A decade after writing Cradle to Cradle, a manifesto on sustainable design, authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart have written The Upcycle. The book asks not how we can protect the planet from human impact, but how we can redesign what we do to actually improve the world. Below is an edited excerpt of four points from the final chapter in the book.
We Don’t Have an Energy Problem. We Have a Materials-in-the-Wrong-Place Problem
Carbon is perfect. It is crucial to human life. We need it on earth.
Unfortunately, it is now in our air and water in overabundance, where we cannot utilize its strengths. We need to reconfigure our systems to keep carbon earthbound.
Fortunately, there are many ways we can do this. We can use fossil fuels for key goods, such as medicines, while we use renewable energy for power. We can sequester carbon emissions from biodegrading materials and use them to create biogas and soil nutrients. The carbon goes back into the earth where it belongs.
Once we reorganize, we will grow—literally.
Likewise, we don’t have a toxins problem; we have a materials-in-the-wrong-place problem.
If we realize that what we essentially have is a sorting problem, we can begin the process of reorganizing so we never have to worry about these issues again.
At the beginning of the book, we said to toss out the idea of a nurturing “Mother Nature.” No need to romanticize nature. Nature is not exclusively benevolent. But nature is fairly intelligent after millions of years of evolution. For example, nature evolved to put in mother’s milk exactly what is needed to nurture and grow new life; it works.
Recently, we have added many new ingredients to breast milk—bromide-based fire retardants, for example. We can look to nature not as our mother but as our teacher. Nature gave us the correct recipe. If nature didn’t put bromide-based fire retardants in milk in the first place, we have no reason to add it. It is a materials-in-the-wrong-place problem. Let’s redesign.
Get “Out of Sight” Out of Mind
You don’t have a garbage can. You have a nutrient rest stop.
Get greedy about your garbage. Now that the world has started down the path of upcycling, plenty of companies covet what you put in the trash can every day. You can value it too. Instead of asking yourself, “How do I get rid of this?” ask, “How much money could I get for this? Who could enjoy the benefits of these great nutrients? My city, my neighborhood, my favorite nonprofit?”
Always Be Asking What’s Next
We want you to always think, What’s next?
What will happen next to the shirt I design today? What is next for this book?
We want you to think of every component of your design as being borrowed. It will be returned one day to the biosphere or technosphere. It is your role to return it in as good a condition as you found it, as a good neighbor would. You have that chemical or heavy metal in usufruct. You have that chemical or heavy metal for a reuse period, and then it moves on to another product without tainting the biosphere or technosphere. Design for your particular reuse period, always with its next reuse and its next reuse and its next reuse in mind.
Go Forward Beneficially
Every year of your life, you are accumulating more potential for good for the world. We know that with your intelligence, your talents, your intent, you will make life for your contemporaries and for future generations better.
You are a known positive. No need to think of yourself as misplaced in the natural world, or that you cause destruction with your presence. You can contribute. You are part of the ever-upcycling path of life.
Accept that deep in your heart and mind.
Then go forward. Be successful.
We hope to enjoy all that you share.
And tell your children that things are looking up.
Excerpted from THE UPCYCLE: BEYOND SUSTAINABILITY—DESIGNING FOR ABUNDANCE by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, published in April 2013 by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2013 by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. All rights reserved.
Illustration by Corinna Loo.