William McDonough HuffPost Live Interview | World Economic Forum – Davos

William McDonough HuffPost Live Interview | World Economic Forum – Davos


Welcome back, we’re here at the 400th day,
no-no its only like the 4th day, here in Davos, Huffington Post Live, our coverage of the
World Economic Forum. A real pleasure, at the moment we have William McDonough, who
I- we were trying to discuss how I can introduce him because he’s so many things; he’s a designer,
you’re an author, you’re a leading voice in sustainable lifestyles- is your business card
this big? Actually it’s very simple, it just has my
name, my telephone number and my email address, and that’s it. So it’d be like, “you know what I do.” I don’t know what to say, I do lots of things,
just pick the one you want. Well speaking of that, you know just looking
at the things your working on later, it’s a massive spectrum, I mean you’re working
on from the space station to the oceans, the garbage… To Molecules. How do you- I just had this thought, it wasn’t
the first question, but Multitasking, do you find yourself distracted or do you have a
really regimented way of approaching: I do this at this time, I do that at that time. I collaborate with lots of people, and I see
all of these things as one design assignment. If you look at the planet as our pallet, and
we realize that is the world we inhabit is both the thing that we use, but the thing
we need celebrate and restore, now. We’ve been using nature as a tool and for our purposes
and we end up disposing of it and so on and so forth. I think its time for humans to become tools
of the natural world and in order to do that we have to restore butterfly habitat; we have
to design products that eliminate the concept of waste, well that gets very commercial very
quickly because why would a business make something it cant sell? And the value propositions
are huge, So it’s very exciting. So we design everything from safe chemistries
to products, to packaging to buildings to cities, to whole systems like we’re working
now with the Chinese and circular economy. Well I was thinking about reading some of
the stuff, very practical stuff, and you frame in a different way though, I don’t think most
people look at the cereal box, for instance, I know you are working on this area, and you
go “wait a minute this is ac collection of toxic items, holding this stuff I’m about
to put in my body” but you look at as part of this holistic picture whether we are in
balance or out of balance? Well as a designer and wanting to do principal*
innovation, we design into the biosphere or techno-sphere, and try not to confuse the
two. So if we are going to design something that’s going back to soil, water where on
our skin to be safe on our skin we would like that to be safe in our biosphere, so no more
toxins. And if we can re use these things create methane with them use the methane to
create plastics instead of the atmosphere, put it back to the soil those are biological
cycles. If we look at technical cycles like making a computer or a cell phone I don’t
mind using lead in a telephone as a solder as long as I’m going to get it back and use
it again in the technical cycles. The minute it gets to the biosphere, it’s a toxin. Okay?
So, we keep these very carefully managed as designers. So when I looked at the cereal box, there
cereal box is made of recycled paper board and the inks from the magazines went into
it, and now, many of which are not safe for consumption, have migrated back into the cereal
in measureable quantities. So as a design if I’m sitting in a dumpster,
where I have to sit, I like to sit in garbage cans, metaphorically, because then you have
a very low center of gravity, and then you can look up and say “what is this?” “really?”
you know what am I supposed to do with this? And so, if you’re in the dumpster and someone
sends a cereal box, you’ve got this paper thing, covered in inks and glues that are
undefined, nobody is going to pull out the plastic bag, so if you recycle this paper
that’s contaminate with plastic, and you recycle this plastic that’s contaminate with paper,
silly. And so, now I got this bag with the cereal in it left over and I’ve got these
migrated toxins or whatever and now how I recycle this plastic? I can’t because it’s
got food in it. So I look at this whole thing and Wal-Mart has hired me to redo the cereal
box and we’re starting with that and their private label and we’re looking at it as a
biological nutrient package, very simple, that you’ll recognize as a cereal box, but
if it does gets to the waste handling system seen as a biological nutrient, the whole thing
the inks the glues, everything. Then it can be sent to methane production and sent back
to soil safely. So it’s a biological nutrient packing system.
So we’re looking at all foods being packaged this way so we can use it for soil health
and like that, and the technical materials, we’re developing a marking system, so we can
see them in the system, we know which is which, it’s a lot of fun. There’s a way of contemplating our daily lives
in a different way, I mean I know you said that a lot of the packaging has sort of dominated
the product. Right. It’s become this thing, and you forget, what’s
the purpose? well okay, I just saw this thing for certified
gluten free organic kale chips, and the package is 1/5th of the weight, there’s no mention
what’s in the package, and its not recyclable, it just says: no gluten, no GMO, … no, no,
no but the package might as well say ” not recyclable”, “no defined materials, “no use
to the future,” you know, whatever “no value” but we don’t mark the package, just the content.
Go figure. As we talk to you, you have your hands in
so many different things. One of the things that obviously made a lot of news, got a lot
of attention was your work post Katrina, in New Orleans, could you give us a status report
with your work down there and the work you did with Brad Pitt? Sure, well Brad and I after Katrina decided
to see if we could help out, as Brad has a house down there, he is very dedicated to
New Orleans. So we decided to help with the Lauren Nightsworth. So rather than do a house
or a demonstration we decide to do 150, and we hired architects from all over the world
and then we help them with their cradle to cradle thinking on their materials, all of
them. And so we started building houses, we’re at about 110 right now, we’re going do a 150
total so we’re doing pretty well, you know, its not easy to do this stuff and so the materials
are safe and so on. The houses are lifted above floods, so they are flood houses, which
is obviously a good idea. But my favorite stories are the kids coming back from the
FEMA trailers with asthma and once they are in these houses for a few months, their health
comes back, so beautiful. And the people, they can afford to live there. They have reasonable
mortgages, they have solar power so their energy bills are going to be diminished; it’s
quite something well when we look at things like that and
you know obviously altruistic efforts and we see the power in American, at least in
celebrity, can you talk about the value of having someone like Brad Pitt championing
something like that? Well I think the most important thing for
me and working with brad is that, he is so authentic as a human being, that every bit
of celebrity he has, he deserves. Obviously for being talented as an actor but as a human
being, he’s just a spectacularly genuine human being; this is the real thing, this person. So, I don’t know how he deals with it, but
the power of celebrity in his case, is an authentic, force that he knows he has to deal
with because he can’t help it you know everybody starts swooning when he moves around for a
good reason, I mean he’s an incredibly wonderful human and its very attractive to be near him
be around him because he’s smart, dedicated and he brings gravitas to it which is authentic.
And this is the deep work we’re trying to help people understand what the future might
be. We give them hope; that’s what this is about. We have this very weird contradictory approach
to celebrity in America. On the one hand, we like to build people up and sort of trash
them, and criticize and throw “How dare George Clooney talk about DARFA?” You know, who are
they to tell me? And then at the same time its angulation in this sense of oh I want
to wear what he wears, I want to look like them you know it’s a very complicated thing
but when its put to the use of an altruistic use, put a spotlight on an issue it seems
to me better use of it then just the spotlight on them. As long as the spotlights are around, they
might as well look at something good. You know? And the thing to remember, people like
brad, brad actually is really good designer and he’s really interested in architecture,
but the thing to remember is we are synthetic people. In order to be synthetic, we have
to be analytic and then we have to synthesize something new. Critics are analytical, they
don’t have to make anything, all they have to do is complain or lawed, but they don’t
have to do anything, they don’t have to create anything, see? So for a lot of people who
are just in the analytical world, criticism is their stock and trade. So they’re just
trying to get interest, and if its more interesting criticized negatively, and get more attention,
they’re going to do that. So its really sort of, in order for us t o do our eco-design
thinking, innovate, you know we have to think about ego management at the same time, but
sometimes it’s the ego of the person who’s not paying attention to what we are trying
to accomplish and they just want to focus on whatever it is that interest them. Which
is fine, its normal. So you just stand on the sidelines, as they
get in the game. Well you know, there was $9 billion dollars
posted for sustainability consulting last year; $9 billion. When I started all of this
and consulted with people, you know we were alone, right, and alone. And now there’s $9
billion spent on sustainability consulting. If you look at it, it went to all the people
who were doing metrics, they’re recording on people are doing less bad, right? Showing
carbon reduction, showing toxic reduction as if it’s okay to do toxic reductions or
carbon in the atmosphere at this point in history. So it would be $9 billion dollars
spent on score keeping, not creative work rot get rid of these issues. Interesting,
This would be the equivalent of going to a football game and to watch the scorekeepers.
Right, what we are looking for are the people who are willing to get on the field, figure
out where the goal is together, kick the ball, run, gall down, skin your knee, bang into
stuff, get up, do it again; that’s the game. So as we do our work, you know it’s not easy
what we do, we bang into walls we try stuff out. We had a wood we that we were trying use in
New Orleans that was not using pressure treated chemical wood for outdoors, and there was
a product being sold that could do this using morphis glass which sounded very exciting
and the company had given it a 40year warranty, and it started to rot, so we have to replace
it. Well we’re innovating, we tried it, were going to make them replace it, ok. Its what
you do, you try stuff out, you fix it, you move on. You know, you try things. That’s
the way it is I hadn’t thought of this at first, you know
its fascinating because you’re obviously a very public figure you’ve been awarded president,
lauded by Time Magazine, so obviously you know, that kind of attention comes with it,
and then you get criticism. oh yeah. So as a public figure, who maybe that wasn’t
your plan initially, you know you kind of wanted to become architect or designer, you’ve
kind have become this sort of spokes person, so how do you deal with that as a person? At the beginning it was be very hurtful, because
there was people that’d say you know you can’t be just be perfect, so there must be something
we can complain about. But I found it very strange and you learn just try and stay centered
with what you’re doing, keep you center of gravity low and keep moving. You know Gandhi
had an amazing thing on this, you know he said first they ignore you then they ridicule
you then they attach you then you win. (Laughter) And I think what were doing is good for all
the people and young people get it two minutes and it’s exciting for them. So it’s great. Let me ask you this you mention at the beginning
of our interview- China; you’ve done a lot of work over there, have been there many years
you know as an outsider we look at and we see this incredibly quickly growing economy,
rising middle class, and yet also the problems that come with the modern economy like that:
pollution; can’t go outside; they are afraid to let the kids play asthma through the roof;
having to wear masks. What’s happening there and should we be optimistic or should we be
you know, pessimistic? Well I’d say the first thing to realize is
these are unintended consequences of rampant behaviors and when did we see that before?
How about in the UK had crises in air quality in London in the fifties. We had crises in
the US, 1969 in Chattanooga, you needed to take two shirts to work, and they were driving
around at noon in Chattanooga with headlights on. We forget that. Now we exported all the
foundries because we don’t have that, we have Clean Air Act you know, and they don’t. So
all these things we are seeing it’s horrifying, and they just declared millions of hectares
off limits to agriculture, which is very desperate for them. Because they are toxified, because
the soil is being toxified, the rivers are running black, kids are getting sick, they
have cancer villages now that are being cataloged by the hundreds, they can’t see each other
in Beijing, so they’re hitting the wall. So what we’re seeing in china is sort of everything
we did, took us 200 years to do, they’re doing it in thirty, but its who we were, but in
a very compressed form. So if we stop and think about it, you know,
this is the next task is to clear the air on this one and get moving. And the Chinese
will do that, they’re moving at all levels. They’re building the biggest wind industry
in the world, just over night. They have 350 super high-speed trains, I mean how many do
we have? About And our high-speed trains are crawling between
two points. So when they get their mind to it. But it’s a horrifying thing, this industrialization,
without care for these issues. And if we look at it historically in the big context, in
the 1700’s certainly in the united states but coming out of Europe with Hobbs, Russo
and Locke, and so forth, this idea of natural rights, coming out of the Enlightenment and
human rights is the beginning of the road to feudalism primogeniture, the divine right,
so you start to get this idea of equality, then the next century after Adams Smiths Wealth
of Nations we have economy, the market economy, again the destruction of feudalism, primogeniture
alright where the market starts to happen. And you’ve got communism, capitalism, right,
you have a market. So social, market. And then, we have a social market economy coming
in the 1900s but it’s forgot the environment. So the 1900s we had equity, then we have economy,
but then 1900s what do we get; it’s the pollution century and the Chinese caught up as fast
as they could. So at the end of this last century we’re crashing into the wall of pollution
b/c we were unprincipled and we discovered fossil fuels, and we don’t have an energy
problem that is not true we have energy all over the place the problem is, which is the
material problem, carbon in the atmosphere. It’s the material carbon that we should love,
we are carbon, in the atmosphere –Oops, wrong place. The material in the wrong place is
a toxin. See what we should stop to realize is we got the lead out of our gasoline because
we don’t want the lead in our rivers, in our children’s brains it’s a neurotoxic. Carbon
atmosphere is just like lead in a river. It’s a toxin for future generations, how long are
we going to let our children suffer from this poison. So get that out of there and lets
get on with the war. So the next century and the Chinese understand this is the ecological
century. Because then we can have fairness equity, economy the market, which we understand
is very powerful, and then ecology which is our home. And you put the three together and
you get what the Chinese are now calling is the ecological civilization. That’s interesting. So at the end of the day are you an optimist
about this, because you’re on the fronts lines about the good stuff and the bad stuff, so
you know is it just the glass half full or half empty remedy or is it half full with
pollution, what’s the state of your brain right now? Well somebody made a joke about me the other
day as a designer see the glass half empty pessimist or half full optimist, I think its
always full of water and air. So the glass is always full and we can define what’s in
it, the real issue here is that the glass isn’t big enough. So we have to offer opportunity,
all our children everywhere. So when somebody says “oh we’re running out of resources, and
we’re growing our demand exponentially through population and consumption patterns and things
like that, you cant have a system with declining resources and exponential growth, doesn’t
work. Right? You have to be either insane or an economist or something, I don’t know,
who can say we can keep this up. You can’t eat your feet grain; you know the seeds; that’s
what we’re doing. We can’t mortgage the future; if we mortgage
the future then the world belongs to the dead and not to living. So if the world is going
to belong to living we have to live from current income. And so that’s what we’re seeing now;
Is this notion that we have to have glass big enough to share so we don’t want to throw
things away, away went away. We don’t want to down-cycle everything into park benches
on its way to a landfill we can actually recycle and upcycle materials because we want to create
an endless resourcefulness and in the economy that would be a circular economy and an endless
resourcefulness of things and so everything becomes food: either food for life, food for
technology or food for thought. And that way future generations have hope and they have
things to work with and the world keeps getting better, better and better. Otherwise we’re
collapsed. Well when it comes to food for thought you
have given us quiet the meal today, I appreciate it very much and join us again, I hope.

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