Biosphere 2: Why an Eccentric Ecological Experiment Still Matters 25 Years Later
Editor’s note: On September 26, 1991, eight people locked themselves inside an airtight three-acre greenhouse forty miles north of Tucson, Arizona, intending to prove they could survive and maintain a self-sustaining ecosystem of 3,800 plant and animals species for two years. The audacity of the project, which was privately funded to the tune of nearly $200 million, captured the nation’s imagination and made headlines around the world. But the experiment is now receding from collective memory and for many is remembered merely as the inspiration for the film spoof Bio-Dome, starring Pauly Shore (who himself is remembered less with each passing year). But the story of Biosphere 2 has much to teach us—about ecology, earth systems science, environmentalism, technological optimism, libertarianism, human psychology, and living in the Anthropocene.
To keep its memory fresh, historian of science Lisa Ruth Rand has invited reflections from five scholars, including Linda Leigh, who constructed several of Biosphere 2’s artificial ecosystems before herself becoming one of the first “biospherians.” First, NYU science studies scholar Peder Anker sketches the intellectual origins and interplanetary ambitions of the project. Later, Shawn Rosenheim of Williams College relays what he gleaned from directing the documentary “Biosphere 2.” University of Nebraska photography professor Dana Fritz tells of her time as artist-in-residence at Biosphere 2, and she shares photographs from her forthcoming collection, Terraria Gigantica: The World Under Glass. Finally, Rand offers her closing thoughts on this strange and wonderful story’s place in the history of postwar science and its meaning for our time.
The Closed World of Biosphere 2
In 1976 a series of scholars, including Ramón Margalef, James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis, and John and Nancy Todd signed a key consensus paper entitled “Ecological Considerations for Space Colonies,” which was published in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. In it they argued that “the question of space colonization should be explored,” though they thought one should build a closed ecosystem on Earth before trying to build one in space. After all, “if stable and productive closed ecosystems could not be made to function on Earth they certainly would not function in orbit,” and definitely not on the moon or on Mars. Their paper became the cornerstone of what is likely the most expensive ecological experiment ever, namely the Biosphere 2 project in Oracle, Arizona.
Biosphere 2 was designed to provide a model for how humans should live within Biosphere 1 (the Earth). It was to be a fully enclosed ecosystem. The idea grew from discussions at the Synergia Ranch, a commune near Santa Fe in New Mexico, which included the architect Phil Hawes and the oil-magnate Edward P. Bass as members. They were inspired by the University of Arizona’s Environmental Research Lab, which, since 1967, had been engineering a building that would integrate energy, water, and food into one ecosystem. Hawes, the building’s principal architect, based his drawings on his 1982 outline of “Architecture for Galactic Colonies.” It represented a continuation of his previous projects in New Mexico in the 1970s which focused on applying space ecosystem principles with circulation of energy and materials within a building. Bass, the investor, believed space technology would play a key role in the future in solving the world’s ecological and social problems. His aim was to develop ecological technology to benefit energy efficiency, recycling, waste processing, sewage management, microbial composting, and other emerging solutions to the environmental problems on Earth. The development and patenting of such technologies were to provide Bass with a solid profit.
The scientific rationale for Biosphere 2 was to prove that the ecological colonization of space was a viable idea. The ecologists Dorion Sagan and Lynn Margulis described the scientific aims in Biospheres from Earth to Space (1989). They encouraged the reader, saying, “Imagine for a moment you are building a large ship that will travel through space,” before plunging into a detailed analysis of how the science of ecology could enable people to “live in space indefinitely without the cost of importing supplies.” Scientifically it was a question of figuring out the “carrying capacity” of a closed ecosystem with respect to how large a crew of astronauts an artificial biosphere could support. “Successfully running a new biosphere would show people what it takes to make it in our beloved old one,” they argued, pointing to the relevance of such ecological research to “astronauts” making a living onboard “Spaceship Earth.” Moreover, “to settle Mars” with new populated biospheres could provide “protection in case of nuclear war” and “curb global population growth” on Earth. Thomas Paine particularly argued that “closed ecology systems can free us from Malthusian limitations by making the Solar System our extended home.”
The aim of the Biosphere 2 was also to build a shelter in which Bass and his friends could survive in co-evolution with thousands of other species in case the eco-crisis turned Biosphere 1 into a dead planet like Mars. Scientists and designers of Biosphere 2 fashioned themselves in the image of the Biblical Noah. They believed that “Glass Ark” could secure their personal survival while at the same time rescue some of the world’s biodiversity.
Biosphere 2 was completed in 1991 and sealed, after eight “biospherians” dressed in space suits had marched through the airlock. They promised to stay there for two years. “The project’s participants say it can show how to colonize other planets or survive ecological catastrophe on this one,” a journalist reported from the widely publicized event. Soon rumors circulated about a smuggled bag of supplies to hungry biospherians, and fresh air being pumped into the building. With crew members suffering from lack of oxygen, a decision was made to pump more of it into the building, though it effectively ruined the value of the experiment since the building was supposed to be sealed. Nature did not easily conform to the space cabin concept, later reviews of the project claimed. It was apparently a relief to the crew when they—in space suits—marched out of the airlock in September 1993. Despite the trouble, the Biosphere 2 building became a model for ecological architecture and set the standard for a growing field.
The questionable result of the Biosphere 2 experiment led to a dramatic layoff of most of the staff in the spring of 1994. Bass thought “it was time for the project to start making a profit,” and would consequently gear the managerial focus towards ecotourism. Over half a million visitors had so far paid $12.95 each to learn about ecological colonization of Mars, and with the “biospherians” out of Biosphere 2, ecotourists could now rent rooms within the building and visit a restaurant to experience what ecological life on Mars soon would be like. This was much in line with the thinking of ecologists, who believed constructing ecological microcosms was a helpful way to educate people about ecology since it could provide pupils with a quick-to-learn overview of the complexity of nature’s economy.
Both Sides of the Glass: My Experiences Designing and Living Inside of Biosphere 2
In my early undergraduate days, I was inspired by a University of Wisconsin-Madison botany professor, Dr. Hugh Iltis. Exuberant in his love of earth’s diversity, he painted a grim picture of a diminished-diversity earth with only robins and white-tailed deer remaining. Our class recited the Latin binomials of plants in unison, as mantras (“Liriodendron tulipifera, Liriodendron tulipifera, Liriodendron tulipifera”). We traveled to nearby patches of native tall-grass prairies and burned them, learning about nature’s “services” and how, in the absence of natural processes such as fire, we could take their place in an attempt to maintain ecosystem diversity. This set the scene for my use of a systems approach to understanding the earth.
Post-Iltis but before I joined the team at Biosphere 2, I worked as a field botanist locating endangered plant species’ habitats for recommendation as conservation sites. Working solo, I carried my banner to save the world and its magnificent diversity. I met a person involved in the early stages of the Biosphere 2 project and told him what I was doing. He made this life-changing comment to me: “You can’t do it by yourself.” Simple, but effective. I was soon part of the Biosphere 2 design team, attracted by their common vision to learn how the earth works as well as by their magnetic and intense passion to create a test-tube version of Earth. This was not just botany; it was a synergetic approach to cultures and their values, the atmosphere, and ecosystems.
Starting in 1985 as “Biome Design Manager” for the Biosphere 2 rainforest, savannah, and desert, I was able to apply all that I had learned from Iltis and others. The design and planning phases of Biosphere 2 were equally, if not more exciting, than living inside for two years and “making ’er go.” Generally, we humans take our ecosystems apart species by species; in Biosphere 2 we were putting them together species by species, soil by soil, microbe by microbe.
In an effort to put the pieces together, we contracted specialists in termites, ants, aquatic insects, galagos, reptiles and amphibians, rainforest plants, soils, desert plants, and many more. (We included Zea diploperennis—a species of teocinte, the mother of modern corn discovered by Iltis—in the species list for Biosphere 2 in Iltis’s honor.)
Working with multi-disciplinary teams was a challenge, since not all of our specialists had studied the larger context of the organisms that they studied. For instance, we initially wanted to include a species of bat as a pollinator of some of the plant species. Our bat specialist made a recommendation for a particular species of bat. One of those bats would nightly have needed to eat twenty two-centimeter-long night-flying moths, and would have had to had encounters with over a hundred per night in order to catch the twenty. Where would all of the moths come from? What would their larvae eat, and could we have enough and the correct habitat for the moths’ eggs? In addition, the air handlers, as designed, would have sucked the moths in and killed them. Engineers suggested a fine screen over the opening to the fans in order to give the moths a chance to survive the pull. That screen would increase the electricity needed to pull the air through, a budget increase that was not supported. Nix the bats. Nix the plants that needed bats for pollination.
We built the Biosphere for 100 years of operation. Our intention was to start with much higher diversity than would be expected in an equivalent-sized system on earth. But how many individuals of each species would be needed for 100 years of survival, and what were their pollinators? Did we have enough plants to provide the oxygen we would need? I thought of myself through the two year closure as a gardener of the atmosphere, trying to maximize oxygen production and CO2 consumption by all of the systems. It was clear that our breath was intimately connected as part of those systems, and each day of my life I feel that connection. In fact, I still occasionally panic if I don’t see green, photosynthesizing plants, wondering where my oxygen is coming from. Oh, that’s right, we’re connected to the larger world out here. This is a large world, after all.
All of this is useful in thinking about how we live on earth. The Oracle Learning Community Garden that I have been envisioning with my friends and neighbors will include it all, no doubt. Can we make habitat for migrating birds, insects, and bats while maintaining diversity of species for feeding hungry people with plants that are appropriate to our region? Of course we can, and we will. Will people take pride in being gardeners of the atmosphere? Of course they will. Biosphere 2 is just down the road from us, and the stories and lessons live on.
The Inside Story
Twenty-five years after first closure, the significance of Biosphere 2 seems to me larger than ever. That wasn’t always the case. When I first visited the site in 2000, while co-teaching an American Studies course on desert utopias, I didn’t get it. Biosphere 2 seemed to me an enormous albatross, a futurist set from Silent Running beached on the high desert floor. Yes, it may have been the largest private science experiment in history, a pioneering attempt to study complex biological systems, but something was clearly missing from the story.
And then I met Tony Burgess. Tony, a botanist who had created Biosphere 2’s desert biome, was the last man standing from the original group of people behind the project, and he generously agreed to speak to my students. When Tony started talking, my sense of the world changed. Tony told stories about the origins of the Biosphere project in a San Francisco theater group, and their subsequent work with figures ranging from Soviet space biologists to Timothy Leary, in their quest to develop sealed biospheres with which to settle Mars. He told stories about handmade concrete boats they built and sailed around the world; about systematic experiments with hallucinogenics; about, finally, an attempt to redefine the human. Headed by a charismatic leader named John Allen, the group’s ambitions were as vast and weird as anything in Pynchon.
After that, I couldn’t get Biosphere 2 out of my head. Over time I came to see that what had seemed to me merely quixotic—can humans build a desert in the desert?—was in fact a visionary question. Part of the point in building a self-sustaining world was to make the unimaginably rich interconnections of the actual Earth newly vivid. By aggressively using satellite uplinks, remote-controlled cameras, television, and the WELL, the biospherians managed to reach 600 million people. I was moved, and more than a little shamed, by the crazy ambition and tireless dedication of the project’s creators, many of whom had labored on it for a decade.
So I put aside my academic writing to make a documentary. The scale of Biosphere 2, I realized, was a dramatic resource. Because the process of climate change is by its nature diffuse, it’s hard to capture causality. There’s no direct way to see how an airplane flight to Los Angeles affects weather systems in the Arctic. Except, that is, in Biosphere 2, where the miniaturization enormously accelerated biological cycles, to the point where particular actions had visible and sometimes scary consequences. A water hose left running on a compost heap spiked CO2 levels throughout the atmosphere. The runaway growth of “crazy ants,” an invasive species, decimated insect populations, and killed off all the toads.
Life inside Biosphere 2 was inherently dramatic: while all eight crew members were dedicated to the same ultimate goals, each was responsible for individual biomes. Resources were limited, and deeply interconnected, which led to perpetual jostling over priorities. Need more plant growth to absorb the excess carbon dioxide? Make it rain more, even if that means killing off species and converting the desert into savannah. Each biospherian faced excruciating decisions about how much time to devote to science and how much to growing food; and about whether they, or John Allen, should ultimately direct the mission. The crew split into factions of four, increasing their sense of psychic isolation, even as they wrestled with the physical stress of chronic hunger and a living system that increasingly resisted attempts at control.
A year in, it was plain that everything was not going according to plan. Oxygen levels sank so low that closure of the project had to be breached to let in outside oxygen. Something like 30% of the species inside perished utterly. Battles broke out over whether the group should continue to take its marching orders from John Allen and the Science Advisory Committee on the outside, or run their own world according to their own consciences.
Around the world, the press denounced Biosphere 2 as a fraud. This wasn’t true. The project designers were clear that what they built outside Tucson was only a first step toward the creation of self-sustaining biospheres. The plan was to run fifty sequential experiments, with new crews swapping out every two years. Though the oxygen problem was unforeseen, its causes were eventually understood (the side effects of curing massive amounts of architectural concrete). Even the extinction rate was no surprise: project scientists had predicted that up to 70% of species might perish. Allen, however, exacerbated problems by sticking rigidly to the script he had planned out for the duration, casting unwarranted suspicion on the project as a whole. Eventually, faced with growing dissension, Allen pushed some of the crew inside to falsify scientific data.1
And so Biosphere 2 lost its credibility. Had John Allen shown more flexibility, both with the press and with members of the crew, he would likely have defused much of the mistrust that built up. Allen should have understood this. In addition to being an engineer and metallurgist, he was a playwright and theater director; he had, in fact, co-founded the Theater of All Possibilities, from which the Biosphere grew. For John, theater was less entertainment than it was a primary model for understanding human relations. He told me:
People don’t like the idea of drama. That is, that the basis of everything is conflict. Confrontation. Struggle of opposites. Science may have knowledge, knowledge, knowledge, but drama is the reality that there is conflicts of will. Conflicts of intentionalities. And in fact, at some point we defined Biosphere 2, that the objective of that was to show the intentionalities of people toward the biosphere.
Tragically, John was not finally able to reconcile his wisdom as a dramatist with the demands of his ego. Although he built the theater, he couldn’t control the twists of the plot; his efforts to do so alienated him from many of the crew and much of the world’s press.
Today, it’s hard to find any researchers who think the project was scientifically transformational. Crucial lessons were learned about how to engineer large closed systems (the secret is in building “lungs” to manage changes in air pressure). And yes, the discovery that rising CO2 levels led to ocean acidification was made first in Biosphere 2. But that discovery was made independently a few years later, in the Earth’s actual oceans. Elon Musk notwithstanding, it’s unlikely our species will need permanent Martian biospheres anytime soon.
Both the failures and successes of Biosphere 2 are pertinent to our condition today. The project offered a kind of reality TV in the social dimensions of large-scale technologies. In fact, the idea for Big Brother, the series that spread reality TV globally, came to its creator John de Mol, from a weekend spent watching uplinks of Biosphere 2. For two years, John Allen’s project played like the ultimate version of Survivor, reminding viewers that the planet we live on is itself an island, from which no one can be voted off. No technological fix, however grand, can escape the social matrix in which it and we are embedded. As the project’s inside history reveals, we’re stuck with our contentious selves, wrestling to work together.
Terraria Gigantica: The World Under Glass
Visiting many of the great Victorian glasshouses to make photographs for a previous project, I began to wonder about a 21st century equivalent that collected plants from faraway places and invited the public to enjoy them. As I researched this subject in 2007, I discovered that these contemporary “glasshouses” were of an increasingly larger scale, utilizing advanced architectural and engineering technology in a race to claim the superlative of “largest,” if only until the next one was built. They also incorporated painting and sculpture to create a more immersive experience for visitors. As an artist, these places captivated me both visually and conceptually. They had many similarities including a focus on research and on educating and entertaining the public. However, each has a unique mission and character. These architectural and engineering marvels stand as working symbols of our current and complex relationship with the non-human world. I selected Biosphere 2, among others, because it was indeed the world’s largest vivarium at the time.
Biosphere 2’s 3.14 acre glass and metal-framed structure contains a tropical rain forest, mangrove wetlands, a fog desert, savannah grassland, and an ocean with a coral reef. Built around the same time as Omaha’s Lied Jungle, it was originally designed as an artificial closed ecological system that would support and maintain human life, but it was also to be a tourist attraction that generated revenue from visitors who would travel to the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains to see this architectural wonder and the people living inside it. No longer airtight, it is now owned by University of Arizona and repurposed toward understanding the natural and human-made environments of Earth. The current mission includes training interdisciplinary scientists, science education, and public outreach. I was surprised and fascinated when I learned about the original mission, but I was most interested in the variety of ecosystems its vivarium contained. As an artist-in-residence from 2008-2011, in intermittent visits, I stayed on the campus and enjoyed 24-hour access to the biomes. During this time, the University of Arizona was transforming the languishing facility and developing new experiments that could utilize the world’s largest laboratory. My focus was on the curious original landscape design of the biomes, especially where illusionism replicating the natural world had been designed into what was essentially a research facility.
While the technical and aesthetic demands of these varying missions informed the physical design of these spaces, the required juxtapositions of natural and artificial elements also generate unintentionally striking visual paradoxes. In these carefully constructed exhibits, I turned away from the crowds of visitors, looking for views where the illusion gives way. In these margins, these liminal spaces, the natural and the artificial sometimes meet, overlap, and bleed together, or they collide, resist, and contrast with one another. The visual richness of these small details leads to big questions about what it means to create and contain landscapes. They ask us to think about our interactions with and attitudes about the non-human world. They ask us to consider whether these spaces supplement or replace experiences outside. They ask us to reflect on the distinction between the natural and the artificial and to contemplate nature’s future.
The Glass Ark, and Other Fraught Analogies
Lisa Ruth Rand
On September 26, 1993, a crew of eight men and women wearing dark blue jump suits passed through an airlock and into the Arizona sunshine. They took deep breaths of air and acclimated to an atmosphere that had become foreign over the course of their two-year mission. A group of well-wishers—fewer in number than those who congregated in 1991 to seal them inside—gathered for a “reentry ceremony” to welcome the gaunt travelers back to Earth.
Although to all appearances this event seems to mark the return of astronauts, the crew had never left Earth, at least not in the most literal sense. They were “Bionauts,” and the imagery and rhetoric of spaceflight surrounding this so-called “reentry” was quite intentional. Human spaceflight had become one of several analogies inscribed upon Biosphere 2 by those who conceived, built, and managed it.
The above essays synthesize the strange past and present of Biosphere 2. Alternatingly celebrated as visionary and lambasted as fraudulent, the project undertook an unprecedented experiment with unconventional goals in full view of a skeptical public. Whether evidenced in the space suits worn by the biospherians during closure and reentry, or in invocations of the facility as a “second Spaceship Earth,” the trappings of spaceflight—a durably popular product of modern science—provided a broadly legible analogy for an otherwise peerless endeavor.
While the project had a scientific rational—to see whether humans could construct and survive inside self-sustaining, Earthlike structures—what it lacked was the trappings of modern science. The space-frame facility looks like a spaceship or a laboratory—places where Big Science takes place. However, Biosphere 2 did not possess other properties that had become hallmarks of Western scientific practice since the late 19th century, particularly in the Cold War world from which the Biosphere 2 project emerged. It lacked public funding; it lacked an open exchange of knowledge and peer review with a broader scientific community; it lacked affiliation with a research university or established industry; and, perhaps most importantly, the majority of its first inhabitants lacked credentialing—although one biospherian boasted an M.D., the rest of the original crew were self-taught generalists, rather than Ph.D. specialists. The entire project was funded by a single wealthy donor, Ed Bass, and the management led by John Allen were notoriously secretive about technical and administrative details.
Together, these attributes harken back to a different century, before Western science as we know it existed, when knowledge about the world grew from the practices of natural history. Ed Bass acted as a patron, a private benefactor whose monetary and cultural capital could confer prestige through association. John Allen represented what Roy Porter calls “the cult of the intuitive genius.” Like charismatic naturalists of an earlier era, Allen confidently generated the trust and expertise that modern scientists gain through credentialing, institutional affiliation, and disciplinary exchange.
In spite of, or perhaps because of these deficiencies in the cultural markings of late 20th-century scientific practice, Allen and his followers crafted a public image that employed three main analogies in an attempt to make the Biosphere 2 legible and legitimate to scientists and lay Americans alike. The analogies served as a method of what Thomas Gieryn has called cultural cartography. By allying a project that was as much about art as it was about science with established scientific, technological, and spiritual narratives, the creators of Biosphere 2 inscribed their unusual practices onto a cultural map of American science that would otherwise exclude them. However, when these analogies failed, they fueled perceptions of the project itself as a failure.
In addition to the spaceflight analogy, public materials about the Biosphere 2 also described it as an ecological lab and a “glass ark.” The laboratory analogy bore out in photographs of biospherians wearing white lab coats working in white rooms among an assortment of volumetric flasks and specimen jars. The uncredentialed generalists took on technical titles that conferred epistemic authority. The glass ark analogy had aspects in common with space travel, but with a darker valence. Such an analogy appealed to American environmental and spiritual consciousness, suggesting that a species-stuffed, aesthetically compelling lifeboat might save the ecologically righteous from inevitable planetary collapse.
The lab analogy might have served the project more successfully had other attributes of the modern lab such as free exchange of information and knowledge production borne out, but the closed information world of the Biosphere 2 disconnected the facility from its broader scientific milieu. The ark analogy, too, proved problematic for its authors. In addition to the threatened lives of the New Age Noahs through oxygen deprivation, around 40% of the original 3,800 species went extinct during the first mission. To make things worse, cockroaches and crazy ants, endemic to Arizona but invasive to the Biosphere 2, filled vacated insect niches and added a hellish, post-apocalyptic veneer to the intended Ark. These mass extinctions would be an acceptable experimental outcome had the Biosphere 2 functioned as a modern laboratory. As a lifeboat for Earth’s species, including humans, Biosphere 2 suggested that humans could be in trouble in a post-Earth future.
While the essays above touch on John Allen’s legacy, Ed Bass remained more visibly attached to the Biosphere 2 and, from the first moments of controversy, has sought to rebrand the Biosphere as a legitimate scientific facility. After spending nearly $200 million of his personal fortune on the Biosphere, Bass (with an assist from his CEO Steve Bannon) kicked out the new crew of biospherians, led by John Allen, halfway through the second mission in 1994. From that point onward Bass’s top priority seems to have been to rehabilitate the reputation of his failed investment through affiliation with large research universities.
After trying to find a permanent buyer for sixteen years and flirting with private housing developers, Bass donated the Biosphere 2 to the University of Arizona in 2011. Bass gave an additional $20 million earmarked for a new large-scale ecology project to be built inside the former agricultural biome. However, the Landscape Evolution Observatory that resulted has had trouble producing high-level results and securing public money. In spite of its ostensibly legitimating affiliation with a research university, the search for scientific credibility for Biosphere 2 continues a quarter century after multiple failed analogies rendered the project a dramatic, spectacular failure in popular memory.
Twenty-five years after the first crew sealed themselves into the tiny planetary microcosm built upon a strange mix of eco-utopian optimism, apocalyptic pessimism, and extraterrestrial futurism, we face a murkier-than-ever forecast of Biosphere 1’s future. Steve Bannon, who played an instrumental role in the rebranding of Biosphere 2 between its two missions, and helped broker a lease with Columbia University, has rebranded himself as a climate change denier, alt-right icon, and right-hand man to President-elect Donald Trump. In the midst of a private aerospace boom in which the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos imagine a pristine multi-planet future for humanity—or at least for those who can afford the ticket to Mars—the question of whether we ought to preserve the planet as it is or learn to stop worrying and love the Anthropocene seems more urgent—and problematic—than ever.
Featured image: The sun sets on Biosphere 2 and the Sonoran Desert. Photo by Dana Fritz.
Peder Anker is Associate Professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University and holds a Ph.D. in the History of Science from Harvard University. He is the author of Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895-1945 (Harvard University Press, 2001) and the co-author of Global Design: Elsewhere Envisioned (Prestel, 2014). Concerning Biosphere 2, he has written From Bauhaus to EcoHouse: A History of Ecological Design (Louisiana State University Press, 2010) and an article in The Journal of Architecture, from which his above contribution was adapted. Website. Contact.
Dana Fritz is Professor of Art in the School of Art, Art History & Design at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Through photography she investigates the ways we shape and represent the natural world in cultivated and constructed landscapes. Her forthcoming book, “Terraria Gigantica: The World Under Glass,” will be published by the University of New Mexico Press in fall 2017. Website. Contact.
Linda Leigh began pioneering work in materially closed ecosystems in 1989 as the test subject for the “Human in Closed Ecological System” experiment, living for 21 days in the small, materially closed Biosphere 2 Test Module. Prior to her two-year Biosphere 2 residency, she directed the design of its terrestrial wilderness ecosystems, coordinating the work of engineers and architects with ecologists and other scientists. She directed the collection and propagation of over 2,000 candidate plant species for the rainforest, savannah, and desert. As a biospherian, she managed the health, research, and documentation of those ecosystems. Today she is a vermiculturist and Master Gardener in Oracle, Arizona. Contact.
Lisa Ruth Rand is an A. W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She earned her Ph.D. in the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania in 2016, and she is completing a book manuscript, entitled “Orbital Decay: The History of Space Junk and the Expanding Boundaries of the Natural World.” Contact.
Shawn Rosenheim teaches film and literature at Williams College. He is the director of Biosphere 2, and is currently in pre-production for “Future Obsolete,” a documentary on the space between the vision of the future proposed by General Electric in its mid-century industrial films, and the post-industrial wastes of the present. Contact.
Author interview with Tony Burgess; B. Drummond Ayres, Jr. “Ecological Experiment Becomes Battleground,” New York Times (April 11, 1994). ↩
A magical thing it is. Chock full of lessons. Post event analysis of the 90’s engages me endlessly—and as always, that long ago present was not obvious at the time.
The imagination, and dreams, and egos, and work and inspiration—everything—is wonderful to contemplate. BUT, the human mind stuff is never touched on adequately. Here’s hoping the experiment never fades from memory.
It is admirable that the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Edge Effects has chosen to review Biosphere 2 and its legacies for ecological understanding. However, many of the original unfounded media exaggerations are repeated and there is considerable misinformation in three of the commentaries.
I write as a fellow biospherian of Biosphere 2’s first two-year closure experiment with Linda Leigh (whose article is excellent). I have extensive knowledge of the project since it was conceived by John Allen, a fellow director of the Institute of Ecotechnics (I.E.), and I.E. served as a key scientific coordinator with space life support and ecological scientists around the world who contributed to its design and research.
Shawn Rosenheim article
The most egregious comment is from Shawn Rosenheim alleging that John Allen “pushed some of the crew inside to falsify scientific data.” This is completely untrue and without substantiation. The many dozens of scientific papers written during the two year initial experiment and afterwards have presented and analyzed the data and results of the experiment. For a partial list see: http://www.biospherics.org/publications/1984-2003/.
Rosenheim retails second-hand rumors and makes the outrageous comment that “the group’s ambitions were… vast and weird”. Maybe if he had taken the time to understand that the projects that I.E. helped initiate around the world were places to learn more about the integration of “eco” and “technics” in varied and challenging biomes like tropical rainforest (Puerto Rico), savannah (West Australia), high-temperate arid grassland/desert (New Mexico), the world city (London), Mediterranean (Aix-en-Provence, France) and a research ship to study the sea cultures and marine/aquatic biomes he would be closer to the mark.
Rosenheim and some of the other writers forget that Biosphere 2 was first and foremost an EXPERIMENT. Experiments only fail when you don’t learn from them. So the decline in oxygen caused by an imbalance between system photosynthesis and respiration was unexpected and demonstrated that Biosphere 2 was incredibly well engineered to have such a small leak rate that such a gradual phenomenon could be detected. Solving its causation showed sophisticated scientific methods could untangle and elucidate mechanisms even in such a large and complex ecological system.
Yes, there were factions amongst the crew – normal for any group in an isolated environment. But the outstanding lesson was that the eight crew members never sabotaged each other’s work nor the Biosphere life systems because it was clear our health and safety depended on our living world’s health. The tender loving care we all felt towards Biosphere 2 and the feelings of connectedness are elements we need to learn to instill towards our global biosphere in spite of valid different opinions.
Mark Nelson, Ph.D.
Chairman, Institute of Ecotechnics
Peter Anker article
Peder Anker seemed to have relied on media reports rather than either the published science and accounts of the project by its inventor and participating scientists. Biosphere 2 was never intended to be some sort of “survival” boat if the Earth became inhabitable. Its twin aims were creating a new kind of laboratory for studying aspects of our global ecology and as a ground-based experiment in learning how to make ecological complex systems for long-term habitation in space. So his statement “The scientific rationale for Biosphere 2 was to prove that the ecological colonization of space was a viable idea” is overly simplistic and his assertion “The aim of the Biosphere 2 was also to build a shelter in which Bass and his friends could survive in co-evolution with thousands of other species in case the eco-crisis turned Biosphere 1 into a dead planet like Mars” is completely false. More to the point is that Biosphere 2 was a great educational device which reached hundreds of millions around the world showing the essential services of our global biosphere and how difficult it is to even replicate a tiny mini-biosphere.
While we have great respect for the scientists behind “Ecological Considerations for Space Colonies”, the inspiration for Biosphere 2 is found in Vernadsky’s writings on the biosphere, H.T. and Eugene Odum’s systems ecology and our several decades of work with I.E. learning how to integrate ecology with appropriate technology. The cooperation we got from the Soviet Russian institutes who were leaders in bioregenerative life support was also important in project design and success.
Anker also asserts that the injection of oxygen “ruined” the experiment. “With crew members suffering from lack of oxygen, a decision was made to pump more of it into the building, though it effectively ruined the value of the experiment since the building was supposed to be sealed.” In this, Mr. Anker fails to understand that Biosphere 2 was built as an experimental laboratory with the expectation that some of its processes would not match what happens on earth. The sealed structure was precisely so that differences (the oxygen decline was probably the most prominent example) would be revealed without confounding contamination from outside. Measurement of such differences produces important data about ecosystem dynamics that is not available in anything but a sealed system. In the case of oxygen, the injection of compensating oxygen served to measure the imbalance between photosynthesis and respiration for this particular configuration of plants / animals / soil in the system. The purpose of Biosphere 2 was to commence study of biospheres by such experimental procedures, planned to span many decades and to be the forerunner of more biospheres to be built at various scales and with other initial configurations. The oxygen injection did not “ruin” the experiment; it was an example of the core purposes of the entire endeavor. While many people may know that earth is the only known biosphere in the universe, almost no one realizes what it will take to establish a science of biospherics to conduct experiments with different biospheres. Biosphere 2 was the first of what could be many such experimental systems.
Phil Hawes and Margaret Augustine were the co-designers of Biosphere 2 which was not based on Hawes’ fanciful 1982 adobe spaceship design.
Anker would do well to do better research than quoting unnamed “journalists” about the intent and results of Biosphere 2.
I and another biospherian offered to join the second closure team if needed – not quite the “relief” Anker attributes to the crew upon completion of our two years.
Lisa Ruth Rand article
Lisa Ruth Rand makes similarly unfounded leaps. “The project undertook an unprecedented experiment with unconventional goals in full view of a skeptical public.” The skeptical public included 250,000 people who journeyed to Biosphere 2 during its two years and close to a billion who saw the re-entry after two years.
She unfortunately makes some of the same kind of unfounded assertions about the goals of Biosphere 2 as Anker: “that a species-stuffed, aesthetically compelling lifeboat might save the ecologically righteous from inevitable planetary collapse.” Wow! A complete fabrication unless it quotes from some unsubstantiated tabloid news account of the project. Rand also asserts without substantiation the charge that Biosphere 2 did not share information with the scientific community. The project co-sponsored a series of international workshops on closed ecological systems and biospherics: 1987 at the Royal Society, 1989 at the Institute of Biophysics, Krasnoyarsk, Siberia (the site of the most advanced Russian work), in 1992 at the Biosphere 2 site and in 1996 at the Linnean Society, London where reports were shared with the ecological and space science communities. Check the above website to see the dozens of presentations and peer-reviewed papers from the project.
Biosphere 2 was an optimistic project. One of its “unconventional goals” was finding out how to make human agriculture, technology and engineering compatible with natural systems based on wild biomes without poisoning or polluting air, water and soils.
Rand also asserts that “The uncredentialed generalists took on technical titles that conferred epistemic authority.” It is true that the creative team behind Biosphere 2 was perceived as scientific outsiders and attempts to discredit the project conveniently forget that there were dozens of highly credentialed scientists who developed the research program. (For a complete list of participating scientists see: http://www.biospherics.org/biosphere2/results/6-consultants-scientists-conducting-joint-studies-provide-expertise-extend-importance-of-biosphere-2-experiment/)
At first, there was doubt that “uncredentialed generalists” could even build a near airtight facility and create working models of coral reef, rainforest, mangrove marsh etc. But these biomes were valuable enough to be used by Columbia University and now the University of Arizona to do ground-breaking global climate change and other ecological studies. The generalist crew with consultation from scientists like Prof. Richard Harwood, Michigan State University, also exceeded world records for agricultural production without the use of toxic chemicals while recycling all human and domestic animal waste to maintain soil fertility. Our medical doctor, Roy Walford (a research professor at UCLA Medical School), published around ten scientific papers on the diet, oxygen decline and other striking biomedical results of living inside Biosphere 2.
She writes: “40% of the original 3,800 species went extinct during the first mission. To make things worse, cockroaches and crazy ants, endemic to Arizona but invasive to the Biosphere 2, filled vacated insect niches and added a hellish, post-apocalyptic veneer to the intended Ark.” The strategy of ‘species-packing” was adopted by Biosphere 2 precisely because losses were anticipated, and no one knew how large they would be in the world’s greatest ecological self-organization experiment. Conversely, after two years of initial system operation, over two thousand species were living in a series of ecological zones covering just 1 hectare (2.5 acres), a very high level of biodiversity. I don’t know when Rand visited Biosphere 2, and the facility suffered from lack of care after the second closure experiment ended in 1994, but I’d echo what Roy Walford wrote “When I exited the enclosure in 1993, Biosphere 2 was a luxuriant paradise of plants, albeit with extinction of some species, a phenomenon commonly observed with self-organizing islands” (from Voyage of Serendipity, Biosciences, 1999). Hardly a post-Apocalyptic veneer.
Rebecca Reider who did a history of science thesis on Biosphere 2 at Harvard aptly summarized why Biosphere 2 did indeed raise the hackles of analytic (reductionist) scientists and a media who associate science with prestigious institutions. Biosphere 2 broke four unwritten taboos of media and popular views of science.
“’Science’ could be performed only by official scientists, only the right high priests could interpret nature for everyone else….’Science’ was separate from art (and the thinking mind was separate from the emotional heart)…’Science’ required some neat intellectual boundary between humans and nature; it did not necessarily involve humans learning to live with the world around them. Finally, ‘science’ must follow a specific method: think up a hypothesis, test it and get some numbers to prove you were right”.
Biosphere 2 was built with detailed analytic science and systems, holistic science approach. The boundaries of science need to be expanded if we hope to be able to address the issue of re-designing our technosphere to support our global biosphere, not degrade it; and to develop new paradigms for how humans can live cooperatively with our life support system, Earth’s biosphere.
Some systems thinkers were unfazed by the controversies, to be expected in such a high-profile and audacious experiment, like Prof. H.T. Odum who noted in his paper “Scales of Ecological Engineering”:
“The original management of Biosphere 2 was regarded by many scientists as untrained for lack of scientific degrees, even though they had engaged in a preparatory study program for a decade, interacting with the international community of scientists including the Russians involved with closed systems. The history of science has many examples where people of atypical background open science in new directions, in this case implementing mesocosm organization and ecological engineering with fresh hypotheses” (Ecological Engineering, 1996).
Prof. E.P. Odum, a founder of systems ecology, noted in a letter to Science: The mission of this venture is not generally understood by the scientific community. The mission of this experiment is not traditional, reductionist, discipline-oriented science, but a new, more holistic level of ecosystem science that has been called “biospherics.” Biosphere 2 is as much a human experiment as a scientific one. When you consider that nothing on the scale of Biosphere 2 has been attempted before…and how little we really know about how our Biosphere 1 (Earth) works, a measure of success will have been achieved if the biospherians come out alive and healthy this fall after the 2-year isolation. Certainly the experiment will have improved our understanding of human-biosphere interrelations and helped answer the question of how much natural environment must be preserved for life support, and it will have provided a basis for improving the design next time around.” (Science, 14 May 1993).
For a publication from “a research center within the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison” I would have expected a higher level of scholarly research and fact-checking to eliminate assertions without foundation or ones based on quoting popular media accounts of a major ecological facility.
As Interim Managing Editor of Edge Effects, I want to thank you, Dr. Nelson, for your extensive comments. It was our hope with this forum to showcase a variety of perspectives on the rich history and many legacies of you and your colleague’s first Biosphere 2 mission. You have helped us do this by adding your own account, which will no doubt be of great interest to our readers going forward. Our understanding of the past is enriched by debate, disagreement, and a thorough evaluation of evidence. We stand by the work of our contributors, which was based not merely on the reporting of the New York Times and other reputable outlets, but also on their own interviews and extensive research. But we are glad you have raised questions, introduced new evidence, and offered contrasting interpretations, which will only enrich our engagement with this fascinating chapter in contemporary history.
Mark Nelson disputes my claim that John Allen “pushed some of the crew inside to falsify scientific data,” going on to cite the “many dozens of scientific papers” published as a result of the first two-year experiment. Nelson is right about the publication record: dozens of papers were published, including some of real value (chiefly the discovery of ocean acidification from rising atmospheric CO2). I never said, nor do I believe, that these were dishonest or manipulated results.
As to John Allen’s efforts to tamper with the scientific data, though, I stand by my claims. Such charges have been documented in print for twenty years, and were also made in detail by Tony Burgess during my interview with him. There is also the striking fact of the resignation of the entire Scientific Advisory Committee following Burgess’s revelations about John Allen. As Thoreau writes, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”
All that is settled history. What motivates my letter today is Nelson’s observation that “Rosenheim and some of the other writers forget that Biosphere 2 was first and foremost an EXPERIMENT. Experiments only fail when you don’t learn from them.” To which I would respond: precisely.
Biosphere 2 was an experiment with huge implications for life on this planet. Its deepest lessons, though, don’t concern leak rates or oxygen cycles, but go to the cultural dimensions of technology, and the intransigent complexities of our social lives as humans.
I learned an enormous amount from the years I spent working on my documentary. I owe a debt to John Allen, and to Tony Burgess and Linda Leigh as well. In the end, though, Allen’s refusal to learn from his own experiment — evident in his willingness to surround himself with those who endlessly repeat the official myths — compromised his great work. The loss, I feel, is nothing short of tragic.
I owe Mark Nelson an apology for not having made a reference in this blog to my peer-reviewed article and book that deal with Biosphere 2. Here he would have found footnotes to material beyond just media reports, including scientific publications (of which there are surprisingly few given the scale of the project). Naturally, I stand by my publications: “The Closed World of Ecological Architecture,” The Journal of Architecture, 10 (2005), 527-552 and From Bauhaus to Ecohouse: A History of Ecological Design, (Louisiana State University Press, 2010). The aim of the Biosphere 2 project was indeed to create a shelter for survival. The most common synonym for the project was “The Glass Ark”, which refers to the Biblical Noah who built an Ark in which he, his family and the world’s species would be able to survive the flood. This is also how Nelson in his book Space Biospheres (written together with John Allen) describes Biosphere 2, namely as an “escape” (p. 40) or “offspring” (p. 52) in which life will survive Biosphere 1’s coming doom. It is true that Vernadsky was important to Nelson, but Vernadsky’s somewhat complicated thinking was not equally appealing to the rest of the participants in the project who found their sources of inspiration chiefly in the Mars colonization literature. It is an overstatement to say that scientific experimentation and education were the motivating forces behind Biosphere 2. It was built by the for-profit Space Biospheres Ventures with the aim of patenting green technologies, which explains the project’s corporate mentality and culture of control, as well as the refusal to allow publications of data and the removal of research samples. Nelson may think that the injection of oxygen into Biosphere 2 did not ruin the experiment; the scientific advisory committee which resigned seems to have been of a different opinion, as reported in Science (19 March 1993, 11 March 1994). Yet Nelson should not be frustrated. It is normal that the memories of those who have experienced an event do not match up perfectly with the account given by historians. Now here is a challenge that would be of real help if Nelson could take it on: tell us about Steve Bannon! Everything. He was acting director of Biosphere 2 from 1993 to 1995, and now he is the White House Chief Strategist. What was Bannon like back then? What was important to him? Given Bannon’s role in the current onslaught on climate and environmental sciences, it is crucial to better understand where he is coming from.
One can’t understand what happened at Bio2 without understanding the paradigmatic schism of the last ~100 yrs in Science between the ideology of reductive materialism (‘RM’), being the devotion of the owners of the institution of Science, and the worldview of the ‘dispossessed’ (‘D’), i.e., those practitioners of scientific inquiry (science with a lower-case ’s’) that instinctively fear placing all their eggs in one basket, and therefore choose to retain the conceptual fluidity of multiple theoretical frameworks (TF), which includes as well the option of using no TF at all if a phenomenon or situation suggests that.
The seed that blew into J. Allen’s (& others) mind (& sprouted to eventually produce Bio2) came from the bursting inflorescence of Margulis & Lovelock’s 1974 paper, “Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere: the gaia hypothesis”, Tellus XXVI(1974), 1-2. And it wouldn’t have sprouted so vigorously had the mental ground not been watered by the Kuhnian & Feyerabendian, et al., rains of the 1960’s, plus the overall global cognitive-climate upheaval of that time. One can’t name a scientific discipline that did not undergo theoretically-altering self-examination & reorganization, and to a significant extent, dichotomization, all directly because of that effervescent period — to specifically mention physics, philosophy, biology, anthropology, history, geology, ecology, & psychology. A sense of possibility along with a skeptical regard for authority entered the mainstream of Science & sectioned the flow, like tumbling a boulder into a mountain stream.
To this day there’s a mostly invisible (to laypeople) division in the ranks of scientists based on how one’s cognitive landscape ended up following that period. It isn’t discussed much, because when it is, tempers flare, mostly on the RM side but sometimes on the D side, and in general scientists of any mental configuration prefer peace & quiet in which to carry on their activities. Rather than indulge in frequent confrontations, most scientists just prefer to do what they each consider to be ‘science’, no matter what her/his methodologies are or her/his metaphysical position is.
However, the two or three decades of existential recapitulation from the 50’s through the 70’s left some with a feeling of hope for new, truly meaningful knowledge from an approach that did not rely on a monolithic TF at the center of one’s inquiry, but left others with a feeling of being threatened, because they identified with a TF whose monolithic character they deemed to be necessary. The sociopolitical arena of Science (that which influences publishing, academic life, programmatic priorities, etc.) has been somewhat of a silent (mostly) battleground in the decades hence.
The gaia hypothesis, simply as an intellectual proposal, irritated the RM side of Science, and their irritation was not soothed by the personal individual successes of Lovelock & Margulis. Allen (& whomever his allies in the academic & business worlds were) brought a small, local, paradigmatic skirmish to a head by convincing Ed Bass to finance the Bio2 project, which at its heart had a gaian bio-eschatology. If it hadn’t been so expensive it wouldn’t have drawn as much attention from the RM side that it did. But the smell of $ excites the ideologically-motivated.
The D side doesn’t care about money so much; they’re more interested in whatever bits of knowledge they can scrape up in the world, however one might find them; so they tend to shy away from the money chase. However doing science has become one of the most expensive endeavors the human race has ever come up with — other than killing each other, of course, which will always(?) be far & away #1.
[A note on one of Anker’s claims: I don’t think Bass himself thought of Bio2 as a personal escape hatch from any Terran disaster. I think he financed it because he believed Allen would come up with something out of which he could gain a large profit, e.g., from NASA & other national space agencies, etc. Whether or not Allen really imagined leaving Terra & living offworld with acolytes of his vision inside Bio2-like technology, i don’t know. He might have. Or maybe not. Probably some of his entourage did. ]
The RM side of Science never particularly approved of Bio2, Lovelock, Margulis, et al., and were happy to see the original program fall apart, even though they didn’t feel a direct threat from something that was primarily a business endeavor. When D-inclined people from Columbia stepped in, signed an operational contract, and started educational & research programs at Bio2, those of the Columbia institutional culture in NYC who identified with the RM side definitely disliked that and felt directly threatened. Thus when regime change came to Columbia, the programs were finished. No surprise at all.