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William McDonough Keynote "Something Lived, Something Dreamed" at Greenbuild

GREENBUILD -- William McDonough was a keynote speaker at the Greenbuild 2006 conference last week. The renowned sustainability advisor and author of "Cradle to Cradle" plans to stop public speaking for a year while he works on his research. He talked impromptu for about an hour, showing many excellent slides and his trademark cynicism about the human condition.

Bill McDonough on stage and on the i-mag screen during his keynote opening Greenbuild 2006, viewed from the press box. That's the Titanic, his metaphor for today's civilization -- a poor design will fail, no matter how good the captain.

The consummate old hippie, Bill McDonough was involved in the ecology movement in 1970's and now, at 55, has found ways to combine financial success with altruistic purpose through his firm, William McDonough and Partners.

He spent some of his childhood in the Puget Sound region in the Pacific Northwest, where his grandparents lived on Hood Canal. On the fact that his grandfather was a logger, McDonough says, "I have a lot of big tree karma to pay back."

In his keynote McDonough repeated his familiar similes: Waste equals food, city equals digestive system, building equals tree, and society equals the Titanic.

McDonough in Fortune

William McDonough contributed a pair of articles about sustainable building for the November 13, 2006 issue of Fortune magazine. The feature includes a gatefold rendering of the building of the future -- except that McDonough makes clear in the first paragraph that everything needed to build it is available now.

Fortune calls McDonough the father of sustainable design. The magazine's sister outlet CNN produced a video featuring McDonough earlier this month.

On public policy

McDonough described a system composed of a "guardian" (government) and "commerce" (business). Regulation of commerce by the guardian is a signal of design failure, he says, when the people exclaim that commerce has overstepped its bounds.

"The guardian reserves the right to kill, and the right to be duplicitous -- the CIA is legal," McDonough explains. Commerce is quick and efficient, and when the guardian restricts commerce, it slows it down. That's not a reason to oppose policy, he says: "Somebody misinterpreted the Bill of Rights to include the right to pollute, which is the right to kill."

On nuclear power

McDonough says he has made the same presentation to the White House, where he was asked what he thinks of clean nuclear power.

"I responded that I'm a big fan of clean nuclear power, and of fusion, I think we should spend trillions of dollars capturing fusion energy immediately. And thank God we have our nuclear reactor exactly where we want it, 93 million miles away -- just 8 minutes -- and it's tireless," McDonough says.

On recycling for the customer

The "product as service" concept McDonough says he originated is taking root. In this concept, manufacturers take back used materials, such as carpeting, instead of letting it go to the landfill. In this recycling process, McDonough says, manufacturers get back something of value: the customer.

"I'm a big fan of clean nuclear power... we have our nuclear reactor exactly where we want it, 93 million miles away."
--William McDonough.

Sustainability as a product

McDonough introduced a new online resource, a supply chain tool. With it manufacturers can send a signal to their supply chain indicating that they want to know the origins of the materials used, treatment of labor, and other factors related to sustainability.

McDonough's book title, "Cradle to Cradle," has evolved into a certification process. The name appeared as a feature on a few products and signage in the 700-exhibit expo at Greenbuild.

A quick way to learn more about McDonough is to read a BusinessWeek article from June 2006.


"..And thank God we have our nuclear reactor exactly where we want it, 93 million miles away..."

I love this quote and have used it as an email signature on and off for years, The other brilliant one from McDonough is on the trees (encourage folks to go tree-free for paper):

“Why take something as exquisite as a tree and knock it down? Trees make oxygen, sequester carbon, distill water, build soils, convert solar energy to fuel, change colors with the seasons, create microclimates and provide habitat.”