John Todd is one of the pioneers in field of ecological design and engineering and the founder and senior partner of John Todd Ecological Design. Beyond his numerous awards and citations, including the 2008 Buckminster Fuller Award, Dr. Todd has degrees in agriculture, parasitology & tropical medicine from McGill University and a doctorate in fisheries and ethology from the University of Michigan. He is currently a tenured research professor at the School of Natural Resources and both a Distinguished Lecturer and Fellow of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont. He is also the founder and president of Ocean Arks International, a non- profit research and education organization established in 1981.
You’ve worked in water for years. What do you see as the most crucial work remaining?
Four things. First, getting safe water into the hands of hundreds of millions of mothers who do not have safe water for their families. In this regards, to design an ecological technology that kills pathogens, cleans water and can be used and understood very widely. Also the technologies must cost little or nothing to own and operate. A true living microcosmos.
Two: developing Ocean Restorers capable of treating huge volumes of sea water daily with the goal of bringing back to life the oxygen deprived “dead” zones along the coasts of the world. These were once the nurseries that helped sustain much of humanity.
Three: changing the paradigm of waste treatment to one of resource reutilization producing fuels, medicines, biological products and even foods from sewage and other resource rich wastes.
Four: mining or recapturing important nutrients such as phosphorus from wastes and bodies of water to be reused as fertilizers when phosphorus becomes scarce say in a decade or two.
What have you been working on lately? What are you most passionate and excited about these days?
I have been working on the four above plus trying to figure out how best to capture atmospheric CO2 and transform it into carbon rich soils using a host of ancient and new techniques in common.
Also trying to grow oysters, fish and shrimp in my greenhouse.
Your work with the Eco-Industrial Park/closed loop system concepts has had some powerful ripples out into the aquaculture and urban agricultural communities. What’s one of the most exciting ripples you’ve seen?
Let me say that the work of Will Allen and others in creating urban foods systems a-la New Alchemy is just fabulous to behold. There is a real movement out there.
Where do you see this work going? What’s new?
One of the most exciting new directions is the work of Sam Gorton, a doctoral student of mine who is developing a real model of whole, complex energy and food systems for the 21st Century. He is fusing his backgrounds as a Vermont dairy farmer, chemical engineer and most recently applied ecologist to change how we design our support systems from the bottom up.
Another is a former doctoral student, Anthony McInnis, who has designed and developed eco-machines to break down toxic wastes involved in the mining industry. He is beginning to peer into the inner workings of complex eco-machines.
Thirdly, my graduate student Rebecca Tharp, for her design of household scale eco-machines to convert polluted and contaminated waters into safe water for cooking and drinking.
And the list goes on and on.
Whose work in the world of water do you most admire? Read any good books lately?
There are many, many people including quite a few former students of H.T. Odum, but I have to say my hat goes off to my former and current graduate students.
Have public perceptions of your work changed over the last 20 years? If so, how and why?
Apart from a small audience of environmentalists and concerned citizens, I have never been too well known. I was pretty much invisible. Now that is all changing as more and more people are seeing the application of Nature’s operating instructions as a possible key to saving the planet for ourselves and a steady state future.
With a colleague, I am working on a big book that is a guide to the future, called the EDEN ALMANAC. We want to make it so exciting that large numbers of people will be influenced by it.
If you were to provide a few words of wisdom or advice for those following in your footsteps – those working to transform our relationship with water and how we manage it – what would they be?
I know this sounds a bit simple or perhaps to some even corny, but my advice is to begin to see water as the source of all life and as such it is sacred and should be served with wonder and patience.