Using Human Ingenuity to Preserve Our Planet

Over the last decade, “Going Green” has become a major issue in the news, in schools, and among grassroots organizations. Talking about it, however, isn’t enough; and basic environmentalism, even when enacted on a massive scale, is still only the tip of the iceberg in terms of our capabilities as intelligent life forms. If we can send men to the moon, and robots to Mars, we can absolutely preserve and protect the planet on which we live. It is simply a matter of stepping out and doing it.

Ideal efficiency would looks something like this: humans living as a part of nature rather than on top of it. The ultimate building would interact with the environment as if nature put it there. The products we use would be biodegradable in every aspect. In the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, the authors, Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart, suggest that our products should be like trees--interacting with and enriching the environment in creation, life, and death. Humans should be like ants, creating our homes and products, and disposing of our waste in a manner that serves the environment rather than destroying it. In an interview with Dwell magazine, Godfrey Reggio comments that unfortunately, “while the old idea of nature certainly exists, it has been reduced to the resource that we consume to inflate the synthetic world in which we live”. We need to remember that Earth is not a renewable resource.

While recycling, composting, and reusing items are fantastic ways to start protecting the planet, our progress will soon cease if we don't take our efforts further. We need to keep moving, so that ‘green’ affects not only our disposal habits, but our way of thinking and our way of building. Currently many methods exist for making a building energy efficient, and contractors such as Rick Tozier, President of Sonoma Building Company in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, are educating their employees in order to offer energy efficient building solutions for the everyday consumer. For instance, putting solar panels on the roof can help reduce the need for gas, electricity, wood, and coal. The sun is one resource that is 100% renewable. If the sun runs out, we die, so we will not need resources anymore, but as long as the sun is there, we can use it. There are tankless hot water heaters that heat water on demand rather than continually keeping a tank full of hot water hot. When used properly, this can reduce the need for gas, electricity, or coal. Switching from incandescent light bulbs to compact florescent light bulbs reduces electrical use. Installing windows that filter ultra-violet light makes it easier for the house to maintain its temperature. Using high levels of insulation and buying appliances with high SEER ratings all contribute to energy efficiency.

In the late 1990s, Dominic Stevens and his wife, Mari-Aymone, decided to build a biodegradable house in rural Ireland, where they could raise their children. On their five-acre lot they began to build their sustainable home, attempting to minimize the building’s footprint as much as possible by using local materials. Virginia Gardiner writes in Dwell Magazine, “Their house all but disappears into the hillside, and will actually vanish if left unattended for a decade or so”. The house is truly biodegradable. The exterior boasts of spruce boards and a sod roof: as the spruce deteriorates it can be removed and used as firewood, and then replaced. Other materials include raw timber, panel board, and glass.

Other creative individuals have developed sustainable utility systems. Steve Kennedy built his own custom-made water filtration system. A 20’ x 6 ½’ green wall, it absorbs, cleans, and filters graywater. The process begins with rainfall. Writer Karen Pakula explains in an article in Dwell magazine that rain is diverted to locations where water is used regularly, then redirected as graywater to a tank underground, from which, “twice a day the graywater is pumped from the tank to the top of the wall. The water makes its way through a row of strelizias, canna lilies, and liriopes, down to the white-flowered arum lilies and eventually to the ferns. On its way down, the water is filtered and ‘polished’ …by sand and gravel in the garden beds, ready for reuse in the washing machine and toilet”.

Architect Hank Louis designed Rosie Joe’s house with a double roof that heats and cools itself naturally with the help of a system of solar panels placed on the roof. James Nestor writes that this ‘butterfly roof’ allows for “wind to pass through the roof without lifting the panels. The roof also collects water for the house”. The rain collects in an above-ground cistern. The walls were constructed from rammed earth, concrete, wooden pallets and rough-sawn pine boards.

Energy efficiency should not be a burden placed only on families and individuals, however. Industrial pollution has had a huge impact on the environment as well, and a good portion of the responsibility falls to businesses of all varieties and at all levels. In their book, Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart offer some suggestions for industrial sustainability. They details methods with which companies can reduce toxins, hormonally active compounds, and dioxins, and explain how an industry can reuse waste instead of dumping it somewhere to further infect the environment. They describe the differences between recycling and downcycling, and processes by which resources are used most efficiently, and suggest that companies regulate carefully the chemicals and products that that leave the factories every day. While these tips may not apply directly to individuals and families, the basic concepts still apply.


“Consider the cherry tree: thousands of blossoms create fruit for birds, humans, and other animals, in order that one pit might eventually fall onto the ground, take root, and grow. Who would look at the ground littered with cherry blossoms and complain, ‘how inefficient and wasteful!’ The tree makes copious blossoms and fruit without depleting its environment. Once they fall on the ground, their materials decompose and break down into nutrients that nourish microorganisms, insects, plants, animals, and soil. Although the tree actually makes more of its ‘product’ than it needs for its own success in an ecosystem, this abundance has evolved (through millions of years of success and failure or, in business terms R&D), to serve rich and varied purposes. In fact, the tree’s fecundity nourishes just about everything around it. “What might the human-built world look like if a cherry tree had produced it? (McDonough 73)”


Many things that are made in factories today are not recyclable to any degree. In the early 90s, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry partnered with DesignTex to create a compostable upholstery fabric. McDonough writes that their goal was to create a fabric that was “safe enough to eat: it would not harm people who breathed it in, and it would not harm natural systems after its disposal… as a biological nutrient, it would nourish nature”. After the product’s creation, the factory discovered that the water coming from the factory that was normally full of chemicals was so clean that the regulators thought their instruments were broken. Not only had they created a product that was durable, useful, aesthetically pleasing, and ultimately recyclable, but their process had ended up being completely clean as well.

McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry is one group of people brimming with new ideas to help integrate energy efficiency into modern industry, and create a recyclable, sustainable world. Their ambitious goals include buildings that “produce more energy than they consume and purify their own waste water”, and “factories that produce effluents that are drinking water”. They seek to produce “products that … do not become useless waste but can be tossed onto the ground to decompose and become food for plants and animals and nutrients for soil; or, alternately, that can return to industrial cycles to supply high-quality raw materials for new products”. Ultimately, they wish to create “a world of abundance, not one of limits, pollution, and waste”.

There are people out there who have the ideas and the technical abilities, like Bill McDonough and Mike Braungart, and others who are willing to implement their ideas, like Rick Tozier. Some people have already made the choice: Dominic Stevens and his family, Steve Kennedy, and Rosie Jo are just a few. Now it's our turn to make a choice.

Do we want to save our Earth? Yes or no?

Apple Blossoms in Boston
Credit: Ariele Sieling