Publications / Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture

An Ecological Economic Order

Introduction by Nancy Jack Todd

At a conference many years ago a skillful organizer arranged that a lecture by John Todd directly follow one by E. F. Schumacher. After Schumacher had spoken convincingly of the need for stewardship of the land, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, and intermediate and appropriate-scale technologies, John Todd rose to report on the work then underway at the New Alchemy Institute. He described the research being done to address basic human needs for food, energy, and shelter without impinging further on deteriorating ecosystems. He showed slides of productive, flower-rimmed gardens, young orchards, aquaculture ponds, windmills, and solar collectors, all being tended by people obviously thriving on the work they were doing. It was the embodiment of the ideas just advocated by Schumacher. The two talks fitted together, as one observer noted, like a golf ball on a tee. Todd’s most recent book, From Eco Cities to Living Machines: Principles of Ecological Design, with Nancy Jack Todd, discusses these concepts at greater length.

Like Wes Jackson, biologist John Todd turns to the information systems of the natural world for the knowledge he seeks to restore damaged ecosystems and evolve sustainable economies. Subsequent to his work at New Alchemy, through his research at Ocean Arks International, he has continued to apply the embedded evolutionary intelligence of natural systems to human problems. Among his most recent innovations is the Living Machine, the generic name for what is now a family of licensed, ecologically based technologies for bioremediation. A Living Machine consists of a series of contained ecosystems engineered to perform specific tasks. These can include waste treatment, food production, temperature regulation, ad the integration of the built environment with the natural world. Such design represents a marriage between human ingenuity and evolutionary processes of nature.

The ecological design represented by Living Machines is rapidly becoming a cornerstone of the ecological economic order Todd refers to in the following lecture. Through the firm Living Technologies Incorporated, Living Machines for environmental repair have been installed across the United States and in Canada, Europe, Australia, and South America. Not only are they proving cost effective in purifying polluted waters, many of the installations produce byproducts in the form of plants and fish, which serve to increase the economic viability of the system. Perhaps the most encouraging result of the research with Living Machines, however, is the news that the worst of polluted soils and waters can be successfully restores with this type of ecologically based technology. It constitutes further proof that the human and natural worlds can coevolve to enhancement of both.

Not long before E. F Schumacher’s death, I was with him at an appropriate technology congress on the Indonesian island of Bali. Although I had known Fritz for years, my most cherished memory of him is from the Balinese countryside. We were visiting an international development project that included a modern fish culture facility. Unlike the rest of the food culture on the island the demonstration fish farm seemed alien—with fences, rectangular ponds, and its separation from the agriculture and the villages. Like a prison in our society, it was removed from the interwoven fabric of Balinese culture.

Later that day we visited a temple. The water, trees, architecture, and gardens expressed a deep harmony and what seemed to me a merging of mind, nature, and the sacred. As the sun fell, Fritz spoke of trees as the most powerful of transformative tools, of their planting and tending as fundamental acts. For him, trees were the starting point for creating social and biological equity between peoples and regions of the earth.

Our conversation inspired some of the ideas I am going to present to you now. I owe E. F. Schumacher a debt of gratitude for helping me see economics as if people and nature mattered. Subsequently I have come to believe that a new sustainable economic order can be established with ecologically based enterprises. Further, the conceptual bases of these enterprises are similar whether applied in rich industrial nations or in poorer tropical countries. If this thesis is correct, applied ecology has the intrinsic potential to dissolve old divisions between north and south, industrial and agrarian, rich and poor. This is so because ecological knowledge can be applied universally and, equally important, can often lead directly to substitutes for capital and for nonrenewable resources. In the sense that Fritz Schumacher meant, it has the ability to increase equity on a global scale.

Ecology as the basis for design is the framework of this new economic order. This approach needs to be combined with a view in which the earth is seen as a living entity—a Gaian worldview—and our obligations as humans are not just to ourselves but to all of life. Earth stewardship then becomes the larger framework within which ecological design and technologies exist. One day it may be possible for political and social systems to mirror the broad workings of nature, and current divisions of left versus right, centralist versus decentralist, expansionist versus steady state, bioregional versus nation-state will be transformed into a systemic Gaian world organization and order.

But change, even on a Gaian scale, has to begin with small, tangible, and concrete steps. When I first began working at the New Alchemy Institute with ecological concepts that might serve humanity, my associates and I started with two questions: “Can nature be the basis of design? If so, are there ecological models to prove this?”

We started with food and agreed that the contemporary mechanistic agricultural model would in the long run fail to feed the planet. We looked for other models to guide us. The larger workings of nature provided us with clues. We sought out several places where nature is extremely bountiful and made a shopping list of the attributes unique to those places. As patterns gradually emerged, this effort proved directly fruitful. We also sought out places that, under the guiding hand of humans, have been bountiful for millennia. This was significant because humans normally destroy their biological capital. We wanted to learn what stable cultures know about caring for their lands.

A farm in central Java, near Bandung, was rich with clues. It had maintained and possibly increased its fertility over centuries. The farm was located on a hillside that was particularly vulnerable to erosion, which was prevented by mimicking nature’s most efficient erosion-control strategy, namely, tree-covered slopes. It was not a wild forest but a domestic one in which the biota were fruit, nut, fuel, and fodder trees useful to humans; nevertheless, it had some of the structural integrity found in the wild. Without the trees on the hills it would have been very hard to sustain the land’s fertility. The farm received its water from an aqueduct flowing across the slope half way up. The water came from a farm higher up and arrived in a clean, relatively pure state. Upon reaching the lower farm it was, within a short distance, intentionally polluted by passing it directly under slatted livestock barns first and then under the household latrine.

Although it might appear shocking at first glance, the livestock and household sewage was utilized in a clever way. The solids were “digested” by a few fish, whose sole function was to provide primary waste treatment. The nutrient-laden sewage was then aerated and exposed to light by passing over a low waterfall. Secondary and tertiary treatments were agricultural. The sewage was used to irrigate and fertilize vegetable crops planted in raised beds. The nutrient-rich water flowed down channels and dispersed laterally into the soil to feed the crop roots. It is important to note that the secondary sewage was not applied directly to the crops but to the soil. Having fertilized the soil, the water emerged from the raised-bed crop garden in an equivalent condition to standard tertiary treatment. It then flowed into a system that requires pure water, namely, a small hatchery for baby fish. Here in the hatchery pond, the young fish began the enrichment cycle again by slightly fertilizing the water with their wastes. This triggered the growth of algae and microscopic animals that helped feed the young fish. These biota were also carried along with the current to add nutrients and feeds to the larger fish cultured in grow-out ponds below, highly enriched ponds that fertilized the rice paddies just downstream. The rapidly growing rice used up the nutrients and purified the water before releasing it again to a community pond in the basin below.

The intriguing thing about the farm was that it represented a complete agricultural microcosm. There was a balance not seen in Western farming. The trees, soils, vegetable crops, livestock, water, and fish were all linked to create a whole symbiotic system in which no one element was allowed to dominate. Such a system, while beautifully efficient and productive, can also be vulnerable to abuse. One single toxin, like a pesticide, will kill the fish and unravel the system. The lesson here is that we can create ecological agrisystems and let nature do the recycling, or we can manage a complex system chemically and ultimately destroy its underlying structure. At New Alchemy, when we began to design food-growing ecosystems, we tried to keep intact the biological relationships we had observed on the Java farm.

Comparable lessons can be drawn from all over the world, even from endangered places; as Shakespeare said, there are “sermons in stones, books in the running brooks, and good in everything.”

Perhaps one of the single greatest challenges facing humanity is the restoration and re-creation of soils. Without healthy soils human economies cannot be sustained for long, and yet they are dying around the world. Deforestation, overgrazing, and erosion are the primary villains. Soils need to be given back their organic matter, humus, and moisture-retaining qualities.

To understand the importance of soils and how we are joined with them, we need to realize that soils are alive; they are meta-organisms comprised of a myriad of different kinds of living creatures. When stripped of plant cover and exposed to blowing winds and mineralization, they become increasingly lifeless and porous, losing their ability to retain rainwater near the surface. Most of the world’s spreading deserts follow in the wake of soils becoming more porous and devoid of rich microscopic life.

Several years ago we visited an atoll in the Seychelles in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Because the soils of coral islands are notoriously porous, they don’t hold water. Rainwater percolates quickly through the soil and collects in underground lenses. On the atoll we visited, the one hundred villagers had almost pumped their fresh water lens dry, and salt water was beginning to intrude and contaminate their water. Within a few years the inhabitants would have to abandon their islands.

Their seemingly intractable problem could be solved if somehow impermeable basins could be created to capture rainwater during the monsoons. The soils, however, were too porous for the idea of a surface pond to be considered as a viable option. I remembered the research of two biologists who had discovered a strange anomaly in Russia: they noticed that on top of hills comprised of rubble mounds, ponds or small lakes would occasionally be found. Because the underlying soils were incapable of holding rainwater, there had to be some mechanism that sealed these ponds so that they could capture and hold rain. They then discovered a comparatively rare process in which microorganisms, in concert with organic matter, combine to produce a biological sealant. This sealant formed a liner in the natural basins, which then held water. They called the process gley formation.

We decided to mimic the process discovered by the Russians but in the very different environment of a tropical coral island. We hoped gley formation might take place quickly if the conditions were just right. The challenge was to make them right. We started by digging a small lake with a backhoe, then we found the necessary carbon and fiber component in coconut husks, which we shredded and placed in a six-inch layer over the bottom and sides. For our source of nitrogen we collected the wild papaya trees, ubiquitous on the atoll, and chopped up their stems, branches, and fruits, placing them in a six-inch layer above the husks. Finally, six inches of sand was added on top of the husks and papaya. The Russians had found that gley forms in the absence of oxygen, so the basin was packed down to drive out oxygen. A small amount of water from the lens was pumped in to flood the bottom. To our great pleasure, when the monsoon rains came shortly thereafter, the basin filled with water, and it stayed.

The pond became a source of irrigation water, a home to cultured fish, and a haven for wild fowl, including migratory birds. This experiment opens up a whole range of ecological and economic possibilities. Not only can coral islands become ecologically and socially diversified, but the very same process can be used wherever there is a need to store seasonal rains. I can foresee, throughout the world, previously barren landscapes now nurtured by small gley-created impoundments that are the epicenters for restoration of damaged environments.

The new fresh-water source inspired an experiment to make the atoll’s alkaline and nutrient-poor soils capable of growing economic crops other than coconuts. The soils had been degraded by fires and oceanic storms, and their composition was up to 90 percent calcium carbonate. Stuart Hill, the creative Canadian soil ecologist who was with us, believed that the island’s soils could be made productive through the application of compost. Compost can be used to refurbish soils or can even function as a soil substitute, because it mimics the cation exchange of good soils and is a very stable form of organic matter. It can also bring other gifts to coral islands, such as the release of plant hormones, especially cytokinins, which in turn stimulate plants to produce larger and more branched roots. Compost is also a prime substrate for nitrogen-fixing bacteria and blue-green algae, thereby providing atmospheric nitrogen for plants. The blue-green algae are an excellent source of nutrients, too.

Stuart Hill was able to show us that compost can play one other crucial role in alkaline soils: it releases organic acids which, if applied at the right time in the decomposition process, neutralize the soil. As a result of Stuart’s work, vegetables and fruits are now being grown to diversify the diet of islanders. He found that the island lacked several essential minerals—specifically manganese, boron, and iron—which had to be imported. Our long-term strategy would be to locate local oceanic creatures that concentrate these substances and add them to the compost. Nutrient independence is an important objective, particularly for regions of the world where foreign exchange is scarce or non-existent.

The teachings from Java and the experiments on the Seychelles are but two examples of what has informed the work at New Alchemy and, since 1980, our newer organization, Ocean Arks International; solar-based technologies are proving themselves even in the cold Canadian climates. These technologies all borrow their design features from a blend of ecosystem knowledge, materials science, and the wisdom of the Javanese farmer or the skills of the ancient Mayans of Central America, who, with their “chinampa” or “floating” agriculture, fed densely settled cities. We now refer to our ecologically designed technologies as living technologies. A single unit is called an EcoMachine.

One such technology is the aquatic farming module. Its development began at the New Alchemy Institute in 1974 under my direction. An aquatic farming module, or living machine, is a translucent solar-energy-absorbing cylinder of up to one-thousand-gallon (3,785 liter) capacity that is filled with water and seeded with over a dozen species of algae and a complement of microscopic organisms. Within these cylinders phytoplankton-feeding and omnivorous fishes are cultured at very high densities. The species selected depend upon climate, region, and market opportunities. The range of species we have studied is broad, including African tilapia, Chinese carp, and North American catfish and trout.

Dense populations (up to one fish per two gallons or one fish per 7.6 liters) of actively growing fish produce high levels of waste nutrients, beyond the capability of the ecosystem to take them up. The module, however, eliminates these nutrients in four ways: (1) fish growth; (2) plankton proliferation; (3) partially digested algae—which flocculate out, settle to the bottom, and can then be periodically discharged through a valve to fertilize and irrigate the surrounding horticulture; and (4) a modern chinampa system, the uptake of nutrients by vegetable crops rafted on the cylinder surface; the root systems of the plants take up the nutrients before they reach toxic levels, secondarily capturing detritus and functioning as living filters that purify the water.

These modules can be productive—with fish yields, depending on species and supplemental feeding rates, of over 250 pounds (113.5 K) annually in a twenty-five-square foot (2.3 square meter) area. At the same time each unit can produce eighteen heads of lettuce weekly for an annual production of over nine hundred heads. Tomato and cucumber crops can also be cultured on the surface for even higher economic yields. The modules have the additional beneficial attribute of conserving water. Evaporation is almost eliminated from the surface so that makeup water rates are based on plant evapotranspiration and the amount of module water released to irrigate and fertilize the adjacent area.

Aquatic farming modules are an agro-ecology that requires initial seed capital to construct and establish, but to a large extent they are a substitute for heavy tillage and for fertilizing, irrigating, and harvesting equipment that would otherwise have to be used to establish and operate a farm. Not only are the modules space-conserving and less costly, they can be employed in urban centers (in greenhouses in northern climates) and as a key component in the process of restoring damaged environments.

Within a given land-restoration project the living-machine modules are established in rows in the most highly degraded areas. Trees are planted on the shaded side of the cylinders and subsequently nurtured by the periodic release of water and nutrients. On the sunny side of the modules, a variety of short-term economic crops could be established to add to the produce from the module. This module-based agriculture could provide the skilled labor pool to tend the emerging ecosystems.

The aquatic EcoMachine approach, when used for ecosystem reclamation, need not be static—that is, the modules, having fed and watered the newly emergent vegetation, including trees, through their most vulnerable stages, can be shifted to new locations to repeat the process. In this way the short-cycle biotechnology can spread its benefits to surrounding ecosystems over a larger geographic area.

A related ecological technology has been developed for arid regions. We have, for instance, designed a bioshelter system to assist with ecological diversification on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. The bioshelter is a transparent climatic envelope or greenhouse housing the fish and vegetable modules. Our prototype is a circular geodesic structure that functions as a solar still and as an “embryo” for the early stages of the ecological diversification process. These bioshelters can operate even where there is no fresh water: the aquaculture modules are placed inside the climatic envelope, and water from the sea is pumped through them. During the day the structure heats up and the temperature differential between the sea water in the tanks and the surrounding air is great enough to cause the tanks to sweat fresh water, irrigating the ground around them. Tree seedlings are then planted in this moist zone. At night the moisture-laden air is cooled by the desert sky, and water droplets form over the interior skin of the climatic envelope. We found that drumming on the prototype structure’s membrane in the early morning caused it to “rain” inside, thus allowing the whole interior to be planted. In addition, this process permits drought-tolerant trees to be established around the outer periphery of the structure. Inside, marine fish and crustacea such as mullet and shrimp can be cultured to form the basis of an economy. After a few years the original cluster of climatic envelopes can be moved to a new location to repeat the cycle, leaving behind an established semi-arid agro-ecosystem.

These are two biotechnological examples drawn from a range of options that can help reverse environmental degradation and restore diversity and bounty to a region. These advanced living technologies may well prove to be essential tools in creating sustainable environments.

Most modern societies are faced with the crisis of waste accumulation. The natural world is threatened by our inability to integrate our agriculture and industry within the great planetary cycles. Industrial cultures are cancerous, yet they need not be. I see the cleansing of water as one point of intervention. Sewage treatment plants, as an example, are expensive but do not purify water. When they work, which is not often enough, they kill the “bugs” and remove the solids; they do not remove nutrients or toxic materials. This need not be so if wastes are seen as resources out of place and if concepts like total resource recovery underlie the design of waste purification systems.

Ecologically based resource recovery can alter the economics of recycling. Sewage treatment plants are a financial drain on communities whereas ecosystem water purification could provide a basis for economic activity. Sewage can be made into drinking water, and the by-products of the process can have economic value. To demonstrate this I was initially involved in the design and development of a living-machine waste treatment facility, which is part of a joint venture by a governmental body, the Narragansett Bay Commission; our research organization, Ocean Arks International; and a new company established to take advanced ecological concepts into the market place.

The Narragansett Bay Commission of Rhode Island operates the city of Providence’s huge sewage treatment facility. It is also concerned with protecting Narragansett Bay and its abundant but highly threatened marine resources. The Providence sewage plant does not remove nutrients or toxins other than those in the sediments; our living-machine-based treatment removed these on a demonstration scale of fifty thousand gallons a day. It also produced marketable by-products ranging from flowers to fish and served as a hatchery for over a million striped bass. Striped bass are a marine fish whose populations have collapsed because spawning grounds and nurseries have been destroyed by pollution.

The Providence facility is comprised of a solar-heated greenhouse within which flow two parallel streams separated by 180 of the living machines previously described. The modules trap and store solar energy, creating a year-round semi-tropical environment inside the building. They also serve to house and nurture the young striped bass. Sewage enters at one end of the structure and over a five-day period flows slowly through the facility. The two streams contain four sequentially arranged aquatic ecosystems, each with an essential task in the purification process and each housing biologically active food chains fed initially by the sewage.

The sewage is pretreated by means of ultra-violet sterilization, then charged with oxygen through aeration. Introduced air is essential at each stage. The first ecosystem has an algae base, algae being the penultimate utilizers of nitrogen, phosphorous, and other nutrients. The second ecosystem is dominated by floating aquatic plants, including water hyacinths, which trap the upstream algae in their filamentous roots. They also continue to remove nutrients and take up toxic materials. (The city of San Diego has found that water hyacinths remove most organic solvents as well as heavy metals. San Diego, together with NASA, has pioneered water hyacinth purification of sewage.) The third ecosystem is made up of clear water with artificial habitats on the bottom, where microscopic shrimp-like animals graze on the algae and bacteria resident on the attached substrate. They are fed upon by mosquito-fish and fundulus, which in their turn are fed to the bass in the adjacent aquatic farming modules. The fourth and final ecosystem is a marsh comprised of reeds and bulrushes planted in a gravel filter. These taller plants, twenty to thirty feet high in the greenhouse, remove any remaining organisms and toxins. They also polish the water. (Reed and bulrush waste treatment was the brainchild of Dr. Kaethe Seidel of the Max Planck Institute in Germany. She discovered that marsh plants could transform sewage into potable water. Her research findings have given new meaning to the protection of wild marshes.) After the water passes through the marsh filter in the living-machine waste treatment facility, it is ready for re-use. In the case of the Providence prototype it will be used for local industrial needs.

Ecologically designed treatment demonstrates the value of ecological integration and illustrates how nature’s bounty can be applied to human needs. Most Third World countries, plagued with sewage-born diseases, cannot afford industrial waste treatment. Even if they could, they would be robbed of precious resources in the process. Living technologies can be designed to control disease and at the same time serve as epicenters for the production of fertilizers and the cultivation of plant materials, including trees for reforestation.

Our hope is that solar-based living technologies will be the catalyst for a new commitment to caring for water as our most precious and elemental resource. Stewardship needs to be extended to our ground waters, lakes and streams, and oceans. It is our sacred trust to the planet, to Gaia, to redefine our values so that our first order of business is to cleanse the waters, protect the soils, and tend to the trees.

I am aware that ours is a world of violence, hunger, environmental degradation, and inequities. For most of us, points of action and intervention to relieve these ills on behalf of the planet and ourselves may be hard to find. But I believe this will change if our economies become ecological. Then work and stewardship will be one.

I have sketched here only a few of the ideas and technologies derived from ecology, but I hope I have demonstrated that an ecological economic order has the intrinsic potential to allow each culture to explore the new frontier in its own way so that some of the old divisions between peoples and places can be removed. Fritz Schumacher worked for greater equity and justice in this regard, and so must we.


Publication By

John Todd

John Todd has been a pioneer in the field of ecological design and engineering for nearly five decades. He is the founder and president of John Todd Ecological Design. Dr. Todd has degrees in agriculture, parasitology and tropical medicine from McGill University, Montreal, and a doctorate in fisheries and ethology from the University of Michigan. … Continued

Related Lectures

The Generosity of Nature
Community Forestry Associations
The Radical Roots of Community Supported Agriculture
Community Supported Food Systems
Commoning and Changemaking