On June 23 in New York City, John Todd, one of the founders of New Alchemy Institute, received the first Buckminster Fuller Challenge Award for his Comprehensive Design for a Carbon Neutral World, a practical plan to remediate Appalachian coal lands with
An economy built on environmental restoration, carbon sequestration, renewable energy and ecological design
He wants to apply his decades of experiences with Eco Machines for water remediation to cleaning coal slurries and rebuilding healthy soils from the slag. He has outlined a process that goes from waste and water treatment to reforestation with a full renewable economy based on biomass and local wind power. With his experience building Agricultural Industrial Ecologies, as in Burlington, VT, he proposes a regional succession of industrial ecologies that can provide healthy lives and environments for larger populations over centuries if not millenia.
Full report at [pdf aert]
John Todd has been designing ecological models and modeling ecologies since the 1960s. At New Alchemy Institute, he helped introduce tilapia as a commercial farm fish and the PEI and Falmouth Arks were groundbreaking passive solar buildings scientifically proving the concepts of food and heat producing housing. His first ecological sewage treatment plant was built in Harwich, MA in 1986 and his company, Todd Ecological, continues to provide ecological waste water processing systems (check out the [pdf alert] Fuzhou, China canal restorer).
In his speech, John explained how he, like Bucky, relies on the principles Nature uses and realized
"If I was to solve the problems, I had to work with all the 7 kingdoms [of life]."
His Eco Machine water treatment systems consist of washing water through a series of ecologies: anaerobic and aerobic water, and surface flow and subsurface flow marshes. This results in water treated to EPA tertiary standards, even when the feedstock is sewage, septage, or industrial waste.
4 ecologies + 7 kingdoms = meta intelligence, John says. This is Gaia writ small in a series of flowering transparent tanks sheltered by a greenhouse, a complex ecology powered by photosynthesis. He calls it First Order Ecological Design.
Second Order Ecological Design is transferring the natural model to industrial and commercial systems. One example is the Industrial Ecology of Kalundborg, Denmark or the Agricultural Eco-Park of Burlington, VT where brewery waste grows fish, mushrooms, salad greens, and 4 new companies (a model also explored by ZERI.)
The Appalachian Challenge is a Third Order Ecological Design combining the First and Second Orders and extending them in succession "plantings" over time. I would guess one of the inspirations for this insight is John's experience studying Javanese integrated farming methods, methods that have sustained large populations for centuries.
The Appalachian Challenge will remediate coal-damaged lands, replace them with forests that produce biomass solid and liquid fuels, sequestering carbon not only in trees and other forms of vegetation but also in biochar and possibly tierra preta. The process will replace the black economy of coal with a green economy that can offer more and higher paying jobs while restoring the land.
In her history of New Alchemy, Safe and Sustainable World: The Promise of Ecological Design (Island Press, 2005 ISBN-13: 9781559637787), Nancy Jack Todd, John's wife and partner, explains the principles of ecological design John has discovered over his decades of work:
- Geological and mineral diversity must be present to evolve the biological responsiveness of rich soils.
- Nutrient reservoirs are essential to keep such essentials as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium available to the plants.
- Steep gradients between subcomponents must be engineered into the system to enable the biological elements to evolve rapidly to assist in the breakdown of toxic materials.
- High rates of exchange must be created by maximizing surface areas that house the bacteria that determine the metabolism of the system and facilitate treatment.
- Periodic and random pulsed exchanges improve performance. Just as random perturbations foster resilience in nature. in living technologies altering water flow creates self-organization in the system.
- Cellular design is the structural model as it is in nature where cells are the organizing unit. Expansion of system should also use a cellular model, as in increasing the number of tanks.
- A law of the minimum must be incorporated. At least three ecosystems such as a marsh, a pond, and a terrestrial area are needed to perform the assigned function and maintain overall stability.
- Microbial communities must be introduced periodically from the natural world to maintain diversity and facilitate evolutionary processes.
- Photosynthetic foundations are essential as oxygen-producing plants foster ecosystems that require less energy, aeration, and chemical management.
- Phylogenetic diversity must be encouraged as a range of aquatic animals from the unicellular to snails to fish are as essential to the evolution and self-maintenance of the system as the plants.
- Sequenced and repeated seedings are part of maintenance as a self-contained system cannot be isolated but must be interlinked through gaseous, nutrient, mineral, and biological pathways to the external environment.
- Ecological design should reflect the macrocosmos in the microcosmos, representing the natural world miniaturized and reflecting its proportions, as in terrestrial to oceanic and aquatic areas.
John's design for restoring the Appalachian forests is a model that can be replicated on a local and regional level all around the world. Everywhere people live in an ecology, there is a use for ecological design. John and Nancy Todd are engaged in experiments in both Costa Rica and at the University of Vermont, where John teaches. In 2009, Appalachian Voices is planning a conference to lay out a regional business plan and John is talking with UMW to use the same workers and machines the destroyed them to restore the mountains. There is a proposal for a pilot program to purchase 40 mile parcel to start.
"The idea of creating soils is like week-ending on Mars" to some in the region, John Todd reports. If so, John is an astronaut on Spaceship Earth. Congratulations to John Todd on winning the first Buckminster Fuller Challenge. He deserves it.
The prize money from the Buckminster Fuller Challenge will help John Todd pay only for the experiments he has already conducted. He needs new support and funding for the experiments he is conducting now on remediating coal slurries especially since it is classified as hazardous waste, requiring special and expensive handling methods. In addition, coal slurry seems to be jealously guarded by the coal companies as they don't take well to independent tests run on their waste materials.
John's work here is extremely important since he is striking directly at the crux of the matter - offering a new model that will provide good jobs while remediating the local ecology so that the displacement of the coal economy by a renewable economy will be a healthy transition with as little pain as possible and, perhaps, great benefits for most, if not all (I'm looking at you, Peabody Coal).
Amy Goodman moderated a panel discussion on Buckminster Fuller and the Challenge which can be seen at
The Challenge of Appalachia: Comprehensive Design for a Carbon Neutral World
An Ecological Landscape
Gaian Design of Ecological Alchemy
Disclaimer: I've known John and Nancy and the New Alchemy crew since about 1974. Nancy has published my work in her magazine, Annals of Earth. I went to NYC and the award ceremony because I wanted to be there when my friend was honored. I believe that New Alchemy proved nearly thirty years ago that we can live comfortably and well within our solar footprint if we are wise enough to design with rather than against Nature.