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Buckminster Fuller takes on big coal

In the quest for coal, over a million and a half acres of Appalachia have been strip-mined, whole mountains removed, trillions of gallons of toxic slurry left behind, and communities devastated. Not exactly a promising place for a new green economy to arise.

Or maybe it is.

For his startling and bold proposal to clean-up this disaster, Comprehensive Design for a Carbon Neutral World: The Challenge of Appalachia, John Todd, a research professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont, won the first annual Buckminster Fuller Challenge.

The $100,000 prize from the Buckminster Fuller Institute was awarded in a ceremony in New York City on June 23, 2008 at the Center for Architecture.

"Dr. Todd's proposal sets forth a profound vision to heal the environmental and economic scars of the Appalachian region and a detailed strategy to build a dynamic sustainable economic basis for lasting renewal," wrote the award jury in picking his submission out of entries from around the world.

The jurors, including Vandana Shiva and William McDonough, were impressed with how Todd proposed to "use biological processes to restore degraded coal lands in Appalachia, and use the process to return atmospheric carbon to the soil," they wrote.

To develop his proposal, Toddwho was named a "Hero of the Earth," by Time Magazine in 1999drew on the concept of ecological succession. Over time, damaged land can rebuild soils, support pioneer plants and grasses, then shrubs, fast-growing trees, and finally, a mature forest. Todd has taken this classic idea of ecology and applied to the human economy.

"Deep in Nature's operating instructions is a model of future economic development," he said, "and these instructions can guide us as we seek new ways of living," in the mountainous coal-laced region that extends from Pennsylvania to Alabama.

Todd's proposal outlines four stages of recovery and development. In the first, healing is the primary focus. Drawing on his extensive experience with "living machines"biological technologies that echo natural systems to produce clean water and environmental clean-upTodd foresees plant-based systems that will detoxify the vast lagoons of coal slurry in the region, build new healthy soils, and yield raw products for economic purposes.

"Coal miners and some of their machinery could be employed in the process," he notes.

In the second stage, reforestation begins. Some reclaimed land will be dedicated to short-rotation fast-growing woody crops to be harvested for biomass. Other long-standing forests will capture carbon from the atmosphere, slowing global warming.

In the third stage, the economic benefits of the biomass emerge. "Already suitable Appalachian wind sites have been discovered that can provide competitive sources of energy," Todd writes, "paired with another renewable energy source like woody biomass from willows and poplars, a viable energy system can be developed."

And this biomass can be used not just for electricity but for "refining fuels, and manufacturing a wide range of products ranging from plastics to polymers and adhesives," he says.

In the fourth stage, succession is at work not just in the land but in human communities and management of the land. Initially, philanthropic organizations would purchase damaged sites and shepherd their recovery. These restored lands would be passed along to new capitalized corporations that would develop forestry and other businesses there.

Then, following their mandates, these companies would divest the land to employees and qualified land stewards, restoring an ownership culture to impoverished communities. Finally, the process would begin again on other newly acquired lands.

And this replication process could extend far beyond Appalachia, presenting a method for increasing carbon storage in soils around the world and a model for reclaiming "coal-fields from Afghanistan to areas of Poland and Eastern Europe where coal has been extracted in devastating ways," the jury wrote.

Because of its sweeping scope, the jury felt that Todd's proposal embodied the vision of social transformation sought by Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), an architect, author and futurist best known for designing the geodesic dome.

"My father identified himself as a Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Scientist," said Allegra Fuller Snyder, Fuller's daughter, in a release. "My father, who knew, and admired, Dr. Todd's work in the 1970s, would certainly agree" that Todd too embodied this broad label.

"Nature has had 3 billion years to experiment," Todd said. "So why shouldn't we learn from that about how to go about our business now?"

"This is a struggle of mythic proportions. Big Coal is very powerful, but what will eventually stop them is a carbon tax on producers," he said.

Then, he believes, begins a carbon-neutral post-coal future for Appalachia that could have a working economy with a decade. As this struggle proceeds, John Todd believes that his proposal can "inject into the process a sense of alternative hope," he said.


Contact: Joshua Brown
University of Vermont

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