William McDonough receives the National Wildlife Foundation 2015 Conservation Achievement Award


It is my pleasure and really my honor to welcome
our keynote speaker and honor him with the National Wildlife Federation’s JN Ding Darling
Conservation Award. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. William McDonough. Good evening. It’s a real privilege to be here. I’m going to tell some stories. I was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1951. I remember as a three year old lying on my
back in a futon at 3:00 in the morning when the ox carts of the farmers would wake us
up to come collect our sewage. Then my mother would come in and sing us songs
about the honey wagons and the night soil. You’re three years old and it’s poop stories
and it’s your mom singing you songs. I thought that the cities and the farms were
all one organism and I still do. My childhood summers until I was a teenager
were spent in the Puget Sound. My grandfather had been a lumberjack. He cut down a cedar. It was 12 feet in diameter. He had bought Old Growth Forest when he retired
and that’s where I spent my summers catching oysters and trout, salmon and playing in the
woods with the giant trees. I would move to Hong Kong after that. I lived in a place with 6 million refugees,
but no water. We had water every fourth day for four hours. Then I would be in a world of abundance in
the Puget Sound. Back and forth. I realized that watching all of this, that
design is actually a signal of human intention and that in order to do our work as designers
first we must change the way we see. When someone tells me, “Oh, my backyard is
turning into a mess. I have weeds everywhere.” We might say, “Well wait a minute. What if you were a butterfly? It’s looking better and better everyday.” Then we change the way we speak. These are nutrients. These are beautiful things. Nature has a very difficult time being ugly. Have you ever noticed that? Put a child on a beach full of pebbles and
they will immediately start picking their favorites. They’re all beautiful. Go to a gravel quarry, take off your shoes. Good luck. Nature has a very tough time finding ugly. Humans don’t. I’d like to tell some stories. One of my favorites is about humans and nature,
or a set of my favorites are about humans in the natural world. Gregory Bateson wrote a book when I was just
entering college called Mind and Nature. He was Margaret Mead’s husband, anthropologist. In this book he’s in the future and he’s working
with the term cybernetics that Norbert Wiener had coined at MIT. You’ve got to remember when we’re punching
holes in cards and calling it computing. In this book he’s in the future and he’s sitting
in front of a computer. He’s telling his daughter this story in the
future. He sits in front of a computer and he says,
“Tell me computer, when do you think computers will begin to think like humans?” There’s a long pause and the computer says,
“Hmm, that reminds me of a story.” A story, Emerson in 1831 after his wife died,
went to Europe for the first time on a sailboat. He returned in a steamship. This is the cusp of the first Industrial Revolution. What is this design? Let’s think about this for a minute because
what is leadership and who is the leader on a ship? Well, obviously it’s the designer of the ship
because you could be the best captain in the world, but if the ship and the vessel is not
seaworthy, you’re going down. He went over on a solar powered recyclable
craft operated by craftspeople practicing ancient arts in the open air and returned
in a steel rust bucket putting smoke into the air, oil on the water, operated by people
working in the darkness shoveling fossil fuels in the mouths of boilers. This is design. What is our intention? Seven years later Harvard commissioned Emerson
to write a lecture which he delivered, and quite an astonishing essay. The question was this, if human beings are
natural, are therefore all things made by humans part of nature? His conclusion is that nature is all the unchangeable
essences, he called them, the oceans, the mountains, the leaves, the air. So much for the 19th century. Can we affect the oceans? Sedification, plastics, temperature. The mountains, we can take them down. The air, at this point in history carbon,
after millennia of being an asset and soil, it’s become a liability in the atmosphere. This is a new era. It is called the Anthropocene. It is the era of humans affecting the planet. This is the legacy of our industrial design
and our systems that we enjoy. Now I’ve come here from Charlottesville, Virginia
where I had the privilege of being the Dean at the School of Architecture from 1994 to
1999 and lived in a house designed by Thomas Jefferson. When you live in a house designed by Jefferson
and you read what he wrote you discover something quite interesting. Clearly Thomas Jefferson thought of himself
first as a designer and as an architect. He was my architect. If you don’t understand that all you have
to do is go look at his last design which was his tombstone near Monticello two miles
away and you would realize on it he only recorded the things he designed. It says, “Thomas Jefferson, author of the
Declaration of American Independence, author of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
which became the Bill of Rights and Father of the University of Virginia, the first public
institution of higher learning in the world.” Notice, is there anything missing? Can you imagine having been President of the
United States twice and it’s not important enough to put on your tombstone? What you realize, he’s only recording his
legacies, not his jobs, not his activities. He is recording what he left behind. Just in case anybody wants to do some math
most of us in this room are Thomas Jefferson’s seventh generation. Now when we look at the University of Virginia,
what he called an academical village, we realize that he’s pulling together the most astonishing
perspective of human values and human value in the context of the natural world. At the head of the lawn is the rotunda. It is a platonic combination of sphere and
cube. It is the egg. It is the mother. It is the arts. It’s Plato. It’s finding truth through beauty, through
culture, through love. The plans on the first two floors is a circle
and the rooms are ovals with an hourglass hall. These are ovaries. The symbols are overt. It is clear this is Mom. The dome, with its elimination for the library,
is where the celestial opportunity for illumination will be. Then you look at either side and there are
these two great colonnades running down the lawn toward the south. One either side are five pavilions. There are 10 of them. This is decimal. This is number. This is Aristotle. This is the search for truth through science
and number. Now what you realize that he’s done is leave
all this open at the south to the Blue Ridge Mountains because nature is the context in
which we explore our search for truth. In 1904 a very famous architectural firm built
a building at the south end and blocked it up. Welcome to the 1900s. We realize that what he’s doing is he’s saying
first we explore our values. What do we love? What do we believe in? My design work ever since I was a baby, my
question is really quite simple because I got to spend lots of time with people and
lots of time in the woods. My question is this, how do we love all of
the children of all species for all time? That is the question. That is our values and that is the values
of this organization. From there we move to our principles and I
wrote something called the Hannover Principles for the German government, design principles
as a gift for their summit 1992. From there we move to our visions. Clearly I’m acting in the real world. I build things. We know that visions without execution are
hallucination. Then we have our goals and then we have our
strategies and then we have our tactics. Then we measure and then we see our value
creation. Notice at the end we do the counting because
if you start with number, if you start with value, you can only be more efficient. You benchmark and you end up telling the world
that you want to reduce your carbon by 20% by 2020 and you’re telling the kids, “Here’s
my goal. It is zero.” My goal is zero. Is that what you want to tell your children? Our goal is nothing. It makes it hard for me to achieve my goal
because you’re here and I have to feed you. Is this our message to these kids? If all we’re going to tell the world is what
we don’t want to be and what we don’t want to do, that would be like me leaving here
tonight jumping in a taxi and saying, “Quick, I am not going to the airport.” Being less bad is not being good. It is being bad, just less so. These are not numbers, two negative numbers
both going into a positive. Less bad is a relationship and a human value. What we know is that scientists and engineers
and we do a lot of engineering and science, we know more and more about less and less
until we know absolutely everything about absolutely nothing. Architects, we know less and less about more
and more until we know absolutely nothing about everything. Somewhere in there is ordinary life. What we find is that if we start with our
values we will drive to value, but if you start with value you can drive to a benchmark. What is the question of legacy? Jefferson in 1789 wrote a letter to James
Madison. They were trying to design the federal government’s
ability to borrow money, the federal bond. They decided the term should be one generation. In the letter this was Jefferson’s logic. Listen to this. He said, “The earth belongs to the living. The earth belongs to the living. No man may by natural right, natural right,
oblige the lands he owns or occupies to debts greater than those that may be paid during
his own lifetime because if he could, the world would belong to the dead and not to
the living.” What we realize here in the 1700s, these folks
as well as those in France and so on in the western side of the equation, were looking
at the question of human rights. Where did that come from? It came from natural philosophy and the study
of natural rights is what they called it. See, “No man may by natural right …” It
morphed into human rights and it became equity. What were they doing? They were looking for the notion of fairness
and this was the destruction of [inaudible 13:55], divine right and Feudalism. Does anybody here want to go back to being
a serf? In 1776 Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations. Same year, quite interesting. In the 1800s come as the economy century. If the 1700s were the equity century, the
1800s were the economy century. All of a sudden we have markets. Guess what? It’s the destruction of Feudalism. [inaudible 14:26], divine right. We’ve got communism, we’ve got capitalism. Trying to deal with markets, we develop political
systems and so on, but the markets start to control. Then we’ve got the 1900s and the discovery
of large sources of fossil fuel. What do we call the 1900s? All I can figure out is the pollution century. Quite a terrifying thing really. The motto appears to be that if brute force
isn’t working, you’re not using enough of it. In mid-century I as a small child became aware
of Hiroshima. I wondered why would people blow each other
off the face of the earth, Daddy? Then I also wondered how is it possible a
city can disappear in seconds? Destruction is quick. Building is slow. I think in mid-century when we started asking
young children in this country at the age of 10 to dive under their desks to practice
because the world could end in a flash, we as a culture began to live as if there might
be no tomorrow and we started to party up. Perhaps we could think again about what it
means to live with a tomorrow. Perhaps this century can be the ecological
century. We could come to grips with these things. I think we need a little bit of child supervision
for the adults so I now design everything for 10 year olds. They understand just about everything and
they don’t know about a lot of the bad people. You’d be amazed what happens when you do this. They understand completely like my grandparents
did who composted and so on, that we can now retake, remake and restore the world instead
of take, make, waste because with cradle to grave or cradle to crematorium we are destroying
our home. We are now proposing a circular economy based
on cradle to cradle and I’ve had the privilege of being invited by the World Economic Forum
to be the chair of the meta-council on the circular economy. This puts the re- back into resources. Now how does this play out in architecture
for example? The Ford River Rouge, the great commission
by Bill Ford, we ended up putting green roots and habitats for hundreds of species on a
site that was a former brown field of serious dimension. We saved Ford 35 million dollars the first
day in CapX using this instead of using chemical plants and as I told the board for
approval when we walked in I had a minute and a half. We said, “It’s quite simple. We’re going to save you 35 million dollars
in CapX by creating habitats. With the Ford Taurus at a 4% margin coming
out of Chicago this is the equivalent of me walking in here and giving you an order for
900 million dollars worth of cars.” Approved. NASA asked me to work on the Mars Space Station. I said, “What if we come back to the earth
first? What if we come back to the blue one? What if we took the same team that did the
space station and designed a space station on earth?” We met in Houston in the room where they heard
the words, “Houston, we have a problem.” I opened our design session by asking a question,
which was, “Here on earth we say you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to do something
really smart, but what if you were?” Who powered this thing? We did. Oh yeah, is that you who figured out this
is nuclear power, the reactor is 93 million miles away, a safe distance and it’s eight
minutes and it’s wireless? Is that the idea? Yup. We invented photovoltaic. Good. You’re in charge of energy. How about the water? Can we drink our urine here? Sure. Any yuck factor? Are you kidding? It’s 80,000 dollars to get a gallon of water
up here. Sure we do. How we doing down here in there TerraSphere,
folks? San Diego and Sidney tried to work with their
extreme droughts and recover sewage water. They failed. Singapore did, tried to recover theirs. They succeeded. Words matter. The initiatives in San Diego and Sidney were
called Toilet to Tap. Oops. Singapore was New Water. Can somebody get out the marketing department? We designed a building in Mountain View, California
that can make 120% more power than it requires and give it to its neighbors and purify snow
water down to the molecule. We built it for a normal federally funded office building ahead of schedule. Bring in the rocket scientists. Finally a building I’m working on now that
I’m very excited about is in Barcelona. The decoration for the lobby is two sheets
of glass two feet apart. They’re shelves. What you will see as you go to work for decoration
is chrysalis of butterflies on the shelves and the walls will just be hatching the ancient
butterflies of Barcelona that are going extinct. It is our declaration. On the weekends the children will come and
open the outside windows and release the ancient butterflies back into Barcelona. Then they will go pester the parks department,
the highway department. They are our marketing program. Bring them on. Let us change the way we see. Let us change the way we speak. Let us speak in the present of the future
perfect. Let us speak of the future perfect in the
present tense. I have a proposal. We’ve heard about the monarchs. Words matter. I propose we walk out of here tonight and
somebody quietly go over to the White House and recommend President Obama that the first
thing we should do is take a look at the milkweed, the right ones, not the wrong ones. Carefully study the monarch migrations, which
we have, and declare the milkweed not a weed. Who wants a weed? Toilet to Tap. We kill weeds. We have big companies that spend huge amounts
of money killing weeds. We have centuries of killing weeds. Why would we think of something as precious
as this thing that lets us have this beautiful butterfly and call it a weed? I think we should rename the milkweed the
monarch flower and make it a national flower. Thank you very much.

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