Going from less bad to a future of green

ON THE BAY

`Habitat': A landscape architect's design firm puts environmental `imaginings' into practice for corporate clients.

February 06, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

KERMIT THE FROG was right. It's not easy being green, and here's why:

Environmentalism is the curmudgeonly brake, grinding to restrain that heady, high-revving, wondrous engine, the economy.

Befitting brakemen, the language of us greenies is laced with words like limits, avoid, minimize, reduce, minimize, sacrifice, regulate.

Right now, it has to be that way. For all our talk of "win-win" solutions, the faster our modern industrial economy runs, the worse nature usually fares.

It's a hell of a thing that a homebuilding recession is among our more reliable protectors of open space; that a drought, cutting runoff from farms and streets, is the only way we clear up Chesapeake waters.

Of course we're making environmental progress.

Progress toward being less bad.

But you know how that story ends? The same as if we're bad, or more bad.

It just takes longer.

Is it our fate to lurch down the highway to the future, one foot tromping the gas, one simultaneously mashing the brake, trying to arrive with the least wreckage possible?

Maybe not. Consider Toyota's gas-electric hybrid, the Prius. The harder you brake, the more the friction charges the electric motor, which powers the vehicle in its cleanest, most fuel-efficient mode.

Now, take a leap beyond the Prius, and imagine an economy that, the faster it ran, the greener we'd be.

Buildings would emulate trees, producing more oxygen and more energy than they used, cleansing the wastes of their inhabitants, and providing beautiful workspace "habitat."

New products, from autos to carpeting, would be designed so their manufacture produces air emissions and waterborne effluent too clean to regulate. The products themselves would be infinitely recyclable in industrial closed loops or compostable, returning their components to enrich the soil.

Imagine finishing a cola and tossing the bottle, knowing it will degrade, not just harmlessly, but with benefit to the soil - seeds implanted in the bottle at the factory will sprout into trees.

Imagine shoes with soles, as they abrade with wear, release beneficial nutrients rather than today's mix of toxic compounds.

Many have envisioned such a future, though few so compellingly as William McDonough, a landscape architect and author of Cradle to Cradle - Remaking the way we make things (North Point Press, 2002).

What really sets McDonough apart is how his design firm, and his collaborations with co-author and German chemist Michael Braungart, are putting the above "imaginings" into practice with corporate clients that range from Ford and IBM to Nike and Oberlin College.

Hired to produce a fabric for chairmaker Steelcase that could be safely discarded, McDonough and Braungart screened 8,000 chemicals commonly used in textiles - discarding as toxic all but 38.

That was enough, and the results were stunning: a compostable fabric safe enough to eat and a "waste" stream from the factory cleaner than the water coming in. Regulatory paperwork was eliminated, and workers discarded protective masks and gloves.

Ford Motor Co. is working with McDonough on a $2 billion makeover of its giant River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich., a factory that can go from iron ore to finished car in 28 hours.

One Ford project is a 10-acre, green roof of living, oxygen-producing, wildlife-friendly, native plants. Combined with new wetlands and porous parking lots, the roof lets storm water move to the river over three days, arriving cleansed and in trickles, compared to the polluting gush when it ran off hard surfaces. By avoiding storm-water regulations, the company will save up to $35 million, McDonough says.

"Regulation," he says, "can be seen as a failure of design."

For Herman Miller, the furniture maker, McDonough designed a superbly eco-friendly factory where environs are so worker-friendly that productivity has soared, more than offsetting slightly higher building costs. Sixteen workers who had left for higher wages returned because of the new environment.

When you buy Cradle to Cradle, notice the pleasing feel and sharp readability of its pages. The entire book is waterproof, durable, and not from trees. It's an infinitely recyclable mix of plastic resins and organic fillers.

It makes a point that's important to McDonough: "This isn't about going back to all natural. Synthetics and chemistry need to be embraced. ... If we all went back to cotton and Birkenstocks, the world would soon run out of cork and water" because cotton needs a huge amount of irrigation.

Neither is it just about better products. "If there are three times as many cars on the planet in 20 years," he says, "it won't matter much if we can recycle them. ... The planet will be crawling with cars." Transportation must be redesigned, he says.

Cradle to Cradle makes it clear that our current "cradle to grave," throwaway economy, and a regulatory structure that only hopes to make it less bad, won't lead to a future we should want.

But: "Imagine if someone said they're going to build a new mall and your first reaction was, `Oh, good,'" McDonough says.

Shelley Morhaim, a Baltimore filmmaker, has done a fine documentary on McDonough called The Next Industrial Revolution. It's available for $30 on DVD or VHS at 410-902-3400. It also will be showing March 23 at the Rotunda Cinematheque.

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