Zero Design

From: George Mokray

Subject: This is an article I've written for possible inclusion in a new book called Viable Utopian


Shaping a Better World edited by Arthur Shostak (Armonk, NY: M.E.Sharpe, 2003 at press). It is intended for first year sociology students. Zero Design What would it be like to live in a zero waste/zero emission world? Just as a thought experiment. Can you imagine an industrial system where all waste is eliminated through recycling and reuse and exemplary design from the very beginning, where what was previously thrown away becomes a feedstock for new products? As in waste equals food. If we want zero waste and emissions, then maybe waste should become food. Perhaps this would work like the worms I keep in my kitchen. For nearly 25 years, my vegetable scraps have gone into the worm bin without muss, fuss, or odor and become soil for my plants and a new generation of worms. Less waste and more useful products in my extended domestic biosphere. Waste equals food is one of William McDonough's ecological design principals. He says waste equals food, use only available solar energy, respect diversity, and love all the children.

Cradle to cradle not cradle to grave. (The title of McDonough's book is _Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things_ from North Point Press; ISBN: 0865475873. His website is What would it mean to use only available solar energy? Here in the Boston, MA USA area (North latitude 42), one square foot of sunlight is about 350,000 btu's per year. That's nearly 4 gallons of oil. What could you do with 4 gallons of oil per year? How many gallons of oil a day do you use now to live the life you live? How much does that cost? Not only in terms of dollars and cents but also in terms of all the hidden costs - the infrastructure that keeps that energy pumping to you, the waste that's generated from each step all along the way, and all the unintended consequences that impinge upon the world's ecologies and peoples? I bought a solar/dynamo flashlight/radio before the Millennium and use it to listen to my morning news and late night tunes. The internal battery provides about 2 months of 2 hours a day of radio on just one charge. When the internal Nickel-Cadmium battery runs down, I turn the radio off and turn the flashlight on. I leave the flashlight on for a day or so to eliminate or reduce the memory effects NiCad batteries are prone to. Then I place the flashlight/radio in my southernmost window. It takes about two days to recharge the NiCad from sunlight falling through my window. For about $25 (2002 US $), I bought permanent solar and muscle power for as long as the batteries can hold a charge, small battery power forever, for all intents and purposes, as long as the sun shines and I can turn the crank, a lifetime supply of electricity, all the AA's, C's, and D batteries I can use. The combination of solar electricity,using only a small portion of my available solar income, and my own muscle power, a secondary solar source, can feasibly result in a steady supply of radio and maybe a little reading light without an increase of local waste. This is also end use power, photon and hand-made right on the premises, thus saving the power burned in transmitting and generating the electricity I would have used from the grid. So each watt from my solar/dynamo equals three watts of grid power. Waste equals food. Use only available solar energy. Respect diversity. For a couple of years, I thought about that one. I have an inclination to say increase diversity instead.

There is some evidence to suggest that more diverse populations produce more biomass pound for pound, biome by biome so for a time I'd say increase diversity instead. Finally, I had the chance to ask McDonough about it after one of his talks and he pointedly urged respect so that each situation would be understood as unique. Maybe everything is one of a kind. There are, after all, the stories of kudzu and gypsy moths, starlings and English sparrows whose added diversity has led to simplification of the local systems here in the USA because all natural predators and controls were no present. So I say as well, now, respect diversity. If you do look to increase diversity, make sure you can remove what you add. Before you add it. Waste equals food. Use only available solar energy. Respect diversity. Love all the children. How do we love all the children? How many do we love now? And that means more than human children.

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It implies all the children throughout the biosphere. We cannot bring into the world beings we refuse to support. That's pure waste - on a variety of levels. If we were to love all the children, we'd make sure they're all fed, clothed, housed, and educated. At one point in the not too distant past, in the Nixon administration in the USA, the Women's Infants Children (WIC) program guaranteed high nutrition foods to pregnant women, lactating mothers, and all chidren up to the age of five. We don't do that anymore. We have a means test instead and a de facto policy of discouraging those who apply. Have Head Start early education programs ever been "fully funded"? Child care? Child health care? And what about other species' children? And the very process of reproduction with the manipulation of genetic material throughout the phylla and species? Who owns your DNA? At another talk by McDonough, he talked about designing buildings from the perspective of the birds in the area. I thought he was exaggerating and romanticizing until some starlings made a nest in the vent above my bathroom window. Zero design - zero wastes, zero emissions, zero defects - where waste equals food, we use only available solar income, respect diversity, and love all the children. These are design principles that can help us begin to live comfortably within our ecological niche and allow other creatures to live comfortably in theirs. Oddly enough, the idea of zero design is neither Utopian nor impractical. It is merely an extension of W. Edwards Deming's ideas about statistical quality control. [Demings' books _The New Economy_ (MIT Press; ISBN: 0262541165) and _Out of the Crisis_ (MIT Press; ISBN: 0262541157) explain his ideas and methods.] Deming's Total Quality Management works towards zero defects on a production line resulting in higher quality. If businesses can seek success through managing towards total quality, zero defects, than why can't we ask our whole society to extend that idea so that total quality also includes the entire ecological system?

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