We and Earth

“A product which people cannot make a living is not a good product, a product which become waste has a quality problem”, says Michael Braungart, the author of the seminal book Cradle to Cradle on sustainable design.

EPEA, il processo sostenibile. © EPEA 2016
I met Michael Braungart after his talk at Ecoweek in Tilburg and I asked him a few questions about innovation and design, about cities and the Earth capacity to sustain life. His answers re-frame the problem of our footprint, of our role on the planet and our role as designers.


Maria Luisa Palumbo: In 1987 you founded EPEA (Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency), a research and consultancy institute which works mainly on the implementation of circular processes. In 2002, together with William McDonough, you published Cradle to Cradle, a book which became a manifesto for a new approach to design where every man-made material is a nutrient. Is this the main key to innovation?

Michael Braungart: C2C is not really about materials. It is more about what is our role on the planet. We try to be less bad, to reduce our impact on the environment as much as possible. But C2C is about celebrating our human footprint, not about being less bad, but instead about setting positive goals. Right now our things are not good for us, they are only designed to be cheap and to look nice. A product which people cannot make a living is not a good product, a product which become waste has a quality problem. It is a quality issue. We can use all this climate debate as an innovation opportunity. It is an issue of process, because no one want to own a washing machine or own a Tv, you want to use them, we want clean clothes. In such cases, it makes sense to sell the utility rather than the product. It’s like a kind of ecological leasing, where if the products were to remain owned by the manufacturer, completely different types of materials could be used to make them. If I have sold a lifetime commitment to keep a machine running, I have a great incentive to make the parts sellable when they wear out. So, innovation is about looking at humans as an opportunity for the planet. It is about changing the mindset.
Bio-tech cycle. © EPEA GmbH 2009–2017
Top: The sustainable process. © EPEA 2016 Above: Bio-tech cycle. © EPEA GmbH 2009–2017

Maria Luisa Palumbo: Do you think in these last 15/20 years there have been positive changes? I think there has been a growth in environmental awareness but if we go shopping we are surrounded by unhealthy products, it is hard to see positive changes.

Michael Braungart: I think you are right that the speed of change is still slow... But look, it took one hundred and fifty year to change the declaration of human right so to give the right for women to vote in Europe. Real change takes a lot of time! But more and more people understand that eating beef or meat is not really the healthiest form of nutrition. Even in Italy, it is amazing what is going on, meat consumption went down dramatically in comparison to what it was fifteen years ago so I am quite optimistic. I didn’t expect what happened during my lifetime. We now see at least ten thousand C2C products on the market already.

Maria Luisa Palumbo: Talking about being optimistic, how many people can the Earth sustain? What do you think of the concept of planetary boundaries?

Michael Braungart: There is no planet boundary, the only boundary is our own mindset, our own education. Do you know the Einstein equation E=mc2? Do you know what it says? It says you can calculate energy and material in both ways, material can be energy and energy can become material. We have 20 thousand times more energy of what we will ever need. And we can definitely make a far more sophisticated planned use of the available energy.

We are not too many we are just too stupid: we are not good enough. It is not the planet, it is just us. We have to develop an agriculture which rebuild soil. But there is not one organic label in the whole global food industry that allows our own essential nutrients to be returned to the soil. Our organic agriculture, in other words, excludes us from the nutrient cycle. This is a critical point, because phosphorus is far more crucial for humans than, for example, oil. Without phosphorus we do not have any teeth or bones, and we cannot store energy in our bodies. Since phosphorus is essential for life, but we are afraid of using our own nutrients -feces- in agriculture, we have found a very primitive solution: phosphate mining that extracts phosphorus in a cumbersome manner and exposes us to much more radioactivity than is used in all the nuclear power plants of the world.

Il processo di design Cradle to Cradle®
Il processo di design Cradle to Cradle®. © EPEA Internationale Umweltforschung GmbH 2013

In China when you are invited for dinner, people till today expected you to stay until you use the toilet, it is unfriendly to leave and take the nutrients with you, because you are invited for dinner and not for steeling nutrients.

We need another thinking, another mindset, another agriculture. Because right now we are investing ten calories of energy to produce one calorie of food, which is ridiculous. But it is not about the planetary boundaries. The planet could easily feed as much as 50 billion people. The biomass of ants is greater than ours, these tiny little insects consume as many calories as 30 billion people. But the rain forest couldn't exist without them as they maintain soil health, nurturing the ecosystem while growing and harvesting their own food. So, we are just trying to reduce, avoid, minimize, but we should think about how to be good for other species.

Maria Luisa Palumbo: What do you think about the future of cities?

Michael Braungart: The latest policy trend is to become climate or carbon neutral; even major cities like Copenhagen or Sydney are convinced that this is the way to stop global warming. What an extraordinary ambition: you can only be climate neutral when you do not exist at all. Have you ever seen a climate-neutral tree? Trees are always beneficial for the climate and their environment; they absorb carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, clean the air and generate food and shelter for living beings. Why is our only choice to be “less bad”? For being less bad, we are too many. Why can’t we imitate the tree and try to be “good” instead? Instead of trying to minimize our ecological footprint, we can celebrate our human footprint. In order to do so, we need to transform our footprint into a fertile wetland. We can learn from nature endlessly. We call this “Cradle to Cradle”: it is a world where everything is beneficial. In a Cradle to Cradle world, waste is just an indicator of bad design.

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