Biospheres: Reproduction of Planet Earth
Dorion Sagan’s 1990 paperback Biospheres: Reproduction of Planet Earth (McGraw-Hill Publishing, ISBN 0-553-28883-0) does more than offer unique insight into the planet’s life support system. It also challenges the traditional view of humanity as the dominant feature of life on Earth.
Perhaps that’s no less than one might expect from the offspring of astronomer Carl Sagan and biologist Lynn Margulis, whose unorthodox view of evolutionary biology sees life forms merging to produce new ones. Sagan the Younger is well known as the author of books on culture, evolution, and the philosophy of science.
Ecospheres to Biosphere 2
Among the most interesting features of the book are the mentions of still-existing institutions that are unexpectedly permanent features of the economic and technological landscape.
For example, Ecospheres Associates in Tucson, Arizona, manufactures and sells water-filled sealed glass balls containing green algae, other microscopic biota, and tiny shrimp in a symbiotic community that illustrates the principle of closed life support. It’s an illustration of what Sagan calls “permanent recycling systems.” Called EcoSpheres, they come in a variety of sizes from 4 inches in diameter to 9 inches, are priced about the same as small kitchen appliances, and have “replacement periods” of up to a year. With care, they can last for many years. EcoSpheres is a NASA spin-off, the first product of American experiments to create closed ecosystems, ultimately, for humans in space habitats.
“Bioshelters,” terrestrial biospheres for individuals, families, and small groups, were a product of the late but not forgotten New Alchemy Institute (1969-1991). Between Apollo 11 and Biosphere 2, New Alchemy built several biological shelters it called “arks” on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Prince Edward Island (eastern Quebec), and elsewhere. The Green Center in Hatchville, MA preserves New Alchemy’s legacy of information.
Ocean Arcs International, founded by the same people who brought you bioshelters, created the self-sustaining ocean vessels mentioned in biospheres. His idea of navigating Earth’s oceans like tiny marine colonies, without relying on anything nonrenewable, including fossil fuels, has since morphed into a wastewater processing method that could qualify as space colony technology.
Biosphere 2, 35 miles north of Tucson, was taking shape just as biospheres the book was almost finished. The site has become the best-known technological marvel in southern Arizona. Situated among the red rocks of the Santa Catalina Mountains, out of sight of Highway 77 and the ordinary built environment, it is said that on certain summer afternoons, under one of those ruby Arizona sunsets, all visual cues are Martian. From the human habitat library tower, through a miniature ocean, rainforest, desert, savannah, and marsh, Biosphere 2 is 3.14 acres of Earth under glass. It has operated since 2007 as a research station and educational outreach project of the University of Arizona under a ten-year, $30 million grant from the Philecology Foundation.
of mice and men
But the book has a drawback. His central philosophy is environmentalism, which is suspect for its tendency to denigrate humanity. Sagan is at risk for this as well, displaying a fairly consistent anti-human pace that is easily the most disgusting feature of the little book of him.
Each human being, Sagan says, is both a multispecies assemblage and a unit of a larger organism. The typical surface of Homo sapiens is inhabited by a microbiological community of bacteria, fungi, roundworms, pinworms, etc. Our intestines are tubes densely packed with bacteria, yeast, and other microorganisms. Adding insult to injury, the Lovelockian vision of Gaia, Mother Earth, which Sagan sympathetically describes, presents humans as components of the mother. It’s almost enough for one to decide to leave all the dirt and non-human DNA behind, and build strictly artificial worlds, just to prove that we can. Except we can’t, as anyone who upsets the balance of your digestive jungle will soon discover.
In truth, however, there is something unsettling about the idea, found here as well, that the Gaia hypothesis could become the basis for a new green theocracy. What power would the priests of the green religion have and for what purposes? We find some indication in the value attached to individuals in Lovelockian philosophy as portrayed by Sagan: Individuals are unimportant. Those are numbers, large amounts of essential biomass, and those numbers need to be contained. All of us who don’t leave the scene by means best left undescribed are going to be midwives in reproducing the original biosphere, creating isolated cocoons of life in space, or maybe not. Right there, Sagan loses his clear vision. He thinks maybe we should build protective capsules to protect Mother Earth’s offspring from her dying body. OK. That’s a bit weird. Also, stop criticizing men for their reproductive inclinations. I like people, at least in principle.
Sagan says that we ALL like people, and not just in principle. We like them so much that we are on our way to becoming a superorganism made up of individual humans in the same way that our bodies are made of cells. To prevent these “cells” from reproducing wildly into superorganism “tumors,” Sagan thinks we’ll embrace new cultural norms like infanticide and abortion, perhaps a bit of criminality and sexual perversion as well. Before long, by way of demonstrating the effects of crowding, he makes his way to Dr. John B. Calhoun’s rodent experiments. If one takes the results at face value and allows them to be projected onto the human future, then, as Sagan points out, only bleak conclusions are possible.
Sagan would have done well to point out that the standard interpretation of Calhoun’s results is not necessarily the best. The mouse “universes” of John Calhoun’s creation filled up over time (although they never reached more than 80% capacity). They were also closed from the beginning, making emigration impossible. Demographic biologists view migration and death in the same light. This is because they cannot follow people once they leave a controlled area. But, as any human explorer knows, emigration and death are not the same. A fuller interpretation of Calhoun’s results reflects the impossibility of escape, concluding that the mouse populations failed, not because they were dense, but because they were trapped in an enclosure.
Such side trips down depressing rabbit holes explain why the book, in a way, stumbles rather than flies. It’s not until near the end that we again take the ennobling view of Man, the Builder of Worlds, as opposed to Man trapped inside some kind of planet-sized monster in space. We pick up the thread on the Soviet Bios program of the early 1980s, which kept two humans on a complete life support system independent of Earth during a simulated five-month space journey.
Ten years after the much bigger and more capitalist Bios, Biosphere 2 is a significant extension of the theme that Sagan is trying to express. A project of Edward P. Bass’s Decisions Investments (as Space Biospheres Ventures), it is the largest and most comprehensive simulation of Earth ever made. The apparatus is both a technological and a biological object. Its base “technosphere” includes systems to control temperature, filter water, balance internal pressure, fight fires, and support the scientific activities of eight “biospheres.” It is also art, a self-portrait of Man at the end of the 20th century. Like the book, Biosphere 2 is more of a quest than a destination. Both are pearls, not so much for what they say, or fail to say, or how they say it, but for the questions they ask, above all, “Who are we?”