Charles Mudede

Seattle Times' business reporter Ángel González thinks he hits upon it, thinks he understands the history beneath and inspiration for the Spheres. But in fact he doesn't. The error is near the top of his January 3 post, "Amazon’s Spheres: Lush nature paradise to adorn $4 billion urban campus." He writes:

The fruit of a bold design, the so-called Spheres will serve as a haven of carefully tended nature geared to letting Amazonians break free from their cubicles and think disruptive thoughts. It’s an internet-era, Pacific Rim answer to the architecturally astounding gardens set up by European monarchs during the Enlightenment era.

Not quite right. He is imagining the court garden, which has been coded as a kind of luxury with an incidental educational value. Here, the Greek root of the word "school," skholē (leisure), is preserved and transmitted. Here, court pleasure and the scientific (or, to use González's word, "enlightenment") are one and the same thing. But after the 17th century, the scientific has to hold another hand. Not that of the court, but of business.

This is the point at the core of a book I read two years ago, Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. I thought of this book as I walked by Amazon's Spheres this morning. I saw those trees inside of them, and instead of recalling my feelings and daydreams about long-term space travel (which are inspired by the late, great biologist Lynn Margulis), I thought about the business of botanical gardens in the era of the British Empire. The Kew Gardens—which opened at around the time capitalism (the rule of the economic) displaced the court and the medieval order, in 1759—were not just about the accumulation of knowledge (the noble and pleasurable project in the court); they were about about the commodification of the powers and properties of plants.

For example, seeds from some tropical country outside of the Empire would end up at the Kew Gardens. Here, botanists would figure out from the careful examination of the life-history of the plant the best conditions to grow it. Once understood, the seeds would be sent to tropical countries in Empire with conditions that best met the needs and life-history of the plants. This caused the massive reorganization of life on earth. The botanical garden was not innocent. It was not a place of relaxation. That was the court garden, the luxury, the school. Amazon's Spheres aspires to the court in its press releases; but the corporation itself has its roots deep in the Kew Gardens.

This is what I recalled when looking at the spheres. Not their future, their science fiction; but their past. The future of these sphere is very different, and even a bit progressive. It reminds us of the fact that long-term human departure from earth would mean that much of the life forms that make human life possible go with us. But the problem is this number is not known. How much of the earth's biosphere do we take with us? What is the point at which we are independent in this sense?

We know our independence is provided by the services of a huge number of other life forms. This is our actual space suit. Not just oxygen. But also roots, fungi, leaves, worms, bacteria, and so on. Any journey into deep space would mean including lots of plants and tons of micro-organisms. These biospheres are also models for spaceships or bases for the worst future imaginable. The one that sees us leaving earth.