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Why Being “Less Bad” Is No Good

How can we ensure that industry is beneficial to human and ecological health?

Order "Cradle to Cradle" here.

Takeaways


  • Eco-efficiency primarily means "doing more with less," a precept that has its roots in early industrialization.
  • Once you understand the destruction taking place, unless you do something to change it, even if you never intended to cause such destruction, you become involved in a strategy of tragedy.
  • Once you understand the destruction taking place, unless you do something to change it, you become involved in a strategy of tragedy.

Today’s industrial infrastructure is designed to chase economic growth. It does so at the expense of other vital concerns, particularly human and ecological health, cultural and natural richness and even enjoyment and delight.

Except for a few generally known positive side effects, most industrial methods and materials are unintentionally depletive.

Yet just as industrialists, engineers, designers and developers of the past did not intend to bring about such devastating effects, those who perpetuate these paradigms today surely do not intend to damage the world.

The waste, pollution, crude products and other negative effects are not the results of corporations doing something morally wrong. They are the consequence of outdated and unintelligent design.

Nevertheless, the damage is certain and severe. Modern industries are chipping away at some of the basic achievements that industrialization brought about. Food stocks, for example, have increased so that more children are fed, but more children go to bed hungry as well.

But even if well-fed children are regularly exposed to substances that can lead to genetic mutations, cancer, asthma, allergies and other complications from industrial contamination and waste, then what has been achieved?

Poor design on such a scale reaches far beyond our own lifespan. It perpetrates what we call intergenerational remote tyranny — our tyranny over future generations through the effects of our actions today.

At some point a manufacturer or designer decides, "We can't keep doing this. We can't keep supporting and maintaining this system." At some point they will decide that they would prefer to leave behind a positive design legacy. But when is that point?

We say that point is today and negligence starts tomorrow. Once you understand the destruction taking place, unless you do something to change it, even if you never intended to cause such destruction, you become involved in a strategy of tragedy. You can continue to be engaged in that strategy of tragedy, or you can design and implement a strategy of change.

Perhaps you imagine that a viable strategy for change already exists. There are a number of "green," "environmental" and "eco-efficient" movements already afoot.

What is eco-efficiency? Primarily the term means "doing more with less," a precept that has its roots in early industrialization.

Henry Ford himself was adamant about lean and clean operating policies, saving his company millions of dollars by reducing waste and setting new standards with his time-saving assembly line. "You must get the most out of the power, out of the material and out of the time," he wrote in 1926, a credo that most contemporary CEOs would proudly hang on their office walls.

Eco-efficiency is an outwardly admirable, even noble, concept, but it is not a strategy for success over the long term, because it does not reach deep enough. It works within the same system that caused the problem in the first place, merely slowing it down with moral prescriptions and punitive measures. It presents little more than an illusion of change.

Relying on eco-efficiency to save the environment will in fact achieve the opposite. It will let industry finish off everything quietly, persistently and completely.

Editor’s note: This feature is excerpted from “Cradle to Cradle” by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, published by North Point Press. Copyright 2002 by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Reprinted with permission of the authors.

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