In 1972 the study “Only one Earth” preparing the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm warned that the “two worlds of man – the biosphere of his inheritance, the technosphere of his creation – are out of balance, indeed in deep conflict.” Not less than the survival of humankind seemed at stake. The study pleaded for “coexistence” of nature and technology, of human and other living beings. But of what kind were the new communities that emerged, and what did they exchange?
Eduard Sueß had first formulated the concept of the biosphere as the life-saturated envelope of the Earth’s crust in 1875, and in 1926 Vladimir Vernadsky used it to describe life as a global biogeochemical force. His “physics of living matter” was taken up in 1970 when the ecologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson reclaimed the biosphere to describe the self-organizing power of life on earth. Systems ecologist Howard Odum in 1971 turned the biosphere into a self-contained and self-maintained system of matter and energy circulation. Odum explicitly linked the biosphere to the technosphere when comparing it to closed systems for space, computing the power requirements per day for total life support of a human being and the input and output levels for “long-range survival”.
This paper discusses two test phases exploring the coexistence of biotic mass – human, plant and animal – in materially closed systems between the 1960s and the 1990s. BIOS 3 (USSR, 1960s-1970s) and Biosphere 2 (USA, 1980s-1990s) combined the contemporary ideals of environmental sufficiency and technological efficiency: BIOS 3 enclosed human beings and chlorella algae to maintain a viable atmosphere in a symbiotic relationship. Biosphere 2 experimented with the technological reconstruction of the major cycles of the earth’s biosphere on a miniature scale, complete with soil, air, mineral, water and waste cycles. Both were projects of ‘feeding’ human elements into sustainable circulatory systems of living matter, with the ultimate aim of reproducing and sending forth offspring biospheres to populate other planets.
Session "Biomass: Metabolizing Living Matter, 1960s to 1980s", ESEH European Society for Environmental History Conference "Circulating Natures: Water – Food – Energy", Munich, August 20-24.