By Dr. John H. Todd
My wife, Nancy Jack Todd, and I founded Ocean Arks International 30 years ago as a non-profit organization. In the beginning we set out to develop an ecological “hope ship” or “ocean ark” in the form a beautiful sailing vessel powered by the sun and the wind. Its mission was to provide life support for environmentally damaged coastal regions around the world. Our hope was that it would become a working symbol for an emerging ecological age. We first built and tested a 55-foot-long one-fifth scale model. We went on to build a second working sailing craft that we called the Ocean Pickup and tested it in South and Central America. It enabled us to aid fishermen on three oceans. The full-scale Ocean Ark, to be named after the anthropologist, our friend Margaret Mead, was never built. Petroleum was cheap and the ecological age still a distant dream. I would still love to build the Ocean Ark. It is most surely needed, but for the moment we are not in a position to garner the resources necessary for an undertaking on that scale. For Ocean Arks that stage will have to wait.
From the very beginning we wanted to communicate with the larger world. Towards that end, Nancy created a publication for our membership entitled Annals of Earth Stewardship subsequently shortened to Annals of Earth.” It first appeared in 1982 and has been published thrice yearly ever since. Her goal was to present a diversity of views and opinions relevant to ecologically conscious cultures.
Beginning in the mid-80s, concerned about the widespread deterioration of water quality, we turned to water purification. Over the next decade Ocean Arks developed, and in some cases patented, a number of ecological technologies for treating waste and for water remediation. These natural systems technologies were known as Solar Aquatics, Living Machines, Restorers, Ecological Fluidized Beds and Eco-Machines. All our technologies had attributes in common. They were ecologically designed and engineered. They employed a diversity of organisms. All five kingdoms of life forms were represented in their design and implementation. They borrowed their “architecture” from such representative ecological systems as marshes, ponds and streams.
They were put to work in a wide variety of settings ranging from sewage treatment for a mountain resort, septic tank waste for a New England town, a factory in England, a toxic-waste site in Tennessee, a food-processing plant in Australia, and a slaughter house in Maryland. They were incorporated into three school buildings to treat sewage and to recycle water including the purified wastewater. The list is long and continues to grow. This story is told by Nancy in her book published by Island Press, "A Safe and Sustainable World: The Promise of Ecological Design."
During the following years our projects extended as far as one of the remotest islands in the Pacific Ocean to provide waste treatment for the Nature Conservancy. In China we undertook the remediation of a sewage-laden canal in the southern city of Fuzhou. At the same time we also designed major clean-up projects for Eastern Europe. It was a heady time as well as a scary time. In some cultures we were working without the necessary frames of reference. In China, for example, it was hard to communicate technical information to our local partners. Expensive mistakes were made and only slowly corrected. The effort seemed worth it, however. The sight of floating restorer filled with flowers and plants and the canal running clear, free of excrement, was both gratifying and reassuring.
Our beacon during this heyday was the Living Machine facility at South Burlington, Vt. With support and oversight from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, between 1995 and 2000 it treated 80,000 gallons of sewage a day in a greenhouse near the shores of Lake Champlain. Its excellent performance was chronicled by myself, Erica Gaddis and Eric Wells in an article entitled "Ecological Design Applied" in the journal Ecological Engineering, Volume 20, pages 421-440, in 2003. In that facility we studied over 400 species of higher plants to determine their effectiveness in wastewater treatment. We also experimented with a number of species of fishes, as well as freshwater clams and snails, to understand their role in reducing the amount of sludge produced in waste treatment.
With the EPA demonstration completed, the South Burlington facility took on another role. We used it to study how to farm brewery wastes for nutrients we could use to develop new economic products with commercial value. Our intent was to prove that ecological waste treatment could become an economic engine for a community. Several of my former students joined the “Food Group at Ocean Arks." We created food webs that produced products that included fishes, freshwater shrimp, lettuce and greens, tomatoes, earthworms, soil amendments and mushrooms. This work was described in the technical article above, and in my chapter in "Nature's Operating Instructions: The True Biotechnologies" (2004), edited by Kenny Ausubel.
For several years the South Burlington facility was a center of activity. By late 2003 the original team had enough information to start their own businesses based on the same ideas. This was the best kind of proof that we were on the right track and that nutrient farming has a rich future.
During 2004, the South Burlington facility was used by a University of Vermont graduate student investigating the potential of Eco-Machines to remove harmful herbicides from contaminated surface waters. It was featured at the Sustainable Cities Conference sponsored by the City of Burlington. But by the fall of 2004, Ocean Arks could no longer afford to operate it during the long cold Vermont winters. I could not find a philanthropic partner, as I had the previous winter, to keep it going. I had to shut down the facility. It remains mothballed.
Ocean Arks International became an all-volunteer organization in the fall of 2004, and our efforts were shifted to John Todd Ecological Design Inc. JTED was formed in 1990 as a partner company and joint enterprise. In 2000, our son Jonathan became more and more involved and a few years after that we built two Eco-Machines in Canada. The Eco-Machine that we built north of Toronto was a wonderful system and recycled the water entirely. We built another Eco-Machine for the YMCA in the Kitchner/Waterloo area of Ontario inside a bio-shelter very much like the system that we built at the Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, N.Y. In the past four years we have we started to shift from a consulting firm to become a design/build/own/operate company. We intend to provide service as well as a technology to our communities.