Maintaining the TSSM is a joy. There’s no feeding or
fiddling with parameters. Just observe and philosophize. Get enchanted with your econaut shrimp,
casting its antennae in slow looping rhythms. Watch
the snails cruise the glass like silent Sumo wrestlers
on night patrol. Zoom in on the tiny creatures oozing out of the muck. They are the bottom of the
food chain, the disassemblers of the dead.
There’s never been another world like this one. In
a way, you’re God! Which might bring on some curious emotions if something goes awry. Multispecies
assemblages like the TSSM are never 100% reliable.
Your econaut might die mysteriously. Or you might
observe signs of stress: shrimp that molt and then
shrink instead of grow, or carnivory among normally vegetarian shrimp or snails. Hard questions arise.
Was it right to start this world? Will you intervene, or
abandon your creations to a sealed fate?
Photograph of snail eating algae by BC Anna; all others by Martin John Brown
Life inside such tight ecological loops is rarely
a cakewalk, and this begs some questions. Does
closed-system sustainability simply emerge as
you scale things up? Or is there something about
the Earth and its milieu of flux on flux that we’ve
failed to understand so far? Might our increasingly
crowded planet, with a rising rate of extinctions,
start resembling a laboratory microcosm? And for
those with sci-fi dreams, could living on Mars be
little more than desperate farming?
But if ecosystems engineering makes progress,
we have hope. Mark Kliss, chief of the Bioengineering
Branch at NASA’s Ames Research Center, envisions
extraterrestrial life support systems that provide
a high quality of life, with a big contribution from
automation. Machines and software could monitor
conditions and energy inputs, nudging ecological
feedback loops away from mutual parasitism and
into productive symbiosis.
It’s a vision our environmental movement might
consider. The thing that finally allows people to live
in balance with nature might be technology, the
force that once seemed most opposed to it.
Amano shrimp chills upside down.
Snail grazes on algae.