The Cosmic Ark
issue 206 - April 1990
1. Abandon growth
Industrial society treats the natural world as an endless store of resources to be plundered and exploited. Consumerism and economic growth (driven by modern technology) are the twin gods of modern life. Conquering global warming means rethinking our relationship with nature and with each other, learning to love the earth as well as ourselves.
The cosmic ark
Jeremiah Creedon heads off to the Arizona desert to probe
the Western world's obsession with economic growth. In his
quest he discovers new wisdom from old sources.
In the Arizona desert north of Tucson, at the foot of an arid mountain range, scientists and entrepreneurs are building history's first utopia under glass. Called Biosphere II, the airlocked enclosure is intended to be a self-sustaining ecosystem, a tiny model of the complex biological web that forms Biosphere I - otherwise known as Earth.
The two-acre microcosm contains seven distinct 'biomes', including an ocean 30 feet deep, a rainforest, a savannah, a farm plot and a human village. Crops and small animals will provide food for the eight 'biosphereans' due to be sealed inside the structure for a two-year test beginning this September.
The $30-million project has been privately financed. The allure for investors is apparently more than a chance to learn something about the environment. One major investor, a Texas oil magnate, expects to see a profit from such systems in the near future when the new pioneers establish permanent space stations and colonies on other planets. This faith in Biosphere II is based on the surety that life on Biosphere I is deteriorating - that pollution, overcrowding and scarce resources will soon push humans out of the earthly nest.
Last year I made an effort to visit the project. Though it has been widely covered in the press, my own attempts to gain access as an independent journalist were not encouraged. I was going to be in the area anyway, and I resolved to visit the compound unannounced. I had convinced myself that I had to see it.
My interest was less in the project's scientific significance than in what it stood for as a social symbol. Biosphere II seemed to epitomize the advanced expression of a technocratic mentality whose adherents were now turning their energies towards escaping the mess they had made on Earth. Many claimed this experiment would yield profound ecological insights. It may. But beneath the ecological rhetoric I sensed a powerful counter myth, a fantasy of the cosmic ark, with a man who made his fortune selling fossil fuels playing the modern Noah.
Such myths contribute to global warming and other environmental problems in a crucial way. Throughout history, various peoples have used myth to justify their own values and behavior. Western societies are no exception; they are constantly seeking ways to explain, among other things, their obsession with economic growth. The scenarios for exploring space are only the latest narratives to 'heroicize' a technological world-view. The idea that underlies every such story is both simple and absolute: growth is good. Which happens to be closely related to another, perhaps older, Western conviction that nature is bad.
The tie between these two concepts must be understood before the latest, and thus least visible, rationales for unlimited growth can be seen for what they are. One can easily recognize that felling the wilderness in Europe six centuries ago, in North America two centuries ago, or even in the Amazon Basin today, implies a view of nature based on aggression and fear. It is not so easy to detect these same impulses at work on a project like Biosphere II. But the basic mindset bears many similarities. The belief endures that nature must be literally 'manhandled' into subservience if human society (that is, Western society) is to progress.
The idea that society must progress to survive is one of the ruling principles of Western thought. According to the Marxist anthropologist Stanley Diamond, we 'cannot surrender the notion of Progress without destroying the rationale for ... civilization.'¹ Progress, a euphemism for growth, is how well a society transforms raw resources into consumable goods. The image of a shark comes to mind, a primitive omnivore that can't breathe without moving forward. Western societies are like sharks swimming through time, impelled by the fear that to pause is to die.
The mathematical expression for this dynamic (widely recognized since the Club of Rome's 1970s study, Limits to Growth), may be even more disturbing. It is the exponential curve depicting what the world consumes - hurtling upward, ever steeper, toward an apocalyptic collision with a fixed ceiling of resources. If humanity really possesses something like the collective unconscious, the exponential curve may one day rival the mushroom cloud as the era's most profound contribution to the legacy of archetypal symbols.
In the great urban centers, mass anxiety about rampant growth seems to become more palpable year by year. There are moments when the individual, observing the sprawl of a place like Mexico City from the air, can almost feel progress accelerating in the uncontrollable fashion of a nuclear meltdown.
But others maintain these gloomy intuitions are unfounded. Only a few months ago, for instance, an editorial in the New York Times looked back at the prediction offered by Limits to Growth and declared: 'The Club was right to tell industrial countries they had to pollute less, but it underestimated the power of technology to raise the limits to growth, and the vast flexibility of economic systems to respond to shortages with new sources of supply.' This view is shared by the World Commission on Environment and Development which called for 'a new era of economic growth, one that must be based on policies that sustain and expand the environmental resource base.' The Commission sees 'sustainable' growth as 'absolutely essential to relieve the great poverty' in the Third World.
Such thinking may be pragmatic, even laudable, but it also neatly severs the causal link between global problems like greenhouse warming and the underlying ethos of growth. Pollution is viewed as bad, of course, but growth remains good - in fact growth is championed as the tool through which such problems can be solved. This faith in technology and growth also imposes a future on the developing world that looks quite similar to the industrial world. 'Sustainable growth', for all its virtues, is still the conceit of a ruling economic order seeking to remodel all societies after its own image.
Politicians, journalists, financiers - the custodians of the industrial present - are not the only ones who accept the ideology of progress as an absolute truth. Social scientists base their definition of society on progress. As a result, modern anthropologists and historians have colonized the past as well, imposing the standard of Western progress on earlier peoples whose visions of the cosmos may actually have been quite different.
In other words, at the very core of a science dedicated to the rational understanding of society, the nineteenth-century positivists implanted a bit of pure speculation - their faith in progress. As John Stuart Mill noted, the European mind had already chosen between two visions of history: as a cyclical 'orbit' or as a linear 'trajectory' in which no event was ever repeated. Mill saw the notions of trajectory and progress as synonymous.2 No-one could dissuade the industrial West from envisioning its own destiny as a missile streaking into the future.
The wealth of Western society has created whole classes who spend their lives gleaning insights into nature and the universe. Their achievements are stunning; but so are their misperceptions. Take the theory of evolution, which held the potential to shatter forever the Western idea that humans stood apart from nature. Instead, evolution itself was interpreted as a progressive program whose final achievements - merging with the godhead or colonizing the universe - would be triggered by an act of human will.
The social Darwinism of the nineteenth century thus never disappeared; it simply became the metaphysical Darwinism of the twentieth. Meanwhile, profound modern problems like exponential growth and global warming can be rationalized as the consequences of a grand plan. According to this design, the species may be multiplying in such great numbers as a way to generate the freak genius in a billion who will take the mission forward another small step. The Earth in turn is but a chunk of raw energy, a propellant that humans will reduce to ash in launching the ultimate voyage to an unspecified Somewhere Else.
Around the time I intended to visit Biosphere II a newspaper in Tucson ran a feature on it. A photograph showed a young woman emerging from a small test module after 'five days in isolation'. She was wearing the sort of jumpsuit favored by astronauts and waving at a small crowd beyond the camera's frame. The caption said they were applauding. Other articles have mentioned that choosing biosphereans for the longer experiment will be a highly selective process. Only certain people are apparently suited for such confinement. The same could be said of the organisms that an entomologist and 'vertebrate co-ordinator' are planning to select, including a bat colony and 250 species of insects.
My own efforts to reach the cosmic ark were not successful. After driving for hours one day I found myself at the end of a dirt road surrounded by dry hills. I got out of the car. Two ravens swept down from the hills, following the contour of the land. The slopes were covered with a shrublike tree I did not recognize. They were spaced in an equidistant pattern - the arid land was perhaps incapable of supporting them any closer together. I assumed this system of order, the ecological lattice, extended far beyond what I could see. And I suddenly realized that for all my effort I didn't really want to find Biosphere II. I never had.
Biosphere II is one expression from a technocratic people looking for the way out of a profound jam. But the growing numbers who are beginning to listen to the advice of the Earth itself represent another. Once again, the West has arrived by brute strength at the threshold of a choice between different visions. Just as some say that modern physics has come full circle, rediscovering the cosmological wisdom of the Chinese sages, so also has industrial society in general stumbled on a 'new' knowledge of the Earth that until recently they were forcing primitive societies to renounce.
This rediscovered awareness is at once so simple and so radical it is hard to imagine an urban people choosing it. And yet many are. The great value to the emerging dialogue over issues like green politics and 'deep ecology' is that it promises to recover certain ideas that we in the West long ago buried. Some scholars may cringe at the cavalier way that bits of Native American and Taoist thought are combined by the deep ecologists and others. Some claim such eclecticism has no coherence, and maybe in a formal sense it doesn't. But such thinkers, despite their many faults, are in the forefront of a new discipline: an archaeology of lost ideas. And one day the philosophical potshards they are now finding may be pieced together into the real vessel - call it Paradigm II - that will bear us into the future.
Jeremiah Creedon is an essayist and critic living in Minneapolis.
1 In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization, Stanley Diamond (Transaction Books. 1974).
2 John Stuart Mill on Politics and Society, edited by Geraint L. Williams (International Publications Service, 1978).