“The New Alchemy Institute” – a Tech Road Not Taken

Back in the 1970s a lot of people, including me, were worried about Big Tech.  It was polluting, it was dangerous, and it operated on inhuman scales.  Big Tech was vast refineries, coal power plants, open-pit mines, and steel mills.  It was the immensely destructive and futile Vietnam War. It was the reason you couldn’t breathe in Los Angeles and New York.  It set rivers on fire in Ohio.  Behind it all was the species-ending Bomb.

So there was a movement called Alternative Technology.  It used cheap, low-tech materials in a smarter way to do softer things like heat houses, and grow and cook food.  Its patron saint was Buckminster Fuller, who thought that with good enough design everyone could live well.  Its bible was “Small Is Beautiful” by the British economist E. F. Shumacher.  Its house organ was the Whole Earth Catalog and then the Coevolution Quarterly.

It had an outpost in Massachusetts with the grandly named New Alchemy Institute.  Instead of turning lead to gold, it was using knowledge, water, wood, and plastic to live richly in cold New England.  It was to be an ark of sustainable living and agriculture on 12 acres in Cape Cod, close to the great oceanographic institutes of Woods Hole.

The passive solar greenhouse and garden, click for source

I visited it on a memorable trip in 1978.  I bicycled down from Cambridge to hear a concert in an old Quaker meeting house, and then went to a  bonfire party and sing-a-long at the Institute.  I crashed on someone’s couch there that night, and got a tour the next day.

At that time they were working on passive solar and aquaculture.  The greenhouses above contained huge water tanks made of sheets of translucent polyethylene.  Algae would grow in them and feed tilapia fish.  The nutrient-rich water would then be used for fertilizer in  greenhouse hydroponics and in outdoor vegetable fields.  The whole setup was warm all winter because of good insulation and heat storage in those tanks, and smelled of jungle.  It could easily house and feed a family.

I was a student at the time, but I never pursued any of these ideas.  Neither did the country.  The Institute had been running on federal grants, but those all dried up after Reagan was elected.  So did almost all renewable energy research; photovoltaic work nearly stopped.  They didn’t care about this hippy stuff.  Even Jack Kilby, the co-inventor of the integrated circuit, couldn’t get any interest in his scheme for a solar cell that stored its power in an early flow battery (see After the IC: Jack Kilby’s Solar Misadventure).   There was plenty of oil in the world, so long as you could cut good deals with the Arabs and Iranians.  They sent the US oil and we sent them SAM missiles and F-16s.

They despised tech like this because they loved money and power, but that’s not me.  Why didn’t I pursue this?  I liked the vibe and believed in their ideals, but I had little to contribute.  I was and am an EE, and so am firmly on the abstract side of engineering.  I don’t have the patience for even gardening, never mind farming.

The Institute closed in 1991. The three principals, John and Nancy Todd, and Bill McLarney, all went on to do good work.  The Todds founded several subsequent companies to do bio-oriented wastewater management, and their systems are used in dozens of places.  They’re now 80, and live nearby.  McLarney helped to found ANAI in Costa Rica, which encourages diverse and organic agriculture and clean water initiatives.  He also helped to save the Little Tennessee River in North Carolina from pollution and development.  The Guardian did a great article about them and the Institute here: The Circle of Life, 2019.

I actually visited the site of the Institute this summer.  Its buildings are still there:

It has now added PV solar panels as well as the hot water ones, and their rickety windmill experiments are all gone.  There are still lots of vegetable fields, and a farm stand next to it.  It’s been turned into co-housing and the offices of the Coonmessett Farm Foundation.  They do mainly marine biology research, such as studies of the local scallop fishery, but also consult on off-shore wind power.  They must be tied into the labs at Woods Hole.  The farm is also a popular wedding venue!

The Foundation has been running since the mid-90s.  It looks to me like a more sustainable enterprise, since it’s connected to other local labs and devoted to more American economic concerns.  The Institute was doing Third World agriculture: cheap and labor-intensive.  It’s great in places like Costa Rica, but US operations aren’t likely to take it up.

Instead, they’re more likely to adopt vertical farming:

SananBio farm factory in Xianmen

Vast warehouses full of LED lighting, hydroponics, and almost no people.  These have no bugs and no weeds, and so no need for pesticides and herbicides.  They’re not dependent on weather or worried about rabbits.  The whole can be tuned up over time by IoT and AI to get exponential improvements in productivity per unit area and energy.  It’s the dead opposite of the Institute philosophy of living more in tune with nature.

Maybe that’s better.  Human beings tend to completely overwhelm nature once there are a lot of them.  Rather than plowing up all the fertile land of the world, we should let it revert to wilderness and farm in warehouses like these in our hives of cities.  The great biologist E. O. Wilson thinks that we should leave half of the Earth untouched in order to preserve bio-diversity.

The Institute is so green and lush that people want to be there on their wedding day, the biggest day of their lives.  But when there are 10 billion people on earth, the 21st century version of Big Tech is what will be needed.

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2 Responses to “The New Alchemy Institute” – a Tech Road Not Taken

  1. Dear EE,

    Most of your report is right, but the ending is wrong.
    New Alchemy Institute evolved into the Green Center, Inc, that still pursues the goals of New Alchemy :

    “Among our major tasks is the creation of ecologically derived human support systems – renewable energy, agriculture aquaculture, housing and landscapes. The strategies we research emphasize a minimal reliance on fossil fuels and operate on a scale accessible to individuals, families and small groups. It is our belief that ecological and social transformations must take place at the lowest functional levels of society if humankind is to direct its course towards a greener, saner world.”
    Fall 1970. Bulletin of the New Alchemists

    The Green Center has researched heat management in bioshelters and has developed eco-toilets that return waste nutrients to agriculture instead of disposal into the oceans. Recycling of human wastes is one of the last frontiers of sustainability.

    “Greenway” The latest work of the Green Center has been to design next-generation bioshelters and ecological infrastructure for sustainable communities.

    see: YouTube about “Greenway” ecological infrastructure — https://youtu.be/bnztmJ3C4qM
    see: website of Green Center, New Alchemy — http://www.newalchemists.net

    (corrections: The New Alchemy research farm has been turned into a co-housing community. The Coonamessett Farm Foundation only rents offices there, and is not connected to New Alchemy or Green Center. The farmstand and weddings you saw were at a farm next door, also not connected.

    So which road to take?
    A) high-tech indoor farms in every city. This facilitates 10 billion people to continue to act badly and destroy the planet and humanity?
    B) decentralized, low-tech, eco-tech Greenway communities that are ecologically sustainable and will save and restore the planet?

    Earle Barnhart
    an original New Alchemist (still stirring)
    Green Center & New Alchemy

  2. jlredford says:

    It’s great to hear from someone who was actually involved! I’m sorry to hear that the Coonamessett Farm and Foundation have little connection to NAI; they would have been a nice after-life for the operation.

    This gets to a key question about NAI, which I hope you have some insight on – why didn’t they do better? They only had one offshoot – a building on Prince Edward Island – that was soon converted to a hotel and then demolished. It has now been 30 years since they closed up, and few are using their aquaculture and waste management ideas. They had an attractive vision, and the tech looked relatively simple and useful. I know that practically all startups fail, but what went wrong here?

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