John Todd has advocated sustainable design for over 40 years. His submission, Comprehensive Design for a Carbon Neutral World: The Challenge of Appalachia, was named the winner of the first annual Buckminster Fuller Challenge, in June. The $100,000 prize is the most recent in a series of accolades for this pioneering scientist. He was previously named one of the 35 Top Inventors of the 20th Century by MIT for his Living Machines, which use natural organisms to purify wastewater. The professor and prolific author continues to use nature as a design model for diverse, innovative projects around the globe.
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GreenSource: You've called your research in Appalachia on the ecological impact of mountaintop removal and valley filling from coal mining “doom watching.” Is there any cause for hope?
John Todd: There is now an initiative to acquire a 45-mile-long stretch of devastated land to try and carry out the ideas that I proposed in my report, which include phasing out coal mining, replacing coal with renewable energy, and building a natural resource economic base for the region. There’s also a very distinct possibility that at the center of this devastated area will be a major wind farm. The award definitely gave the project momentum. We’re trying to assemble a number of diverse philanthropic groups to acquire this land and figure out the various economic ways we can even just go through the soil restoration, because that’s so critical.
GS: And daunting, no?
Todd: It is daunting. People—particularly activists on the ground throughout the Appalachian states—often say to me, “You don’t know the politics.” And I don’t. If I did, I don’t think I’d ever have enough nerve to come up with a plan like this, because I would know in advance all the road blocks up ahead. This is very much a Bucky Fuller trait: He always recommended flying at 30,000 feet in order to have stable air to get some ideas carried out.
GS: You worked with him on several occasions. What were those experiences like?
Todd: He inspired me back when I was still a puppy and founded the New Alchemy Institute in 1969. What I liked about Bucky was his idea that good design is doing more with less, less, less! He was so far ahead of his time. In 1980, I was part of a partnership that created a climatically independent dome. Inside, it supported an ecological system that contained fish, fruits, nuts, veggies, flowers, and so on. Bucky got involved because he was really thrilled that nature’s principles were being applied in his architecture to help solve the problem of sustainable food. He opened it and dedicated it. It was a delightful little structure that ran for 20 years.
GS: You refer to yourself as an eco-designer rather than a biologist or conservationist. You’ve had a relationship with design for many years. How did that develop?
Todd: The very first year with New Alchemy we were dealing with architecture, energy, and living systems and the relationship among the three. It was so obvious then that it was an ecological design science. While we do engineering and have conventional engineers that work with us, in my mind design meant something far more important. It meant being able to operate at different levels and scales.
GS: An early project, the Ark on Prince Edward Island—which back in the 1970s used now-established sustainable design elements like solar orientation and wind energy—was named among the most significant buildings of the 20th century by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2000, but it was torn down that very year.
Todd: It was just one of those ironies. The facility housed all kinds of life that were used to enhance the agriculture and food production of the region. It was torn down by a developer because it wasn’t big enough to make him enough money. We had built another one on Cape Cod that still exists and is magnificent. It’s now privately owned by two of the early New Alchemists, and they manage it in such a way that’s just heart-warming.
GS: The kind of environmental work you do has obviously become much more mainstream in the past few years. What is your perspective given your vast experience?
Todd: When you work with complex systems like nature, it takes a long time to accumulate enough—I’m going to use the word stories—about how nature works to be able to hold it all in your mental hands. It would have been impossible for me 20 years ago to talk about taking a whole region and using ecological principles to create a new and durable economy. (And I never, ever expected to win the Bucky Fuller Challenge, because I wasn’t offering a magic bullet.) But before then, it was impossible for me to imagine an eco-machine that would take toxic waste and render it harmless. Time is a big factor. I think there is also a shift today in how people perceive our relevance. In the past, people found our work to be much more quixotic than necessary. They’d ask, “Why have a structure that doesn’t need electricity and heating? Why grow your own foods?” Everyone knew at the time we could drag petroleum out of the ground forever and that industrial foods were going to feed us all. We were doing everything opposite to what people thought should be done. That’s the big difference I think. The average person on the street now will have conversations about how their house is designed and where they can support a local farmer. This year, we’ve got ourselves a thriving little farmer’s market in our own little town of Falmouth, Massachusetts. People are waking up to the fact that something is very wrong in the world.
GS: You’ve worked all over the world and most recently in China, which is not known for having a great environmental reputation.
Todd: Our project there with Ocean Arks International, which works on ecological water purification, was a wonderful success, but we lost a lot of money and still haven’t fully recovered.
GS: You’ve had to mortgage your house in the past to pay for some of your projects. Does that still go on?Todd: That still goes on. People ask me what I’m going to do with the $100,000 award money, and I say, “Pay down all our debts!”
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