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Remembering Sally Silverstone – Biospherian, Author and Friend

Remembering Sally Silverstone – Biospherian, Author and Friend

It is with heavy hearts that we write this tribute to our long-time friend, Sally Silverstone, biospherian, author and educator. Sally died suddenly and unexpectedly at her home in Bali. The world has lost another treasure as her unique life and inquisitive spirit led her on innumerable adventures few have encountered, with perhaps one of the most well-known being her participation in the Biosphere 2 experiment, living sealed within the world’s largest laboratory for global ecology for two whole years.

We at Synergetic Press, alongside Sally’s friends and colleagues at the Biosphere Foundation, are all mourning her loss. We have been working together the past months promoting her new book, and she was preparing to start teaching Biosphere Stewardship programs at the Center they build in Bali starting in October.  As we absorb this shock, her close friend, fellow biospherian, and co-author with Sally and Abigail Alling of their newly published book, Life Under Glass: Lessons from Two Years Inside Biosphere 2, Dr. Mark Nelson shares these memories on her life and legacy.

Sally Silverstone: A Remarkable Life Well Lived 

by Mark Nelson

Sally Silverstone lived a full and rich life which defies a simple, linear account. It was, for a woman so deeply connected with the Earth and the earth (soil) in which she created gardens wherever she went, a magical mystery tour.

She was always open to adventure, especially if it fell into that wonderful category of a necessary adventure. That’s one which enhances the world, the people it touches and stretches her own potentialities.

How else to explain her “yes, I will!” reaction at the October Gallery in London which she was casually visiting when Chili Hawes, in need of more actors for a stage production, invited her to join that studio ensemble of the Theater of All Possibilities. Sally wound up playing Metal Woman in sublime gold make-up and joining whole-heartedly the far-flung endeavors of the Institute of Ecotechnics.

She played a key role in the early 1980s years establishing our sustainable tropical forestry project, Las Casas de la Selva, in Puerto Rico. Falling in love with the cutting-edge project and its mountain forest location, she gained the name we knew her by “Sierra”. A mountain range indeed for her vision and unflappable ability to manage even in the midst of stress, drama, and chaos!

When she heard about the ground-breaking Biosphere 2 project from John Allen, even in simple sketches on the back of a napkin, she immediately said: “yes, that’s for me!” At Biosphere 2 she helped manage the office with dozens of architects/draftsmen and engineers racing to produce blueprints ahead of the breakneck and mammoth construction of the world’s first human-built mini-world while also training as a biospherian candidate.

Of course, she wound up in Biosphere 2, as our captain (along with emergency co-captain, Mark Van Thillo) and manager of the Food Systems. Reflecting on the achievements of Biosphere 2, I think that Sierra was our super-glue. She joked that having run a mental hospital in India earlier in her life was perfect preparation for managing seven other biospherians!! And no matter what was happening – and all hell was often breaking loose, with the steep learning curve we were all on figuring out how to be biospherians and manage a mini-biosphere, the media frenzy and power struggles outside, and the historic role that Biosphere 2 was to play in bringing the idea of what a biosphere is to hundreds of millions worldwide.

Among her strongest passions were growing food and feeding people. Biosphere 2 was the perfect place then. She led the team turning a half-acre farm into one of the most productive agricultures ever – and without using chemical fertilizers or poisons. How could we have lived in Biosphere 2 without the special treats and food and drink for our feasts which Sierra took such pleasure in concocting: from banana wine to cheeses and sausages and a million ways to make our meals memorable and distinctive even while using the same ingredients.

I was delighted when she started calling me her “Bio Buddy.” Our desks in the Command Room faced each other, and we often ended our nights there; Sierra writing reports and planning our work, while listening to the BBC, me writing in my journal, or preparing our weekly news updates.

After Biosphere 2, Sierra returned to the rainforest she loved, helping manage Las Casas de la Selva for over a decade, helping turn it into a very important project for the island and the world of tropical forestry. She was also a key member of Synergia Ranch in New Mexico during those years, alternating her time. Of course, there she restarted a dormant vegetable garden, producing food for our community kitchen.  I also was excited to work with her for years as a fellow director of the Institute of Ecotechnics and at our annual Ecotechnic conferences.

I helped Sierra with the forestry and ecological research program in Puerto Rico which brought teams of Earthwatch volunteers to the project for many years, measuring and remeasuring thousands of the 40,000 hardwoods that had been planted decades earlier. Sierra was inventive and unflappable. One example: she borrowed from the Institute of Tropical Forestry a heavy satellite phone so we could pick up GPS satellite coordinates as we laid out the random plots required for the research. Taking turns schlepping that beast of a device through rugged mountain terrain, we would sometimes stop and look at each other in dismay. The coordinates meant our plot plunged off the side of abrupt drop-offs, cliffs, and landslides. Sierra and I would stare at what lay ahead and laughing prepare to continue on all fours, carrying our precious equipment down implausible muddy slopes!

In these sad days following her unexpected death, I am struck that many have mentioned that they can’t recall Sierra saying or doing anything negative. She had a disposition ready to be a friend to all the world, like the laughing Buddha she loved. Sierra was a natural teacher and educator, always ready to work with young people and share her deep knowledge and curiosity.

She followed her heart and spent the last period of her life working with her biospherian friends, Gaie and Laser, and the Biosphere Foundation, in Bali, a place she loved, doing what she always loved: forestry, regenerative agriculture, and sharing with and teaching young people.

I’m thankful that Sierra wasn’t taken from us before completing with Gaie and I the new edition of Life Under Glass and our interview with the BBC World Service, which aired just a day before she passed. And that she was able to be part of the Spaceship Earth film, sharing the excitement and legacy of her work with Biosphere 2.

She was one-of-a-kind. She enriched the lives of everyone lucky enough to work with her. I’ll always treasure our friendship. We were part of making history.

Wherever her cosmic journey takes her, I know she’s still planting seeds, growing life, and producing feasts to share.


A Word from Matt Wolf, Director and Stacey Reiss, Producer of “Spaceship Earth”

“We were so fortunate to be able to interview Sally for Spaceship Earth when she was passing through Los Angeles on her way back to Bali. Both producer Stacey Reiss and I were immediately inspired by her contagious laughter and effervescence. She really helped us to understand the joy of being inside Biosphere 2, and the satisfaction of finding creative solutions with a group of like-minded collaborators. It’s inspiring that she brought that love for the biosphere to people around the world, especially youth, and we hope that her spirit moves others through her special presence in our film.”

Learn more about Spaceship Earth

Ecofeminism: Women’s Rights are Nature’s Rights

Ecofeminism: Women’s Rights are Nature’s Rights

What is Ecofeminism? 

Ecofeminism is a branch of feminism that recognizes the relationship between the destruction of the environment, and the marginalization of women. According to ecofeminists, the exploitation of nature and the oppression of women are inextricably connected, symptoms of the same foundational energy: masculine dominion and exertion of power.  

One of the strongest cases for this assertion can be found in the very words of the “Father of Modern Science” himself, Francis Bacon. Bacon, a major figure of the scientific revolution, is credited with developing the scientific method. 

Around the end of the 16th century, Bacon wrote at great length about human dominion over nature in a manner that squarely identifies nature as feminine and the pursuit of knowledge as masculine. In an excerpt from Restoring the Soul of the World: Our Living Bond with Nature’s Intelligence, author David Fideler examines the “shocking” imagery Bacon uses to illustrate how humans would subjugate nature.

Of his proposed scientific method of inquiry, Bacon said it wouldn’t “merely exert a gentle guidance over nature’s course,” but would “have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations.” As a result, nature would be rendered the “slave of mankind,” ushering in a “truly masculine birth of time,” will be ushered in.

As Fideler points out, Bacon seems guided by the notion that the “only reason for experimentation in the first place is to gain power over the world.” 

Colonial Rejection of Nature As a Goddess

Bacon was not the only scientist of his time to view nature as a conquest. 

In the Yes Magazine article “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Forest,” ecofeminist and environmental advocate Vandana Shiva uses Robert Boyle, a 17th-century chemist and governor of the Corporation for the Propagation of the Gospel Among the New England Indians, as an example of how indigenous perspectives on nature were suppressed by colonizers. She writes: 

He attacked their perception of nature “as a kind of goddess” and argued that “the veneration, wherewith men are imbued for what they call nature, has been a discouraging impediment to the empire of man over the inferior creatures of God.”

For Shiva, this worldview transforms the earth from a vibrant, living being, to “dead matter” that justifies the exploitation and manipulation of nature. “After all,” she writes, “if the Earth is merely dead matter, then nothing is being killed.” 

This notion of separateness between man and nature turned earth into “empty land, ready for occupation,” paving the way for the Industrial and Green Revolutions. 

The Masculinization of Agriculture 

Agriculture and the rise of sedentary villages and towns were feminine creations. But civilization and warfare were not; they spelled the end for the Great Mother.  William Erwin Thompson, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality and the Origins of Culture

In rural farming communities, women are the primary custodians of crop varieties. In her essay “Monoculture, Monopolies, Myths and the Masculinization of Agriculture,” Shiva writes that “women farmers have been the seed keepers and seed breeders for over millennia,” and play a central role as “knowers, producers, and providers of food.” 

Today, agricultural globalization has allowed for multinational corporations to gain control of land, knowledge, and innovation belonging to indigenous communities, and the women at the forefront, in developing countries. Biotechnology corporations such as Monsanto destroy biodiversity in these communities through monocropping, the practice of growing large amounts of a single crop in a field, which has been shown to have detrimental effects on the land. They have replaced renewable, diverse seed varieties with GMOs and hybrid seeds. 

Through Intellectual Property Right systems, which favor Western notions of private property, corporations patent and monopolize seeds and traditional knowledge systems that those communities have relied on for decades, destroying the livelihoods of farmers in the process. 

From the ecofeminist perspective, this maltreatment of the earth and its stewards is a feminist concern. Genetic engineering and Intellectual Property Right regimes will rob Third World women of their “creativity, innovation and decision-making power in agriculture” says Shiva. In their book Ecofeminism, Shiva and Maria Mies say that it is the “same masculinist mentality which would deny us our right to our own bodies and our own sexuality, and which depends on multiple systems of dominance and state power to have its way.” 

Shiva characterizes agricultural globalization as masculine due to the “war mentality underlying military-industrial agriculture.” The destruction of biodiversity and farmers’ rights to exchange and share seeds is intrinsically violent, she argues, against “nature’s biodiversity and women’s expertise.” 

The Western worldview equates femininity with passivity, and therefore something to be dominated, says Shiva in her book Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development. But in the Third World, women and nature are “associated not in passivity but in creativity and the maintenance of life,” she writes. 

Western women, who lack the harmonious communion with nature their Third World sisters experience, may find it difficult to “perceive commonality between their own liberation and the liberation of nature,” write Shiva and Mies. The Western women’s movement still operates within a capitalist, patriarchal paradigm, fastening its “hopes on the progress of science and technology.” 

Reclaiming the Commons

Dr. Vandana Shiva has dedicated her life to protecting biodiversity, farmers, and small communities. Since the mid-90s, she has promoted traditional knowledge and livelihoods, sustainable agriculture, and biodiversity conservation. She is the founder of Navdanya, a network of seed keepers and organic producers that provide training in sustainable agriculture. 

Reclaiming the Commons is the latest in over 20 books authored by Shiva on biopiracy and environmental justice. It presents details on the specific attempts made by corporations to secure patents on nature, and the legal action taken against them. It is the first detailed legal history of the international and national laws related to biodiversity and international property rights.

Learn more

Sources

https://womenjusticeecology.wordpress.com/2009/07/04/dr-vandana-shiva-and-feminist-theory/

http://www.compilerpress.ca/ElementalEconomics/Articles/Shiva%20Monocultures,%20Monopolies,%20Myths%20and%20the%20Masculinization%20of%20Agriculture%201999.pdf

http://www.thesouloftheworld.com/the-new-experiment-putting-nature-on-the-rack/

https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/nature/2019/05/03/vandana-shiva-seed-saving-forest-biodiversity/

Image credit: Bernard Gagnon

Crucial Lessons in Planetary Stewardship

Crucial Lessons in Planetary Stewardship

What was it like to be “quarantined” inside a giant laboratory for twenty-four months? Our new book Life Under Glass: Crucial Lessons in Planetary Stewardship from Two Years in Biosphere 2 tells the inside story of Biosphere 2, presenting the only account written inside of the two-year enclosure. 

Eight volunteers placed themselves in the world’s first mini-biospheric system, a facility that included a range of wilderness biomes as well as farm and human living area. This biospheric laboratory designed to be a new kind of experimental ecological apparatus research is where they lived separate from Earth’s biosphere for the first two-year closure mission. During this time, the biospherians devoted themselves to caring for and studying their small world, recycling their air, water, and wastes as well as growing their own food. 

We interviewed author and biospherian crew member Mark Nelson to better understand the insights gained from living in Biosphere 2, and how we can move towards being better planetary stewards individually.

Jasmine Virdi: Undoubtedly the greatest lessons that emerged from the Biosphere 2 experiment have a lot to teach us when it comes to planetary stewardship. How would you describe planetary stewardship?

Mark Nelson: Planetary stewardship is not necessarily about managing the biosphere [Earth], rather it has to do with managing ourselves and the human impacts on our planetary biosphere. I think Biosphere 2 has a number of teachings that are of crucial relevance to what is probably the greatest challenge of the 21st century. First, Biosphere 2’s lessons should motivate us to reassess how we design our technosphere; how we do business, how we farm, how we ranch, how we manufacture, and how we transport. We are coming to understand more and more, that everything we do has consequences for our global biosphere, our underappreciated life support system, affecting its natural cycles. Biosphere 2 was an amazing experiment in how to redesign and re-engineer a non-polluting technological system that is truly in service to the betterment of all life. 

That being said, what are simple, affordable, and easy steps that we can take on the individual level toward becoming better planetary stewards or better biospherians?

I get emotional when I give talks and people ask “What is the first thing that I can do to become a better biospherian?” My advice is to start by falling in love with the biosphere. In order to want to save something, you have to love it. Beyond falling in love, you need to rid yourself of the illusion that you are not in every moment of your life being supported and interacting metabolically with Earth’s biosphere. Literally every breath of air that you take is a product of our biospheric system. Our current ideas about the biosphere feed into an erroneous, dualistic, dyadic vision in which us humans are separate from the Earth. Even to imagine that the technosphere is opposed to the biosphere is incorrect – it is an integral element of the Earth’s biosphere. We need to move past the idea that the biosphere and the environment is something outside of ourselves. We need what the Greeks called metanoia, a profound change of thinking to come to realize that we are all biospherians. Stepping back from the illusion that there is the world of life separate from you is a great beginning for understanding what it means to be a biospherian. We will only be motivated to take care of our biosphere if we change our illusion that we’re not part of the systems and that it is something outside of ourselves. Biosphere 2 offered this understanding in a very experiential mode in that all of the biospherian crew members, and even those who went into our test module, grasped on a somatic, bodily level that they are connected to the biosphere. And what a great realization that is!

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.

Do you see any parallels between your two-year experiment in Biosphere 2 and the current global situation of being quarantined due to COVID-19?

Many people have been asking me about the parallels between our two-year experiment in Biosphere 2, and the COVID-19 quarantine. For us biospherians, we left an unappreciated and daily degraded biosphere (Earth), and entered a new world with the objective of assisting that new world to grow up to be beautiful, and maintain its biodiversity. In Biosphere 2, we went into as clean an environment as engineers and ecologists could possibly devise, motivated by the self-interested goal of becoming good stewards of that system. We also had the knowledge that the health of our biosphere was inextricably interconnected with our bodily health. We knew that we were metabolically inseparable from the Biosphere, having a real sense that Biosphere 2 was our lifeboat.

However, in the current situation, people are in quarantine because there is a dangerous disease agent that is out there. Despite the gravity of the situation, we are looking out of our windows at a more beautiful world. We have finally slowed down our assault on the biosphere and stopped taking for granted the miraculous processes that give us clean air, water, and food. The ‘business as usual’ approach has slowed down as a result of our quarantine, and our biosphere has become a cleaner, healthier place. We are seeing wildlife regain some confidence, pollution is decreasing, and we are finally meeting greenhouse gas and climate change goals. People are really waking up to the fact that we have a tremendous impact on our biosphere and that there is not an environment external to us. There are no small actions, everything we do has an impact for good or for ill. That truth was super obvious in Biosphere 2, but is equally true on Earth. The current situation with coronavirus serves as a good shock point for the global cadre of biospherians. Being temporarily locked out of business as usual I deeply hope will allow us to rethink what will happen when we resume “normal” life. 

What are some of the main lessons that came out of Biosphere 2?

Biosphere 2 presented a challenge to the exploitative and extractive way that modern business i.e.,  large-scale capitalism thinks about our earth. Biosphere 2 made a big statement as it included a range of wilderness biomes like a tropical rainforest, a desert, an Everglades marsh, and even an ocean with a living coral reef. Each biome had intrinsic value because it made our mini-world more beautiful, and provided habitat for some of the other species that share our biosphere. Like nature does on Earth, those natural biomes contributed to the quality of our air and water as well as the joy of living in a wondrous world.

It was recognized that each biome had its own integrity and was not free for humans to convert to farm or ranch land or exploit for natural resources. Our role within each biome was to protect its integrity, to protect against loss of biodiversity, and to keep an eye on their overall health because we knew our bodily health depended on the health of the system as a whole. People who came to Biosphere 2 saw its biospherian crew taking tender, loving care of their environment. We learned by listening to our biosphere. I think that is a very powerful lesson in planetary stewardship that can be extrapolated from Biosphere 2. This new edition of Life Under Glass is a great way to appreciate the drama, the joy, the adventure we had during the two years.

Another great lesson was that even in a mini-biome using technology to supplement the natural functions that weren’t present, it was clear that humans and technology were not dominating or “controlling” the environment. Ultimately the microbes, fungi, plants, animals, and atmospheric cycles that we were helping to maintain were responsible for our health. Nowadays, we are so in love with the technologies that we have invented and sometimes become very grandiose, running away with the notion that humans run the biosphere. Thank goodness we don’t.

“Spaceship Earth” the Film 

The film Spaceship Earth chronicles the true, stranger-than-fiction adventure of eight visionaries who in 1991 spent two years quarantined inside of a self-engineered replica of Earth’s ecosystem called BIOSPHERE 2. As the current pandemic forces us to confront the fact that the narratives that inform our modern-day existence do not serve us, this tale of dreamers reimagining a new world may inspire our own vision of the future. The film is now available to stream in the US and will be released in Europe this July.  

“To have a research station on another planet, we have to figure out how to recreate a tiny biosphere for humans. That’s what the Biosphere 2 project in Arizona was trying to do in 1991. I was so interested in this experiment that I spent time locked inside their test module. But this $150 million structure was built by a theater group instead of scientists, and therein lies the drama worthy of a film. Skip the comedy (Biodome, 1996) and watch Spaceship Earth (2020), a new sympathetic documentary on this remarkable project. What they learned, of life support and human dynamics, should be better known. (Imagine being really locked down for 2 years.)” — Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired magazine

Watch Spaceship Earth


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 details 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 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

Get your copy now!

 

Observing Earth Day 2020 During a Global Pandemic

Observing Earth Day 2020 During a Global Pandemic

The Oil Spill that Inspired Earth Day

On January 28, 1969, crude oil and gas erupted from a platform off the coast of Santa Barbara, spilling out into the Pacific waters. It blackened over 800 square miles of ocean, killing thousands of seabirds, marine mammals, and fish. At the time, it was the largest oil spill in history. Today, it is topped by only two other oil spills and remains the worst California’s waters have seen. 

1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill, Earth Day 2020 | Synergetic Press

The devastating event’s one silver lining was that it served as a catalyst for a widespread and enduring campaign promoting environmental awareness. After the spill, Gaylord Nelson, an environmentally-conscious Wisconsin senator, realized that public awareness around industrial technology’s impact on the planet needed a serious boost. Harnessing the anti-war protest energy of the 60s, he, along with a Republican congressman, a young Harvard graduate, and a team of 85 people, organized a national “teach-in” to take place on April 22, 1970. 

It was the first official Earth Day. Twenty million people took to the streets to protest humanity’s destructive behavior towards the environment. In the 50 years since its inception, Earth Day has served as a celebration of our planet and raises public awareness around pollution with events and activist initiatives coordinated worldwide. 

Our Collective Carbon Footprint

For Earth Day 2020, activists planned to celebrate the theme of “Climate Action” by organizing The Great Global Cleanup, a day dedicated to removing trash from green space and urban centers. But since the outbreak of COVID-19, and the ensuing government mandates to socially distance and stay indoors, Earth Day convergences are going digital (much like everything else). 

The pandemic is a tragedy. However, like the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, there is a silver lining to this devastating global crisis. While modern society stumbles over itself after coming to a screeching halt, the earth has a chance to breathe again. With non-essential establishments closing their doors, major airports “eerily silent,” and most people self-confining at home, our collective carbon footprint has significantly decreased. 

Clear waters in Venice canals. Photo by Marco Capovilla. Earth Day 2020 | Synergetic Press

The Guardian reports that “global carbon emission could fall by 2.5bn tonnes this year, a reduction of 5%, as the coronavirus pandemic triggers the biggest drop in demand for fossil fuels on record.” Satellites detect a drop in nitrogen-oxide emissions in China, and lower air pollution in Italy. And for the first time in recent history, the normally smog-battered skies of Los Angeles are clear and bright. An interactive map created by Earther provides a staggering visual of how much air pollution has dropped across the globe from December 2019 to March 2020. One YouTuber, PLANET NOW, posted a video showing before-and-after shots of Venice canals – once murky and green, now a limpid blue – suggesting we can maintain these conditions by reducing tourism and working from home more.

The Pandemic Slows Down Industrial Society

Things aren’t just cleaner – they’re quieter too. For those living in industrial society, slowed-down living may revitalize their relationship to the planet. Rebecca Franks, an American living in Wuhan, posted to Facebook about life in quarantine, saying: “Right now I hear birds outside my window. I used to think there weren’t really birds in Wuhan because you rarely saw them and never heard them. I now know they were just muted and crowded out by the traffic and people.” 

Michelle Fournet, a marine ecologist studying acoustic environments, tells The Atlantic that since the suspension of the cruise ship industry, “we’re experiencing an unprecedented pause in ocean noise that probably hasn’t been experienced in decades.” According to research, maritime activity (including military sonar, seismic surveys, oil drilling, dredging and ship engines) causes stress and physical damage to sea animals, altering their behavior and communication systems. 

Meanwhile, pictures and videos of wild animals traversing empty towns and cities are circulating widely on social media. Mountain goats blithely stroll the streets of Wales. A deer in Japan curiously peeks inside a restaurant window. A family of geese waltz down the center of Las Vegas Boulevard. Could the popularity of these kinds of posts speak to an underlying, collective yearning to witness mother nature  “reboot” herself, as two Twitter users put it? 

***

The pandemic has stirred the whole world into unified action in the way that other very real threats to humanity have not – namely, climate change. Decades of activist efforts to influence human activity have not been able to match COVID-19’s galvanizing effect. Now that humanity’s impact on the planet is more tangible than ever, it may be the perfect time to emphasize environmental awareness. While the usual celebration is not in order for this year’s Earth Day, we can observe its theme of “Climate Action” by reflecting on how, and why, our planet feels a little brighter, and what we might do to sustain that going forward. 

Celebrating Earth Day 2020 Online 

Join the Earth Day Network this April 22nd for Earth Day Live (starting at 9:00 AM ET-8:00 PM ET). Earth Day Live will flood the digital landscape with global conversations, calls to action, performances, and video teach-ins with the goal of mobilizing a stop to the climate emergency.

At 2:00 PM ET Dr. Silvia Earle, marine biologist, explorer, and writer of the foreword to Life Under Glass:  will be speaking, followed by a virtual Q&A featuring biospherians Mark Nelson, Linda Leigh, and Spaceship Earth director Matt Wolfe. 

Tune into Earth Day Live

Earth Day 2020 preview of the new documentary film, Spaceship Earth

The film Spaceship Earth chronicles the true, stranger-than-fiction adventure of eight visionaries who in 1991 spent two years quarantined inside of a self-engineered replica of Earth’s ecosystem called BIOSPHERE 2. As the current pandemic forces us to confront the fact that the narratives that inform our modern-day existence do not serve us, this tale of dreamers reimagining a new world may inspire our own vision of the future.
Spaceship Earth will be released on May 8. Watch the trailer above.
Biopiracy: When Corporations Patent Nature

Biopiracy: When Corporations Patent Nature

Since the early 20th century, multinational corporations have repeatedly claimed ownership of nature and indigenous knowledge systems from developing countries by means of patents, turning the biodiversity of the commons into private, commercialized property. This appropriation of indigenous resources for financial gain, with scarcely any recognition or compensation, is just one of the latest forms of colonialism, the centuries-old practice of affluent, technologically advanced nations exerting economic dominance over poorer, resource-rich countries. 

In the upcoming Synergetic Press title Reclaiming the Commons: Biodiversity, Indigenous Knowledge, and the Rights of Mother Earth, environmental activist and food sovereignty advocate Dr. Vandana Shiva lays out in great detail the legal struggle to defend biodiversity against biopiracy and biocolonialism. 

Vandana Shiva at a 1993 rally protesting GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) in Bangalore

What is biopiracy? 

Biopiracy is when a corporation patents seeds and/or indigenous knowledge, gaining exclusive control over those materials. 

Through intellectual property laws created by Western nations, they can legally lay claim on plants and traditional applications of knowledge, despite the fact they have not innovated or invented anything. The burden of proof then lies on the affected community, which often does not possess the resources or legal knowledge to contest the claims. 

One glaring example of biopiracy the case of the neem tree, which has been an invaluable, “cure-all” resource in India for centuries, and can be sourced back to a number of ancient texts. One of its applications was agricultural – a potent insecticide, neem was fed to livestock to increase soil fertility. 

In the 20th century, the general American public became increasingly skeptical towards synthetic pesticides. Naturally, this sparked a corporate interest in neem, with the industry seeing lucrative potential in its natural appeal for American consumers. Since 1985, over a dozen US patents have been taken out on neem-based solutions and emulsions. As a result, prices skyrocketed, depriving local farmers of access to their traditional plant material, and making them dependent on the company owning the patent. 

Another example of biopiracy: a poster by Navdanya, an Indian-based non-governmental organization that promotes biodiversity conservation cofounded by Vandana Shiva, protesting corporations’ patent of rice.

Effects of biopiracy

Thanks to Western intellectual property right systems (IPRs), corporations (mostly pharmaceutical and agrochemical companies) have been able to scour biodiversity-rich countries for their resources and traditional knowledge, and gain exclusive monopoly rights to anything with commercial value via patent laws. This effectively restricts those communities from access to biological resources that have been part of their cultural heritage for centuries. 

Biopiracy has drastically affected the livelihood of farmers, who are cut off from the seeds they’ve relied on for centuries. Farmers are no longer allowed to exchange seed as they used to since that is now a crime under intellectual property laws. They are forced to buy seed from these corporations, rather than saving it, and generate profits for them. According to Shiva, most of the 300,000 farmer suicides in India happened as a result of Monsanto’s falsely claiming patents on cotton, and trapping farmers in debt through cotton royalties. 

It also has a destructive effect on the environment. Often, the biodiversity of the affected regions become eroded due to practices like monocropping, the practice of growing large amounts of a single crop on the same land. While this may be economically fruitful, it does not provide the diversity needed for a healthy diet or ecosystem. 

Hierarchy of knowledge systems

Throughout the long history of colonialism, and into the present day, Westerners have regarded indigenous knowledge systems of medicine and agriculture as primitive and inferior. Hundreds of years of rich and diverse traditional medicine systems, like Ayurveda, homeopathy, and Traditional Chinese Medicine, are dismissed as unscientific – unless, of course, their knowledge is found to be useful, in which case they are appropriated and legitimized without credit. 

There also exists a fundamental tension between Western and indigenous ideas around ownership. Private property is a keystone of Western society. Traditional IPRs, which are shaped by major Western nations, reflect this individualistic value system and work in favor of corporations that seek to monopolize and control any resource that turns a profit. In contrast, indigenous perspectives are more communally oriented, recognizing the land and water to be a sacred heritage shared by everyone. 

The national sovereignty and basic needs of these regions are compromised in the name of free trade and commerce. The World Trade Organization, an intergovernmental organization that regulates international trade, has created systems of law that benefit the multinational corporations, and harm small communities. 

In this 2003 Guardian article, Shiva writes: 

The trade-related intellectual property rights (Trips) agreement is the most far-reaching of all the WTO agreements and threatens to hurt us most. It has changed the law related to patents, copyright, design, and trademarks from national to global levels and redefined vital issues of farmers’ rights to seeds and citizens’ rights to medicine as trade issues. It has also expanded patentability to cover life forms, even though living organisms are not invention. For the US, which forced the changes through, these were matters of commerce. For us, intellectual property rights are matters of national sovereignty and basic needs.

Defending against biopiracy 

There have been some positive steps made towards defending against biopiracy. 

The Convention on Biological Diversity, a multilateral treaty signed in 1993, was created with the goal of “conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.” 

Since then, there have been two supplementary agreements made to the convention. One is the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, effective 2003, which “aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity.” The other is the Nagoya Protocol, effective 2014, which “aims at sharing the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources in a fair and equitable way.”

There have also been legal cases between corporations and indigenous people in which the latter were ruled in favor. 

In 2019, PepsiCo sued 4 farmers for 10 million rupees each for growing a variety of potatoes registered by the company. They claimed their intellectual property rights were being infringed upon under the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act, 2001. However, according to the actual details of the act, the farmers were well within their rights to harvest the seed. Pepsico used false claims and intimidation tactics to nearly ruin the lives of farmers who earned a fraction of what they were being sued for annually. 

Reclaiming the Commons

Dr. Vandana Shiva has dedicated her life to protecting biodiversity, farmers, and small communities. Since the mid-90s, she has promoted traditional knowledge and livelihoods, sustainable agriculture, and biodiversity conservation. She is the founder of Navdanya, a network of seed keepers and organic producers that provide training in sustainable agriculture. 

Reclaiming the Commons is the latest in over 20 books authored by Shiva on biopiracy and environmental justice. It presents details on the specific attempts made by corporations to secure patents on nature, and the legal action taken against them. It is the first detailed legal history of the international and national laws related to biodiversity and international property rights. 

Learn more about Reclaiming the Commons


Sources

The neem tree – a case history of biopiracy
by Vandana Shiva
https://twn.my/title/pir-ch.htm

Points of Law in the Pepsico Potato Case

https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/points-of-law-in-the-pepsico-potato-case/article27060326.ece#

Biocolonialism: Examining Biopiracy, Inequality, and Power
by Ashleigh Breske

https://spectrajournal.org/articles/10.21061/spectra.v6i2.a.6/

Living on the Frontline
by Vandana Shiva

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2003/sep/08/wto.fairtrade8

The Convention on Biological Diversity

https://www.cbd.int/convention/

Seeds of Sustenance & Freedom vs Seeds of Suicide & Surveillance 

https://www.navdanya.org/bija-refelections/2019/09/07/seed-of-sustenance-freedom-vs-seeds-of-suicide-surveillance/

Protect or Plunder: Understanding Intellectual Property Rights by Vandana Shiva
https://www.amazon.com/Protect-Plunder-Understanding-Intellectual-Property/dp/1842771094

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, biospherian 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

 

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