A ‘Cradle to Cradle’ economy is Europe’s only future


Picture of Michael Braungart
Michael Braungart

Chemist and Founder of EPEA International Umweltforschung in Hamburg

Europe needs a positive agenda to define its future. We need real innovation, intelligent product design and quality, and that means we have to stop using sustainability concepts, which are only trying to correct unfixable errors in our old system. Sustainability is not innovative by definition. Innovations are disruptive and change the status quo, whereas sustainability preserves it. Efficiency rhetoric isn’t getting us anywhere, and for us to aspire only to become less bad at what we do is simply not good enough.

Today, we have a socio-economic system that creates waste and harms people and the environment, suffers from design errors and lacks real quality. We have no other choice than to leave that linear economy behind. We are capable of thinking in a circular way and creating high-quality alternatives that are beneficial for people and nature. This would be a ‘Cradle to Cradle’ economy in which material flows, products, buildings and cities support a symbiotic relationship between ecological systems and economic growth. All materials would maintain their status as resources and could then be used over and over. New business models will enhance this transition in which Europeans pay for the use of a particular service, and not the ownership. The Cradle to Cradle design frees us from our current responsibility to reduce any negative environmental effects from our behaviour.

Overcoming fear and feelings of distrust will need more than bureaucracy and rules as a response. However different our cultural backgrounds might be, we all desire to live in a safe and healthy environment. When you’re unsure if companies and institutes can guarantee you this, people worry about the health of their children, family and friends. We don’t want to live in a Europe where we have to distrust consumer goods and the people providing them. Those feelings are based on fear, and are poisoning our society with greed and anger. If people feel safe, accepted and valued, they are always warm-hearted and generous – even the poorest of the poor. This is why it is so important to celebrate our human footprint. Although it is difficult to step out of our comfort zone and dare to question the fundamental errors causing the latest crises, we need to counter fear and tradition with inspirational approaches.

Without defending the European Legacy, we are undermining our human rights. Our economies, cultures, social relations and political systems are so intensively intertwined that all European countries and citizens cannot exist without each other. This continent of economic possibilities, a high quality of life and human values should consequently be protected, otherwise we will lose our global credibility and right to speak. But lasting prosperity, solidarity and peace are not things we can take for granted. Every day, now and in the future, we have to fight for these European conditions. People are capable of doing this without losing their sense of nationality – a person can have more than just one identity. Europe must stay a safety beacon, and one that we’re proud of.

In Europe, we celebrate our individuality and freedom but it remains a challenge to think differently. With the ongoing unification of our educational systems, individuals have freedom but are taught to think within standardised concepts. We need to respect people, and look at what they as individuals can do instead what they cannot. New social models can make it possible for people to extend their contribution to society and increase their dignity at the same time. Instead of Al Gore’s global warning to fight overpopulation wherever we can, Cradle to Cradle has another message: “Welcome to the planet, how nice it is that you are here!”

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