Designing Towards Abundance

Writing about their latest book, The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability — Designing for Abundance in Metropolis, William McDonough and Michael Braungart expand on their Cradle to Cradle advocacy:

Human beings don’t have a pollution problem; they have a design problem. If humans were to devise products, tools, furniture, homes, factories, and cities more intelligently from the start, they wouldn’t even need to think in terms of waste, or contamination, or scarcity. Good design would allow for abundance, endless reuse, and pleasure.

Such talk may seem counterintuitive to peakists and doomers, but in Depletion and Abundance, Sharon Astyk also saw past energy depletion to a possible future of abundance. McDonough & Braungart envision a more industrial future than Astyk’s Nation of Farmers, though:

This concept, we believe, could move the dialogue far beyond a simple interest in recycling, because we noticed that the entire recycling effort grew from a negative belief. The theory being put forward by most sustainability advocates, and increasingly by industry, goes something like this: Human beings create enormous amounts of waste and should strive to become “less bad.” Use less energy. Poison less. Cut down fewer trees. According to these current “best practices,” all people can hope to achieve is eco-efficiency, minimization, and avoidance, to recycle a limited percentage of objects humans use daily—bottles, paper—and fashion them into, unfortunately, a lesser product, one that can be used once more, or twice more, or maybe even five times more. But then where does this product go? Into a landfill? An incinerator?

Rather than simply conserving, McDonough & Braungart think it makes more sense to design our way out of scarcity and into abundance:

… eco-efficiency — setting a metric of tolerable levels of a gas—is simply not sufficient for positive design.

Eco-efficiency might also seek to curtail consumption: water use, for example. But that consumption limitation is premised on the notion that we live only in a world of scarcity and limit, that the ecological world is insufficient for the world of human activities and industries. This is just not true.

It sounds great, but it also sounds like a tough sell. In the wake of the West, Texas explosion and the Dhaka, Bangladesh collapse, in a global business-scape where cutting costs is paramount, it is frankly difficult to conceive of industry taking such prescriptions to heart.

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