Living in a Glass House: Earth as a Closed Ecosystem

Living in a Glass House: Earth as a Closed Ecosystem

Life Under Glass: A Message of Planetary Stewardship

We are excited to announce the soon approaching release of the second edition of Life Under Glass: Crucial Lessons in Planetary Stewardship from Two Years in Biosphere 2 which tells the inside story of Biosphere 2, and what it was like for eight researchers to be sealed in a giant laboratory for twenty-four months. 

Despite the fact that the biospherians lived isolated within Biosphere 2, the insights from their vision have leaked far beyond the boundaries of the physical structure, forever changing the lives of the crew members and those that came into contact with it, encouraging them to pursue paths of planetary stewardship. 

What was Biosphere 2?

Biosphere 2

Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalina mountains north of Tucson, Arizona, the 3.15 acres Biosphere 2 facility is the world’s largest closed ecological system. Inside are tropical rainforest, savannah, desert, mangrove marsh, coral reef biomes, a half-acre farm, and human living area.

Biosphere 2 consisted of seven biomes within a three-and-a-half acre closed-ecological system built in Oracle, Arizona. Each of the seven biomes was a carefully created replica of one of the various ecosystems on earth, including a tropical rainforest, a savannah, a desert, a marshland , and even an ocean complete with a coral reef! Technologically, architecturally, and ecologically ambitious, it was constructed during 1987-1991, being the largest laboratory for global ecology ever built. 

From 1991 to 1993 eight researchers, called ‘biospherians’, undertook an experiment in which they lived fully enclosed within the airtight structure for a period of two years. During this time, the biospherians devoted themselves to caring for their small world, recycling their air, water, and wastes as well as growing their own food. 

In Life Under Glass, biosperian crew members, Abigail Alling, Mark Nelson, and Sally Silverstone, present the full account of their remarkable two years living within and caring for Biosphere 2. From the daily struggles of growing their own food, to learning to help sustain their life-giving atmosphere. They give us a sense of how Biosphere 2 caught the world’s imagination, tapping into the desire of people to reconnect and forge a new relationship with our planetary biosphere. Its lessons are increasingly relevant in the Anthropocene era as we find ourselves desperately in search of a new direction.

Learn about steps you can take to protect our Biosphere.

The Earth as a Closed-System

Our home has been under threat for decades from the pressure our expanding technosphere has placed upon the biosphere. In one view, the economic and social structures that we now inhabit have been founded upon the premise of “techno-optimism.” Techno-optimism is predicated around the idea that technological progress and development will be used for the betterment of mankind. 

Although, there is truth in the fact that technology has a beneficial impact on many of our lives, its major lack is that technological advancement has not been harmonized with ecological and regenerative practices. To quote R. Buckminster Fuller, “Humanity is acquiring all the right technology for the wrong reasons.” 

By contrast, Biosphere 2 was carefully designed using non-polluting technologies to support ecology. Similar to our Earth, Biosphere 2 was a closed-systems ecological unit, and the biospherians deliberately factored out the use of any polluting components such as pesticides and chemical products. They did not take up the “out of sight, out of mind” attitude that is so widely adopted in our world today. Instead, the biospherians understood that any chemical that leaked into the air, water or earth could be dangerous to their health.

“We understood on a profound level that our health and that of Biosphere 2 were the same. We were intensely aware that every action, everything we did, had immediate consequences. Our bodies understood and rejoiced in our cooperation with and dependence on all life. We had our responsibilities to work cooperatively with our living systems so as to maximize their well-being.” — Abigail Alling, Mark Nelson, & Sally Silverstone, Life Under Glass

Living Aboard “Spaceship Earth”

Earlier this year, some of our authors, John Allen and Mark Nelson, attended the Sundance 2020 Film Festival to attend the premiere of the long-awaited documentary film detailing the long, incredible story behind the construction of Biosphere 2. The film, entitled “Spaceship Earth”, is based in part of the memoir of John Allen, Me & the Biospheres, and includes extensive interviews with Mark Nelson and Sally Silverstone.

The title of the film alludes to the concept as used by the visionary architect R. Buckminster Fuller in the mid-1960s. One of Fuller’s primary concerns was the “vision for comprehensive planetary planning that resulted in new strategies intended to enable all of humanity to live with freedom, comfort and dignity, without negatively impacting the earth’s ecosystems or regenerative ability.” John Allen, Biosphere 2 inventor, was close friends with Buckminster Fuller and drew much inspiration from his ideas. 

“The notion was to create an enclosed space with every form of habitat — ocean, desert, jungle, and more — to act as an accelerated version of Earth, to show the rest of us how to fix our environmental problems and figure out how to colonize other planets… Wolf chronicles how the idea for Biosphere 2 developed into a real, functioning laboratory project…The copious footage — this was an experiment, and someone wanted it documented — shows how the crew had highs and lows, and dealt with challenges such as the build-up of carbon dioxide in the dome…Though it’s clear Wolf sides with the Biospherians, whom he sees as the first people to illustrate the dangers of climate change, the director is smart enough to present the facts and let viewers draw their own conclusion.” — Sundance review: ‘Spaceship Earth’ makes the case for Biosphere 2 as America’s first climate change experiment

Want to learn more about Spaceship Earth? Read: ‘Spaceship Earth’ and Planetary Stewardship

Inside Biosphere 2

In the rainforest, Linda Leigh reseeds planting pockets of the cloud forest mountain overlooking the lowland forest area. Fast-growing trees formed the initial canopy, protecting light-sensitive ones which will dominate the rainforest as it matures.

The Interdependence of Life on Earth

 

We live in an extraordinary and delicately balanced biosphere, wholly taking for granted the remarkable processes that supply us with clean water, air, and sustenance. In our modern-day world, it is easy to feel cut off from the interdependent relationships that characterize life on earth, and remaining unconscious of this interconnectivity has come at a high price to the only real home we have.

In these times of unprecedented uncertainty, the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) demonstrates how unnervingly delicate the balance of human life is on earth. Beyond the health issues associated with this virus, the effects that it is inevitably having on our social and economic system are of equal concern. The nature of ecosystem change is slow, and steady, compared with the immediate crisis of the pandemic we are now facing, making ecological crises seem like something distant, and far away, thus not spurring us into action.

Perhaps the strongest lesson millions of people will learn from the dramatic changes in our daily lives is a more profound appreciation for interconnectedness of all life. We are one species of billions that share one home on this planet.


Life Under Glass coverLife Under Glass: Crucial Lessons in Planetary Stewardship from Two Years in Biosphere 2 

Abigail Alling, Mark Nelson, and Sally Silverstone, Foreward by Sylvia A. Earle

Planet in a bottle. Eden revisited. Laboratory under glass. The largest self-sustaining closed ecological system ever made. Biosphere 2 is many things to many people. From its half-acre farm to its coral reef to its emerald rainforest—this unique research facility has proven itself a marvel of human engineering and a testament to the human imagination.

For two years, four men and four women lived and worked inside the structure, recycling their air, water, food, and wastes, and setting a world record for living in an isolated environment. But what has this giant glass-and-steel greenhouse been to those most intimately involved with it? What has it meant to the first crew who studied and cared for it? What was it really like to be sealed inside a giant laboratory for twenty-four months?

“Life Under Glass tells the inside story of an extraordinary scientific experiment, one in which a handful of idealistic citizen scientists, at considerable personal risk, volunteered to enter a closed system, Biosphere 2. The audacity of the effort, together with the courage that drove them to persevere, brings to mind that famous quote of Teddy Roosevelt in which he hails not the critics, but those in the arena who strive valiantly, who spend themselves in a worthy cause, and who, if they fail, do so while daring greatly, their faces marred by dust and sweat and blood.  — Professor Wade Davis, BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk, University of British Columbia, Vancouver

Available April 2, 2020. If you wish, you can purchase the book now, and you will be sent an email notification when the book arrives and is being shipped.

Purchase Life Under Glass

 

‘Spaceship Earth’ and Planetary Stewardship | Sundance 2020

‘Spaceship Earth’ and Planetary Stewardship | Sundance 2020

“Spaceship Earth” Documentary on Biosphere 2 Premieres at Sundance Film Festival

Last weekend, some of our authors, John Allen and Mark Nelson, along with publisher, Deborah Snyder, attended the premiere of this long awaited film at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Audiences gave standing ovations. The film is based in part on the memoir by John Allen, Me & the Biospheres, and includes extensive interviews with authors Mark Nelson and Sally Silverstone, both authors of our next book, Life Under Glass, a second edition of the account they wrote while living inside.

“Spaceship Earth” unravels the compelling tale behind Biosphere 2 — the largest laboratory for global ecology ever built, comprised of seven biomes within a three and a half-acre closed ecological unit. Each biome was a carefully created replica of one of the various ecosystems on Earth. The film spans a fifty-year history of the small group of individuals who embarked on this extraordinary venture. Directed by Matt Wolf, Produced by Stacy Reiss (The Eagle Huntress).

Spaceship Earth Crew at Sundance 2020

The Directors and producers with the Biosphere 2 team at the Sundance Film Festival 2020.

Costing $200 million to build, Biosphere 2 was complete with a tropical rainforest, a grassland, a coastal desert, and even a coral containing ocean. From 1991 to 1993 eight researchers across different scientific practices, called ‘Biospherians’, began a two-year-long experiment in which they lived fully enclosed within the structure with the aim of studying how the environments would evolve, and if they could sustain human life. But just how did this wild experiment come to be? 

Chronicling back to San Francisco in the early 1960s, “Spaceship Earth” traces the journey of artist-engineer John Allen and his group of like-minded, free-thinking friends who set about making the earth a more sustainable place through theater, art, and ecologically driven projects. Together, the group formed the avant-garde theater troupe, the Theater of All Possibilities, mixing together noetics, science, and ecology with experimental theater. 

The group went on to establish several other projects including Synergia Ranch, an intentional community in New Mexico focused on ecology, architecture, and art. With Synergia Ranch as their headquarters, the group started to scale into even more ambitious projects, founding the non-profit organization the Institute of Ecotechnics (IE). IE’s main goal has been the development and application of innovative approaches to harmonizing technology and the global biosphere.

The team embarked upon constructing their own hand-built sailing vessel from scratch, starting a sustainable forestry project in Puerto Rico, and even an art gallery in London. Their far-sighted scope ultimately led to their most inspirational project — Biosphere 2.

“Synergia’s members hungered for knowledge and were always looking to one-up themselves, under the philosophy that life could be playful and meaningful if you were open to all possibilities. So in the late 1980s, Allen and his band of visionaries embarked on their most ambitious project ever: the construction of a biosphere that would sustain the lives of eight crew members for two years without any outside interference.” — Matt Patches, “Spaceship Earth uncovers the goodness hidden in the debacle of Biosphere 2

“In the end, Spaceship Earth is an epic story told over the course of 50 years about epic people. That we could imagine everyday humans being as epic as the Synergists and Biospherians is the invitation of the film. What would it take for a small group of people to set their vision and imagination on a wild goal and get up every day to accomplish it? Does that have to be such a wild proposition? Have we become too cynical? Has our belief in possibility diminished? If you need a reminder about the awesome creative potential of humanity, see this film.” — Hariette Yahr , “A reminder about the power of Imagination”, Modern Times, the European Documentary Magazine

Biosphere 2 was built as an educational apparatus to study planetary workings by replicating key components of earth’s (Biosphere 1’s) fantastic diversity, and observing how it evolved in a closed system. Beyond this, the Biospherians took the threat of ecological collapse seriously, wanting to develop a harmonic balance between ecology and technology, potentially suitable to colonize space, and gaining insight into how humans can better our impacts on earth’s biosphere.

A Testament to the Power of Small Groups  

Ultimately, the story behind Biosphere 2, and the many initiatives driven forward by the Institute of Ecotechnics serve as a testament to the power of small groups. Wild dreams of envisioning a better world do not have to be cast-off as an idealistic pastime, but rather they can become an even more productive reality when put into an actionable plan. 

A Beacon of Planetary Stewardship 

Today Biosphere 2 continues to serve as a beacon of hope with a message grounded in harmonizing human actions with nature. One of the most crucial insights that we can draw from the Biosphere 2 project is that we already live in a closed ecological system, Biosphere 1, the Earth!  

We can re-empower ourselves with the knowledge and know that what we do as individuals makes a difference to the outcome at large. In the words of Buckminster Fuller:

“I’ve often heard people say: ‘I wonder what it would feel like to be onboard a spaceship,’ and the answer is very simple. What does it feel like? That’s all we have ever experienced. We are all astronauts on a little spaceship called Earth.” 


What Reviewers Said About Spaceship Earth 

“The film’s larger frame is something more spiritual, an innate quest for knowledge and adventure whose principal crime was naiveté. Operating outside the usual government and academic realms for such projects, the Biosphere 2 personnel weren’t prepared for the extent to which they’d be scrutinized and dismissed for that independence. Drawing on a wealth of archival materials as well as interviews with all surviving participants, “Spaceship” is an involving, oddly poignant tale that should have broad appeal to those on the lookout for distinctive documentary features.” — Dennis Harvey, “‘Spaceship Earth’: Film Review for Variety


Books on Biosphere 2

Me and the Biospheres: A Memoir by the Inventor of Biosphere 2 

Me and the Biospheres: A Memoir by the Inventor of Biosphere 2In today’s world, where the problems of climate change, pollution and ecological destruction become ever more pressing, we often tend to forget about the things which have already and are still being done for the environment, in attempts to align man with the natural world.

The 2009 Winner of the Benjamin Franklin Award for Best Biography/Memoir, Me and the Biospheres is the definitive autobiography of John P. Allen, inventor of the largest laboratory for global ecology ever built and one of the most luminous minds of our time. Contained within a magnificently designed air-tight glass and steel frame structure, Biosphere 2 covered three acres of Arizona desert and included models of seven biomes: an ocean with coral reef, a marsh, a rainforest, a savannah, a desert, farming areas and a micro-city. Eight people lived inside this structure for two years (1991-1993) and set world records in human life support, monitoring their impact on the environment, while providing crucial data for future manned missions into outer space. Anyone concerned with the current world trajectory will identify with Allen’s uplifting account of the most ambitious environmental experiment ever undertaken. Humorous and Whitmanesque, Me and the Biospheres is a tribute to the ingenuity and dauntlessness of the human mind and a passionate call to reawaken to the beauty of our peerless home, Biosphere 1, the Earth.
 

APRIL 2020

Life Under Glass: Crucial Lessons in Planetary Stewardship Learned from Two Years in Biosphere 2

What has it meant to the first crew who studied and cared for Biosphere 2? What was it really like to be sealed inside a giant laboratory for twenty-four months?

In Life Under Glass, crew members, Abigail Alling and Mark Nelson with co-captain Sally Silverstone present the full account of those two remarkable years. From the struggles of growing their own food, to learning how to help sustain their life-giving atmosphere, the general reader is offered a rare glimpse into how a group of dedicated researchers managed to surprise the world and fulfill their dream. In this updated edition, a new chapter reflects on the legacy of Biosphere 2 and the state of related scientific progress. Other crews will come and go, but no one else will face the risks, the uncertainties, and the challenges that this new breed of explorers did on Biosphere 2’s maiden voyage. Here is the fascinating story of how it all unfolded—the dramatic tales of learning to live in a separate world under glass.

Browse books on Sustainability & Ecology

Peyote Road Reflections

Peyote Road Reflections

Above: Peyote Meeting at Mirando City, Texas, from Reflections on the Peyote Road, by Jerry Patchen, ESPD50 (photo courtesy of Robert Black)

What is Peyote?

Peyote, scientifically known as Lophophora williamsii, is a small, spineless cactus native to North America, populating the vast desert thorn scrub that runs from the southwestern United States into north-central Mexico. It is commonly known for its psychoactive properties. Among its many alkaloids, peyote contains the naturally occurring chemical compound mescaline which has the ability to induce brilliantly colored geometrical visions. Classed as a controlled, Schedule I substance in the United States, Native Americans have had to fight hard for the sustained use of their sacred plant.

The sacramental use of peyote is the oldest known religious practice on the North American continent. By way of example, there are three archeological specimens of peyote that were discovered in the Shumla Cave in Pecos, Texas which have been radiocarbon dated between 3660 and 3780 BCE. Petroglyphs in the area adorned with peyote motifs have also been dated to the same period. Thus, the cactus has been used by indigenous groups in Northern Americas for millennia, being an integral part of the cosmology of Huichol peoples of Northern Mexico as well as the Native American Church. 

Western Culture’s Misunderstanding of the Plant Medicine

Despite being given such reverence by indigenous peoples and the NAC, peyote has been extremely misunderstood by outsiders for centuries. Since their arrival in the New World in the early 1600s, Spanish colonists set about replacing native religions with Catholicism. Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan friar, and missionary priest wrote about peyote: 

“Those who eat or drink it see visions either frightful or laughable… it stimulates them and gives them sufficient spirit to fight and have neither fear, thirst, nor hunger… It causes those devouring it to foresee and predict; such, for instance, as whether the weather will continue; or to discern who has stolen from them…”

Upon coming into contact with peyote in Mexico, the Spanish colonialists considered it to be an anti-christian, “diabolical root” in direct opposition to the integrity of the Catholic faith. The Inquisitor General ordered Christianization at the point of the sword, and plants used in native rituals were condemned. In 1620, an official order was issued by the Inquisitors declaring that “no person of whatever rank of social condition can or may make use of the said herb, Peyote” as it was considered to be an “intervention of the Devil.”           

Spanish Imperialists brought death and disease to Northern Mexico and with this its inhabitants fled, scattering south and west. One group, the Tarahumara Indians, made their home in the remote hills of the Sierra Madre Occidental. It is believed that their successors gave rise to the Huichol or Wixarika, who are the only remaining indigenous group in Mexico that continues to use peyote as a ritual sacrament.

The Native American Use of Peyote

Peyote Drummer

‘Peyote Drummer’ Via Museum of Photographic Arts Collections

Meanwhile, north of the border the European colonization of America had begun. Over the span of a couple of centuries, the Native Americans saw their buffalo food supply deliberately wiped out, with each tribe experiencing its own genocide, land seizure, displacement, and removal to reservations.

Acclaimed ethnobotanist, Richard Evans Schultes, was among the first few Westerners to study peyote. In 1936, Schultes made his way to Oklahoma to study the ritual use of peyote among the Kiowa Indians. 

The Kiowa, a tribe of warrior people, frequently fought with neighboring tribes, sometimes making long-distance raids as far down as Mexico. It is thought that the Kiowa first came into contact with peyote in the mid-1800s through the Tarahumara Indians and other tribes who had fled south, finding a safe haven in the Sierra Madre. 

Anthropologist Wade Davis writes of the Native American’s connection to peyote in his book One River explaining that “peyote offered the Kiowa and the Comanche an astonishing affirmation of their fundamental religious ideas” in a time when their ways of life were disintegrating.

Legal Battles and the Native American Chruch

Jerry Patchen, a Texas attorney, and contributing author to our publication Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs has represented the Native American Church and US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) licensed peyote dealers (peyoteros) harvesting and selling peyote to the NAC for over forty years. 

During his career as a lawyer, he fought on the frontlines of the peyote wars, providing pro bono representation to Indians that were being charged with the serious offense of possessing a controlled substance. In his paper, “Reflections of the Peyote Road with the Native American Church – Visions & Cosmology” he expands upon his journey, helping to protect and secure the legal status of Peyote for use by Native Americans in NAC prayer services. 

To learn more about the legal trials and tribulations faced by the Native American Church watch the video below, in which Jerry Patchen reflects on his career and shares his personal experiences.

In 1912, the Bureau of Indian Affairs tried to lobby for a federal law prohibiting peyote. This law was passed by the House of Representatives but rejected by the Senate. An Oklahoman senator was swayed by his Indian constituency, persuading his colleagues to vote against the bill. Following this, the Native American Church rallied the support of several anthropologists, ethnologists, and ethnobotanists in their fight to save their sacred medicine. Among them, Richard Evans Schultes had presented a vast bibliography as well as the insights from field research with the Kiowa. Finally, the U.S. Senate Committee accepted their conclusion that peyote was not a “habit-forming drug” and is used as a “religious sacrament”. 

The efforts to prohibit the use of peyote ceased for three decades until the beginning of the 1960s countercultural movement in the 1960s where baby boomers discovered psychedelic substances and wanted to “turn on, tune in, drop out” en masse. Alarmed by the potential dangers of psychoactive substances, the U.S. government enacted The Controlled Substances Act of 1970, in which peyote was included in the drugs classified as Schedule I substances. Read more about psychedelics and the 1960s counterculture.

Patchen helped create and draft a plan of petitioning the U.S. Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and to revise the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (AIRFA) to expressly include peyote. The strategy succeeded with both Acts eventually being passed. Thus, the listing of peyote as a controlled substance does no longer applies to the sacramental use of peyote in bona fide religious ceremonies of the Native American Church. Later, this legislation played a key role in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to permit the religious use of ayahuasca. Patchen reflects that:

“Without the tenacious commitment of the NAC, there would be no legal use of Peyote or ayahuasca in the U.S. today”

What does the Future Hold for Peyote?

Donna Torres Lophophora Williamsii

Lophophora williamsii by the botanical illustrator Donna Torres

In recent years, the greatest threat to peyote is its paucity and decreasing numbers. A convergence of factors such as illegal poaching, overharvesting, and conversion of its natural environment into agricultural land has led to a severe decrease in wild populations, making it a vulnerable species. 

As early as 1995, American botanist Edward Anderson noted the change in peyote populations in his paper entitled “The “Peyote Gardens” of South Texas: a conservation crisis?”. Anderson theorized that the greatest threat to peyote was not the peyoteros who are registered with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and legally permitted to collect peyote to supply the Native American Church. In general, peyoteros are considered to be good conservationists, harvesting sustainably with the knowledge that their livelihood depends on stable populations of the plant. 

Rather, Anderson identified the two most serious threats to peyote as “root-plowing [for agricultural purposes] and the locking up of ranches to the peyoteros” with most land being privately owned. Thus, a tension exists between land-owners and peyoteros who have to take out costly leases to harvest the peyote enclosed in private land. What’s more, is that it has become more and more difficult for distributors to gain the legal approval they need to collect peyote to sell to the Native American Church. A 2018 article by Daniel Oberhaus, stated that there are currently “only four peyoteros who are registered with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and legally able to collect peyote.”

Beyond this, the number of people consuming peyote globally exceeds the plants’ ability to regenerate. Since the 1960s, New Age psychedelic tourists have been drawn to the plains of Northern Mexico seeking visionary experience. This trend has also been amplified by the fanfare surrounding today’s psychedelic renaissance, with a renewed interest in the therapeutic potentials of visionary plants. This psychedelic tourism has inevitably has impacted the availability of peyote for the Huichol.

Peyote is a fragile species liable to become endangered. The plant itself is extremely slow-growing, taking many years to reach maturity, and people are harvesting it in a very negligent way. When harvesting is done sustainably, the top of the root hardens but the plant does not die and is able to produce more peyote in the future. If poor harvesting techniques are used, the entire plant dies. 

To learn more about how to harvest peyote sustainably, check out this video uploaded by anthropologist, Bia Labate, interviewing Dr. Martin Terry from the Cactus Conservation Institute


More about Jerry Patchen

Jerry Patchen contributing author to the Ethnopharmacologic Search of Psychoactive Drugs -- PeyoteJerry D. Patchen, contributing author to Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs, is a Texas Attorney with four decades of experience litigating civil and criminal cases. Patchen’s work includes forty years of pro bono representation of the Native American Church (NAC) on behalf of American Indians to secure and protect their rights to religious freedom. Serving as an Officer in the NAC, he represented individuals charged in various states with possession of Peyote, winning every case. He also represented the Peyote dealers in Texas, who are licensed by the Texas DPS and DEA to dispense Peyote to Indians. Throughout his representation of the NAC Jerry, his wife, Linda, and their three children participated in Peyote meetings with Native American elders for decades.


Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs: 50 Years of Research (1967-2017)

Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs Box SetCertain plants have long been known to contain healing properties and used to treat everything from depression and addiction, to aiding in on one’s own spiritual well-being for hundreds of years. Can Western medicine find new cures for human ailments by tapping into indigenous plant wisdom? And why the particular interest in the plants with psychoactive properties? These two conference volume proceedings provide an abundance of answers.

The milestone publication, Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs, emerged as the brainchild of Dennis McKenna. McKenna, having attained a copy of the original publication from the 1967 conference, found himself inspired to shape his career in light of the book, delving into a lifelong investigation of the pharmacology of traditional medicinal plants.

Buy Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs

In Loving Memory of Psychedelic Pioneer and Spiritual Teacher Ram Dass

In Loving Memory of Psychedelic Pioneer and Spiritual Teacher Ram Dass

Above: Ram Dass, late 60s, from “Birth of a Psychedelic Culture”

Forever Remembering Ram Dass

Psychedelic pioneer, countercultural icon, spiritual teacher, and Synergetic Press author Ram Dass passed away last month. He peacefully departed from his body on 22 December 2019, at the ripe age of 88 surrounded by friends and loved ones at his home in Maui. 

Without a doubt, Ram Dass was one of the most symbolically representative figures of the countercultural consciousness revolution that took place in the 1960s and 70s. From formidable Harvard professor, LSD researcher, and right-hand man to Timothy Leary, he helped to initiate the psychedelic era to later becoming the spiritual teacher known world over as Ram Dass. 

Born Richard Alpert in April 1931, he graduated from Tufts University in Boston, earning a doctorate in psychology at Stanford, and becoming a high-flying professor of psychology at Harvard University. In the early 1960s, Alpert worked together with Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner at Harvard University, emerging as a figurehead in the countercultural scene. 

Higher Consciousness at Harvard

Ram Dass, Timothy Leary & Ralph Metzner

Ram Dass, Timothy Leary, and Ralph Metzner

It was under Timothy Leary’s influence that Richard Alpert came to have his first psychedelic experience. Leary had experienced psilocybin mushrooms in Mexico, holding that the experience revealed more about human psychology than he’d spent his career learning. Alpert found himself intrigued by Leary’s description of the mushroom, and soon enough an experiment had been arranged. Alpert describes his first experience with psychedelics as extremely powerful, bringing about an ego-death, dissolving the image of himself that he’d spent his career working towards. Reflecting on his dissolving identity, he said:

“‘Well, I guess I don’t really need that anymore’ and I sat back and relaxed. And the minute I said, ‘I don’t need that anymore,’ the figure changed and it was somebody else. I sat forward and there I was again, except now I was the young cosmopolite. My ‘cosmopoliteness’ was sitting over there; alright, well I guess I can do without that. Sat back. And in a sequence, all of my social roles went by— ‘loverness,’ ‘wise man,’ ‘kind person—all of my roles. With each one, I said: ‘Okay, well too bad about that one, there it goes.’”

In 1960, Timothy Leary ordered psilocybin from Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland, with the aim of investigating how different manners of administration could generate different experiences. Richard Alpert, alongside Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner (who passed away last year), collaborated with figures like Aldous Huxley, and Allen Ginsberg in order to carry out research into human consciousness, which later became known as the Harvard Psilocybin Project. 

Soon the Harvard professors began to include LSD in their experiments. Although psilocybin and LSD were both legal at the time, their research was considered to be highly controversial and its legitimacy was questioned by the faculty at Harvard, leading to Alpert and Leary being jointly dismissed in 1963. 

Learn more about LSD, it’s history, and how it was first synthesized.

Birth of a Psychedelic Culture

Unperturbed, the unorthodox Harvard trio relocated to an estate in Millbrook, New York, offered to them by heirs of the Mellon fortune, in order to continue their research. Alpert and Leary went from being academic to legendary counterculture icons, forever changing a generation of Americans with their explorations into the usness. 

An illuminating conversation between Ram Dass and Ralph Metzner is presented in our publication, Birth of a Psychedelic Culture: Conversations about Leary, Harvard, Millbrook, and the Sixties, in which they shine light on these radical experiments, and provide an understanding of the history of the sixties.

CLICK HERE to read Ram Dass’s and Ralph Metzner’s reflections in this last chapter of their memoir on a decade of experimentation with psychedelics and pioneering the science of consciousness research with their colleague Timothy Leary.

The Trap of Getting High 

Psychedelics were undoubtedly the catalysts that led Richard Alpert to India, seeking a more permanent form of enlightenment. The awakenings induced by psychedelic substances never lasted for long, and Alpert longed for a way to maintain and integrate expanded states of consciousness. Disillusioned with the experiments at Millbrook, Alpert traveled to India in 1967 in search of a more enduring experience of enlightenment. In India, he became the devoted disciple of the Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba, tenderly known as Maharajji. It was Maharajji who renamed Alpert as ‘Ram Dass’, meaning “Servant of God”.

During his time in India, Ram Dass gave his guru a hefty dose of LSD, curious to see how Maharajji would react. However, it had no impact, and the holy man was unaffected by the drug, telling Ram Dass that one could take a drug and “stay in the room with Christ for only a few hours instead of living with the Lord.” It was this notion that led Ram Dass to make his life about spiritual practice, his relationship with psychedelics taking a backseat. 

We Wouldn’t Be Here Now without Ram Dass

Be Here Now by Ram Dass

Ram Dass’s ‘Be Here Now’

Ram Dass was a major harbinger of the New Age movement, and after returning to America, long-haired and bearded, Ram Dass devoted himself to the path of selfless service, making Maharajji’s teachings his work, eventually becoming considered a guru himself.

“A guru only exists to serve his devotees, that’s the only reason for his existence. And seeing him in the physical form is only another part of the dance and another part of the illusion.”

Upon returning from India in 1971, Ram Dass distilled his spiritually enlightening experiences, publishing his seminal book Be Here Now in which he imparts the teachings of his guru Neem Karoli Baba, or Maharaj-ji. Be Here Now was perhaps Ram Dass’s most influential work, and it continues to be exceptionally resonant for generations of spiritual seekers, having sold over two million copies since it was first published. In a sense, the book made novel Eastern spiritual and philosophical ideas palatable to the Western mind, propelling the New Age discourse on mindful awareness, positivity, and higher consciousness. 

No Stranger to Death

An experienced psychonaut, Ram Dass knew the terrain of ego-death intimately, having co-authored The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead with Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner to guide people through experiences of ego-death encountered in the psychedelic experience. 

Beyond this, in 1997, Ram Dass suffered a major stroke that left him paralyzed on his right side, unable to find the words which before had flowed so fluidly. Going from being fully independent to being dependent on others, and having to learn how to speak again, he described the stroke as “ego-shattering”. Emphasizing the importance of “being here now”, Ram Dass viewed death as a reminder to live more fully, encouraging us to be in the moment and remember that our souls transcend space, time and the transient existence of the physical body. 

In the past, he had spoken of his acceptance of death. Last year, in an interview with the New York Times Magazine he was asked how he’d come to this acceptance. In response, he shared: 

“When I arrived at my soul. Soul doesn’t have fear of dying. Ego has very pronounced fear of dying. The ego, this incarnation, is life and dying. The soul is infinite.”

A Word from Michael Gosney, Synergetic Press, Associate Publisher

“It was an honor to have known all three of the main characters in the Harvard Psychedelic Club. The first was Timothy Leary, who I befriended in the early 90s during his final Chaos and Cyberculture phase when he appeared at several of our Digital Be-In events in San Francisco, and we held parties at his house in Bel Air during the Digital Hollywood conferences. I met Ram Dass at Tim’s 75th birthday where he made a theatric entrance with a gigantic bouquet of roses, symbolizing his love for Tim and the end of their estrangement at the time.

Ralph Metzner and I met in the late 90s with his participation in the Digital Be-In, and in 2003 I organized the after-party in San Francisco for his groundbreaking conference on Ayahuasca. The following year Ram Dass finally made our spirited cyberculture event when we held a Ram Dass discussion circle moderated by Wavy Gravy at Digital Be-In 13 (May 29, 2004, Memorial Day with themed “The Transparent Network”).

I have long been fascinated by the respective roles these three iconic figures played on the world stage. Timothy took the celebrity visionary path and continued to hack mainstream culture in various ways. Ralph never stopped working as a serious consciousness researcher and became the guide of guides, leading the neo-shamanic movement and helping to set in motion today’s psychedelic research renaissance. Richard Alpert in becoming Baba Ram Dass took the path of spirit, and starting with his classic transmission Be Here Now, translated age-old principles for a new generation of seekers looking for deeper insights into life than the prevailing materialist paradigm offered. His many books, seminars, and organizations (such as Seva Foundation and Hanuman Foundation) were all products of his commitment to compassion. Before his passing, he initiated the Be Here Now Network an ongoing resource from his core circle of teachers.

Although I never had the opportunity to know Ram Dass as I did the other two, events and people seemed to keep us connected, including friends who managed his tours before the stroke constrained his travel, friends who made the beautiful documentary Dying to Know, and my work over the years with Synergetic Press, which in effect began with a launch party for Birth of a Psychedelic Culture edited by Ram Dass and Ralph Metzner at the legendary Anon Salon venue in San Francisco.

The last time I saw Ram Dass was in 2016 when he wheeled up to the table at the wedding of mutual friends in Maui. Although his energy was limited that day, he took the time to come and join in the celebration and bless the event. All in attendance felt that signature loving vibration.

Thank you, dear brother, for all you contributed to our shared journey through these remarkable times. Onward into the subtle realms…”

 

Psychedelic Conversations with Author Don Lattin

Psychedelic Conversations with Author Don Lattin

Confessions of a Psychedelic Journalist: A Conversation with Don Lattin & Kat Snow

Join veteran journalist Don Lattin, and KQED Science senior editor Kat Snow at 7:00 PM, January 16th 2020 at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, for an insightful conversation traversing Don’s long, strange trip of a career investigating and writing about psychedelic substances . 

For over forty years, Don Lattin has written about the social, spiritual, and political aspects of the psychedelic drug movement as a newspaper reporter, freelance journalist, and the author of four books of narrative nonfiction.

In the 1970s, as a young reporter working in the East Bay, Don broke one of the first investigative stories about the US Army’s past efforts to use LSD as a hostile interrogation tool. He also covered the first local campaign to legalize marijuana in the United States—a political movement that continues today in ongoing efforts to decriminalize the use of magic mushrooms, peyote, and ayahuasca in cities and states across the nation.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as a staff writer and columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle, Don wrote extensively about various cults, sects, and new religious movements including a generation of spiritual seekers inspired by psychedelic drug experiences in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Lattin’s most recent book, Changing Our Minds: Psychedelic Sacraments and the New Psychotherapy, builds upon his previous investigations, presenting a broad survey of the psychedelic renaissance, covering almost all areas of this resurgence, placing emphasis on the particulars of how psychedelic substances are being used for therapeutic as well as spiritual purposes.

Listen to Don’s previous interview on the KQED Radio. 

Buy Tickets Here

The “Post-Prohibition” Era of Psychedelic Substances 

It is safe to say that we find ourselves approaching the “post-Prohibition” era of psychedelic substances. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted “Breakthrough Therapy” status to psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, as a treatment for major depressive disorder (MDD). Psychedelic substances are once again establishing themselves as therapeutic modalities, promoting both spiritual and psychological insight. In the closing chapters of Changing Our Minds, Lattin reflects on this changing paradigm:

“What is most striking about the psychedelic future is how much it looks like the psychedelic past. If today’s vision becomes tomorrow’s reality, it will be possible – sometime in the 2020s – for regular people struggling with depression, addiction or other psychological woes to seek help from therapists using psilocybin or MDMA as treatment tools – just like people could do back in the late 1950w with psilocybin and in the early 1980s with MDMA.”

Don Lattin young

Don Lattin

Psilocybin mushrooms are being decriminalized in various cities and states across the US, including Denver, CO, Oakland, CA, and Chicago, IL. It is forecasted that psilocybin, alongside many other drugs, will follow marijuana’s trajectory from illegal to medically approved to decriminalized to eventually being legalized. 

Moving beyond the first wave of psychedelic exploration, and the backlash of prohibition that ensued as a reaction to what happened in the sixties, we find ourselves in a wholly new era. We now see a massive resurgence of legitimization, with psychedelics being ‘rebranded’ or rather repositioned within the public mind, due to the growing body of scientific research that continues to highlight the psychologically beneficial aspects of these substances. Psychedelic substances are not only being used for those who suffer from mental health conditions, they are increasingly being used for the’ betterment’ of well people. However, Lattin wisely cautions:

“Psychedelic plants and chemicals are not for everyone. They affect different people in diverse ways, depending in large part on one’s intention and the setting in which these drugs are taken. But, in sometimes subtle and other times dramatic ways, they often inspire awe and wonder, providing the heightened insight and meaningfulness one may also find in dreams or religious excitation.”

Changing Our Minds: Psychedelic Sacraments and the New Psychotherapy 

Changing Our Minds by Don LattinChanging Our Minds is one of the most comprehensive and up-to-date books on psychoactive substances, their socio-cultural trajectories of use over time and their place in contemporary society. Lucid, well researched and written, Don covers the global movement of scientifically-grounded exploration of how psychedelic drugs – such as LSD, MDA, MDMA, psilocybin, ayahuasca, ketamine, and many others – have been utilized to treat conditions like PTSD, depression, addiction, and end-of-life anxiety.

“Changing Our Minds expertly explores the healing and spiritual journey catalyzed by psychedelic psychotherapy through the courageous voices of those who are pioneering the study of these treatments. An essential read for those interested in the expanding field of psychedelic research for therapeutic and spiritual uses, this volume lands at a crucial time during the re-emergence of psychedelic research as we approach the mainstream, scientific acceptance of psychedelic psychotherapy and the reintegration of the legal use of psychedelics into Western culture.” — Rick Doblin, PhD., Founder & Executive Director of MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies

Learn More About Changing Our Minds

California Institute of Integral Studies LogoAbout California Institute of Integral Studies

California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) is an accredited university that strives to embody spirit, intellect, and wisdom in service to individuals, communities, and the earth. CIIS expands the boundaries of traditional degree programs with transdisciplinary, cross-cultural, and applied studies utilizing face-to-face, hybrid, and online pedagogical approaches. Offering a personal learning environment and supportive community, CIIS provides an excellent multifaceted education for people committed to transforming themselves, others, and the world.

Stay tuned with CIIS public programs & updates for similar events @CIIS_sf

 

More About Don Lattin


Don Lattin, author of Changing Our Minds

Don Lattin is an award-winning author and veteran journalist. His five previously published books include The Harvard Psychedelic Club, a national bestseller that was awarded the California Book Award, Silver Medal, for nonfiction. His feature articles have been published in dozens of leading magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and San Francisco Chronicle, where Lattin worked as a staff writer for twenty years. Additionally, Don has taught as an adjunct faculty member at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, where he holds a degree in sociology. His most recent book, Changing Our Minds: Psychedelic Sacraments and the New Psychotherapy, was published in 2017.

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