My Involvement with the PEI Ark Project
The PEI Ark Project was an innovative home, greenhouse and fish-rearing complex, ostensibly powered by the sun and the wind. It was built on Spry Point, PEI in 1976 by the New Alchemy Institute which was based in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The Ark project was funded as a demonstration project for the 1976 United Nations Habitat Conference in Vancouver under the Federal Urban Demonstration Program.
The realization of the Ark Project involved a network of somewhat like-minded people in Canada and elsewhere. Their hopes and dreams reflected an awakening of a new environmental awareness. They worked together to build the project and then operate the facility to further its goals.
My first introduction to the New Alchemy Institute came in the spring of 1973. I saw a BBC television program about the ground-breaking work of the New Alchemy Institute and a similar organization in the UK called BRAD (Biotechnical Research and Development Institute) if my memory serves me correctly. I was a student at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland at the time. I had already developed an interest in future energy and the environment, having written an essay on that topic for a course I took at the University of Manitoba.
After returning to Canada later that summer, we moved to Ottawa and I was fortunate to find employment with the newly-formed Advanced Concepts Centre, a small branch of the federal Department of the Environment in Hull (now Gatineau) Quebec. It fell under the Office of the Science Advisor which was led by Dr. Fred Roots. Dr. Bob Durie was the Director of the Advanced Concepts Centre. Its mandate was to explore issues of change and opportunity that lay before Environment Canada.
In early 1974, I was asked by Dr. Durie to research alternative sources of energy and write a report on my findings. That report ultimately became, Environmentally Appropriate Technology – Technologies for a Conserver Society in Canada which appeared in four editions over three years.
As part of that effort, I started to seek out other people within the Federal Government who were working on, or interested in, renewable energy or other environmental issues. It turned out there were pockets of eco-activists in a number of departments. Examples include: the Science Council of Canada, the Office of Energy Conservation in Energy, Mines and Resources, the National Research Council and even Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. When I would meet a new person working in the environmental field, they’d frequently direct me to other like-minded people. “You should talk to X over at Y. They’re doing some interesting work on Z.” And so it went.
Someone told me about a woman at the National Film Board in Montreal who was working on a documentary film about the New Alchemy Institute that would include coverage of windmills, solar energy and innovative fish and greenhouse facilities. That rang a bell. I was able to get in touch with Dorothy Todd Hénaut who was working on this film with funding under a new program called Challenge for Change. The film had not yet been shot. Dorothy had made a video to make the case for a colour, feature documentary film.
We got together and viewed her black and white videotape. It featured Dr. John Todd, Dr. Bill McLarney, Earl Barnhart and Hilde Maingay, all of whom had appeared in the BBC program I’d seen roughly a year earlier. It turned out that Dr. John Todd was Dorothy Todd Hénaut’s younger brother. They came from Hamilton, Ontario.
I found the video very interesting. I suggested to Dorothy that we should present it to a group of sympathetic Ottawa bureaucrats. I arranged for a showing at the Science Council where about twenty-five people from at least five departments attended. Everyone there was enthusiastic about the work of the New Alchemists. That included my boss, Dr. Durie, who had only been mildly interested in the field until that point.
We were all keen to learn more. So I started to communicate directly with John Todd after an introduction from his sister. In July of 1974, my wife, Anne and I drove to Woods Hole, Massachusetts and spent a week at the New Alchemy Institute farm/research station. The centre impressed me and I established a good working relationship with John Todd.
After returning to Canada, I sent Todd a paper I had come across about plans for a new Institute for Energy and the Environment in PEI. He wrote back on August 4, 1974 asking for help and advice on how to approach the PEI government. He stated, “our long term interest is helping create energy self sufficiency (non-nuclear) for PEI and integrated and ecological land use systems.” I still have a copy of the letter. He also mentioned that he and his wife Nancy planned to buy a tiny farm on PEI as a first step to establishing a research centre there.
I believe that these discussions and related correspondence were the beginnings of the Ark project on PEI. When I was in Woods Hole, I had seen a proposal for a new solar and wind powered greenhouse and fish-rearing facility that the New Alchemists had sought funding for in the US. But they had not been successful. The project did not include a residence and I don’t think the word, “Ark” was mentioned in the proposal.
In the fall of 1974, I organized another workshop with John Todd as the main presenter so that Ottawa scientists could meet him in person and we could hopefully move things along. That workshop took place in November in Hull at Place Vincent Massey, the main building for Environment Canada. It was attended by some of the same people as the first meeting, but it included more scientists the National Research Council and Energy, Mines and Resources. I also invited people from PEI. Andy Wells and David Catmur attended. Andy was the Principal Secretary to PEI Premier Alex Campbell. Catmur was an advisor to the PEI Government and a confidant of Wells. There was also by this time a personal connection between Andy Wells and Lynne Douglas who then worked for Environment Canada and was part of our informal “eco-network.” They had met at a United Nations population conference in Bucharest in August of that year. They were later to marry and she would move to PEI in 1975. She still resides in PEI today.
There was rigorous questioning of some of Dr. John Todd’s claims in his presentation at that fall workshop in Hull, but the overall impression was positive. Many of the people who attended the workshop were keen to see the New Alchemy Institute establish a research branch in Canada.
The United Nations Habitat Conference was coming up in Vancouver in June of 1976 with Canada as the host. There was to be a non-governmental side-conference and exhibition. As part of that effort, the Canadian Government put together an Urban Demonstration Program which was to fund innovative habitat demonstration projects across the country. The program was to be administered by the Ministry of Urban Affairs.
I thought this new program might present an opportunity to fund a project with the New Alchemy Institute in Canada. Quite early on, I sent information on the program to John Todd and suggested that perhaps the Urban Demonstration Program could be used to fund the new solar and wind-powered greenhouse and fish farm facility they had wanted build for some time and that PEI would seem to be a suitable place for it.
Another fortuitous development was that Lynne Douglas, mentioned above, left Environment Canada and took a job at the Ministry of Urban Affairs coordinating the new Urban Demonstration Program.
The New Alchemy Institute indicated that they were interested in applying to the Urban Demonstration Program and a proposal came forth in due course. The initial design was done mainly by Earl Barnhart. By then, there were also direct communications between the New Alchemy Institute and the PEI Government. The Province offered the land at Spry Point as a place to build this new “Ark,” as John Todd was now referring to the project.
When the Ark project proposal came forward, Environment Canada, represented by the Advanced Concepts Centre, was a strong supporter. Lynne Douglas was also involved in screening all the proposals to the Urban Demonstration Program. It was helpful to have someone in that role who was familiar with the work of the New Alchemy Institute. She guided the Ark proposal and and eighteen other proposals through the ministry’s channels. Urban Affairs duly approved the Ark project.
The Ark project then had to be submitted to Treasury Board for funding authorization. I attended that meeting. I was somewhat nervous about its chances to receive approval because I knew that some important people, for example, from the National Research Council, saw flaws in Earl Barnhart’s design. Those problems related to structural issues and snow load, as I recall. But when we arrived at the meeting, Earl Barnhart was not there. Instead, I met architects David Bergmark and Ole Hammarlund of Solsearch. And they had a whole new design for the Ark. The New Alchemy Institute had seen some of the same challenges in the original design and hired Solsearch to resolve them.
This new proposal largely defused the concerns of the project’s critics regarding the building design. However, one of the engineers from Treasury Board was highly critical of the Hydro Wind windmill component of the project. I felt compelled to defend it, even though I had some reservations about it. The original American proposal that I had seen in Woods Hole had envisioned the purchase of off-the-shelf wind turbines rather than developing a whole new wind energy technology as was now being proposed.
Quite a heated argument ensued about the windmills, which you could say I won. The entire project was approved, as proposed, including the new windmills. The windmill component of the project later ran into difficulty and I was to regret having argued for it.
Having cleared Treasury Board, the Ark Project now needed a line department to administer the funding. Environment Canada and the Advanced Concepts Centre were asked to take on that role. Dr. Bob Durie readily agreed to do so. I was asked to assume the role of Project Advisor. We established an interdepartmental Advisory Committee for the Ark project, chaired by Dr. Fred Roots. I would like to acknowledge the contributions of those two men. Their positive approach and open minds to new ideas were key to the success of the project. The Advisory Committee travelled first to Woods Hole to meet Dr. John Todd and others from the New Alchemy Institute. Later, when the project was under way, we also met on PEI. The committee wanted to be fully informed about the project and it tried to deal with challenges as they arose. A secondary objective of Dr. Durie was to get buy-in and the support of scientists from other federal departments.
The Advanced Concepts Centre released funds as the Ark construction proceeded. But in 1975, Environment Canada got a new Deputy Minister, Blair Seaborn. He took a dim view of the “airy-fairy” projects being funded by the Advanced Concepts Centre and he arbitrarily cancelled some of them. The Cultural Paradigm Project led by Butch Nelson was a notable example.
The Ark project was too far along to derail, but as the project neared completion, the Deputy Minister decreed that no one from the Advanced Concepts Centre who had worked on the project should attend the official opening, even though Pierre Trudeau was now scheduled to cut the ribbon and a lot of attention was being focused on the event.
The Prime Minister’s appearance at that event had been initiated by his personal speechwriter, Joy Kogawa (who was later to become a famous author – Obasan, The Rain Ascends, Jericho Road). Her partner, at the time, was John Flanders, a professor of architecture at Carleton University. He had become interested in environmental design and the work of the New Alchemy Institute. They were both members of that “eco-network” that developed in Ottawa at that time. Ms. Kogawa started by inserting references to the innovative work of the New Alchemy Institute into Mr. Trudeau’s speeches and she eventually succeeded in getting him to agree to officiate at the opening of the Ark. I recall her calling me on the phone and reading some of those references to see if they made sense or were accurate.
With the completion of the Ark, my direct involvement in the project ended. Shortly afterwards, Dr. Durie took a two-year assignment with the New Zealand Commission for the Environment, and the Advanced Concept Centre effectively ceased to exist.
I then reported directly to Dr. Fred Roots. Not long after those changes, my work also came under the scrutiny of Mr. Seaborn, the Deputy Minister, and I was given notice that my position would be eliminated. The focus of my work had been the writing of a series of reports entitled, Environmentally Appropriate Technology. The report constituted a vision for renewable energy and what we now call sustainable development for the whole of Canada. It touched on the Ark project among many other examples of environmentally appropriate technology. In the spring of 1977, I completed the fourth and final edition of my report. Ten thousand copies were printed which sold over a relatively short time.
I was offered a job as Special Assistant to the Minister of Environment, but I turned it down. My wife and I had already decided to move to Prince Edward Island. We had purchased an old, 100-acre farm near Hunter River in the summer of 1976. It was quite close to the farm of Andy Wells and Lynne Douglas. We had never intended to stay in Ottawa for the rest of our lives. I also wanted to get involved in more hands-on work in the field of environmentally appropriate technology.
I visited the Ark several times after moving to PEI in May of 1977, but there never seemed to be a logical role for me to play in its operation. I had no personal connection with the people who were employed at the Ark at that time. I was disappointed that John and Nancy Todd never made the move to PEI. I think the Ark project might well have had a longer life as a research facility had John Todd been based on PEI.
In summary, I think it is fair to say that I was an “Arky,” one of a number of people who played a role in initiating the project and in its development. I think that the informal “eco-network” that existed in Ottawa and beyond during that time played an important role in supporting the Ark and many other projects and ventures that collectively advanced sustainable development in Canada. We dreamed that we were going to revolutionize the way humans interact with the biosphere. I think we succeeded in small ways. Much progress has been made on many fronts since then. But I believe we would all agree that substantive societal change has been painfully slow and there have been many setbacks along the way. The fate of the current Paris Accord on Climate Change is perhaps a good example of one step forward followed by two steps back.
The Legacy of the PEI Ark
The PEI Ark was a worthy project in its day. But we quickly learned that many of the technologies included in the Ark and in its sister projects had weaknesses. An example might be the solar panels. Most of the solar water-heating panels built in that time leaked profusely and didn’t last very long. Many improvements were made in subsequent years.
The Hydro Wind windmill system was a failure. With hindsight, one can say that it was foolish to start into a completely new wind energy technology initiative with a budget of only $100,000. Since I argued for their funding, some of the blame can be apportioned to me. It was a lesson I remembered. As a consultant in the bioenergy field, I was always wary of letting clients venture into new, unproven technologies.
It is not surprising that there would have been issues with many of the systems encompassed in the Ark—they were experimental. And we learn by conducting experiments.
The real legacy of the PEI Ark is that it drew some very smart and creative people to Prince Edward Island who went on to do great things that have undoubtedly advanced the state of sustainable development. Those people include architects David Bergmark and Ole Hammarlund, who still live and work on PEI. Others such as Linda Gilkison and Katherine Clough did ground-breaking work in biological pest control. Wayne Van Toever developed and constructed fish rearing and filtration systems across North America. Nancy Willis and her partner Phil Ferraro have continued to work in sustainable agriculture. John Todd and all the people who worked at the New Alchemy Institute in Woods Hole carried on doing valuable work for several decades, especially in the field of biological filtration systems. Earl Barnhart and Hilde Maingay still live on the site although it ceased to be a research station in 1991 and became the Alchemy Farm Co-housing.
I am sure there are other notable people I’ve forgotten, or perhaps never knew, whose work relates back to the philosophy of the New Alchemy Institute. I would like to include myself. I specialized in forest bioenergy after moving to PEI, and worked in the field for over thirty years. In 2002, I co-founded CanBio, the Canadian Bioenergy Association and served as its first president for five years. I was also an organic sheep farmer for ten years when we first lived on PEI and I later worked in sustainable forest management as the manager of the Woodlot Stewards Co-op.
We must also remember the thousands of eager young people who made pilgrimages to the Ark at Spry Point in the late 1970s seeking knowledge and inspiration. It was very common to see people with backpacks hitchiking east along Highway 2 in the summer months. I am sure that some of them went on to do great things in the environmental field.
We might well ask, if the Government of Canada were to offer up a pot of money, say $20 million, to fund environmental demonstration projects across Canada today, what would we say? I’d say, hell yes! Let’s do it, but better this time, having learned from our mistakes and applying our hard-won knowledge.
Submitted by Bruce McCallum, Hunter River, Prince Edward Island
revised 21 Feb 2017