All There Is and Then Some


Civilisation Is a Pyramid Scheme

It is difficult to live in the present, ridiculous to live in the future, and impossible to live in the past.  Nothing is as far away as one minute ago.

- Jim Bishop


by Ronald Wright, archæologist

The Maya's ruined temples reveal a frightening message for us all

Saturday - The forest is so thick that you enter the city without knowing it is there.  Then shadows deepen and, looking up through the leaves, you see a stone tower blazing in the sun.  The buildings might be cliffs or hills, except that here is a stairway smothered in roots, a mossy statue, an inscription.  You walk all day, yet never leave forest or city.  The one seems to grow from the other - trees from buildings, buildings from trees - as if they have always stood together, as if the stones were cut and raised by the jaguars who make their dens in dripping vaults, as if the writings told the epics of the bats.

People of our time have come and dug beneath the streets and floors, asking, What happened here?  Where did the builders go?  What silenced the writers?  Why were the astronomers, who could trace the planets far into the past and future, blind to their own catastrophe?  And if not blind, why powerless?

The fall of Classic Maya civilization in the 9th century has long intrigued archæologists.  Now answers are emerging that should worry us all.  Tikal, the greatest city, seems a Manhattan of art deco pyramids (Maya architecture influenced the modern style) presiding over a conurbation of 120 square kilometres.  It took 1,500 years to reach that size, yet all of Tikal's skyscrapers were built in its final century, an extravagant flowering on the eve of collapse.

Copan is less grandiose, with exquisite sculpture, the statues of its kings radiating order and refinement.  Yet excavation has shown that this city, over centuries, smothered the rich soil from which it grew.  The best land was paved, the hills were stripped for farms and timber.  The ruling class (revealed by their bones) grew tall and fat; the peasants became stunted.  The end was an agony of ecological and social chaos, a scramble for resources in a top-heavy, shrinking world.  Diggings at Dos Pilas have exposed a final moment, the people huddling in the city centre, tearing stone from the temples to throw up barricades.

Earth is full of dead cities.  Civilisations, like individuals, are born, flourish and die.  Except ours.  Ours, we believe, is different, the beneficiary of all the rest.  The sunny afternoon in which we thrive will stretch ahead forever.  In this belief, we carry on our lives against the evidence of time.

Civilisation (I use the word in the anthropological sense to mean complex, populous societies) is, in round figures, a 10,000-year experiment that began with the invention of farming in key areas - the Near East, Southeast Asia, Mesoamerica and Peru.  Farming led to towns and cities, to specialists and priesthoods, to the rule of many by few.  With this came wonderful things: most of art, literature, music, science.  Civilisation also displaced other ways of life, often forcibly.  There are now no viable alternatives, no blank spaces on the map.  There is no going back without disaster.  As we climbed the ladder of progress, we kicked out the rungs below.

Ten thousand years may seem long enough to declare an irreversible success.  But it is less than 1% of our career on earth.  Even our modern subspecies, homo sapiens, has existed 10 times longer than civilisation.  The settled way of life we regard as normal today is not the life by which, and for which, we evolved.  So why were there no civilisations anywhere until 10,000 years ago, when they spring up independently on nearly every continent?

The date is significant, and possibly ominous.  Studies of ancient climate show that the world's weather has been unusually stable since the end of the last Ice Age.  We couldn't have invented farming earlier, even if we'd tried.  Now we face evidence that civilisation itself is destabilising the long run of good weather in which it has grown.

Civilisations rise because they find new ways to exploit natural and human resources, to tip the balance between culture and nature.  They feed on their local ecology until it is degraded, thriving only while they grow.  When they can no longer expand, they fall victim to their own success.  Civilisation is a pyramid scheme.

The cusp between rise and fall is a matter of scale, of demand outrunning natural limits.  Nomadic bands of hunters and gatherers could live in the Near Eastern marshes and floodplains indefinitely.  Their impact was slight; their numbers waxed and waned according to the abundance of prey and vegetation.  Then, slowly, they began to plant and reap.  All went well for a long time, bringing surplus and stability to food supply.  On lands where a few once roamed, thousands toiled in wheat fields.  At slow times in the year, they were kept busy with public works and monuments.  This was the end of Eden, the beginning of our world.

But there was a cost, a debt to nature accruing so gradually it was seldom observed, let alone understood.  Woods dwindled and receded, denuded land became prone to drought and flood (including, perhaps, the Flood), irrigated fields turned sour.  The cities of the plain turned their surroundings into a saltpan.  The desert in which their ruins stand is a desert of their making.

In the past, these cycles were regional.  As Rome fell in the Mediterranean, the Maya rose in Central America, and so on; the setbacks were local, the overall experiment kept going.  But now the 10,000-year bets all rest on a single throw.  We have one big civilisation, feeding on the whole earth at such a rate that we can observe the exhaustion of natural capital within our lifetimes, whether it be the loss of wildlife, water, coral reefs or rain forests.  We are razing forests everywhere, we are irrigating everywhere, we are fishing everywhere, and no corner of the biosphere escapes our hæmorrhage of waste.  Even if we ceased this minute, our dominion over earth would still appear in the fossil record as a blight like the impact of an asteroid.

There's a saying in Argentina that each night God cleans up the mess the Argentines make by day.  This seems to be what all of us are counting on.  During the 20th century alone, our population multiplied by four, while our consumption grew by 40.  Yet the number in abject poverty today is as great as all mankind in 1900.  Is this progress?  Can the stock market be trusted to run the world?  Or is our consumerist boom the illusory wealth of wastrels blowing an inheritance - by no means only their own?  Is the promise of prosperity for 6 billion the Big Lie of our time?

History will soon answer the paramount question: Will the 10,000-year experiment turn out to be a failure?  In my dystopian satire, A Scientific Romance, I pictured a verdict we may hear: our busy cities fall as silent as Tikal.  I hope I am wrong.  What is certain is that we have one last chance, at best, to get the balance right.  There is no more room for mistakes, no room even to do nothing.  If we fail to limit our numbers and our impact, if we do not replace our gold-rush economics with a rational sharing of what the earth can yield, this new century will not grow very old before we enter an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all dark ages in our past.

History shows that such a reformation is unlikely.  So do current events.  According to United Nations figures, the 3 richest individuals have a net worth equal to the poorest 48 countries.  As I write, the greatest power that has ever existed is planning to spend $60 billion on a new arms race, a sum that could provide the world with safe drinking water and leave $20-billion in change.  The typical response of the mighty is to go on building higher pyramids while the storm clouds gather, like those long-dead Maya kings.

Ronald Wright's books include Time Among the Maya and Stolen Continents.  His latest, the novel A Scientific Romance, won Britain's David Higham Prize for Fiction. 

PROUT - a new socio-economic philosophy that balances the material, the intellectual and the spiritual - is available on or

Source: unitholder David Chilvers 15 Aug 2000

Temple Timbers Trace Collapse of Mayan Culture

Temple II at Tikal, Guatemala, Central America.
New evidence suggests that the Mayan civilisation collapsed because of a lack of resources rather than other factors such as disease or warfare.

The builders of the ancient Mayan temples at Tikal in Guatemala switched to inferior wood a few decades before they suddenly abandoned the city in the 9th century AD.  The shift is the strongest evidence yet that Mayan civilisation collapsed because they ran out of resources, rather than, say, disease or warfare.  Researchers led by David Lentz, a palaeoethnobotanist at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, sampled wooden beams and lintels from all 6 major temples and 2 palaces within the ancient city of Tikal.  The first 3 temples, built before AD 741, used only large, straight logs of the sapodilla tree - a particularly strong wood that is nevertheless easy to carve with ceremonial inscriptions.  But after that date, large sapodilla logs were almost entirely replaced in temple construction by logwood, a smaller, gnarly tree that is almost impossible to carve.  "It's definitely an inferior material," says Lentz, who reasons that the temple-builders would only have accepted logwood if they had run out of suitable sapodilla trees to harvest."

Source: Journal of Archaeological Science, DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2009.01.020 via New Scientist 2 June 2009 photo source Doug Traverso / Robert Harding / Rex Features

Do We Need Nature?

Man as Nature

Life is a dynamic pattern, which it is assumed emerged from the complex chemical reactions of amino acids.  Life began with bacteria; this paved the way for all higher forms of life, including man.  Rather than diminishing in importance over the eons, bacteria today provide mankind with oil, fertiliser, medicines and oxygen.  Bacteria generate the power used by the cells of both plants and animals.  They recycle waste.  They provide living organisms with the elements essential to maintain life.  It is, in fact, possible to think of man as simply an elegant, emergent property of bacteria.

An "emergent property" is one which is exhibited by a completely hooked-up system.  It cannot be detected in any of its individual parts because a dynamic transfer of some kind is absolutely required.  The observed coherency which emerges is produced by the underlying network.  The systems in which this observed coherency exists can interface only at their same level - that is, with other selves or identities of the same kind.  (Try as he might, a man cannot communicate meaningfully with a bacterium.)  Between bacteria and men, all other aspects of "nature" can conceivably be viewed as simply intermediate steps along a path - the corridor of development leading toward the required complexity and scale necessary to generate a subsequent emergent property - man’s ability to transcend his genes.  Man is now endowed with a nature of his own.  How he develops it in the future remains to be seen.

Evolution is marked by a continuous increase in complexity.  Long before man evolved, complexity first arose in the form of archaebacteria, extremely primitive sulphur-eating organisms.  These single-celled organisms require neither the sun’s light nor heat, they are extremely robust, and they differ radically from anything else on earth.  They are able to live in acid, soda, and salt; in extreme cold and extreme heat.  Consequently, archaea thrived.

Complexity continued to increase as organisms evolved and competed.  Next to make a major impact on the history of life were the cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae, though they are not related to true algae).  Cyanobacteria have been tremendously important in shaping the course of evolution and Earth’s ecology because they were the first life to directly utilise the most abundant source of energy available - the sun.  Cyanobacteria can photosynthesise, and as a byproduct of this ability they release a poisonous gas - oxygen - which has changed the world radically.  As cyanobacteria thrived and spread, oxygen concentrations skyrocketed, forcing archaea to retreat to places well-protected from this terrible toxin.  Today, archaea are mainly found around deep-sea sulphur vents, in sewage sludge, and in the guts of ruminants.  Cyanobacteria caused the range of possible chemical reactions which could sustain life to shift to one more familiar to us today: one based on carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.

These new chemical processes available to life enabled another increase in complexity.  New bacteria called eubacteria (or "true bacteria") arose which do not depend directly on sulphur or on photosynthesis.  Eubacteria instead depend on other life, surviving by recycling and reprocessing biological detritus.  Collectively cyanobacteria and eubacteria are known as prokaryotes (literally meaning "before nuts" as they contain no membrane-bound nucleus or organelles); they are absolutely integral to life as it exists today because the essential elements of living systems must continuously be converted from one form to another and redistributed.  Prokaryotic cells make up 80 - 90% of all biomass on the planet; not only are they essential for all higher forms of life, but many scientists believe airborne bacteria are behind the formation of clouds and rainfall.

The next step up the evolutionary ladder occurred with the development of the eukaryotes.  Unlike prokaryotes, eukaryotes (which initially included fungi, algae, and protozoa) have a nucleus.  Eukaryotes also have flexible cells walls, which allow them to "stack" into multi-cellular organisms.  While virtually every cell is capable of behaving as a free-living entity, cells at that stage began to assemble themselves into interactive communities.  These social organisations resulted from an evolutionary drive to enhance survival.  Original cellular communities consisted of from tens to hundreds of cells.  This clustering allowed for a vast increase in survival success, but initially resulted in the inner layers having a limited ability to obtain energy - consequently, the first organisms tended to look like hollow balls.  But this problem was soon solved by forming a symbiotic relationship with the cyanobacteria - bacteria became "embedded" in many types of eukaryotic cells.  The evolutionary advantage to living in communities soon led to organizations comprised of millions, billions or even trillions of socially interactive single cells.  (Indeed, a single fungus has recently been discovered in Oregon which covers 2,200 acres.)

One subject often not included in discussions of evolution is that of viruses.  There is some debate over whether these structures are even alive and, if so, when and where they arose.  Some argue that viruses, not bacteria, were first to cross the barrier from chemical process to biological system and think bacteria were a later development.  Others argue that viruses would have been unable to survive without bacteria and represent an error in replication at some unknown point in life’s ancient past.  Regardless of whether viruses are alive, and regardless of their source, they, too, have been an integral part of evolution.  Traces of retroviruses (viruses which have inserted themselves into a cell’s DNA) are found throughout virtually all genomes and can be productively harnessed in the future as genetic engineers.  Prions, those unusually-folded proteins that replicate themselves in not-completely-understood ways, may represent another accidental, and perhaps dead-end, branch of life.  Their contribution to evolution appears negligible at this time.

While scale alone does not equal complexity, function, too, had been steadily increasing.  Fungi combined with bacteria to form hardy lichens.  That same technique also opened the door for plants to develop.  The chloroplast, by means of which plants make carbohydrates, is actually a cyanobacterium which has been incorporated into each cell.  Many plants, especially legumes, formed another symbiotic relationship with nitrifying bacteria by providing specialised tissues in their roots or stems to house them in safe environments.  In return, these plants receive organic nitrogen which boosts the energy they can utilise from their surroundings.  Historically, these plants grew bigger - and more complicated.  Eventually, plants perfected the process of photosynthesis begun by cyanobacteria - they evolved broad leaves that continually turn toward the sun.  This augmented the oxygen-rich atmosphere being built up by the cyanobacteria.

Plants represent fairly simple and efficient systems.  Even more complex systems soon developed as well - animals. In an effort to gain a competitive advantage, other strains of bacteria took up residence within eukaryotic cells, converting food to usable energy for their hosts in return for safe shelter.  Instead of photosynthesizing, these specialised cells process a different sort of fuel, the phosphates.  Thus did mitochondria originate and become the source of human cellular energy, as well as that of all multi-cellular animals.  In both plants and animals, in order to survive at high densities, cell communities evolved highly structured environments, subdividing the workload among themselves.  This led to the creation of hundreds of specialised cell types.  The structural plans to create these interactive communities and differentiated cell types were written into the genome of each cell within the community.  The motile, complex organisms which used mitochondria developed into the various types of animals we know today.

Although each step has been gradual and has built upon the one before it, life has managed to move from sulphur-eating bacteria so simple as to seem more like small machines than living organisms, all the way to large, complex animals.  Indeed, life appears "geared" for evolution, as it has consistently moved in the direction of greater complexity, with animals at the apex.  Indeed, by some measure, amphibians such as frogs might be considered the most advanced of all due to their long genetic code - although, oddly enough, if mere length were truly the primary measure of genetic complexity, the winner would be ferns, some of which possess more than 1,000 chromosomes.  Obviously there is more to genetic complexity than just genomic length - one must also consider what the code allows the organism to do.  On the measure of capability, humans are the current "pinnacle" of evolution (or so it would seem).

Cyanobacteria are complex not because of the density of their genetic code (they have only one chromosome), but through their genetic scope - their 2,500 (or so) genes possess capabilities which had a massive effect on the world.  Cyanobacteria are what flipped the earth from a reducing to an oxidizing atmosphere, allowing new life forms to follow.  Equally, humans are busy making their own radical changes.  What is interesting about human activity is that it no longer appears to be merely a function of genetic code alone.  Cyanobacteria are little more than living photovoltaic cells, and presumably have no feelings or thoughts on the subject of sunshine.  To the extent that earlier species adapted their environment to suit their needs, presumably they did so unwittingly.  But humans do things differently.

Human activity shapes the environment to the degree it does because of man’s capability for information storage and exchange.  The complexity of early organisms existed in their genomes because that is all they had available.  The only way in which cyanobacteria "know" how to photosynthesize is because that is what they "are", but humans can read how to build a photovoltaic cell without having the blueprints encoded into their DNA.  To this extent, the libraries of knowledge men build are directly comparable in terms of effect and complexity to the genomes of lesser organisms.

Knowledge is not, of course, a binary on-off switch.  Many species have a limited ability to learn tool use and a few (for example, octopi), can learn merely from watching others of their kind learn.  But, except for man, animals’ knowledge storing and transmission capabilities are both limited and extremely fragile.  Any collapse or disruption of their "culture" runs the risk of wiping out their acquired knowledge.  Even when all goes well, at best, the crow that discovers how to use a twig to fish an insect from a hole will be observed by a few dozen others of its kind.  Given the losses inherent in living systems, almost every spark of knowledge soon sputters out.  But humans, first with spoken language, then with written language, the printing press, and now with electronic data processing and instant, world-wide connectivity - in short, with civilisation - have managed to formulate a very different equation.

Civilisation has brought about the reality that man is now more diverse than other animals - not through genetic changes, as had been the case in the past, but through differences in his capacity to absorb and use stored knowledge.  Today, man more-or-less creates his own surroundings.  Through a process of continuous change, earth has evolved this thinking entity to facilitate the onward evolution of life.  Man is not an impediment to nature, nor does he need it - man is nature - his own.  Complexity created man, but scale constrains him.  Scale provides context, sets boundaries, and influences perspective. The earth is finite and thus so is man’s ultimate future.  Either man must restrain his scale - his numbers, his conversion of energy and his production of waste - to always stay below the earth’s regenerative powers, or he must increase the intensity of his energy use in hopes of creating a "burn" that will boost him to another environment - another planet, perhaps one whose excess resources will allow a further dynamic expansion, an expansion whose scope and direction can only be speculated.

We Like Elephants and Whales a Lot, but They’re Awfully Big

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan on Thursday said growing US demand for natural gas to fuel factories and electricity plants
may outweigh environmentalists' desire to preserve wilderness areas that contain energy reserves.

- Reuters 10 July 2003

Do we humans really need nature?  The answers are "yes," "no," "maybe," and "what, exactly, do you mean?"  First, what IS the nature of Earth?  In its most basic sense, you might call it a life support system.  It runs the carbon cycle, cleans air and water, maintains stockpiles of obscure species in case they’re someday needed, provides a climate regulation facility, and otherwise supplies hundreds of vital services.  It’s generally pleasant, often pretty.  Put that way, of course we need it - much as we need food, shelter, transportation and art.

Anyone who’s ever entered the Grand Canyon or walked among a grove of ancient redwoods knows there is a communion with geological time that occurs which dwarfs every step.  But is it their age - or their vertical nature that awes us?  Is it nature that provides us with that delicious feeling of wonder?  Maybe not.  Some get that same reaction the first time they walk down the skyscraper canyon that constitutes Wall Street.  Or see the Eiffel Tower.

But "Isn’t nature wonderful?" isn’t the question being posed.  Nor are we being asked if we need a certain package of services, but if we need a particular method of their provisioning.  There are many ways of providing equivalent services.  While humans can’t generate them cost-effectively yet, our efforts to travel in space are already forcing us to address these issues.  If humans are to travel to or live on the Moon or Mars (as many expect they will), then the answer is clear - Earth’s nature is not absolutely indispensable.  The limited success of Arizona’s Biosphere 2 experiment indicates that it isn’t obsolete quite yet, but mankind does seem headed in that general direction.  That Biosphere 2 achieved what it did points us toward the future.

In many ways, the question "Do we need nature?" is similar to asking "Do we all need Ferraris?"  We need transportation, and Ferraris perform that function admirably.  But, although I would really like a Ferrari, sadly, I must admit I do not need one.  Indeed, were I handed funds equal to the purchase price by a mysterious, generous benefactor, I wouldn’t use the money for that, though I’d love to own such a machine.  Who wouldn't?  The speed, the acceleration, the sleek curves, the image, the admiring looks I’d receive!  But I must live in the real world, and in the real world, I take the bus.

Everyone likes the idea of nature - especially nature-as-wilderness - the nature of the environmentalist groups.  Pristine.  Unspoiled.  Vast expanses of virgin old growth trees stretching to the horizon teeming with a thousand species of animals.  It sounds lovely.  Who wouldn't like to know such a wonder exists?  To experience it next vacation?  But, just like that Ferrari, it sounds awfully expensive.  Land not used for growing or grazing, resources not mined, trees not providing wood or fruit - opportunity costs, all.  And as many environmentalists make clear, their nature is spoiled by commercialism.  Perhaps we should aim instead for a more extensive national parks system?  (Parks with toilets.  RV hookups and convenience stores with bottled water, sun blocker, and bug repellent - nature for everyone.)

However, untouched stretches of wilderness may have intrinsic value.  A fundamental property of nature is diversity.  Biological diversity describes the assortment of living things, their relationships to each other, and their interactions with the environment.  As monoculture farmers know, biodiversity plays an important role in maintaining the quality of an environment over long periods of time, providing a buffer that functions like casualty insurance.  The richer the diversity, the better the chance that some part of a landscape survives the unexpected.  A classic example is the wheat blight that hit farmers in the 1930s, solved by finding a wild strain of resistant wheat in Turkey.  Today, we probably couldn’t find a wild strain of wheat - nevertheless, today we have gene banks, which preserve a wide variety of crop strains and can tailor a response to fit local growing conditions.  "Authentic" biodiversity is not automatically better.  Like riding the bus, alternatives may be more cost-effective.

Although Earth is large, it is not infinite.  Further, much of it isn’t directly useful.  Out of a total surface area of 52 billion hectares, only 11.4 billion is considered biologically productive (the rest is mainly desert, ice field, and open ocean).  In 1900, every human could theoretically be allocated 5 - 6 productive hectares.  In 2000, they’d get only 1.9 hectares.  If, indeed, global population increase stops at around 11 billion, this will mean a future allocation of just one hectare per person!  Is this sustainable?  How can we know?  We couldn’t have supported today’s population with the technology available in 1900.  We almost certainly can’t support the population in 2100 with our current technology.  But can we support it with the technology we’ll have then?  This is profoundly unclear.  Should we restrain our future because we’ve suddenly lost our faith in the technology that has brought us this far?  Especially when restraint might ensure failure?

We are being asked if we need nature, but how can we decide that if we lack a clear understanding of just what that means?  Our ideas about nature are culturally determined and can’t really be considered objective as they are not immune from the influences of gender, nationality, or class.  We find what we’ve learned to look for when we "see" nature.  Further, the animals one feels must be saved from extinction also belong to a culturally-derived set.  The Japanese tend to emphasise control over nature.  In Germany, humans play a leading role, with nature found in park-like settings.  In the US, the concept of wilderness is paramount.

We all value animals differently depending on whether we see them as food, pets, vermin, wall decorations or best viewed caged from a discreet distance.  The meaning of "animal" is contested.  This may seem trivial but is, in fact, vitally important - by defining words, we define our world.  The power of definition becomes especially evident when we run across descriptions that don’t correspond with our own understanding.  For example, often cited because it’s so fascinating, Michel Foucault quotes from a Chinese encyclopedia:

Animals are divided into:

a)  belonging to the Emperor
b)  embalmed
c)  tame
d)  sucking pigs
e)  sirens
f)  fabulous
g)  stray dogs
h)  included in the present classification
i)  frenzied
j)  innumerable
k)  drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
l)  et cetera
m)  having just broken the water pitcher
n)  that from a long way off look like flies.

Recounting his reaction to that passage, Foucault cut to the heart of the concept that our reality is socially constructed - in the wonderment of taxonomy, the thing that demonstrates the exotic charm of another system of thought is the limitation of our own system, the stark impossibility that we could ever think that.  We all think we know nature.  But what I know is not what you know.

If you ask them, most people will say that they want to live in a world that has "wild salmon and tiger salamanders and healthy forests and vibrant human communities where mothers don't have dioxin in their breast milk"  Well, I want a million dollars.  And a pony.  And world peace, a dual Xeon rack mount server, a bowl of cookies-and-cream flavoured ice cream, and some Mountain Dew.  What we must know is if the things we want are worth the cost.  A person may list "healthy forests" and "salmon" as important to his world, but somehow I doubt that he’s actually spending every penny not needed to keep himself and his family from starving or freezing on purchasing parcels of old growth or stretches of river rights in Oregon.  But why not, if that’s what’s he feels is most important?  The technical term for this is "revealed preference" and means how people act, as opposed to how they say they act.

Is the world better off with wild salmon?  Perhaps so - but at what cost?  A big threat to salmon is river damming, otherwise known as hydro power.  Hydro power is great - cheap, reliable, and clean.  Every kilowatt generated replaces a kilowatt generated some other way, which in the US would likely be from fossil fuels.  Does anyone really advocate building more coal-fired power plants?

We need to assess what ecological benefit a threatened species provides: Does it offer a chance for direct economic benefit?  What is its cost of preservation?  How much of its disappearance rate is natural?  Humans increase extinction rates 10-fold, some say more, but species also disappear on their own because their ecological niche changes.  Would anyone seriously desire to cut extinction rates to zero?  To freeze evolution?  I doubt it.  No one cried when smallpox became extinct, and in any case, efforts to stop evolution would be futile - and tantamount to stopping the world.

More than a few animals have found the alterations humans have made to the environment positive - not just rats, cockroaches, and pigeons but also pets and food animals.  Britain recently changed their pollution regulations to outlaw dumping sewage into the sea, much to the dismay of the fish in the area.  Some environmentalists tried to stop the change, but most sniffily complained that the fish and/or their environment had become "unnatural".  To the contrary!  Taking advantage of opportunity is as natural as breathing.  Fish living on other species’ waste is much like us needing oxygen, the toxic waste of blue-green algae.

As to the future: the potential resource hidden in the genetics of living things is huge and virtually untapped.  Genetic engineering shows promise to extract value from the processes of the "natural" world.  In time, all species will die - even we humans (along with our solar system).  What really concerns us with this "needing nature" business is properly regulating the speed of our demise - staying around in comfort for as long as possible.  The only real hope humans have of avoiding future cataclysm (asteroid strike or sun death) is to establish a base on another outpost in our solar system - then in a different solar system.  Yes, these are very long-term goals.  But these objectives will never be achieved by putting curbs on human progress.  We must hope that our ideas ignite into reality before we expend all our resources trying.  Either we can live in relative comfort until the end of human time - a seeming stasis which would mask the slow decay - or we can roll the dice and try for a jackpot.  The two aims are incompatible; maximising our time on earth guarantees we’ll never get off it.  Some environmentalists have a strong distaste for space travel, saying it "wastes" our resources on dreams.  They express the cost of a launch in terms of how many starving children could be fed. I sympathise - but I disagree. It’s time we humans learned to fly.

It is important to understand the benefits and drawbacks, both direct and indirect, of maintaining a rich biodiversity.  Benefits and costs must be properly valued when making economic decisions.  Our present dearth of knowledge in this important area means that our valuations are artificial.  This must change.  For now, we shall maintain the capability of the world to adapt to change and maintain our planet sufficient to continue our species - until we can devise adequate alternatives for both nature and Earth.

Home Developer Buys Biosphere 2, Its Adjacent 1,650 Acres

Biosphere 2 originally was created as an experiment in enclosed self-sufficiency.
Its unusual structures remain a tourist destination today.

by Eric Swedlund

Twenty years after Biosphere 2 broke ground near Oracle, the one-of-a-kind terrarium and its surrounding land have been sold for $50 million.  Development of 1,500 new homes and a resort hotel on the land has already been approved.  Announced Monday, the sale price is just a quarter of the $200 million construction cost of the 3.15-acre miniworld, which drew global attention in 1991 when 8 people were sealed inside to conduct a 2-year experiment in self-sufficiency.

The 1,658-acre sale was announced by Jerry A Hawkins, vice president of CB Richard Ellis Tucson, who negotiated on behalf of purchaser CDO Ranching & Development, LP.  The company's partners include Tucson developer Peter G Backus and Martin C Bowen, who was vice president of Biosphere seller Decisions Investment Corporation.  The property was formally put up for sale in early 2005 and last year was under contract by local developer Fairfield Homes, but that deal was called off by mutual agreement.  Along the way, the University of Arizona began eyeing the facility as a laboratory for large-scale climate experiments, and last year the university was negotiating to acquire the Biosphere 2 as part of the sale.  The UA is still negotiating, now with hopes of leasing the terrarium, said Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the College of Science.

The CDO Ranch development has already been approved for more than 1,500 homes, a resort hotel and commercial uses, with lot availability projected for mid-2009, Hawkins said.  Pinal County Supervisor Lionel Ruiz, whose district includes the Biosphere 2 land, said the development will be good for the area but must be approached cautiously and be well-planned.  "I don't want to see just a whole bunch of rooftops from Tucson all the way to Oracle," he said.  "We want to see sustained communities and some open spaces and wildlife corridors.  Like anything else, if they come in with proper plans, it'll make it a plus."  Ruiz said the development could be an economic boon to the southern part of Pinal County, which has a shortage of medical care available and a struggling economic base dependent on mining.  "What I see it bringing to the county is services and jobs," he said.  "It's going to be very unique, and it's going to be a plus for the area, especially if it's going to be a destination."  He also supports the UA taking over the Biosphere 2 and maintaining it as a laboratory.

The terrarium's future is also on the mind of Texas billionaire Ed Bass, co-founder and now-former owner of Biosphere 2, whose only comment Monday came in a short statement relayed from his spokeswoman Terrell Lamb.  "I am hopeful that CDO will have success in attracting significant institutional participation in Biosphere 2 for research and educational purposes," Bass said.  The announcement of the purchase said the "Biosphere 2 facility will continue to remain open to visitors for tours," and said there will be continued educational and research uses, but made no mention of specific research or any potential leases of the facility.

Attempts to reach Backus and Bowen were unsuccessful late Monday and when reached at home after business hours, Hawkins declined to comment further.

The original Biosphere 2 experiment was widely criticised after a crew member was sent for medical attention 13 days after being sealed in and later air was pumped into the facility.  Columbia University began managing Biosphere 2 as a research laboratory in 1996 but ended its involvement in 2003.

Source: Arizona Daily Star 5 June 2007 photo source: Jim Davis / Arizona Daily Star 2003

Biosphere 2 Saved from Developer's Bulldozers

The state-of-the-art Biosphere 2 campus is located in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains, 35 miles from the UA campus.
UA will manage and operate the controlled-environment facility itself, along with three conference rooms that can seat
from 40 to 120 participants, a suite of 36 dual-occupancy offices, and modern housing facilities in a "village"
of 28 furnished 3- to 5-bedroom casitas with fully equipped kitchens. The campus is fully networked.

by Michael Reilly

Biosphere 2, the world’s largest, quirkiest monument to modern science will be preserved as a unique environmental laboratory for at least 3 years, the University of Arizona, US, announced.  A sale earlier in June put the 3.14-acre site in the hands of residential developers, leading to fears the facility would be bulldozed.  But the university has now leased the property for scientific research with the aid of gifts and grants, and funds permitting, will try to extend the lease for 10 years.  Nestled in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, Arizona, the great glass greenhouse was built 20 years ago by Space Biosphere Ventures as an artificial closed ecological system.  When, in 1991, eight people were sealed inside, it was hailed as a dry run for building a colony on Mars.  But 2 years later, when the same 8 emerged emaciated from poor diets and embittered by infighting, critics were quick to call the project a failure.

Columbia University took over managing the facility from 1996 until 2003, and turned it into a massive laboratory, where researchers built huge models of ecosystems found in the natural world, from a forest of cottonwood trees to a desert and coral reef.  Because of its size, Biosphere 2 allowed researchers to bridge the gap between smaller traditional laboratories and the outside world, over which they have little control.  Under the glass they could tweak CO2 levels and play with annual rainfall, then watch how the plants and animals responded.

Travis Huxman and colleagues at the University of Arizona hope to follow the Columbia researchers' work.  They plan to use the unique lab setting to examine the role that plants play in the water cycle of savannah grassland and scrub brush ecosystems - both of which are found in the deserts in the southwest US.  "We will be looking at the problem of vegetation change.  When an ecosystem changes from grassland to woody shrubs, it affects the water and carbon cycle," Huxman says.  As much as 1/3 of the world’s landmass is covered by savannah and scrub and it is important to know how shifts between the two can affect the availability of water.  The findings should also provide valuable data to build into climate models that predict how the planet will respond to global warming.

Jane Poynter, a member of the original 1991 crew of 8 and president of Paragon Space Development Corporation, says that the university may also be considering research into astrobiology, reviving the extraterrestrial aspirations that built Biosphere 2.  "I think the new research is going back to the roots of what we were trying to do originally," Poynter says.  "So I’m very excited about it."

Source: 27 June 2007

Arizona Starts Research Initiative At Biosphere 2


"The generous gift from the Philecology Foundation, founded by Edward P Bass, substantially expands the University's ability to link teaching, scholarship and creativity to the needs of Arizona and our larger global community," President Robert Shelton said.  "Biosphere 2 will provide our faculty and students exceptional opportunities to address major environmental challenges facing Arizona and the Southwest such as global climate change, sustainability of water resources and land-use change.  UA excels at the collaborative, multidisciplinary approach these global scientific issues require."...

The controlled-environment facility, 3.14 acres (1.27 hectares) in area, is sealed from the earth below by a 500-ton (453,600 kg) welded stainless steel liner; 91 feet (28 metres) at its highest point, it has 6,500 windows that enclose a volume of 7.2 million cubic feet (204,000 cubic metres) under glass.  One initial experiment addresses key interactions between plants and water.  Within the facility, the researchers will build 3 hill slopes, each about 32 yards (30 metres) long and 22 yards (20 metres) wide, to test how water moves down, into and across the slopes.  "Then we will introduce plants and ask how having life on a landscape changes the behaviour of water, both in the air and in the soil," Huxman said.  "We are interested in how plants modify their environment - how they change the amount of time a water molecule spends in the soil and how that affects the biogeochemical reactions that happen in soil only when it is wet."  The plants, grasses and shrubs, will be typical of the desert, grassland and savannah ecosystems that cover more than 1/2 of Arizona and about 1/3 of the Earth's total land area...

In the 1800s, the property was part of the Samaniego's CDO Ranch.  After several changes of ownership, it became a conference center in the 1960s and 1970s, first for Motorola, then for the UA.  Space Biospheres Ventures bought the property in 1984 and began construction of the current facility in 1986.  Human missions 1 and 2 lasted from 1991 - 1994.  In 1994, Decisions Investments Corporation took over the property and Columbia University managed it from 1996 - 2003.  The property was sold 4 June 2007, to CDO Ranching and Development, LP.


See also:

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