Optimism, Not Fear, The Theme at William McDonough’s West Coast Green Lecture



In this day of 60-second You Tube Videos, 100-word blog posts (no such luck with this one, sorry) and two-minute meals, I’ve come to appreciate things that take an inordinately long time: Marathons, Passover Seder, Ken Burns’ documentaries—all those hours spent thinking about one thing can lead to an experience akin to, well, having an experience, if you know what I mean.

So when I was invited to attend a talk by Cradle-to Cradle founder William McDonough that was described to me as “three-hour deep dive of storytelling” at this weekend’s West Coast Green conference, I was ready to stock up on Power Bars, don my most comfortable pants and be taken to another level.  I was not disappointed (although coffee and a shift dress had to suffice—it was a conference after all).

I had already heard from a handful of my favorite green designers and advocates (Michelle Kaufmann, Emily Pilloton, and of course, Brad Pitt) that the gospel of McDonough was life changing, but I couldn’t imagine how much someone could say that I hadn’t heard before in some form or another. But beyond the information he presented, which was both fascinating and illuminating, it was his infectious appreciation and optimism for humanity that stayed with me for hours after. He started off discussing what inspired him to do a three hour talk, of the Roman senators in the days before written tablets, who valued not just the ability to orate for such an extended period of time but to listen. He then recalled a talk similar in spirit that he had heard Buckminster Fuller give while McDonough was a student at Dartmouth.  His passion for their invaluable wisdom allowed him to make that wisdom his own, and I instantly wanted what he had.

Thinking about it afterwards, I determined that if there was any common thread that ran through a talk that included General MacArthur’s diplomacy strategy, Japanese architecture, bizarre experiences in his high school locker room, Champagne production and pencils that turn into plants, it was this: he is truly impressed with the capacity of human beings. I didn’t realize how rare that sentiment was until I sat down and tried to decipher what it was that had nearly moved me to tears at a dozen points during the talk. He completely believes we can do this.

Unlike the feeling of paralyzing fear that washed over me (and I’m sure countless others) as I sat through the equally marathon-esque “An Inconvenient Truth,” when McDonough spoke I was being shot through with such optimism at every turn that it seemed like I had missed a lifetime of good news by reading the wrong paper or failing to turn to the right channel. If you need hard proof of the effectiveness of his gospel, let me just say that I now count Bill Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger as two of the most forward-thinking people in power in the last decade. (Bill Ford hired McDonough to transform the dilapidated and toxic Ford Motor headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan into a clean-energy-producing utopia with the largest living roof in the world, while Schwarzenegger just succeeded in getting McDonough to donate the entirety of the Cradle-to-Cradle intellectual property to a California-based non-profit with the aim of it being incorporated not just throughout the state, but the world.)

His full-circle knowledge of the economics that move politicians and CEOs to action is what separates his brand of world-changing from what has come before. But it’s his sincere faith in his fellow man that is so catching, and is the thing that will stay with me long after the cost savings of switching to solar has faded into fuzziness (what’s a mind-altering experience without a few lost memories?).  In the words of William McDonough, “Wow, isn’t that something?”

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