Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the first Biosphere 2 crew entering their enclosure. It’s also the twenty-eighth anniversary of the crew’s exit from their enclosure. It’s not often talked about today, but it’s a fascinating story, and while I don’t agree with all the motivations for the project, lately I’ve been reading and rereading a couple of books I own about what it was like to live there. There’s also a documentary called Spaceship Earth, which is currently on Hulu, but we’ll get to that.
For those who may not be familiar with the saga that is Biosphere 2, here is a basic rundown: It’s a contained set of biomes in Oracle, Arizona, housing over three thousand species of plants and animals. Eight human beings would live and work inside of it for two years, tending the plant growth and attempting to live a self-contained, completely ecologically friendly life. They would cook only from what was inside the enclosure and nothing, from toothpaste to shampoo to feminine protection was to disrupt the purity of the system.
The group behind Biosphere 2 were the Synergists, which sounds like a rock band, but it was a collective that started in San Francisco in the sixties. Founded by John Allen, the group used drama as a way to deal with their feelings and comment on society while also engaging in it however they wanted to. To support the group financially they had a ranch in New Mexico which is still in use today, an art gallery in London, and a ranch in Australia. The Synergists even have a research vessel called the Heraclitus that they built themselves.
In the seventies John Allen became very fired up about ecology, and symposiums were held to discuss how humans could mitigate the looming disaster. Alternate earth environments were pretty popular, and Phil Hawes was the architect of the Biosphere, incorporating Allen’s favored geodisic dome design. It was Star Trek meets Noah’s Ark meets Silent Running.
While the idea of a contained biosphere is interesting, the actuality looked different. I remember at the time people kept talking about Biosphere 2 being a prototype for possible human colonies on Mars or other planets, but most of the project’s function was gauging man’s effect on the environment.
There are several problems with this. One, Biosphere 2 is manmade, which means that, unlike Biosphere 1, man has a major say in everything that happens. In the natural world, however, we can’t control the weather, let alone climate as much as the green lobby would have us believe. Two, as anyone who deals with plant life can attest, there’s a big difference between outdoors and the hothouse just based on air quality and temperature alone.
Not only that, but there wasn’t much gradation between the different biomes, which caused some bleedover. Condensation built up on the roof from rain in the rainforest and then dripped down on the more arid sections, making vegetation sprout. The Synergists forgot to simulate wind, which meant that trees would get all stiff and break once they reached certain heights. And the animals wouldn’t always stay in their perscribed areas. One galago named Topaz pretty much had the run of the Biosphere and could turn up anywhere.
The agricultural area took a while to get going, too. Some crops, like Irish potatoes, failed to thrive, some were overrun with insects, which inspired creative pushbacks, such as sucking them up in the vacuum or tethering the chickens in the fields so they could get their fill of creepy crawly morsels.
Ergo, there was a distinct lack of variety in the cuisine the first year. The group consumed so many yams and beets for a period that they turned orange from the excess beta carotene. Legend has it that they did have a stockpile of food in case things went really bad, but there’s no confirmation of that although it would make sense. Either way, the eight biospherians made it work, so much so that another member, Sally Silverstone, wrote a cookbook called Eating In.
Biosphere 2’s environment wasn’t completely sealed. They had phones, e-mail, radio and TV because, duh, Arizona, so they were able to keep in touch with the outside world. Throughout the mission the eight biospherians did video conferences and phone chats with students, members of the press, and anyone else they needed to talk to.
Necessity more than anything kept the doors kinda open. Jane Poynter had to temporarily leave for medical treatment after her hand got caught in a thresher, and there was a huge uproar in the press when she was sent to the hospital. Jane promised not to eat anything, but she did carry a duffel with equipment and possibly a couple of T-shirts into the Biosphere when she came back. There was liquid oxygen pumped in when CO2 levels got too high. And there were samples and equipment sent back and forth through the airlock to the scientists on the outside. The press and the scientific community had a field day, calling the experiment a failure.
When the venture didn’t pan out as originally planned, the Biospherians split into two factions of four. Some thought that they should stick to the original plan as much as possible, and others thought they should work the kinks out of the system so that the Biosphere would function better in the future. They never quite met in the middle, and by the end of the experiment the two groups were barely talking to each other.
The schism carried over into how the Biosphere 2’s story is presented to the public. The two major printed works in my opinion are Life Under Glass, written by Mark Nelson, Sally Silverstone and Gaie Alling during their enclosure, and The Human Experiment, written by Jane Poynter in 2006. Spaceship Earth came out last year and was a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival.
Poynter is very forthright about the relational problems within the enclosure, whereas Silverstone, Nelson and Alling don’t mention them beyond the CO2 levels making everyone cranky and lethargic. Spaceship Earth falls somewhere in the middle, blaming the enclosure’s problems on outside forces like bad press. The one area these three sources agree on is that Biosphere 2’s basic aim was research.
Today Biosphere 2 is controlled by the University of Arizona and open to the public for tours. Jane, Taber, and Linda still live near it and gladly talk about their experiences.
So what’s the takeaway here? For me, it’s simply this: There’s a world of difference between stewardship and upending man’s ability to function in the name of “saving the planet.” While it’s an engrossing story, Biosphere 2 being a one-to-one model for man’s interaction with the Earth is ambitious at best.
A new post is coming up on Wednesday. Thanks for reading, all…
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Alling, Abigail, with Mark Nelson and Sally Silverstone. Life Under Glass: The Inside Story of Biosphere 2. Oracle, Arizona: The Biosphere Press, 1993.
Poynter, Jane. The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006.
Spaceship Earth. Directed by Matt Wolf, Impact Partners, Radical Media, Stacy Reiss Productions, 2020.