William McDonough’s Values-Based Carbon Language

Elizabeth Pearce @ SymSoil
5 min readAug 11, 2022


SymSoil uses commodity compost as a food source for the soil biology, so we have an ongoing interest in circular economy and upgrading waste streams. Having been a fan of the Cradle-to-Cradle concept for 20 years, a friend recently suggested I reach out to William McDonough, the author of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.

On his website, I learned that in 2016, McDonough proposed a new language for describing carbon — moving from Carbon Neutral to the concept of Durable Carbon. Carbon, he argued, is not intrinsically the problem. On the contrary, it is a very useful element and essential to life.

For carbon released into the air, CO2, his term would be Fugitive Carbon. Any unwanted, unnecessary or toxic form of carbon is a fugitive from a useful form. Carbon, the primary component of our bodies, in any life form, be it animal, plant or microbe, is Living Carbon.

From https://mcdonough.com/new-language-carbon/

His goal was a values-based language to help us move away from the war on carbon, which uses terms like, “low carbon,” “zero carbon,” or “carbon neutral.” His words acknowledge carbon can be used in a safe, healthy and just world.

In a closed-loop flow, carbon is a nutrient, an important element relied on for life. Carbon is understood to be an asset rather than a toxin, with a focus on the positive life-giving nature of the carbon cycle for use. Because of William McDonough’s experience, a positive perspective on carbon is a model for the design of products and human communities.

McDonough’s proposed language for carbon:

Living carbon: organic, flowing in biological cycles, providing fresh food, healthy forests and fertile soil; something we want to cultivate and grow

Durable carbon: locked in stable solids such as coal and limestone or recyclable polymers that are used and reused; ranges from reusable fibers like paper and cloth, to building and infrastructure elements that can last for generations and then be reused

Fugitive carbon: has ended up somewhere unwanted and can be toxic; includes carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, ‘waste to energy’ plants, methane leaks, deforestation, much industrial agriculture, and urban development

In an interview with Inhabit Magazine, William McDonough spoke about carbon and soil at length. I have shortened and paraphrased some of his comments:

One of the things that I find important at this point in my career is soil health. It’s interesting to note that humus, human, and humility all come from the same Latin root, and to have humility means to be grounded.

At the time of the interview (2016), McDonough had been working on the Danish AgroFood Park, an incubator sponsored by the Danish Agriculture and Food Council, which now has more than 80 companies.

If humanity’s goal was to kill our soils, we couldn’t be doing much better. In the Great Plains, you can watch the erosion. Soil is unable to take up nutrients. Chemical fertilizing and other soil microbe killing methods are widely employed.

It’s astonishing what the addition of a small soil biology, bacteria, fungus and other microbes, can to do to rev up the soil fertility. It’s unbelievable how things start to kick in and start to heal. … Good soil is valuable. We have to use the economy to drive these things. When we look at some of the agricultural systems, the ones that are healing the soil are incredibly productive.

Using McDonough’s carbon language, let’s look at what happens:

Fugitive carbon is the carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels. Through photosynthesis, this gas is converted to sugars, carbohydrates and other complex molecules, living carbon. Living carbon feeds the cells of the plants and grows the crops that feed us. It is liquid and can move through the plant, with more than half going out through the roots to feed the soil microbes.

The extrudate goes into the soil around the root, the rhizosphere, and is where the durable carbon is sequestered or stored. Some of the living carbon remains “Living” — That is, it enters the soil microbial community and is consumed, moving through multiple types of life forms, known as the Soil Food Web. (Soil Food Web is a branch of organic farming that has been evolving for 40 years, if you are unfamiliar with SFW, Dr. Elaine Ingham, who discovered and wrote the first papers on SFW, describes it in this video: https://youtu.be/uAMniWJm2vo )

The effect of this complex community of microbes, during their their life processes, is that key elements like Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (NPK) are converted into enzymes the plant can absorb for growth. The complete soil microbiome has some overlap with the gut microbiome, performing the same functions for plants as our gut microflora performs for us.

Other living carbon becomes a permanent feature, durable carbon, improving the tilth or quality of the soil, including its ability to retain water. Carbon is permanently sequestered in the soil in 2 related ways. Living carbon is converted to durable carbon when used to build fungal strands, hyphae. These fungal strands then become coated with bacteria — the glue-like coating is known as glomalin.

These fungal strands, and their bacterial coating that are unique to each region and which tilling breaks up, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides kill. This is what SymSoil “reseeds” with regionally specific soil microbes.

The recent extreme weather events in Europe, Canada, the American Midwest have reminded many that the health and resilience of plant life is the key to sufficient quantities of food. The health of the soil is part of plant resilience, nutritional value of food and its flavor. And, of course, nothing is more important to human survival than reducing greenhouse gasses.

While we understand the importance of reducing greenhouse gasses, I found McDonough’s value-based language of Durable, Living and Fugitive carbon, had a powerful resonance and strikes an emotional chord.

Why does SymSoil care? We focus on solutions to environmental issues, with a focus on soil biology. Trees and plants feed, and are fed by, the soil microbiome. Healthy soil influences water, carbon sequestration and human health. SymSoil holds a patent on the first scalable approach to manufacturing SFW products as an alternative to agrochemicals.



Elizabeth Pearce @ SymSoil

We recreate the complete soil microbe biome to improve farmer profits. #RegenAg #ClimateAction #100KTrees https://www.100ktrees4humanity.com