environment, irony

The McDonough Reappraisal

Conversations I’ve had about my work on the Huangbaiyu story almost always include a moment of surprise. In a conversation with a Los Angeles Times technology reporter last winter, for example, I explained the story of the failed attempt to create an eco-village in rural China, and the reporter interrupted me: “Have you ever heard of Bill McDonough? He’s got a lot of really good ideas.”

I explained to her that it was McDonough who inspired and led the effort, putting his name, his philosophy, and his staff to work on the project. She was surprised. It usually takes people a couple of seconds to work through the cognitive dissonance between all the star-studded adulation that surrounds McDonough and the reality that the Huangbaiyu project, at least, is a failure by its own standards.

A couple of months after publishing the piece, I was contacted by Fast Company about working on something related. There was some contractual stuff with Dwell that kept me from moving on this, but staff writer Danielle Sacks went ahead. And she did a remarkable job.

In the new Fast Company, you can read her take-down of McDonough, a sometimes sympathetic corrective to the perception of how he works and what it is, exactly, that he does. The section on Huangbaiyu is a point-by-point reiteration of my report, which was greatly informed by Shannon May’s research. Since this is my own humble blog, I’ll take this opportunity to point out that I’m the one who discovered that Huangbaiyu had been scrubbed from McDonough’s site, one of the fruits of my investigation. [Update: Shannon and I each discovered this independently.]

It should be noted that I had a few conversations about my story in which the people with whom I talked expressed no surprise whatsoever that the project failed, or that McDonough was involved. As a result, I had been keeping tabs on some of McDonough’s questionable endeavors, and a couple made it into her piece. The story is called Green Guru Gone Wrong.


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