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The One Sustainable Living Book You Need to Read

Get excited about the possibilities of designing eco-effectiveness into our human systems and industries.

Yesterday, I watched my dad mow the lawn in our garden. As I was following him trim every stubborn blade of grass that did not fit in, I slipped into the saddest feeling.
My dad’s garden is an eclectic mix of plants brought together by his vision alone. Most are fruit trees, evergreen trees, and bushes. Some are dwarf, some are towering over the garden. As the trees’ need to change across seasons, so does his stewardship process. He prunes them, cuts diseased branches, adds natural fertilizers, treats pests, waters, and monitors. That’s some serious level of affection.
Moreover, every garden has its crown jewel, and in this case, it’s the over-groomed lawn. Out of all our plant species, it is the average, uninteresting, monotonous patch of trimmed grass that requires the largest efforts. We only have a few meters square of this beauty, but other homes have dozens or hundreds. So I imagine how difficult it can get to manage it.
My dad grows the lawn, often aiding it with fertilizers and pesticides, and then artfully strives to keep it short and uniform. No flower, no tall blade of grass, and no uncovered patch of the earth are allowed to disrupt the balance. But is it a sign of equilibrium that we gradually became obsessed with growing perfect lawns?

To be honest, I did not think of it for the longest part of my life. Enter Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough’s “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things”. The best way I could stress how important this book is for transitioning to sustainable living was to write a whole article about it. So here I am.
“Cradle-to-Cradle” is a treasure because it works on all the levels of understanding we need to achieve towards living sustainably. It connects us to powerful stories; it teaches facts behind the unsustainability of our current system; it inspires us with new goals and examples from natural cycles, and it gives real-world solutions.
The facts: Our current system is unsustainable
Our economic system inherits design flaws from the Industrial Revolution. The consequences of these failures were not intended. Inventors, engineers, businessmen, and financiers aimed for increased affluence through efficiency. Politicians saw the opportunity in expanding productive capacity to ensure resilience and response during war times.
Yet the facts reveal misconceptions about the functioning of the natural world and omissions of the industry’s effects on the environment. Let’s see two examples.

  1. The industrial system is designed to produce waste

Natural resources that enter the system are designed into products that end up in landfills and incinerators.
A key issue here is that these resources have more value than we assume. For one, many come from finite reserves. Secondly, the extraction of natural resources requires high costs and efforts that require justification. Finally, resulting products usually still have value at their presumed end-of-life. Nevertheless, they are treated as waste.

  1. Products have built-in, harmful additives

More than we think, what we buy is different from what we get.
This is largely due to the industry’s principle of designing for efficiency. To make products accessible and acceptable for the larger part of the population, manufacturers make some harmful trade-offs.
To save costs, they use lower quality materials, such as cheap plastics and dyes. To obtain the best price, manufacturers source materials or product parts from the lowest-cost provider, often located halfway around the world. In this linear chain, producers themselves don’t know what they are buying, nor are they interested to learn as long as they get the best price.
As a consequence, harmful chemicals wind up in the products we buy. The authors of the “Cradle-to-Cradle” study the phenomenon at length. They found antimony, a toxic and unnecessary heavy metal in the average polyester T-Shirt. Moreover, they showed that the appliances we use every week, such as the electric hand mixer, emit chemical gases that can get trapped in food. Our health could be in danger of using our appliances and we wouldn’t even know.

What are the underlying reasons for our industry’s oversights? One is the pursuit of affluence. The other is how we calculate economic growth. In the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1991, the economic prosperity in Alaska spiked. How was that possible? It turns out that the activity around the cleanup triggered economic gains for hospitality and retail businesses. Because the GDP primarily tracks economic activity, the area appeared to prosper in the short term, despite suffering an ecological disaster.
The solution: A strategy of change

As industry spread, writers around the world lamented the changes in nature they were witnessing. Throughout their work, they pictured the spiritual richness of nature and further inspired environmentalist action. In the words of David Thoreau:
“Wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Environmentalists — including philosophers, scientists, state leaders, and business managers — published more and more warnings about the negative impact of irresponsible economic growth on the planet. With a growing population, increased affluence, and a productivity-focused industry, natural resources would run off and, before long, put a limit on our growth.

The typical response of the industry and its stakeholders to the environmental damage it causes has been a story of reducing or limiting the evil. Following international leadership discussions and partnership agreements, a strategy of eco-efficiency emerged.
In a nutshell, eco-efficiency means using less finite resources, producing less waste and pollution, and savings costs. The Three or Four or Six R’s (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, but also Refuse, Rot, and Regulate) are a perfect example. Popular at home, the office, and the industry level, the call to make small reductions in our negative environmental impact is gaining popularity.
For Braungart and McDonough, however, eco-efficiency has an inherent business and economic focus at heart. Its main purpose is to prescribe business tactics that ensure businesses can survive intensified requests for eco-friendly and socially responsible operations.
To understand why such tactics were proposed at the expense of a more disruptive, long-term strategy, we need to understand the traditional nature of business.
Profit-oriented organizations, by design, seek profits first. Staying competitive in the free market often requires economic decisions, which, due to the system’s faulty design, imply trade-offs with non-economic aspects of the business. For instance, a company may have to decide between cheaper vs. more toxic materials; simpler vs. safer processes; certain short-term gains vs. riskier, delayed awards.
The point is: in a faulty system, trade-offs will always be necessary.
Eco-efficiency is not a viable solution because it does not solve the system’s problem of linearity. Some waste, chemicals, and emissions still reach our soil, water, and air. And the truth is: we don’t exactly know whether we can let that continue without exceeding the safe limits of our ecological and social systems. Not to mention we are often just transferring all these effects from a place to another. All the waste that is moved from around the world to underdeveloped countries stands as proof.
That being said, eco-efficiency has been useful in boosting environmental awareness and accountability from industry players. Moreover, eco-efficient tactics can continue to add value in a well-designed system.

But eco-efficiency is not the full answer, at least not the long-term answer we need. As such, the authors encourage global leaders to adopt a strategy of eco-effectiveness, whereby human industries and systems are designed to grow in a positively interconnected way with the rest of the world. The resulting activities serve on multiple fronts and avoid any harm to other parts of the system. Instead, they nourish and restore.
As an example, the authors lure us to imagine a book that can be circled back into either production or natural cycles after use in its current format. A book that offers the same reading experience, while celebrating its materials. Although the type of endlessly recyclable plastic polymer they envision is still theoretical, investing in its research seems a smart endeavor.
What about an eco-effective roof? Here’s a picture: it avoids overheating and degradation problems by using a layer of soil and plants as a shield from the sun; it offers insulation in cold weather; it sequesters carbon and produces oxygen; it saves money from flood damage and regulation fees, and it looks so much better than the traditional version.
In the end, instead of focusing on what not to do, “Cradle-to-Cradle” points us to the works of nature for ways to make the world a better place. To the cherry tree that creates food and nurtures soils with its blossoms and leaves. To the ants that handle waste and maintain the soil healthy. Can we become more effective about our world’s evolution and grow the things we all agree are worthwhile? If so, we might discover that the over-groomed lawns take much more than they give.

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