We’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Biosphere 2’s first mission! Hear more about it in this interview with NBC News, as Biospherian Mark Nelson describes what life was like inside of Biosphere 2 and how those lessons have shaped our thinking about future space colonization.
For a closer look at life inside of Biosphere 2, you can read more from Mark Nelson, who spent two years enclosed inside the biospheric bubble as part of the innovative experiment and discover how he developed a passion for natural solutions to wastewater recycling. As the manager of these essential systems he realized how essential the proper re-use of human waste is to the health of the planet. Join him in The Wastewater Gardener: Preserving the Planet One Flush at a Time on a global expedition of discovery, which he recounts with his characteristic humor and humility.
And for another perspective on the epic tale of Biosphere 2, turn to the legendary John Allen, who was the conceiver and inventor of Biosphere 2. Allen was first inspired when he began to learn of the sphere that supports all life on earth⸺the biosphere⸺ through study of Vernadsky at the Colorado School of Mines. Through his travels around the planet to study the many biomes that cooperate to keep earth in balance and his journeys inward through shamanic ceremonies to explore the nature of consciousness, Allen expresses the wisdom gained through a lifetime of adventure and inquiry in Me and the Biospheres: A Memoir by the Inventor of Biosphere 2.
Silver Winner in the category of Home & Garden in the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Award, 2014 Living Now Book Award—Gold Winner in the category of Gardening / Farming / Landscaping, Foreword Reviews’ 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award—Silver Winner in the category of Ecology & Environment, Finalist for the 2015 Next Generation Indie Book Awards in the category of Science/Nature/Environment, and Winner of the 2015 Southwest Book Design and Production Award for Best Cover and Jacket Design
Winner of the 2009 Benjamin Franklin Award for Best Biography/Memoir
This year the revolutionary laboratory on earth sciences, Biosphere 2, is celebrating its 25th Anniversary. The initial experiment began in September of 1991 when eight pioneering individuals were enclosed inside of its glass walls for two years. The existence of Biosphere 2 and the research conducted there continue to gain attention, as it fuels understanding of planetary systems and calls attention to the realities of our circumstances on the original Biosphere, the Earth.
In 1993, in the first moments when the human experiment was coming to a close, the biospherians re-entered the outside world after two years of stewardship in their enclosed home. Mark Nelson, who managed the wetland sewage treatment system inside of Biosphere 2, shared a few words on the experience:
Mark Nelson in the wastewater treatment marsh of Biosphere 2. Photo from biospherics.org
“We’ve come out of another world. Through that thin airlock there is another world living… What’s been surprising and profoundly wonderful is that operating Biosphere 2 has changed the way I operate my organism. To live in a small world and be conscious of its controls, its beauty, its fragility, its bounty and its limits changes who you are.”
Several recent articles have revisited the story of Biosphere 2, while highlighting the role that the facility continues to play in inspiring a new generation to be ecologically minded.
“Many older generations know of us thanks to the experiments conducted in the early 1990s,” explains John Adams, deputy director of Biosphere 2. “But we really want to engage with the younger generations.”
The experiments Adams refers to are two missions which saw a team of scientists seal themselves inside the laboratory. The first mission garnered the most column inches; four men and four women entered Biosphere 2 in 1991, vowing to stay inside the lab for two years, without any physical contact in the outside world. The team hoped to demonstrate the viability of closed ecosystems in maintaining human life, and also explore how such a closed biosphere could be used in space colonisation.
Whenever there’s an experiment at Biosphere 2, it’s a big experiment. This summer, Biosphere 2 will be home to the largest study ever conducted on how water moves through a landscape.
Photo credit: Gil Kenny
Water is clearly vital to life, but so are the minerals and nutrients it picks up as it flows through rocks and soil. This process, called weathering, underlies everything else in an ecosystem, including microbes, plants, animals, agriculture and how the landscape changes over time. . . .
“Chemical weathering is the first thing you need in order to form a habitable planet,” says Dixon. But the process is still not well understood.
Although weathering has been studied in laboratories, there is no other laboratory that can compare in providing such large-scale conditions with the benefit of being a controlled atmosphere.
. . . the University of Arizona is transforming part of the site into a “Land Evolution Observatory”—a 10-year, $5 million project to study how vegetation, topography and other factors affect the movement of rainwater through watershed to drinking water.
The substantial site provides a unique opportunity to see how water moving over the land causes changes over time on a real-world scale.
Living in Harmony at the Heart of Biosphere 2
Aside from serving as fertile ground for conducting scientific research on how water and soils operate, Biosphere 2 provides an experimental mirror for the way humanity relates to the Earth. John Allen, the inventor, conceiver and co-founder of the Biosphere 2 project provided an unparalleled opportunity to reflect on our own lifestyles. He spoke at the re-entry ceremony, when the eight people who had dedicated two years of their lives to the ambitious project emerged back into the larger atmosphere of the biosphere that we all share.
“The biospherians have shown in practice for the past two years the do-ability of a comprehensive code of ethical behavior in a new area in which we can no longer depend on the aesthetic interests of the few or the economic interests of the many to maintain proper behavior in humanity’s relationship to the very basis of our life, to the biosphere. The eight biospherians ate, slept, worked, dreamed, enjoyed and suffered, in short existed in harmony with their biosphere. Their biosphere flourished with their way of life, they recycled their food, their wastes, their water, their air. They protected biodiversity and enhanced the beauty of their landscapes. Their own bodies purified and their biosphere sparkles undimmed without a ghost-like fog of smog. They lived with high tech instrumentation and communications but in a non-destructive, ecotechnic way… Sophistication and love of wilderness blended and fulfilled their dreams. I appreciate the biospherians’ skill in operations, their integrity in research, their zest for exploration but I honor them for their ethical achievement, achieved at no small cost to their immediate gratifications, for having done what they perceived they ought to do.”
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An Architectural Overview of Biosphere 2
And to read more on history of biospherics, the creation of Biosphere 2, and its continuing legacy from an architectural point of view, check out this paper written by Antonino Di Raimo, Architect PhD, Dean of Architecture at POLIS University from Tirana Architecture Week.
This Earth Day 2016 feels like a particularly poignant moment in the relationship between humans and the Earth. Just as on Mother’s Day we take extra time to reflect on our debt of gratitude to Her who gave us life, we similarly take the opportunity of raising Earth Consciousness on Earth Day to consider our connection with and appreciation for our Mother Earth.
Earth Day began in 1970 as a reflection of the growing awareness of our responsibility to the planet and the web of life – including us – that it supports. At the time the influence of Eastern spiritual thought and the introduction of psychedelics inspired a more holistic view of our relationship with the natural world. The realization dawned that our industrialized civilization was having negative impacts on the biosphere and that environmental protection was a growing necessity.
As we reflect on the Earth in the early decades of the 21st Century, we see radical imbalance. The Ecologist reported that climate scientists have reached a consensus that human activity has been driving climate change. There is a growing recognition that we have entered a new geological time period known as the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene Working Group has found that “humanity’s impacts on Earth should now be regarded as pervasive and sufficiently distinctive to justify a separate classification.”
Humans have introduced entirely novel changes, geologically speaking, such as the roughly 300m metric tonnes of plastic produced annually. Concrete has become so prevalent in construction that more than half of all the concrete ever used was produced in the past 20 years.
Wildlife, meanwhile, is being pushed into an ever smaller area of the Earth, with just 25% of ice-free land considered wild now compared to 50% three centuries ago. As a result, rates of extinction of species are far above long-term averages.
But the study says perhaps the clearest fingerprint humans have left, in geological terms, is the presence of isotopes from nuclear weapons testing that took place in the 1950s and 60s.
We can feel overwhelmed when we see the environment faced with so many threats. How do we begin to change our lives in ways that will have a meaningful impact on the global situation? We need to embrace the challenge of living in harmony with the planet.
A new kind of nature is being created, one that is shaped by humanity. It consists of the sum of all the changes caused by humans on earth.
As we come into a deep understanding of the impact of our actions on the global community, Nature is calling us to redesign our lifestyles, adopt new social structures, rewrite the codes of our major institutions, and regenerate the planet’s natural systems. To do this requires breaking free from conditioned consumerism and enforced separation. We have the responsibility to care for the Earth by making choices that support the flourishing of the planet and its people, from our next-door neighbors to the members of remote tribes. This responsibility is also to ourselves, as we owe our existence to this interdependent web of life. By making changes in our lives at the individual level, we will see that change reflected in the whole world.
Taking on Earth Consciousness – and Taking Action
Now is the time—the critical moment on our timeline—to leverage the overarching vision and tools afforded by our understanding of Earth Sciences and the wisdom provided by traditional indigenous cultures. The message of Earth consciousness is growing louder. It reaches us from the voices of Amazonian plant teachers, such as ayahuasca, and from indigenous wisdom. Scientists have been confirming the healing effects of these ancient sources of wisdom, affirming the use of these tools that lead us to a more integrative, whole system perspective of our relationship to the biosphere.
Books are some of the most powerful tools to we have to evolve our consciousness and guide our actions. Synergetic Press publishes books that carry the code of a sustainable, regenerative, thriving human future. We focus primarily on Earth science and evolving human consciousness, which we see as complementary aspects of humanity’s continuing evolution. See some of the titles below to explore the ideas that form the foundation of Earth Consciousness.
Tony Juniper was interviewed for Forbes by John Converse Townsend to talk about about climate change, sustainability, and how nature is actually the basis of economic activity.
Here are a few of the responses that Tony gave, and you can read the full interview here.
What were the most pressing issues now, and how have they changed?
For a long time, effort was necessarily devoted to gaining some agreement as to the scale of the challenge at hand, while making the case for what with hindsight looks like relatively narrow action to address some of the symptoms of it, such as pollution control laws and protection for some areas of especially important natural habitat. Today, the job at hand still embraces this kind of work, but is now also about making the case for completely new ways of looking at business, and indeed the economic system that determines which ones do well and those who don’t. There are also big questions of culture on the table, for example about what follows ‘consumerism’ as a viable and sustainable way of meeting people’s needs and desires.
There’s a growing body of research that suggests that when we fail to protect nature we end up with long-term losses, despite potential short-term gains. Why is that not only difficult to understand and accept, but also to act on?
One big reason why we fail to act in the face of overwhelming evidence is because of our human propensity for short-termism. This is a well-known psychological phenomenon and is manifest in politics, economics, and the media. Politicians have short terms of office. Economics works in part on quarterly financial results, while the profile of stories in the media is generally fleeting and very much about events, rather than the trends that shape the long term, such as climate change and ecosystem degradation.
On top of this is the fact of uncertainty. For while we know that there are long-term risks inherent in unsustainable behavior, no one can predict how they will unfold in the real world. Various skeptical voices have focused on this to create doubt as to the need for any action, nevermind decisive moves in the short-term so as protect more distant interests. Despite the blockages toward longer-term thinking, a lot of people are seeing the need for it and finding ways to do it.
The world’s climate scientists have explained how to avoid drastic global warming and… well, it’s not easy. But what is working best, and what do you consider to be our best hope for sustainability?
One thing we need to realize is that sustainability is not only about climate change. That is a big part of it, but there is a whole lot more. It is also about society and the economy, and how we can share the productive capacity of our Earth between even more people than we have now. That is a big political issue, and political issues tend to get resolved when voters demand that solutions are provided by the people they elected. This leads me to believe that a very big part of what is needed relates to the rather neglected subject of awareness and how to spread it. The more people know about what is happening, the more likely they might be determined to see solutions to protect them and their children. The fact that sustainability issues are rarely debated properly in the media is a serious cause for concern.
In 1926, Vladimir I. Vernadsky introduced the term “biosphere” to the scientific world in his seminal research paper “The Biosphere.” Many of his ideas outpaced their time, but we’ve finally been starting to understand what he meant. We can continue to uncover Vernadsky’s comprehensive mind through the writings he left, such as essays like Geochemistry & the Biosphere.
The following video examines the groundbreaking work of Vladimir Vernadsky and the ways that his ideas continue to inform scientists today.
He was born in the 19th century, the prime of his career was in the 20th century, but to talk about Vernadsky’s work we can look at the present day:
At an Antarctic research station, his idea of bio-inert bodies is shedding light on the life that exists below the surface of the rocks. Communities of green cyanobacteria thrive as they conduct photosynthesis with sunlight that penetrates the top layer of rock. The interaction of the rock and cyanobacteria forms a system of life, creating a unique, natural bio-inert body. Vernasky coined the term “bio-inert substance” in 1926 to describe a substance that results from the interaction of living organisms and abiotic natural processes. But we don’t need to travel all the way to Antarctica to find an example of this phenomenon.
He advocated that all rocks, all materials on Earth contain the presence of life. The idea of “the everywhereness of life,” that life spreads in a way similar to gas throughout the biosphere was revolutionary. He conceived the idea of considering the living organisms on the planet as a whole, which he called “living matter.” This living matter participates in the geochemical processes of life on Earth, such as the Earth’s crust. This led to the formulation of the study of biogeochemistry. Vernadsky’s ideas were so comprehensive, they encompassed the interactions of systems into more holistic understandings of the processes on the planet. He formed generalizations at the largest scales of life based on examples from the smallest realms of matter.
He understood the unity of life to include all of the living organisms on the planet, bringing him to the concept of the biosphere. What is a biosphere? Vernadsky explored this question and included the deepest depths of the oceans in the hydrosphere, into the lithosphere including the Earth’s crust and extending upwards to the heights of the troposphere in the atmosphere surrounding us. The term biosphere was first coined by geologist Eduard Suess in 1875, but Vernadsky formulated the modern understanding of what we mean when we talk about the biosphere.
Many misunderstand the biosphere to mean a community of organisms, but Vernadsky was saying that the biosphere is the medium of life itself, the environment in which life exists and is created. Following successful research on Vernadsky’s biospheric ideas, UNESCO established Biosphere Reserves to serve to protect ecosystems and act as hubs for research. There are over 600 of these Biosphere Reserves around the world today!
John Allen, ecologist, writer, engineer and adventurer was the key ideologist who inspired the project of Biosphere 2. The works of Vernadsky, such as “Biogeochemical essays,” “Biosphere,” “Biosphere and noosphere” acted as the starting point of the experiment. The goal of the project was to create a self-sustaining, closed ecosystem that could support human life in an externally hostile environment. Seven biomes were created with the closed system of Biosphere 2: desert, savannah, tropical rainforest, ocean with coral reef and mangrove estuary, and an agricultural area for farming. Many lessons were learned about balancing oxygen and carbon dioxide levels for human life when considering the balance of soils and plant life within a closed system. One of the biggest lessons from Biosphere 2 is how little we understand of the incredibly complex nature of life in the biosphere. Vernadsky’s ideas continue to serve as the foundation for the ongoing research in Biosphere 2 which transcends disciplinary boundaries.
Vernadsky viewed all life as impacting the geological processes of the Earth, and considered humans to be “a geological force of planetary scale” in the short time that we have been on the planet. From his view nearly a hundred years ago, he foresaw the Anthropocene Era, describing how through human activity the features of the Earth are being converted along with the entire biosphere.
The power of humans in this situation, according to Vernadsky, is the power to predict and foresee possible outcomes. In foreseeing what may happen, we have the power to change our behavior. The biosphere with intellect “noos” becomes the noosphere. In his final work “A few words on noosphere” in 1944 he wrote, “…We are now experiencing a new geological evolutionary alteration of the biosphere. We are entering the noosphere…” The idea remained undeveloped by Vernadsky with his passing, but we continue to work with the concept today. With the coming of the noosphere, humanity will work with nature in facing critical conditions with technology and insight. Vernadsky remained optimistic that reason will win and bring not only power to humanity, but also a sense of self-restraint based on an understanding of our place in the biosphere.
The comprehensive, scientific mind that Vernadsky brought to our understanding of life has increased in relevance since his lifetime. His visionary viewpoints are captured in Geochemistry and the Biosphere: Essays by Vladimir I. Vernadsky. Now available in an ebook edition, Geochemistry and The Biospherecontains Vernadsky’s groundbreaking work on the biosphere and the noösphere, as well as his seminal work on geochemistry. A recognized catalyst written over sixty years ago, this premier scientific work addresses in detail humanity’s impact on the living systems of the planet. An understanding of Vernadsky’s work is absolutely crucial to grasping planetary processes and acting as better stewards of the earth.
At the core of consciousness researcher and pioneering psychologist Ralph Metzner’s work is an attempt to understand our eco-psychology: how we as human beings relate to the natural world.
This conversation between consciousness pioneer Ralph Metzner and eco-visionary Michael Gosney was recorded at the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies conference in Oakland, California (the annual gathering of scientific research on the healing and psychological effects of entheogenic and psychedelic agents found in nature) this Earth Day 2013 edition of Eco Evolution features a wide-ranging conversation with one of the most informed minds on the human condition, and potential.
Cannabis and entheogens used for veteran’s post traumatic stress syndrome
Community currencies and banking systems
The role of media in our eco evolution, and more
Underlying this conversation is the increasingly relevant message of the deepening awareness in our collective psyche that we are out of balance with the divine, and that this divinity reveals itself in the loving intelligence of the living planet in which we are embedded.