Music of the Biospheres
“…it is in our capacity to be ther brain and the conscience of the biosphere, to be its self-reflective point.””
with John Allen
John Polk Allen was a driving force behind the development of the Biosphere 2 project in the Oracle, Arizona desert. Biosphere 2 is the largest self-sustaining ecosystem ever built, a masterpiece of human engineering that has been praised and condemned by a media that, for the most part, misinterpreted what it was all about. Both confusing it with a controlled scientific experiment or an entertainment spectacle missed the point. Inside the sealed 3. 15 acre biosphere are miniature replicas of all the earth ‘s environments, designed to function together as a single system.
Biosphere 2 was more than just a reductionistic scientific experiment. It was also bold visionary adventure, like going to the moon. As when the Wright brothers were building the first airplane, the biospherians were basically concerned with getting the thing to fly. Biosphere 2 has been a tremendous success; it broke and set many records. The relevance ofBiosphere 2 lies in the light it sheds an our understanding of the earth ‘s biosphere and its value as a prototype for permanent life-habitats on suitable locations in space.
John thinks in terms of whole systems, and he is an expert on ecological interrelatedness. Former vice-president of biospheric development for Space Biospheres Ventures, John wrote a classic article on closed life systems, which was published by NASA in Biological Life Support Technologies: Commercial Applications. He participated in the Jirst manned biosphere rest module experiment in September 1988, residing for three clays in the first fully closed ecological system that recycled all its wastes, setting a world record at the time. John is currently the chairman of CyberspheresTM, Inc., a private research and development firm that designs and builds advanced biospheric systems and semiclosed biomic systems.
In addition, he is cofounder and director of Eco Frontiers, Inc., which owns and manages several ecological research projects around the world, and Planetary Coral Reef Foundation, a nonprofit corporation devoted to studying the health and vitality of coral reefs. He has traveled extensively-very extensively–and this has contributed to his multicultural, whole-systems perspective. John has led expeditions studying ecology (particularly the ecology of early civilizations) to Nigeria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Ilzbekistan, Tibet, India, Belize, and the Altip Eano. As part of the researchfor Biosphere 2, John traveled in the ship Heraclitus to the Amazon and many other areas around the world to collect biological samples.
John is also an actor poet, film producer; and playwright. He has been a major force in the Theater of All Possibilities acting troupe far many years. He is a true global citizen who seems to he at home everywhere on the planet. He is also an accomplished author with more than two dozen publications to his credit, over half of which are scientific, while the rest comprise poetry, drama, prose, and film. John holds a degree in metallurgical-mining engineering from the Colorado School of Mines, an MBA from the Harvard Business School, from which he graduated with distinction as a Baker Scholar and a certificate in engineering physiology from the University of Michigan.
John is a swashbuckling frontiersman, an eccentric mix of scientist, artist, entrepreneur find adventurer He is warm and charismatic, filled with vision, and often appears larger than life. When he hugs you, he lifts you up off the ground. We interviewed John on April 16, 1994 in the living room of our mutual friend OscarJaniger (interviewed in our previous volume) in Santa Monica, California. Several weeks prior; trouble had been brewing at the biosphere, when its major financial investor Ed Bass, in his attempt to gain control of the biosphere, accused John and his associates of “mismanagement. ” Subsequently, Bass took over the experiment. The story of the corporate takeover of Biosphere 2 is the subject of a forthcoming book by Abigail Ailing and myself entitled Storming Eden. Even with all the uncertainty hovering about him at the time of the interview, John was radiantly cheerful and contagiously optimistic.
David: John, how have your travels around the planet influenced your desire to create a self-contained ecosystem?
John: The unity that is around the planet earth, that is the biosphere, has only very recently been recognized as a self-organizing entity. That was a hypothesis put forward in 1926 by Vladimir Vernadsky. Before that there was a `great nature’, a hypothesized `great being’, creation of God or a fortuitous collation of atoms which accidentally produced life.
But as soon as you have the idea of the biosphere and you really begin to travel around the planet earth, looking at things from that point of view, you see that the oceans, the winds, the mountain ranges, the deserts, the tropical forests are not occurring at random at all. You see that they are organized, that they have a tremendous resilience and that they’re evolutionary.
In science, the question becomes an experiment to test an hypothesis, so the idea of Biosphere 2 was to see whether a system modeled on Biosphere 1, self-organized or not. Many people in the press and many scientists predicted that the ocean in Biosphere 2 would die and that it would all turn to slime. In other words, they fundamentally followed the fortuitous collocation of atoms idea that life just happens on a planet the right distance from the sun. The wording in that kind of science, is that something is merely.
Rebecca So they didn’t think you could consciously design a system that wouldn’t just collapse into entropy.
John: Well, actually it’s modeling a system more than designing it. The thing about Biosphere 2 that very few people got was that what we did was create conditions that emulated the conditions of Biosphere 1: there is something to produce tides, something to produce water flows, pipes taking the place of rivers, things like that. But the live systems were very much modeled on Biosphere 1, that is the earth, although naturally on a highly reduced scale.
For example, the Biosphere 2 ocean is actually portions that came out of certain coral reefs, water from the Pacific and water from the Bahamas. The rainforest is designed by people who spent a lot of time there. The basic way I formulated that for them was to say, let’s create the quintessence of the rainforest, so that when you’re standing in the middle of it, you feel that you are in the Amazon.
These were not just ordinary people. They spent decades in the Amazon studied it intimately. So that’s how these terrestrial biomes went into making Biosphere 2.
Rebecca What culture that you came across in your travels had the greatest influence on you and your ideas?
John: There were a number of them. Ethnology was the first science I studied, so when I traveled around I used the idea of Ruth Benedict and Franz Boaz that there is an arc of human potential and that each culture is a part of that arc. So I didn’t go around looking for the specific culture, but rather cultures that had a bigger arc of human potential or a more incisive tranche than usual.
The Berber culture, the Sioux indian culture, Huichols, the Bora of the Amazon, the Polynesian culture, were all examples of this. The Hindu culture is exceedingly interesting because of the division of humans into castes in an old linear breeding and function program.
There is also what I call Globaltech which is the culture of the technicians of the West. It’s not officially recognized by anthropology, but I think it’s one of the most powerful cultures in the world today with probably about five million members. It includes people who can move from Moscow to Tokyo to Santa Monica to Biosphere 2, and never miss a beat; people who are basically inventing, innovating, maintaining and envisioning the next steps in the global technosphere.
David: Was there a particular culture that you encountered that forced you to reevaluate your entire belief system?
John: Yes. Actually it was a coming together of three cultures in Tangiers. There was the avant garde art culture with William Burroughs and the people around him, and then the Berber culture which is maybe 6,000 years old and has its roots in the ancient magical traditions, and also the imperial culture of the Spanish, French and British empires.
So the combination of the Western imperial culture, the native Berber culture and the Western avant garde forced a personal transformation of all values, not just on a mental and emotional level, but on a physiological and social level as well.
David: Physiological? How do you mean that?
John: Well, because the people from the avant garde were into all sorts