'Tis the spring season, when people of many beliefs celebrate the resurrection of life from the decay and dormancy of winter, a fitting time to celebrate two bioneers who base their life's work on precisely this force of alchemy that permeates the universe.
In Toronto for a brief visit recently, visionaries John Todd and Nancy Todd addressed a meeting at OISE on the subject of their "laboratory of applied Gaia." This is the culmination of 40 years of scientific and enviro work, now growing into a full-scale post-industrial revolution.
Operating out of Vermont-based Ocean Arks International, their research and pilot projects now inspire about 30 working models around the world. Nancy Todd, John's long-time soulmate they've been together since becoming high-school sweethearts in London, Ontario calls their enterprise a "biological consortium.'
In contrast to heavy industry based on coal, oil, heavy metals and pollution, the Todds can now design pollution-free workplaces and communities that rely on "living machines," all based on "the meta-intelligence of the planet.'
"In the mid-80s I lost several friends to cancer at a young age,' John Todd told one interviewer. "Although I had no scientific proof, I believed the problem was water and our abuse of water. With this in mind, I looked at contemporary waste water treatment and was horrified by the use of chemicals.'
He could be talking about any North American water treatment facility, all of which are light years away from the intricate cleansing technique the Todds developed using plants, flowers, fish and micro-organisms.
Before the 1990s, when they started to specialize in alternate sewage treatment, they looked for ways to combine energy, food, work and play under one roof so houses could stop being such a burdensome unit of consumption. In their own Cape Cod home, where they settled during the 70s, they invented or rediscovered a host of technologies and organisms, including wind turbines, aquaculture, compost-heated greenhouses, tilapia.
In the process, they coined a series of brave new words, including bio-shelter, solar aquatics, arks, living machines and bio-tech (no relation to genetic engineering, which they oppose). Their aim was to "change the way we think of buildings so they could become natural organisms," says John Todd.
But now their projects are larger and more systemic. One of the post-industrial showpieces is in Burlington, where John Todd, originally a scholar in the fields of tropical medicine and fish, teaches environmental design at the University of Vermont.
The Intervale industrial park he inspired converts the waste mash left over from brewing beer into eight saleable products, including fish feed, edible mushrooms, mushroom teas, pharmaceuticals and nutrient-rich soil for greenhouse salads.
Intervale also handles about 80,000 gallons a day of local sewage, which, when treated with the right tender loving algae, bugs and care, heats a greenhouse and feeds sweet-smelling flowers, citrus fruit, a tree nursery and a range of fish and shellfish.
"It's all about what you do with leftovers," he tells me over a long, slow breakfast at Mocha Mocha on the Danforth, upwind from the Ashbridges Bay water treatment plant. Nancy Todd, who believes waste is a lazy misnomer for under-utilized resources in the wrong place, describes the process as "cascading" organic residues "upward to become higher-value products." Translation: higher and more complex life forms from mash and poo.
This reverse engineering geared to breaking down waste products through natural processes suspends the need to use huge amounts of intense energy. This switch from supply-chain thinking which usually assumes the use of fossil fuels to waste-chain thinking, leads to a complete changeover in perspective, technology, work and environmental impacts.
In the service of co-opting nature's habits, they helped inspire the ZED (Zero Emission Development), a home-work "solar urban village" for 240 residents and 200 workers built on formerly contaminated land in south London, England.
Their pollution turnarounds have included the creation of a lake restoration system using floating rafts in Massachusetts, the purification of filthy canals in the Chinese city of Fuzhou and the transformation of a sludge-ridden lagoon in Maryland into a thriving eco-system for a Tyson poultry facility.
Is there any hope we can use any of this know-how to naturalize our own water treatment or are we doomed forever to mechanized and polluting sewage plants on lakefronts?
John Todd likes to say his systems are "mechanically relatively simple, but ecologically complex," meaning they're specifically designed for each location decentralized, local, rooted in particular ecosystems, and difficult to describe for easy consumption.
That's likely to mean a city-wide shift to bio-solutions will be a slow-moving affair, requiring pioneering neighbourhoods willing to go off the sewage grid. But there are also large-scale opportunities, like the ongoing development of Toronto's waterfront lands and the reclaiming of brownfields.
And in parts of the city where the old sewer pipes are breaking down and need replacing, green advocates will have a strong argument for investing in a new, more earth-friendly system than just reconnecting to the old one.
The Todds want us to think of our tech as "a part, not apart" from this world, in Nancy Todd's words. Design, she says, should represent "the intimate partnering of human and evolutionary intelligence."