. Wouldn't it be marvelous if the waste treatment plants were power plants that purified water and produced methane gas for cooking? The Chinese have estimated that they can do 20 percent of their cooking from their waste treatment plants. What if these waste treatment plants were sold to the highest bidder instead of being seen as liability for the city, and produced the fertilizer to restore biodiversity and things like that? It turns out that the cities can be much more biodiverse than the surrounding countryside...When you think about what a city could have with its parks, with its gardens, we realize how phenomenal a city can be...Just to conclude, I think the most dramatic thing that we've proposed in our thought piece was to put all the soil up onto the roofs and build Paris with farms on the roofs, in effect. This brings us to the quote by Claude Levi-Strauss, and read "any human artifice" for "city": "The city has elements at once of biological procreation, organic evolution, and aesthetic creation. It is both a natural object and a thing to be cultivated; individual and group; something lived and something dreamed."