A bigger, better footprint for humanity

Sustainability is boring. We can do better.

Published July 10, 2006 11:38PM (EDT)

I almost stopping watching the six-year-old video of designer William McDonough's presentation at the 2000 Bioneers conference in Marin, California when, early on, he posed the question "How do we love all of the children of all species for all time?"

I mean, I gotta a hungry blog to feed here -- I don't have time for 45 minutes of hippy-dippy flower power in the middle of a work day! But Treehugger said the video was "great" and potentially "life-changing." So I stayed with it. And I'm glad it did. The footage is mesmerizing. I could easily have listened to McDonough elaborate on his views on sustainable design for hours more. (Although McDonough finds the very term "sustainability" a concession to "mediocrity." We should aspire to more.)

After watching the video, I went in search of context for the designer/architect. I found a profile of him in Wired, his Web site, and more news articles than I could count. But in print, McDonough comes off as a bit glib, a bit too full of the optimistic blarney. For a full dose of his power, the video is essential, and its unearthing this afternoon makes me delighted, once again, to live during this emerging YouTube/Google Video/everything-that-has-ever-been-caught-on-camera-will-eventually-be-a-click-away-from-me era. The accessibility of recent history keeps expanding in the most extraordinary way.

"When do we all become native to this place," wonders McDonough, referring to our planet. "When do we all become indigenous people?" In 45 minutes, he wanders from Thomas Jefferson to Albert Einstein, from Thoreau to the murals of Diego Rivera. Every few minutes, he pauses, prefaces his next statement with the de rigeur introduction "From a design perspective" and then unleashes another insight on the mess we're in and how to get out of it.

Not that it's news to most people that, from a design perspective, the human impact on the planet is a disaster. Nor, at this point in 2006, are goals of designing products and factories so that there is no waste, everything is biodegradable, and energy consumption is minimized, particularly mind-blowing. What really carries the day are McDonough's intelligence, humor, and predilection for framing the whole question of our species' role on earth in terms that inspire, rather than depress.

At one point, McDonough declares that he finds the whole "growth-no growth" debate that has petrified discourse between environmentalists and the defenders of unregulated capitalism as "ridiculous."

"Isn't the question really, 'what do you want to grow?'" he asks, as an audience that he is holding in the palm of his hand hoots and hollers.

Then, near the end, "this idea of humans making smaller footprints is ridiculous."

"We need bigger footprints, but we should leave behind wetlands."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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