The big mistake of environmentalists: Michael Braungart at TEDxAmazonia

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If we don’t learn natives to this planet, then we will destroy
each other.

Michael Braungart — German chemist who is trying to reinvent the productive model of humanity. Along with the American architect William McDonough (his partner at McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry), wrote the book “Cradle to Cradle”, which attempts to design a system in which there is no waste in industrial production. Traditional environmentalist thinking critic, Braungart consults for Ford, Nike and the city of Chicago.

In my search for finding a critique of Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough & Michael Braungart to add interest to a discussion on the book I am leading next week, I realized my own ignorance about Cradle to Cradle. In fact, I have not read every word of that book; I have skimmed at best. In my search, I pulled up a video by one of the authors himself. The book I found a bit dry when I was reading it on my beach vacation last winter came to life before me in this witty video featuring pantomime defecation, sarcastic praise for George W. Bush, and surprising lines from an environmentalist such as “Mother Nature does not exist.”

Braungart poses that we must return ourselves to the earth. We are using materials that are not part of the biological cycle. This, not reduction of waste, is the center of the problem. We are not using our waste effectively. Less waste is still waste. Braungart says that the concept of carbon negative is a fallacy. The only way we can be carbon neutral is if we do not exist. We can’t be carbon negative. Braungart states we must embrace being carbon positive by changing our material landscape to one that is in dialogue with the natural world at every step of the chain.


This weekend I interviewed Jim Bruner of the Past Foundation in Columbus. He operates an urban farm near Franklin Park Conservatory. While I don’t know if Jim has read Cradle to Cradle, his farm reflects much of the concepts in the book. Jim operates off of something he calls “The Fingernail Principle.” Our fingernails do not serve just one function: they act as protein repositories, levers, they can be beautified, and more. In the same way, everything on Jim’s farm must have multiple purposes.

Jim lives a life that is conscious of his waste. As a systems engineer by trade he takes note of every input and output to his garden: from the water for the fish pond to the proximity to the Franklin Conservatory apiary and its pollinators, Jim is keenly aware of his system’s connection to the biological world.

As I head into my thesis Jim has challenged me to stick to my values and not take the conventional way out. We are blessed in the industrialized nation we live in to live a live ignorant of the natural systems we use and abuse. It isn’t good enough for us to say “I used the bioplastic material in Keyshot.” We must go further. We must truly know our materials and their lives. In the end, if we want our materials to return to the biological world, they must come from the biological world.

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