Dorion Sagan’s 1990 paperback Biospheres: Reproducing Planet Earth (McGraw-Hill Publishing, ISBN 0-553-28883-0) does more than deliver a unique vision of the planet’s life support system. It also challenges the traditional view of humanity as the dominant feature of life on Earth.
Perhaps that is no less than should be expected 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 an author of books on culture, evolution, and the philosophy of science.
Ecospheres to Biosphere 2
Among the more interesting features of the book are the mentions of still-existing institutions that are unexpectedly abiding features of the economic and technological landscape.
For example, Ecospheres Associates in Tucson, Arizona manufactures and sells sealed glass balls filled with water containing green algae, other microscopic biota, and tiny shrimp in a symbiotic community that illustrates the principle of closed life support. It is one illustration of what Sagan calls “permanently recycling systems.” Called EcoSpheres, they come in a variety of sizes, from 4 inches in diameter to 9 inches, are priced like small kitchen appliances, and have “replacement periods” of up to a year. With care, they can last for many years. EcoSpheres are a NASA spin-off, the first product of US experiments to create closed ecosystems, ultimately for humans in space habitats.
“Bioshelters”, earthbound biospheres for individuals, families, and small groups, were a product of the gone-but-not-forgotten New Alchemy Institute (1969-1991). Between Apollo 11 and Biosphere 2, New Alchemy built several bioshelters it called “arks” at Cape Cod Massachusetts, Prince Edward Island (eastern Quebec), and other places. The Green Center at Hatchville, MA preserves New Alchemy’s information legacy.
Ocean Arcs International, founded by the same people who brought you bioshelters, created the self-sustaining oceangoing vessels mentioned in Biospheres. Their idea of sailing Earth’s oceans as little sea colonies, without dependence on anything nonrenewable, including fossil fuels, has since mutated into a wastewater processing method that might qualify as a technology for space colonies.
Biosphere 2, 35 miles north of Tucson, was taking shape just as Biospheres the book was nearing completion. The site has become Southern Arizona’s best-known technological wonder. 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 evenings under one of those ruby Arizona sunsets, all of the visual cues are Martian. From the library tower of the human habitat, across a miniature ocean, rain forest, desert, savannah, and marshland, 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 downside. Its core philosophy is environmentalism, which is worthy of suspicion because of its tendency to denigrate humanity. Sagan is at risk for this as well, displaying a fairly consistent antihuman drumbeat that is easily the most off-putting feature of his little book.
Each human being, says Sagan, is both a multi-species assemblage and a unit of a larger organism. The typical Homo sapiens’ surface is inhabited by a microbiological community of bacteria, fungi, round worms, pin worms, etc. Our guts are densely-packed tubes of bacteria, yeasts, and other microorganisms. To add further insult, the Lovelockian view of Gaia, Mother Earth, which Sagan describes sympathetically, features humans as mere components. It’s almost enough to make one decide to leave all the dirt and non-human DNA behind, and build strictly artificial worlds, just to prove that we can. Except that we can’t, as anyone who disturbs the equilibrium of their digestive jungle soon discovers.
Truly, though, there is something disturbing about the idea, also found here, that the Gaia hypothesis could become the basis of some new green theocracy. What power would priests of the green religion have, and to what ends? We find some indication by the value assigned to individuals in the Lovelockian philosophy as Sagan portrays it: Individuals are of no consequence. They are numbers, large amounts of inessential biomass, and those numbers need to be contained. All of us who do not pass from the scene by means best left undescribed are to be midwives in the reproduction of the original biosphere, creating isolated cocoons of life in space, or maybe not. Right there, Sagan loses his clarity of vision. He thinks maybe we should just build protective pods to shield the offspring of Mother Earth from her dying body. OK. That’s a little weird. Also, that’s enough bashing of Men for their reproductive proclivities. I happen to like people, at least in principle.
Sagan says we ALL like people, and not just in principle. We like them so much that we are on the way to becoming a superorganism made up of individual humans the way our bodies are made of cells. To prevent these “cells” from reproducing wildly into superorganism “tumors”, Sagan feels we shall adopt new cultural norms like infanticide and abortion, maybe also a little criminality and sexual perversion. Before too long, by way of demonstrating the effects of crowding, he works his way around to the rodent experiments of Dr. John B. Calhoun. If one takes the results at face value and allows them to be projected upon the human future, then, as Sagan points out, only grim conclusions are possible.
Sagan would have done well to point out that the standard interpretation of Calhoun’s results is not necessarily the best one. The mouse “universes” of John Calhoun’s creation did become crowded over time (though never reaching more than about 80% of capacity). They were also closed from the start, making emigration impossible. Population biologists regard emigration and death in the same light. That is because they are unable to follow individuals once they leave a controlled area. But, as any human explorer knows, emigration and death are not the same thing. A more complete interpretation of Calhoun’s outcomes reflects the impossibility of a breakout, 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 some ways stumbles rather than soars. Not until near the end do we again take up 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 at the Soviet Bios program of the early 1980s, which maintained two human beings in a complete life support system independent of Earth for a five-month simulated space journey.
Ten years later than Bios, much bigger, and more Capitalist, Biosphere 2 is a significant extension of the theme Sagan tries to express. A project of Edward P. Bass’s Decisions Investments (as Space Biospheres Ventures), it is the largest and most complete simulation of the earth ever undertaken. The apparatus is as much a technological object as a biological one. Its basement “technosphere” includes systems for controlling temperature, filtering water, balancing internal pressure, fighting fires, and supporting the scientific activities of eight “biospherians.” It is also art, a self-portrait of Man in the late twentieth century. Like the book, Biosphere 2 is more of a quest than a destination. Both are pearls, not so much because of what they say, or fail to say, or how they say it, but because of the questions they raise, most notably, “Who are we?”