New Alchemy: ecological design ‘Mecca’

Starting in 1969, one future-thinking group pioneered new avenues in bio-technology research and design.

The New Alchemy Institute in Falmouth, MA on Cape Cod was founded as a research center to pioneer organic agriculture, aquaculture, and bioshelter with minimal reliance on fossil fuels. Its work was to discover and model greener, self-sustaining systems. Founders John ToddNancy Jack Todd, and William McLarney’s mission was to “to Restore the Lands, Protect the Seas and Inform the Earth’s Stewards”—developing ecologically-derived food, water, shelter and energy systems, while completely rethinking how such systems are designed. Together, these pioneers aimed to redirect the trajectory of technology development for humanity’s future.

Schematic of the Cape Cod Ark highlighting soft energy capture mechanisms.

New Alchemy brought together emerging thinkers & doers from across the ecological and new economics movements.

Key influences included E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, and Amory Lovins’ concept of “soft energy paths” away from fossil-fuels.

(From right to left) E.F. Schumacher, physicist George Wald, and New Alchemy founder John Todd with staff members and guests, 1974.

“Soft energy technology appropriate the future…would (1) make use of locally available energy, natural resources and locally available labor to satisfy community energy needs; (2) increase community economic and energy self-reliance; (3) minimize the disruption of ecosystems; and (4) conserve nonrenewable resources. It would also tend to be low-cost…durable, and simple to install, operate, and maintain.”

— David Coates, author of Resettling America, 1981

A 1976 New York Times Magazine profile described the Cape Cod center as “a new age Mecca” of sorts.

The August 8, 1976 cover of The New York Times Magazine, which read “The New Alchemists: Cooking up a gentle science for survival.

“The institute is one of the leaders,” the profile reads “in a movement that goes by many names — soft technology, organic technology, biotechnology, intermediate technology, appropriate technology… They all refer…to the quest for means of sustaining life at a comfortable level with minimal use of nonrenewable resources and with minimal mucking up of the planet.”

“Our programs are geared toproduce not riches, but rich and stable lives, independent of…the vagaries of international economics. The New Alchemists work at the lowest functional level of society on the premise that society…can be no healthier than the components of which it is constructed.

The urgency of our efforts is based on our belief that the industrial societies which now dominate the world are in the process of destroying it.”

— Fall 1970, Bulletin of the New Alchemists

From 1971 to 1991, the New Alchemy Institute’s alternative periodicals inspired a new generation of experimenters.

The Winter, 1980 cover of the New Alchemy Quarterly.

Contents from these journals are accessible online and in their original paper version at the Library of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics. When Schumacher Center’s new board member Paul Fletcher-Hill discovered the collection of Journals at the Library, he commented:

New Alchemy’s work on creating simple, low-tech renewable energy systems is as relevant today as it’s ever been. Climate change is pushing communities around the world to decarbonize, and New Alchemy shared a pathway for doing that decades ago—through home-grown windmills, heat pumps, and solar collectors. There’s an opportunity for regional entrepreneurs to replicate (and build upon) the work documented in the New Alchemy journals and introduce it to their own communities as a way of moving off of fossil fuels and stoking local industry.

New Alchemy’s legacy continues to inspire truly regenerative design and technology innovation.

The Prince Edward Island Ark, designed by New Alchemy, 1976. Photo credit: Solsearch Architects.

Two ‘Ark’ bioshelters—one on Cape Cod and another on Prince Edward Island—still stand as testament to the practicability of New Alchemy’s ideals:

  • Self-reliance
  • Mutually reenforcing systems
  • Harnessing renewable energy
  • Working with (not against) nature

A short video looking inside the Cape Cod Ark with the agriculture and aquaculture facility’s new owners can be viewed on YouTube here.

The legacy of The New Alchemy Institute is active through the work of several organizations. The Green Center maintains the original site on Cape Cod as an educational center. Nancy Todd continues the fine writing/editing of the old New Alchemy Journal with Annals of Earth, a publication of Ocean Arks International. John Todd continues his innovative design work through his company John Todd Ecological DesignGreg Watson continues to explore the genius of Buckminster Fuller’s World Game as a tool for teaching the fairest way to distribute Earth’s resources.

Wishing all well,
Staff of Schumacher Center