In 2004, I was an undergraduate studying aeronautical engineering. That fall, I took a trip to Stanford to attend the second Engineers for a Sustainable World conference. Bill McDonough gave the keynote to a packed auditorium, and Michael Braungart participated in one of the workshop sessions I was a part of. At that time, I hadn’t heard of either of them, but Bill’s keynote was so moving that I was compelled to get a copy of the book “Cradle to Cradle.” What I’m about to say is a trite statement, but it’s true in my case: reading that book changed my life.
I was aware that the ideas within “Cradle to Cradle” — emulating nature, particularly with closed-loop material cycles — were not unique to that book. Later, I would discover much earlier work like “Natural Capitalism” and the work of Gunter Pauli and his Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI) organization; I would also come across the newer Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Of course there are thousands more writings on closed-loop economies as well as thousands more people working on the topic. The transformative part of “Cradle to Cradle” for me at the time, though, was its message that nothing stands in the way of humans having a life of abundance, even on a finite planet. In other words, we mere mortals are not destined to destroy everything we touch. An oft-cited message from the book is that “growth is good” — if we grow the right things. “Cradle to Cradle” bills itself as a design book but is really a strong statement of environmental ethics — a statement that changed the way I look at the concept of sustainability.
Reading about advanced concepts and thinking up ideas quickly leaves me wondering, “okay, so how do we get from here to there?” I’m sure that a great many people feel the same way — we know that the actions of individual people, communities, and companies can’t be sustainable if they happen in an unsustainable system. We even have plenty of ideas for what sustainable systems might look like, but we want to make those ideas become reality. The tough part is the transition: bootstrapping a sustainable system in the midst of an unsustainable one. The ZERI website has a case studies section highlighting institutions doing just this sort of kick-starting; the Ellen MacArthur Foundation website also has a case studies section, but of course there’s so much more to be done.
If you’re involved in implementing circular systems or you know of great examples, please comment!
Photo “Ring Around the Rosie” by thejbird, on Flickr.