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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

William McDonough (p. 61)

From chapter "SustainabilityTM"

William McDonough is a world-renowned architect who has been labeled a “priest” of “sustainable development.”He recognizes—as does anyone possessing both intelligence and integrity—that this culture is highly destructive, and that part of its destructiveness comes from the fact that its waste products do not help the natural world, but rather poison it. He rightly states that in the natural world, “the waste of one organism provides nourishment for another—waste equals food.”He follows this by saying that he wants to change industry so that, among other things, its wastes will be useful: the industrial equivalent of that same principle of waste equaling food. Central to his philosophy, he says [and throughout the rest of this discussion, you can see some of my line-by-line responses to the more absurd of his statements by looking in the endnotes: other analyses follow his text], are “fundamental design principles” that “yield products that are composed of materials that biodegrade and become food for biological cycles, or of synthetic materials that stay in closed-loop technical cycles, where they continually circulate as valuable nutrients for industry.They yield buildings designed to accrue solar energy, sequester carbon, filter water, create habitat, and provide safe, healthy, delightful places to work.Designs such as these aren’t damage management strategies. They don’t seek to retrofit a destructive system.Instead, they aim to eliminate the very concept of wastewhile providing goods and services that restore and support nature and human society.They are built on the conviction that design can celebrate positive aspirations and create a wholly positive human footprint.”He gets right to the point: “Long-term prosperity depends not on making a fundamentally destructive system more efficient, but on transforming the system so that all of its products and processes are safe, healthful and regenerative.”

He writes, “Imagine a building, enmeshed in the landscape, that harvests the energy of the sun, sequesters carbon and makes oxygen. Imagine on-site wetlands and botanical gardens recovering nutrients from circulating water. Fresh air, flowering plants, and daylight everywhere. Beauty and comfort for every inhabitant. A roof covered in soil and sedum to absorb the falling rain. Birds nesting and feeding in the building’s verdant footprint. In short, a life-support system in harmony with energy flows, human souls, and other living things.”

His rhetoric is grand, and the culture has rewarded him well for his work. He has an eponymous architectural firm with thirty members. He is the winner of three US presidential awards: the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development (1996), the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award (2003) National Design Award (2004), and the National Design Award (2004). In 1999, Time magazine recognized him as a “Hero for the Planet,” stating that “his utopianism is grounded in a unified philosophy that—in demonstrable and practical ways—is changing the design of the world.”

What does this mean on the ground, where it really matters?
Let’s look briefly at a few of his projects.

First, there’s the Ford Rouge Dearborn Truck Plant, in Dearborn, Michigan. McDonough’s website describes his work on this factory in language that might almost make us forget that this is a factory at all, and certainly has a shot at making us forget what is manufactured there: “Lying at the center of the Ford Rouge revitalization project, this new assembly plant represents the client’s bold efforts to rethink the ecological footprint of a large manufacturing facility. The design synthesizes an emphasis on a safe and healthy workplace with an approach that optimizes the impact of industrial activity on the external environment.”

He continues, “The keystone of the site stormwater management system is the plant’s 10-acre (454,000 sf) ‘living’ roof—the largest in the world. This green roof is expected to retain half the annual rainfall that falls on its surface. The roof will also provide habitat . . . With the sound of nesting songbirds chirping over factory workers’ heads, the new Dearborn Truck Plant offers a glimpse of the transformative possibilities suggested by this new model for sustaining industry.”

The factory, this “new model for sustaining industry,” manufactures trucks. Trucks. That’s right: trucks. McDonough is correct about one thing: this model is all about “sustaining industry.” It’s certainly not about sustaining the natural world.

It is both absurd and obscene to suggest that just because he puts plants on the roof that this factory is even remotely sustainable. Where does he think the steel comes from for the trucks (or for that matter, for the factory)? The bauxite for the aluminum? The rubber for the tires? Is the production of each of these materials also sustainable? And what happens with the trucks after they’re manufactured? What damage do they cause? How much do trucks contribute to global warming? Is a culture based on the routine transportation over great distances of people, raw materials, and finished products sustainable? Is it possible for a culture with trucks to be sustainable at all?

It’s easy to break down any process and say that this or that particular part of the process is sustainable: If, for example, I were going to “push the button” and blow up the world with nuclear weapons—which by any definition is not a sustainable activity—I could describe my thought processes as sustainable: my thought processes aren’t causing any damage at all. I could describe walking over to the button as sustainable: me walking from here to there doesn’t cause any damage, especially if I’m wearing shoes made of recycled materials. I could describe pushing the button itself as sustainable: I’m just pushing a button, and how much harm can there be in that? It’s only what happens after—for which I need take no responsibility—that is not sustainable. I am as green as could be. I am a Hero for the PlanetTM.

Would we consider a nuclear bomb factory to be sustainable because we put native grasses on the roof?

And for those of you who think my jump from a truck factory to nuclear weapons spurious, ask yourself: given global warming, and given the other effects of car culture (and given the implications of a culture based on the long distance transportation of people, raw materials, and finished products) which have caused more damage to the biosphere: nuclear weapons or trucks?

The answer of course is both, and more particularly the mindset that leads to them.

Next, let’s read his description of his work on Nike’s European headquarters: “Nike’s business revolves around world-class athletic performance,so the design of its European Headquarters aspires to equivalent levels of building and human performance. The campus creates an active habitat that promotes physical, social, and cultural health in the broadest possible senses.Indoor environments contain virtually no PVC, sustainably harvested wood,and abundant daylight and fresh air. One of Europe’s largest geothermal installations provides safe space conditioning, contributing to Nike EHQ’s place as the most energy-effective office of its size in the Netherlands. The design encourages strong local connections by evoking the regional landscape of water and native plants and embracing a rich architectural context that includes an adjacent grandstand designed by Hilversum architect Willem Dudok for the 1928 Olympics equestrian events.”

In an article extolling his own work on this “campus,” and extolling also, as the article’s subtitle states, “Nike’s Giant Steps Toward Sustainability,” McDonough writes, “What, they [Nike] wondered, are the long-term environmental and social impacts of the athletic footwear industry? How does a company with annual revenues in the billions (over $9 billion in 2001) and more than 700 contract factories worldwide profitably integrate ecology and social equity into the way it does business, every day at every level of operation?”

He answers the questions: “Rather than trying to limit the impact of industry through the management of harmful emissions, cradle-to-cradle thinking posits that intelligent design can eliminate the concept of waste,resolving the conflict between nature and commerce.By modeling industrial systems on nature’s nutrient flows, designers can create highly productive facilities that have positive effects on their surroundings,and completely healthful products that are either returned to the soil or flow back to industry forever.It’s a life-affirming strategy that celebrates human creativity and the abundance of nature—a perfect fit with Nike’s positive, innovative culture.”

McDonough quotes Nike’s Director of Corporate Sustainable Development (a triple oxymoron if ever I’ve heard one), as saying that McDonough’s philosophy “meshes very well with the culture here. And it’s an exciting message. If you talk about environmental management systems and eco-efficiency, people just roll their eyes. But if you talk about innovation and abundance, it’s inspirational. People get very, very excited.”

Of course people at the upper levels of a corporation get excited at McDonough’s message: nothing here suggests they must fundamentally change the way they do business, a way of doing business that makes them rich (ah, so now we finally get to the point): they can continue to exploit workers and destroy the planet, with all their niggling fears erased because they are now participating in a life-affirming process, a “sustainable” (or rather, “sustainableTM”) process.

He continues, “And get excited they did. . . . In 1996 . . . Nike contracted William McDonough + Partners to design a new, state-of-the-art campus for its European headquarters in The Netherlands. A complex of five new buildings, the campus was designed to integrate the indoors with the surrounding environment, tapping into local energy flows to create healthy, beneficial relationships between nature and human culture.

But McDonough and his philosophy did not merely lead to a beautiful “campus” in Europe where beautiful European executives can work, play, eat at a bistro, all the while managing this company that profits from the near-slave labor of brown people—mainly young brown women—in factories where they’re forced to work 65 hours per week at starvation wages to make luxury athletic shoes; in factories where chemicals causing liver, kidney and brain damage can be 177 times the legal limit (even for countries with such lax standards as Vietnam and China); in factories where 77 percent of workers suffer respiratory problems;in factories where nearly all of those who work there would have neither the strength nor the time to play tennis. No, McDonough’s philosophy has accomplished far more than this; as McDonough proudly notes, “By 2010 Nike plans to use a minimum of 5% organically grown cotton in all cotton apparel.”

McDonough concludes, in language that makes me want to go out and buy some Nike shoes, “We agree. And whether the once-sleeping giant is now striding along in Swoosh Slides, Air Jordans, or organic cotton socks, we’ve been delighted to see it rise to its feet.”

This company that McDonough describes so glowingly, so lovingly, this company that turns “inspiration into fruitful action” and that “will do the same as it takes on each new challenge on the path to sustainability,” is Nike. Nike. Sweatshop Nike. Exploitative Nike. Nike that makes luxury athletic shoes—a product that is absolutely unnecessary to a good life—in filthy factories filled with young women who are not paid enough to eat, much less raise their families, young women who are often subject to sexual harassment.Nike that allows (poor brown) workers five minutes per day for bathroom breaks and forces women to show bloody underwear to prove they’re menstruating.Nike, which often fires workers who take even one day of sick leave.Nike, where in Indonesia 30 percent of the company’s total business costs are payoffs to “Indonesian generals, government officials, and cronies.”Nike, with contract factories that routinely burn rubber, then deny this was ever done.

I’m glad Nike is moving toward using 5 percent organic cotton. Using “only” 95 percent pesticide-laden cotton is certainly better than using 100 percent pesticide-laden cotton. But we should never forget that the slave-based cotton industry of the Antebellum American South was 100 percent organic. Nike has 95 percent more to go before it reaches even that wretched standard.

Nike. Would McDonough have applauded Ford Motor Company’s World War II German subsidiary (Ford Werke A.G., with between 55 and 90 percent of stock owned by Ford USA from 1933 to 1945)for making a small percentage of its raw materials slightly less toxic in its Nazi slave factories? Would he have designed Bayer’s headquarters, then written encomia about Bayer improving material usage in its slave factories? What about Daimler-Benz? What about the Japanese companies such as Mitsubishi and Kawasaki that used slave laborers during World War II? Would McDonough have sung their praises if they’d hired him to build a lovely headquarters for them and then provided recycled (or five percent non-toxic) materials for the slaves to assemble?

A slave camp is a slave camp, no matter the rhetoric.

And for those of you who think my jump from a Nike factory to a World War II slave camp spurious, consider the words of 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winner José Ramos-Horta: “Nike should be treated as enemies, in the same manner we view armies and governments that perpetrate human rights violations. What is the difference between the behavior of Nike in Indonesia and elsewhere, and the Japanese imperial army during WWII?”

Finally, a brief look at one more of McDonough’s projects. This is a “corporate flight center” in Detroit, Michigan. McDonough writes, “This design takes the passenger experience as the point of departure, seeking to restore the wonder of flight to both commuters and flight staff. A new entry sequence begins beneath the shelter of a winglike canopy and leads to a central atrium that more clearly defines the ‘placeness’ of the terminal for both groups.Extensive glazing, skylights, and a dramatic balcony open to expansive views of the runway and the sky. By creating a more vibrant and people-centered environment, the new center enhances the flight community’s workplace and provides travelers with a more inspiring gathering place.”

He’s describing a corporate airport. Airport. Where corporate jets land and take off. What an airport—even one that’s “a vibrant and people-centered environment”—has to do with sustainability entirely escapes me. Airports are not sustainable. They cannot be sustainable. They will never be sustainable. A culture based on the sort of movement of people and materials implied by an airport can never be sustainable. A culture that has the physical, social, political, and economic infrastructure necessary to support air travel can never be sustainable. A culture with the physical, social, political, and economic infrastructure made possible and reinforced by air travel can never be sustainable. The only sustainable culture is a local culture, deriving its support from and giving support back to a specific place. The only sustainable culture is one in which its wastes are not industrial and do not serve industry, but rather are organic and serve the local landbase.

A few pages ago I derisively referenced Time Magazine’s characterization of McDonough as a “Hero for the Planet.” But the truth is that if all McDonough did was put native grasses on top of truck factories, try to get transnational corporations to recycle more, and make “vibrant” airports he would, for what it’s worth, be a minor hero to me.

I’ve written extensively about how this culture—civilization—is irredeemable, and is based on its systematic and functionally-necessaryexploitation and destruction of the natural world. I’ve written that civilization needs to be brought down before it destroys life on this planet.

But I’ve written as well that we need it all. We not only need people doing whatever it takes to protect the places they live (and/or love)—to protect life itself from its destruction by this culture and its members (I just today read that the baiji, or white dolphin, which survived for 20 million years, has been declared extinct)—but we also need people trying in the meantime to make this culture incrementally less destructive. Neither alone is sufficient. If we all work and wait for the great glorious uprising that will bring down this culture of death, there will be nothing left when it finally comes crashing down. So to the degree that McDonough is responsible for getting Nike to reduce its use of pesticide-cotton by 5 percent I am grateful, and I gladly acknowledge and celebrate the importance of his work. But likewise, if we all merely tinker, merely mitigate—and rhetoric aside, mitigation is at best what McDonough is doing—this culture will continue to grind away at all life until, once again, there is nothing left to save anyway.