The Visionary Thinking of John Todd

The winner of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge has a plan for Appalachia and it could be the design model of the future.

On Monday, June 23rd, John Todd, a renowned biologist and pioneer in the field of sustainable design, was awarded the first annual $100,000 Buckminster Fuller Challenge Prize for a bold proposal to transform strip-mined lands in Appalachia into a self-sustaining community. The decision to award Todd, who is currently a research professor at the University of Vermont in Burlington, was unanimous by the Buckminster Fuller Institute’s jury. His proposal outlines a way to restore the one million plus acres of lands in Appalachia that have been devastated by surface coal mining through a process that remediates the soil, reclaims the forests, and develops a new economy based in renewable energies. The plan advances an innovative environmental theory of design that Todd developed, one that is completely in sync with Fuller’s ideology. Metropolis’ editorial director, Paul Makovsky, spoke with Todd recently about the award, his research into eco-machines, and what it really takes for design to become carbon-neutral.

Can you explain what the project Comprehensive Design For A Carbon Neutral World: The Challenge of Appalachia is all about?

It’s an alternative future for Appalachia based on several notions, one of which is that coal, which has already destroyed over a million acres of land through coal mining, is not a viable long-term solution for our energy. It’s very intensive in harming the atmosphere. It’s not the big energy panacea that we’ve all been led to believe. It will go into terminal decline globally within a couple of decades. Mostly all the stuff that we’ve gotten so far has been relatively easy to get. What remains gets harder and more expensive to get. So, if the people of Appalachia want a short-term boom, embrace coal. If they want an endurable future, abandon coal for a different kind of future that’s predicated on rebuilding the landscape [and] using the ecological design principles which are at the core of my thinking.

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And what exactly does that mean?

One of the things that Bucky Fuller said, which has always been a bit of an inspiration for me, is, “I don’t imitate nature. I try and understand her operating principles.” What I have dedicated my life to doing is to try and understand just exactly how nature works, and how those processes might be applied to the design of systems to support the human community. I’ve been inventing and developing living technologies called “eco-machines,” which use living organisms to do the work, everything from the bacteria to the ancient cyanobacteria to the protozoa, to the funghi, to the higher plants, to the animals. The eco-machines have different ecological elements within them that kind of communicate with each other, to create what I call “ecological meta intelligence.” They can self-organize, self-design, and self-repair themselves. The human ecological engineer directs the system towards a particular goal.

I’ll give you a real simple example: If you have an eco-machine treating your village’s sewage, it’ll be a very pretty place, and it won’t stink. You could also be producing a half a dozen different biological products. In other words, in this setting, sewage treatment is no longer sewage treatment, it is farming the nutrients that happen to be in waste water. It takes a negative and becomes positive. And this is becoming increasingly prevalent in our design process.

If you take the same kind of thinking and apply it to relationships that don’t exist in nature—for example, if you take a toxic byproduct in one industry combined with the waste heat of another industry, combined with the nutrient stream from a third industry—then all of a sudden you have yourself an ecological industrial park, which can make new products. And so, the eco-machine is what I call “1st Order Ecological Design,” and anybody who’s creating soils or really gardening or farming well is following 1st Order Ecological Design. When you move to the eco park, and take industrial waste and produce a dozen new products from it, that’s what I would call 2nd Order Ecological Design.

I didn’t have the theory in place two years ago when I started working for the Lewis Foundation, and they wanted me to look at the environmental impact of all this stuff in Appalachia. I kind of freaked out when I saw the scale and the enormity—I mean, there are trillions of gallons of toxic slurries sitting in impoundments, so I said, “It’s so bad, I’m not interested in evaluating it, I’ll leave that to government scientists. What I want to do is start to put together a plan to restore those lands.”

One thing I know, because I’ve had a lifelong interest in agriculture, is that durable wealth anywhere around the world, if it’s based on natural resources rather than go-go girls or something like that, is based on the richness and quality of the soil. I surveyed the world’s soil-building techniques and came up with some recommendations.

I then started to look at the energy issues and began to realize that renewable energy, on its own if it is sun or wind, can do so much—but it can’t do everything. It doesn’t stored energy, the way petroleum does. It sits in a tank and it’s a stored energy. I began to think of the second stage of development of the landscape as woody bio-mass, for the production of fuels and for new materials, for plastics and elasticizers and all kinds of things that derive their stocks not from petroleum, but from wood materials—principally willows and poplars that grow quickly. New York State is probably the leading area in this country in developing some of this thinking.

Putting all those pieces together, I began to think how can we make a manufacturing component? I began to look into manufacture based on natural resources as raw materials. And agriculture, of course.

What we have here is a shifting landscape. It starts out as this raw bedrock that’s leftover, and over time, it goes through a series of changes to become something else. I had to have an economic element at every stage. So, by year five, it has to be doing this. By year ten, it has to be doing that. The reason is that I wanted to employ the people of Appalachia in my scheme, instead of having them be—as in many cases—desperate folks.

I began to see this as what I called “successional development,” very much the way a field becomes a prairie and then a scrubby meadow and then finally a forest. I began to think of what kind of institutional organizations should be there. I imagined in the beginning a land trust would acquire the land using philanthropic and government money, and would then be custodians and would be able to underwrite the soil-building phase. As that began to develop, move into a phase where products such as the woody bio-mass were coming onto the land, and also the beginning of the manufacturing of fuels and other materials from this stuff—energy stocks. That really required a very entrepreneurial atmosphere. In other words, it wasn’t government versus business, it was “government preceded business.”

At some point, this trust should change from being a landholding institution, because the land is now capable of supporting people, and it should divest itself of the land and become basically a mortgage-financing agency, with the eligible people—those who had developed the skills over the last five or ten years—as part of this restoration process. It could be former miners, for example, in the soil-building phase. They could use some of that big machinery they drive around in. The trust then becomes a financial institution, takes the money that it raises, and puts it into acquiring new lands, but divests itself as quickly as it can of lands that are already economic.

The final stage, since this is a landscape comprised of individuals or small groups of people working their own lands, was that they needed some mechanism that would allow them to be integrated on a higher level. So I started looking at the history of cooperatives in America. They just seemed so ideal—both rural-electric cooperatives, and rural-agricultural, and rural-forestry cooperatives—like the Salix Consortium in New York State. People would have their own lands, but they would have access to the pools of knowledge and technical expertise and financing, and all the rest that a cooperative would bring, but they would own the cooperative. It wouldn’t be something superimposed on them.

You tried some experiments,for example, with the Ark on Prince Edward Island in the 1970s. Does it still work?

No. The Ark on Prince Edward Island was converted in the ‘80s to a restaurant and inn. They did a good job,too, and it still had the ecological functioning, even the wine-grapes that I planted and the fig trees. It did marginally well for four or five years and then—I think it was about around the year 2000—the site was acquired by a developer who just took a look at it and thought it was too small to make money from, and so, to the best of my knowledge, he knocked it down. In fact, he knocked it down the same year that the U.S. Department of Energy named it one of the leading structures of the twentieth century. That was really ironic. But the Cape Cod Ark, started in 1976, is functioning and operated by two of the early New Alchemists. It’s been modified. They’ve added a house to it, but it’s just stunning.

You were also working with the town of Harwich, Massachusetts in the 1990’s?

Yes. It was really seminal in my thinking. It was this toxic dump—a pond that I found was absolutely filled with this high-strength waste of heavy metals and fifteen of the EPA’s top villains, carcinogens mainly. It was working there that I began to discover some of the major principles of ecological design. Stuff was sitting there, infiltrating the drinking water table of that town, and I just freaked when I saw it. Now it’s illegal to do that, but up until a few years ago, everybody was dumping their waste into ponds. It was so important in my life to understand it’s possible to go into bad places and do good things.

How would you say that your project relates to the spirit of Buckminster Fuller?

I worked a little bit with Bucky towards the end of his life. We did a geodesic structure at New Alchemy in 1980, on Cape Cod, near the Ark. He came to me, and his great protégé Jay Baldwin was working with us at that time. The purpose of it was to incorporate our ecology into his geodesic structure. And it was wonderful. It was very small,only 30 feet in diameter, but it was like a little crucible of just delightful structure that operated off the sun and the wind and the architecture. It got me very interested in geodesics. I know everyone’s down on geodesics, but I thought, “God, an 80- or 90-foot structure—if it could be made of lightweight gossamer struts—would be just the most ideal growing environment for northern climates.”

Did you discuss that with him?

I talked with him about materials that would not degrade in the future. He talked much more with Jay Baldwin on the issues of design. But I was also involved with him, around that time, when he was working on the redesign of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. He came up with this wild scheme of a tower, that supported a geodesic-like structure that was high above the cathedral—which is big enough in its own right, as you know. And he was working at that time with Jim Morton, who was the dean of the cathedral, who’s known as the “Green Dean.”

Had you known his work earlier on?

Oh yes. I mean, I go back. I’m a kid of the Whole Earth Catalog. Of course, he and a great friend of mine, Gregory Bateson, were the inspiration for that, so, I was very, very interested. I read the New York Times piece which focused on Bucky’s mistress, as well as The New Yorker piece by Elizabeth Kolbert, which I found very good—but both articles missed one very essential thing: Bucky was basically saying that we had to rethink design so that we could do an enormous amount with very little. It was kind of an operational base-note. He would use words like “ephemeral” and “gossamer,” words that really caught on to me: “very little energy,” or “substitute intelligence for energy and capital,” and nobody had really picked up on that yet. When he did the World Game in the University of Southern Illinois, where you had a vast globe, he got a whole generation of young people beginning to do scenario planning and scenario evolution, and that phase of his life has been pretty much overlooked. Yet a lot of people really went a long way towards global systems thinking—which now we take for granted.

Bucky’s research with John McHale and the World Resources Inventory looked at resource management decades before Bill McDonough identified it with cradle-to-cradle thinking.

Exactly. And the guy that influenced Al Gore, Roger Revelle, was another one. In my field, ecological design, Howard Odum had developed models and was beginning to talk about completely revamping our view of nature. He had these tiny little terraria and aquaria where he’d bombard them with radiation, and then watch them recover or not recover depending on the exposure. But he basically was understanding organization in nature. And then of course in 1971, in his book Environment, Power, and Society, he says, “Look, why don’t we think of life on earth as a vast bin of spare parts.” And of course the conservationists took one read and said, “Oh my god, this is the evil incarnate.” But what he was basically saying is that organisms have roles, and if we understand their roles, maybe we can put them to work to help us solve our problems. And I was a young oceanographer at that time, here at Woods Hole Oceanographic, which is where I’m talking to you now, and I just said, “I want to see if we can make that work.” I started designing ecosystems—I wasn’t actually designing them, they were designing themselves, I was just bringing players to the party.

You studied tropical medicine at McGill University in Montreal.

Yes, at the Institute for Parisitology. I was the only Canadian in the lot—they were all from all over the world. And my major professor went on to be very senior in the World Health Organization. I thought that the ecology of disease or epidemiology was a cool subject, and I had a youthful fantasy that I might as well get a profession where people will pay for my travel, especially to tropical climates.

We debated the importance of Bucky Fuller in our office. Some people understood his relevance today, while others disagreed.

Well, you know, as a culture, we’re great at forgetting. I mean, you talk to young people and the Kennedy tragedy is a small airplane falling down into Nantucket sound—not even Bobby.

It will be interesting to see what comes out of your research.

Yes. This paper [A New Shared Economy for Appalachia] is inspiration for a regional conference in 2009 in Appalachia, which will lead to an outgrowth from which they want to create a political business plan for the whole region. They’re hoping it coincides with an administration that is progressive and interested in this kind of stuff. All they need to do is to start enforcing the Clean Water Act.

One of the teams working on the Appalachians has found some really significant wind sites, which previously were not known. On the renewable side of things, it could be a big factor, especially if there’s carbon accounting.

Bucky talked about doing a lot with very little. If design as a benchmark is to be carbon-neutral, you have to design in a new way, and you’re forced to come up with some very elegant alternatives. For example, there’s no way it could be a carbon-neutral region if we didn’t sequester carbon into our emerging soils and forests. So, in a way, our equivalent of “more with less” is carbon-neutral design. It’s what’s going to focus our thinking, and I think that’s important.

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