William McDonough, CEO of McDonough Innovation, is an architect focused on sustainable infrastructure known for championing his theory of “cradle-to-cradle” design. Meaning, everything that’s manufactured should be designed with the end goal of eventually being recycled. In 2022, his firm completed construction of the net zero Apex Plaza in Virginia, the largest mass timber building on the U.S. East Coast.
What is the single most important action you think the public, or a specific company or government, needs to take in the next year to advance the climate agenda?
The single most important action for the public is for everyone to get engaged at the local level, to personally be aware of and enjoy the benefits of positive action. The single most important action for companies is to move beyond the “be less bad” notion of net zero to the important idea of also “being more good”—net-positive commerce. Governments can observe examples of climate-positive leadership around the world and be inspired to engage the principled and profitable opportunities in their own communities. They can also reduce direct and/or indirect subsidies for greenhouse gas-emitting activities while encouraging incentives to support desirable cost-effective, clean alternatives at every scale.
What sustainability effort do you hope will gain popularity with the general public this year, and why?
John F. Kennedy stated in September 1962, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…” Today, we can choose to get back down to earth and get back down to business with climate-positive actions. When designing NASA’s Sustainability Base on earth, I learned that many of the engineers who put Neil Armstrong on the moon in 1969 were students when President Kennedy announced the goal; they succeeded ahead of schedule. My hope is that this year youth everywhere will lean in to climate solutions with all their creative and intellectual energy, thus inspiring each other, their parents, and the general public.
What’s the most important climate legislation that could pass in the next year?
Like politics, all sustainability is local. Design is the first signal of human intention. As a designer, one can ask the question: did we intend to create the climate crisis or is it a design failure? We have known for many years from the climate scientists’ warnings that a serious problem is inherent and yet we perpetuated the source of the problems. As an American, I believe we can pass legislation to encourage local energy production such as hybrid renewables, wind, and solar with battery backup. In towns throughout the Midwest, for example, this will bring jobs and clean power to the point where both are needed while increasing the resilience of the grid and reducing the cost of transmission.
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