"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Book Review: Cradle to Cradle

When it comes to relevant professional books, I have a stack of titles I would absolutely love to read.  Unfortunately, this stack tends to become taller than I am quite quickly so certain titles wait longer than they should to be read.  Yet, occasionally, I find enough time and space to read a full book-level volume.  This summer, I had a chance to read (finally!) Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.  Good gosh, this book came out in 2002 but it has been a bit of a touchstone for the sustainability movement (although I didn’t hear about it until 2007 when I started thinking a little bit differently about how things are made).

The book seeks to be a paradigm shifting agent, leading by example.  The preface is all about how the book’s paratext (new word I learned this summer which refers to everything about a book that is not the text on the page) lends itself to a new way of thinking about books, and really to a new way of thinking about stuff.  In particular, I was encouraged to see an emphasis on local, quality design articulated concurrently with a vision where wastes from one process can be fuel for another process that still acknowledges that “wearing out” may not be such a bad thing after all.  The authors go to great lengths to discuss how things from the manufactured world can return to the natural world.  The book contains many ideas that strike me as slogans to guide sustainable design choices in the future.

The “monstrous hybrid” serves as one illustration.  The authors consider a conventional running shoe where the soles are totally synthetic and rather nasty to the environment when they break down and the uppers tend to be manufactured from natural materials such as leather that can be (arguably) safely returned to the earth.  The authors contend that smart design would reverse the choice of types of materials to use for the sole and for the upper so that a biologically-safe sole would safely and responsibly degrade with use and the upper could be made of more robust synthetics that would enable the material’s recovery as still a shoe-upper, effectively rendering the shoe with the ability to be resoled.

The book differs from most key works in the sustainability discourse in that the authors go to great lengths to suggest that ecologically-intelligent design makes ecologically-intelligent consumerism.  If designers can be smart enough, then Americans can continue with whatever sort of consumer choices they want.  While I understand the argument (especially when you consider that consumer choices at best constitute less than 20% of the dynamic control of the industrialized system), I think that maintaining a systems approach is vital to continued understanding of sustainability.  This observation holds especially true when placed in the triplicate of economic-environmental-social sustainability (or as McDonough and Braungart prefer economy-equity-ecology).

Generally speaking, I applaud McDonough and Braungart for delivering a fairly rigorous critique of current industrial practices while showing how shifting our thinking during design stages represents an available (and obtainable) path forward.


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