New alchemists, ocean arks

Growing a global network to heal the environment

"A Safe and Sustainable World" is a very readable and competently researched accounting of two pioneering ecological ventures, The New Alchemy Institute (NAI) and Ocean Arks International. Nancy Jack Todd played a pivotal role in the history she records. Stepping in as narrator and stepping back to reflect on the experiments and policies, she guides the reader through the experiments and thought processes of these dedicated scientists, humanists, artists, and countercultural explorers.

"To restore the land, protect the seas, and inform the Earth's Stewards" - this was NAI's mission statement (1971). It became the seed that planted New Alchemists on Cape Cod and expanded, like their yearly harvests, into a global network of interdisciplinary programs and organizations, all working to "heal" the pollution and environmental degradation of planet Earth.

While conventional wisdom tended to specialize expertise and isolate problems, New Alchemists took their "instructions" from natural processes, delving into ecochains to find out how their laws and behaviors could be applied to human societies and critical unmet needs. The outcomes of this research included waste-treatment plants, windmills and solar storage, aquaculture, hydroponics, integrated agricultural production, bioshelters, and eventually "Eco-Machines." These simulated the purifying action of a marsh in nature.

What NAI was up to attracted attention, spreading like the ripples of its ponds. Among those who became associated with a New Alchemy or Ocean Arks project were curious neighbors, university students and faculty, social reformers and environmental activists, and global figures like Buckminster Fuller and Margaret Mead.

There are parallels with experimental communities that have sprouted in American soil since the Brook Farm experiment of the New England Transcendentalists in the 1830s. Like them, New Alchemy flourished under inspired guidance - in this case, that of the triumvirate founders: John Todd, Nancy Jack Todd, and Bill McLarney. Propitious too was the 1973 world oil crisis that spurred the investigation of alternative technologies and energy conservation.

Over the next decade, however, the US drifted away from the reforms and ethos of the 1960s and '70s, swinging with the Reagan administration toward the short-term thinking and environmental indifference of today's corporate state.

Nancy Jack Todd's narration of this period leading to the closing of The New Alchemy Institute in 1996, is emotionally restrained and thus all the more compelling. She relates straightforwardly how and why programs were terminated, members dispersed, until the property was sold to Cape Cod Co-housing. Headed by Earle Barnhart and Hilda Maingay, two of the leading New Alchemists, the Green Center has restored the buildings and continues to take on projects in integrated agricultural production.

Ocean Arks International, founded by the Todds in 1976 as a spinoff of NAI, sails on, having made it through the shoals on which New Alchemy foundered. It survived by trimming its mission to "serving the needs of water" and by tossing overboard countercultural strictures from the '60s.

This venture was set up to be more adaptable, working on larger scale projects with a diversity of private and public clients. These include waste-treatment plants for the ski resort Sugarbush, for Tyson Foods' poultry processing; water reclamation projects for Harwich on Cape Cod; for Providence, R.I.; Burlington, Vt.; and Fuzhou in southeastern China. As the name implies, Ocean Arks connects with Noah's and uses floating "Eco-Machines" to restore polluted waters.

Both the New Alchemy Institute and Ocean Arks International initiated newsletters, partly to meet requirements of their nonprofit status and principally to keep members, clients, and advisers informed about the various programs. Nancy Jack Todd, editor of both, has drawn most of her material from these publications. Footnotes would have helped the reader track back to sources of quotes and statements that are not now grounded, without detracting from the narrative flow.

Fortunately, records of NAI have been deposited in The American Archives of Agriculture at Iowa State University and offer rich opportunities for future researchers. Meanwhile, the author's overview should attract a diverse readership, and it is a tribute to Nancy Jack Todd to compare her "A Safe and Sustainable World" to Rachel Carson's "The Sea Around Us."

Mary Otis Stevens, AIA, was co-chair of Architects for Social Responsibility (ASR), an interdisciplinary subcommittee of the Boston Society of Architects.

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