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Print view: Can This Environmentally Challenged World Be Saved? 'The Upcycle' Says It Can

Can This Environmentally Challenged World Be Saved? The Upcycle Says It Can

Review by Alice Cherbonnier
THE UPCYCLE: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance
by William McDonough and Michael Braungart
©2013 North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY. Paperback; $24
"Human beings don't have a pollution problem; they have a design problem," the authors stress.

Back in 2002, U.S. architect William McDonough and German scientist Michael Braungart published Cradle to Cradle, a book that laid out a compelling case for creating a sustainable world by reinventing how products are made and disposed of. Incremental change, they said persuasively, isn't going to cut it if we are to solve the many environmental problems the world is facing.

Now, 11 years later, the duo has published a follow-up book, The Upcycle, which details important successes of Cradle to Cradle implementation and steps up the game even more: now the authors are exhorting us not only to rethink design and manufacturing processes from beginning to end, in order to eliminate waste and have a “net zero” impact; they're saying that just getting to "net zero" or "neutral" isn't enough. They show how it's possible to plan cradle-to-cradle processes that end up with environmental benefits at the end of the cycle. The goal isn't to be "less bad" and eliminate adverse consequences, it’s to be "more good.”

The authors claim that the upcycle approach will reduce government regulations because, with ill effects eliminated, there’ll be less to regulate.

The authors are well-connected heavy hitters in environmental thinking. McDonough consulted on the celebrated "Make It Right" program, which incorporated cradle-to-cradle principles to the new homes the program, with Brad Pitt's involvement, has been building in post-Katrina New Orleans' hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward. Braungart wrote "The Hannover Principles," international "green design" guidelines promulgated for the 2000 World's Fair in that German city. And this book's foreward is by none other than President Bill Clinton.

McDonough and Braungart have been able to convince their client corporations and institutions, ranging from NASA to Walmart, that implementing cradle-to-cradle principles is not only responsible citizenship, it's profitable. They also claim that the upcycle approach will reduce government regulations because, with ill effects eliminated, there will be less to regulate.

With the exception of water, sunshine and "the occasional meteor," everything the Earth is ever going to have exists here right now and must be husbanded for future generations.

Among their recommendations: Capture and recycle essentials like carbon and phosphate. Add nothing toxic to materials from the beginning of a process, rather than remove them at the end. Make sure, if a problem is eliminated, that another problem isn’t created. Design in concert with nature, using the sun for light and power, the earth for water and cooling, the air for circulation. Harness the energy from decomposing methane and carbon dioxide. Preserve topsoil. Build vertical greenhouses. Recycle sewage and urine—both can be done safely. View the Earth as a battery, and keep it charged. Understand that with the exception of water, sunshine and "the occasional meteor," everything the Earth is ever going to have exists here right now and must be husbanded for future generations.

"Human beings don't have a pollution problem; they have a design problem," the authors stress. Too often, they say, design is considered only for the "first use" of a product, without thought of the product's downstream impact. Instead, they call for beneficially designing for every stage of a product's existence, including disassembly and repurposing.

The authors’ vision, they acknowledge, can only work if far more individuals and entities become involved in the cradle-to-cradle and upcycle efforts. They’re pushing to create a “butterfly effect,” where successful efforts inspire others, resulting in a magnification of benefits. They’re aware that they may seem to be naive and over-optimistic about human nature, but show, through examples already occurring all over the world, that cradle-to-cradle manufacturing and upcycling do work.

McDonough and Brungart have performed a public service by detailing their work and outlining the many environmental considerations the public needs to understand. Unfortunately, The Upcycle sometimes reads like a self-promotional tract, with too much about the authors’ work and less about the work of others.

Though The Upcycle, as a book, has been manufactured to the best-available standards of beneficient environmental sustainability, its visual design is nowhere near as attractive as the supple and sophisticated “paper”-back Cradle to Cradle. The typography of The Upcycle is uninspired, with insufficient differentiation between subheads and text, awkward and unattractive margins and indentations, and peculiar chapter dividers. The graphics are amateurish and superfluous. Several light gray inserts are awkwardly interspersed in the text; though these should signal information of special importance, instead they are crammed with tiny text that adds little to the book’s message.

Worst of all, for a book that concerns science and product engineering, there is no index.

Considering the importance of the authors' message, these design shortcomings detract too much. This book could use an “upcycle” of its own, and the sooner the better. The world is waiting.

Alice Cherbonnier, managing editor of the Baltimore Chronicle, is working on a book about the connection between Plessy v. Ferguson and New Orleans social activists from 1850 through 1895.

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This story was published on June 30, 2013.

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