making cherry trees

When I complained about recycling, it wasn’t that I think the environment isn’t in crisis. I know it is. I complained because I believe there is an opiate-like effect for people who want to feel not-powerless, so they believe “reduce, reuse, recycle” is close to enough. They are doing their part. As a friend said in the comments, “But if you buy a Prius you can pretty much do what you want because you’ve already done enough.” It’s that kind of thinking (that is almost not an exaggeration) that I find troubling.

In “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things,” the authors paint a beautiful and hopeful picture of what our future could be. Why not change everything about how things are made? They suggest we move from being “less bad” (reduce, reuse, recycle) to being “always good.”

Using a cherry tree as one of the metaphors for evolutionary design, they note that the “efficiency” of a cherry tree doesn’t involve having the fewest blooms possible producing the ideal single fruit with the one seed that will grow into a new tree. The tree is an integral part of the greater system. It is entirely interdependent on and with the life around it. The blossoms fall off and feed the soil, the fruit and seeds feed insects and birds and mammals, the wood and branches provide homes for critters, etc… The authors do a beautiful job of articulating how the design of the tree isn’t so much efficient as it is sustainable, effective, beautiful, and, of course, entirely biodegradable.

the cherry tree in the backyard of my parents’ summer place, taken on Mother’s Day 2012

A friend shared this link to an article about a fungi that eats plastic. That’s potentially fantastic. However, it strikes me without changing our whole point of view that having one more way to sort of clean up after ourselves won’t solve much. “Why try to optimize the wrong systems?” is the question the Cradle to Cradle authors ask. In the context of that question, this fungi could be a part of a grand change in the design and production of materials using the cherry tree model (entirely interdependent, 100% biodegradable, energy producing not just consuming, life-giving). Or, it could be something that’s used to kind of, sort of, take care of some of the problem while we all continue feeling a little guilty about the materials we’re using.

I’m new to all of these questions and issues. But, my gut says that household recycling and returning your wine bottle corks to Whole Foods isn’t going to make much of a difference in the environmental crisis (reminder, I’m not suggesting you don’t recycle just that you don’t think that’s “the answer”). Supporting the legislation and industries that will turn Industrialization on its head seems a good use of our time. We should stop trying to find new ways to deal with the problems of our current systems. Instead we should create new products, processes, materials, and systems that—instead of doing less harm—actually make the world healthier and stronger because we are using them.