New Alchemy Institute — Inspiration in the Pandemic

Once upon a time — okay, it was 1969 — a group met to discuss the future of the environment and how humans live on the planet. By the next year, they had formed the New Alchemy Institute (NAI) on Cape Cod. This research organization was one of the most direct inspirations for the Low Technology Institute (LTI).

Although our direct goals and applied research are different, the two institutes are in the same realm of thought and approach. NAI was primarily interested in creating communities that were self-sustaining in energy, food, and shelter. This is not far from our goals to produce solutions to house, clothe, and feed ourselves in a future without fossil fuels — by definition, LTI is interested in self-sustaining communities.

I’m going to highlight some of NAI’s research over the next few weeks as I read through their publications again. But to start, we should have a quick overview of their history, as told in the article, “Promise Rediscovered: New Alchemy’s First Twenty Years,” by Kate Eldred.

Screenshot_2020-05-11 new-alchemys-first-20-years pdf

You can, and should, read the full article at the above link, but here I’ll hit the highlights.


  • Group of scientists, artists, humanists, and friends meet to discuss the state of the environment and humankind’s impact on the earth.


  • NAI was granted nonprofit status.
  • Planned first research into warm-weather, small-scale, organic agriculture.


  • Research themes were focused on “energy sources, foodstuffs and human lifestyle.”
  • A “Modest Proposal,” elicited strong responses with suggestions and readings for possible research projects.


  • NAI found it’s home in Hatchville, Cape Cod and the first direct studies began.
  • Early research included gardening, dairying, aquaculture, and construction methods.


  • First edition of the Journal of the New Alchemists.
  • Seed money for community and aquaculture.
  • Many volunteers helped at the farm.


  • Agricultural work expanded in vegetables and aquaculture.
  • Windmills built to be tested.


  • Farm volunteers increased again.
  • Aquaculture and windmill research expanded.



  • Aquaculture, windmill, and food production data begins flowing in.
  • Data also coming in from former interns and satellite installations in Costa Rica, Canada, and the US.


  • They sought solutions to get more CO2 into the ark.
  • Over 200 visitors helped out over the season.
  • They “raised enough vegetables on one-tenth of an acre for thirteen adults to have three portions per day year-round.”
  • Children’s workshops began.


  • Five different types of windmills under study.
  • 6,000-gal fish tank with different fishes and side crops installed.
  • Tree crops were added.


  • Ancillary areas of study opened: windpower for irrigation and heat, pest control by predatory insects, biogas production, and more.
  • Leadership cycled.


  • The existing infrastructure was updated and retrofitted to be more energy efficient, including the farmhouse, barn, ark, and dome.
  • Publications changed from a journal to a quarterly magazine and books.


  • “Model Farm” efforts increased with enough surplus to sell.
  • Series of tours of local solar homes crated.


  • The Model Farm program continued to expand.
  • Aquaponics program culminated in high production.


  • New research associate program to work with organic food producers.
  • The summer children’s program expanded to school programs in the fall.
  • Economic constraints of “Reaganomics” and internal leadership changes prompted a reorganization of the nonhierarchical structure of the institute.


  • New research into the economics of greenhouses and organic farming put out in new report series.


  • The site was reorganized, demolishing and establishing new buildings and features.
  • Commercial produce sales expanded to restaurants.


  • The organization made it through significant staff cycling.
  • Composting greenhouse thermal data published.


  • Predatory insects and nematodes used as biological pest control.
  • New gardens and composting systems established.


  • Site reconstruction continued with rebuilding of the ark.
  • Students and interns continued to contribute to publications for teachers and researchers.

Over the next decade, the institute dissolved into other entities, most prominent among them is the Green Center.

One thought on “New Alchemy Institute — Inspiration in the Pandemic

  1. I remember New Alchemy from my college days in the late 80s. I was in the hippy ag circle and NA was a kind of Mecca. I never went there but their aquaculture greenhouses plus heat from compost were legendary.

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