Thursday, October 23, 2008

From the Ashes of the Myth

The November issue of Fast Company has an article on the rise, stagnation, and impending fall of superstar eco-designer Bill McDonough.

McDonough, according to the article, is not all that he appears. He's a brilliant communicator with brilliant ideas, some of which he has brought to life, but the heroic image he projects is inflated. Bill McDonough is human. Proud. Paranoid. Selfish. Impractical. Stubborn.

He exaggerates the impressiveness and efficacy of the design advances he has made. He doesn't adequately acknowledge mistakes or failures and thus doesn't adequately learn from them or help others learn from them. He hoards intellectual property. He demands unfair portions of recognition and profit. And he lives an all too typically unsustainable suburban American lifestyle.

It's a tough article to read for a McDonough fan: frustrating, disappointing, and sad. But, assuming it's fair and accurate, I'm glad it's out there.

For two reasons.

1. It's a victory of truth over strategic, manipulative silence.

For those who came to know McDonough from within the environmental and design movements, an alternative narrative exists about him. Until now, it has been shielded from the mainstream for two reasons: First, McDonough has done more than most to popularize the very idea of cleaning up the world, and for that, even his detractors agree he deserves thanks; second, if word gets out that he may not be all that he appears, the overall cause of sustainability could suffer.

The cause probably will suffer when people recognize the imperfect reality of Bill McDonough. But better to isolate the infected limb, treat it, and re-connect it than to let an elephant as big and recognizable as McDonough keep dancing around the room and smashing the furniture.*

2. It reminds us that even the most monumentally capable people are prone to mind-boggling ineptitude.

And that's a good thing to remember, for it not only keeps us honest, but it inspires and empowers.

Our heroes are just like us. They fight the same impulses and make the same mistakes. They fluctuate between generosity and greed, confidence and doubt, trust and isolation. And they harness the moments when they have things figured out. If the virtuous genius Bill McDonough is capable of garden variety narcissism, then maybe it follows that the rest of us are capable of McDonough variety brilliance.

*Note: Sometimes my brain sprays metaphors in unlikely combinations, and sometimes I can't help but leave them intact. I think an unfettered gangrenous elephant makes makes the proper point, though. Right?

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