Heroes of Sustainability: William McDonough

“I can’t imagine something being beautiful at this point in history if it’s destroying the planet or causing children to get sick. How can anything be beautiful if it’s not ecologically intelligent at this point?” –William McDonough

When William McDonough co-wrote Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things a decade ago, it revolutionized the way we think about design. Part of that was because of the book itself — instead of being printed on paper from trees, the words were pressed onto plastic resins and inorganic fillers that feel like paper (yet are waterproof) and can easily be recycled.

The physical manifestation of the book is but one example of the cradle-to-cradle design espoused by McDonough and co-author Michael Braungart, a German chemist. The concept calls for designers to think about what happens at the end of a product’s life just as much as they think about the beginning.

By using design principles that mesh with nature — harnessing the sun’s energy and making use of nutrient cycling, for example — buildings, products, and systems can become more than just a bear on the environment, but a tool for positive change.

Innovative Design
As an architect, McDonough has created buildings for corporations such as Nike and the Gap that have changed the way people think about green design and function. With his firm William McDonough + Partners, McDonough made history at the Ford River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Mich., covering the roof with 10 acres of sedum, a low-growing groundcover that retains and cleanses rainwater as well as moderates the internal temperature of the building. The Sustainability Base as part of NASA’s Ames Research Center is another feat of engineering, with solar panels, ample use of daylighting, and systems designed to eventually use only renewable energy and maintain water in closed loops.

Ford River Rouge Complex. Photo courtesy of William McDonough + Partners.

According to the William McDonough + Partners website: “The foundational principles we bring to each project derive from our vision of the future: a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world — with clean air, soil, water and power — economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed.”

McDonough is also co-founder of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), a global sustainability consulting and product certification firm that helps clients go beyond reducing a negative footprint and instead leave a “positive footprint.” The Cradle to Cradle framework for creation they’ve developed takes five dimensions into account: using materials as nutrients for safe continuous cycling; developing systems to safely close the loop on biological and technical nutrients; powering all operations with 100 percent renewable energy; regarding water as a precious resource; and respecting all people and natural systems.

Future Generations
The idea that buildings can be more than just “less bad” and instead do good is one that’s greatly impacted green builders’ thought processes, and led to a slew of honors for McDonough, including “Hero for the Planet” from Time magazine and the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development.

“If we look at money, currency is a fluid thing. And yet, what we’re talking about is transformation into values-based design,” McDonough said in an interview with Dwell. “In that context we express our values which are to grow capital, and the capital is currency with potential. And it’s really about having things for future generations, not just using everything up. Once you get the difference between currency and capital, your mind can change and you don’t cut down the tree to burn it for fuel and cause carbon, you look at the tree and celebrate it for its fruit and leave the rest for future generations.”

For more information about McDonough, visit www.mcdonough.com.


Heroes of Sustainability: Donella Meadows

Donella Meadows in 1994. Photo by Medora Hebert, Valley News.

“Speak the truth. Speak it loud and often, calmly but insistently, and speak it, as the Quakers say, to power. Material accumulation is not the purpose of human existence. All growth is not good. The environment is a necessity, not a luxury. There is such a thing as ‘enough.’” — Donella Meadows

Remembered for her contributions to systems analysis and environmental science, Donella Meadows — known as Dana to her friends — gained international acclaim when she served as lead author for The Limits to Growth in 1972.

The best-selling book argued that our consumption pattern is not sustainable in the long run, using a computer simulation model to show how unchecked world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion could impact the earth. The book was translated into more than two dozen languages and sold tens of millions of copies.

It was not unanimously loved but instead fiercely debated. Plenty of economists, scientists, and other leaders criticized the message and methodology, saying that the predictions were too dire and that humans would find a way to make unfettered economic growth sustainable. However, nearly 40 years later, its arguments have stood the test of time, proving it a worthy read that’s only becoming more relevant as the years go on.

“[The Limits to Growth] should be given credit for emphasizing early on the interconnections and feedback between various sectors and trends,” wrote Jørgen Stig Nørgård, John Peet, and Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir in a 2010 article in Solutions journal. “Today we see, for example, how our fast depletion of fossil fuel resources is directly contributing to climate change problems.”

A Global Citizen
With a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Carleton College and a PhD in biophysics from Harvard University, Meadows became a research fellow at MIT, working in the department of Jay Forrester, who invented system dynamics. She offered many contributions to systems theory and global trend analysis herself, and began teaching environmental systems, ethics, and journalism at Dartmouth College in 1972, where she remained until her death in 2001 after battling bacterial meningitis.

She left a compelling legacy as a thought leader in her wake. A weekly column she wrote for 16 years called “The Global Citizen,” about world events from a systems point of view, ran in more than 20 newspapers, won numerous awards, and earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

With husband Dennis Meadows, she founded the International Network of Resource Information Centers (INRIC), better known as the Balaton Group, which played a role in facilitating exchanges between scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. The information-sharing process she developed as coordinator has made a huge impact on science and sustainability development.

In 1996, Meadows founded the Sustainability Institute (now the Donella Meadows Institute), an organization with the mission to apply systems thinking and organizational learning to economic, environmental, and social challenges.

Change Is Not Sacrifice
Even though The Limits to Growth was considered gloomy by many, Meadows had a hopeful outlook for the future of the environment, and she worked tirelessly to share her knowledge with others so that they, too, would recognize the damage being done.

As she said in a 1996 presentation: “As I travel on the path toward sustainability myself and watch my friends travel on it, I keep thinking of a motto I once heard: ‘Change is not sacrifice.’ It is learning, staying awake, being alive, moving to new places. It requires every part of us, our rational minds and our loving spirits. It treasures and protects the bottom of the pyramid, the magnificent planet and all its wondrous living things, and it moves us toward the top of the pyramid, the top of the mountain of sustainability, the ultimate end, the fulfillment of the highest and noblest human purposes.”


Heroes of Sustainability: Daniel Quinn

Daniel Quinn with wife Rennie and a bronze statue of Ishmael

Although writer Daniel Quinn is a well-known environmentalist, he wouldn’t categorize himself that way.

“I don’t consider myself an environmentalist,” he told EcoGeek.org. “I feel that the category itself is badly conceived, dividing the world into people who are ‘for the environment’ and people who are ‘for people,’ which is nonsense. Thus it came to be seen that ‘environmentalists’ were ‘for’ the spotted owl, while non-environmentalists were seen to be ‘for’ forestry jobs that would be lost by saving the spotted owl. The term ‘environmentalism’ emphasizes a false division between ‘us’ and ‘it’ — ‘it’ being the environment. There is no ‘it’ out there. We are all in this together. There are no two sides. We cannot survive as a species somehow separate from the rest of the living community.”

Humankind as a Global Tyrant
Quinn’s view on environmentalism is just one example of his unique way of thinking. His most famous display of thought is in his book Ishmael, a novel that delves into the problem of how humankind can stop destroying the earth. In it, the narrator answers a personals ad from a teacher seeking a pupil with a desire to save the world, and meets Ishmael, a telepathic gorilla.

According to Quinn’s site, Ishmael.org, “Ishmael’s paradigm of history is startlingly different from the one wired into our cultural consciousness. For Ishmael, our agricultural revolution was not a technological event but a moral one, a rebellion against an ethical structure inherent in the community of life since its foundation four billion years ago. Having escaped the restraints of this ethical structure, humankind made itself a global tyrant, wielding deadly force over all other species while lacking the wisdom to make its tyranny a beneficial one or even a sustainable one.

“That tyranny is now hurtling us toward a planetary disaster of pollution and overpopulation. If we want to avoid that catastrophe, we need to work our way back to some fundamental truths: that we weren’t born a menace to the world and that no irresistible fate compels us to go on being a menace to the world.”

Becoming a Thinker
Quinn wrote the book in order to submit it to the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award, which was created by Ted Turner to recognize an unpublished work of fiction that offered creative and positive solutions to global problems. Ishmael won the award in 1991, and with it, $500,000. When the book was published the next year, it was met with critical acclaim, called “a thoughtful, fearlessly low-key novel” by The New York Times Book Review, “wonderfully engaging,” by The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and “suspenseful, inventive, and socially urgent” by The Austin Chronicle.

The book was not without its controversies, though. Quinn touches on the argument that providing food aid to impoverished countries only exacerbates overpopulation and environmental issues, as population growth is a function of food supply. This idea is explored more in some of his other books, as well as in the DVD Food Production and Population Growth.

Whether or not you agree with all his ideas, Quinn has a way of thinking that brings a fresh perspective to long-held beliefs, challenging people to throw out what they think they know and approach problems in a new way.

In My Ishmael (a follow-up to Ishmael), Quinn wrote: “Thinkers aren’t limited by what they know, because they can always increase what they know. Rather they’re limited by what puzzles them, because there’s no way to become curious about something that doesn’t puzzle you.”


Kindness Advocate Urges Grads to Walk, Not Fly

It’s graduation time, which means students across the country are being showered with words of wisdom from commencement speakers. “Stay hungry, stay foolish” was Steve Jobs’ famous advice to Stanford grads in 2005, and at Grinnell College this year, Jamaica Kincaid said: “You must bite the hand that feeds you. You are perhaps always told the opposite of this. The opposite of this is often said to you, ‘Do not bite the hand that feeds you.’ But from time to time I tell you, you must.”

At the University of Pennsylvania’s baccalaureate ceremony this year, the grads heard from Nipun Mehta, who doesn’t work for pay but instead devotes his life to the “gift-economy,” a system predicated on trust, small acts of kindness, and compassion. For ambitious Ivy League students — and most people, for that matter — his ideas are somewhat outside the box. Instead of pushing the students to take their considerable talents and run with them, he started with this:

“You are some of the world’s most gifted, elite, and driven college graduates — and you are undeniably ready to fly. So what I’m about to say next may sound a bit crazy. I want to urge you, not to fly, but to — walk.”

Walking, the crowd found out, was something near and dear to Mehta’s heart. When he and his wife had been married for six months, they set out on a walking pilgrimage, letting go of everything they owned and buying a one-way ticket to India. Their budget was about $1 a day.

“Our goal was simply to be in a space larger than our egos, and to allow that compassion to guide us in unscripted acts of service along the way,” Mehta said.

The lessons learned during their journey were innumerable, and Mehta divided them into four categories, derived from the word WALK: Witness, Accept, Love, and Know Thyself. By slowing down, taking in his surroundings, and truly connecting with other people, Mehta was able to gain an entirely new perspective on life, one that continues to drive him today, long after the 1,000-kilometer walk ended.

He closed with this: “And today, at this momentous milestone of your life, you came in walking and you will go out walking. As you walk on into a world that is increasingly aiming to move beyond the speed of thought, I hope you will each remember the importance of traveling at the speed of thoughtfulness. I hope that you will take time to witness our magnificent interconnections. That you will accept the beautiful gifts of life even when they aren’t pretty, that you will practice loving selflessly and strive to know your deepest nature.”

It’s a wonderful lesson for graduates — but one that can resonate with anyone, regardless of whether they put on a cap and gown this year.

To read the full text of Mehta’s speech, click here.