Excerpted from The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Copyright © April 16, 2013, North Point Press.
Food as a battery—that is what we would like you now to consider. But before we get to the full expression of that proposal, we need to review exactly how batteries function, so you can appreciate the beauty, and potential innovation, made possible by thinking through this metaphor.
Batteries are not storage containers for electricity, as one might assume. They don’t provide power because somehow someone pumped in the electricity and locked it in, and now it’s ready for use. Instead, they contain the potential for an electromagnetic reaction, which, if engaged, creates power. The battery consists of a negative solution (the anode) and a positive solution (the cathode) separated by the ions of the electrolyte. The extra electrons in the anode want to move to the cathode, but there is no path through the electrolyte between them.
When a wire connects the negative end to the positive end of the battery, the electrons can flow through the wire, seeking their harbor in the cathode. These free-flowing electrons, in the middle of that path, power your flashlight or start your car.
The beauty of a battery is that it is potential energy, ready for your use, when and where you need it. Should the battery run out of charge, its power is recharged by reversing the process, forcing the electrons from the cathode into the anode. Then you can start again using your battery to provide electricity.
Now think of how humans conventionally create energy. We burn fossil fuels—i.e., carbon-based organic compounds (as we have said earlier, fossil fuels are ancient organic compounds)—and inadvertently turn them into carbon dioxide, among other things.
Photosynthesis is an electromagnetic reaction that frees electrons from water to turn carbon dioxide into organic compounds.1 It is the reversal of the burning of fossil fuels. It is recharging the battery. It is recharging our power source. If people don’t allow the recharge of that battery, the world can’t recapitalize.
If one looks today at our organic battery, this biosphere, which has provided all the energy that people have used for their needs for millennia (the fossil fuels in coal and oil; the biofuels in wood), one might begin to understand the importance of recharging. Human beings have every reason to want to do so.
Get Down to Earth
Let’s look at the common worm. As a worm makes its sinuous way through the soil, it aerates, tills, plows, and fertilizes. Of course, it doesn’t intend to do these things, but it seems to have been designed, by nature, to have beneficial effects in the course of every single thing it does.
Worms are avid consumers. They eat their own weight in food each day. Yet they are enormously helpful to ecosystems (our use of “yet” indicates how much people have come to associate “consuming” with destruction and waste, which is certainly not the case in nature). Worm castings—what they leave behind—are “waste” only for a moment before they become “food”: These castings are rich in nutrients, extremely rich—they contain higher levels of nitrogen, phosphates, and potash than the soil around them. The lowly earthworm is one of the planet’s most valuable creatures (and apparently one of Darwin’s favorite organisms).
Compare this highly effective and evolved interaction with soil to humanity’s most recent interactions with soil. Humans have the capacity to be similarly effective as earthworms. One way is to add nutrients, and we could easily do so, but so far, for the most part, we aren’t.