1990 paperback by Dorion Sagan Biospheres: Reproduction of Planet Earth (McGraw-Hill Publishing, ISBN 0-553-28883-0) does more than offer a unique view 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 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 an 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 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 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 similar to small kitchen appliances, and have “replacement windows” of up to a year. With care, they can last for many years. EcoSpheres is a NASA spin-off, the first product of US experiments to create closed ecosystems, ultimately for humans in space habitats.
“Bio-refuges,” terrestrial biospheres for individuals, families, and small groups, were a product of the defunct but not forgotten New Alchemy Institute (1969-1991). Between Apollo 11 and Biosphere 2, New Alchemy built several biological shelters that it called “arks” on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Prince Edward Island (eastern Quebec), and other locations. The Green Center in Hatchville, MA preserves the legacy of New Alchemy information.
Ocean Arcs International, founded by the same people who brought you bioshelters, created the self-sufficient ocean vessels mentioned in biospheres. His idea of navigating Earth’s oceans as small marine colonies, not relying on anything non-renewable, including fossil fuels, has since morphed into a method of processing wastewater that could qualify as a technology for space colonies. .
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 martians From the library tower of the human habitat, through a miniature ocean, rainforest, desert, savannah, and marshland, Biosphere 2 is 3.14 acres of the Earth under glass. It has operated since 2007 as a research station and educational extension 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 core philosophy is environmentalism, which is suspect for its tendency to denigrate humanity. Sagan is also at risk for this, displaying a fairly consistent anti-human pacing that is easily the most off-putting feature in the little book of his.
Every human being, says Sagan, 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, Lovelock’s view 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 disturbs the balance of your digestive jungle will soon discover.
In truth, however, there is something unsettling about the idea, also found here, 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 assigned to individuals in Lovelockian philosophy as portrayed by Sagan: Individuals are of no importance. They are numbers, large amounts of essential biomass, and those numbers must be contained. All of us who do not leave the scene by means that are better left undescribed are going 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 build protective pods to protect Mother Earth’s offspring from her dying body. WELL. That’s a bit weird. Also, stop criticizing men for their reproductive proclivities. I like people, at least in principle.
Sagan says that we ALL like people, and not just on principle. We like them so much that we are well 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 “tumors” of superorganisms, Sagan thinks we’ll embrace new cultural norms like infanticide and abortion, maybe even a bit of criminality and sexual perversion. Before long, by way of demonstration of the effects of overcrowding, he makes his way to the rodent experiments of Dr. John B. Calhoun. 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 one. 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 emigration 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 thing. A fuller interpretation of Calhoun’s results reflects the impossibility of escape, concluding that 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 kind of stumbles rather than flies. It’s not until near the end that we get back to 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 in the Soviet Bios program from the early 1980s, which kept two humans in a full life support system independent of Earth during a simulated five-month space voyage.
Ten years after the much larger and more capitalistic Bios, Biosphere 2 is a significant extension of the theme that Sagan tries to express. An Edward P. Bass Decisions Investments project (as Space Biospheres Ventures), it is the largest and most comprehensive simulation of the 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 because of what they say, or don’t say, or how they say it, but because of the questions they raise, above all, “Who are we?”