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New alchemists, ocean arks

Growing a global network to heal the environment

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"A Safe and Sustainable World" is a very readable and competently researched accounting of two pioneering ecological ventures, The New Alchemy Institute (NAI) and Ocean Arks International. Nancy Jack Todd played a pivotal role in the history she records. Stepping in as narrator and stepping back to reflect on the experiments and policies, she guides the reader through the experiments and thought processes of these dedicated scientists, humanists, artists, and countercultural explorers.

"To restore the land, protect the seas, and inform the Earth's Stewards" - this was NAI's mission statement (1971). It became the seed that planted New Alchemists on Cape Cod and expanded, like their yearly harvests, into a global network of interdisciplinary programs and organizations, all working to "heal" the pollution and environmental degradation of planet Earth.

While conventional wisdom tended to specialize expertise and isolate problems, New Alchemists took their "instructions" from natural processes, delving into ecochains to find out how their laws and behaviors could be applied to human societies and critical unmet needs. The outcomes of this research included waste-treatment plants, windmills and solar storage, aquaculture, hydroponics, integrated agricultural production, bioshelters, and eventually "Eco-Machines." These simulated the purifying action of a marsh in nature.

What NAI was up to attracted attention, spreading like the ripples of its ponds. Among those who became associated with a New Alchemy or Ocean Arks project were curious neighbors, university students and faculty, social reformers and environmental activists, and global figures like Buckminster Fuller and Margaret Mead.

There are parallels with experimental communities that have sprouted in American soil since the Brook Farm experiment of the New England Transcendentalists in the 1830s. Like them, New Alchemy flourished under inspired guidance - in this case, that of the triumvirate founders: John Todd, Nancy Jack Todd, and Bill McLarney. Propitious too was the 1973 world oil crisis that spurred the investigation of alternative technologies and energy conservation.

Over the next decade, however, the US drifted away from the reforms and ethos of the 1960s and '70s, swinging with the Reagan administration toward the short-term thinking and environmental indifference of today's corporate state.

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