The TH Interview: Dr. John Todd

Dr. Todd is one of the pioneers in the emerging field of ecological design and engineering. He has degrees in agriculture, parasitology and tropical medicine and a doctorate in fisheries and ethology. He has received two honorary doctorates in science and engineering, respectively. He is currently a Research Professor in the School of Natural Resources and a Distinguished Lecturer at the University of Vermont. He is the Founder and President of Ocean Arks International, a non-profit research and education organization, and a Principal in John Todd Ecological Design Inc., an ecological design and engineering consulting firm.

CD: What is one thing that you want everyone to know about ecological design?

JT: Ecological design goes way beyond any other field of design. It taps deep into Nature’s operating instructions, some three-plus billion years of evolution of life itself, and out of the incredible legacy inherent in the living world, past and present, it provides a road map and a set of blueprints for the redesign of the infrastructures that sustain the human enterprise. I am talking about energy, fuels, food production, waste conversion, environmental repair and the design of buildings, towns, cities and even transportation systems. Ecological design is a radical new way of organizing knowledge and ecosystems to serve human needs without despoiling the planet.CD: The field of ecological design is still emerging into the mainstream. What has been the most effective approach to help your ideas spread thus far? What will help it continue to grow?

JT: I would say the most effective approach has been to show by example. We have built and demonstrated ecologically designed boats, bioshelters, eco-technologies for food, waste treatment and environmental repair, architecture and so forth and then invited people into see them at work. I would also say communication has been critical. Anybody wanting to be introduced to the powers of ecological design should read Nancy Jack Todd’s new book A Safe and Sustainable World: The Promise of Ecological Design, by Island Press (We recently reviewed it here). Its one hell of a story and filled with hope for these troubled times. After that go to From Eco-Cities to Living Machines by Nancy Jack Todd and myself. The publisher is North Atlantic Press in Berkeley, CA. If you are an engineer go to Ecological Engineering by Pat Kangas (I have forgotten the publisher).

CD: If there’s one thing you could tell our readers to do every day to help "green" their lives, what would it be?

JT: Yes, for the sake of your health, your community and the planet buy organic foods and when at all possible buy them locally. Everybody wins when you support local organic farmers. When you buy exotic foods such as coffee and spices buy organic and fair traded as this helps regional farmers and the environment.

CD: You’ve been an active ecologist, biologist, engineer and designer for nearly 40 years. Is there one watershed moment where you realized, "My work is making a real difference. This might just catch on..."?

JT: There were two. When we built the big bioshelter, the Ark on Prince Edward Island in Canada, it changed me. It was powered by the wind and the sun and housed living quarters, a laboratory, kitchen gardens, a fish farm, tree propagation facilities, vegetable, fruit and flower production zones. It sat on the edge of the sea and one winter day with the wind howling and drifting snow I saw my colleagues working in shorts and t-shirts. They were having fun while working. The Ark used no fossil fuels. I had a sense at that moment that we had found a new way of living that had the potential to be Earth friendly and socially mature.

The other was after we built our first eco-machine at the Harwich, MA. Here we took the highly-polluted and toxic cesspool wastes and transformed them with the help of hundreds of species of life from bacteria, fungi to shrubs and fishes into clean, pure water. After the successful first trials, I knew that that it was possible to do good things in bad places; in short, to heal the planet.

CD: At TreeHugger, we spend a lot of time talking about "eco-friendly" lifestyles. How can people better integrate the principles of ecological design into their lifestyles?

JT: That's a tough question! Lifestyles changes for most of us are incremental, but we need to set a path for ourselves and then head down that road. Start by being conscious of what you eat, wear, how and where you travel, where you live and what you consume. Try and spend less time with your computer and more time actually doing something like gardening, cooking, making things and working to enhance the social fabric of your community. I see this culture, as a whole, sleep-walking into the future. We need to wake up and be conscious. I, for example, drive too much as my two work bases are separated by two hundred miles. I constantly think of ways in which I might ameliorate the damage I am doing to the atmosphere. For some of us planting a small forest is the answer. For others it is traveling less. But don’t forget to eat organic foods and buy locally when you can. That will jump start the post-industrial ecological age.

Lastly, here are two of my websites to check out: oceanarks.org and jtecodesign.com. And if you are interested in ecological design training at the undergraduate or graduate level start by checking out uvm.edu and the go to the Rubenstein School of Environmental and Natural Resources and within that the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics if you are interested in ecological economics. The Gund is a world-class center.

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