Cradle to Grave, Grave to Cradle

Cradle to Cradle. This is a sustainability model popularized by William McDonough. But he isn’t the originator of this line of thought. The basic sustainability ideas he argues for have been around for a while. Even the phrase “cradle to cradle” was used by others before him, which makes it irritating that he tried to trademark it. He has a habit, as some have noted, of stealing ideas and claiming them as his own while demanding high fees. So, maybe he is a bit of a self-promoting egotist or maybe he is simply greedily self-interested. His being a thought leader might be equal parts real influence and aspirational fantasy, whether or not that is problematic to the sustainability movement. It sometimes takes big egos to push big ideas, as long as a personality cult doesn’t get in the way.

Whatever the case, he could still be right about what he (and many others) have advocated. The moral merit and practical value of those ideas is a separate issue from what some deem to be his personal weaknesses or failings. The point is that I wouldn’t argue that there are necessarily problems in the ideas themselves, but underlying motives are always of concern in what they point toward. It’s a question of ascertaining and assessing what is behind the rhetoric and to what end that rhetoric might be used. It’s the same issue that motivated my writing about Foster Gamble (Thrive: Libertarian Wolf in Progressive Clothing) — and I might note that it was the same friend that brought them both to my attention, a very good friend I might add whose opinion I respect, but he admits to being drawn into and sometimes misled by libertarianism (something I can empathize with, considering my own libertarian inclinations).

My doubts began when I read an article about McDonough (the one specifically recommended by my friend): Industrial Revolution, Take Two by Matt Tyrnauer. As often is the case, I had a mixed response. It is one of the many nice-sounding libertarian dreams and not one that easily fits into the left-right spectrum. The problem is, even when well intentioned, these dreams are too often used to rationalize nightmares or else the resulting obfuscation (intended or not) makes it hard to tell the difference.

What stands out to me is that McDonough doesn’t seem to discuss democracy at length or at the very least he doesn’t clearly prioritize it, which opens the door for anti-democratic opportunists and reactionaries. To be fair, he does occasionally, albeit briefly, mention democracy. On his official website, in talking about one of his projects and the principles its based upon, he explains that, “In essence, they will extend the rights and responsibilities of a democratic government and its citizens into the realm of nature and design.” He rightly worries about “the fundamental challenge to democracy,” that “If our actions today rob our children of their right to choose, we are practicing intergenerational tyranny, an affront to democratic traditions.” And about regulations, he writes that they:

…are a legitimate transitional response. And when technologies such as nuclear energy and genetic engineering threaten to generate irreversible environmental changes, perhaps more urgent action is called for. Addressing the possible impacts of these industries would be an expression of democracy, for irreversible ecological change robs future generations of the right to choose: Once you’ve altered the genetic code there’s no turning back; once a species is lost, it is lost forever. As Thomas Jefferson said, “life is for the living,” and diminishing the life and the choices of our children and grandchildren is a kind of remote tyranny. Regulations that preserve choice and environmental health preserve democracy.

This Jeffersonian idealism is a major strain in American thought. And it resonates deeply.  I might add that this was the basis of the early notion that constitutions, patents, and corporate charters should never last longer than a single generation — that is to say no generation, once dead, has the natural right and moral justification to (immortally and in perpetuity) impose anything onto following generations, be it constraints or costs. McDonough also is able to put democracy into a larger global context:

Today, we might try waging peace on the scale of the Marshall Plan with the widespread application of intelligent design, a concerted international effort to develop products, industrial processes and social systems that support sustainable economic strength, cultural diversity and environmental health. From this perspective, sustainable design can be seen as one of the essential paths to peace and security. Consider resource dependency. From the viewpoint of both sustainability and international relations, reliance on a single, non-renewable resource to fuel economic growth is a signal of a design problem. In Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, for example, we see oil generate wealthy elites but no democratic institutions and no emerging intellectual infrastructure to support long-term social well-being or economic growth. In America, there are strong democratic traditions, but today the U.S. spends up to $50 billion annually, as well as lots of international good will, to protect the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. South America is now emerging as the new, unstable oil arena.

But strangely democracy only comes up once in his book, Cradle to Cradle (p. 23), and even then only in the context of industrial capitalism:

The advantages of standardized, centralized production were manifold. Obviously, it could bring greater, quicker affluence to industrialists. On another front, manufacturing was viewed as what Winston Churchill referred to as “the arsenal of democracy,” because the productive capacity was so huge, it could (as in two world wars) produce an undeniably potent response to war conditions. Mass production had another democratizing aspect: as the Model T demonstrated, when prices of a previously unattainable item or service plummeted, more people had access to it.

I give him some credit for discussing democracy at all. But the above commentary of his from various sources is about a page worth in total and, as far as I can tell, it is about all he has ever written on the topic. It’s merely something about which to make a rare point in passing. But it’s not central to his argument or, if it is in the background of his thought, it isn’t a rhetorical frame overtly used to construct his worldview. Even when democracy does come up, there doesn’t seem to be any mention of it in relation to self-governance, political process, anarchosyndicalism, etc. At most, McDonough’s view of democracy appears to be as a general concept of a democratic society and a broad tradition of Western civilization, in the mainstream sense and not with clear radical and revolutionary implications.

Maybe this is unsurprising. He argues against any ‘ism’ for, in his mind, ideology inevitably means extremism. This indicates that he considers the radical and revolutionary to be a bad thing. He wants moderate and gradualist reform within the system, not wholesale transformation of the system. And so he argues for a balanced approach that doesn’t go too far in any direction, which obviously means some kind of claim for centrism (a position that puts me on guard). The problem is that the denouncing of ideology is an old strategy for smuggling in an unstated ideology. This was powerfully used by Southerners before the Civil War in attacking supposedly radical ideologies of the Northern states such as abolitionism, feminism, Marxism, red republicanism, etc. Anyway, it’s clear that McDonough does have an ideology, something along the lines of mildly progressive soft neoliberalism leaning toward social semi-libertarianism. On the positive side, he seems to be a pragmatist of sorts (self-perceived pragmatism, after all, is a core neoliberal justification) and so maybe open to persuasion… or else just ideologically confused.

There is no doubt that cradle to cradle is a beautiful dream. But it won’t be primarily created through technology and industry but through democratic revolution that helps create a democratic political and economic system. Otherwise, such technology and industry will lead to yet another authoritarian social order. Libertarian (or pseudo-libertarian) techno-utopias won’t save us from the more fundamental problem of anti-democratic corporatism with its concentrated wealth and power, no matter how paternalistically it is wielded. Change will have to come from the bottom up, which is problematic that McDonough directs his arguments toward those at the top.

To my mind, this seems part of an old game… no matter if McDonough understands his own part in it. It has been played well by right-wing libertarians and laissez-faire capitalists for generations, co-opting rhetoric as necessary. There is always a beautiful dream involved. It’s hard to argue against it on its own terms. If the rhetoric matched reality, I’d be on board with almost every beautiful dream that came down the pipeline. But the reality rarely matches the rhetoric. The political right loves to complain that liberal and leftist reality is inferior to right-wing fantasies. Yet they feel no responsibility to ever concretely prove their fantasies should be taken seriously. Neither neoliberalism nor neoconservatism, much less libertarianism, have spread freedom around the world. The wealth has not trickled down and all boats have not been lifted. We are still waiting on the promises of prior utopian visions. Repackaging old rhetoric is the opposite of helpful, if that is all this amounts to (and I hope not).

To continue, here is something else from Tyrnauer’s piece:

“How many environmentalists do you know who say growth is good?,” McDonough asks. “We celebrate growth. Abundance is something we want. Our idea is to make production so clean there’s nothing left to regulate.” This, he notes, is extremely appealing to people of all political persuasions, from those who love the environment to those who want commerce free of regulation.

I can guarantee you this much. Such rhetoric will be used to attack environmental regulations and regulatory agencies by right-wing think tanks and media, lobbyists and politicians. As Chomsky advises, we the public need to develop some serious intellectual defenses against the power of rhetoric, especially when it becomes mass-produced and widely circulated propaganda. Millions, if not trillions of dollars, are spent every year in researching, developing, and implementing more effective ways to monopolize the public mind, manipulate public perception, and manage public opinion.

The fact that corporations and corporate media have already latched onto this “cradle to cradle” rhetoric should greatly worry us all. It maybe already has been turned into yet one more ideology of technocratic paternalism, the reason the investor class and the creative class love it so much. It portrays a world led and ruled by the tech industry and its pseudo-libertarian visionaries. Denying its status as an ideological ‘ism’ makes it even easier to be co-opted for nefarious ends. Such sustainability visioneering is an answer coming from on up high, not being developed from below among the democratic masses. If failed government is eliminated without filling the void with democracy, all that would happen is for corporate bureaucracy and privatized authoritarianism to take its place. Tech and industry is a means, not an end. Only democratic process can lead to democratic results.

Give the lower classes ability and freedom to solve their own problems — some possibilities: community self-governance, direct vote determining government budgets, corporate charters determined by and limited to the public good, tax free co-operatives, employee-owned factories, locally-operated municipalities, every neighborhood with a creativity lab, tools and machinery made affordable to the lower classes, public education and professional training provided as a right, educational and research resources freely available to all citizens, all or nearly all scientific research and academic books openly accessible to the public, a publicly-maintained internet system of knowledge and ideas, strong platforms of public media and public debate, and whatever else along these lines.

I’m thinking of examples like the young guy in an isolated poor village who was able to build a windmill to pump water for his community and he did so by using knowledge from the internet and spare parts nearby. And I’m thinking about the experiment involving computer terminals that were put into poor neighborhoods that allowed uneducated kids to educate themselves (English, mathematics, etc), even though no one was telling them that is what they should do. I bet, if given the resources and opportunity, the poorest of minorities out of necessity would be more likely to come up with brilliantly innovative ideas than rich white guys like William McDonough and Foster Gamble.

If there is an environmentally sustainable societal and economic ecosystem to be developed, it will come from the common folk because they have the strongest incentive for improving society. It won’t come from the world of transnational corporations nor from corporate media and corporatist government. Big biz is a threat to our survival, not our savior. All that big biz and its cronies will do is use the techno-libertarian rhetoric to dismantle environmental regulations and protections while they spin some PR and throw out a few token efforts and symbolic actions. They will enact their ultimate capitalist dream of endless guilt-free hyper-individualistic consumerism that replaces community and civil society, the commons and the public good.

But it will sound great in theory. The corporatist media will push the propaganda model so as to make these rhetorical schemes into some variety of ideological realism. The pundits will preach it with such inspiration. The thought leaders will give their TED talks. The Koch-funded academics will indoctrinate the young. The think tank intellectuals will spread the word. And the professional politicians will halfheartedly repeat the talking points. Any alternative will be ignored, dismissed, ridiculed, or attacked.

Let me finish with one last quote by Tyrnauer:

One of the things that is holding back the environmental movement and its proponents, says McDonough, is the collective burden of guilt about the ills of our society. “They say they want durable products that last a long time. Like a 25-year car. I’ll tell you why that’s not good. That car will still be made with toxins in the adhesives, compound epoxies. O.K., it amortizes its damage over a longer period of time, but it’s still a car that is damaging. You also lose jobs, because people don’t buy enough cars. You are using outdated technology on the roads for a longer time.” The solution that he and Braungart suggest is a five-year car that allows for industry to “transform the technology at high speed toward the Cradle to Cradle concept. The five-year car is a car whose materials are all coherent and tagged. In fact, all materials in the car have ‘passports.’ So we know where they come from, and we know where they’re going”—back to the auto-makers—“after five years of utility, so the car could be recycled and updated with the latest in safety and efficiency. All done with the same materials that you—in effect—lease from the auto company. They keep making the cars out of the same stuff.”

Meanwhile, one of the things holding back actual environmental sustainability, protection, and thriving is corporatist power and rhetoric. The ruling elite force guilt onto us about our demands for a political and economic system that serves we the public of this society and we the inhabitants of the living biosphere, calling us such names as ‘takers’ and ‘welfare queens’. They shift the guilt onto us in order to avoid the legal and moral guilt of those who have created the mess and made government seem dysfunctional, even as government serves their every need and demand — like Reagan complaining about big government as he grew the military and created the permanent debt. If guilt really were so powerless to influence change, it wouldn’t be a target of those most guilty. Social science research shows that guilt is quite powerful, such that people will punish the perceived guilty even at high costs to themselves. That enforcement of public morality is what the powerful fear, as it is the fuel of populist outrage that has forced major changes throughout history.

Besides, environmental regulations won’t ever be eliminated. In any society, there will always be public policy about how natural resources are used, how costs and benefits are allocated, how social norms are enforced, how wrongdoing is punished or compensated. etc. The issue isn’t for or against government, as long as we want to maintain a complex society. Rather, what we must choose is a free society of self-governance or an authoritarian regime of self-destruction. Government regulations are most dangerous when there is regulatory capture. Eliminating the power of government doesn’t eliminate the dangers of the very corporations that took control. That would simply lead to privatized authoritarianism, corporate bureaucracy, and plutocratic monopolization.

Simply put, I don’t trust sirens of laissez-faire salvation and plutocratic paternalism, even when dressed up with environmentalist buzz words and social democratic pleadings. It doesn’t matter how enticing is the futuristic utopia they promise. The challenge before us is the sifting out the good from the bad, the intentions from the results, the rhetoric from the reality. We should dream big, but we must guard those dreams jealously. We must defend them against those who would co-opt and abuse them, turning the radical and revolutionary into the reactionary and regressive. The solution isn’t to curtail big dreams but to unleash them from the forces of small-minded dreamers. If these dreams are to serve the public good, the public must claim them.

I’ll leave it to others to judge the likes of William McDonough, one of the glittering gods on Mount Olympus. It is ultimately irrelevant. He doesn’t own any of these ideas, despite his attempts to do so. If he helps give voice to what needs to be heard, well then good for him. But he better get out of the way for those who will need to do the hard work. And so I’ll look to the ground for what will be emerging next in the world. The much needed radical revolution will come in unexpected forms, like a god in the gutter. A new living generation will inherit the earth and they will do what must be done. Cradle to grave, grave to cradle.

* * *

Untying Cradle to Cradle
by Aetzel Griffioen

Closed Loop, Cradle to Cradle, Circular Economy & the New Naturephilia
by Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Walter Stahel, an architect, economist, and one of the founding fathers of industrial sustainability is credited with having coined the expression “cradle to cradle” in the late 1970s [8]; even though Braungart and McDonough claimed to have invented it [9]. Stahel intended to reverse the crude and wasteful linear industrial system the world has inherited from the industrial revolution, which depletes finite resources, creating toxic products that largely end up in landfills to poison the environment. Stahel developed a “closed loop” approach to production and founded the Product Life Institute in Geneva with the main goals of product-life extension, long-life goods, reconditioning activities and waste prevention. Kodak, DuPont, the BBC and Bosch are among its clients.

“Cradle to cradle” as propounded by Braungart and McDonough means to go one step further; they want industry not only to close the loop by recycling, but to redesign the industrial processes altogether. Instead of concentrating on making the current system more efficient (less bad), we can redesign the system to be thoroughly good. Recycling and reuse is not a solution if the product or material is toxic in the first place, it will inevitably end up in the environment to poison us more slowly, but still surely.

So, we must eliminate toxic materials and processes altogether, to make products that can be safely recycled and reused or else composted to support plant growth. There are already impressive successes (but also notable failures that critics accuse McDonough of ignoring, or still claiming as successes [9]).

If, like me, you expected to find a coherent theory behind the cradle to cradle approach, then you’d be disappointed and frustrated as I was, until I learned of the successful actual implementations (see Box), which serve to remind us that good intentions can often work. On the other hand, a coherent theory may improve the success rate, and at least, provide criteria for judging success.

Cradle to Cradle
by David Swanson

Three comments. First, this book does not suggest any radical change in behavior for the typical reader. (Have lots of kids, drive lots of cars, buy lots of stuff – what a break through!) This book is, rather, advice for architects, corporations, and municipalities. It is intended to free the typical reader of guilt. I think it should do something else as well, namely urge us to political action, to demanding of our democratically elected representatives that the earth-saving innovations described in the book be taken advantage of. All the descriptions in this book of common household objects, such as sofas, “off-gasing” toxic particles makes me want to take action to change things or at least buy a mask, not go shopping.

Second, the examples of new materials and building and product designs described in the book all build on the environmental thinking that McD and B so loudly reject. Reducing pollution to zero is not a “new paradigm” from reducing pollution to a teeny bit – it’s just better.

Third, the vision of rendering mad self-indulgence completely beneficial to all other species is far from a reality, and even the dream described by McD and B would not, in any way that I can imagine, make it possible to place an unlimited number of humans on the planet without hurting anything – more humans than under current practices, yes — an infinite number, no. But let’s remember that most of the people now on the planet do not do nearly as much damage as we do in this country. How many billion Americans the Earth can hold has not been answered.

There is also a disturbing thread of anti-government corporatism in the book. Ford and Nike and other corporations for which the authors have worked are described as heroes for their positive efforts, while their destructive practices are passed over. The authors repeat a distinction (citing Jane Jacobs’ “Systems of Survival”) between Guardians and Commerce, i.e. paternalistic government and noble corporate heroes:

“Commerce is quick, highly creative, inventive, constantly seeking short- and long-term advantage, and inherently honest: you can’t do business with people if they aren’t trustworthy.”

Is this a joke? Do these guys believe press releases they read from, say, Enron? (Apparently so, because later in the book they write: “…the summer of 2001, when unusually high energy demand in California led to rolling blackouts, skyrocketing prices, even accusations of profiteering….” Accusations! High demand or restrained supply? What rock have these intelligent authors been naturally cooling themselves under? Well, at least they recognize the concept of profiteering, even though it fits poorly with the inherent honesty of commerce.)

Immediately following the “inherently honest” comment (page 60) Mc D and B go on to equate regulation with partial pollution reduction, and to conclude that because complete pollution reduction is desirable and possible, regulation is bad. Instead they should conclude that rather than allowing limited pollution, regulators should ban it entirely (through whatever stages of phasing in that policy prove feasible). Later the authors claim that their design to allow a factory to reuse its effluent as influent “eliminated the need for regulation.” This should at the very least have been stated more clearly: it eliminated the need to monitor effluent. It did not eliminate the need to ban harmful effluent. Nor did it provide any reason to think making environmental behavior “voluntary” would cause other factories to employ similar solutions, however easy or profitable they might be.

The Lies and Fraud of My Hero William McDonough
by Derek Christensen

What’s the summary of the summary? McDonough is an impressive man, but he dreams on a scale much larger than he can deliver. His impressive gains are frustrated by his personal desire for wealth – Cradle to Cradle had incredible potential until he slapped on such high fees licensing fees. By attempting to control and own everything he created, potential partners were alienated and the growth of his ideas stagnated.

The future lies with green architecture and manifacturing, but it does not lie with William McDonough.

Green Guru Gone Wrong: William McDonough
by Danielle Sacks

As someone who believes that “commerce is the engine of change,” as he puts it, McDonough has never confined his ambition to the high plains of principle. The virtue of his cradle-to-cradle idea is that it offers a virtuous result — infinite abundance with no waste — through an unabashedly commercial channel, namely manufacturing. If he could establish himself in that chain as the arbiter of clean products, there is no limit to what it might yield — for everyone. “The faster and larger our business grows,” he told me, “the better the world gets.” […]

McDonough is not above poetic license. When I ask him which building marked the genesis of the sustainable-design movement, he points to the office he designed for the Environmental Defense Fund. “It was the first green office in the U.S.,” he says. Harrison S. Fraker Jr., dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, demurs: “Sustainable design started long before McDonough even opened his office… . McDonough gets credit for everything because he is such a good promoter of all the good things he has done… . I hate to see false myths perpetuated.” Even the term cradle to cradle, for which McDonough has applied for a trademark, isn’t his at all. According to Hunter Lovins, cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute think tank, “Walter Stahel in Switzerland actually coined the phrase 25 years ago, long before Bill started using it.”

For those who came to know McDonough from within the environmental and design movements — those whose labors rarely reach the ears of Laurie David — an alternative narrative exists about him. Until now, it has been shielded from the mainstream for two reasons: First, McDonough has done more than most to popularize the very idea of cleaning up the world, and for that, even his detractors agree he deserves thanks; second, if word gets out that he may not be all that he appears, the overall cause of sustainability could suffer. “He’s been incredibly important and valuable in this role as visionary,” says Auden Schendler, executive director of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Co. “The problem is that sometimes the theorists like McDonough will represent themselves as practitioners, and that’s where the guys in the trenches get frustrated.” […]

The Oberlin case is part of a larger pattern, some of his former colleagues say. “McDonough doesn’t care if the facts are wrong,” one told me, “because he’s a self-mythologizer. His job in the world is to convince people that a positive future is possible, and it doesn’t help his cause to admit there are hiccups and failures along the way.”

Inscribed near the entrance of McDonough’s architecture firm in Charlottesville is a favorite mantra: design is the first signal of human intention. He repeats it religiously, and for him it means that every object contains clues to whether it was created with the earth in mind. It is one’s intention, McDonough believes, that one is judged on.

McDonough’s willingness to let good intentions obscure very mixed results appears to have sometimes clouded his own — and others’ — view of his abilities. […]

Critics argue that McDonough’s work is not transparent or consensus based, and that because he sometimes consults for companies whose products he’s also certifying, the whole endeavor is conflicted, if not unethical.

Bill McDonough Gets Trashed in Fast Company
by Lloyd Alter

K • 9 years ago
I too was there at UVA school of architecture when McDonough was there and was unimpressed. Sure, he’s an amazing motivational speaker, who regurgitates the same speech over and over. Then, if you get to meet any of the people he champions (as I did, when I took his class, ‘Environmental Choices’) what you really learn is that what he’s doing is taking the messages of people who are really ‘doing the work’ and ‘breaking ground’ and making like they were his own.

Now sure, not everyone is a good salesman, and I do think there’s a niche for someone to ‘get the word out’. But there is no good reason to make yourself look amazing on the backs of others and not really give them credit. Also, once you heard the people speak he was ‘borrowing’ from, you realized how great they were and how vacant some of the stuff he was saying was- because he wasn’t a specialist, just a salesman.

And a somewhat overinflated one at that. Champion people for the right reasons I say. McDonough has an amazing flair for the pitch, but you really can’t count on him for substance (from experience).

Anonymous • 9 years ago
I was at UVA’s school of architecture when McDonough was there. My former classmates and I, including people who have worked for him and his firm, have been telling anyone who will listen that he is not all that he seems for almost 10 years. Funny how long it’s taken for word to get around.

Cradle to Cradle as Conventional Right-Wing Anti-Government Ideology
by Dale Carrico

To denigrate the “cradle to grave” tyranny of social democracy and public welfare has, of course, been a staple of reactionary right-wing political invective for generations. But I want to direct attention to a variation of this same polemic at the heart of what is often peddled as a progressive, environmentalist discourse — the so-called “cradle to cradle” design ethos.

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart has come to be a sort of bible (together with Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry and Bruce Sterling’s periodic papal-imperial declarations about blobjects and spimes and whatnot) for the so-called “Bright Greens” and the whole green design crowd more generally that more or less arose out of or together with Stewart Brand’s California libertopian retro-futurology-qua-ecology.

In a characteristic passage (pp. 59-61) from Cradle to Cradle, McDonough and Braungart summarize a formulation from the great Jane Jacobs that they take up and divert to their own ends, describing “two syndromes of human civilzations: what [Jacobs] calls guardian and commerce”:

The guardian is the government, the agency whose primary purpose is to preserve and protect the public. This syndrome is slow and serious. It reserves the right to kill — that is, it will go to war. It represents the public interest, and it is meant to shun commerce (witness conflicts over campaign contributions from vested interests).

Commerce, on the other hand, is day-to-day, instant exchange of value. The name of its primary tool, currency, denotes its urgency. Commerce is quick, highly creative, inventive, constantly seeking short- and long-term advantage, and inherently honest: you can’t do business with people if they aren’t trustworthy.

Notice that the attribution of slowness and violence as definitive of government, and then of efficiency and creativity to commerce are very straightforward Anglo-American right-wing Movement Conservative pieties (an assimilation to neoliberal discourse I think Jacobs herself resists better herself, if not enough).

One need not pretend that all representative politics and social administration are transparent, efficient, fleet-footed, and fair to feel hesitant about declaring governance as inevitably and exhaustively and quintessentially bloated and jackbooted as conservatives nowadays are so often keen to do, usually all the while singing arias to celebrity CEOs and commercial culture as though corporations and salesmen are gloriously immune to bureaucracy, dysfunction, conformism, cronyism, fraud, aggression, and waste.

Although it might seem the authors are somewhat evenhanded in a characterization noting the indispensability of government to the “public interest,” they undermine this apparent balance when they go on thereupon to depict government action exclusively in terms of war-making and then stealthfully re-attribute public interestedness to the commercial sphere declaring commerce, astonishingly, as inherently concerned with long-term interests and trustworthiness.

Notice, by the way, the authors’ rather typical handwaving away of the well-known critique that a focus on short-term profit-taking tends to happen at the expense of thinking about longer term consequences with their chirpy collapse of this conflict into a seamless “seeking [of] short- and long-term advantage,” a phrasing that refuses to concede such a problem even exists. Also, notice that the authors seem to consider trustworthiness logically entailed by the structure of enterprise and that the endless empirical instances to the contrary anybody can effortlessly call upon are apparently irrelevant to their abstract celebratory point. It is also intriguing to say the least to note that fairly widespread concerns about the impact of corporate money in the United States’ flabbergastingly corrupt and wasteful campaign finance system are regarded by the authors as straightforward expressions of hostility to free enterprise, as if innovation and fair trade somehow require a “democracy” controlled by millionaires instead of majorities.

Waste is Food (review of Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart)
by Tom Lambert

As a historian, I often think about how the carrying capacity of the planet has changed. Six hundred years ago, it would be unimaginable to think that we could live in a society of plenty where nobody had to die of famine and where we would see life expectancies of 70 years and more. Medieval Europeans believed that only in Eden had such a state existed and, furthermore, there was no reason for man to live hundreds of years like Noah and Methuselah. A short life sufficed to find salvation and a long life only served to encourage vice. As it turns out, they may have been right about that one – a long lifespan has given us the chance to use up a lot more resources per person, but hasn’t necessarily made us into better human being. In any case, though, we forget that at one time the wheeled plow was high tech and it created the possibility of feeding far more people. Similarly, changes in land tenure, the increased use of horses and so forth, made it possible for fewer farmers to feed more people.

So I believe that McDonough is right. Faced with the alternatives, we can come up with products that are non-toxic. They will be infinitely upcycled if industrial products and just simply thrown “away” if they are biological products that can be simply composted. Under such conditions, what is to stop infinite growth? In a word: energy. Thus far, almost every shortage we have faced on the planet has been solved by throwing more energy at the problem. As we see the looming problem of climate change, though, we see that using more energy in the forms we currently use it is, in itself a problem. I have no doubt that if we can solve the energy question, we can shift to a planet of plenty where every necessary product is produced safely and sustainably. Some products, it’s true, might get prohibitively expensive, but for the most part we will see those as unnecessary. There is a limit to planetary population, certainly, but history has shown that we have no idea what that number is (and to some extent that’s a value judgement – can we plow up all wilderness in order to grow food?). But the energy question is one that is looming imminently. That’s the one part of the puzzle that McDonough doesn’t really address and that may be the fundamental problem. As he says, efficiency is not enough. A more efficient system just runs out of resources more slowly. Granted, energy is not on McDonough’s agenda – he designs products and buildings and does his best to make them energy efficient (that bad word again), but leaves it up to others to find sources of energy that are as eco-effective as McDonough’s designs.

Anthropocene Politics I
(from Environments, Natures and Social Theory)
by Damian White, Alan Rudy, & Brian Gareau

The fusion of transhumanist and neoliberal ideas has played an important cultural role in Right libertarian digital utopianism that has emanated out of Silicon Valley, and through Wired  magazine. End Times Ecology provides the backdrop narrative informing all kinds of different modes of environmental activism. In some senses they can be seen as reinstating in new ways the catastrophe/cornucopia binary that has run through environmental politics since the early 1970s. Nevertheless, a great deal of contemporary science fiction, from the work of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower to films such as Gattica (1997) and Elysium (2013), are attempts to grapple with worlds confronting both neoliberal hybridities and ecological collapse. Much of this literature thus unsettlingly suggests that these two discourses could in fact be different sides of the same coin. […]

It is interesting to note that bright green literatures often work with multiple political narratives. Some of the less compelling interventions are directed at business leaders who, it is believed, will act out of enlightened self-interest to implement forms of eco-innovation (see McDonough and Braungart, 2013). However, other currents (see Mostafavi and Doherty, 2010) provide more layered accounts of multiple possible entry points available for the dispersal of such innovations well beyond the conventional “entrepreneur/CEO as hero” model: from forms of industrial redesign that are promoted by local, municipal, regional or national governments to full scale public urban planning, from firm-based innovation to innovation driven by government regulation or social movements. Reading beneath the green business uplift narrative, many bright green authors acknowledge that much more radical regime change will be required to make their visions possible. This observation is rarely made explicit in this literature, but it outlines the necessary terrain of engagement that must take place between the critical environmental social sciences and Bright green sensibilities (see White and Wilbert, 2009; Hess 2012, 2014). […]

Given the technocentric and power-free nature of much post- environmentalist analysis, it is easy to see how the post-environmentalist vision of a “good anthropocene” could converge and merge with the hybrid neoliberal vision. A post-environmentalist ecomodernist future can be envisaged where the affluent live in high security, Dubai-style dense, green “smart cities.” Such forms of fortress urbanism could be underpinned by corporatist public-private governance structures, mega-energy technologies, hyper-industrial agriculture and global industrial supply chains that are all serviced by dispossessed classes living densely and eco-efficiently in the urban periphery. This decoupled, carbon- constrained, ecomodern world would, of course, exist within a broader “re-wilded” planet where perhaps “non-moderns” and those who have refused to be “modern” or those who have escaped from the neo-corporatist ecomodern smart city live off their wits, taking their chances while plotting different futures. […]

If end times ecology looks upon our unfolding hybrid worlds with horror and resignation, we have also seen that diverse hybrid neoliberals, bright green and post-environmental currents – whatever their differences – have sought to reframe the environmental debate as questions of technological innovation and inventiveness. All these dis-courses present technological innovation as defining
invention. As a result of this, there are strong tendencies to present social life and politics as the realm of inertia. More generally, it could be observed that the primary voices that are seen as drivers of change are “entrepreneurs,” policy makers, technocratic experts and design professionals. The public, or publics, as potentially sentient, creative, informed and knowledgeable political actors with their own insights, are absent.

Andrew Barry (2002) has observed quite usefully that this conceit, that we live in technological societies that are driven by technologies, has become central to the understanding of many people in the affluent world. Barry suggests that “technological societies” are not necessarily any more technological than past societies, but they are societies that take technological change as the model of invention. The irony here, Barry suggests, is that the endless technological churn that contemporary “technological” economies generate do not necessarily give rise to particularly inventive worlds. Barry indeed observes that periods of rapid technological change can drive anti-inventive forms and behavior. Patenting knowledge or making endless upgrades of software or hardware packages can merely facilitate forms of defensive innovation generating technological changes that are conservative in their implications, “maintaining or rigidifying existing arrangements between persons, activities, devices, and habits of thought; they may restrict and displace the possibility of alternative developments” (Barry, 2002:212). We should not then simply equate technological novelty with inventiveness. Rather, Barry suggests:

Inventiveness should not be equated with the development of novel artifacts, or indeed with novelty or innovation in general. Rather, inventiveness can be viewed as an index of the degree to which an object or practice is associated with opening up possibilities. In this view, scientific and technical objects and practices are inventive precisely in so far as they are aligned with inventive ways of thinking and doing and configuring and reconfiguring relations with other actors. From this perspective it is possible to identify forms of invention that are not technical but rather involve the use of a device in more creative ways. In short, just because an object or device is new does not make it an invention. What is inventive is not the novelty of artifacts and devices in themselves, but the novelty of the arrangements with other objects and activities within which artifacts and instruments are situ-ated and might be situated in the future. (Barry, 2002:211–212)

Barry’s observations prompt the question as to whether there are ways of thinking about an inventive politics, an experimental environmentalism and a public ecology (Luke, 2009) which could open up the making of our hybrid worlds to many more perspectives and voices.

Redefining Sustainability
by Ramesh Bjonnes

Progressive Utilization Theory, also known by the acronym PROUT, is a collection of socioeconomic and political ideas created by Indian philosopher Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, envisioning “a decentralized, community-based world economy of self-sufficiency; economic democracy; small business; and limits on the accumulation of wealth.” From a PROUT perspective even the most idealistic sustainable models will inevitably confront capitalism’s inherent contradiction: that self-interest and profit are the main drives of the economy and also the main causes of economic exploitation and environmental degradation.

Sarkar explains: “The contradictions in capitalism are due to the self-centered profit motivated psychology and the accumulation of wealth for the benefit of a few rather than for the welfare of all. Hence, capitalism is not congenial to the integrated growth of human progress.” In other words, in a capitalist economy, no matter how green, there will always be a tug of war between the bottom line (profit) and the second bottom line (sustainability). And the bottom line will always win.

Sarkar’s keen insight into this fundamental flaw of capitalism is the reason why PROUT advocates a radical restructuring of the entire economy. PROUT’s alternative to capitalist reform is its three-tiered structure—small private enterprises, worker owned cooperatives and enterprises owned by state, regional or municipal boards. The inherent problems of profit-motivated greed can thus be checked and balanced by limiting capitalism itself. In other words, without curbing the growth of private capitalism—which is driven by its profit motivation– it will be impossible to maintain social, economic and environmental balance, no matter how “sustainable,” “green” or “natural” the economy is.

What We Must Do (Part 2)
by Peter Montague

As we have seen, the main enemy of democracy is inequality of wealth (and therefore power). When Big Money calls the shots, most people are disenfranchised like cattle. There is no evidence that wealthy elites make better decisions than the American people as a whole would make if the institutions of our democracy were working properly (media, schools, courts, legislatures, labor unions, law-making and policy bodies, local businesses and local economies, plus electoral systems for judges, legislatures, governors, and presidents).

If inequalities of wealth are the greatest threat to democracy — and are the hallmark of an unsustainable society — then we could protect democracy and promote sustainability by protecting the institutions that reduce inequalities of wealth.



Losses Outweighing Gains

I just finished reading Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country by William Greider. It’s not an awesome book, but it’s well above average. Greider is a liberal who seeks reform rather than to revolutionize the entire system. He is only radical in his optimism about democracy.

What I liked about the book is that the author wasn’t afraid to dig down into the foundation of our collective problems. One particular passage demonstrates this which can be found below. In that passage, he talks about the economy and the environment. His focus is on externalized costs, moral hazard and free riders.

If you’re an informed person, most of this won’t be new to you. But it is always nice when you find a clear-eyed accounting of the problems we face. I did learn one new thing from this passage. He discusses the work done by Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb Jr as presented in their book, For The Common Good: Redirecting the Economy toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future. Basically, if all the costs are accounted for and measured, the US economy is a net loss. This isn’t just unsustainable but self-destructive.

There was a good review (by David E. Rockett) about Daly and Cobb’s book:

“Agrarian Localist that I am, with roots in the cultural and political Right — Daly was refreshing and often challenging from the ‘New and Improved Left. He brilliantly and repeatedly shows the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’– that is the dubious use of logical abstractions which supposedly lead to good conclusions. NOT! In logic, it is similar to ‘the undistributed middle’– or in laymen’s terms — there is yet far too much we simply don’t know to conclude ‘this’. Those pegging him a traditional UN Internationalists look like blind Libertarians who are simply dead wrong, and didn’t read carefully. Daly is a modest Decentralists/Federalists’ in calling for a ‘return to the Local’. His call is for a federalism with far more attention to Local and Regional markets and development than we’ve had in this country since Lincoln. Yet Daly still uncomfortablly allows for some heiarchialism at national and international levels. Suprisingly, he uncritically buys all the status-quo environmental hysteria as ‘Fact’, indeed ‘wild facts’ he calls them. Thus, you have a mixd book — full of brilliant and insightful critique — and sullied by a good bit of carried-over authoritarian leftism.”

I just wanted to share that to show that this isn’t a right vs left issue. Even for someone like this who doesn’t appreciate the actual data about environmental damage can still understand the basic problems for human society.

This reviewer gets at an important point with his mention of the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’. This is essentially Burkean conservatism being used to criticize laissez-faire capitalism as an ideology lost in abstractions and ungrounded in reality as it is. It’s interesting how closely aligned Burkean conservatism is to the precautionary principle that so many liberals obsess about.

Now for the passage from Greider’s Come Home, America.

* * * *

(Kindle Locations 2636-2707)

It is not people who have failed. It is the system that has failed people. The awkward secret about the American growth engine is that it thrives by wantonly wasting the noneconomic “assets” of people’s lives, the lost potential of their time on earth. These are “priceless” because they cannot be bought or sold. Their true value is unknowable, even to the individual. The growth engine wastes the future-the full range of possible experiences that ought to be commonly available in this very wealthy nation. When people look around, they see that vital elements of their surroundings have also disappeared or crumbled, and these things are not just the roads and bridges, but also essential public assets like the grace notes of community life and common verities trashed by the manic competition for growth and profit. Why must we live like this if we are so rich?

Ecologists look at the natural world and ask essentially the same question. The most dramatic and threatening price paid for economic growth, they argue, is the systematic destruction of nature. The finite capacity of the natural world to sustain life-human and otherwise-is endangered by the relentless encroachment of the industrial system. This threat means that there are indeed limits to growth, at least to growth as it is presently practiced. To put the point crudely, you can only pave over so much of the earth before nature begins to lose its life-supporting capabilities. Most mainstream economists dismissed this idea originally, but now they are more respectful, since global warming has provided frightening evidence of the collision between nature and the industrial system.

Images of the Arctic ice cap receding and polar bears stranded on floes have been seared onto our consciousness. Oceans and mountains, topsoil and rain forests, water, land, air, and the natural diversity of living things have all been laid waste. These are the things that sustain existence for all species, including ours. There are limits to growth and the world is bumping up against them, especially now that industrialization has spread to some very poor societies. Like wasted human lives, the losses to nature are not factored into the economic accounting, nor are they redeemable.

It may seem odd to accuse US business and finance of wastefulness since they are obsessed with efficiency. But the intense competition for returns among companies and investors focuses their managements on reducing their own companies’ costs, not the costs to society or nature. The gross domestic product is essentially the total of all of a country’s economic activities-the money transactions of producers and consumers and the performance and profits of enterprises and investors. Everything else is left out-human lives, society’s needs and values, the well-being of nature. In this system, even obviously negative events-a train wreck or an earthquake-are treated as positive since they will stimulate more economic activity.

Worse than that, the growth engine actively damages anything it does not itself value. Companies know how to enhance their own growth and profit by dumping their production costs onto innocent others, such as the workers stripped of their pensions and the rivers destroyed by pollution. Then the government must clean up the human injuries and environmental wreckage left behind. Some of the collateral damage businesses cause is no doubt accidental, but most of it is deliberate. In numerous ways, companies develop careful strategies for extracting profit from the assets of others. Someone does pay eventually for this antisocial wastefulness, but usually it is not the perpetrators who gained wealth from their irresponsibility.

This is more than an accounting problem. It is a deep disorder in the values that govern our country. The economy keeps output-production and consumption-expanding as measured in dollars. But the process of growth simultaneously creates a political illusion by concealing the net negative loss to society. Politicians do not have to face this contradiction since the government conveniently does not look at growth in these terms.

Herman E. Daly, a rare economist who endeavors to see the world whole, set out to unmask the illusion. He calculated the full consequences of growth by combining various indicators of social and ecological gains and losses with the standard economic measures of output and wealth creation. Daly and his collaborator, John B. Cobb Jr., called it the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare, and its stunning results were a rebuke to narrow-minded economics.

In For the Common Good, Daly and Cobb explained that for many years, although US growth had been officially reported as positive, it was actually negative for the overall society when these other factors were included. Economists quarreled with Daly’s method of calculation, but other researchers have since confirmed his point by using different ways of weighing the losses and gains.5

[5. Among the controversial assumptions Daly made in constructing the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare was that a measure of income inequality should be included. The premise was that society’s well-being degrades as inequality increases, a point that only hard-right conservatives would dispute today. The book was revised and the index refined in a second edition published in 1994.]

The great American economic icon-gross domestic product-is in trouble, especially as more Americans discover the truths that ecologists have been explaining for years. The familiar measure for defining progress no longer makes much sense, not for people or for society. Progress as it has been traditionally defined feels dizzying instead, like running in place, faster and faster, without getting anywhere, and even sliding backward without realizing it. Americans need to rethink the meaning of progress in broader, more realistic terms that are more consistent with the human condition. Demanding an honest accounting of reality represents a major step toward straightening out our future.

[ . . . . ]

In Steady-State Economics, Herman Daly invoked a similar analogy. To grow, he pointed out, is defined as “to spring up and develop to maturity.” People do not grow physically bigger and bigger throughout the life span (they would look like freaks if they did). At a certain point, they level off in physical size, but continue to develop the skills and qualities they need to sustain and enrich their lives. At a certain point, he suggested, wise and wealthy nations must do the same.7

The steady-state economy described by Daly and elaborated by others is radical and uncompromising. It rejects growth as we know it as a fixation on expansive accumulation that does not discriminate between good and ill consequences. This does not mean an end to “progress,” however. In terms people can recognize, the steady-state society continues to improve itself, developing and redeveloping internally, perfecting the social conditions that promote the public welfare and more fulfilling lives. The United States has the wherewithal to achieve this if it has the nerve to try.

Daly’s “steady state” is an economy in dynamic equilibrium that fulfills human needs without destroying the planet. It is an economy fully reconciled with nature’s limits and in harmony with the country’s abiding values of equality, freedom, democracy, and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Daly’s pioneering insights have gained a lot of ground among economic and social theorists in the intervening years, despite the hostility of orthodox doctrine. His perspective has been popularized as a foundation for sustainable development (though the meaning of sustainability is often corrupted in practice).

A concrete expression of Daly’s thinking is popularly known as the ecological footprint-a measure of how much humanity and industrialization have encroached upon and diminished nature’s capacity to replenish life. Even some leading corporations now promise to reduce their corporate “footprint.” The footprint of human activity-including the spoiling of natural resources like air, land, and water-is already overshooting nature’s carrying capacity by an estimated 25 percent, according to the Global Footprint Network. Biologists have called our era the Sixth Great Extinction, with thousands of species doomed by the shrinking habitats and failed ecosystems.

“Humanity is living off its ecological credit card,” said Mathis Wackernagel, the group’s executive director.”While this can be done for a short while, overshoot ultimately leads to liquidation of the planet’s ecological assets.”8

[8. Wackernagel said in announcing the release of the Living Planet Report 2006: “Humanity is living off its ecological credit card. While this can be done for a short while, overshoot ultimately leads to liquidation of the planet’s ecological assets, and the depletion of resources, such as the forests, oceans and agricultural land upon which our economy depends.” See Chris Hails, Jonathan Loh, and Steven Goldfinger, editors, The Living Planet Report 2006, WWF International, Institute of Zoology, and Global Footprint Network, October 24, 2006, gfn_blast_0610.html.]

These are social and ecological wounds whose existence can no longer be evaded. They are defining realities that Americans must face and accept if they are to think clearly and honestly about transforming how we live and are organized as a society-the dream I describe as America the Possible. Reconstructing a promising society from the wreckage of the past is possible, though every aspect is difficult and lies beyond the usual expectations of what seems possible in politics. Failure is also possible. I won’t dwell on the consequences of failure because it means genuine decline-we would become a country that was past its best days and resigned to a dispiriting future. That is not where we are, nor where we want to go.

* * * *

For more information and discussion, see the following:

Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare

Genuine progress indicator

Ecological footprint

Green gross domestic product

Green national product

Environmental full cost accounting

Happy Planet Index

Human Development Index

Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare

Living Planet Index

Beyond GDP: Measuring and Achieving Global Genuine Progress

The Triple Bottom Line: What Is It and How Does It Work?

Herman Daly’s Ecological Economics – An Introductory Note

When Higher GDP can lead to Lower Welfare
The use of ISEW: the index of sustainable economic welfare

What is economic growth and are there limits to it?

The virtues of ignoring GDP
Dropping a bad habit

Someday Environment Costs will be factored into the GDP

Economic Growth: A Social Pathology

VALUING THE EARTH: Economics, Ecology, Ethics

This is the copy of an email sent to Mr. Herman Day in 1996