Biosphere 2: Why an Eccentric Ecological Experiment Still Matters 25 Years Later

21 Responses

  1. hector lovemore says:

    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.

  2. Mark Nelson says:

    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:
    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

  3. Mark Nelson says:

    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.

  4. Mark Nelson says:

    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:
    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.

    • Brian Hamilton says:

      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.

  5. Shawn Rosenheim says:

    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.

  6. Peder Anker says:

    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.

  7. Wylie Cox says:

    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.

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