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green@work : Magazine : Read On : Jan/Feb 2003

Read On
Books to take on the journey.

The Natural Step Story: Seeding A Quiet Revolution
Confronting Consumption

Cradle To Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

The Natural Step Story: Seeding A Quiet Revolution
by Karl-Henrik Robèrt

This outstanding story is a first person account of how cancer scientist Karl-Henrik Robèrt founded The Natural Step. In it he describes the influences behind his ideas and the evolution of his thinking. Although it does detail the system conditions of The Natural Step and how it was adopted by IKEA, McDonald’s and Interface, the real interest lies in the story itself. It’s not so much the system that is enlightening as it is the incredible legwork, the perseverance and timely good fortune that went into its creation.

Written in a very humble yet enthusiastic voice, this is a compelling story of how the author manages to work through doubts, lack of resources and opposition in his quest to devise a scientifically-based system that could transform modern society to sustainability. He accomplished the amazing task of getting scientists to agree on the four basic mechanisms by which our society damages nature. These four system conditions that are required for true sustainability are: the understanding that nature’s resources are finite; that nature cannot continue to absorb all the synthetic substances produced by man; that nature cannot tolerate man-made physical degradation; and finally that human needs have to be met worldwide.

It is these ideas and his process to get everyone to agree as to how we should live with nature, conduct our business and govern ourselves that holds such great promise for the future. All during his implementation process he attempts to diffuse disagreement and contentiousness and focus on common ground to get generally adversarial opponents to agree and move forward with positive results. The author suggests that he is not a politician, but perhaps he is one of the greatest due to his consensus building skills.

The appendices of this book are extremely useful because they detail the philosophy, goals, objectives, core values and process of The Natural Step. One of the appendices is an example of two Swedish agriculture organizations that use The Natural Step to gain a collective long-range perspective. This is important reading for anyone remotely interested in the environment—or for anyone who likes a good story about the inner workings of how great things are accomplished through the efforts of one man.

The Natural Step Story:
Seeding A Quiet Revolution
© 2002
New Society Publishers, 288 pages

Confronting Consumption
Edited by Thomas Pricen, Michael Maniates and Ken Conca

This book addresses the dark nemesis of the environmental movement whose name has been unspeakable until now. Confronting Consumption, edited by Thomas Pricen, Michael Maniates and Ken Conca, tackles the issue of consumption head on with eye opening results.

Throughout their work leading up to this book, the authors were struck by the consistent resistance encountered in trying to bring consumption-related concerns to the environmental debate. Consumption is such a deeply-ingrained belief in all of our social and political institutions that it has been sacrosanct and beyond scrutiny. Western society’s answer to any problem is more production. As the authors state, “Goods are good and more goods are better.” As they demonstrate in a series of essays, satisfaction and sustainability cannot be achieved by buying more products even if they are proper “green” products.

The “sustainable development lens” through which the environmental debate has been framed filters any political or sociological analysis of consumption. Michael Maniates go so far as to label it “the metaphorical AIDS of the environmental movement” because it has so seriously compromised the movement’s ability to recognize and respond to the essential threat that consumption represents to the environment. The topic of consumption has always been avoided because of its implications to the idea of consumer sovereignty, and to the idea of the economy, which at its foundation is wholly based on consumption.

The authors are to be commended for breaking the code of silence surrounding consumption and engaging the debate. This could be the opening salvo in what promises to be a very animated confrontation. Everyone with concern for the environment from government, NGOs, academia, corporations and the design professions should read this book because the issue has grave importance for us all as it influences everything we do in our jobs and how we live our lives. In the end, however, they state that individual action won’t make the difference—only political action on a wide scale will do when confronting consumption.

Confronting Consumption
© 2002
The MIT Press, 392 pages

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

By William McDonough and Michael Braungart

“This book is not a tree,” says the introduction, and indeed it is not. The entire book, cover and pages, is printed on a plastic polymer that can be recycled into new books indefinitely while maintaining its high quality. More importantly, it is an example of what the authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart are advocating in their revolutionary vision to redesign our constructed world. This is a short, not very detailed overview of an environmental solution that is both inspirational and simple, and it is one of the more important concepts published recently in the growing environmental category.

It is a design manifesto to save the biosphere. The popular environmental slogan of the last century—Reduce, Reuse and Recycle—is no longer useful as a strategy. Being eco-efficient is no longer viable; rather eco-effectiveness is what we should be striving for in any development. Our present system of design needs to be changed. Instead of wasting nearly all of the raw materials that go into a product design, we should be cognizant of what Braungart calls the biological and technical nutrients that comprise the manufacture of any new product. If we plan what goes into a product, we don’t have to be concerned with how to dispose of it or how to protect ourselves from its toxicity later when it is no longer useful.

McDonough and Braungart want to eliminate the cradle to grave syndrome that everything in our society suffers from presently, and replace it with a cradle-to-cradle system. Just like in the natural world where nothing goes to waste, every component is useful as a nutrient for something else. The authors call for a second Industrial Revolution to redesign everything in this manner, but if the Industrial Revolution gave us the current set of problems why, even in name only, would we want a second one? McDonough utilizes language quite effectively, and this book is filled with a very descriptive nomenclature to describe various elements of the concept. We need more of this kind of informed terminology to help begin the transition toward a new, wiser design methodology.

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way
We Make Things
© 2002
North Point Press, 193 pages

These books have been reviewed by Richard Walthers (, founder of PRAIRIE Fish, a Chicago, IL-based consulting firm dedicated to design and sustainability issues.

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