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Earth Day Voices: William McDonough
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Cradle to Cradle: A Call for a Revolution of Abundance
by William A. McDonough

Design is the first signal of human intention. And we need a new design. As Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

The sun’s abundant energy perpetually generates growth and is transformed by photosynthesis into food for living systems. Within each system, the waste of one organism provides nourishment for another—waste equals food. The earth’s water, too, flows in renewing cycles. All the processes that animate living systems are effective, cyclical, synergetic, and regenerative.

Inspired by these natural flows, Dr. Michael Braungart and I developed what we came to call the Cradle to Cradle design principles in lieu of conventional cradle-to-grave thinking. Applying these principles to social, economic, and ecological needs, we promote the creation of regenerative objects of human artifice—products, architecture, and even communities. We can envision and design, for example, buildings that purify air and water and produce more energy than they use. Design can eliminate the concept of waste, producing perpetual assets rather than perpetual liabilities. An architecture of abundance would create objects and energies that are socially, economically, and ecologically delightful.

Earth Day invites us to consider the world we live in. We see limits but also the incredible richness. Rather than bemoaning the planetary and ecological debits of burning fossil fuels and leaving behind nuclear waste, we can celebrate the abundance of solar income. Human beings have come up with ways to manufacture 50 million cars each year, each made up of thousands of parts. There is no reason we can’t put out a trillion solar panels and millions of solar water heaters starting right now. We have the tools and the willpower; now we need a new way of thinking.

Thomas Jefferson, Margaret Mead, and Mikhail Gorbachev are a few leaders who have expressed the notion that significant change can come from the actions of a few. Gorbachev once suggested that it took only 5% of the thought leadership in Russia to create Perestroika.

To move from improvement to revolutionary transformation, we need 5% of the human population committed to cradle to cradle flows—clean healthy materials in closed cycles seen as nutrients, clean energy, clean water, and social fairness. Only the internet has the power to bring this number of people together. When that happens, we will offer future generations our hopeful ambitions: To live in a world where we love all the children of all species for all time. It will be a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world with clean air, water, soil, and power—economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed. Join us.

William A. McDonough is an architect and designer and the founding principal of William McDonough + Partners. He is the co-founder, with German chemist Dr. Michael Braungart, of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry. To join the Cradle to Cradle community, visit www.mbdc/optin.htm. To learn more about ecologically intelligent architecture and community design, visit

Photo Credit: NASA

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I agree that design can eliminate the concept of waste. What I wish to see is more designers adopting the cradle to cradle thinking, and also for more dialogue between designers and engineers/scientists. Designers may lack the environmental knowledge/research/technology, while engineers/scientists may lack the design/aesthetic ideas. More dialogue and sharing of ideas would help to bridge the gap between them.

Posted by: Eugene on 16 Apr 07

I agree. Often designers and engineers are interested in seemingly different aspects of a thing: designers in beauty, engineers in function. We need beautiful, long lasting things that are easy to repair and disassemble.

Posted by: Daniel N Smith Jr on 17 Apr 07

There are a group of folks out there today bridging this gap between engineers and scientists, we call ourselves Landscape Architects! I love McDonough's ideas and work everyday toward implementing ecolgical technology while paying close attention to the design.

Posted by: Gil Lopez on 17 Apr 07

The 'new way of thinking' required seems to be the main stumbling block. At every level of human organization - from the internal workings of each of us to the behind-closed-doors struggles that result in the actions of nations - we see, as noted by Mr. McDonough, these human intentions and the designs they have created.

The problem lies hidden in the underlying emotions that drive such intentions (eg. anxious materialism arising from childhood loss/poverty, or 'Patriotism' from shock/fear/anger). Most people/nations never get around to examining and choosing which of these pressing emotions to respect, which to ignore. -It takes great courage and a certain kind of faith in and love for our universe. I believe we do live in a genuine playground sparkling with bliss potential for every kind of soul, if only people weren't so wounded, angry and scared. Thank you for reminding us of that, Mr. McDonough!

So are there 5% among us who can see this vision, link our good intentions around every building and being born to our planet? I don't know, but looking around I'd guess the answer won't be very long in coming.
...Let's give it our best shot! -LR

Posted by: Linda Richardson on 23 Apr 07



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