The McDonough Conversations: Why nature needs humans

Brief Comments on the Article:

Can the “materiality” of “ecosystem services” solve the climate crisis? That’s a main thrust of the contemporary green economy movement. In this recent Greenbiz interview with William McDonough, he lays out a clear path forward, yet also stays within the comfortable lines of what others like the Transnational Institute’s see as this movement’s fundamentally neoliberal tendencies. Ultimately, as McDonough argues, what’s required is a change of perception and values towards, in this instance, recognizing the need for milkweed and butterflies, which are no doubt important. But can the green economy movement achieve what’s required to solve the climate crisis through a change of perception or values recognizing the importance or “materiality” of ecosystem services like these without simultaneously working towards a more fundamental transformation of the dominant values and institutions of the modern economy and society?

The capability of businesses to be profitable even while transforming their practices from a linear “cradle to the grave” model from the first Industrial Revolution towards a “cradle to cradle” or “natural capital” mindset certainly gets us closer to that fundamental shift. But will the climate crisis be averted through business adopting an “ecology of commerce” mindset where they consistently value these ecosystem services and convert their operations accordingly? Can the largest and most environmentally destructive corporations even make that transition without destroying themselves? And is there a path for those forward thinking businesses to not only value “natural capital,” but to actually help foster vibrant social movements whose goals and actions might be more radical then their own, yet similarly necessary? Whereas businesses shifting their own practices is a welcome development and goal, one cannot help but be skeptical that without challenging the power of the largest corporations, their disproportionate power over governments, and the unequal distribution of wealth itself, this degree of change will not be sufficient. Though Bank of America creating a “green credit card” is progress, one could argue that the ability to solve the climate crisis rests with the ability to dismantle major corporations like these.




Original Article

The latest installment in a regular series of conversations with William McDonough (@billmcdonough), designer, architect, author and entrepreneur. View previous columns here.

Joel Makower: You’ve been talking lately about the fact nature needs humans as much as humans need nature. That’s the opposite of what some conservation groups are talking about — that “humans need nature more than nature needs humans.”

Bill McDonough: I’ve been thinking specifically about the collapse of the monarch butterfly. This is one of the most amazing indicator species. We talk about the canaries in the mineshaft as the indicator that their air quality has collapsed and it’s time to get out. Well, I think we should see the monarch butterfly as the harbinger of some amazing information for us to quickly integrate because this is a case where nature needs us now.

The number of monarch butterflies is at the lowest point in more than two decades. Every winter, they go to a valley in Mexico. Because the butterflies clump together by the thousands in trees, they are counted by the area they cover. They used to cover more than 44 acres — as far as the eye can see. Now they cover about an acre and a half.

That’s because the forests were being cut down in Mexico. They made it illegal, because people were hauling out lumber covered with monarchs. Can you imagine that? They had giant lumber trucks full of big pine trees that had been cut, and they’re covered with monarch butterflies, and they’re hauling them out for timber. Think about it: We’re at the point where we’re so desperate that we would destroy the butterflies for a bunch of beams.

Makower: So, logging is what’s destroying monarchs?

McDonough: Today, the collapse of the monarch is connected to the loss of milkweed, resulting from herbicide-resistant corn and soybean crops and herbicides used in the United States. That’s killing the monarchs’ main food source, milkweed. Without milkweed, we have no monarchs.

As a designer, I like to say my first job is to change the way you see, then we rearrange furniture, and maybe we’ll build. But the first job is to change the way you see. So, I’d like to pull back now to encourage everyone to learn, to see if there’s anything we can do.

Makower: So, what does it mean to pull back? How do we unwind this?

McDonough: I don’t know how we’re going to unwind it in a hurry. I just know nature needs us now, so here are my thoughts, and they’re humble and they’re preliminary, but there’s an urgency to this so I feel like I can express them. And if they’re of any use or they inspire smarter ideas, that would be great.

One, we honor our children. The Annenberg Foundation helped fund an app for monarchs. So, children can use their smart phones and take pictures of the monarchs that are migrating where they live, and it gets recorded and we can track the flights of the monarchs. Isn’t that beautiful? Joel, are you ready for a data point: 900,000 kids downloaded this app. Think about it.

Makower: Wow, that’s a lot of butterfly-loving kids. What do you think the theory of change is around this app and the 900,000 kids who downloaded it? What will happen as a result?

McDonough: It gets us the fact that children care about this — that our children are delighted by the butterfly. Wouldn’t it be nice if they could care about them when they’re still there?

Makower: That’s a start, but it doesn’t really address the urgency.

McDonough: So, here’s my idea: What if we declared an emergency with the monarchs, and we said, “Let’s get our communities out planting milkweeds” — along highways, along rights-of-way? It’s public land and it’s everywhere. What if we honor the butterflies by saying, “We’re not doing weed control on our railroads past the fire-resistance line. We want weeds for our butterflies.” And all of a sudden we develop a national butterfly habitat restoration program on public rights-of-way, and we let the communities volunteer to come out and plant. We would end up with milkweed everywhere along the highways, where we need it.

I’m ready to go into the design community and say, “Let’s roll.” I think we ought to find the traffic engineers, we ought to find highway departments, we ought to find people in all communities across America and rise to this occasion. This is our season — it’s spring. We can’t wait until the fall and say, “Oh, what a good idea.” It’ll be too late.

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