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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Fall 2004 :EnvironDesign®8: A Celebration


EnvironDesign®8: ACelebration
A diverse group explores tremendous opportunities for change.

By Penny Bonda

Earth Day 2004 fell smack-dab in the middle of EnvironDesign8. Celebrations honoring this annual day of commemoration of our Earth took place in communities around the world on April 22, but none more impassioned than that which happened in Minneapolis.

EnvironDesign, the conference that dedicates itself to all things green, paid tribute to Earth Day by staging a two-day event featuring the brightest stars, products and programs in the environmental world. Six keynote speakers delivered messages as diverse as the movement itself, yet all were profound and impassioned. Product Learning Center exhibitors ranged from product manufacturers, NGOs, professional firms, associations and trade groups and provided an opportunity for in-depth, one-on-one dialogue among all constituents. Forty workshops, organized into 13 tracks, featured a diverse selection of learning opportunities by both new and returning presenters. Pre- and post-conference events included tours of Minnesota’s greenest venues, which were carefully planned by members of the EnvironDesign8 host committee.

EnvironDesign began in 1997 as a meeting for the architectural and design communities to address environmental building issues. It has become, in Bill McDonough’s and Michael Braungart’s words, “a diverse forum of innovative ideas.” As proof they quote Gregory Unruh, who traveled all the way from Spain to attend ED8, to take part in a GreenBlue workshop and “meet with the companies that are implementing cradle-to-cradle design—the Shaws, the Herman Millers, the Visteons. Obviously,” he said, “EnvironDesign is the nucleus of this. The people I met and talked with in Minneapolis are really trying to apply what seems to be the only logical solution to the business sustainability challenge.”

Finally, as Bruce Babbitt observed of EnvironDesign, “It is amazing for me to see a gathering of people drawn together not by narrow occupational categories, but by the implications and possibilities of a thematic approach to change in all its diversity.” Join us next spring in New York City for EnvironDesign9 as we continue the journey.

“Brainstorming With Brittlestars: What Organisms Know about Deep Green Design”
by Janine Benyus

Janine Benyus opened EnvironDesign8 by exploring all that is possible. “The priority for this conference,” she said, “is life and the continuation of life. We’re doing nothing less than re-imagining the world here. We’re reweaving it. It’s important if you’re re-imagining the world to have something big and beautiful to dream of. The author of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupery, said if you want to build a ship don’t herd people together to collect wood, don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. It’s important to keep a big and beautiful dream in front of us.”

She continued by updating the audience on her ongoing work in the field of biomimicry. As a self-described biologist with a seat at the design table, Benyus searches for bio-inspired solutions to sustainability challenges. Why is it, she asks, that organisms can perform highly technical maneuvers without leaving any damage behind? Why can’t we be as elegant and restorative? Are our designs well adapted to life on Earth over the long haul? The natural world is full of examples of well-adaptive technologies that have been around for billions of years and each of them has some sort of an adaptation that we can learn from. That, Benyus suggests, is what biomimicry is all about.

Sprinkled with lessons to be learned from mayflies, swallows, trout, zebras, root systems and leaf pores, Benyus’ presentation stressed whole-systems solutions that create more opportunities for life rather than depleting it. She stimulated ideas—flow forms and log rhythmic spirals, for example—heretofore unknown to an audience largely made up of non-science nerds and promised helpful tools to assist. Benyus sees the natural world as the amazing genius that surrounds us and voiced her one non-negotiable policy—that life creates conditions conducive to life. She urged the audience to sift all of their decisions through that filter. “The swallow, the mayfly and the trout are out there,” she concluded, “in their slow turning cycles, they’re not going anywhere and they are quite willing to help us and advise us and give us wisdom, if only we would ask.”

“The 10-50 Solution: A Decade-by-Decade Approach to Global Climate Change”
by Eileen Claussen

The 34th anniversary of Earth Day began, appropriately, with a presentation by the president of the Pew Center for Global Climate Change, Eileen Claussen. With no greater challenge facing our planet’s viability than global warming, Claussen discussed both the long-term and immediate policies that need to be put in place in order to confront the problems.

“We’ve made significant progress in some areas since 1970,” she stated, “but not nearly enough. Today we have a choice: we can fall over ourselves seeking short-term gains for our businesses and society, potentially at great expense to our future or we can think ahead and invest in the strategies, processes and ideas that will help to insure that our businesses and our life as we know it are still around for 10, 20 or 50 years down the line.

I hope that environmental problem-solving will be the number one growth industry of the 21st century.”

Claussen began with a look at what is known about climate change and what’s being done or not done about the problem. She concluded by suggesting a new approach that will couple a long-term vision of progress with some understanding of the steps that will help achieve that vision. Like Benyus, she quoted Antoine de Saint Exupery, who said, “As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it,” and went on to describe the Pew Center’s recently developed 10-50 solution for solving climate change. First we want to ask ourselves, Claussen explained, where we want to be on this issue in 50 years— which in all probability includes a low carbon economy—and then identify the policies and strategies that we can pursue in the decades to come to begin achieving our long-term plans.

She outlined four things that would spark a low carbon future: how to develop climate friendly technologies; how to market them; how to ensure that while looking broadly at the many technologies under development, closest attention is being paid to the most promising; and how to arrive at a broad set of policies that will put this country on a track to real reductions in emissions.

We need vision and we need spunk, Claussen concluded, and asked all citizens to become engaged, to move the discussion of climate change away from the decisive debate of environmental verses economic tradeoffs. “Many special interests are trying to make sure we do nothing. But our side,” she insisted, “can be just as strong or stronger.”

“The Environment in the 21st Century”
by Bruce Babbitt

Bruce Babbitt, a former Secretary of the Interior in the Clinton administration and governor of Arizona, has long been committed to environmental protection. He’s spent much of his career protecting the beauty and integrity of our national parks and federal lands.

Impressed by the extraordinary innovations he saw in ED8’s Product Learning Center, he began his presentation with a pioneering environmental tale of his own involving a new process for making railroad ties from a composite material of used rubber from tires and recycled plastic bottles. This innovation replaces the traditional 100-year practice of using white oak trees cut from old-growth forests, which are then drenched in creosote, thereby creating a linear hazardous waste site across the country.

With his cradle-to-cradle credentials firmly established, Babbitt concentrated his message on what he identified as an overarching problem for the 21st century in this country—land use planning, an issue that doesn’t get much attention. He spoke of the heedless way we spread across the land, contaminate the landscape and use resources, citing areas of the Rocky Mountains, the California coastlines and the Chesapeake Bay as examples of the lamentable degradation of eco-systems.

The protection of public lands, he said, has been somewhat successful, but with two-thirds of the land in the U.S. in private hands, the problem is far-reaching. Despite some inventive and successful initiatives in places like Ventura County, CA, Babbitt feels that, “We are watching the landscape fragment and disintegrate in random patterns without the ability to plan. We must order our development in a way that protects water sheds, river and migratory corridors and wildlife and that leaves us with a sense of the spiritual and biological values of living in a more orderly manner on landscapes that reflect the beauty and depth of creation.”

What we need, he continued, is a rational approach to the planning of open space that takes direction from the federal government, using the Clean Air Act system of sanctions as a model, but leaves action where it belong—in the hands of the states and local jurisdictions. “The people of America,” Babbitt concluded, “have a direct, diverse, but very common interest in that there is an irreducible minimum of natural landscapes which must be saved for generations to come.”

“Prognosis Poor, Surgery Stat”
By Dr. Richard Jackson

During his long career as a public health official with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, GA, and more recently with the California Department of Public Services, Dr. Richard Jackson has become convinced that the current design of the built environment has had a significant and harmful impact on human well-being. He opened his EnvironDesign keynote by defining his theme—that the greatest threat to America’s health is how we are managing our wealth. Our problems are systemic, not isolated, yet our reductionist system impedes our ability to deal with them holistically.

Jackson carefully outlined the dire and declining state of health in the U.S. and its probable causes. The cost of medical care, he stated, has risen to 15 percent of GDP, yet people are feeling progressively worse, largely attributable to the supersizing of America—our homes, meals, vehicles, patterns of land consumption, neighborhoods, schools and shopping malls. His talk was packed with statistical evidence of supersizing, such as

* 25 percent of land development in the U.S. has occurred in the last 15 years.

* Atlanta commuters spend 56 hours stopped in traffic going no where each year.

* The rate of obesity in the U.S. increased from 10 percent of the population in 1990 to 25 percent in 2001, an unprecedented rise in just one decade.

* Trees are being removed at alarming rates, such as the loss of 58 acres a day in Atlanta to development and 400 acres a day in California. New Jersey is within one generation of being completely built out with no non-park green space remaining.

The resulting sprawl, according to Jackson, means higher injury and death rates, increased incidences of obesity and diabetes and shorter life expectancies. Perhaps the scariest slide of his presentation showed that one-third of today’s kids will have diabetes by age 40 with an average reduction of life span of 15 years. “We’re creating,” Jackson said, “the first generation that will live less long than its parents by overfeeding ourselves and removing physical activity from our environments.”

Taking on this Goliath will require more than a few pebbles. Raising public awareness and the sharing of data, full-cost accounting documentation, reclamation of wasted urban land, the creation of beautiful and pleasant walkways in our cities, putting our kids in neighborhood schools and partnering with historic preservationists and smart business interests are just a few of his suggestions. Jackson also urged partnering between the design community and their allies in the healthcare world.

“World of Abundance”
by Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough

Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart returned to EnvironDesign8 to share with the audience their lessons on making sustainability work. McDonough began with a report on the traction that their work at MBDC is receiving by summing up their philosophy in one sentence. “We hope for a delightful, safe and healthy world, with clean water, renewable power, economically, equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed.” McDonough continued to describe the tools MBDC is using to help its manufacturing clients answer two fundamental questions about their products: where do they come from and where do they go?

Illustrated by their projects with Ford, The Gap, Nike, Shaw, Herman Miller, Honeywell and
others, McDonough made the case for growth rather than the reduction of our ecological footprint as so many others have done. In their search for technical nutrients, he spoke of the development of a pediatric filter for products where components are looked at as if they are nutrition for children, and of deep protocols to analyze products and systems that will allow the celebration of human activity instead of bemoaning it. “The idea is,” he concluded, “to have a trajectory, to have a goal; the strategy of tragedy has ended, we have a strategy of hope.”

Michael Braungart, the chemist and former activist, spoke bluntly of the toxins that are found in our products, especially toys which amount to, he said, chemical harassment of children. Terrorism, even weapons of mass destruction, he went on, can be found in children’s rooms.

The bulk of his presentation compared efficiency with effectiveness, a common McDonough-Braungart theme. Eco-efficiency, he said, is a negative agenda, the paradigm of the cradle-to-grave protocol. Protecting the environment by doing less, reducing material flows, trying to be less bad are all examples of guilt language. Efficiency is doing things—even the wrong things—right. Effectiveness, on the other hand, means doing the right things and removes the necessity for perfection. Effectiveness is a positive agenda of abundance that relies on two cycles: the biological and the technical where durability is not a positive. Rather, “defined periods of use” allows for planning for the next generation of these technical nutrients from products of service.

Braungart concluded by urging the audience to have a big footprint, celebrate abundance, design and human creativity and be proud of what they do.

“Leadership On the Edge”
by Robert Swan

EnvironDesign8’s final speaker was spellbinding. Robert Swan, the first man to have walked to both the North and South Poles, has been working since his journeys for the preservation of the Antarctic as the last great wilderness on Earth. He told the assembled “a story of people, of what’s possible to achieve with people, of delivery against the odds with minimum resources and of doing more and doing better with less. The bottom line of the story,” he continued, “is about personal leadership. If we’re not all trying to lead ourselves as best we can, how can we take ourselves seriously, how can we expect
others to take us seriously?”

The recounting of his journeys, first to the South Pole and then to the North, replete with tales of harrowing experiences, was told with his unique brand of humor, which Swan credits as the best way to hold a team together. In contrast to himself (who he calls a “pathetic traveler”), his quest to follow in the footsteps of the men he calls “the real explorers—Scott, Amundsen, Peary, Byrd and Shackleton”— began with a massive fundraising effort. Just 25 years old, and with no camping experience, Swan managed to raise during seven years the $5 million needed to embark on his first trek by engaging Jacques Cousteau as his patron. Cousteau’s only condition was that he leave Antarctica—the last place on Earth that nobody owns and the last place that we have a chance to preserve forever—as he found it.

Some have accused him of being mad, but madness, he believes, “is when one-half of the
world is starving while the other half is spending billions of dollars trying to lose weight.” Madness is the population of the Earth increasing by 10,000 people every hour. Madness is the hole in the ozone layer, which he experienced firsthand when his eyes burned out and the skin on his face fried off. He and his team saw clear evidence of the melting of Antarctica and nearly perished because the ice in the North Pole’s Arctic Ocean began melting in April rather than in August.

Swan believes that the most unsustainable thing one can do is to drop an issue. His journeys have motivated him to do what he can to inspire young people, especially in Africa, where he has led groups of kids to clean up their villages and to clean up their lives to keep them away from the scourge of AIDS. Remembering his pledge to Cousteau, he also led an international group of 35 young people to Antarctica to clean up more than 1,000 tons of rubbish so that the penguins would return to the beach. He’s asked why he’s undertaken these desperate struggles and answers, “We do it because we believe that we can.”

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