Finding 'poetry' in pollution

Wednesday, August 7, 1991

By Phil Shannon

Biospheres: Metamorphosis of Planet Earth
By Dorion Sagan
Arkana/Penguin. $18.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

"It would be difficult to wax poetic about medical waste, CFCs and carbon dioxide. Yet ... " this is what Dorion Sagan does in Biospheres. "Smog", he writes, "can enhance the colours of a sunset. Excrement, garbage, trash ... are one day transmuted into parrots, wine, grapes, magnolia trees." The mixed blessings of Gaia theory are highlighted in Dorion Sagan, the son of the Gaia luminary Lynn Margulis and the astronomer Carl Sagan.

Dorion Sagan's book is in part a reply to the criticism of Gaia theory (made by scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould) that the earth can not be a super-organism because all living things must be able to reproduce. Sagan believes he has found "clinching evidence that Earth is a global organism" with the development of biospheres in the US, the Soviet Union, Japan and elsewhere.

Biospheres are experimental "human-sized terraria", enclosed biological systems which "miniaturise the global ecosystem". They internally recycle everything in an attempt to maintain natural and human balances.

Biosphere II in Arizona, a project by "venture capital and ecological management firms", is seen by Sagan as an example of earth "using people and technology to reproduce itself" much as flowers use insects to reproduce. These "encapsulated robotic ecosystems" will be able to "disseminate Earth life across the Milky Way galaxy".

From this eulogy to "Earth's first batch of cosmic young" (an intriguing and plausible scientific concept) Sagan takes a Gaian plunge into redeeming smog and pollution using the following "logic". Our technological junk, he says, may be acting as a "catalyst in the changeover to a new planetary environment". Earth/"Gaia" is using us to provide the technology both to poison Biosphere I (earth) and to produce its reproductive organs (the human-made biospheres) to escape from the mess. As "some communities require periodic perturbations" to reproduce (eg fires and savanna), so earth requires our technological "fire".

So we can stop fretting, forget Rachel Carson and learn to love chemicals — "the painful drugging ... may be normal, necessary, a rite of passage" to "new heights" in

Gaia's growth and life cycle. Worried about the extinction of the elephant or the potoroo? No need — "our lessening of biological diversity may, in fact, be healthy for the biosphere as a whole". There is much more in this vein.

Sagan does, however, betray some humanist concern for our species in this Gaian tide of technological growth hormones. "We should be wary of the ecological complacency which suggests that, just because we have survived so far by behaving in a certain way towards the biosphere, such behaviour can continue indefinitely in the same way it always has."

So what can we make of biospheres? An advance for the reproductive aspect of the science of Gaia theory? Possibly. "Technocratic Disneylands" and "elitist retreats for right-wing survivalists" as Sagan cites some critics? Certainly: technocratic environment-fixers amongst capitalists and the state would be putting money into the experiments with a view (in Sagan's revealing phrase) to "providing sanctuary in a ravaged earthly home" — adapting to rather than cleaning up our planetary home, a solution for the wealthy elite.

Perhaps handing our future over to outfits like Space Biospheres Ventures will, in Sagan's other option, "scare people into a new ecological harmony with the Earth". One hopes so.

It all depends on your politics. Are we to respect all life on earth, people included, or sacrifice some so "Gaia" can reproduce? Dorion Sagan wants it both ways, but his unsuccessful balancing act tilts the scales towards the politics of acceptance of the world as we know, abuse and suffer it, against the politics of humanism, ecology and the power of ordinary people to make history and revolutionary change.