Hope and Human Enterprise (2001)

A Statement of Purpose for the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development

William A. McDonough, FAIA
Chair, U.S. Board of Councilors


One of the wonders of human nature is our ability to hope. Even in the midst of tragedy we dream and think ahead and persevere. The great biologist Edward O. Wilson calls us “the future-seeking species” and suggests that natural selection has made hopefulness a unique human quality, “a necessary companion of intelligence.”

Still more human, perhaps, is our capacity for acting on our hopes. We not only dream, we strive to achieve the dreams we imagine. Behind all human achievement, from the creative acts of artists to the building of communities, from the making and trading of goods to the work of nations, there is aspiration, resolve, and action.

Action alone, however, can sometimes go astray. Wilson reminds us that “hope springs from mystery,” and following his line of thought we might say attention to mystery binds hope to intelligence. If we fail, for instance, to appreciate the mystery of humanity’s relation to the rest of life, how can we intelligently pursue our hopes in the world? How can we ensure a prosperous future not just for our own children, but for all children, of all species, for all time?

The China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development has been established to support intelligent action in pursuit of such a future. By demonstrating the commercial, social, and environmental advantages of sustainable enterprises—initiatives that celebrate and profit from humanity’s interdependence with other living systems—the Center aims to chart a positive, hopeful course for human endeavor.

Many nations, communities, and business leaders are already moving toward more sustainable practices. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, for example, has encouraged some of the world’s largest companies to adopt “eco-efficiency,” a strategy that calls for using fewer resources, generating less pollution and waste, and minimizing industry’s adverse impacts on human health and the environment. As eco-efficient reforms become more widespread, they help balance the needs of nature and commerce.

But human industry has only begun to tap its creative potential. Emerging strategies of change, rather than seeking to simply maintain or reduce the impacts of industry, actually aim to create industrial systems and products that have positive, regenerative impacts on human communities and the natural world—by design.

E.O. Wilson says “everything in life depends on how well the future is conceived.” Design, quite literally, conceives our future; it is the first signal of human intention. Design based on nature’s interdependent cycles conceives a future of fruitful interaction with the world. It conceives an unfolding of human enterprise that allows commerce, community, and nature to thrive and grow.

This re-invention of industry and commerce is built on three key design principles: a respect for diversity; the use of the current energy income of the wind and the sun; and the concept that waste that stays waste does not exist in nature. Together, these principles yield enterprises, from factories and industrial systems to educational facilities, that celebrate the natural world. Well-designed industrial plants, for example, can purify air, accrue solar income, produce more energy than they consume, create habitat, enrich soil, and invite the return of native species. Like trees, they can enrich the places they inhabit.

Enterprises that apply nature’s design principles are also responsive to economic and social concerns. Indeed, we don’t have to settle for imagining a factory where respected workers produce safe, profitable products in a clean, sunlit plant that enriches the local economy while purifying water—it already exists. Why not many such places? Why not a new era of positive problem solving that celebrates the human impact on the natural world? Designers would measure success not by how much eroded soil has been treated but how much healthy soil has been created; not how many dams have been built to reduce flooding but how much water has followed its natural flow cycle safely and productively; not how much hazardous waste in landfills has been reduced but how many products have been produced safely without ever having to put anything into a landfill, including the product itself, which moves from one valuable life cycle to the next.

These are the kinds of solutions the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development encourages and supports. In pursuit of a prosperous, equitable future we are enlisting the energy, genius, and commitment of all sectors of society—communities, governments, non-governmental organizations, and business leaders—to accelerate sustaining design and development in China, the United States, and the rest of the world. On a personal note, I am deeply honored that the members of the Center’s U.S. Board of Councilors have already adopted the Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability, which I co-authored in 1992 with Dr. Michael Braungart and which you will find attached.

The Center focuses on China and the United States because they represent critical dimensions of the human enterprise that clearly have a determining influence on the future of the planet. Our strategy is to engage leaders and citizens from both countries in commercial projects that illustrate the ways in which sustaining design and development serve nature, the marketplace, and human communities free from the fear of conflict. It is my sincere hope that these projects will transform the concept of sustainability into a wide spectrum of intelligent, fruitful engagements with the world. We must reach for nothing less than the magnificent re-evolution of human enterprise.


Hope and Human Enterprise © 2001 William McDonough

China – US Center