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.


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.


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.”


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.”


Heroes of Sustainability: Howard Zinn

ImageLike many people who’ve served in the military during wartime, historian, playwright, and activist Howard Zinn was irrevocably changed by his experiences in the armed forces.

The Brooklyn native flew bomber missions during World War II, during which he bombed targets in Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, and Hungary. Partly because of his experiences, he became vehemently anti-war and passionately interested in history. He later attended New York University courtesy of the GI Bill, and then went on to get a master’s and a PhD in history from Columbia University.

Civilly Disobedient
Upon graduating, he began teaching at Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta. There — where he said he learned more from his students than they from him — he became active in the civil rights movement. When he supported student protesters (like Alice Walker, who went on to write The Color Purple, and Marian Wright Edelman, who would later found the Children’s Defense Fund), he was fired and moved on to Boston University, where he taught political science until he retired in 1988.

In his book Failure to Quit, Zinn wrote: “Civil disobedience … is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that numbers of people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”

Taking a Different Perspective
While Zinn — who died in 2010 at the age of 87 — wrote more than 20 books, lectured at countless universities, and was influential in the civil rights movement and anti-war efforts, he is perhaps best known for his textbook A People’s History of the United States. Instead of espousing the traditional view from the people in power throughout history, this book tackles a range of perspectives, from the Native Americans who struggled as men from other continents came and took over their land to unionists standing up against their employers to women and African-Americans fighting for equal rights. The textbook was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1981 and is still widely used in high schools and colleges to provide an alternative point of view compared with so many other history textbooks.

Novelist Howard Fast called A People’s History of the United States “one of the most important books I have ever read in a long life of reading. … It’s a wonderful, splendid book — a book that should be read by every American, student or otherwise, who wants to understand his country, its true history, and its hope for the future.”

For more on Zinn, visit www.howardzinn.org.


Heroes of Sustainability: Harvey Lacey

Harvey Lacey. Photo by Beccalyn Photography.

Harvey Lacey, a grandfatherly looking Texas inventor in his 60s, has found a simple and elegant solution to a problem that others have found to be completely unsolvable — housing the most desperately poor people on earth. Lacey teaches Haitians how to build dry, well-insulated, and sturdy dwellings made from trash. The basic element of construction is what Lacey calls Ubuntu-Blox. (“Ubuntu” means “humanity to others.”)

Trash to Treasure
Ubuntu-Blox are building blocks made from recycled plastic and Styrofoam. The plastic and Styrofoam are cleaned and then compressed. Later, dwellings arise when the blocks are layered and reinforced with wire and rebar to form walls. Roofing can be done with scrap lumber. Finally, the walls are sealed with a coating of mud or stucco.

Surprisingly, dwellings constructed from Ubuntu-Blox have been shown in tests to be capable of withstanding hurricane-speed winds and a level of shaking found during strong earthquakes.

More about building with Ubuntu-Blox can be seen in a video from the Memnosyne Foundation and a recent article by Gail Bennison published in the Collin County Business Press.

In Haiti, Lacey teaches Haitians (generally women) how to make Ubuntu-Blox and how to use them in construction. One woman described her motivation to become a student of Lacey by saying that she simply did not want to have to stand in water when it rained. Lacey’s students can use the skills they learn in constructing a dwelling for themselves to earn income that will take them out of extreme poverty. They can make and sell Ubuntu-Blox and sell their labor to construct buildings for others.

A Humanitarian
Lacey is supported in his travels by a small grant from Memnosyne Foundation. Lacey’s reward for his work is helping people who desperately need help. He does not want royalties from those who choose to build with Ubuntu-Blox. He conceives of what he is doing as going beyond the familiar parable about teaching a hungry man to fish. He teaches a more advanced technology — a technology that is more like teaching a hungry man how to use a fishing net, not just a fishing pole.

Lacey is now getting calls from all over the world from people who want to find out more about how trash can be used to provide well-constructed dwellings for almost no money. He is very happy to take those calls and to offer his help and encouragement.

Lacey’s work is beginning to have a worldwide impact. That is important in light of a struggle that more and more poor people now have to stay out of extreme poverty. Turning recycled trash into decent housing is an exceptional advance in both humanitarian action and sustainability. If you like what Lacey is doing, you can let him know by sending a message to ubuntublox(at)gmail.com. You could also send a contribution to Memnosyne Foundation, 2902 Maple Avenue, Dallas, TX 75201, and let them know you appreciate their support of Harvey Lacey.


Heroes of Sustainability: Amy Goodman

While the United States typically prides itself on being a country where free speech reigns and journalists are able to chase down stories without government interference, Amy Goodman doesn’t see it that way.

“In the old Soviet Union, people knew that they had to read between the lines of state-sponsored news to get to the truth,” Goodman said at an event in Philadelphia. “But in this country there is the illusion that…”

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Heroes of Sustainability: Philippe Cousteau Jr.

Philippe Cousteau Jr. once told Elle magazine that “it takes more than a birth certificate to be a Cousteau.” The 30-something certainly isn’t resting on his famous name, but he is living up to it, carrying on the work of his father, Philippe Cousteau, and grandfather Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

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