Do you guys ever read a book with ideas in it and think, “Why the hell aren’t we already doing this if it’s so simple?”
That was my over all impression of Cradle to Cradle. And The Upcycle, which is the sequel that I went ahead and read as well because Cradle to Cradle was short. You didn’t have to read the sequel if you didn’t want, but if you liked Cradle to Cradle you would probably like The Upcycle so check it out.
The whole principal behind Cradle to Cradle is that we have to handle our resources better. That too much of our precious resources end up in garbage dumps and will never be used again, and most of those resources are finite. Also, recycling as we know it today is problematic because in most cases each time a product is recycled the material it’s made out of is degraded a little bit, so that it can only be recycled so many times until it’s absolute trash. This is better than just using it once, obviously, but ultimately still results in us throwing away valuable, finite resources. This happens because the original product was not designed with reuse or recycling in mind, so it was made in such a way that the materials aren’t able to be recycled efficiently (for example, blending metals to create alloys that can’t really be recycled). When we try to recycle them, we can’t use them the same way again, so we have to make unintended, and often unneeded, things out of them, much of which is just more consumer garbage we buy (like those purses made out of candy wrappers, stuff like that).
The solution to this, the authors say, is better design. We need to design products for infinite use, either by using materials that are compostable, or planning exactly how the materials in the product will be reused. This very interesting concept calls into question a lot of things I hadn’t thought about, such as ownership of consumer goods. They introduced the idea of basically renting things like your TV. That way, when you want a new TV, instead of throwing away the old one and buying a new one, you send the company that made the TV your old one back, and they send you a brand new one. When we do that, it enables the companies to design the TVs so that every part of the TV can be recycled or reused by them to make new TVs. It makes the process of the consumer getting the product recycled so much easier, if that’s just the process. This was interesting to me as somewhat of an anti consumerist. What would a world with less ownership look like?
This isn’t a totally new concept, we already have services like this in society. For example, it’s what most people with cable or satellite TV service do for their cable boxes, what many of us do for cell phones, and what leasing a car is. Just imagine doing it with your TV, your couch, your coffee table, pretty much all your consumer goods. When you get sick of it, or it breaks, or a newer model comes out, just trade it back in for a new one! Another option would be offering like a buy back program, in which a company would give you cash or a discount on other products if you return those products. That might work really well with something like clothes. You buy a cute shirt, you wear it until it goes out of style (or as is more likely my case, until I spill food on it or it gets one of those mystery holes in the washer), and then you send it back to the company so they can recycle the fibers and make new clothes, and they give you a discount code to buy more clothes from them at a reduced rate.
Another cool idea from Cradle to Cradle that I think we need to work on implementing right away is compostable packaging. Packaging is a huge problem as far as consumer waste goes, and realistically there is only so much we are going to be able to do to reduce it. We absolutely should reduce it as much as possible, and there is a lot of reduction that we can still do, but some packaging is going to likely be necessary for shipping, and retailers are going to want it to reduce shoplifting, and some stuff is going to need to be kept fresh or contained because it’s liquid or lots of small bits, etc., etc. So after we’ve reduced packaging as much as possible, we could work on making the rest of it safely compostable, so I could just put it all in my compost pile out back. And for those who don’t want to or are unable to compost, we could have city or community composting programs that would compost it. Many cities already have composting programs so it wouldn’t be a big leap.
They even delved into things like living water treatment facilities, that increase biodiversity while efficiently cleaning our water. There were so many cool ideas in these books that seriously made me wonder what is getting into the way of developing these things? Is it lack of knowledge? Or are there actual issues that make this stuff less feasible than they made it sound. Obviously, some of the stuff discussed would require a lot of development. We currently just don’t have a lot of synthetic compostable materials, for example, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t be developed, so why isn’t that a higher priority? I think the thing that stood out for me the most in these books was the idea about lining all of the Amtrak lines with solar panels. Amtrak already owns all this land that would be great for installing solar on, which would provide the nation with a ton of clean energy while also making incredible revenue for Amtrak so that tax payers wouldn’t have to contribute as much (or more of the money we do contribute could go towards expanding the rails and improving technology so we can get trains as fast as Europe and Asia have). Building and maintaining all that solar would create a ton of jobs too. Why isn’t this happening?
Honestly, some of the stuff in this book had a “too good to be true” feeling to it that made me feel a little skeptical, but even if it is more complicated than what they laid out in these short books, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to put the ideas out there and get people talking about it. They maintained throughout the book that the problem is that we’re so stuck in our old frame of thought when it comes to design that we often can’t even see these kinds of ideas because they don’t fit in the old paradigm. If that’s the case, throwing these ideas out there, even if they need to be hashed out more, is a good idea, because it helps retrain our brains to see different kinds of design options. They made the point in the book that you have to set your goals not based on what you think is possible right now, but on what the end result you want is. If you focus on what you think is possible now, you aren’t going to come up with any new solutions because you don’t need them. On the other hand, if you pick out what you want in the end, without thinking about whether or not it seems possible right now, you then are forced to innovate in order to get where you want to go. I think there’s a lot of wisdom to that, it’s kind of what climate activists are doing when they ask for an end to the use of fossil fuels. Obviously, we know that we can’t make the transition overnight, but you can’t just ask for a transition without specifying what you are transitioning to. So we’ve stated the end goal of what we want, an end to the use of fossil fuels for providing us with energy. By defining the end results first, we can figure out exactly what steps we need to take to get there.
Which brings me to another point they made in the book(s) that I really liked; that fossil fuels are too precious a resource to be burning them for energy. This is so true! As much as I advocate for an end to fossil fuels, there are some products that we make out of petroleum that simply cannot be replaced (to our current knowledge) that are absolutely crucial for society. The biggest thing that comes to my mind is medical plastics. The stuff that your IV tubing and stuff is made out of. Given that petroleum is a finite resource, and we don’t know how long it will be before we can come up with other ways to make these crucial products, shouldn’t we be conserving our petroleum for these things rather than burning it for energy or using to make bullshit like disposable plastic bags? We have simple, realistic alternatives for energy production and most plastics, we should be switching to those now so that we can conserve our oil for the stuff that’s really crucial and there are no alternatives for.
I think the deepest moment of this book for me was when they said that ultimately, imperialism is a consequence of bad resource use. In the world of social justice, many people feel that imperialism is the root cause of pretty much every social injustice out there, if that is the case, then these books make the case that poor management of the environment and our resources is a root cause of pretty much every injustice. I know that environmentalism intersects with almost every social justice issue, most notably classism, racism, and sexism, but this was a totally different way of looking at it. I think there is a lot of wisdom to the idea that the whole reason humans started being imperialistic was because we mismanaged our resources in one place, and felt compelled to obtain more resources from another place. I don’t know if I would say that poor resource management is the only factor, but it seems reasonable that it’s a major factor in the foundations of many social justice issues. This furthers my belief that addressing environmental issues and resource use could take us a long way towards dismantling oppressive systems.
All in all, I’d say this book(s) was really fascinating for sparking thought, but I don’t know if all the ideas presented in it were realistic. I do think it’s worth exploring though, it’s when we try to figure out how to make new ideas work that we get a lot of innovation. It also got me thinking a lot about how we can get more people thinking about these ideas and maybe start seeing some real motion towards innovation in these areas. I’m not going to develop a new packaging material that is compostable, because I’m not a chemist, but how can I encourage and help chemists to develop these products and get them into wide scale use? I think for starters I’m going to start looking for Cradle to Cradle certification when I buy things. I might not be able to only buy Cradle to Cradle certified products, but I can probably buy some. Method is Cradle to Cradle certified, so maybe I’ll start buying their cleaning products, for example. When I buy cleaning products. Which isn’t often because most of what I use is soap and water, but I could probably buy their dish soap. Consumerism isn’t the whole picture, obviously, but it’s a start.
What did you think of Cradle to Cradle (and The Upcycle, if you read it)? Do you see any glaring issues they failed to address? Do you know of areas where these ideas are going into practice? Any ideas on how we could bring these concepts into the mainstream? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
So, for next month’s book club book, I’m really feeling like I could use some fiction. How about you? I heard about the book The Water Knife on Colorado Matters, a Colorado Public Radio show that I listen to from time to time, and it sounded pretty cool. It’s a post apocolyptic, sci fi, thriller about a future in which climate change is in full swing and the western United States is in the midst of a major water crisis. Because we really are facing down a major water crisis, and because how we manage our yards and produce our food is a big part of preparing to handle that crisis, I feel like it could be very relevant to the readers of this blog, but also be a little more of a fun read than this slew of non fiction we’ve been going through. What do you think? The book is The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Looking forward to discussing it with you guys next month!