Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

November 23, 2005

Cradle To Cradle: One Important Book on Sustainability

Category: 5%'s Top 10 List,Big Things,Conservation,Policy,Sustainability – Tom Harrison – 5:58 pm

I recently finished reading Cradle To Cradle, by William McDonough & Michael Braungart which raises some wonderful concepts of design and ways of thinking about how we do things that address really broad issues including:

  • Energy consumption
  • Waste and how we deal with it
  • Design in harmony with nature
  • Designs that model natural systems
  • Sustainability

The authors propose a really different way of thinking about things. In the beginning, they assert that programs based on conservation only delay the inevitable, and seem to say that recycling, reuse, and so on are wrongheaded endeavors — seemingly worse than nothing. They propose a radical approach that would obviate the need for such things, and argue (strongly and well, in some cases) that many of our recycling efforts are indeed worse than nothing.

One example is recycled glass: the raw material being conserved (glass) is not rare, but the cost of reclamation, transportation, melting and recomposing results in less landfilling, which is good, but can release many dangerous substances into the environment, and may end up costing as much or more than making virgin glass. They have a number of compelling arguments that certainly dampen one’s enthusiasm for recycling.

But don’t despair, they eventually acknowledge that there’s nothing wrong with conservation as long as it is done as a means towards the ends they argue for. The book can be a little over the top in places, and indeed they are proposing and have started a movement that will require a great deal of rethinking in almost every aspect of our lives.

One of the more surprising points they make is, to my mind, one of the most powerful: the changes they propose must be in harmony not only with the environment, but with efficiency and economics. Said another way, the kinds of changes they propose make sense not only because they are sensible, but because they often save money, both in the short and longer terms. This makes the proposition palatable to constituencies like business and government that are often seen as antagonists.

In the end, the authors propose what can only be described as a manifesto for a movement. It is a far reaching set of goals, and will require a great deal of thought and change. But the thesis is sound, and this book is very well worth reading.


  1. […] authors of Cradle to Cradle, a book on sustainability discuss the notion that good, sustainable design is often characterized […]

    Pingback by Why the iPhone (actually) Matters | Five Percent: Conserve a Little Energy — December 24, 2007 @ 12:00 pm

  2. Tom,

    Again, thanks for supporting Earth Hour. I wanted to share with you that in September, 2007 in Oak Park, IL, I heard McDonough speak. It was at a “Green Town” conference and he was fantastic. For the most part he reiterated what he wrote in his book, but the man has a presence about him that makes you want to go out and change the world!
    What you did not mention in your blog is the book. The book, as I’m sure you know, is almost cradle to cradle itself. I’ve never seen plastic like that. I have an autographed copy and even my teenage daughter likes the book.
    BTW, I would love to see you add a “category” to your site – Light Pollution. LP is not only blocking our view of the stars but it is also killing us slowly. You can see the effects in nature, which is usually the canary in the coal mine. There is an excellent book you might want to read. “The Ecological Consequences of Artificial Nigth Lighting” by Travis Longcore and Catherine Rich. They have collected papers on the harm light at night is doing to fish, insects, birds, reptiles, mammals and humans. In the first paragraph of the book, they pose the question: (and I paraphrase) What if all of the conservation design of the past 25 years is only half of what we should do – the daytime half. We need to look at how we do conservation design at night too because of the ecological consequences.
    All across the world we need to pass strict LP ordinances ASAP.
    Debra Norvil
    Homer Glen, IL

    Comment by Debra Norvil — February 27, 2008 @ 1:14 am

  3. Debra —

    Earth Hour sounds like a really great concept. I live in Newton, MA, very near a Jewish temple; many of my esteemed neighbors have moved here so that they can walk to temple on Fridays. And observant Jews don’t use any source of fire, including electricity, after sunset on Fridays. So perhaps I can claim a congregation of several hundred of my neighbors as participants in the March 29th Earth Hour.

    In all seriousness, while not religious myself, I do think that any local organization such as our local temples are good opportunities for awareness raising, and I’ll talk to a couple of my neighbors who might be able to send the message to their Rabbis. While the most observant Jews will have their lights out for more holy reasons at the time, I think they could do a great mitzvah by offering another reason to turn out the lights that Friday night.

    Perhaps this is an audience who would be particularly receptive to the idea of Earth Hour.

    Comment by Tom Harrison — February 27, 2008 @ 9:56 pm

  4. Oh, and one other unrelated issue regarding William McDonough — there was recently a Frontline World piece that I watched; it did not paint as rosy a picture of McDonough’s organization as I had hoped and expected. A close friend who owns a consultancy in sustainable practices has suggested that McDonough, while certainly a great thought leader has “skeletons in the closet”.

    Frankly, I was so inspired by Cradle to Cradle (including, of course, the sustainable, and not merely recyclable material upon which it was printed) that I wonder if we are too quick to criticize and knock down people who can inspire others just because they, like the rest of us, are human. The Frontline piece was fair (as their reporting tends to be), but certainly not flattering. It’s worth looking at if only to recognize some of the real-world issues we face in moving the world from its current state to a more enlightened one.

    P.S. As I read Cradle To Cradle, I made a point of reading it in the bath, in the rain and elsewhere where lesser printing materials like paper would have failed :-)

    Comment by Tom Harrison — February 27, 2008 @ 10:08 pm

  5. Tom,
    Very interesting video. It is yet another example of one culture imposing its way of life on another. Kind of reminds me of what the European settlers and then Americans did to native Americans. In essence, the China project with McDonough put the villagers on a reservation, forced a new way of living on them, and then left. This is very disappointing to hear. But you are right that while this McDonough project did not work, he has made signficant changes to architecture in this country. And he has the capacity to inspire you with his words.

    Also, I am happy to hear that you would be willing to talk to your neighbors about Earth Hour participation. I think that the Jewish community will do more for the earth in the long run than Earth Hour. Because once the hour is over, everyone will go back to their old ways – just like in China.
    I will visit you new sight soon.

    Comment by Debra Norvil — February 29, 2008 @ 8:25 pm

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