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Out of Control

Constructing a wetlands or savanna by reassembling portions of a natural one is only one method of biome building -- which the ecologists call the "analog" way. It seemed to work fine. But as Tony Burgess pointed out, "You can go two ways with this. You can mimic an analog of a particular environment you find in nature, or you can invent a synthetic one based on many of them." Bio2 wound up being a synthetic ecosystem, with many analog parts, such as Adey's marshland.

"Bio2 is a synthetic ecosystem, but so is California by now," said Burgess. Warshall agrees: "What you see in California is a symbol of the future. A heavily synthetic ecology. It has hundreds of exotic species. A lot of Australia is going this way too. And the redwood/eucalyptus forest is also a new synthetic ecology." As are many other ecosystems in this world of jet travel, when species are jet-setted far from their home territories and introduced accidentally or deliberately in lands they would otherwise never reach. Warshall said, "Walter Adey first used the term synthetic ecology. Then I realized that there were already huge amounts of synthetic ecology in Biosphere One. And that I wasn't inventing a synthetic ecology in Bio2, I was merely duplicating what already existed." Edward Mills of Cornell University has identified 136 species of fish from Europe, the Pacific and elsewhere now thriving in the Great Lakes. "Probably most of the biomass in the Great Lakes is exotic," Mills claims. "It's a very artificial system now."

We might as well develop a science of synthetic ecosystem creation since we've been creating them anyway in a haphazard fashion. Many archeo- ecologists believe that the entire spectrum of early humanoid activities -- hunting, grazing, setting prairie fires, and selective herb gathering -- forged an "artificial" ecology upon the wilderness, that is, an ecology greatly shaped by human arts. In fact, all that we think of as natural virgin wilderness is abundant with artificiality and the mark of human activity. "Many rain forests are actually pretty heavily managed by indigenous Indians," Burgess says. "But the first thing we do when we come in is wipe out the indigenous people, so the management expertise disappears. We assumed that this growth of old trees is pristine rain forest because the only way we know how to manage a forest is to clear the trees, and these weren't clear-cut." Burgess believes that the mark of human activity runs so deep that it cannot be undone easily. "Once you alter the ecosystem, and you get the right seeds dispersed in the ground and the essential climate window, then the transformation starts and it's irreversible. This does not require the presence of man to keep the synthetic ecosystem going. It runs undisturbed. All the people in California could die and its current synthetic flora and fauna will remain. It's a new meta-stable state that remains as long as the self-reinforcing conditions stay the same."

"California, Chile and Australia are converging very rapidly to become the same synthetic ecology," Burgess claims. "They were established by the same people, and shaped by the same goal: removal of the ancient herbivores to be replaced by the production of bovines: cow meat." As a synthetic ecology, Bio2 is a foreshadowing of ecologies to come. It is clear that we are not retreating from our influence on nature. Perhaps the bottle of Bio2 can teach us how to artificially evolve useful, less disruptive synthetic ecosystems.

As the ecologists began to assemble the first deliberately synthesized ecology they made an attempt to devise guidelines they felt would be important in creating any living closed biosystem. The makers of Bio2 called these the Principles of Biospherics. When creating a biosphere remember that:

  • Microorganisms do most of the work.

  • Soil is an organism. It is alive. It breathes.

  • Make redundant food webs.

  • Increase diversity gradually.

  • If you can't provide a physical function, you need to simulate it.

  • The atmosphere communicates the state of the whole system.

  • Listen to the system; see where it wants to go.

Rain forests, tundras, and everglades are not themselves natural closed systems; they are open to each other. There is only one natural closed system we know of: the Earth as a whole, or Gaia. In the end our interest in fashioning new closed systems rests on concocting second examples of living closed systems so that we may generalize their behavior and understand the system of Earth, our home.

Closed systems are a particularly intense variety of coevolution. Pouring shrimp into a flask and pinching off the throat of the flask is like putting a chameleon in a mirrored bottle and pinching closed the entrance. The chameleon responds to the image it has generated, just as the shrimp responds to the atmosphere it has generated. The closed bottle -- once the internal loops weave together and tighten -- accelerates change and evolution within. This isolation, like the isolation in terrestrial evolution, breeds variety and marked differences.

But eventually all closed systems are opened or at least leak. We can be certain that whatever artificial closed systems we fabricate will sooner or later be opened. Bio2 will be closed and unsealed every year or so. And in the heavens, on the scale of galactic time, the closed systems of planets will be penetrated and shared in a type of cross-panspermia -- a few exchanges of species here and there. The ecology of the cosmos is this type: a universe of isolated systems (planets), furiously inventing things in that mad way of a chameleon locked in a mirrored bottle. Every now and then marvels from one closed system will arrive with a shock into another.

On Gaia, the briefly closed miniature Gaias we construct are mostly instructional aides. They are models made to answer primarily one question: what influence do we, and can we, have over the unified system of life on Earth? Are there levels we can reach, or is Gaia entirely out of our control?