What do scientists have to say about the biological vision and philosophy of Cradle to Cradle? Let's cherish their feedback and consider their points with scrutiny – not gobble it all blindly just because it’s scientists talking.
August 27, 2023
Merlin Eric Bola
Strategy & Content Direction
This is part 1 of a twin article about 14 scientific objections to Cradle to Cradle.
Disclaimer: This article has been misunderstood before, so I want to point put that it's not agitating the Cradle to Cradle vision and framework, and does the exact opposite instead. I will colloquially summarize the objection found in scientific literature in Italics and then turn to dissect it in the next step – a style inspired by the work of Robert Greene.
It feels good to be right – but what if you’re wrong?
Calling the fireworks or bubble bursts of innovation can be a fun game to play, riding the edge of history and taking the gamble to be either right or wrong, demonstrably.
Renowned and self-reassured experts of all professions tried their luck. Trying to map a known past on an unkown future, some confidently misplaced their bets:
»The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.«
– Sir William Preece, Chief Engineer of the British Post Office, in 1878
»Airplanes are interesting toys, but they don’t have any military use whatsoever.«
– Ferdinand Foch, Allied Forces Marshall in the First World War, in 1911
»The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.«
– Clifford Stoll, US-American astronomist and publicist, in 1995
Looking back, it’s easy to see that these quotes haven’t aged all too well.
But back then? They would have been defended, maybe even winning the argument … right up to the moment that reality caught up and proved them wrong.
Doubt is to innovation what a wall is to grapevines
That is so say that innovation needs corrective doubt to grow high and healthy, to one day bear the fruit it is promised to deliver.
Like a wall, doubts and objections can seem daunting at first, but ultimately give direction and stability to the grapevines of innovation. Cradle to Cradle (C2C) boldly challenges the status quo, a surefire way to either change the world … or provoke intense pushback.
Like any idea of its kind, C2C is evoking a wide range of responses, especially as its advocates are taking some pride in rocking the boat a lot:
There’s agreement bordering on fanaticism with inflated expectations and people willing to dedicate their life
There’s an air of awakening that has yet to meet the difficulties of real world implementation
There are people utterly convinced they 'know how the real world works' and 'how all of this is just a naive fantasy', sometimes having nothing left in them but criticism, rigidity and contempt
There’s smart and differentiating people considering the pros and cons, gradually letting the idea in and trying to humbly make it work for real
Not all of this has to happen at the same time.
With C2C having some years under it's belt, I'd argue we're riding the Hype Cycle's slope right now. The challenge is to sort out constructive and corrective feedback from an urge to stand out with confident defating statements and peoples terror of genuine change.
Real value lies where resistance isn’t fueled by ego, fear or unbridled belligerence, but rather by an educated and constructive grapple with the concept behind the idea. We have to be able to tell the difference.
Talking about circularity and C2C that has to include confessing …
Circular concepts aren’t … well rounded yet
And how could they be?
They’re in puberty, with a shy braces smile and excited plans of sneaking a letter into the cute girls school bags.
According to the Circular Gap Report 2021 and 2022, we are only 8,6% on our way to a global circular standard. With a fall from 9,1% in 2018, the circular share of the global economy is declining.
We have actually managed to move in the wrong direction. How did that happen? Are we being discouraged from a lack of immediate results and positive feedback loops, turning our back on circularity? Is this proof of a greenwashing epidemic, with ever more lip service to sustainability but fewer real world efforts?
Or is it old fighting the paradigm shift and investing in a growth spurt, expanding faster relative to the circular share of the economy?
Right now, we don’t see the maturity stage of a circular economy …
… or an always decent way to communicate the idea.
Let’s be real here:
Circular models are not always able to compete economically within the first year, threatening the short term profitability of companies and fueling their reluctance to take the leap
Completely reworking global multi-stakeholder systems according to one overarching principle, with financial incentive for inert incumbents to stay with business as usual, is a historic task to perform
Some C2C advocates overshot the mark and slipped into dogma, probably creating some reactance in audiences and hindering adoption on a psychological level
And there’s more.
No grown-up systems without a matured sense of the world
There’s a deep need for a collective change of mind and heart to make it work.
We have to grow up along with these novel systems of thinking and acting, it’s a pedaling between education and implementation. Still, all the barriers, hurdles, setbacks and momentum breaks included, the circular quest keeps being an inevitable path for our species to walk.
Not a single critic would agree to have our childrens home planet getting devoured by an unstoppable civilizational hunger for ever more resources, tools and new shiny things.
Can we truly be good for nature?
It's a key talking point of C2C and the first subset of criticism:
Can human beings be beneficial to the world around them, to other forms of life and really nature itself?
We are called to not just be a little less bad with reduced toxicity, but finally a good deal for everything around us. Now, this notion seems to be perceived as presumptuous and arrogant, and not just by the scientific community.
It doesn’t connect to an apocalyptic and self-loathing mindset that is easily brewing between problem-focussed news, disempowered feelings of despair over the state of the world and no plans to ever cancel the beloved Netflix subscription.
It’s our own passivity that’s breeding apocalyptic expectations
The anticipation of a better world within reach also doesn’t connect to the data on global trends that tell stories of biodiversity collapse, water shortages and depleted soils ahead.
In response, we have firmly established the belief that we’re 'too much' for the planet. The life-denying myth has long been formed that foregoing children could be an adequate new guiding ethic – as if we were inherently wrong, a failed evolutionary project that just needs to disappear for things to be good again.
In this way of looking at the world, we are a cancer that needs to be eradicated. And yes, by definition, that cancerous nature includes young buzzing spirits with bright eyes, ready to play the game of life and seek meaningful tasks to tackle.
A species holding a belief like this feels like life turning on itself, like a wave breaking when it gets too big for itself to carry.
We don’t recognize ourselves
Think of Gothic cathedrals, marble sculptures, aircraft carriers, depth psychology and quantum physics.
We are so radically different from the known expressions of life around us that some of us feel artificial and alien, a hairy wart standing out against the backdrop of biosymmetrical perfection.
Now, somehow, an anthill isn’t perceived by us as an alien phenomenon in this world. We don’t feel it to be unnatural or displaced in reality.
Twist and turn in your sheets all you want, but humanity stays the result of the exact same evolutionary process that the anthill is. We are not disconnected from nature but a child of it, dancing on the outer edges of a miraculous process that we came to call evolution.
So, can we be good for the whole of it? Can we fit in? Could we reconnect elegantly into the fabric of life, despite our striking otherness?
Not everyone is able to imagine so.
What we know about our past and the present seems to so strictly contradict this idea.
1/ We can’t possibly know what's 'good' for the environment
It’s hybris to assume that we are able to give our environment something that it needs and would not get without us. Nature is going strong without human beings, we are the problem here.
With all the complexity and room for error involved, we have a hard time truly knowing what’s good for nature – other than leaving it alone.
Then again, we can’t go by nature without leaving traces. Not a single organism on this planet does. Maybe it’s time to really consider what traces to leave?
For centuries, a budding Western economy understood natural ecosystems as inexhaustible buffets to pick from and bottomless bins to put our trash out.
Blindly extracting, not asking questions and looking the other way on ecological collapse, we have stressed nature's regenerative capacity right up to its breaking point.
Can we go much more wrong than that?
We can clearly see that this is not the way, we’re not completely blind and clueless here.
Now, setting out to be good can be seen as hybris – or as a wise goal, depending on your perspective. If all you ever want is to be less bad, you can pat yourself on the back as soon as you get rid of one out of a hundred toxins.
If you really want to be good, you have to replace every toxin with a healthy alternative. This philosophy forces us to aim higher – that is, to aim at a regenerative paradigm with measurably positive effects on our surroundings.
»Shoot for the moon – even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.«
– Norman Vincent Peale
Should we not hit bullseye right away, so be it. If we’re not turning out to be total dorks, we have secured ourselves a place on the target circle, ready to inch closer to the center.
Can simple truths be hard to see?
Scientists believing that we can’t ever figure out what’s good for nature might actually experience a projection of their own psyche.
Let’s say they are right about the fact that they really don’t know. Well, maybe someone else does? Native tribes around the globe live intimately close to nature without sending their minds far into abstract thinking, separating themselves from the simple and obvious.
After a particularly insightful soil science lecture in 2014, I remember being stunned by what felt like the most basic realization of them all: If we go with nature, we can’t go wrong.
Somehow, this simple heuristic only came back to me after years of study in a moment of relieving realization. How did I lose it? Likely as a result of media programming and corporate advertisement, leading to a deep existential confusion about life.
We can reverse this trend, I can prove it to myself within my own mind. I can recognize the same in other people.
Could we actually find out what’s good for nature and how to conduct ourselves differently?
2/ Not everything green and organic is beneficial to plants and animals
Let’s take allelopaths. These plants synthesize chemical compounds to influence the germination and growth of other plant species. Negative allelopathy is to distribute toxic and growth suppressing chemicals with their litter to have their chosen spot be free of competition. Nature isn’t all harmony and »organic« doesn’t say it’s »good«.
True, but two things to consider.
First, the best material properties and the best allelopath-free ability to cycle may not be found in the same compound. Should this situation arise, and it will, we have to decide: Use the less capable material here and go for maximum sustainability?
Or do we need the absolutely best material properties we can get, made from allelopaths or other critical chemicals, accepting the environmental costs in exchange for maximum resilience?
This will vary in different material use cases and will change with higher stakes and human life involved. Let's put it like this: I would be fine with leaving hemp out of industrial climbers equipment for now.
Along the way, we will keep on looking for ever better organic solutions and gradually widen the both-healthy-and-sturdy-material-bank.
A story of composition and compostation
Secondly, for naturally occurring allelochemicals and toxins, a natural way of degradation has to exist. Otherwise, these compounds would accumulate all around us and make soils useless for most plants forever.
That's just not how nature works.
It's all about the right dose in the right place under the right conditions, about diluting chemically active and growth inhibiting residues with lower-impact plant matter – not about knocking ecosystems into allelopath coma.
Both approaches are about adapting to real world feedback, of applying the scientific method.
Probably challenging? Sure.
Ultimately doable? It better be.
What else to put our extraordinary brain to use for?
3/ Not all species respond the same way to nutrients
With compostable materials, we will still influence populations and probably reduce biodiversity. A natural equilibrium is always impacted by adding something, even (or especially) if it’s nutrients. Take algae blooms in lakes and oceans, largely triggered by having way too much nitrogen around.
But what’s the fundamental issue here?
We will not become free from influencing our environment, even with perfectly closed loops according to C2C principles. We can change how we impact our environment, not that we do.
That’s not a problem, just a basic truth and a factor to consider.
Since the only way to drive our influence to zero would be to not exist at all, let's muster up some courage – take the crazy risk to affect our environment with nutrients instead of obvious toxins. The trick would be to not create the next set of problems by applying lopsided solutions.
Balancing nutrients based on a growing bulk of knowledge, we will ultimately apply the right mixture and amount of nutrients to the right ecosystems, reconnecting to natures cycles without ugly bruises, scars or the environmental blood spills of the past.
Ever increasing technological prowess and AI powered systems to handle overwhelming complexity could help us here. A few projects are already in development.
4/ Nutrient floods could overwhelm and derail ecosystems
Nutrients aren’t always »good«, it’s the right dose, proportion and place that counts.
True – close to the argument before, but more on the quantity side of things.
It’s a good point, assuming anyone took it for a good idea to just dump mountains of raw bioplastics into woods, bogs and marshes.
Advanced closed loop systems will be about controlled dissemination and composting of chopped residues, carefully cycled back into agriculture or forestry. Applied to already cultivated systems with direct feedback the next growth season, it should be possible to get the dosage right.
And again, let’s gain clarity by sober comparison.
What are the effects of conventional agriculture?
It doesn’t look bright:
Impoverished and eroding soils that are losing the fertile upper soil layer continuously and are lacking nutrients to produce rich, healthy food
Artificial fertilizers seeping into the ground water, contaminating it widely and overstreching the chemical buffering capacity of aquifers
Raw, uncomposted manure full of parasites, pathogens and/or antibiotics directly applied to the soil, damaging both soil life and our health
Pesticides and herbicides busily killing not only weeds and bugs, but also the soil life we all depend on and ending up, again, in our own bodies
Currently, we are overusing toxic chemicals and other bad ideas, harmful in any dosage and killing life directly without any detour, before we’re gobbling them up ourselves.
We know better, but we don't do better.
With a mess like this in front of us, does rejecting a nutrient economy – because it might be too much for some ecosystems – seem like a good move?
5/ In general, as human beings, we can only disrupt balanced ecosystems
Especially when appearing in numbers, we will always be a disturbance. When there’s balance, we can’t help but to kick things off balance as we are blindly pursuing our own needs.
True – but only when these conditions apply:
Place & Culture We’re talking about the subsection of humanity that we call Western culture, and other cultures now heavily influenced and economically exploited by it
Time & Data We’re talking about the timeframe up until this point in history
Relativity We are ignoring that there are no ecosystems in full equilibrium anymore – there are only few ecosystems to hurt with a 'nutrient economy' compared to what we're doing right now
We have already reached every remote ecosystem in some way. We detect microplastic particles everywhere. We can measure our influence in everything but fossil records of a world without naked industrialized apes in suits.
But it’s a decidedly different story for native tribes all around the world. It has been a different story for us in the past and it might be a different story again in the future.
Alright, sure, even a healthier economy won’t return global flora and fauna to a pristine state by human design, that’s not how nature works.
You don’t try to calm disturbed water with your hand, do you?
But let’s say we would manage to alleviate the worst of our influences by applying more intelligent and considerate systems, by collecting our waste, containing our toxins and figuring out how not to create endlessly more of both.
Could that help derailed ecosystems breathe again and finally rebalance? It’s probably all they need to regenerate and reclaim their natural resilience.
Natives tribes all over the world manage to live in harmony with nature.
They either don’t create marble sculptures and aircraft carriers or they are very good at hiding them.
Now, what if we dropped our hybris for a moment and assumed that native tribes got something else instead, like a scale that always has to be loaded with the same weight, just differently distributed.
Indigenous tribes often instinctively focus on subsistence and sustainability, on keeping things as they are for the generations after them, using the knowledge of generations before them, always cycling back to a stable state.
And yes, they are often missing the creative and progressive drive of a linear model of thinking, making less things happen:
Less 4K Ultra HD, less quantum computing and less rocket science, but also less overconsumption, less garbage islands and less biodiversity loss.
In other words: Less extinction threats.
What if Western culture was to learn from them? What if we integrated their circular and preserving way of being while keeping the good section of the linear, progressive style:
Producing so much thrilling novelty and advanced technology that we might actually have a shot at those spaceshuttle dreams of »mayflowering« some solar systems and colonizing other planets.
Combining both approaches, we should have a good recipe for a great future on our hands.
6/ Plant seeds in biodegradable materials will lead to invasive species
To have degradable products contain fertile seeds is a dangerous game to play, threatening the very ecosystems we want to preserve. In a globalized economy, where products are shipped all over the world, invasive species could quickly and uncontrollably spread across continents, kicking ecosystems off balance.
Alright, let’s make it quick: True.
If that’s the objection that would make or break a circular future, let it go. I'll drop it and surrender: Let’s leave the seeds out of our compostable one-way bioplastics. It’s a small price to pay and not a hill I am willing to die on.
Seeds might weaken the structural integrity of thin plastic layers such as those of bottles anyway, creating predetermined breaking points to see product quality suffer.
Consider it a cool idea and beautiful bonus if we can safely rule out the spread of invasive species. Otherwise, enjoy it as a compelling fantasy, never to be implemented due to the risks and downsides.
7/ Nature is not a perfect equilibrium with all clean cycles
Not everything cycles all the time, the planet is building up huge reservoirs of hydrocarbons, ores and water that have little to no exchange with their surroundings for long stretches of time. A volcanic eruption broadly destroys life around it and, if particularly violent, even affects global weather patterns. The planet has seen several mass extinctions in the past. Nature is rough, man.
Yes, inarguably true.
Even oh so harmonious mixed crops alternate between cooperation and competition, depending on the conditions. It’s not all community vibes and snuggly blankets.
Life on this planet exhibits a terrific diversity that can turn terrible in a second.
And so may we. Like children learning to walk, we are free to bump a dent into the delicate wooden dresser and to get the pearly white rug dirty. We have the same right to work ourselves through trial & error as any other form of life. It’s alright, as long as we learn.
But it doesn’t serve us to do so without using the intelligence we’ve been given, to reflect on our actions and to recognize the traces we leave.
We are capable of finding smarter ways …
So there’s a certain subconscious pressure to actually do so.
Have you ever envied the lifestyle of a cat, stretched impossibly over various pieces of furniture all day, looking like discomfort is not an option and time doesn't exist?
Sounds like paradise, but try to live that way for longer than a week and you quickly notice: You're not a cat. Our brains set us apart, our intelligence requires us to play a different game.
The ability to notice trends and the fact that we could be our own extinction level event keeps us restless, and rightly so. With the power to disrupt our own habitat comes the responsibility to … ultimately not do so.
The planet doesn’t care
The dance between order and chaos wouldn't stop with an end to our story, new forms of life will appear and the game will go on. This simple realization turns protecting nature into protecting ourselves, environmental action into self defense.
Call it nature, the universe or god incognito, but it can take geological timeframes to either clean up and get back to equilibrium … or outright explode solar systems and create new ones, having aeons at hand and no deadline to keep.
Should we be fond of surviving, right now, on this planet, we should probably put our fabulous minds to work, wake up and act smarter. It’s up to us to decide wether we deem it a worthwhile game to get our act together.
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