The Bison Sphere Manifesto

Stephen Pedersen/Badlands National Park, SD and ESA/Hubble & NASA

Palladium Central Command has holed up in our secret black site in Nevada, riding out the plague sent by the gods to punish America for complacency. Don’t bother looking for us on Google Earth; the satellite photos have been doctored. Suffice it to say, the American West is much larger than you have been led to believe. When we’re done with it, it will be much larger still.

Contemplating the nature of our crisis, it has become clear that the only cure to the viral pandemic is to develop the most urgent possible megalomania. Only a civilization bent single-mindedly on a vision of great achievement and flourishing life at all costs has the vitality to put down a plague. Only such a civilization will be judged worthy.

Without a higher mission, we become caught up in petty econometrics and personal blame-avoidance. We lose any reason for living, acting, and especially governing. We wring our hands as the microscopic barbarians approach, secretly hoping for them to relieve us of the tedious duties of life.

This is unacceptable.

Therefore, we have resolved to share with you our latest research from the Governance Futurism theory lab on what must be done. We have put together a simple stimulus program to be put into action immediately upon the conclusion of this crisis: the Bison Sphere.

The Future is Biological

You are likely familiar with Dr. Freeman Dyson’s concept of the Dyson sphere. With his typical flair for the extreme (he worked on the Project Orion spacecraft, which drops nukes out the back for propulsion), he envisioned a solar-orbiting constellation of enormous space stations of sufficient number and area to capture the entire radiative output of the sun as usable energy.

Vast energy would thus be available to whatever civilization had completed this gigastructure. We would have the entire output of a star and become a Kardashev Type II civilization. Mankind currently consumes approximately 15 terawatts. A Dyson sphere would make available energy on the scale of yottawatts, a trillion times more.

But what will we use all that energy for? Futurists have imagined vast arrays of solar panels powering vast arrays of computational hardware simulating vast arrays of minimally conscious beings watching Netflix and manufacturing paperclips to keep the stock market up. But this is just the same complacency for which we are being punished, scaled up to cosmic proportions and abstracted away from any natural beauty. No. We must do the opposite of that. We have to go back. All the way back. To the Pleistocene.

The problem with a purely mechanistic economic and technological stack, of silicon and software instead of grass and flesh, is that it’s too speculative, and frankly too low-tech, to get the job done with confidence. A full self-replicating economy is far too complex to be reduced to any foreseeable merely industrial technology stack. Only the most advanced and well-proven, self-replicating nanotechnological stack will do for colonizing the vast expanses of livable space and energy opened up by such a project.

And what is more advanced and well-proven than our very own biological ecosystems? Four billion years of proven self-replicating nanotechnology, far in advance of anything we have yet built ourselves.

Imagine the American West, before we killed all the bison, but at least a trillion times larger, in space. Imagine effectively infinite grassland steppe on vast solar-orbit space stations, populated by herds of quadrillions of bison (yes, quadrillions; I did the calculation).

As the constellation grows, giant nuclear-powered spacecraft will push rotating super-stations with artificial gravity into highly inclined orbits. Vast ziggurat cities carved out of solid billion-year-old space rock will be landed on the artificial plain, and space cowboys will range out from them, tending and hunting the herds.

Hungry space wolves will keep the herds in check, chasing them around so they don’t overgraze or get lazy. Man and beast will be in their best element, and the peak of their health, in an ecologically integrated space civilization bent on growth and life.

This is our vision for America’s future. The Bison Sphere.

The Mammoth Steppe

In 1988, distinguished Soviet scientist Dr. Sergey Zimov published his manifesto. In it, he called for a new alliance between man and animals to restore the Ice Age Mammoth Steppe ecosystem and create a new integrated, harmonious, and resilient ecological order.

In the Pleistocene, the Ice Age, when man was in his infancy, the ice-free areas were covered in vast grasslands. In Eurasia, the grassland steppe stretched from Iberia to Kamchatka. Vast herds of megafauna roamed, trampling, eating, and fertilizing the low grassy vegetation. With this level of herbivore attack, only grasses could survive, optimized to throw up disposable leaf blades from their bunkered root systems to feed the herbivores that wiped out other plants. This powerful symbiotic loop drove other less productive ecosystems to the fringes. The most iconic and majestic of these herbivores were the woolly mammoths. As such, this ecosystem is known as the Mammoth Steppe.

Ironically, this ecosystem pattern survives mostly in Africa as the savannah, where man has not yet wiped out the megafauna and predator populations that keep the ecosystem in balance. But it used to cover most of the earth, including many areas that are currently desert or low-productivity scrubland. We tend to imagine Ice Age Earth as a desolate waste, but the Ice Age mammoth steppe ecosystem actually had higher biological productivity than any ecosystem seen since. Zimov estimated the total animal biomass of Ice Age ecosystems at 1.6 billion tons, which exceeds even modern civilization’s 1.2 billion tons of humans, livestock, and other animals.

We are already living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland caused by human activity, but we can easily recover from it.

The reason the pasture ecosystem could get so big, the reason it can survive in both sunny Africa and the Ice Age permafrost, and the reason Zimov is interested in it as a solution to our ecological problems like climate change and biodiversity collapse, is that it is extremely resilient. With an overlapping meshwork of many competing grass, herbivore, and predator species within a single hierarchical order, disruptions are rapidly damped, and new areas colonized. Grass does not care if it is in the tropics or the permafrost. It also sequesters carbon underground in a way that is not vulnerable to fire. Most of the animals, too, can handle a range of climates. And let’s not forget that grazing animals are economically productive: you can eat them!

This combination of resilience, flexibility, carbon sequestration, and high bio-economic productivity make the pasture ecosystem the ideal basis for our expansion into our newly terraformed space. This is why it must be specifically a Bison Sphere.

But first, we must learn to create and steward this ecosystem. Zimov has already started. He founded Pleistocene Park, a small experiment in the Siberian taiga, to restart the steppe ecosystem by fencing in a large number of animals.

I spoke to his son, who has now taken over the project. It’s working. Underfunded as it is, it will soon be expanding. As soon as genomic sciences allow, they will be adding woolly mammoths. The Russians are ahead of us on this. My fellow Americans, we must not allow a bison gap to develop!

The Nuclear von Braun Paradigm

In the early 1950s, over the course of a few years, Dr. Werner von Braun’s newly American rocket cult published their manifesto in Collier’s magazine: Man Will Conquer Space Soon! This manifesto laid out the grand plan for space exploration that came to be known as the von Braun paradigm, which has since been the guiding vision for space exploration enthusiasts and much of NASA.

The basic idea is a massive wartime-esque mobilization of society towards space exploration. First, a fleet of reusable spacecraft to provide low-cost access to space. Then, permanent presence in low-Earth-orbit artificial-gravity stations. Then, expansion to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. By any means necessary.

Von Braun’s projects ultimately failed, as his disciples were politically outmaneuvered by bureaucrats and bean counters, but his disciples have kept the dream alive. The cult has since been picked up by a new titan: Elon Musk.

SpaceX is developing a fleet of low-cost, rapidly reusable starships optimized for Mars colonization. This is a great first step. It will finally fulfill von Braun’s vision. But if we’re going to build a Bison Sphere, we’re going to need much more than that. We’re going to need to involve Dr. Dyson’s visions.

The first thing that must go is the ridiculous pretense that SpaceX is a private company. SpaceX is an arm of the state, and everyone knows it. Elon justifies its budget by comparison to other things we collectively spend money on, and puts significant effort into convincing the public of its value. These are activities of state. It is the Space Exploration Agency, but for some reason we still insist that it appropriate its own budget. So while we’re throwing trillions around to keep the Wall Street complacency machine on life support, why not throw a few of those trillions towards a future we can believe in? Yes, I know it doesn’t quite work like that, but I’m sure the distinguished wizards who commune with the market can come up with something.

Besides a trillion-dollar budget, SpaceX needs access to America’s nuclear arsenal, which must be expanded to thousands of bombs per year. Nuke Mars, yes, but more importantly, nuke the back end of the Orion-class starships that will be moving asteroids around to build the Bison Sphere. It’s the only way to get the job done.

The Medicinal Power of Effort

Complex adaptive systems like society are like muscles. They need to be periodically intensely mobilized for great purposes or against great threats, or they atrophy and dissolve into unhealth. The parts of a living machine can only know their proper relations by practice.

We are antifragile, America. When disaster strikes, we step up to it and get stronger. But in the absence of this hormesis, we die.

The last time we really applied ourselves was over 70 years ago now. We landed on the Moon with the pump we got from the war, but have been languishing on the couch since 1973. Now at rock bottom, sweat pants stained with ketchup, the floor strewn with plastic toys from China, we have caught a nasty sickness.

The cure is sunlight and exercise. How much sunlight? All of it.

We must use this crisis to mobilize ourselves to become better. Otherwise, it’s over for us. We must permanently end this state of complacency and spend the next thousand years building the Bison Sphere. If we finish early, on to something else!

I have ignored the question of social and political organization. The reason for this is simple: once you have the intense overarching goal for which you must mobilize over the long-term, the rest falls into place. The complex adaptive system finds its functional organization in necessity. We need to feed, house, and provide virtue-building work for the people; we must be at the peak of our health. We need to build a strong economy; how else will we apply all the necessary industrial effort? We need to stop fighting and love each other; we have no time for disunity anymore. We need to learn to live harmoniously with nature, and build an ecologically integrated civilization; there is no other option for settling the Bison Sphere and flourishing in the long-term. Focus your vision on some great purpose, and everything else becomes clear.

The bottleneck, as usual, is mobilization in our hearts. We must develop the will to strive for more as a civilization, or we will die. We must come to believe in some great plan that is worthy of our most intense efforts. Perhaps you don’t think the Bison Sphere is good enough. I invite you to improve it.

In Sergey Zimov’s vision of the future, the nations of Earth will compete not on military strength, but on the size and health of their wild parks. America must not be outdone in this. We will use all the matter in the solar system in the construction of ours.

We can start right now, on Bison Sphere One (formerly known as “Earth”), by restoring the herds and predators and grasses to the American West, and building the functionally organized society capable of a grand effort of this kind. We have already begun. What else is there to do in quarantine? And what could be a better start to the real 21st century, in which at long last history has begun again?

I can neither confirm, nor deny that our black helicopters are already on the move.

This story is satire. It’s April 1st. The science, numbers, and engineering possibilities, however, are real, as well as more of the justification than you would like to believe.

Wolf Tivy is editor-in-chief of Palladium Magazine.