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Metaphor On Your Desk

eco-spheres.jpgIt's often said -- occasionally even by us -- that we currently know of but a single ecosystem, our own, with no other data points for reference. That's not precisely true. Although we know of no other naturally-occuring ecosystem (yet), it is possible to construct self-contained ecologies, receiving no input other than sunlight -- just like the Earth. The "Biosphere II" project, despite its many failings, stands as one of the biggest experiments in such construction. But it turns out that you don't have to buy up land in the Arizona desert to give the biosphere experiment a try. You can do it on your desk.

"EcoSpheres" are sealed globes containing filtered water, a variety of microorganisms and shrimp, able to live and reproduce for years, even a decade or more, with only sunlight as input. They come in a variety of sizes; the larger ones tend to last longer. They require no maintenance other than keeping them at a comfortable temperature.

I don't have one of these, and the various typos and clumsy constructions on the website give me some caution. The UK website is much better, however, and there are equivalent sites for a handful of other countries. Nonetheless, I'd have just checked the site and gone about my business had I not seen an essay by one EcoSphere owner -- Carl Sagan.

Sagan, an astronomer, was perhaps best known for trying to get non-scientists to think about the bigger picture of how humans affected their environment, and the potential for other environments on other planets. He wrote this about the globes:

Unlike an aquarium, this little world is a closed ecological system. Light gets in, but nothing else - no food, no water, no nutrients. Everything must be recycled. Just like the Earth. In our larger world, we also - plants and animals and microorganisms - live off each other, breathe and eat each other's wastes, depend on one another. Life on our world, too, is powered by light. Light from the Sun, which passes through the clear air, is harvested by plants and powers them to combine carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates and other foodstuffs, which in turn provide the staple diet of the animals.Our big world is very like this little one, and we are very like the shrimp. But there is at least one major difference: Unlike the shrimp, we are able to change our environment. We can do to ourselves what a careless owner of such a crystal sphere can do to the shrimp.

I honestly don't know if EcoSpheres would have a particular pedagogical or philosophical value for most people. I have some doubts. Ecological simulations allow one to explore new parameters and learn from mistakes, for example, and one could argue that the EcoSphere is little more than an ant farm for the lazy.

But the underlying concept of an ecology one can observe over the months and years, one where a mistake -- leaving it in the dark for too long, or in the heat -- can lead to an unrecoverable catastrophe, has a certain metaphorical value. Watching the growth and decline cycles of shrimp and bacteria won't lead to any great insights into how best to manage environmental changes on Earth, but it may provide an ongoing reminder of the fragility and finality of the great wager we have made.

Sagan saw in the EcoSpheres a metaphor, as well, one not just of caution, but of hope. If we can figure out how to maintain our own planet, he believed, we could one day have the ability to shape other planets as well, responsibly, with foresight and wisdom. The Earth won't be our only example of a complex ecosystem forever.

(Via Bleepblog)

Comments (6)

Carl Caputo:

You probably have seen these, but they’re still worth linking, I think: Kevin Kelly in Out of Control and in Cool Tools. I wonder whether owning one of these EcoSpheres would affect my thinking about systems generally, and suspect that it would, in fact. Maybe getting a world that’s self-contained and looking at it can make us think about worlds as they are, and as they might be.


I've just realized this blog looks quite a bit different in IE than it does in Firefox. I've always been viewing it in IE and there was never any content off to the right. Now I just viewed it in Firefox and there's content /info there (like the Utne thing).

It looks really good in Firefox but in IE all the stuff that is supposed to be to the right is all smushed to the bottom.

Just an FYI!

Jason Trout

Terry Lawson:

This reminded me of an old International Wildlife magazine article of a man who just went to a scummy ditch and scooped out some algae and water with an old big jar used for preserves. He just sealed it with a normal canning lid. He did different experimints to test the hardiness of the enclosed ecosystem like leaving it in the sun or a closet for extended periods of time. One jar grew a slime that had unusual colours.
These ecosystems thrived and probably still do years after he started.
I think I'm going to the ditch in the back 40 right now!


This comment applies to most of worldchanging's postings-- they are all so darn innovative in terms of topic, content, angle, etc., but you wouldn't necessarily know it just by scanning through the list. I think that the "section" headings (i.e. in this piece The Means of Expression - Media, Creativity and Experience) are displayed too prominently. Visually, it almost looks like the newer postings are follow-ups on previous postings, when actually each of these postings is completely original. Having a completely original heading each time (including the subtitle), would highlight the diversity of topics better. Could you note the "section" or the "type of posting" in some other way, that's less prominent?

Had a scary thought about these ecosystems in a jar. Suppose someone uses them as an excuse to avoid protecting biological diversity? They could say, "See? Why worry about protecting the thousands of insect species in rainforests, if all it takes to keep the air/solid cycle going is some algae and some shrimp?"

Also I wonder if any researchers (perhaps NASA, ESA, RSA and others interested in long human spaceflight) have thought about trying to scale these things up by putting more critters in them. Seems like it would be very hard to test. You'd have to be very patient to see if any unstable feedback arose in the system.

Oh--and for Jason--what you're seeing in IE is a bug involving the CSS float property. Snap your screen resolution 1024 by 768 or greater, maximize IE and the right hand column will snap back into it's proper place.

I owned one for years, and would take it along to client meetings and lectures [local ones; these are a bit much for air travel]. It's a terrific teacher of the inescapable and profoundly significant fact that we live our lives in a system closed to matter and open to energy -- from which most other environmental lessons directly follow.


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