John Todd, author of Healing Earth: An Ecologist’s Journey of Innovation and Environmental Stewardship (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2019 ISBN 9781623172985) (https://www.northatlanticbooks.com/shop/healing-earth/), has spent his professional life building living technologies, eco-machines and eco-restorers, biological systems which “contain representative species from all the kingdoms of life ranging from bacteria and viruses at the lower end of the size scale to fungi, animals, and woody plants at the macro scale. Working together as a biological team, these assemblages of organisms help us transform polluted water into clean water. In return, we provide them with extra air and water circulation as well as appropriate substrates to live on or in.” He works on the basis of “that which has been damaged can be healed” and “do good things in bad places,” showing that the field of applied ecology is practical and can solve problems, exploring the myriad ways that informed stewardship can help heal and transform the Earth.
He started with a greenhouse full of transparent water tanks for the treatment of septage in Harwich, MA in the 1980s and, “more by accident than design,” included representative species of all the kingdoms of life in the system. Over years of experimentation, he learned “that a diversity of organisms from a variety of parent ecosystems could produce systems with a meta-intelligence that had a highly specific ability to self-organize, self-design, and self-replicate. They were capable, in fact, of surviving through long periods of times, possibly centuries, with minimal human support.”
His installations are ecologically engineered, “they are designed with the attributes of natural ecosystems like marshes, ponds, and streams,” borrowing their designs, life forms, and progressions from natural ecosystems. For John Todd “natural history is not an old-fashioned form of knowing; it comprises the narratives of living entities that provide the alphabet of the design vocabulary.”
In this book, he provides a pattern language, the human grammar for that design vocabulary, a baker’s dozen of design principles for constructing living technologies and eco-machines based upon his decades of experience with projects that treat sewage, septage, petroleum wastes and other toxics, producing improved water quality at both household and community scales.
Todd considers such individual projects as First Order Ecological Design, techniques and technologies applied to the landscape. Second Order Design is the linking together of processes and practices into new associations and entities, industrial ecologies and agricultural eco-parks for example. Third Order Ecological Design addresses larger economic and social structures and their evolution over time. He writes, “It is my belief that durable and sustainable economies, in an age of resource limits and information richness, can replace the extractive and environmentally destructive technologies and infrastructures of today.” For an example of a Third Order Ecological Design see John Todd’s ecological plan for Appalachia, the winner of the first Buckminster Fuller Challenge Award at https://www.bfi.org/ideaindex/projects/2008/challenge-appalachia
In Healing Earth, John Todd has given us practical, working examples of how to think like nature itself, in ever expanding systems which repair the damage we homo sap sap (the sap) have already done. We must learn to live in our ecological niche or risk extinction. John Todd’s report of his lifetime of observation and experimentation teaches us not only how to live within that niche but expand it.
Projects from Todd Ecological
Providence, RI living machine treating sewage and septage with ecological systems design and without chemicals (1990)
Canal Restorer to River Restorer (2013)
Gaian Design of Ecological Alchemy: notes from A Safe, Sustainable World (2005)