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A Safe and Sustainable World
The Promise of Ecological Design
By Nancy Jack Todd
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2005 Nancy Jack Todd
All rights reserved.
How It All Began
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can save the world. Indeed, nothing else ever has. —Margaret Mead
How to pinpoint the beginnings of an idea, to say with certainty what started us on our search for our "instructions"? What was to become the New Alchemy Institute was unquestionably a logical outgrowth of its time, of the social, political, and environmental tumult of the late 1960s, '70s, and '80s. Its origins equally can be traced to the childhood experiences of its three founders: John Todd, Bill McLarney, and myself.
As a boy John had been devastated by the post–World War II industrial development that was invading the farmlands, woods, and marshes near his home on the north shore of Lake Ontario. Disturbed at seeing him so visibly unhappy, his understanding parents introduced him to books on agriculture, forestry, conservation, and restoration. From his reading John learned that it was possible to restore polluted and barren lands and waters and to reverse and heal the tide of destruction. This launched him on a lifelong voyage of discovery.
Bill McLarney was born across Lake Ontario from John in the town of Randolph in upstate New York. His mother was a teacher. Her love of books and reading instilled in him a keen ear for language. Lengthy fishing excursions with his yarn-spinning father bred in him a love of tall tales and an affinity for the natural world. Growing up in a small town, with its give-and-take and tolerance of eccentricity, gave him a sense of place and community that few members of his own, or of succeeding, generations have known. Like John, he mourned the passing of such a feeling of belonging.
I was born in South Africa of Canadian parents. Our family traveled extensively throughout my childhood. Wherever we found ourselves, my parents managed to create a secure sense of home for my younger sister, Barbie, and me through stories, games, and Sunday expeditions to the country. Yet even the closeness of our family circle could not shelter us from the echoes of World War II. Hitler was the bogeyman of our childhood nightmares. Barbie and I watched adults huddle around the radio as though it were an oracle. We overheard stories of valiant young men shot down over Germany and of children whose fathers would never come home to them again. I became haunted by a horror of war and violence until, at some point, I began to nurture a stubborn hope for a world where such things would not have to happen.
John and I met in Canada while we were still in high school. Even then we were caught up in the ideas that were to form the rest of our lives. As we rambled the Ontario countryside together, John envisioned how the run-down farms we saw could be made productive again. I talked to him of the ban-the-bomb and anti-nuclear movements in England as I puzzled over how I too could find a way to stand up for what I believed in. When John went to off McGill University's Macdonald Agricultural College in Montreal, I stayed at home to study liberal arts at the University of Western Ontario. We weathered the years of partial separation and were married when I graduated. John continued on at McGill and took a master's degree in tropical medicine and behavioral science.
In the late 1960s we moved to Ann Arbor for John to study for his doctorate in biology at the University of Michigan. It was there we met his fellow graduate student Bill McLarney, young, lean, perennially hungry, and harboring passions for fish, jazz, and the tropics. John and Bill spent their days in the lab in the basement of the School of Natural Resources, where John was studying the social behavior of fishes. I elected to stay at home with our children—we had two by then—discovering and delighting in the unfolding of young minds and personalities. John and I were equally fascinated with observing the behavior of our respective charges. Years later we confessed that privately we each had thought our own pursuits much more interesting and that the other had been a bit deluded. Bill was just as involved in his own research on fish in their natural environment, part of which seemed to require long hours of lying facedown at the edge of a stream, eyes trained toward the bottom on the off chance that one of his catfish might move. They rarely did, but when we went along, it made for a fine afternoon of idling.
In those years the war in Vietnam cast a shadow over everyone's life in one way or another. Ann Arbor was a hub of the protest movement, and I joined Ann Arbor Women for Peace. Many evenings, once John got home from the lab, I left the children with him and headed off to one of the countless meetings, lectures, or demonstrations demanding an end to the war. As was to become a custom with us, John, Bill, and I frequently discussed the ramifications of what each of us was doing. They were both deeply committed to their science and felt more divided than I did when critics of the war questioned the neutrality of science and its role in inflicting suffering and death. At times we speculated on the possibility of redirecting scientific research toward nurturing, restoring, and healing both people and the environment. It was an idea that stayed with us.
By 1969 Bill and John and I and our children had moved to San Diego. Bill and John, armed with their newly minted PhDs, were teaching and doing research at San Diego State College. At that time concern for the environment was fast gaining momentum. There were no peace groups nearby, so, wanting to learn more about environmental issues, John and I began to hold informal evening seminars in our living room. We invited students, researchers, and other speakers to present papers on some aspect of the overall problem. The talk would often last long into the night, well after the formal presentations were over and most of the people had gone home—sometimes leaving just John, Bill, and me. We would linger, exhausted, discussing the ramifications of whatever environmental horror story we had heard earlier. One question arose repeatedly: Could anything be done? And if so, what?
My anxiety was compounded by a sinking fear for the future of our children. By that time I was pregnant with our third baby. The smog in San Diego was not as bad as in Los Angeles, but on most days an ominous band of rusty yellow could be seen on the rim of the blue California sky. It was said to be caused by lead fallout from car exhaust and was thought to affect brain development in children. Whenever one of our children seemed less alert than normal, I worried that their brains might be showing symptoms of lead damage. As my sense of urgency grew, I resolved to alert others. I wrote beseeching letters to friends, administrators, officials, newspapers, to anyone I thought might pay attention, because I knew that for my own children to have a future, it had to be secured for all children. Looking back, I realize that was the beginning of my slowly dawning awareness of humanity's utter dependence on the biological life-support systems of the natural world. I had come to understand how ineluctably and inextricably intertwined with my own life and the lives of those I love are the multifold life-forms, from bacteria to sparrow to giant redwood, of the natural world, of the planet.
My anxiety was not fermenting in isolation. In San Diego, environmental concern was becoming a groundswell. Plans for the first Earth Day were under way, and John and Bill were becoming involved in the more public arena. They were being asked to give talks not only at the college but at a series of rallies, conferences, and meetings. At one Ecology Action gathering, in classic McLarney style, Bill told his listeners, "I enjoy nature, but it relaxes me less and less. Today, when I go for a hike in the woods or lie on a beach, I have the uneasy feeling of sitting up with a sick friend. I still enjoy her company, but the fact of her illness—and the uncertainty of the prognosis—introduces an element of tension into the relationship." Reporting on one of John's talks in which he urged that "people investigate new lifestyles that respect all life," the San Diego Street Journal and Free Press proclaimed "Todd Speech Highlights State Ecology Conference."
There were two more experiences that substantiated our concerns and determined the direction of the research at what was to become New Alchemy well before the institute actually became a working entity. Looking back, it becomes obvious that our thinking over the years was catalyzed by a series of formative discoveries of the kind that are symbolized in comic strips by a flashing lightbulb. The first of these "Aha!" experiences grew out of one of John's experiments while we were still in Ann Arbor. For months in his lab he had been observing the interactions of social species of fish such as bullheads or catfish in large tanks. Watching their interactions over time, he began to believe there must be some form of communication taking place among the members of the community. The fish behaved as though they were sending and receiving signals. He concluded that information was being exchanged by means of a finely tuned system that operated through their sense of smell and that they maintained social order through olfactory signals. The results formed the basis of his doctoral thesis and later were published in the journal Science.
In a follow-up experiment after we moved to San Diego, John documented what happened when brown bullheads (Ictalurus nebulosis) were exposed to pollutants. His findings were extremely disturbing. Minute administrations of DDT, for example, did not kill the fish outright. The effect rather was to jam the signals of those communication systems he had documented at the University of Michigan. The DDT was unraveling ancient, evolved patterns of behavior. With their olfactory communication chemically disrupted, the social hierarchy of the bullhead community broke down. Unprecedented outbreaks of aggression occurred. Parents ate their young. The chemicals were affecting not only the physical health of individuals but also the social stability of the community. It did not take a great leap of the imagination to wonder what the steady infusion of industrial and agricultural chemicals into the environment was doing to other life-forms, ourselves included. John learned that other like-minded biologists and lay observers were reporting comparable dislocations among other species. He commented at the time: "It struck us that what we were observing indicated that humanity was reversing ecological processes on a global scale. To continue to ignore these biological lessons may prove, in the long run, a little bit like serving cyanide to the pilot of an aircraft while pouring champagne for the passengers. Fun for a while, but not exactly adaptive."
Our second pivotal Aha! experience took place not in the lab, but in the dry, hilly countryside southeast of the city, where John and Bill were taking their biology students from San Diego State on a series of field trips. I went along with the kids for the pure pleasure of letting them run free in the open country. Besides providing a fine excuse for glorious outings, these trips produced the next discovery that was to chart our course. The stated purpose of the excursions was to involve students in direct contact with a local ecosystem. There was another less official reason. Friends of ours, attracted by the back-to-the-land movement, had rented a ranch just north of the U.S.–Mexico border, intending to homestead. They were happy to have the class wander freely about the place but hoped that as a result of our forays we might be able to teach them how to support themselves on the land without destroying it. We were eager to help and regularly fanned out over the terrain.
Our expectations dimmed quickly. The rambling hills that stretched to the horizon beneath vast reaches of bright sky were composed of dry, sandy grit. They gave rise to chaparral, manzanita bushes, boulders, and the occasional live oak but not much else. There seemed to be no tillable soil. We could not find a source of water. We became discouraged. We had to admit we had no idea what our friends should do. Then John decreed the problem was that we did not know enough; that we could not, in his words, "read the landscape." For all the advanced degrees and theoretical and biological education among us, we had no idea of how to go about supporting ourselves in this arid environment. Unlike the long-vanished native peoples, we academics did not know how to find food or water or where to plant crops. We did not know how to survive there.
This initiated a second phase. We would ask the land, we decided, to teach us what we needed to know. Every student was assigned one element of the environment to study in detail, then to teach the rest of us what he or she had learned. Soil and soil animals, insects, reptiles, plants, shrubs, rocks, trees, birds, and animals were either noted or collected, studied, and catalogued. Everyone made extensive notes and compared discoveries. Slowly a few patterns became discernible. Beyond the site's obvious potential for wind and solar power, we were uncovering more subtle clues. Midway up a small gorge, for example, we found a plant, the roots of which are known to seek moisture. We began to think that somewhere nearby there must be a hidden spring. Below this, where the gorge began to flatten out, there was a live oak tree and an association of plants that included miner's lettuce, which, we learned, required good soil. Once we had stumbled on clues for a water source and tillable soil, a garden became a possibility. If our friends were to dig fishponds and install a water-pumping windmill to link the pond and gardens, they could have the beginnings of an agricultural ecosystem.
We had begun to crack the code and the prospects unfolded enticingly. Then, sadly, the story came to an abrupt end. As excitement began to stir, their landlady arrived from the city and announced to our gentle, long-haired friends that she was raising the rent. They argued, but she was adamant. The increase was much more than they could afford, and they were forced off the land. Even before they had departed, bulldozers appeared on the horizon to level not only their dreams but the ground itself for another outcrop of California weekend houses. What we took away with us was a rueful realization of our ignorance of the real world and an awakened awareness of the profound resources available in looking to nature as our teacher.
New Alchemy Is Born
Through all this mix of inputs John, Bill, and I continued to piece together disparate bits of information, striving for a more comprehensive understanding of the social/environmental dynamic. It was not long before the administration at San Diego State recognized that John was emerging as a leader in the environmental field. In the spring of 1970, he was named associate dean of science and head of a soon-to-be-established department of environmental studies. It proved a short-lived appointment. As John mapped out the courses and the projects he considered essential to further grapple with the dynamics of ecology, he found there was a college regulation prohibiting almost all of them. There was not then, as there is now at many universities, the flexibility within established institutions to permit the cross-disciplinary studies or fieldwork to investigate the basics of sustainability he envisioned. Environmental studies was a more limited field and little to no attention was given to possible countermeasures to the pollution and depletion of natural resources that was motivating us. John decided he could not accept the appointment.
The kind of sweeping change we felt necessary was far too radical for the academic world at that time. Furthermore, while both John and Bill fully honored the importance of documenting environmental trends, they knew that they did not want to spend their lives engaged in what they came to call doomwatch biology. They, and I, felt strongly drawn in another direction—to a quest for viable alternatives to the prevailing dynamic. It was then that we knew the time had come for us to strike out on our own and create our own organization.
The decisive moment came late one night when, after much soul-searching, we asked one another, "Is it too late? Does one of us—or anyone more knowledgeable—have compelling evidence that it is useless to make an effort, however tenuous, to swim against the mainstream of unchecked technological and corporate exploitation that is causing most of the environmental destruction?" None of us had reached that point of hopeless resignation. So we began to focus on what might be done. Was it, in fact, possible to support Earth's population over time while protecting the natural world? And if so, how?
Excerpted from A Safe and Sustainable World by Nancy Jack Todd. Copyright © 2005 Nancy Jack Todd. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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