John Todd's work is something of a mystery, even to himself. He and his colleagues build mini-ecosystems that turn sewage into irrigation water, restore dying lakes and streams, filter polluted canals, and process sludge. They call them living machines. They can assemble them. They're just not entirely sure how they work.
Todd is part of a growing legion of scientists who are swinging open the doors of laboratories and pulling up from microscopes to proudly state, "I don't know." They do have some understanding of how an individual creature processes a toxin and which ones are better suited to certain conditions. But ultimately, all they can do is combine them, step back, and watch the magic: the intricate cooperation between snails, grasses and microbes that process the products of our factories, toilets and chemical plants better than we can.
Rebel scientists like Todd recognize the futility in trying to manage, direct or predict nature. They see that, for all our supposed wisdom, we have failed to accomplish the most basic tasks. We cannot live – feed, house or transport ourselves – without destroying our own habitat.
The more closely we study our subject, from molecular biology to genetics, to nanotechnology, the further away we are from understanding the system. But some brave academics are learning to discard the hubris of their disciplines, challenging the claims that all life can be partitioned into quantifiable parts. Rather than trying to disassemble the mysteries of the natural world, they are learning to put them back together, to see the big picture and find their place in the image.
Todd has explained "If we could be half as intelligent as a forest. . . if we could understand how it organizes itself as wood – i.e., how it uses energy and materials and nutrients and relationships – we could reduce the negative human footprint on this planet by 90 percent."
Clearly, it's time to send scientists back to school.
Or, as life sciences writer Janine Benyus puts it, scientists need "to literally change their eyes and their hearts, [to] change the ways they see and feel about the natural world."
What would this change look like? It is "a deepening relationship with an organism," says Benyus. A state in which, "You don't just learn about, you learn from. Out of this process respect and awe ensues. Suddenly you are in a different situation, you are a student. Nature is a wellspring of genius."