#15 responsibility
Michael Braungart

“A Friendly Tsunami”

Michael Braungart talks about the reverse character of sustainability and the actual potential of the human footprint. An interview with the founder of C2C.

Cradle to Cradle (C2C) calls for a turn-around in understanding the human role in environmental protection. Instead of reducing harm, the movement conceptualized by Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart and designer and architect William McDonough aims at integrating solution-oriented principles to support the biosphere. Contrary to the idea of sustainability, C2C presents a proactive approach throughout the whole cycle of industrial production and everyday life. In our conversation, Michael Braungart made short work of many preconceptions about development and innovation.

DDD: Today it is unusual not to hear the word “sustainability” when talk turns to environmental protection and resource management. “Sustainable development” was an important foundation of the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals and will also play a prominent role in the Post-2015 Agenda. Do you think sustainability makes sense as a leitmotif for the coming decades?

Michael Braungart: Sustainability is principally about managing guilt in reverse. In the Millennium Development Goals, the definition of sustainable development is pretty much the most depressing thing you can imagine. “Fulfilling the needs of the present generation without compromising the needs of the future”; that is about as sad as it gets. Imagine coming home and telling your children you don’t want to harm them. This wording basically says we feel guilty for having destroyed nature. This definition is from Scandinavia, where every footprint is considered damaging, so people try to do as little harm as possible. When it is dark and cold, you live sparingly, do without, keep everything in check. But nature can draw from such a giant input of energy on this planet that it can maintain overgenerous and wasteful systems. The key is to use the right energy sources and materials, and then this earth could hold a lot more people.

Sustainability was important in helping us grasp the problem and identify it, but it does not help us find solutions.

Sustainability: Isn’t it sad if I asked you: “How are things going with your partner these days?” and you were to respond “sustainable”? Well then let me express my condolences. Sustainability prevents innovation; they are mutually exclusive. The washing machine was not sustainable for my mother. She lost her job as a washer woman because parents could now afford a washing machine. Mobile phones were not sustainable for people with stationary phones. Sustainability was important in helping us grasp the problem and identify it, but it does not help us find solutions. It is not a concept for the future; it is a concept of the past.

And this is where C2C comes in with a fresh approach.

What you need to understand is that the C2C concept celebrates human beings. It does not see us as the problem. A city like Berlin, for example, wants to be climate-neutral by 2050. That is pretty pitiful. Have you ever seen a climate-neutral tree? And here we are with all our intelligence, and our goal is to be dumber than trees? A tree is always useful to the environment.

If you look at people as an opportunity for the planet, then they will act like an opportunity. If you turn them into a problem, that is what they become.

So C2C will only spread when people understand that less bad does not equal good. It is just something less harmful. And young people in particular aren’t on board with sustainability; they don’t want to have to apologise every single day for simply existing on this earth. If you look at people as an opportunity for the planet, then they will act like an opportunity. If you turn them into a problem, that is what they become. So the discussion around sustainability acts as a basis, but we can use it positively, which means it can be implemented more and more rapidly.

"Seeing people as an opportunity", could you outline in a few words how C2C translates this dictum into principles?

C2C means celebrating the human footprint instead of minimizing it. The footprint should be huge, but as a wetland. C2C means that we need to reinvent everything not so it does less harm, but so it is useful. Everything that shows wear and tear, everything that breaks down through use like brake pads, car tyres, laundry detergent: It all needs to be re-envisioned to support the biosphere. Objects that provide services, objects that we use, like washing machines, televisions, and windows, practically every object we use every day will provide services to the technosphere. So there will be no more waste. But this is not to say the idea of C2C is to create a world with no rubbish. This would mean we are still focusing on rubbish. The idea is to make everything nourishing. The real question is a cultural one, namely whether we want to control people to make them less harmful or support them in becoming how they want to be. 95% of all people want to be good if given a chance and this drives a great deal of innovation. Buildings that do much more than just cause no harm, for example. Not passive houses, but buildings that clean the air, purify the water. Buildings that offer a habitat to other animals as well, buildings that are like trees.

The C2C design principle was developed at the beginning of the 90s and has since drawn the attention of the wider public, most recently thanks to your latest book co-authored with US-American architect and designer William McDonough. How widespread is C2C today?

It depends on the country. As far as I know, 15 million copies of the C2C book were printed in China. Which makes sense, since people tend to think in terms of cycles in China. There is a C2C master plan for Taiwan, but Luxembourg has also developed a plan to become a C2C country with model regions. It is most widespread in the Netherlands where the question foremost in people’s mind is ‘can I use this to earn money’ and not ‘is this a moral obligation’. Morals always fail just when you need them most. In Holland there are whole provinces like Limburg where the entire public sphere and industry is refitting itself to comply with C2C.

The principle can be implemented much faster if we conceive of nature not as our mother but as our partner, our teacher.

There is one important reason behind this development: People in the Netherlands cannot romanticize nature. Romanticising nature just gives us a guilt complex. Talking about Mother Nature makes us small and ugly. One half of Holland is below sea level. If they went prattling on about Mother Nature, the next tidal wave would come along and sweep them away. The principle can be implemented much faster if we conceive of nature not as our mother but as our partner, our teacher.

The most important point of departure is the ability to think in cycles.

You mentioned China and Taiwan. During my research, I got the impression that the necessary eco-effective production and consumer cycles could be most effectively realised by industrialised nations. What about transition countries and the poorest states of the Global South: Is C2C developing there as well?

Well C2C combines the complex European way of thinking with the American drive to take action. In Europe we get paid for problems and in America you get paid for your actions. Sometimes, though, we act without the necessary information, and then you really need the complex European way of thinking and American implementation drive. C2C further unifies the Asian focus on cycles and southern joie de vivre. It can be implemented quickly when you have well-trained people. But the most important point of departure is the ability to think in cycles. This is why it can be implemented more quickly in Asia than here in Europe where we still think linearly.

All the wrong things are so perfect in the developed countries; they are in a sense perfectly wrong.

In principle it could be interpreted differently in every country. The problem is more that all the wrong things are so perfect in the developed countries; they are in a sense perfectly wrong. When the existing systems have been optimized, but are ultimately the wrong systems, it is harder to introduce new systems to the market because the existing ones have been so thoroughly optimized. There really is no standard answer. Taiwan is the best country in my opinion because the people there have managed to unite the Western concepts of freedom, culture and education with the Asian way of thinking in cycles. I am betting it will be the first country to completely implement C2C.

The Textile Alliance and textile production is a thematic focal point of this issue. To what extent does C2C consider working conditions in production in this context?

If the current situation ever really gets you down, I highly recommend watching a film made by a company called Goodbaby. If you search for “Goodbaby” and “Cradle to Cradle”, you’ll find a 5-minute film that shows how the company is in the process of changing.

For the C2C approach, the most important element is dealing with the filters right from the start.

“Goodbaby” makes more children’s things than there are children on this planet. They manufacture pushchairs, car seats, anything you can imagine for children. The company also shows that working conditions are included in their business model, as are fair wages. The film shows how the company will have been completely restructured by 2020. For the C2C approach, the most important element is dealing with the filters right from the start. That means if you select the right ingredients from the outset, then you don’t have to spend a lot of money later on occupational health and safety, water treatment plants, filters, etc. We can employ our intelligence from the start, select the filters in our minds and the design, and not simply add downstream environmental technologies at the end. This protects people much better than if I simply outfit them with protective clothing.

So there have to be fewer toxic substances in production?

No, not fewer toxic substances! If I hit my child three times instead of five times I have accomplished nothing really. We do things that are really useful; we create edible materials. Take the fabrics used by the furniture industry, for example. They are so toxic they have to be burnt as hazardous waste. We select all our ingredients so you could cut a piece of fabric used in clothing or upholstery into small pieces you could add to your cereal in case you ever suffer from malnutrition. And this is high-tech chemistry, not some extract of birch or anything like that. We select things based on whether they go out into the biosphere as they break down and not because they reduce toxic substances by just 10% percent. The really unfortunate thing is that while occupational health and safety and the laws passed have regulated and removed a number of toxic substances, as a rule nothing better has been created to take their place. We are stuck halfway there and have spent a lot of money on something that is just a little less dangerous. This in no way means it is useful, and that is neither very attractive nor particularly economical.

In our previous issue, the head of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, Reiner Klingholz, argued that many of the problems associated with growth would solve themselves if over the medium-term birth rates everywhere in the world were driven down by increased industrial development and the spread of prosperity. He postulates a critical phase as the production of goods and the provision of services triples by 2050, after which sustainable balance will be reached. What do you think of this assessment and what role could C2C play in a development like this?

I think that is an absurd assessment. The rate of destruction is moving so fast that we cannot hope to escape it this way. The planet is destroying itself at a speed we never imagined even as a worst case scenario. This means we really need true innovation.

Let’s celebrate the human footprint and reinvent all objects!

We can’t just continue on as we have been and hope that people become so infertile or selfish at some point that they don’t want to have children any more. When you eat beef, you only absorb 20% of the protein, whereas you absorb 90% of the protein from algae. So we have to question how we eat and not decide that everyone should have a hamburger first and we’ll work the rest out later. We have to get in there now and say: “Let’s celebrate the human footprint and reinvent all objects”, and not ask: “How can I increase efficiency enough to squeeze another 1,000 litres out of a cow?” We are already up to 12,000 litres; it was just 5,000 when I was a kid. But we are losing everything that makes us human beings human. We have to change courses. It is not about certifications either, like the EU tends to think; banning light bulbs and plastic bags is not going to help. This is about redesigning all the objects we create and use and having the know-how to do so. Right now we spend much more on repairing damage than we do on developing the new. At some time we will reach the point where there is so much damage to repair that we have no money for anything new. And if you look at our current lifestyle, where we invest 10 calories for a return of just 1 calorie of nutrition, that didn’t even work back when there were 5 billion people on earth.

I optimistically believe that we could have a planet that is the equivalent of five planets.

So if our population were to stabilize at 9 billion people, it would be deadly for the planet. Thus you are stabilizing a completely murderous state of destruction. I optimistically believe that we could have a planet that is the equivalent of five planets. People always say we only have one planet, what nonsense! When we were hunter-gatherers, the limit of the planet was around 5 million people. When we invented traditional agriculture, the limit expanded to around 500 million people. When we learned how to do industrial agriculture, with all its inherent mistakes, the limit rose to 5 billion. We’re well past that now. But if we could learn to practice garden-related agriculture that would place us and our basic food needs at a different spot on the food chain, by bacteria, by algae, by mould, then our diets would be much healthier and we could easily feed 30 billion people.

Do you think we could reach a point at which closed C2C cycles could allow for additional growth without having to take increasing amounts of resources from our environment? Otherwise we would again reach a limit.

The limits are in very different places, they are in phosphorus for example. The limits are inside of us. There is no organic seal in the world that allows me to recycle my own nutrients. "Organic" is a label that excludes me as an organism. You see, we have to ingest 2 grams of phosphate every day and excrete 2 grams of phosphate as well. We think something is only organic if my own foodstuffs are not returned to the cycle. But phosphate is much rarer than oil. If we do not succeed in recouping these things, then there will in fact be too many of us. I am not against taking things from nature. I am only saying let’s remove it in a way that creates a habitat for other living organisms like all other living creatures do.

Rubbish is not a moral problem, it is just stupid design.

Let’s take Belgium as an example. I looked at the clay mines there and saw how they became the most wonderful biotopes afterwards. Where you just stand there in amazement, admiring what human beings are capable of doing to support other living creatures. It used to be an agrarian steppe. Now the clay mine has been filled with water and is a marshland. It is like a dream; it is so impressive to see how we can positively interact with nature. Human intervention is an opportunity to use our intelligence actively to benefit other living creatures. If you see humans as the problem, then you look at every person and say: “It would be better if you were not even here.” This is why we consciously allow people to die on their journey across the Mediterranean. We accept this because the discussion around the environment has defined us as pests. Fear makes us greedy and hostile. When people feel liked and appreciated, then they are generous and friendly, and even the poorest give some of what they have to others. We would create another way of life, not because post-growth experts have told us to do so, but because we are happy that other people are doing well. Rubbish is not a moral problem, it is just stupid design. Someone who produces rubbish is always just an idiot! And the current narcissistic selfie generation understands this much more readily, because if there is one thing they want, it is to be proud of themselves. Which is great! This is why C2C is sweeping over us right now like a friendly tsunami; it can’t be stopped.

In closing I’d like to ask a personal question. You are a chemist, designer, entrepreneur and activist. You teach at universities and advise companies and governments. Of all these roles, what are you first and foremost?

First and foremost, I see myself as a teacher. Except that at the university, they only pay me for problems. So I have to be an entrepreneur as well to show how it is done. I straddle these two worlds, and as I do, I see that you can set shared goals with people who are not cynical no matter where they are from. To do so, you really do need a wide range of different facets. Which is why I have collected a professorship for practically each of my fingers: in Delft, in Twente, in Charlottesville, VA, in Luneburg, in Munich, and in Rotterdam, because I need so many different qualifications. I need the architects, the engineers of Delft; I need the economists of Rotterdam; I need the materials scientists and designers of Twente, and so on. Then we might really make it work! Actually I am sure we are going to make it work. I am surprised at how fast we are moving forward: There are around 3,000 C2C products right now. When you look at the fact that the internet was born in 1973, the mobile telephone in 1968, then it is truly amazing how fast these have been implemented. I personally never expected it to happen in my lifetime, not at all.

Interview: Patrick Delaney

Photo: “Footprints In The Mud” by Stuart Herbert
2010 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

Related Articles

The Real Costs of Cheap Food

Hans Herren, holder of the Right Livelihood Award, demands a global change of food production.

» more

The End of Growth: Panic or Salvation?

What happens when growth ends? Whether the world is heading for disaster or a golden age is a question of demographics.

» more