Heroes of Sustainability: Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry. Photo by Jim Fothergill.

“Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.” — Wendell Berry

Prolific writer and farmer Wendell Berry has spent his life sticking close to his roots. That doesn’t mean the Kentucky-based scholar has never gone out and experienced anything new — he studied at Stanford University in California, taught at New York University, and traveled to Italy and France as part of a fellowship.

“In high school, my teachers were telling me you can’t amount to anything and stay where you’re from,” he told Smithsonian magazine. “So when I left here, I assumed I would be an academic wanderer perhaps, that I’d be going with my ‘talent’ from one university to another so I could amount to something. When I decided to come back here, a lot of people I respected thought I was deliberately achieving my ruin.”

A Sense of Place
Instead, the Kentucky native was returning to the place where his “imagination took root,” taking up the tradition of farming that had been in his family for at least five generations.

Doing so was anything but the achievement of his ruin. A staunch advocate for the land, Berry practices what he preaches, living on a 125-acre homestead that produces most of the things he needs to eat. A team of horses plows the land instead of a modern tractor.

In addition to producing sustenance for his family, he’s produced an incredible number of written works — more than 50 novels, short story collections, poetry chapbooks, and volumes of essays in all. Much of his writing has focused on issues of sustainability and agrarian values, weaving in ideas of connection to place, local economies, and the miracle and interconnectedness of life.

Championing Causes
Although Berry is well into his 70s now, that hasn’t slowed down his activism. Earlier this year, he spent a weekend locked in the Kentucky governor’s office with others from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in an effort to stop mountaintop removal coal mining. In late 2009, he protested the construction of a coal-burning power plant in Clark County, Kentucky, a project that was successfully canceled earlier this year. Also in 2009, he teamed up with The Land Institute’s Wes Jackson (another Hero of Sustainability) to write an op-ed for The New York Times calling for a farm bill that addresses “the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities.”

While he’s a champion for the environment, he has criticism for that movement, too, given how some separate wilderness from farmland. “My experience over the last 25 years has been that not many people speak, or can think, from the point of view of the land,” he told Smithsonian. “As soon as the conversation shifts from issues actually affecting the land to ‘the environment,’ then you’re done for. People think of it as something different from themselves, and of course it isn’t.”

With simple yet beautiful prose and commonsense ideas, Berry has ideas worth taking heed of — and yet he’s still working to be heard. As writer Rod Dreher said in The American Conservative, Berry’s “unshakable devotion to the land, to localism, and to the dignity of traditional life makes him both a great American and, to the disgrace of our age, a prophet without honor in his native land.”

To learn more about Berry’s works, visit www.wendellberrybooks.com.

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Heroes of Sustainability: Michael Braungart

Michael Braungart. Photo by Enith Stenhuys.

“Think about this — today the indoors air quality in most buildings is very poor, yet the insulation techniques keep improving, so by not looking at the big picture we’re effectively trapping ourselves in polluted air. My conclusion is that if you do something wrong, don’t make it perfect, otherwise you’re just making something that’s perfectly wrong.”
– Michael Braungart

Michael Braungart is driven by two big questions: How can mankind really integrate itself into life on earth? How can people be not just less harmful, but rather useful?

Throughout his career, the German chemist has strived to answer these questions, and in the process, has come up with some revolutionary ideas — including ones that have certainly raised a few eyebrows.

In design magazine Abitare, he wrote: “But I can tell you, sustainability is boring. It is just the minimum. Like when you were asked: ‘How is your relationship with your girlfriend?’ What do you say? Sustainable? I’d say: ‘I am so sorry for you.’ Design is the complete opposite of sustainability. We would still live on trees if we were sustainable. Sustainability just keeps the same things over and over again. Instead we should celebrate being human beings and our creativity, which is far more important than sustainability.”

A Real Shift
Elevating design to something that’s more than just the bare minimum is something he delves deeper into in the book he co-wrote with American architect William McDonough, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. The Cradle the Cradle philosophy is all about looking at the design of something from the beginning to end of its life span, eliminating the concept of “waste,” as everything can be reused perpetually. Instead of minimization, Braungart envisions a design world of optimization.

“Most of the time products that are labeled carbon neutral absolutely are not,” he said at EcoBuild 2010 in London. “We have to stop thinking we can protect the environment by destroying less. Carbon neutral is only achievable through nonexistence, hence it’s not something to aspire to — what we need to aim for is carbon positive, like trees. And that calls for a real shift.”

Spreading the Word
In Braungart’s earlier days, he was a Greenpeace activist who once lived in a tree as a form of protest. He went on to lead the formation of the Chemistry Section of Greenpeace International, and in 1987, he founded the EPEA Umweltforschung in Hamburg, which works with clients around the world to institute Cradle to Cradle principles. He is a professor of process engineering at the University of Applied Sciences in Suderburg and the scientific manager of the Hamburg Environmental Institute, a nonprofit research center that ranks the quality of environmentally sound products in the chemical industry. He is also co-founder of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), a global sustainability consulting and product certification firm based in Virginia.

Although Braungart’s involved in a variety of activities, they all have one overarching goal: to promote the idea that we can do more than just reduce our negative environmental impact — we can make a better one.

For more information about Braungart, visit www.braungart.com/index_EN.html.

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Heroes of Sustainability: Janine Benyus

When working to create a new process or product, Janine Benyus recommends asking one simple question: What would nature do?

The biologist and science writer coined the term biomimicry (from bios, meaning “life,” and mimesis, meaning “to imitate”) to describe the process of taking designs from our natural environment and using them to create more-efficient and sustainable products and processes. For example, think about a plane emulating a bird, a spider’s web that’s as strong as a bulletproof vest, pharmacists studying organisms that self-medicate, and buildings that model themselves after termite mounds that maintain a constant temperature despite fluctuating heat outside.

Innovation Inspired by Nature
Benyus’ love for all things nature started early in life. “I grew up in a part of suburban New Jersey where there were still some open spaces — forests, meadows, ravines, streams,” she told The Sun magazine in 2009. “Then suburbia rolled over us, and my parents moved us farther out. This happened several times. I was always a little naturalist. I would go outside in the morning with my lunch packed and stay out all day. My parents had to ring the dinner bell to get me back inside. Although I grew up in the suburbs, I always found wilderness to explore. I firmly believe that wilderness can be found anywhere, even in the cracks of the sidewalk; it’s just a matter of seeing it.”

Her way of “seeing it” that others don’t is what has made her ideas so revolutionary. In her most famous book, 1997’s Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, she introduced the masses to this discipline of seeking sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s designs.

It’s an idea that’s genius in its simplicity. All around us are answers to the biggest dilemmas that face designers, architects, and businesspeople — we try to make things bigger, better, and more efficient, yet the earth has already found ways to do everything in an optimal way.

A year after the release of Biomimicry, Benyus co-founded an innovation consultancy called Biomimicry Guild, which helps engineers, architects, business leaders, and others solve design and engineering challenges in a sustainable way. She also founded the Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit organization that aims to spread the ideas of biomimicry to a larger audience.

Model and Mentor
In the article that announced Benyus as one of Time magazine’s 2007 “Heroes of the Environment,” scientist Amory B. Lovins wrote: “Biomimicry isn’t biotechnology. Biomimicry learns and emulates how spiders make silk; biotechnology transplants spiders’ silk-making genes into goats, then sorts silk from milk and hopes the genes don’t get loose. Biotechnology is smart kids in an oil depot with matches; biomimicry is wise adults in a rain forest with flashlights. Biotechnology is pure hubris; biomimicry is luminous humility — treating nature as model and mentor, cherished not as a mine to be stripped of its resources but as a teacher.”

And like nature, that’s just what Benyus is — a teacher. Known for her engaging speaking style and ability to translate complex concepts into layman terms, Benyus hopes that by getting people to care about the lessons nature has to teach, she’ll also get them to care about preserving the environment.

“I believe that every organism that I can see is sweetening this place,” Benyus told CNN in 2008. “I think if we were to learn from their strategies, we too might be participants in that process, not depleting this place that sustains us, but actually enhancing it to the point where it becomes more and more conducive to life.”

For more information about Benyus, visit www.janinebenyus.com.

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Heroes of Sustainability: E.F. Schumacher

One of the hundred most influential books published since World War II, according to The Times Literary Supplement, E.F. Schumacher’s internationally known Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered has informed thinking on Western economies since 1973.

The German-born economist and statistician was more than just a numbers guy — he was an environmental champion. In Small Is Beautiful, he argued that technological production shouldn’t mean damaging our finite natural capital and thus ruining it for future generations. “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent,” he said. “It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”

Excessive Growth
The title of the book itself fought back against the idea of “bigger is better” — small can be beautiful, and enough is enough. Rather than using gross national product as an indicator of human well-being, Schumacher thought another model may be more appropriate. “The aim ought to be to obtain the maximum amount of well-being with the minimum amount of consumption,” he wrote.

For 20 years, from 1950 to 1970, he served as chief economic adviser to the National Coal Board in Britain, during which time he championed coal over petroleum. His reasoning was that oil was a finite resource that would eventually be depleted and rise astronomically in price. Plus, he noted that the biggest reserves of oil were in some of the most unstable countries.

Up until his mid-40s, Schumacher was a proponent of unfettered economic growth, like most good economists. He came to realize, however, that modern technology was far exceeding human need. A trip to Burma inspired him to coin the term “Buddhist economics,” which referred to economic principles he created on the tenets of renewable resources and individuals doing good work to further human development.

Nature’s Potential
Instead of looking at natural resources as expendable income, they should be looked at as capital, Schumacher argued, since they can’t be renewed and will eventually disappear. He believed that sustainable development should be a priority, as the earth can’t protect itself against pollution forever. His controversial opinion that industrialism full speed ahead — with no concern for the impact it had on nature — wouldn’t stand up in the long run set him apart from his contemporaries.

While his ideas were fairly radical in economics circles, they made him popular with proponents of environmentalism, a movement that was gaining steam at the height of Schumacher’s career. A thoroughly readable collection of essays that stand the test of time, Small Is Beautiful still informs thought today on eco issues.

As Schumacher said: “There is incredible generosity in the potentialities of Nature. We only have to discover how to utilize them.”

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