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Biography: John Todd

By Linnie Rawlinson for CNN
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John Todd, biological explorer and ecological designer, believes that the future of the human race lies in harnessing the powers and processes of nature.

Todd is the inventor of Eco Machines -- miniature ecosystems that use the natural abilities of bacteria, plants and animals to turn toxic sewage and industrial waste into food, fuel, clean water and commercial crops. Todd says, "We substitute nature's wisdom for heavy duty engineering, chemicals and massive amounts of energy."

From doom scientist to eco hero

Canadian-born Todd studied agriculture and tropical medicine at Montreal's McGill University. He holds a doctorate in fisheries and oceanography from the University of Michigan but left his work as a "doom scientist" to co-found the New Alchemy Institute in Falmouth. He says, "I was discovering what was going wrong; I decided I would rather discover ways of making things go right," so he began to explore how nature could solve some of the man-made problems he had encountered. This led to his development of the first Eco Machines.

Todd recognizes that we need sustainable solutions to waste, food and energy in order to meet the needs of the Earth's human population. He believes that if we work with nature, rather than seek to control it, we can use nature's processes to our own advantage. He says, "I knew that there were efficiencies, ingenuity and symbiotic relationships in nature that could change the way we do things," and adds, "We could reduce the negative human footprint on the planet by about 90% and still have thriving civilizations."

A partnership with nature

This natural partnership is behind his Eco Machines. Each is tailored to its particular location and purpose. One example, his waste treatment machine, consists of a series of tanks that hold different cocktails of organisms. As the waste passes from tank to tank, it becomes progressively cleaner. The water that results can be used for irrigation.

Todd selects the most appropriate organisms for each machine, taking into account every site's unique natural environment, flora and fauna. He explains, "The human engineer simply creates the conditions that'll allow the organisms to do well."

Vermont tonic

To date, his Eco Machines have included a 600-meter-long restorer which has cleaned up a stretch of heavily-polluted urban canal in Fuzhou, southern China; an aquaculture system in Burlington, VT which uses nutrients from fish waste to nourish fish and vegetables for human consumption; a restorer which treats waste water from a food processing plant in Chesapeake Bay; and a compact desktop model: "It transforms drinking water with a fair amount of contaminants in it, including chlorine and heavy metals, to pure living water. We call it Vermont tonic."

Todd and his wife, Nancy Jack Todd, founded the non-profit organization, Ocean Arks International which promotes and educates in ecological design via its Web site. He joined the University of Vermont as a professor in 1999, where he teaches ecological design. That same year, he received a "Hero of the Earth" accolade from Time Magazine.

Todd is currently working on an integrated design for treating 50 million gallons of municipal wastewater a day in Dallas, a waterways restoration project at an ecological education center in New Mexico and an Eco Machine at the Greater YMCA of Canada in Quebec. He remains hopeful that humanity can solve the challenges it faces, and says,

"I'm optimistic in the sense that the problems of food and water and human numbers can be solved in theory. The question as a species is whether we want to do it in practice."


John Todd

John Todd believes that if we work with nature, we can reduce our negative footprint by 90%

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