Let’s begin with the beginning… that’s how this captivating conversation between two remarkable minds begins. As part of the Serpentine Gallery’s 2016 Miracle Marathon, Hans Ulrich Obrist speaks with John Allen and goes directly to the source of his life-changing epiphany about the biosphere.
For a fifteen minute conversation, these two cover a lot of ground. From discussing Benoit Mandelbrot’s epiphany about fractals to Albert Hoffman’s discovery of LSD, John tells Hans about how he began understanding the biosphere through his discovery of humanity. When we understand that humanity is part of the biosphere, we understand that we are part of the overall unity of all the kingdoms of life.
According to Allen, the study of biospherics forms a separate line of planetary evolution. Biospherics studies the systems of the earth that support and include life. Buckminster Fuller influenced John to consider life from the perspective of total systems. Allen was inspired by Fuller to use synergy in bringing together technics, or advanced technology, with biospherics. The result was Biosphere 2, which made a model of the Earth’s biosphere (or Biosphere 1).
Sailing the Amazon River on RV Heraclitus, a ship that Allen helped to design and build. Photo from Me and the Biospheres: A Memoir from the Inventor of Biosphere 2.
John also discusses how he was influenced by Amazonian explorer and ethnobotanist, Richard Evans Schultes. Inspired by Schultes, Allen traveled the Amazon River by boat and drank ayahuasca with a traditional shaman. The experience changed his level of consciousness and communicated to him the objective truth of the biosphere.
One of the most poignant moments in the conversation is when Hans asks about miracles:
Hans Ulrich Obrist: What is a miracle to you?
John Allen: A unique, non-repeatable experience.
Our entire lives are made up of unique, non-repeatable experiences. Understanding our lives like this adds a miraculous quality to each moment. John goes on to say that all of modern life is based on miracles, but in modern life we have separated ourselves from the larger system of the biosphere. Instead of thinking about the environment, as something external that is around us, we can shift our thinking to a biospheric perspective, to seeing ourselves as part of the miraculous system of life.
In its eleventh year, the Serpentine Marathon series continued on its exploration of activism, art, anthropology, architecture, literature, music, philosophy, theology and science through a specific theme or topic of particular relevance in artists’ practice and in the wider contemporary context… the 2016 Miracle Marathon focused in on ritual, repetition and magical thinking to consider ways in which the imaginary can not only predict, but also play a part in affecting long-term futures.
You can hear more from John Allen in person at the Synergetic Symposium and Salon at the October Galley on 5 November. This Symposium and Salon on Understanding Ayahuasca brings together diverse perspectives on this sacred plant medicine from the Amazon. The event is celebrating the release of the new edition of Ayahuasca Reader: Encounters with the Amazon’s Sacred Vine, a collection of shamanic stories, myths, research, songs, poems, and art that share the wisdom of ayahuasca.
You can get your tickets to the Symposium and Salon here, and you can get your copy of Ayahuasca Reader here.
Tony Juniper, well-known British environmentalist and adviser to Prince Charles, understands what’s happening on our planet. While he’s been fighting for a more sustainable society, Tony has also been sharing information about the dramatic changes that have been happening on earth. In the following video, you can hear some of the numbers that can help you understand the changes that are going on today.
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10 Quick Facts About Climate Change from Tony Juniper
- Since 1950, the world’s population has tripled
- The number of cities with a population of over 10 million people was: one in 1950, ten in 1990, and is twenty-eight today
- Global energy demand is expected to double by 2030 compared to 1990 (with most new capacity coming from renewable sources)
- Only about 1/4 of the planet’s agricultural land is being used to grow crops, the rest is being used to raise animals
- About 97.5% of the planet’s total water resources is salt water, about 0.3% is liquid water at the surface, the rest is locked in groundwater and ice caps
- Since 1900, the consumption of construction materials, metals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass has increased tenfold
- Carbon dioxide concentrations in the planet’s atmosphere are higher now than at any point in at least the last 800,000 years
- Ten thousand years ago, 99.9% of vertebrate biomass was composed of wild animals; today, 96% of vertebrate biomass is made up of people and their domesticated animals
- The rate of animal and plant extinction taking place on the planet today is approaching a rate not seen on earth for 65 million years
- Since 1962, the area of protected habitat on the planet, in the form of national parks and nature reserves, has increased fourteen fold, to reach more than 33 million square kilometers
Understanding What the Planet Does for Us
As we try to understand what’s happening to the planet, we can also learn what the planet does for us. Take a more in depth look at the services that nature freely provides to humanity, many of which we don’t even realize.
In What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? British environmentalist Tony Juniper points out that we think everything nature does for us—providing water, pollinating plants, generating oxygen, recycling miracles in the soil and much more—is free, but it isn’t. Its economic value can, and has been, measured. And upon realizing what that value truly is we would stop treating our natural systems in a destructive manner. For example, in 2005 Hurricane Katrina cost the US $81 billion and the damage still remains. If the land around the levees hadn’t been redeveloped for shipping and aquaculture, at an estimated value of $100,000 to $450,000 per square mile of natural mangroves, then it is believed, much of the damage caused to the city would not have occurred.
During recent years, environmental debate worldwide has been dominated by climate change, carbon emissions and the greenhouse effect. But a number of academic, technical, political, business and NGO initiatives indicate the emergence of a new wave of environmental attention focused on “natural capital,” “ecosystem services” and “biodiversity,” things nature does for us.
What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? contains impactful stories imparting warnings about unfortunate occurrences such as a rabies epidemic that followed the disappearance of India’s vultures (drugs administered to cattle killed the birds, leaving uneaten carcasses that led to an explosion of wild dogs), as well as promising and enlightening tales of how birds protect fruit harvests, coral reefs shield coasts from storms, and rainforests absorb billions of tons of carbon released from automobiles and power stations. As a result of its immediacy, Tony Juniper’s book will entirely change the way you think about life, the planet and the economy.
We’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Biosphere 2’s first mission! Hear more about it in this interview with NBC News, as Biospherian Mark Nelson describes what life was like inside of Biosphere 2 and how those lessons have shaped our thinking about future space colonization.
Mark Nelson, photo © Peter Menzel
For a closer look at life inside of Biosphere 2, you can read more from Mark Nelson, who spent two years enclosed inside the biospheric bubble as part of the innovative experiment and discover how he developed a passion for natural solutions to wastewater recycling. As the manager of these essential systems he realized how essential the proper re-use of human waste is to the health of the planet. Join him in The Wastewater Gardener: Preserving the Planet One Flush at a Time on a global expedition of discovery, which he recounts with his characteristic humor and humility.
John Allen, photo © Peter Menzel
And for another perspective on the epic tale of Biosphere 2, turn to the legendary John Allen, who was the conceiver and inventor of Biosphere 2. Allen was first inspired when he began to learn of the sphere that supports all life on earth⸺the biosphere⸺ through study of Vernadsky at the Colorado School of Mines. Through his travels around the planet to study the many biomes that cooperate to keep earth in balance and his journeys inward through shamanic ceremonies to explore the nature of consciousness, Allen expresses the wisdom gained through a lifetime of adventure and inquiry in Me and the Biospheres: A Memoir by the Inventor of Biosphere 2.
Silver Winner in the category of Home & Garden in the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Award, 2014 Living Now Book Award—Gold Winner in the category of Gardening / Farming / Landscaping, Foreword Reviews’ 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award—Silver Winner in the category of Ecology & Environment, Finalist for the 2015 Next Generation Indie Book Awards in the category of Science/Nature/Environment, and Winner of the 2015 Southwest Book Design and Production Award for Best Cover and Jacket Design
Winner of the 2009 Benjamin Franklin Award for Best Biography/Memoir
Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Biosphere 2
This year the revolutionary laboratory on earth sciences, Biosphere 2, is celebrating its 25th Anniversary. The initial experiment began in September of 1991 when eight pioneering individuals were enclosed inside of its glass walls for two years. The existence of Biosphere 2 and the research conducted there continue to gain attention, as it fuels understanding of planetary systems and calls attention to the realities of our circumstances on the original Biosphere, the Earth.
In 1993, in the first moments when the human experiment was coming to a close, the biospherians re-entered the outside world after two years of stewardship in their enclosed home. Mark Nelson, who managed the wetland sewage treatment system inside of Biosphere 2, shared a few words on the experience:
Mark Nelson in the wastewater treatment marsh of Biosphere 2. Photo from biospherics.org
“We’ve come out of another world. Through that thin airlock there is another world living… What’s been surprising and profoundly wonderful is that operating Biosphere 2 has changed the way I operate my organism. To live in a small world and be conscious of its controls, its beauty, its fragility, its bounty and its limits changes who you are.”
–Mark Nelson, PhD, one of the original Biospherians and author of The Wastewater Gardener: Preserving the Planet One Flush at a Time
Several recent articles have revisited the story of Biosphere 2, while highlighting the role that the facility continues to play in inspiring a new generation to be ecologically minded.
“Many older generations know of us thanks to the experiments conducted in the early 1990s,” explains John Adams, deputy director of Biosphere 2. “But we really want to engage with the younger generations.”
The experiments Adams refers to are two missions which saw a team of scientists seal themselves inside the laboratory. The first mission garnered the most column inches; four men and four women entered Biosphere 2 in 1991, vowing to stay inside the lab for two years, without any physical contact in the outside world. The team hoped to demonstrate the viability of closed ecosystems in maintaining human life, and also explore how such a closed biosphere could be used in space colonisation.
–Huffington Post UK
Flowing Through Changes Over Time
Whenever there’s an experiment at Biosphere 2, it’s a big experiment. This summer, Biosphere 2 will be home to the largest study ever conducted on how water moves through a landscape.
Photo credit: Gil Kenny
Water is clearly vital to life, but so are the minerals and nutrients it picks up as it flows through rocks and soil. This process, called weathering, underlies everything else in an ecosystem, including microbes, plants, animals, agriculture and how the landscape changes over time. . . .
“Chemical weathering is the first thing you need in order to form a habitable planet,” says Dixon. But the process is still not well understood.
That’s where Biosphere 2 comes in.
Although weathering has been studied in laboratories, there is no other laboratory that can compare in providing such large-scale conditions with the benefit of being a controlled atmosphere.
. . . the University of Arizona is transforming part of the site into a “Land Evolution Observatory”—a 10-year, $5 million project to study how vegetation, topography and other factors affect the movement of rainwater through watershed to drinking water.
The substantial site provides a unique opportunity to see how water moving over the land causes changes over time on a real-world scale.
Living in Harmony at the Heart of Biosphere 2
Aside from serving as fertile ground for conducting scientific research on how water and soils operate, Biosphere 2 provides an experimental mirror for the way humanity relates to the Earth. John Allen, the inventor, conceiver and co-founder of the Biosphere 2 project provided an unparalleled opportunity to reflect on our own lifestyles. He spoke at the re-entry ceremony, when the eight people who had dedicated two years of their lives to the ambitious project emerged back into the larger atmosphere of the biosphere that we all share.
John Allen inside the Biosphere 2 test greenhouse. Photo Copyright: © Peter Menzel www.menzelphoto.com
“The biospherians have shown in practice for the past two years the do-ability of a comprehensive code of ethical behavior in a new area in which we can no longer depend on the aesthetic interests of the few or the economic interests of the many to maintain proper behavior in humanity’s relationship to the very basis of our life, to the biosphere. The eight biospherians ate, slept, worked, dreamed, enjoyed and suffered, in short existed in harmony with their biosphere. Their biosphere flourished with their way of life, they recycled their food, their wastes, their water, their air. They protected biodiversity and enhanced the beauty of their landscapes. Their own bodies purified and their biosphere sparkles undimmed without a ghost-like fog of smog. They lived with high tech instrumentation and communications but in a non-destructive, ecotechnic way… Sophistication and love of wilderness blended and fulfilled their dreams. I appreciate the biospherians’ skill in operations, their integrity in research, their zest for exploration but I honor them for their ethical achievement, achieved at no small cost to their immediate gratifications, for having done what they perceived they ought to do.”
–John Allen, Inventor, Conceiver and Co-Founder of Biosphere 2, author of Me and the Biospheres: A Memoir by the Inventor of Biosphere 2
To celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Biosphere 2, we’re offering a 25% discount on The Wastewater Gardener: Preserving the Planet One Flush at a Time, Me and the Biospheres: A Memoir by the Inventor of Biosphere 2, Life Under Glass: The Inside Story of Biosphere 2 as well as our other significant biospheric titles such as Geochemistry and the Biosphere: Essays by Vladimir Vernadsky, The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How it Shapes Our Lives, What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? How Money Really Does Grow on Trees
Use coupon code Bio25 at checkout from our Synergetic Bookstore for 25% off of these important ecological books!
An Architectural Overview of Biosphere 2
And to read more on history of biospherics, the creation of Biosphere 2, and its continuing legacy from an architectural point of view, check out this paper written by Antonino Di Raimo, Architect PhD, Dean of Architecture at POLIS University from Tirana Architecture Week.
Allowing the Unknowable: The experience of Biosphere 2
Raising Earth Consciousness
This Earth Day 2016 feels like a particularly poignant moment in the relationship between humans and the Earth. Just as on Mother’s Day we take extra time to reflect on our debt of gratitude to Her who gave us life, we similarly take the opportunity of raising Earth Consciousness on Earth Day to consider our connection with and appreciation for our Mother Earth.
Earth Day began in 1970 as a reflection of the growing awareness of our responsibility to the planet and the web of life – including us – that it supports. At the time the influence of Eastern spiritual thought and the introduction of psychedelics inspired a more holistic view of our relationship with the natural world. The realization dawned that our industrialized civilization was having negative impacts on the biosphere and that environmental protection was a growing necessity.
(read more below the video)
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Observing Earth Day in the Anthropocene
As we reflect on the Earth in the early decades of the 21st Century, we see radical imbalance. The Ecologist reported that climate scientists have reached a consensus
that human activity has been driving climate change. There is a growing recognition that we have entered a new geological time period known as the Anthropocene
. The Anthropocene Working Group has found t
hat “humanity’s impacts on Earth should now be regarded as pervasive and sufficiently distinctive to justify a separate classification.”
Humans have introduced entirely novel changes, geologically speaking, such as the roughly 300m metric tonnes of plastic produced annually. Concrete has become so prevalent in construction that more than half of all the concrete ever used was produced in the past 20 years.
Wildlife, meanwhile, is being pushed into an ever smaller area of the Earth, with just 25% of ice-free land considered wild now compared to 50% three centuries ago. As a result, rates of extinction of species are far above long-term averages.
But the study says perhaps the clearest fingerprint humans have left, in geological terms, is the presence of isotopes from nuclear weapons testing that took place in the 1950s and 60s.
We can feel overwhelmed when we see the environment faced with so many threats. How do we begin to change our lives in ways that will have a meaningful impact on the global situation? We need to embrace the challenge of living in harmony with the planet.
A new kind of nature is being created, one that is shaped by humanity. It consists of the sum of all the changes caused by humans on earth.
As we come into a deep understanding of the impact of our actions on the global community, Nature is calling us to redesign our lifestyles, adopt new social structures, rewrite the codes of our major institutions, and regenerate the planet’s natural systems. To do this requires breaking free from conditioned consumerism and enforced separation. We have the responsibility to care for the Earth by making choices that support the flourishing of the planet and its people, from our next-door neighbors to the members of remote tribes. This responsibility is also to ourselves, as we owe our existence to this interdependent web of life. By making changes in our lives at the individual level, we will see that change reflected in the whole world.
Taking on Earth Consciousness – and Taking Action
Now is the time—the critical moment on our timeline—to leverage the overarching vision and tools afforded by our understanding of Earth Sciences and the wisdom provided by traditional indigenous cultures. The message of Earth consciousness is growing louder. It reaches us from the voices of Amazonian plant teachers, such as ayahuasca, and from indigenous wisdom. Scientists have been confirming the healing effects of these ancient sources of wisdom, affirming the use of these tools that lead us to a more integrative, whole system perspective of our relationship to the biosphere.
By changing our habits and activating solutions, we can regenerate the planet; by changing our hearts and spreading compassion, we can heal the world. This Earth Day, you can try one of the four daily practices of love and gratitude for the Earth shared by Pachamama Alliance. By working with practices such as these, or any way that you feel deepens your connection to Pachamama, Mother Earth, we grow in Earth Consciousness.
Get the Code!
Books are some of the most powerful tools to we have to evolve our consciousness and guide our actions. Synergetic Press publishes books that carry the code of a sustainable, regenerative, thriving human future. We focus primarily on Earth science and evolving human consciousness, which we see as complementary aspects of humanity’s continuing evolution. See some of the titles below to explore the ideas that form the foundation of Earth Consciousness.
Tony Juniper was interviewed for Forbes by John Converse Townsend to talk about about climate change, sustainability, and how nature is actually the basis of economic activity.
Here are a few of the responses that Tony gave, and you can read the full interview here.
What were the most pressing issues now, and how have they changed?
For a long time, effort was necessarily devoted to gaining some agreement as to the scale of the challenge at hand, while making the case for what with hindsight looks like relatively narrow action to address some of the symptoms of it, such as pollution control laws and protection for some areas of especially important natural habitat. Today, the job at hand still embraces this kind of work, but is now also about making the case for completely new ways of looking at business, and indeed the economic system that determines which ones do well and those who don’t. There are also big questions of culture on the table, for example about what follows ‘consumerism’ as a viable and sustainable way of meeting people’s needs and desires.
There’s a growing body of research that suggests that when we fail to protect nature we end up with long-term losses, despite potential short-term gains. Why is that not only difficult to understand and accept, but also to act on?
One big reason why we fail to act in the face of overwhelming evidence is because of our human propensity for short-termism. This is a well-known psychological phenomenon and is manifest in politics, economics, and the media. Politicians have short terms of office. Economics works in part on quarterly financial results, while the profile of stories in the media is generally fleeting and very much about events, rather than the trends that shape the long term, such as climate change and ecosystem degradation.
On top of this is the fact of uncertainty. For while we know that there are long-term risks inherent in unsustainable behavior, no one can predict how they will unfold in the real world. Various skeptical voices have focused on this to create doubt as to the need for any action, nevermind decisive moves in the short-term so as protect more distant interests. Despite the blockages toward longer-term thinking, a lot of people are seeing the need for it and finding ways to do it.
The world’s climate scientists have explained how to avoid drastic global warming and… well, it’s not easy. But what is working best, and what do you consider to be our best hope for sustainability?
One thing we need to realize is that sustainability is not only about climate change. That is a big part of it, but there is a whole lot more. It is also about society and the economy, and how we can share the productive capacity of our Earth between even more people than we have now. That is a big political issue, and political issues tend to get resolved when voters demand that solutions are provided by the people they elected. This leads me to believe that a very big part of what is needed relates to the rather neglected subject of awareness and how to spread it. The more people know about what is happening, the more likely they might be determined to see solutions to protect them and their children. The fact that sustainability issues are rarely debated properly in the media is a serious cause for concern.
For more from Tony Juniper on recognizing and appreciating the value of the services provided by nature, check out What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? How Money Really Does Grow on Trees