If you saw the 1996 comedy “Bio-Dome,” then you’re already somewhat familiar with closed ecological systems, even if you don’t realize it.
Basically, a closed ecological system (or closed ecosystem) is one in which there’s no need for any exchange with the outside world. This means that the waste produced by any member of the ecosystem can be used by another member, creating a perfect balance.
Lab to Life
Closed ecosystems began as a theoretical experiment. The earliest experiments using this concept were incredibly small in size; they simply contained a series of bacteria whose biological processes could create an environment that allowed for plant growth.
Since then, much larger biospheres have been created, which feature many of the biomes present on Earth, all functioning in harmony. Initially, the concept of closed ecosystems was explored as a means of food production on prolonged space explorations. By discovering a wholly sufficient ecosystem, scientists could give astronauts more longevity in space.
A natural next step in that line of thinking is using closed ecosystems to sustain life on another planet. Should man ever get to the point of colonizing a new space in the solar system or beyond, a closed ecosystem would provide some peace of mind that those pioneers wouldn’t starve once they arrived.
Earth itself is a large closed ecosystem, but there is one important disruptor within it: humans. The question becomes, can closed ecosystem experiments be used to recalibrate the Earth’s ecosphere in a way that accounts for human disruption?
A Glimmer of Hope
In a sense, closed ecosystems can be used to see the direction in which Earth is headed. Reliance upon energy sources that are finite and damaging to the atmosphere, a loss of some species, and deforestation can be reproduced and tested in closed facilities.
Likewise, closed ecosystems can present possible alternatives should humans fail to change their trajectory and deteriorate Earth’s atmosphere to the point that it’s no longer liveable. If nothing changes, it may eventually become necessary for humans to live in enclosed environments rather than roaming freely outdoors. Should this come to fruition, closed ecosystems may prove instrumental.
If scientists are able to develop biospheres that can effectively house human life, they may be able to sustain the species on Earth past the point that the planet is hospitable. What’s more, placing humans in these closed ecosystems would give Earth time to heal itself without disruption. Of course, this would require some radical lifestyle changes and is largely theoretical, but the logic is sound.
The problem with this potential future use is that scientists have yet to sustain closed ecosystems long term. Short term experiments have been successful, but this doesn’t speak to an actual ability to sustain life for years, which it would take many of before Earth could return to its former health.
Understanding a closed ecosystem is as simple as understanding the symbiosis that has sustained Earth for so long—that same understanding may prove vital to sustaining human beings as well. Scientific advancement is often equated with tech and devices, but perhaps one of the most important innovations of the 21st century will be more organic.