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I perceived, and continue to perceive, a severe problem with our culture. We see the space we inhabit as not wild, as not nature. Nature is in the parks, is in the mountains we drive over to sun ourselves on the beach, in unreachable and savage depths of countries like Brazil and continents like Africa. “That is nature,” we say, “not this, not our home, not our workplace.” A favorite author of mine calls this an “estranged worldview”, a term she borrowed herself from Friedrich Engels. She describes it thusly: “We are strangers to natur, to other human beings, to parts of ourselves. We see the world as made up of separate, isolated, nonliving parts that have no inherent value. “They are not even dead – because death implies life.)”[i] She goes on to say that “when nature is empty of spirit, forests and trees become merely timber, something to be measured in board feet, valued only for its profitability, not . . . even for its part in the larger ecosystem.”[ii] Starhawk, the author, finds the roots of an estranged worldview laid deep into our past, two millennia and more. In the Enlightenment, she tells us, the separation of the divine and the mundane (from the Latin word mundus, meaning “world”) promoted by Christianity became what she calls the “machine image”, a very telling metaphor.[iii] In such a worldview, when we are told by William McDonough that he wants to build a “building like a tree”, we find the statement odd ad perhaps even laughable. Trees are alive. Buldings aren’t. It seems so simple.
I will return to that idea of a “building like a tree”. By now, you might be protesting to the invisible author – me – that you do connect yourself to nature, that you visit national parks, enjoy camping and hiking, perhaps even teach Environmental Science classes. McDonough and his chemist cohort, Michael Braungart, wonder if “it is all too easy to leave our reverance in the parking lots.”[iv] Being designers, they take a look at less abstract demonstrations of the estranged worldview than does Starhawk (a Wiccan spiritual and ethical author), and they find it in the famed “view” that every middle management type is looking to have from his corner office after the promotion.
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That does not seem important to us most of the time – “so what if my window doesn’t open? I have a report due in a half hour” – but there is an intimate connection between one's physical space and one's psychosocial space, between one’s work space (or living space) and one’s head space. To quote Starhawk once more: “It is an underlying principle of magic that consciousness itself has structure, and that structure manifests in the forms of the physical world. Not the contents of our thoughts but the patterns by which they are connected are revealed everywhere around us.”[v] What does the workplace of that middle management type reveal about the ay his thoughts are constructed? Stereotypically, he inhabits a gray cubicle in a large room. Any windows the room might have are blocked from his sight and flourescent lights banish the shadows around his desk. He is cramped, perhaps not so much as Dilbert would have you believe, but cramped nonetheless. A computer monitor dominates his small desk, leaving room for only a few personal effects, plus whatever he can pin on the cubicle walls. Everything is made to be briskly efficient, even easily transportable to allow for easy rearranging. Lining the walls are the offices of the big wigs, with the biggest of the wigs occupying the coveted corner offices.
Culture and society develop out of what we do every day, out of our daily habits, which are obviously shaped by the structure and design of our living and work places. “Structure, not content, determines how energy will flow, where it will be directed, what new forms and structures it will create.”[vi] To change the physical structure in which one lives is to change the way one’s thoughts and energies flow, and thus one’s material behaviors and the culture of one’s community. The technologies and design stategies put forth by Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart attempt to affect this change, to bring the wild, what I affectionately call “Big Mama”, back into contact with our thoughts and society. They thus become more than "merely" ecologically sound design, more than superficial band-aids to our ecological problems, but become a revolutionary social technology to bring about a fundamental change in our actions and our society's relations with Mother Earth. This is a change that is necessary to permanently solve the problems we must solve, which I feel it is unnecessary to list.
These design principles are embodied in two major principles, one of which I have already mentioned. That principle is the ideal of the “building like a tree”. All of the things a tree provides – air, water recl;amation, habitat, even perhaps food, defnitely beauty – can be provided by a building McDonough and Braungart tell us. “Imagine a building,” they challenge us, “that harvests the energy of the sun, sequesters carbon, and makes oxygen. Imagine onsite wetlands and botanical gardens recovering nutrients from circulating water”, a “life-support system in harmony with energy flows, human souls, and other living things. Hardly a machine at all.”[vii] Hardly a machine at all, indeed. In fact, in one essay, McDonough and Braungart describe buildings not as objects or machines, but as conversations – or at least the middlemen for conversations – with place.
They highlight the issue of growth as a divisive issue between environmentalists and industrialists. The former are known for their view of industrial growth as a cancer, requiring more dead trees, more air pollution, and more species extinction, whereas the former see growth as a sign of the health of a system. In fact, the industrialists have perhaps a more correct view of growth. All living things grow; it is actually one of the prerequisites to be onsidered biologically alive. However, the environmentalists have a good vision of the effects of industrial growth under current methods of design. It often does have horrendous effects on Big Mama. The two worldviews, equally valid, seem to be at an unsolvable impasse. Unless, that is, we build buildings like trees.
Again taking their inspiration from nature, McDonough and Braungart continually strive to make “waste equal food”. They speak of eliminating the very concept of waste, which “means to design things – products, packaging, and systems – from the very beginning on the understanding that waste does not exist.”[viii] Under current design strategies, recycling is an uncomfortable afterthought; product lifetimes are thought of in linear terms, from “cradle to grave”, similarly to Euro-American religious ideas of the afterlife, in fact. Although I don’t know McDonough and Braungart’s ideas on the afterlife, their design stategies resemble more those of people who believe in reincarnation. Recycling is now a losing proposition for business; it is expensive and the materials are “downcycled”, made worse and less effective the more times they are recycled. Braungart and McDonough try their damnedest to make materials (or composites of materials) that can be truly recycled, or perhaps even upcycled (if need be). In this vein, they identify a fifth sphere of ecological activity, in addition to the biosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and lithosphere. This is the technosphere, in which technological activity is conducted. Thus, with proper design, “technological nutrients” can be retained there (and thus remain safe) indefinitely. Toxic materials such as heavy metals or endocrine disruptors will, ideally, never sit in one of the other four spheres, to leach into them and upset their careful balance, but remain in the technosphere, used in cars, computers, furniture, anything necessary.
All this abstarction, however, means nothing in and of itself. People can talk of ideals and theoretical frameworks until they turn orange, and it won’t matter to the actual world. So how have McDonough and Braungart brought these ideals into the world? One way is the Living Machine in the Oberlin College Environmental Science building. Using nothing more exotic than a species of plant or two and little more man-made than a water tank, the Living Machine purfies water as its main function and fulfills a variety of other uses as well.
Wastewater is first collected in a tank where solids are allowed to settle and anaerobic bacteria convert valuable materials into separate and useable compounds, such as fixing nitrogen in ammonia. The fluid then enters into a tank filled with aerobic bacteria, which break down the sugars and release carbon dioxide and convert the ammonia into nitrite and nitrate. This tank is closed, but the next step is the open aerobic tanks, the most obvious portion of the entire Living Machine. A goup of plants hydroponically planted in the building’s greenhouse continue the process begun in the closed tank, with the addition of protozoa and small invertebrates living in the roots of the plants which help remove the biological elements in the water, the bacteria from the previous processes and from the waste’s source. Some of the water is piped backwards in the cycle to ensure the removal of any bacteria left alive, as well as any ammonium that might still be present. The next step is the clarifier, another tank operating mostly with the method of letting the water be calm and still. This makes use of something known as floc-forming bacteria, which form clumps of sediment around them to settle to the bottom of the tank. The resultant sludge is returned to the closed aerobic tanks to help ensure healthy microbial populations, and the clear water is taken to the greenhouse floor, an artificial wetland. Here, it is finally denitrified as a new set of bacteria (requiring the roots of a new set of plant) convert the nitrate into nitrogen gas. Afterwards, it sits in a holding tank until it is needed. When it is needed, it is purified of surviving microorganisms using ultraviolet radiation before being recycled.[ix]
So, how does this Living Machine (one of several innovations made in the design of the Oberlin College facility) affect the flow of energy and thoughts and culture on campus? As one sentence, collected during a “poop campaign” to raise awareness about the Machine, stated, "My very first poop for the earth. At last." Another one reads, "Holding it in the rain for 10 blocks!", and yet another, "Why poop anywhere else?" It has returned a connection back to the students. The wild has revealed itself to them by cleaning their poop. Obviously, the center being an environmental sciences classroom building, the machine offers invaluable experiential learning to the students, but it is most likely more than that. I would assume that students feel more complete, perhaps even less shameful, as they honor, every day, with just their sight alighting upon those plants in the open tanks and constructed wetland. They are dialoguing – though without their mouth – with the wild and I bet they are learning something quite valuable. They are learning that buildings can be trees, that waste treatment doesn’t have to smell, that it doesn’t have to be something disgusting. They are learning that nothing just takes up space, that anything and everything can be used and reused as often as necessary, within limits of the Second Law of Thermodynamic, of course. Their energies are no longer be released ineffectually to dissipate and disappear. They are not weakening themselves with the soul leak of linear shitting. Instead, the energy is cycling throughout the building, fresh and ready to be utilized, to create magic (the changing of consciousness at will, the affecting of the outer world with inner change), to help ease Big Mama’s suffering. All learning should be like this.
[i] Starhawk. Dreaming the Dark. Beacon press: 1997. p. 5
[ii] Ibid. p. 6
[iii] Ibid., p. 7
[iv] McDonald, Bernadette, ed. Extreme Landscape: The Lure of Mountain Spaces. National Geographic Adventure Press: 2002. p. 35
[v] Starhawk, p. 18
[vi] Ibid., p. 19
[vii] Zolli, Andrew, ed. TechTV Catalog of Tomorrow: Trends Shaping Your Future. Que Publishing: Indiana. P. 152
[viii] McDoung, William, & Braungrat, Michael. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. North Point Press: New York. P. 104