At a meeting on Tuesday I saw the most incredible speaker at that I've seen in a long time. William McDonough is an architect and somewhat of an activist, who views environmental problems as issues of design failure. Simply put, why create products that have harmful side effects, when the same needs could be met by designing products that don't pollute, poison, or kill? Why not think of a building like a tree, or a city like a forest?
Together with his partner, Michael Braungart, McDonough has used this approach in designing the Adam Lewis Center at Oberlin College, which cleans its own wastewater and produces more energy than it consumes - a building like a tree. With the Gap's campus in San Bruno, they applied that concept over many buildings - like a forest. McDonough and Braungart are now embarked on a twenty-year project to return much of Ford's River Rouge site back to nature.
But they don't limit themselves to problems of architecture and planning. With Ford, they are also working on new materials for cars that are virtually 100% recyclable - cars become cars become cars, all without waste or pollution. This is what McDonough refers to as "the next industrial revolution."
They succeeded with a project for a Swiss fabric company (textiles has always been a notoriously dirty business) to create materials so toxin-free that the local garden club uses factory trimmings as mulch. Previously, the trimmings had been declared toxic waste, and had to be shipped to Spain for disposal. When inspectors returned to the plant, after the new fabric went into production, they were shocked to find the water leaving the plant was cleaner than the water entering the plant.
The speech, however, was not just a listing of their achievements (which would have been impressive enough), but an inspirational talk about applying these concepts to everything we do. It was a hopeful vision of the future, where we learn to design with nature, rather than against it, and where one generation doesn't leave environmental debts that need to be repaid by future generations.
You can get an overview of their philosophy on "the next industrial revolution" on the McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry website, or get more detail in an article they wrote for The Atlantic Monthly.