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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:

  1. Geological and mineral diversity must be present to evolve the biological responsiveness of rich soils.
  1. Nutrient reservoirs are essential to keep such essentials as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium available to the plants.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. Microbial communities must be introduced periodically from the natural world to maintain diversity and facilitate evolutionary processes.
  1. Photosynthetic foundations are essential as oxygen-producing plants foster ecosystems that require less energy, aeration, and chemical management.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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

Previous Diaries
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.  

Originally posted to gmoke on Tue Jul 01, 2008 at 01:51 PM PDT.


Restore Appalachian coal lands with ecological design?

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Comment Preferences

  •  Where's Your Tip Jar? (7+ / 0-)

    Aside from the diary, if you've been working with NAI since 74, you deserve some mojo for lifetime achievement.

    Tipped and recced accordingly.

  •  Thanks for the details (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    gmoke, trashablanca

    Saw them on Democracy Now and was intrigued.

    •  Democracy Now (5+ / 0-)

      Too bad Ms Goodman didn't know more about Fuller and that the panel discussion seems to have happened after the end of a long day.  John looked really tired to me.

      I was impressed that Amy Goodman actually attended the event.  Spoke to her about some of my other projects but I don't expect anything to come from it.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

      by gmoke on Tue Jul 01, 2008 at 02:23:25 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I think that environmental remediation is (4+ / 0-)

    critically important, and yes, it would allow for a less painful transition to other energy schemes by making coal strip mining somewhat "tolerable". Can you provide any evidence that the coal companies want to get on board with this type of restoration, and are they willing to foot the bill?
    I have been an admirer of Mr. Todd for a long time. (Whole Earth Catalog days).
    Thanks a lot for your diary.



    •  Coal Transition (5+ / 0-)

      What John is proposing is not a band-aid for the coal industry but an ecological restoration of coal-damaged landscapes that will support a renewable economy. He is not about making strip mining and mountaintop removal tolerable.  He is about replacing the coal economy.

      I haven't asked him about whether he's approached the coal companies but I suspect that he hasn't.  His samples of coal slurry seem to have been smuggled out of coal country at great risk.

      John's plan should not only pay for itself but produce more and better jobs for the regions in which it is implemented.  At least, that's the plan which you can read at the link in the diary itself.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

      by gmoke on Tue Jul 01, 2008 at 02:19:46 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  It occurs to me that (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    gmoke, trashablanca, Nulwee

    the whole remediation scheme mght be an opportunity for Peabody Coal and others to "transition" themselves into a new economic model that will keep their employees in work, while doing something profoundly beneficial. I mean they should be cleaning up the terrible messes that they've made. It's the least that they can do.


    •  Economic Model (4+ / 0-)

      Part of John's model is local ownership, control, and stewardship.  He is looking towards land trusts and cooperatives.  Unfortunately, my gut instinct is that this is the most unrealistic part of his proposal but I hope I am wrong and admire his integrity in proposing it.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

      by gmoke on Tue Jul 01, 2008 at 02:36:45 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  An opportunity for Peabody Coal (0+ / 0-)

      Which means there ain't no way in hell that they'll ever go for it. Those people are evil.  The best thing to do would be for them to have a business meeting beside a small stream in the mountains.  As long as it's a stream just below where they're blowing up a mountain and dumping it into said stream, completely obliterating the entire environment.

      That would be 'environmental justice'.

      I am become Man, the destroyer of worlds

      by tle on Tue Jul 01, 2008 at 06:39:32 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Too Easy (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        bronte17, tle, mikolo

        Peabody Coal ain't gonna meet beside some stream in the mountains unless it's someplace like Bohemian Grove.  

        Truth is we're all gonna pay for the stupidity, greed, and institutionalized murder Peabody Coal and its ilk leave in their wake.

        There are ways to do business that does not require such waste as mountaintop removal and strip mining currently does.  John Todd's proposal is one.

        Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

        by gmoke on Tue Jul 01, 2008 at 07:10:54 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Recced for "Bohemian Grove" reference (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          And, it's always good to highlight John Todd.  What I wonder about is, why not design robots to dig into the mountains and extract the coal (replacing what humans used to do)?  But as long as coal companies can get away with utter destruction and institutionalized murder, they won't bother with something like that.

          I am become Man, the destroyer of worlds

          by tle on Wed Jul 02, 2008 at 07:13:15 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  thanks for the diary nt (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    gmoke, trashablanca, Nulwee


  •  Excellent! I was at opening of 1st Ecomachine in (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bronte17, gmoke, Nulwee, In her own Voice

    Europe, at Findhorn in Schotland. John and Nancy were there, no idea they were still going strong.
    I'm almost done translating Six Degrees by Mark Lynas into Dutch, it's making all the science very accessible, but it does not look good of course, and we really need all the hands and the bright minds, like the Todds', that we can find.  
    Check out

    Bush era proves: evil = fear incarnate

    by Fransje on Tue Jul 01, 2008 at 03:03:16 PM PDT

    •  Eco Machines (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I have video of John's Eco Machines back to the first one in Harwich.  It is astounding to me that they are not more widely known and haven't scaled up to city size systems by today.  John should be recognized as a national and world treasure and his every idea should be funded without any red tape.

      Unfortunately, that is not the case.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

      by gmoke on Tue Jul 01, 2008 at 03:12:20 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I'm always "giddy" (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    when I imagine what should rightly be reality.

    Though I'm not as knowledgable about this as I wish.
    Partly that's circumstance. But now I'm a bit more educated.

    The irony is Michelle's story only happens in America, according to its most fervent patriots. Cindy McCain's happens in any country with concentrated wealth.

    by Nulwee on Tue Jul 01, 2008 at 11:19:09 PM PDT

  •  Where can I sign up (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    to help?  I'm an expert gardener with no fear of organic grunge and a home in Bluefield.  I'm sure those tanks need cleaning, feeding, puttering and singing to.

  •  You asked me to drop by and criticize this (0+ / 0-)

    diary, and your wish is my command.

    I am always impressed by lipstick on the coal pig, as if the damage from coal just needs some cute marketing.

    It's always pretty fanciful, and this is no exception.

    I can't believe that at 400 ppm there are still people talking about sequestration.

    It's a fantasy, sort of like the "solar will save us" meme.

    In general all of these kinds of apologetics and fantasies consist of "conceptual drawings" and appeals for funding.

    It's um, like, 2008.  


    We're just about at 400 ppm, and the last thing we need is another yuppie with a load of plastic and glass running around that coal can be made OK.

    It can't be made OK.   Ever.   In no way.

    The idea that a 40 acre pilot plot is meaningful in 2008 is frankly absurd.

    Coal needs to be banned.   Period.

    •  Ignorance Kills (0+ / 0-)

      "The idea that a 40 acre pilot plot is meaningful in 2008 is frankly absurd."

      Reread the piece.  John Todd is talking about a 40 mile pilot project.  That's a little more than 40 acres.

      Reread the piece.  Nowhere is there mentioned support for further mining.  This is a project that will remediate the damage that has already been done.  Of course, if you think that leaving West Virginia a toxic waste dump is OK that's one thing, but that sorta kinda invalidates your holier than thou "dangerous fossil fuel waste" rhetoric.

      This is a pejorative from the 70s and 80s.  It was an acronym for young urban professionals and connotes gentrification.  John Todd is a professional, having devoted most of his life to studying and using ecological design.  He ain't young anymore, having qualified for social security a good while ago, and he ain't urban.  One out of three for an epithet is not very good especially when the epithet itself is so outdated.

      Ignorance kills and you've just proved that you are, in this case, an ignorant and careless reader.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

      by gmoke on Wed Jul 02, 2008 at 08:20:42 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It's always a pleaure to stop by and chat. (0+ / 0-)

        In general it is true that I read tripe in a very superficial way.

        I read a great deal, probably thousands of documents a week.   It is necessary to scan these and what seems on scanning to be superficial gets a superficial reading.

        Generally when I get to cute conceptual diagrams coupled with the word "sequestration" I immediately know that I am not going to go deeper into it, since I've read many tens of thousands on documents, each more nonsensical than the other.

        You seem to believe that because you know someone who has spent "most of his life" studying a subject, he is therefore being reasonable.

        In case you're wondering - and clearly you're not - 40 miles, km, rods, feet, inches, centimeters, micrometers will not make a hill of beans.

        While you have been standing around criticizing the world's largest, by far, form of climate change gas free energy - the only form of exajoule scale energy that has had zero deaths associated with accidents or waste disposal in the United States - that would be nuclear energy, the production of dangerous fossil fuel waste has reached the 30 billion tons per year level.

        I have never met a single "solar will save us" advocate who has a sense of scale.   NOT ONE.

        If you come back to announce that John Todd has a proposal for 40 "light years" of carbon remediation facilities, it will still be fanciful, and still merit the wasting of less than 3 minutes to address.

        Have a nice day.   It's been, as always, a real pleasure.

        •  Willful Ignorance Is Suicide (0+ / 0-)

          Pray tell, how is nuclear power going to remediate the Appalachian coal lands?

          Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

          by gmoke on Thu Jul 03, 2008 at 08:42:20 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

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