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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