They helped discover a 'sustainable' world

By Stephen Morris

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There was a revolution in America during the 1960s. The world as we knew it turned upside down. Heroes were assassinated; the just country fought an unjust war; and the Beatles took over the throne of rock 'n roll from Elvis.

Authority was questioned everywhere. Why should we embrace total electric living? Who says Wonder Bread builds stronger bodies 12 ways? Maybe homogenization, pasteurization, centralization and electrification aren't the cures for society's ills. Maybe they are the causes. Maybe we are poisoning ourselves.

Into the toxic void stepped young men and women who offered positive, hopeful solutions to society's most vexing problems the deteriorating quality of our air, land and water. These were the "small group of thoughtful, committed people" who anthropologist Margaret Mead had no doubt could save the world. One such group came together in Woods Hole, Mass. Founded by biologists Bill McLarney, John Todd, and his wife, Nancy Jack Todd, the New Alchemy Institute gave shape and substance to the new practice of ecological design.

Alchemy was the medieval theory where base metals could be transformed into precious ones. Lead, for instance, could be turned into gold. Todd, however, was a scientist by training, and the base metal was toxic sludge, and his gold was clean, pure water and living soil. The magic would be achieved not by the dominion of man, but by creating an environment that encouraged natural healing.

The New Alchemy Institute incubated the ideas and conducted bold experiments that became the practices of sustainable living. Along with an eclectic mix of other scientists, growers, horticulturists, and enthusiastic amateurs, Todd and company fought the good fight, always moving full speed ahead, despite a constant proximity to the brink of financial disaster. From their home base of Woods Hole, they built prototypes of what came to be known as "living machines" in which the raw input of polluted land and water is restored through the "magic" of natural processes. The transformation often includes delightful by-products such as exotic flowers, delicious vegetables and edible fish. Allowing their imaginations to run even more freely, the New Alchemists then took the idea of living machines and set them afloat as "ocean arks," sail-powered, greenhouse-bearing, transport vessels to transport transformational magic to depleted eco-systems.

It was heady stuff, but, alas, New Alchemy closed its doors in the early 1990s. Was it but a colorful footnote in the history of environmental stewardship? Or, the most important chapter in an ongoing social, cultural and environmental revolution?

Nancy Jack Todd makes a strong case for the latter in her new book A Safe and Sustainable World: The Promise of Ecological Design (Island Press, 2005). She's too modest to say so directly, but the world in some ways is an improved place in 2005 compared to 1965, and a bit of the transformation might be traced to the influence of New Alchemy and its acolytes. There is a long road ahead to making the world sustainable, but at least here in Vermont we catch occasional glimpses that give us hope that the 21st century will be a time of environmental recovery rather than devastation.

Evidence? Fresh, local, organic food. It's almost a religion in Vermont, yet it didn't exist 40 years ago. Renewable energy? There were no devices to convert the energy of the sun and wind to electric power then. Now we can harness these natural forces and sell our excess power back to the utilities. Compost, farmer's markets, whole grain bread, micro-brewed beer, human-powered vehicles, heirloom tomatoes no, these were not invented at New Alchemy, but the mind-set that opened us to biological solutions to man-made problems was.

New Alchemy's influence is subtly rampant in the North Country in other ways. Versions of living machines have treated waste at the Sugarbush Ski area, Ben & Jerry's Waterbury plant, the town of South Burlington and The Intervale. Stonyfield Yogurt, not a Vermont company but it should be, was founded by New Alchemist, Gary Hirshburg. In addition to producing a delicious, chemical-free product, Stonyfield has contributed to the model of corporate social responsibility that has bridged the considerable gap between wild-eyed hippies and international business.

The Energy Co-op of Vermont is now run by John Quinney, one-time executive director of the institute and the original proprietor of the Seventh Generation retail store. When he is not giving customers the best possible deal on home heating fuel, he tinkers with his solar-powered cold frame. He boasts that he raised 13 varieties of melon last summer. You don't do that without a little magic.

The University of Vermont has made considerable progress eliminating herbicides and pesticides from its greenhouses. Management of this effort is provided by Colleen Armstrong, who honed her skills managing the greenhouse at New Alchemy. Even John Todd has migrated north, teaching ecological design at the Gund Institute at UVM. His bioremediation installations are now scattered around the globe. His ambitious and creative students have adapted his methods to a wide spectrum of locales and uses.

John Todd is getting the recognition he deserves these days, but the lesser-sung hero of the story is the teller of the tale, Nancy Jack Todd. A soft-spoken, irrepressible powerhouse, she has been the chronicler of New Alchemy from its earliest days. As the torch is passed to a new generation of earth stewards, her account of the halting, imperfect evolution of New Alchemy is a blueprint on how radical new ideas can make their way from the lunatic fringe to the mainstream and how mere mortals can change the world.

Once in a great while a book edges over the line from being a "page turner" or a "great read" to "important." When future generations, faced with massive, overwhelming problems want to know where to start, they need look no further than Nancy Jack Todd's A Safe and Sustainable World.

Published November 13, 2005 in Vermont Today

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