April 4, 2016
North Texans will have the opportunity to hear from a pioneering researcher who manned the famous Biosphere 2 when they attend the sixth annual Dallas County Community College District Sustainability Summit Friday, April 15, at Cedar Valley College in Lancaster. The keynote speaker is ecologist Dr. Mark Nelson, who will shed light on such things as intensive organic farming and fruit growing in water-limited environments, replenishing soil fertility and approaches that help green cities in his presentation ”Making Peace with Mother Earth: Practical Applications in Sustainability from a Biosphere Pioneer.”
Through his Institute of Ecotechnics, Nelson has worked for more than three decades on ecological restoration and sustainable ranching and farming/orchardry in tropical outback Australia and the semi-arid temperate grasslands of the U.S. Southwest, and demonstrated sustainable forestry in the rainforest.
His interest in the environment dates back to his childhood.
“As a child growing up in New York City, I wondered if there was soil underneath the concrete,” he reminisces.
Dallas-Fort Worth residents will remember that in the 1980s, Nelson had a hand in building the Caravan of Dreams, a former jazz club and theater in Fort Worth, in an effort to revitalize downtown Fort Worth. The facility had a geodesic dome, featuring cacti and succulents from Texas and other bio-regions.
The Caravan of Dreams rooftop garden in Fort Worth.
“I had the great honor and privilege of the overall project, particularly over efforts of collecting and arranging plants, as well as writing up educational material to go with the exhibits,” he proudly remarks. “I plan to show pictures and talk about the project at the sustainability summit.”
In the late 1980s/early 1990s, Fort Worth Ed Bass, businessman, financier, philanthropist and environmentalist, funded Biosphere 2, a two-year artificial closed ecological system project in southern Arizona, that Nelson and seven other ecologists manned. Nelson explains that one of the goals of Biosphere 2 was to prototype what living off Earth would be.
“Fundamentally, people live in a biosphere and to really expand into space, we have to figure out how to live in a biosphere,” he adds. “The ecological goal was to make a new kind of laboratory to study global ecology.”
He expounds that any model leaves out a lot and that the three-acre Biosphere 2 was tropical and multi-cultural with a dessert, rain forest and ocean. They experimented with agriculture, laboratories and workshops – everything with which people who live in harmony experience.
“Among the outstanding lessons of Biosphere 2 is that we don’t know a lot about what makes it work, so there were surprises,” he shares. “It was a very ambitious project and people said that it was 50 years ahead of itself, i.e., as biospherian people, our reaction was that we don’t know a lot about the biosphere.”
Studying how people could use machinery in a way that wouldn’t harm other living systems was another aspect of the study. Another profound lesson was that the crew had to actively manage the biosphere.
“We had to make the study a healthy balance while protecting it,” he says. “We had to grow our food beyond organic standards where there was no pollution to the air, water and food. It was a very revolutionary project.”
Nelson said it's exciting to be living in a time of rising ecological consciousness. People around the world realize that nature is not infinite and that there are consequences to human behavior.
“We have both the necessity and the opportunities to fundamentally change how we live in our biosphere,” he advises. “I don’t like the word ‘environment,’ because it makes it sound like something outside of us. We are part of nature and the biosphere, and change is necessary to realize that we are biospherians and motivate us to do a better job of it.”
His published books include Space Biospheres (with John Allen), Life under Glass: the inside Story of Biosphere 2 (with two fellow biospherians), and most recently: The Wastewater Gardener: Preserving the Planet One Flush at a Time. An unpublished book is Discovering the Limits: Biosphere 2 and our Planetary Challenges.
Nelson suggests that change is the thing one can do wherever you are. Being mindful of the biosphere and working toward such ability is not a punishment; it actually gets you in contact with reality.
“Just like I admire red oak trees and wild animals, we, too, are a beautiful revolutionary product of our biosphere.”
Nelson will also offer a full day workshop on April 16 for $99.
Hosted by: Dallas County Community College District
About: Breakout sessions with nearly 30 speakers talking about sustainability from a variety of topics, including sustainable living, social justice, sustainable careers, food systems and wildlife. Also environmental learning area tours.
When: April 15, 8:45am-4pm
Where: Cedar Valley College, 3030 N. Dallas Ave., Lancaster
Keynote: Dr. Mark Nelson, 8:45 a.m. Nelson will also present an all-day workshop April 16 for $99.
Cost: Free. Lunch provided for those who register by noon on April 10.