In truth, whenever conversation with McDonough veers from his oft-recited script, his elegant tales begin to fray. His new venture-capital gig with VantagePoint, for example, may eventually be an ideal platform for bringing his world-changing vision to scale, a way to bankroll the design and rollout of cradle-to-cradle products. But for now it seems to be simply a way to make ends meet. "It keeps me from running around making my living by giving miscellaneous speeches to miscellaneous groups," he says. Nor is his 1950s home, the architect tells me after a long awkward pause, a model of sustainability but rather "what I would call a home that's holding my family while I dream about the house that I'd really like to live in." His entire suburban lifestyle bears little resemblance to the eco-perfect world he describes from the stage. "I shop at Whole Foods, that kind of stuff," he says.
McDonough is not above poetic license. When I ask him which building marked the genesis of the sustainable-design movement, he points to the office he designed for the Environmental Defense Fund. "It was the first green office in the U.S.," he says. Harrison S. Fraker Jr., dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, demurs: "Sustainable design started long before McDonough even opened his office... . McDonough gets credit for everything because he is such a good promoter of all the good things he has done... . I hate to see false myths perpetuated." Even the term cradle to cradle, for which McDonough has applied for a trademark, isn't his at all. According to Hunter Lovins, cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute think tank, "Walter Stahel in Switzerland actually coined the phrase 25 years ago, long before Bill started using it."
I would just for once like a so-called visionary to actually maintain some level of humility or consistency. What happened to all the selflessness espoused in Cradle to Cradle. Oh, apparently, it was ghost written.
While it's not exactly going to tumble off of my shelf (if it was even there, I wonder who has borrowed it this time??) or from my recommended reading list, this sudden knowledge is both a bit deflating and somehow empowering at the same time, no?