Cradle-to-Grave: A Dead-end Process
You've probably heard the phrase "cradle-to-grave". From a design standpoint, it suggests a process by which an object has a discrete beginning and then moves inexorably towards a definitive, but final end, at which point it is discarded, to be buried or "land-filled", and never seen or thought of again. The philosophy of "cradle-to-cradle", on the other hand, asks us to envision a process that can be infinitely continuous. Under this scenario, while an object may still have a discrete beginning, its particular form and purpose at any given time is temporary! It is designed in such a way that at the end of its first "useful" life, it can either be recreated, or. . .used as "food" for something entirely new and different!
Birth of a Concept
Cradle-to-cradle was conceived by William McDonough and Michael Braungart and outlined in their book "Cradle-to-Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things". McDonough, an architect, noted that at various points in his life, he was fortunate to be exposed to different cultures (the Japanese and the Bedouins or two such examples) where simplicity, elegance and intelligent design were prominent features. Braungart, a native of Germany, related that he began studying chemistry around the time Germany was just beginning to consider the impact of pesticides and other chemicals on the environment. He would go on to to focus on environmental chemistry. The two met in the early 1990's and discovered they shared in a belief that industry could transcend the notion of being "less bad", and instead aspire to operate with fully positive intent. As McDonough and Braungart termed it, to be "eco-effective".
An Object's Life-cycle
To be mindful of an object's entire life cycle, rather than just the relatively short period we ourselves will use it, is to begin to ask some of the following questions:
- how was a product made and distributed in the first place?
- how will it be disposed of when we are finished with it - is it durable enough to be used by somebody else when we no longer need or want it?
- how and what is it made of - can it be easily recycled, or. . . even better, "upcycled" - that is, made into something new, of equal or greater value?
In short, eco-effective design gives back as much or more to a system as it takes out, and does so with style, grace and humor.
We now begin to get a glimpse of how we might have our cake (or stuff) and eat it too!: first by asking ourselves what kind of stuff and how much of it we actually need in the first place, and then figuring out processes that give back as much or more in the way of resources as they take, in their creation and distribution.
As you can see this way of thinking inherently supports an approach to living that can be filled with joy and abundance rather than austerity and deprivation.
Still Need Convincing?
Then, I'll leave you with McDonough & Braungart's own words:
Consider the cherry tree: thousands of blossoms create fruit for birds, humans, and other animals, in order that one pit might eventually fall onto the ground, take root, and grow. Who would look at the ground littered with cherry blossoms and complain, 'How inefficient and wasteful!' The tree makes copious blossoms and fruit without depleting its environment. Once they fall on the ground, their materials decompose and break down into nutrients that nourish microorganisms, insects, plants animals, and soil. . .the tree makes more of its 'product' than it needs for its own success in an ecosystem [and this] abundance nourishes just about everything around it.
What might the human built world look like if a cherry tree produced it. (from Cradle-to-Cradle, p.72).
Next week, the ancient Chinese practice of feng shui.