Waste is a horrendous concept. Only humans, of all the Earth’s species, seem to have mastered the trick of producing leftovers that cannot easily be reused somewhere else in the ecosystem. You would think that with our inventiveness, we could come up with a better way to handle our waste than burying it, burning it, or flushing it out to sea.
Well, we have – or rather, John Todd has, and a few others like him. John and his wife and partner Nancy have been among the sustainability movement’s most effective and creative innovators for more than two decades. Here they tell their story, from the founding of New Alchemy Institute – a research and education center focusing on organic agriculture and sustainable living – through John’s current state-of-the-art work in artificial ecosystem design. Nancy is a writer and the editor of one of our favorite periodicals, Annals of Earth, a quarterly cousin to IC. (Subscriptions are only $10/year from 10 Shanks Pond Road, Falmouth, MA 02540). John and Nancy also founded Ocean Arks International, their current organizational base of operations. For more information on their groundbreaking work, write Ocean Arks at One Locust Street, Falmouth, MA 02540 go to www.oceanarks.org. New Alchemy Institute is at 237 Hatchville Road, West Falmouth, MA 02536
Robert: Let’s begin with some history – and you do have quite a substantial history now.
Nancy: Yes, we started New Alchemy Institute in 1969, so we celebrated its twentieth anniversary last September. Back then John was working as a Professor of Biology at San Diego State, and he and his colleagues had begun to accumulate an enormous amount of information on what was the matter with the environment. They began to have a series of meetings which I turned up at, partly because they were in our living room, and partly because there was no local peace group – I had been involved with peace work when we lived in Ann Arbor.
We spent a year or so exchanging absolutely dismal news with each other, and then one day, with our friend Bill McLarney, we decided that this doom watch biology wasn’t a very rewarding way to spend a lifetime. Wasn’t there anything we could do to create an alternative dynamic to the very destructive one that we were currently engaged in, as members of industrial society?
And that really was the birth of New Alchemy. It was born to ask honest and scientifically valid questions about alternative support systems for human populations that would be ecologically benign. We founded the organization in California but shortly after that crossed the country to Cape Cod, eventually rented a twelve acre farm, and proceeded to do a series of experiments in alternatives for food, shelter and energy. Integrating all of the above led to the creation of what we called “bioshelters,” which were greenhouse-like architectural structures containing ecosystems for various purposes: food for humans, waste purification systems, etc. The work gave us heartening results, but scientifically it was also very valid.
The aquaculture work we did is still state of the art, and it’s being taken up now by the World Bank and the United Nations. The work in organic agriculture – which was somewhat fringe back then – has now been pronounced valid by the National Academy of Sciences. A lot of the work we did, which was considered wildly experimental at that time, is now pretty close to mainstream.
John: Remember, this was the Viet Nam era, and at the same time a sense of wonder was building up in the culture. The whole idea that we could rearrange our institutions in better ways was very much in the wind. What made us unique is that we wanted to create a science of earth stewardship, which meant a reintegration of science – the bits and pieces that were normally kept separate would have to come together. We had to be curious about everything. We had to know more about how different kinds of knowledge could be put together into what I would call an “ecological matrix.”
So from 1970 to 1977 the intriguing question for us was, “Is it possible to use ecological knowledge in the areas of energy, food production, climate regulation, and architecture? Can there be a synthesis?” We started with aquaculture – the farming of fishes – and by the mid-1970s we knew that not only did these farms work, but they were elegant in their ability to self-regulate, self-purify, and produce. We were able to show that if one could just orchestrate sunlight properly in a small space, one could grow foods in abundance without reliance on the old energy networks.
Then the agricultural ecology work began to develop, and out of that spun some of the most highly regarded people in smart pest management today. So by 1979-80, we not only knew that these ecologies would work, but they had the latent potential of moving into the economy – so that we began to think about ecological economies for the first time.
Robert: Then came the early 1980s, which were tough for the movement as a whole. How did things develop for you during the Reagan years?
Nancy: Slowly in the first part, but things have really picked up speed recently. Our beginning steps beyond New Alchemy grew out of our relationship with Margaret Mead. She felt that all the ideas underlying New Alchemy were very sound, but that the task now was to take those ideas into other cultures where the need was most extreme. In the late 1970s, just before she died, she said “It’s time for you to move on – New Alchemy’s in good hands,” and we sort of took that as our mandate.
So in the early 1980s we played with an idea whose time still has not quite come – the idea of the “Ocean Ark,” or an extremely well-designed, reliable, wind-powered vessel that would take these technologies into the developing world. We formed a new organization called Ocean Arks International.
John: The Ocean Ark was to be a great ecological Hope Ship. But we had neither the technologies nor the resources to bring the vision and the reality together.
Nancy: So we launched a number of other projects with our new organization. And about three or four years ago, using much the same kind of thinking that made the aquaculture so successful and innovative at New Alchemy many years ago, John began working to clean up some of the extremely difficult problems we’ve created with water. His whole idea of “solar aquatics” began to become a reality.
Robert: What got you started developing solar aquatics for waste treatment?
John: The story is actually very simple. As in many places, the water quality in our town was rapidly eroding. Cancer rates were going through the roof, and here we were raising kids. So we went out and bought spring water. That was a symbol to me that we had fundamentally violated our environment. It was absolutely fundamental, because water is…
John: Yes. It’s the basis of all life forms. Without it nothing can happen. So I said, “Let’s take a look at the conventional waste treatment industry.” I discovered that it was one of the major environmental destroyers – and citizen demands were actually aggravating the problem, because the compounds they wanted regulated were being treated with unregulated compounds that were far more dangerous. For example, when the citizens demanded that phosphorus be removed from waste water, industry poured in aluminum salts. That got rid of the phosphorus, but now we have everything from weakened forests to Alzheimer’s because of this huge infusion of toxic aluminum in the environment. And there are many more examples.
The waste treatment industry has a by-product that drives everybody crazy, and it’s called “sludge.” If you have an industry with a by-product that society can’t deal with, that’s a failed technology. Even the widespread use of chlorine to treat discharge is flawed, because chlorine reacts with nitrogen, which is still in the waste, to produce chloramines – making every sewage plant, in effect, a carcinogen factory.
Now, we knew how to keep water clean for our fish. We had figured out various ecological pathways to recycle nutrients – to roll waste from one organism into food for another. So I decided to apply this ecological engineering to waste treatment.
Initially, there was extreme resistance. It was such a confusing, unusual technology – to the engineering community as well as the regulatory community – that we had a hard time getting started. Finally, in 1986, we built the first solar aquatic waste treatment plant in a small town in Vermont. We were trying to get rid of a toxic by-product of conventional waste treatment – ammonia – and we began to assemble the first ecosystem for doing that. Over a period of two years, with some fits and starts, we began to produce water of beautiful quality.
Then we had a second opportunity, this one much more profound.
Thirty percent of the households in the United States produce “septage,” which accumulates in septic tanks. Every four or five years it’s pumped out and put somewhere. Now, most people don’t know where it goes. Only small amounts of it go into waste treatment plants, because it’s so concentrated. The rest is dumped somewhere. In our neighboring community of Harwich, for example, this stuff was being dumped into an open pit of coarse sand less than thirty feet above the water supply for the town.
Nancy: And Robert, these dumps are so bad that when I first saw these particular pits I swore that they looked like something in Dante’s Inferno.
John: There was no cost-effective technology to treat this stuff at all. So, what to do? I designed an ecological system driven by sunlight to transform it. On the side of a gently sloping hill I put together twenty-one giant aquaria and seeded them with hundreds of species of organisms. In the middle I put an engineered marsh. Now what was going into that plant was toxic almost beyond reason – fourteen of the EPA’s top fifteen pollutants. Householders do produce toxic waste.
Robert: Right – a lot more than they realize.
John: Secondly, we found heavy metals present – lead, mercury, and copper in high amounts. And the numbers on fecal coliform – human contamination – were huge. It was terrible material.
But using hundreds of species – ranging from small trees to fish to micro-organisms from the anaerobic world – somehow we were able to assemble an ecosystem that could change this stuff into pure water over a period of ten to twelve days. Of those fourteen carcinogenic pollutants, thirteen were 100% removed. And the fourteenth – toluene – was 99.9% removed.
The heavy metals were also removed from the water and locked up at various points in the system, some of them in slow-growing trees which could ultimately be re-landscaped – putting the metals back into slow moving cycles. Others were captured in such large amounts that one could even begin to speculate about recycling those metals ecologically. And the fecal contamination dropped to below the levels that are considered safe for eating seafood. So this horrible, fetid stuff, was transformed.
That experiment had a big effect on me, because it indicated the extraordinary, dynamic purifying power that nature has if the right organisms can be found to work in the right kind of concert together.
Then several things happened. First, I was involved in establishing a business to take these ideas out widely. The old idea of just letting this information be assimilated slowly by the next generation of students, from whom it would spread into the academic world, engineering firms, and eventually into society, just wasn’t fast enough – that takes at least twenty years. The only way I could think of compressing the process was through the corporate arena. So Ecological Engineering Associates was set up, with the kind of backing and management that was needed.
Robert: But you didn’t join the staff of that company?
John: I remained at Ocean Arks International, within which I’ve created the Center for the Protection and Restoration of Waters. The idea is to continue to work on water issues and get more involved in training not only students, but whole Boards of Health and the like, and to get directly involved in environmental restoration.
The Center built a flagship facility in Providence, Rhode Island, to do research and demonstration, and it also treats sixteen thousand gallons per day of raw, untreated sewage from an industrial city, as well as sludges from the existing treatment plants. We’ve built smaller facilities in Marion, Massachusetts, and Muncy, Indiana, and we currently have a small facility to treat septage under construction in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The first commercial facility run by Ecological Engineering Associates just came on line in Harwich, the site of our original experiments. The company has created what is calls a “clean water service” – they build and operate a facility that turns waste into clean water, which it puts back into the town’s ground waters. That’s a whole new concept, and it’s my hope that it will spread across the country very quickly – like McDonald’s franchises.
Robert: If society were to give this a green light, how rapidly could we make the transition away from conventional wastewater treatment to what Ecological Engineering Associates provides?
John: That question needs to be answered in several ways. For one thing, we believe that the technology can be added on to some existing treatment plants to improve them, provided they reduce some of their chemical usage. For another, we also want to deal with communities still struggling to get waste treatment. The great problem there is that the federal and state grant money that built secondary treament plants under the Clean Water Act has all dried up. It’s all in the three-trillion-plus national debt.
That means we need to develop, in essence, a user fee to finance the upgrading of existing facilities or the building new ones, and I think that’s possible. There are no landfills to take sludge to any more, and rising disposal prices are creating economic incentives to rapidly put into place these technologies once they’re proven.
The problem with the new technology is that it has to be approved by every state. And every state has separate standards, so we have to build a prototype plant in half a dozen to a dozen states to get any kind of credibility. This would take millions of dollars. It can’t be bootstrapped. It needs deep pockets and lots of vision to push it. If that happens, then I think it can move quickly.
Robert: What’s your next project? What’s hot for you right now?
John: I’m thinking increasingly about a concept to which I’ve given the name “living machines.” The idea of the living machine is going to be disturbing to some people. But basically what it’s about is taking bits and pieces from nature, using the whole planet as a contributory, and reassembling them inside what I call “gossamer engineered structures” to do the work of society – produce food and fuel, treat waste, provide heating and cooling, etc. All of the basic work of society could be done by living machines.
Robert: It sounds almost like you’re creating new species.
John: New constellations of organisms. For example, I have something in my office called an “ecological digester” for pulp mill wastes. The only way it works is if I have, among other things, organisms from every one of the continents except Antarctica. For some peculiar evolutionary reason, their combined stomachs have the ability to transform lignin and cellulose into living tissue, and their combined physiologies allow them to live in what would appear to the external world to be an ungodly polluted environment.
Another thing that I think is absolutely critical is the development of what I call intelligent materials. The brilliant designer Day Schroudy has developed membranes that are opaque when it’s too warm on one side, but that become translucent again when it cools off. What he is in fact creating – and what we’re creating – are materials that allow us to use light and other forms of energy in subtle ways that weren’t possible before.
Robert: So we certainly haven’t saturated the potential of what can be done with these ecosystems.
John: We’re at the very beginning. The dream behind this work is that we can miniaturize the community-sustaining processes to the point where we can give the planet’s wildness back to itself.
Nancy: It’s what Lewis Mumford in The Pentagon of Power called the “etherialization or dematerialization of technology.” He felt that eventually the human imprint would be much more ephemeral. [Note: See “Agriculture in the 21st Century” in this issue.]
Robert: What about the costs of these new technologies? Are they competitive?
John: For dealing with more concentrated wastes like sludge and septage, our systems cost dramatically less to build. In terms the human activity within the facilities, we cost about the same or more, because we tend to pay people fairly well. But we don’t have to buy $800-worth of nasty chemicals every day, and our energy costs are much lower.
Robert: So the lower inputs balances off the somewhat higher labor cost.
John: Exactly. When it comes to more dilute wastes, there are some conventional methods which are cheaper than ours – but those can’t really clean up water.
Robert: They’re only cheaper because of the way we do the accounting at this point.
John: That is absolutely correct. So we can’t go into a city like Boston and say, “Hey, we can fix it.” What we can say is, “Hey, these things are beautiful, they don’t stink, people love them. We don’t have to have one monster facility down in the bowels of the city – we can have them in the parks and reuse the water in various ways in the city.”
Robert: Both of you have been long-term participants in what can be described as the “sustainability movement.” What is your sense of the current opportunities for the movement, as well as the obstacles?
Nancy: Environment issues are closer to the gut than they have been in a long time – a lot more people are paying attention. That provides a window of opportunity for the sustainability movement. We’ve got something in the movement as a whole that we have to work with fast, while it’s still vital.
Turning our attention to children and young people, educating them about the environment, is of utmost importance. Another crucial place to tackle is the household – through organizations like Seventh Generation and their catalog you can dramatically reduce environmental harm. But my question is, are emerging economic realities going to take attention away from environmental and ecological concerns? And are these concerns just an expression of this country’s faddishness? I can’t say.
The thing that fundamentally distresses me is that this society remains incredibly materialistic. Countries all over the world envy us for our materialism, our whole lifestyle. And a lot of the changes being promoted these days are cosmetic rather than structural. The optimistic way of thinking about that is that we, as a culture, are in process – we are in the very beginning stages of a new phase of cultural evolution, rethinking our relationship to the natural world. But the other way of thinking about it is that we haven’t begun yet, and that there is still a lot of serious work.
Robert: How can we in the movement most effectively respond to this window of opportunity – what some people are describing as a “teachable moment” within the society?
Nancy: Well, one thing is to keep on keeping on. New Alchemy has some authority now because it’s been around for twenty years. The fact that we stayed true to our values – though we have been in and out of style so often – and not given up our commitment is very important. That kind of constancy wins respect.
The other thing is to be as flexible, open, and creative as we can, using whatever opportunities come along. We need to be constantly scanning for what smells and feels right in the way of intimate, innovative thinking – but not believing we have all the answers. We just need to keep on keeping on, and get better at it.
John: I also think it’s important for the environmental movement to somehow create what would best be described as ecologically-based economies. If people could work at what they believed in, that would be an enormous stride – and that was part of the dream of the late 1960s. We’re no closer, but there has been progress – agriculture has started to move in that direction, for example.
Robert: What sustains the sustainability movement?
Nancy: There’s a wonderful phrase from Gary Snyder’s Four Changes – that when you work with the transforming energy, it’s as though life isn’t worth living unless you’re on its side. That idea is what has sustained most of us through all this time, and I think it shouldn’t remain a well kept secret. When you have work and a cause you believe in, it is such a profound and satisfying way to live.
John: You live in terror of how you’re going to pay the bills, but it’s a small price compared to not doing it.
Robert: You’re right – one of the gifts that we have not shared as much as we could have is what a joy this work is.
Nancy: Yes! It’s joyous work.
by Cheryl Morse
At my desk, waiting for the dark,
I look out the window. Here the light
lingers till past nine. Hermit thrush
closes day with its clear note.
It’s all of one color, the sea, the sky,
hills and mountains beyond.
West, the volcano. Due north,
the highest peak of Baranof Island.
These are becoming my directions now
as once everything was to or from the river.
Both my children were born near the ocean.
Five white shells – gifts from my older child
on the birth of her sister – line the ledge
of the window. Each a perfect shape,
a concentric circle smaller
than the next. The only light I see –
a faint green beacon
signals from across Sitka Sound.
by Richard Grossman
I am the wisest animal.
I always stayed in the most imporant sense
right where I am.
At one time or another,
everybody specialized and went the wrong way, developing
useless heads and arms to be
waved in the distance.
(A shark can bite off an arm,
but I simply make its teeth dirty.)
Where there is no night and day,
I move through a universe of shimmering particles,
I have never died
and never will.
Every time I split, I say good-bye to my eternal self.
by Richard Grossman
During the day,
it is like ballet
as I wander under the water with zero gravity.
weight comes down on me like freight,
under the moon, surrounded by innocent cries of depravity.
filtered through bubbles and black streaks of silt;
covering the fragrant grasses and acacias with milk.
I am Kiboko,
and these are my two lives,
separated by the finest, most fragile line
that moves along my river on the surface of time.
From The Animals, 1983, Zygote Press; 1990, Graywolf Press