By Donella Meadows
–June 25, 1987–
Out in the Arizona desert they’re building Biosphere II, the first terrarium to contain human beings. Enclosed under 2.25 acres of glass will be a rain forest, a 35-foot-deep ocean, a marsh, a desert, a half-acre farm, goats, chickens, fish. Eight scientists will live there for two years. Nothing will go in, nothing come out, except electronic messages and energy from the sun.
In other words, Biosphere II will run on the same principles as Biosphere I, the earth itself.
Biosphere II is a commercial venture, intended to spin off inventions and crop varieties useful in space and also on earth. It will have to purify air and water, recycle sewage and solid waste, and grow food without chemicals, and these technologies may be marketable. But I suspect the biggest payoff will be appreciation for Biosphere I.
At least that has been the experience of the two biosphere designers I know, Vladimir Iakimets, who is Russian, and John Todd, who is Canadian.
Vladimir was one of the designers of a Soviet space station intended to support human beings for 2-3 years. He was a mathematician when he started, with little knowledge of biology, but as he reasoned the problem out, he learned, step by step, how a living planet works. There have to be green plants to turn the carbon dioxide expired by the people back into oxygen. For food there have to be higher plants. To make use of all parts of the plants, there have to be animals. To return animal wastes to nutrients to grow more plants, there have to be microbes and soil.
Pretty soon Vladimir found he needed to lift just about everything on earth up into space. Unlike the designers of Biosphere II, he couldn’t even count on gravity. If he wanted water to flow somewhere, he had to pump it. And without gravity plants might not even know which direction to send their roots.
To test that out, Russian cosmonauts tried growing plants on their long space voyages. Tulips didn’t do well in space, Vladimir told me, but onions did. The cosmonauts grew onions, harvested one at each stage of growth, and stored it in alcohol to be studied back on earth. Except on the last day. The cosmonauts had had enough of gooey space food squeezed out of tubes. They snipped the bloom off the onion, put it in the alcohol, and ate the rest.
Vladimir loves that story, because it reinforces his opinion that human beings will need to take into space a great variety of their living companions on earth, for psychological happiness as well as biological maintenance. Vladimir quotes the motto of the Soviet space program, “On Mars we will have to grow apples.” That means, says Vladimir, that the uses of space should be peaceful, and that the human body and spirit are so tied to earthly ecosystems that we cannot leave those ecosystems; we have to take them along with us.
While he was making his calculations, Vladimir was falling in love with his planet. The more he learned, the more he was impressed with the interconnected systems of the earth’s biosphere. He saw how difficult and expensive it would be to duplicate even a fraction of them; how much simpler it is to protect this earth than to create a new one. Out of the process he became a raging environmentalist — one of the few Soviet environmentalists I know.
At the same time on the other side of the world John Todd was building bioshelters. Still standing at the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod are many of the structures John created over the past 15 years, all of them little experiments of the Biosphere II sort. Algae grow in solar-heated cylinders of water, fish eat the algae, the wastes accumulating at the bottoms of the tanks become fertilizer for greenhouse plants. Beneficial insects are introduced to eat up harmful insects. Everything is heated by the sun, water is pumped by windmills. John was fooling around with these systems not to go into space but to figure out how to live a better life on earth.
As the structures got bigger and their biological communities more complex, I remember John reflecting about the use of his technologies in space. “Too many times I’ve come out and found my whole system dead,” he told me once, “because of a toxin or a bacterium I didn’t know was there. And sometimes I’ve been bailed out of a difficulty because some complex of organisms turns up that recycles something or eats some waste product. I didn’t put them there; sometimes I didn’t even know they existed. We are still too ignorant about this wonderful planet to duplicate its functions in space.”
In other words, John is a raging environmentalist too. He operates with deep respect for natural systems, a respect that grows, as Vladimir’s does, the more he learns.
Though it may not work as planned, John is excited by Biosphere II as an educational tool and a research project. His eyes sparkle when he talks about it. “By putting people in it, they’re playing real hardball. Mistakes will be life-threatening. Think how much they’ll learn!”
Maybe they’ll learn, maybe we’ll all learn, as John and Vladimir have, to treasure Biosphere I, which nurtures us, purifies our air and water, and does its best to process our ever-mounting piles of waste. Biosphere II even gives us the first rough estimate of what those free services are worth. If the project in Arizona comes in on budget, it will cost $30 million for 2.25 acres. By extrapolation that makes the surface of the whole earth worth roughly 18 million trillion dollars.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987