On September 26, 1991, eight humans marched into an extraterrestrial colony called Biosphere II and embarked on a voyage to the future. It didn’t work out.
The idea was to test self-sustaining, closed ecological systems that would enable humans to live (and, presumably, reproduce) in hostile environments far from Earth. But the three-acre facility ran short of oxygen and long on carbon dioxide. Plants and animals died off. Discord broke out. Fortunately for the eight pioneers, they had a fallback option. When life-support technology failed to perform up to specs, Arizona was just outside the airlock.
But Arizona is not exactly a safe haven. It is located on a planet where one species, Homo sapiens, has gone on a reproduction binge. Since 1817, the year that James Monroe was sworn in as our fifth president, the human population of Earth has increased from less that a billion to well over seven. All these people need lots of energy to keep warm, cook food, travel and build things. They get most of it from burning carbon fuels, which releases carbon dioxide and warms up the world. Since Jim Monroe’s inauguration, a fraction of a tick on the planetary clock, our average global temperature has increased by close to one degree Celsius, or about 1.8° F.
One degree doesn’t sound like a lot, but consider that global temperatures have been relatively stable for the past 10,000 years. Among many coincidences, this is the same 10,000 years during which humans have organized themselves into what we call civilization. That single degree C is destabilizing the weather patterns that we depend on for food and beachfront homes, among other items.
Climate change works unevenly. For Oregon in 2017, it has brought above average precipitation. For Somalia, it has meant three years of drought, a massive livestock die-off, religious extremism, political collapse, incipient famine and endemic violence. The Somalia story is mirrored across sub-Saharan Africa from Ethiopia to northern Nigeria, and it is just one thread in a worldwide epic.
Chart population growth, atmospheric CO2, global temperature, drought, pestilence or mass migration and you get the same picture: a hockey stick. All the trend lines are bending sharply upward and we are the pucks. So where do we go from here?
Here’s a hint: it’s not Mars. Our lifeboat is called Terra and we are already here.
We need to figure out how to live on this planet. This will require a shared understanding of our situation and significant reorganization. A Biosphere experiment focused on Earth will help us learn and, we hope, adapt to a fundamentally changing environment.
Fortunately, such an experiment is under way. Biosphere III, a 135,000-acre facility also known as the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, is aimed at preserving and restoring ecological systems that support life on the third planet from our closest star. So far it appears to be working. Let’s keep it going.