The New Alchemy Institute: pioneers of ecological design
This article [originally published in Spanish in 2008, EcoHabitar Nr.16] pays homage to an institution of historical significance in the emergence of the ecological design movement. The New Alchemy Institute in the North Eastern United States acted as a catalyst of change promoting the development of new ecological design solutions, alternative technologies and methods of ecological food production and waste treatment. To tell the story of New Alchemy also means telling the story of two of the most dedicated activists in the movement. The Canadians, John Todd and Nancy Jack Todd are among the pioneers of the modern search for sustainable lifestyles.
In the 1960s John Todd graduated from McGill University in Canada with degrees in agriculture, parasitology and tropical medicine. He did a PhD in marine biology at the University of Michigan studying the behaviour of fish. The aquatic technologies developed by John Todd during the last 30 years have transformed the field of biological sewage and wastewater treatment. His eco-machines, previously called living machines, have now been successfully established in eight countries on four continents. In 1999, Time Magazine declared John a ‘hero for the planet.’
In getting to know John and Nancy, they show themselves quickly as sincere, relaxed and humble people. They are mainly concerned about the way humanity continues to reduce the fertility and diversity of the planet’s ecosystems and how the contamination of water, earth and air continues. John and Nancy are now happy grandparents, and maybe precisely for the sake of their grandchildren both are continuing their fight for a more sane future.
Nancy now focuses on writing. Island Press recently published her new book A Safe and Sustainable World — The Promise of Ecological Design. Nancy also edits the newsletter/journal Annals of Earth for their NGO Ocean Arks International. Focussing mainly on education and the development of projects in water sanitation and industrial waste treatment, Ocean Arks has continued the work of the New Alchemy Institute since its closure.
For most of the year, John teaches as a research professor at the University of Vermont. He also acts as the director of John Todd Research and Design Inc., a consultancy for ecological engineering and design, and as president of Ocean Arks International.
I had the good fortune to meet John and Nancy in 2002 during a three-week course in ecological design at Schumacher College, in Devon, where they teach regularly. John and Nancy team-taught with their friend David Orr, professor for environmental studies at Oberlin College and the author of a number of excellent books on ecoliteracy and ecological design.
The most important take home lesson that I learned from them was to understand the concept of ecological design in a much wider context than I had done previously. I realized that from water purification with self-designing ecosystems of bacteria, algae, aquatic plants, molluscs, crustaceans and fish, to the building of bio-climatic houses, the design of eco-industrial parks, and the organization of a company or a bioregion, even including education systems, political systems or public health systems, all these diverse challenges are part of ecological design. I also got a lot out of Nancy’s and John’s personal stories along the path, from their successes and their failures, and how difficult it can be to separate success and failure some times. Their stories were informative and inspiring, making it a real joy to learn from their example.
At the end of the 1960s John Todd and his friend and collaborator Bill McLarney were both working at the Woods Hole Institute of Oceanography on the US American North-East coast. Together with Nancy, the three decided to create an organization that would inform, demonstrate and investigate how modern humanity could learn to live in a more sustainable way. The New Alchemy Institute was established in 1969 with the intention to “scientifically explore strategies that could have evolutionary value to humanity in the future.”
On a rented twelve-acre site, they began to focus their investigations on issues such as ecologically sound food production, building bio-climatic houses and developing new ways of renewable energy use. The first experiments in ecological agri- and aquaculture took place at the institute. The New Alchemists invented a variety of technologies that captured solar and wind energy, even marketing their own brand of wind turbines.
They also experimented with new forms of collective and cooperative living, exploring the dynamics of groups without hierarchies and gender stereotypes. Every Saturday, the New Alchemy Institute opened its doors to allow for the participation of the local community and any other interested visitors. All the volunteers were put to work in different farming or building projects and any job, which needed the help of a few extra hands. For a number of years, the number of visitors and volunteers at New Alchemy reached over 10,000.
In an article from the year 1976, entitled ‘The New Alchemists’, John explains: “We felt it imperative to fuse science with practical, scholarly and philosophic realms. There were traditions to guide us, including the Taoist (in China) and the Hermetic (in Europe), which at one time embraced science.” John maintains that it was his study of Taoist science that convinced him all kinds of science has to be practiced within the context of the sacred and with a lot of responsibility.
For the new alchemists, the sacred context of their investigations was Nature herself. They felt a strong responsibility to participate in an appropriate manner in the cyclical processes that maintain the diversity and health of ecosystems. The New Alchemists were conscious of their own dependence on these cycles, which maintain the dynamic equilibrium of the biosphere and the continued evolution of life on Earth. More than 30 years ago John Todd described their intentions in this way:
“We hoped to investigate methods for the fundamental redesign of the vital systems that sustain human society.” “Nature is our most important ally. The future can be nothing less than a transformation of materialist and exploitative societies into information rich societies that develop through a process of co-evolution and intimate conviviality with the living world.”
Based on ecological, social and economic considerations, the New Alchemists established a series of guidelines for their scientific investigations. First formulated over 30 years ago, these guidelines have only gained in significance. I will briefly summarize them here:
- The New Alchemy Institute (N.A.I.) begins its investigations and designs at the micro-scale, while at the same time maintaining a planetary perspective. Careful attention is paid to the important interconnections existing between different scales of organisation.
- The N.A.I. will focus on systems of food production and energy transformation that do not require large investments, so that the designs may also benefit and be used by the less privileged.
- The N.A.I. is looking for methods that will catalyse the gradual change from a materialist society to a society of information and biological understanding.
- The N.A.I. has the intention to create designs that accentuate participatory solutions, which are capable of involving a large proportion of society.
- The N.A.I will explore future bioregional strategies, which will integrate the more universal solutions of the first four points into the specific conditions of the local ecosystems.
- The N.A.I. will investigate methods of integrating renewable energy use and durable materials into its designs, rather than rely on the use of limited substances and materials for short-term use.
One of the fundamental assumptions of the New Alchemists was that the microcosmos contains concrete knowledge about the macrocosmos. It often represents a reflection of the larger world in which it takes part. The understanding of the relationship between macro- and micro-cosmos can serve as an organizing principle. It is the central principle of alchemical philosophy in various ancient cultures and it was also the inspiration behind the name of the New Alchemy Institute.
At the end of the 1970s, the institute, with its headquarters in Cape Cod, had sixteen permanent staff members, all with the same salary. Half of them were women and a quarter of the team had scientific PhDs. Among the collaborators were two architects and a wind turbine engineer, as well as various volunteers.
During this period, the N.A.I. began its most ambitious project with the support of the Canadian government, the ‘Ark for Prince Edward Island’. The ark was a ‘bioshelter’, a bioclimatic house that generated its own electricity with wind generators, and used solar energy for space and water heating. It also contained a laboratory, greenhouses and an aquaculture system of 40 large transparent water tanks. The project tried to establish how, at the scale of a family or a small community, it could be possible to reach self-sufficiency and cover food and energy requirements in the Canadian climate.
The high columns of round water tanks, placed near the back wall of the south-facing greenhouse front of the building, created various advantages. They provided solar energy storage in form of heat, which resulted in a stable temperature that allowed for horticultural food production throughout the entire year. The columns create an annual thermal flywheel, which protected the produce while the outside temperatures frequently plummeted to below freezing during the Canadian winter.
The algae within such tanks grow at a rapid rate. Due to their large and translucent surface area, a lot of light can penetrate into the tanks and thereby maximize the amount of light available for photosynthesis, which maximizes bioproductivity. The fish within the tanks depend on algae as their major food source. This means it is possible to grow fish without the need for a large amount of added food. By selecting the right species of fish it is possible to assure that the walls of the tanks are always kept clean of attaching algae.
The majority of John Todd’s early living machines used these transparent, column shaped tanks. Unfortunately, John lost his own patent for these technologies during a legal conflict with a profit-hungry investment company. These days, John mainly uses large white tanks that are produced for industrial food storage. They are cheaper and still allow about 70% of the solar radiation to penetrate them, sufficient light to maintain high algal productivity.
When, due to financial problems, the New Alchemy Institute had to close down in 1991, the Ark for Prince Edward Island also changed hands. Recently a small group of the old New Alchemists have purchased the site of the original New Alchemy Institute and are planning to turn it into a co-housing community.
During the more than twenty years of its existence and far beyond it, the New Alchemy Institute served as an example for many people. Its magic, inspiration, and ideas, as well as all the people that had the luck to be touched by or involved in the project, have rippled outward from Cape Cod and started new initiatives in many different countries. Bill McLarney continued his work in Costa Rica, the Todds through Ocean Arks International. The New Alchemy Institute certainly had an alchemical effect on all the people who participated. It transformed their lives.
The Centre for Alternative Technology, in Wales, ‘Das Ökozentrum’ in Germany, the ‘Folkecentre for Renewable Energy in Denmark, and similar eco-centres in Holland, France, and many other countries have all taken inspiration from the pioneering work of the New Alchemists. There are now a number of companies in the US, the UK, Hungary and China that are developing and building living technologies in collaboration with John Todd. Project by project the impulse of New Alchemy continues to transform society.
In 2000, John Todd received the annual award of the Schumacher Society. During his acceptance speech, he said: “The question remains today: are we as a species going to stampede, leming-like over a cliff? Is it possible for us to chart a new course and reverse the current apocalyptical trend? Is there an alternative technological and cultural foundation for society that can bring humanity into harmony with the Earth and its support systems?”
In his reply to these questions, John suggested that what is needed is a design revolution more profound in its effects than the Industrial Revolution. John is convinced that we will have to submit the entire infrastructure of the modern world to a process of fundamental re-design in order to change the way in which humanity maintains and sustains itself.
According to John Todd, we will find the solutions to most of our problems in nature. He suggests that nature contains all the advice, information, projects, and maps that we may need to design the societies of the new millennium. We simply have to become humble enough again to learn about nature’s lessons and limits. We need to drive global change at a local scale. The microcosm to macrocosm relationship reflects the think global, act local strategy promoted by Local Agenda 21 initiatives.
The transformation towards a sustainable society is under way. The international permaculture movement, the Global Ecovillage Network, the emerging natural or ecological design movement, and the diverse activities united by the World Social Forum are indicators of change and beacons of hope.
Learning about sustainability, is about learning how to participate appropriately in the microcosmos of our daily lives, our communities and our bioregions. The health of the biosphere — the macrocosmos — is reflected in appropriate participation in dynamic diversity and cooperation at the scale of our personal interactions — the microcosmos.
Human awareness and consciousness continues to evolve. The macrocosmos is experiencing itself through the microcosmos of individual lives. We are, in a way, all conscious microcosms of the macrocosm of intelligent, living and thinking nature. The elixir of life is hidden in the conscious experience of the participation in and fundamental connection with nature’s cycles. The elixir describes the realisation of the unity of nature and culture, self and world — the recognition of nature as the sacred ground of our own being.
As for transforming lead into gold, for a new alchemist this refers to nature’s own magic of transforming the light of the sun into green plants — the food of almost all life. But there is also the transformation of one’s own self through personal development. When we transform our relationship to nature and realize that we belong in nature, as integral participants, we will rediscover her as sacred.
The sages of ancient China called appropriate participation, ‘to walk with the Tao.’ The ancient alchemists and hermetic philosophers in Europe and the Middle East called it ‘becoming one with the all.’ Long-term sustainability is about all of us recognizing our role as participants in the living process of nature and acting accordingly. As we transform ourselves, our communities, and our societies, we engage in new alchemy. Let me leave the final words to John:
“The Earth’s ecologies are embedded with a set of instructions that we urgently need to decode and employ in the design of human systems. That vast collective intelligence, which evolved over eons, needs to be understood and utilized by human designers addressing all spheres of human society.”
“The next design revolution will grow out of ecology. Ecological design will borrow from the teachings of such ecosystems as forest or coral reef. It will provide the intellectual framework for practical alternatives to the planet destroying processes that dominate today’s cultures.”
Professor John Todd
Tomorrow is our permanent address: The Search for an Ecological Science of Design, John Todd and Nancy Jack Todd, Harper & Row, 1980
Bioshelters, Ocean Arks, City Farming: Ecology as the Basis of Design, Nancy Jack Todd & John Todd, Sierra Club Books, 1984
From Eco-Cities to Living Machines: Principles of Ecological Design, Nancy Jack Todd and John Todd, North Atlantic Books, 1994
Design Outlaws on the Ecological Frontier, edited by Chris Zelov, Konossos Books 1997
The New Alchemists, John Todd (1978) en Soft-Tech, J. Baldwin & S. Brand, Penguin Books
Restoring the Earth — Visionary Solutions from the Bioneers, Kenny Ausubel, 1997
Ecological Design in the 21st Century, John Todd, Schumacher Lecture 2000
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Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.
Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures