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'Carbon Is Not the Enemy,' Argues Architect Who Wants to Put It to Better Use

Green architect William McDonough offers a new manifesto for carbon.
November 14, 2016, 4:00pm
Image: Gajus/Shutterstock

In a certain popular imagination, carbon might as well be toxic waste—a vile sludge oozing into the atmosphere from poorly sealed containment barrels, metaphorically speaking. Put internet attention spans together with under- or poorly-explained climate science research and it's not all that hard to reach a conclusion that carbon is total evil. As a premise, the existence of this attitude seems reasonable.


It is the central premise of a commentary published Monday in Nature by green architect William McDonough carrying the title "Carbon Is Not the Enemy." It's a proposal for a new carbon dialog of sorts, one in which the chemical element C is not vilified, but is considered just as much for its roles as a necessary component of life on Earth: photosynthesis, soil carbon, "supercarbons", the building blocks of life.

"Rather than declare war on carbon emissions, we can work with carbon in all its forms," McDonough writes. "To enable a new relationship with carbon, I propose a new language—living, durable, and fugitive—to define ways in which carbon can be used safely, productively and profitably. Aspirational and clear, it signals positive intentions, enjoining us to do more good rather than simply be less bad."

The old carbon language, according to McDonough, is just too confusing. There a widespread muddying of the terms "carbon-positive" and "carbon-negative," he notes, both of which are taken to mean removing carbon from the atmosphere in different contexts. The country of Bhutan, for example, claims to be carbon-negative because its forests sequester more carbon than the country emits, while some businesses are beginning to claim to be carbon-positive because they likewise sequester carbon through the planting of new trees or produce more renewable energy than they require.

Image: McDonough

We can see the contradictions clearly among US government agencies and institutions—to the Bureau of Land Management, carbon-dioxide is a commodity; to the EPA it's a pollutant; while to the Chicago Climate Exchange it's a financial instrument. To nature, carbon is key to soil health and a requisite driver for new plant growth. Soil carbon, meanwhile, is but one end of a carbon bridge between atmospheric carbon, nourishing liquid carbon, and the soil microbes that themselves form another bridge between biologically active soils and plants themselves.

"Let's keep those carbon bridges open on all landscapes—rural and urban," McDonough writes. "Let's use carbon from the atmosphere to fuel biological processes, build soil carbon and reverse climate change. Let's adopt regenerative farming and urban-design practices to increase photosynthetic capacity, enhance biological activity, build urban food systems, and cultivate closed loops of carbon nutrients. Let's turn sewage-treatment plants into fertilizer factories. Let's recognize carbon as an asset and the life-giving carbon cycle as a model for human designs."

In McDonough's manifesto, being carbon-positive is not simply a statement on restricting or sequestering carbon. It's a process by which atmospheric carbon of the sort that got us into this whole climate change mess is retasked in useful ways, such as enhancing soil nutrition or making plastics.

In the end, I suppose there's not much to discuss. McDonough's angle is ultimately about a recasting of green architecture that is more in tune with the workings of nature itself than a strict carbon binary of good-bad. I suppose I would caution that this is a rosy outlook with respect to just how bad the climate change situation is IRL and we're almost certainly not going to be able to design our way out of it, at least in any way that doesn't also involve wholesale reductions in carbon production.