“Cradle to Cradle” by Michael Braungart & William McDonough

ISBN 9780099535478. “Cradle to Cradle – Remaking the way we make things” by Michael Braungart and William McDonough was published by Random House/Vintage in 2008 & 2009 (originally by North Point Press in the USA in 2002). We enjoyed one huge irony whilst reading this book: the pages started falling out. Probably the first time that has ever happened to us and a double irony in that the original US publication, ten years ago, was printed on plastic pages. This is book that people might think they know from the cover and by reputation. Some of your assumptions might be wrong. Not exactly eye-opening but what the authors stand AGAINST seems more noteworthy.

Two words spring to mind when you turn the last page: permaculture and bio-mimicry. Permaculture has it origins in the 1970’s yet is not mentioned in the book. Bio-mimicry is a more recent term so the authors might be forgiven for not writing about it. This is a short book, few pages, big font – a quick read. This version has a new introduction written for the 2008 edition. No doubt the authors had not heard of Transition by that point either. This work exists in a world of its own; seemingly without reference to the culture within which it exists.

The authors are a chemist and an architect. The examples (we may call them anecdotes) in the book stem largely from those fields. Michael’s contribution seems from the field of (what might be termed) “fear of the modern world”. That’s our own definition – you are welcome to disagree – but he liberally uses the term “toxic” to apply to almost every chemical that we use in the 21st Century. The only author to make such a generic use for such a specific term was Donnachadh McArthy in his books “Saving the Planet without costing the Earth”  and “Easy Eco Auditting“. Such a lazy usage of the term leaves the author open to claims of voodoo science. Much of the modern world simply isn’t toxic in the doses we are exposed to it. To Braungart the mere touch of your clothes, or the furniture in your house, is enough to expose you to a chemical cocktail that is always “toxic”. This is not a book in which this author seeks to scientifically justify his prejudice. You are expected to take it on face value – everything is toxic.

McDonough on the other hand is a little more easy going. He works (obviously) on the design of buildings. However his laid back approach leads to a stream of building-related anecdotes which all seem so very idyllic. However, as a reader of Green Building Magazine and the Green Building Bible, we have to warn readers that this is a tad sloppy. He describes (in glowing terms) a building that lets in natural light so that workers don’t need so much artificial light. In reality such a building would be a nightmare to keep cool when the sun comes out and all those glazed surface will suck heat out at night. We are sure most of these workers would complain about glare on a sunny day. McDonough glosses over mere details like this so all we get are quasi-scientific anecdotes.

Putting these criticisms of the authors to one side: their is no doubt that their philosophy is sound: build your technology so that it can be endlessly “up-cycled”. We agree. This is common-sense. Those of a green disposition may well be in for a shock though. The authors rail against some of the central tenets of environmentalism. Recycling is their pet hate because so much recycling is “down-cycling”. It is also clear that greenwash is in their sights. They have no time for “making things less worse” as is the current paradigm. They want to remake our entire design philosophy so that everything we build and make can be turned into something of equal value at the end of its life.

For example the choice of recycled paper to print books on is scrutinised leaving the authors to conclude that rather than making books “green” with wood pulp you should actually make them last longer by making them of plastic. “Plastic?!” we hear you cry. Yes. Plastic. Once you get over the shock of such a suggestion you start to realise they are right. So much of environmentalism is about making bad things slightly less bad so we can feel good about ourselves. In the end though it isn’t a solution. We need things to last and they need to last forever. Simply making our everyday products “local”, “free range”, “organic”, “chlorine free”, “low-embodied energy” etc., is insufficient: we should question how they are made at point of design. In essence: this is a great philosophy only let down by the somewhat skimpy nature of this book and its anecdotal style. It is an easy read but leaves you asking so many questions.

On the positive side you do pick up a few gems that endear you to the authors. One such was this:

“When you talk about “saving the planet” you turn it into and ethical question. […] Bill and I want to put questions like the greenhouse effect on the practical level of “let’s not be stupid” rather than “be ethical”. [..] Don’t make it an ethical problem; make it a quality-of-life problem. […] When we make it an ethical problem, we will not solve it.”

Exactly! Somehow we wish we had written that. So post-modern. They argue that our “standard operating instruction seems to be “If too hot or too cold, just add more fossil fuels.” “. These guys write stuff that you simply do not see written in a hundred books written my environmentalists – take this example:

“…valuable materials bio-accumulate in nature to possible harmful effect and are lost to industries forever.”

Note that – “lost to industries forever” – how often do you read THAT? This is visionary. The idea that pollution isn’t only harmful to nature but ALSO that it is a waste of good industrial chemicals is profound. I will never look at a smoke stack the same way again. Neither should you. Why don’t more people think like this? And here is another mind-blowing classic:

“The idea of nature being more efficient, dematerialising, or even not “littering” (imagine a zero waste of zero emissions for nature!) is preposterous.”

This team argue for “effective” systems not “efficient” ones. It is OK to waste something as long as that “waste” is simply food for another part of the process. Through-out this book the authors refer to two primary examples of the way industrial society should be organised: one is like a cherry tree and the other is like interlinked colonies of ants. Believe me – these are effective examples and well used.

As for other surprises: the authors are not anti-growth either, but they have this caveat:

“The key is not to make human industries and systems smaller, as efficiency advocates propound, but to design them to get bigger and better in a way that replenishes, restores and nourishes the rest of the world.”

Wow. However we don’t half get the feeling that infinite growth on a finite planet is still impossible. When we have extracted every possible mineral resource from the ground and are recycling those resource forever then there are no more to grow our society unless we use those resources more effectively. You cannot grow “effectiveness” forever so there are still limits – the cradle-to-cradle philosophy simply puts those limits off into the dim future. For cradle-to-cradle the philosophy is one of “restore”: strive for “good growth” not just economic growth.

The “Respect Diversity” chapter appears to be an appeal to a return to localism and the diversity of local human-scale (small) culture. The authors drift closure to a philosophy that most Transitioners would be perfectly comfortable with. One example was the energy plants in Indiana that the authors observed were more effective if they were small enough to operate one per every three city blocks. This reverses the current industrial culture and strays close to the Third Industrial Revolution espoused by Jeremy Rifkin. The authors describe (at length) a system that today we would call a “smart grid” with smart household appliances (this from 2002 remember). Simply put: our buildings should generate more energy than they consume, produce cleaner water than they use.

The authors have worked with industry for many years to create the new design paradigm they write of. They are not die-hard deep greens and this meant their motives have been questioned. It lead to this observation:

“Our questioners often believe that the interests of commerce and the environment are inherently in conflict, and that environmentalists who work with big businesses have sold out. And businesspeople have their own biases about environmentalists and social activists, whom they see as extremists promoting ugly, troublesome, low-tech and impossibly expensive designs and policies. The conventional wisdom seem to be that you sit on one side of the fence of the other.”

Amen to that. Their answer?

“Eco-effectiveness sees commerce as the engine of change, and honours its need to function quickly and productively. But it also recognises that if commerce shuns environmental, social and cultural concerns, it will produce a large scale tragedy of the commons, destroying valuable natural and human resource for generations to come.”

This brings us back to Jeremy Rifkin with which this philosophy closely adheres to in his Third Industrial Revolution mentioned earlier. These authors see no future for current flavours of environmentalism:

“Even today, most cutting-edge environmental approaches are still based on the idea that human beings are inevitably destructive towards nature and must be curbed and contained. [..] …we are limited to efforts to slow the destruction of the natural world while we sustain the current industrial system of production and consumption for a few hundred years more.”


We didn’t overly enjoy this book as it has a number of disappointing aspects. However its central design philosophy can be joined to permaculture and bio-mimicry as the new way of doing business in the 21st century. What is clear is this: if we don’t adopt such principles now then there may be no 22nd century. Regardless of its problems this work needs to be read by every businessman & woman, every environmentalist, every architect and every product designer. Hand-in-hand with the other two design principles (mentioned above) they will shape the future – the only future we will have. Recommended – but catch the falling pages – they fall like blossom from a cherry tree…

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.


“Cradle to Cradle” by Michael Braungart & William McDonough — 1 Comment

  1. We have received the following comment from Joseph Torrillo at http://www.mcdonough.com “I was reading your book review about Cradle to Cradle, and want to thank you for the great inquiry. Permaculture and bio-mimicry are words, that I believe, bring a unique perspective to the initiative so I appreciate your honest thoughts. I was wondering if you’d be willing to include a reference where it states William McDonough’s name to his Amazon page in the review, (http://www.amazon.com/William-McDonough/e/B001KIKWHM), in case your readers are interested in seeking more information about Cradle to Cradle. Let me know if that is something you’d be able to update and thanks again for sharing this positive review.” Happy to oblige Joseph!