The Architect and the Chemist

or, the men who saved the world.

The Cons of Conservation

Conservation has been the mantra of recent years. The less we use of a resource, the better. Common sense, really. Or, is it?

‘Be efficient, it’s a good thing’. There are limited resources on our planet, so shouldn’t we conserve? According to William McDonough, philosopher / architect and co-author of “The Next Industrial Revolution”, this conservation narrative is a recipe for disaster — a collection of superficial myths that will eventually inspire us to ruin our planet.

Albert Einstein said:

The Situation

With one goal in mind, profit — and out of sheer ignorance of the breadth and scope of natural design processes — the Barons of Industry started off with fuzzy-headed thinking. They imagined a world where virtually unlimited resources could be used to make virtually unlimited profit. And they were virtually right, except for one, critical flaw in their plan: waste.

In the book Cradle to Cradle, co-written by McDonough and brilliant, German chemist, Michael Braungart, the architect and the chemist present a common-sense, long-term strategy to repair this flaw.

Cradle to Cradle (C2C) is an environmental design story about a crucial component of our world: Industry. Left to its own devices, Industry tends to lose sight of environmental concerns — the very environment that made it possible to successfully operate a business in the first place — the flaw in the design.

Within the current design, even Science could be used as an arm of Business, that might select — in non-Darwinian fashion — for studies that further its own interests.

The Perils of Eco-efficiency

We have created a system that loses resources instead of keeping them. We need more resourcefulness not more efficiency.


The Flaw of Waste

In Cradle to Cradle, McDonough and Braungart speak of a ‘Cradle to Grave’ design, a crude design, and the flaw of the original Industrial mindset.


The flaw of waste is the result of bad initial design. The 19th century Barons of Industry were focused more on good profits than good ecological hygiene. In their defense, little was known back then about the grand scheme of Ecology.


Tradition tells us that Industry needs to be regulated. If an industry is harming the environment, this harm should be averted — as much as is reasonably and economically feasible — to reduce the negative impacts. With a simple, childlike grace, McDonough challenges this tradition:

Regulation attempts to make a bad thing less bad, or — more good? But this is not a logical alternative to good. If it’s bad, it will always be bad. We can struggle (and spend lots of resources) to reduce its badness, but it’s still bad. McDonough proposes something better, something simpler: begin with a good design, and good will follow.


McDonough and Braungarts’ C2C Framework articulates a conceptual shift: There are two cycles: the earth cycle and the man-made cycle (or, the organic cycle and the technical cycle). Within these cycles are nutrients: organic nutrients and technical nutrients.

The first cycle, the Organic cycle, is the one through which man evolved. Abundant and sustainable, this cycle has proven its superiority by our presence here today.

In this marvel of design, there is no waste to speak of. Even an animal’s waste converts to food for trillions of microorganisms (the unsung heroes of our planet). So, linguistically, ‘waste’ — in this context — is incorrect.

Not so long ago, and armed with fuzzy linguistics, Man amended this Organic cycle by putting another cycle on top of it—a Technical cycle — which drew its abundance from a new system, an experimental system — an unnatural one.

Where there was originally only one cycle, now there were two. And they are not naturally complementary, in some cases mutually exclusive. We’re only now learning how to organize them so they work in harmony with each other.

Perhaps the Lords of Industry were unaware of the natural laws of design, or, being aware, thought they might trump them with a set of their own. Their unnatural abundance came with a heavy liability: it was a false abundance, because it was not sustainable.


The critical design flaw was allowing these, often mutually exclusive, cycles to mix when they should’ve been kept apart. Allowed to mix, they contaminated each other beyond repair and both were lost forever. The only thing left to do was throw them away. But since there really is no place that’s ‘away’, the concept of waste was born. And the waste pollution was put in holes, to fester, unnaturally.

We’ve poured technical waste pollutants into our rivers and oceans, our air, even exposed our bodies to chemicals we knew little about. Now that we know about them, there’s little reason to let this continue.

There’s no need to make ‘waste’ to clog up and pollute our lives, to pay regulators exorbitant sums to keep things ‘acceptably clogged and polluted’ when we could be free from this worry — free from waste, which should never have even been in the picture.


Simply, we’ve allowed Technical to mix with Organic. C2C remedies this. Within its design, everything — everything we use will either go back to where it came naturally, or be sent back to where it came manually.

With this amendment we will correct the flaw in the original amendment; we will regain our natural abundance, and there will be no need for regulation, or worry — or liability.

When a TV, computer, or smartphone breaks, we won’t need to throw them away; they will be reused to make something new, and something better.


We will be able to rent every conceivable product, from cars to cameras and, when we’re done with them, get a new one. The old one will be fully recycled. A near-zero loss of resources if kept within the technical cycle. This shines a whole, new light on the design of ownership.

May there come a day when everything technical is rented. Made, used, then remade again. It’s happening already, especially with digital things, one of the things I think the cyber culture got right.

Under this Cycle-redesign, McDonough says the earth can sustain the 10 billion people expected by the year 2050 — in abundance.

Industry listens to consumer preferences. With informed choices about what and how we consume, we can redirect manufacturing processes, and remake the way we make things.

Power is shifting to the buyer’s hands. We can, we should control the course of Industry with our wallets. With conscious consumer habits, we can redesign the world+

The Architect and the Chemist

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