The Call of the Biosphere: Dangerous Diminishment


Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona

After working outdoors in a t-shirt under the hot Sun all through an ominously sultry winter day, I headed in to Santa Fe on the evening of February 27 to listen to my neighbor, John Allen, speak at the Garcia Street Bookstore. Allen is founder of the celebrated Biosphere 2 experiment in Arizona, and the author of a new book, Me and the Biospheres.

Biosphere 2 has been hailed as one of the most important experiments of the 20th Century. It drew mass public attention to the reality that we human beings live in a fragile, closed environment that is impacted for better or worse by everything we do. Biosphere 1, our Planet Earth, is the global sum of all ecosystems, all living beings, all our relationships. The Biosphere 2 experiment that Allen and his colleagues brought into being in the late 1980s is a miniature Earth under glass domes — a 3.15-acre closed laboratory that emulated the ecosystems of our Planetary Biosphere.

A team of researchers moved into Biosphere 2, sealed the door, and began a complex web of interactions, experiments, and measurements of systems and relationships. In this manner they could begin to comprehend more about Biosphere 1 – our Earth – and our human influences within it. As the years have passed, John Allen and his colleagues have moved on, and Biosphere 2 has morphed to other related research purposes. But the lessons learned, and being learned, remain relevant.

After listening to Allen speak at the bookstore on that unnaturally warm Winter evening, I called him at Synergia Ranch, his home in Santa Fe County. I asked him about the status quo of Biosphere 1, our Earth. What does he hear today when he listens to the call of the land?

allen-john-jpg“There are two ways of looking at it,” Allen said. “From the standpoint of nature, the biosphere is adjusting its mass composition and energy; that goes on no matter what happens. But as for the biosphere in relation to humans, that’s something we need to be concerned about. It is getting very dangerous for us human beings.

“The current state of affairs is dangerous for the Biosphere in general, but on the other hand the Biosphere is generating responses, defenses, as far as humans concerned, such as new diseases. When an aspect of the biosphere is devastated, such as with desertification, the biosphere responds and puts in a desert ecology. But that’s not very useful to us human beings.

“If we cut down a tropical forest, then the biosphere responds by replacing it with a form of tropical forest, but a diminished form, with about 20 percent less of the tree species. The biomass may be approximately similar, but the vitality and diversity is way down. This affects humanity in many ways. It’s an impoverishment.”

In his new book, excerpted in a recent edition The Santa Fe Reporter, John Allen shares a grand radius of ecological, social, and cultural insights — all keyed to helping people and their systems respond swiftly and wisely to the urgent call of Biosphere 1.

Biosphere 1 (Jet Propulsion Lab)

Biosphere 1 (Jet Propulsion Lab)

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