John Todd, leading light in ecological design, brings his vision to Vermont.
When the edge of Hurricane Floyd blows across Burlington the evening of September 16, it brings a sudden fury of rain and wind, one of those shows of natural force that remind us who is really in charge on this planet. Soggy, undaunted, some three hundred students fill the Marsh Life Science Building lecture hall nearly to capacity. As hand-scrawled posters advertising the event put it, the students have come in from the storm to “Hear the Man.”

The man is John Todd. Research professor in the School of Natural Resources and distinguished lecturer at UVM, Todd doesn’t look particularly imposing — ruddy, balding, a bit tweedy — as he stands at the front of the hall talking with students who have organized the evening’s event. But when Todd is introduced his name draws whoops. When he concludes his talk — delivered in measured tones, with passion but not fire — his words inspire a standing ovation. There is a rare energy that flows between Todd and this devoted following of students. They show him admiration more commonly reserved for those who sling guitars or footballs, rather than words and ideas, designs and inventions.

Indeed, CEL (Consortium for Ecological Living), the student group that has sponsored the event, likely would not exist were it not for Todd’s presence on campus, says junior David Grover, one of the consortium’s founding members. Instead it is hundreds strong and growing, with weekly meetings that bristle with ideas. Notably, the group has voiced support for incorporating ecological design into a potential new student center and other campus projects.

Along those lines, Todd’s talk this evening focuses on applying principles of ecological design to the structures and life of a university campus. Todd draws on thirty years’ experience as a visionary mind and voice and a highly pragmatic engineer/designer/inventor in the rapidly emerging field of ecological design. His textbook definition of the multi-faceted discipline: “design for human settlements that incorporates principles inherent in the natural world ... to sustain human populations over a long span of time.”

For Todd, the focus of the talk represents a happy convergence. He began his career as a professor at San Diego State University but left academia to follow other paths. His return to a university setting at UVM three years ago was motivated, in part, by his belief that the time and the place were right for the sort of interdisciplinary, imaginative thinking essential to his vision and work.

Todd tells the students in Marsh: “The twenty-first century will be the century of ecology and the environment. We don’t have any other choice.” His slides show his twentieth-century work, which is in essence a prototype for the design revolution that Todd sees as absolutely crucial to our survival. In Todd’s ethos, there is no better teacher than nature for healthy, sustainable design. “Think like a forest. Think like a meadow. Think like a pond. Think holistically. The emphasis of one part of nature over another is causing a lot of the world’s environmental problems,” he says.

A skeptic eager to dismiss Todd’s philosophy as so much New Age noodling would be stopped dead by Todd’s track record for putting theory into practice over and over again. His work has drawn the interest and praise of the late R. Buckminster Fuller and Margaret Mead. He and his wife/business partner/co-author Nancy Jack Todd have been called the “Thomas Edisons of the future” by the Lindbergh Foundation, which presented them with its 1998 award in recognition of the couple’s years of work balancing technological advancement with the “wisdom of wildness.” Honors also have come from the United Nations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Discover Magazine, Time Magazine, and the White House in the form of the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Award for 1990.

In 1968, John Todd hadn’t yet reached his thirtieth birthday when he stepped away from what until then appeared to be a fairly traditional academic itinerary — from doctoral work to professorship to associate deanship. Frustrated by what he saw as academia’s rigid boundaries between scholarly disciplines, Todd looked for a better way. That search took him across the continent, where he accepted a job as an oceanographer at Cape Cod’s Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Soon after, he would found the New Alchemy Institute. Dedicated to creating a science and engineering based on ecological precepts, New Alchemy would be the first flowering of the Todds’ vision for ecological design.

Over the next three decades, that vision would grow into a variety of non-profit organizations, businesses, and publications all concerned with the principles of ecological design and earth stewardship, and all with John and/or Nancy Jack Todd in leadership roles. Throughout the 1980s, they would work with colleagues to develop ecological design that addressed a variety of human needs from issues of energy and food production to waste management and toxic cleanup. In the 1990s, Todd would be awarded four U.S. patents for his nature-inspired inventions for treating waste and polluted water. Today, Todd’s waste treatment systems are at work or under construction in Scotland, England, Canada, Czechoslovakia, India, Brazil, Australia, and the United States.

Multifaceted as Todd’s career has been, perhaps it finds no better realization than in the Living Machine, a term for which Todd owns the trademark. Though “Living Machine” might conjure a science fiction image involving robots turned bad, it is anything but a technological nightmare.

A human-engineered Living Machine, like those found in nature, takes many forms and performs many functions. They are, in essence, ecologically engineered pond and marsh ecosystems tailored to meet specific needs. A Living Machine demonstration project housed in a small greenhouse in Burlington’s Intervale is its own self-contained food chain. In a series of fifteen large plastic livestock troughs, brewery waste (spent hops and grains) meets bacteria to grow fish food; fish meet food to form bigger fish and fish waste; fish waste nourishes hydroponic vegetables, which in turn cleanse the water with their roots. And at the end of the self-perpetuating loop, fish and produce make their way to local markets.

In South Burlington, a Living Machine designed by Todd’s Living Technologies is on the surface an expansive greenhouse full of plant life, lush as a botanical garden. In reality, it is a facility where sewage from 1,600 households, some eighty thousand gallons, is treated daily. A series of linked steel grain silos are filled with more than two-hundred species of plants and millions of bacteria and microbes that break down the pollutants. At the end of the natural chain are clean water and ample compost material, and the systems cost less to install than a traditional treatment plant. Living Technologies has installed sixteen similar setups worldwide with more in planning.

In the suite of offices that house Ocean Arks International and John Todd Design on Burlington’s Battery Street, the Living Machine exists in miniature, a series of interconnected fish tanks, a “desktop” model in development for educational use. Regardless of size or function, all of these Living Machines share the commonalities that they are alive with water, plants, fish, and microscopic life doing the things nature has refined into a genius far beyond anything man could conceive. “Evolution is two-billion years of research and development,” Todd and his students will tell you. “We don’t manage nature, we at best partner with it.”

Another essential partner in Todd’s work is imagination and an unfettered sense of possibility. Clearly, he is not fearful of “pushing the envelope” as a designer. Rethinking the city landscape, he has envisioned, among other designs, a “bus stop/fish farm,” where urban commuter meets aquaculture. Even his most ardent student followers get a laugh out of it. Todd gets a laugh himself and quotes Buckminster Fuller, who said, “when you get twenty years ahead of the curve, people will think you’re crazy and leave you alone.” While Todd acknowledges the bus stop/fish farm may be one of those twenty-year ideas, he believes it essential to think outside traditional boundaries. “Our biggest roadblock is our own imagination,” he says.

As Margaret Mead once wrote about Todd and his work: “Scientists rarely understand John Todd, for most can only deal with a few variables at a time.”

Luther “Fred” Hackett ’55, former chair of UVM’s Board of Trustees and a leader in the Vermont business community, chaired the Vermont Technology Council in 1995 when the group invited Todd to speak on campus. The council was impressed by his focus on ecologically responsible, economically sustainable communities. “His thinking is a good fit for Vermont,” Hackett says. “His work is good science, sound environmental principles, and it is also practical and works economically as well.”

With the support of the Technology Council, UVM, and private philanthropy, Todd’s relationship with Vermont and the university would grow closer over the next several years. Initially on campus as a visiting faculty member, the connection was solidified this fall with a five-year contract.

For Todd, the attraction to Vermont was strong. It had to be, given that he and Nancy are well-rooted on Cape Cod and have multiple projects vying for their attention. They have become part-time Vermonters because Todd sees unique opportunities for ideas like his to flourish in the state.

“The range of people in Vermont for whom the environment is paramount runs across the broad spectrum of society,” Todd says. “Here, you have a senior business executive using the word “ecology” in day-to-day conversation. Here, you have political leaders who have roots in the land.” With a certain degree of wonder, Todd recalls that day several years ago when he and Will Raap, founder of Gardener’s Supply and a like-minded business and community leader, spoke with local and state businesspeople about building an environmentally sustainable agenda for Vermont. Noting the positive reception, Todd contrasts it to what he might have met with in a New York or Los Angeles board room. “If it can’t happen here,” he says, “it isn’t going to happen anywhere.”

Todd is concerned with finding sustainable ways to preserve Vermont’s working landscape and has quickly connected with environmental and agricultural leaders in the state. Close to home, just down North Prospect Street from UVM, lies Burlington’s Intervale, agricultural land in the midst of a renaissance. Todd will be a key player as Burlington studies options for an “eco-industrial park” where businesses would be linked in a symbiotic relationship reminiscent of a Living Machine. Waste heat from one

business would heat another; waste material from one business would be fertilizer for another, and so on.

The state’s university also has impressed Todd as a place that is very different from the academic atmosphere he left behind. Todd admits that he wondered about his ability to be “domesticated” again after leaving academia years ago. He is excited to have found a collegial home in the School of Natural Resources, a university structure that encourages interdisciplinary research and teaching, and a university mission with a strong commitment to the environment and community involvement.

But possibly the greatest surprise Todd has found at the university is its students. “I’d been told that I’d find a lot of apathy in the classroom today. In my first class I was immediately struck by the fact that these kids are great,” Todd says. “They have a lot of knowledge of what’s wrong. They are well-trained in the stresses on lakes, on forests, on the atmosphere. I think what I can contribute, along with other faculty, is a sense of responsibility and hope about the future with some exciting examples of how we can do it.”

Marc Companion, a graduate student in the School of Natural Resources and Todd’s teaching assistant, says that students are inspired by Todd because they see hope in his work and, more importantly, a plan of action. “In the environmental fields, classes tend to include a lot of gloom and doom, and students can feel overwhelmed. The Todds are looking for answers, and the things they find are powerful tools.”

Companion knows the students’ perspective. He says he was “immediately hooked” when he first sat in Todd’s classroom three years ago. “His mission is to save the planet, nothing less,” Companion says with a smile that seems to add, “and if anyone can do it, it just might be John Todd, the man.”