North Atlantic Books, 2019
Reviewed by Trevor Sharman
This book contains stories of projects and ideas which John Todd, an eminent biologist, ecologist and inventor, has developed and implemented over the past 25 years to restore damaged ecosystems and remediate highly polluted areas on land, in rivers, lakes and sea margins.
The descriptions of the extraordinary life forms which by themselves, in partnership and symbiosis, interact together to restore life in apparently dead ecosystems is astonishing. This author’s clear love and admiration for these processes of creation is evident in his prose and also in his lifelong commitment to studying, understanding and applying their wisdom to put right what our industrial growth economy has despoiled.
The technicalities and details of the micro-organisms and ecosystem processes at work were at times a bit hard to grasp by a civilian like me, but the gist and the amazing outcomes are apparent and impressive. Todd has used his knowledge to create ‘eco-machines’ to replicate natural processes which have successfully restored health to lakes and waterways in China, the USA & South Africa, even in situations where the toxins are hugely poisonous and hazardous.
The ‘machines’ are based on mimicking healthy natural systems, such as coastal eel grass areas, which are astonishingly productive oxygenators, processors of organic waste and nurseries to an extraordinary diversity of creatures of all types from the more visible fish & crabs through algae, moulds, bacteria and biochemical compounds. Understanding such complexity is no small task, hence the modest scale of many of Todd’s projects. They do however show ‘proof of principle’, being that highly complex life systems can be enabled and do self-sustain in creating living systems.
Todd is also a dreamer. He clearly loves the sea and travelling on it, which has inspired him to explore and pilot new ideas for robust and efficient sea travel. So he has helped design and build a sailing catamaran, the Ocean Pick-Up truck, a cheap to build, easy to sail trimaran ‘workhorse’ for island communities, who are otherwise dependent on unaffordable fossil fuelled inter-island travel and trade. Other ship designs, floating eco-machines, aim to clean the oceans dead zones we have created with agricultural run-off.
He also writes of larger eco-system restoration plans he has helped design for the Sinai Desert and the American Appalachians, hugely scarred by mountain-top removal coal mining. He describes how it is possible to create a potential new thriving ecosystem in which humans are but one component, rather than the only important members.
Although Todd’s projects and plans may look puny in relation to the vast scale of the Earth restoration task before us, he inspires through his understanding and application of the principles of sustainable life, and through his life’s work, teaching and networking across the world and has surely helped seed a future generation of Earth Restorers, just as his biomimicry machines have seeded restorative processes in the environment.
He says, Nature, life itself, has powerful recuperative powers. Even in the most ravaged places, there is reason for hope. We need to ally ourselves with the diversity of life and each other. Healing the planet is then possible.