of exercises; and then there were all the disciplines and fronts you have to put up to be part of the empire group and then the Berbers have a number of rites, ceremonies and sufi types of sciences.
David: Is this getting into what you refer to as `transvangardia’?
John: Yes. Well, eventually I and some other people evolved the recognition that there is a transvangardia. There’s not only an avant garde of the West, there’s an avant garde in every culture in the world which has an artistic tradition that is trying to reevaluate it and put it into a radically individual, contemporary way.
That cumulated existentially in our formulating the October Gallery in London in 1978. We called it the October Gallery because October is the time of the gathering of the fruits. We showcased transvangardia artists from places all over: Nigeria, Ghana, Pakistan, Jordan, Venezuela, Jamaica, Morocco, Mongolia.
We presented young artists who were just ready for their first show and also older artists like Gerald Wilde who had for one reason or another crossed the establishment and, after an initial period of fame, had been consigned to the dustbin by the powers that be. At that time, the only place in London that showed artists from a wide swathe of the world was the Commonwealth Institute which was nice but rather bureaucratic and reserved.
David: Tell us about Ecotechnics.
John: Ecotechnics was one of the first things that Mark Nelson and myself and a few others came up with and it was largely inspired by Lewis Mumford who wrote a book called Technics and Civilization. We found that technics is a very powerful way to understand what is happening. Most people divide science and technology, but technics means the world of science and technology. There is no pure physics – physics depends on the technology around it. There is no pure technology – technology depends on science and body and mind.
Mumford saw in history that there was a series of technics: there was a technics based on wind and water, a technics based on coal and steel, a technics in the 1900’s based on the alternating currents in alloys, and so on. What he called biotechnics was based on what is called ergonomics today.
We saw that the next step would be an ecotechnics, i.e. an ecology of technics and a technics of ecology. Then we would be looking at the broadest possible scale, that is to say a biospheric scale, because the biggest ecosystem is the biosphere. We formed that as a concept in about 1973 and it was the think-tank that allowed us to put together the ideas for Biosphere 2.
David: How did the Biosphere 2 get inspired then?
John: In Ecotechnics we did two things. It was a non-salaried, non-profit organization and every year we did an ecotour, through central Asia, through Nigeria, through the Amazon – wherever it was interesting to us at the time. We also had a three day conference each year where we got together many outstanding scientists. We’d generally also have one outstanding artist come like William Burroughs and Ornette Coleman. Many of these people became the cadre of scientists that enabled us to build Biosphere 2.
Each speaker would have an hour to talk and there would be an hour or two for discussion so there was a total freedom of speech. There was no press invited so a person wasn’t held to anything they said. We had Bucky Fuller, Thor Heyerdhal – many outstanding people. Bucky Fuller helped us design our first dome.
David: So you were doing quite a bit more than just theater and poetry before you got involved in Biosphere 2?
John: The first time I heard the word biosphere was at the Colorado School of Mines. That was a revelation in historical geology. The teacher said, there is a lithosphere of rocks, an atmosphere, a hydrosphere and a biosphere. Wow! I heard it all in one sentence – it was a direct transmission.
Then I carried that idea further because lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere are basically physical and chemical, they did exist with Mars and Venus as well as on Earth. So I figured that the biosphere must be the control level, and later on I found out that Vernadsky had a formal hypothesis to that effect. James Lovelock, who was completely unaware of Vernadsky, came to approximately the same thing with Lynn Margulis forty years later, but there are substantial differences between the Vernadskian geological approach to the biosphere and Lovelock and Margulis’ atmospheric and microbial approach.
Rebecca Could you describe some of those differences?
John: Lovelock and Margulis found the medium and the feedback system that made the biosphere operate as a unity, namely the atmosphere and microbes. On the other hand, Vernadsky understood geologic history, the key importance of the necrosphere, or biogenically originated matter, and of the expansive power of the biosphere.
Rebecca Tell us a little bit about the voyages of your ship, the Heraclitus.
John: By 1974, Ecotechnics was launched and our theater was going. Theater is very important because it shows you the evolution of the inner life of man, whereas science deals with the evolution of the outer life of man – adventure is what holds them both together. We supported ourselves by building and designing over two million dollars worth of adobe houses in Santa Fe and other kinds of craftwork including agricultural experiments that led to the Biosphere 2 soil system.
So we designed and built a ship in the estuary at Oakland. The idea behind the ship was that the biosphere was essentially Planet Water and that the reason no one had really understood the biosphere before was that they always went out into the trees. James Lovelock’s daisy model was wonderful, but if the daisies disappeared the biosphere wouldn’t be affected very much. The ocean at about 70% of the surface of the planet is what drives the biosphere – it can be looked at as its blood.
The ocean also gives you access to the marshes and, if you build the right kind of ship, you can go up rivers and explore the tropical rainforest. So we built a ship that could go up the Amazon, safely explore the coral reefs and sail around the world. We called it the Heraclitus because he was the last philosopher who united the philosophy of the East with the practical approach of the West.
On our first voyage we sailed out of the bay and across the Panama canal, across the Atlantic, the Mediteranean, the Red Sea and to Australia. We set up projects along the way, in France and what eventually became the Vajra hotel, a joint project with Tibetan people in Nepal.
Rebecca What kind of projects were these?
John: In France we were involved in a restoration of an old Louis XIV farm where we did more agricultural experiments. Also, we had most of our conferences there because France was a really free country in the cold war, unlike America, anyone could get a visa to come there, a Russian scientist for example.
Margaret Augustine, who co-created Biosphere 2, was a key person in all of this and she designed the Vajra hotel. It’s earthquake proof and very high-tech and it was a hotel for the merging of the East and West and North and South. We had the Tibetan canon in there, the Indian canon and the Western medical and scientific canon. So we had Rinpoches in there studying Western science and Western scientists studying the Tibetan and Hindu sciences. It’s still operating today.
Rebecca So you were creating a sort of mandala of cultural experience.
John: Yes. And we thought this was very essential to Biosphere 2. It had to address itself to the planetary. The North-South dyad had to be transcended and the same with the East-West, without either being denied.
David: What would you say were some of the most important things that came out of the two year Biosphere 2 project?
John: Well, it’s been over two and a half years actually because we had a six months transition. Basically what we learned is that the biospheric hypothesis is correct – it is a self-organizing system. Under the conditions that we put in, we had an increase of 87 coral colonies. There was someone from the Smithsonian who said something like, it’s impossible for the ocean to live, therefore I know it’s dead. They didn’t even look at it. Newsweek printed these statements as if they were facts.
In fact, the ocean self-organized. We not only showed that the total system self-organized but that various ecosystems that we put in there did. The marsh worked, the ocean worked, the rainforest worked and all as a total system, although it’s true that it works quite differently from Biosphere 1. Each biosphere will be unique in many ways, just like humans are.
Another consequence of the hypothesis that there is a class of entities in the universe called biosphere, states that there is an organized entity or being which is higher than Man and of which Man is just a part. For example, the Biosphere 2 carbon monoxide was running at about half of what it does in Biosphere 1, but the nitrous oxide was running higher and the methane was running higher. Things didn’t just all go up or all go down. There was a distinct signature in the way that it was organizing its atmosphere. It’s metabolism was quicker, the carbon dioxide circulates two thousand times more quickly than out here and also runs higher.
Rebecca And the initial conditions were that of the earth’s atmosphere, right? Do you think that after a longer period of time Biosphere 2’s atmosphere would have reorganized again?
John: It would have gone through changes in the same way that