THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


The World Under Glass

Mars, money, and matter in Arizona

by Olivia Kan-Sperling

Illustration by Teri Minogue

published November 17, 2017


Once upon a time in the 1980s, a Texas oil magnate, an architect, a systems theorist, and a hippie-businessman-scientist re-made the Earth inside a three-acre dome at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains. In the Arizona desert, ideologies of libertarianism, techno-utopianism, and environmentalism mingled with the last vestiges of 1960s counterculture. In the spirit of the times, this curious array of figures hoped that somewhere in their confluence of capital, expertise, and experiment a new world could be created. For once, this new world was not metaphorical; the fruit of their efforts (and money) was to be nothing less than a model of and substitute for the Earth, one that would ultimately serve as a vehicle for space colonization. The leadership of this conglomerate, “Space Biosphere Ventures” (SBV), named their project “Biosphere 2”—Biosphere 1 being Earth itself. Both utopic commune and high-tech space capsule, Biosphere 2 was propelled by a fantasy of escape via human innovation and rationality amid anxieties of economic meltdown, ecological crisis, and nuclear annihilation. At the time, Discover lauded it as “the most exciting scientific project undertaken in the US since President Kennedy launched us toward the Moon.” 

And how photogenic it all was! The $150 million glimmering glass prism rose up out of the desert like a mirage. Its pristine facets, suspended by a white lattice, reflected the purple Arizona sunset like some alien vessel just landed 30 miles north of Tucson. Inside, the Biosphere boasted an expansive simulation of Earth: a tropical rainforest, a marsh, a desert, a savannah, and an ocean, all in miniature, complete with a tiny coral reef, apartments, a library, and recreational areas.

Fashioned as a “closed system” with near-zero air exchange with its surroundings, Biosphere 2 (B2) was designed to contain an atmosphere completely severed from Earth. Heavily influenced by new thinking on ecosystems, which figured them as complex, interconnected webs of life, self-contained and self-sufficient (thus “closed”), the scientists curated the 3,800 species destined for B2 with an eye for symbiotic harmony. One of these species was our own: for two years, under the glass dome of the Biosphere, a crew of scientific researchers was to collect data in total isolation. Both cultivators and constituents of their environment, inside and above it, they too would become part of the ecosystem.

On September 26, 1991, the eight “bionauts”—four men, four women—were set to board this “Glass Ark.” SBV ensured that the event received media coverage akin to that of a rocket launch. Clad in Star Trek-esque navy jumpsuits with black belts, green piping, and a white “BIO2” Earth logo on the back, the smiling, clean-faced crew members waved beatifically at the cameras before disappearing into the dome. In pictures, they seem to each be holding a single asparagus. This is only the first in a series of bizarre, human oddities surrounding B2. 

Things went wrong pretty quickly. Several weeks into the “mission,” Jane Poynter, the “biospherian” in charge of agriculture, needed to leave because she had cut off her finger in a wheat thresher. Upon her re-entrance, as was later revealed, she snuck in some “supplies.” What these were is unclear: she claims they were “just some drawings,” while other team members maintained they were plastic bags, and one newspaper accuses her of bringing in “sleeping pills, mousetraps, and makeup.” There was no evidence of mouse problems, so perhaps this was a fabrication, but the mission was plagued by cockroaches and a species of ants that had infiltrated the dome. All the tropical birds, honey bees, and frogs went extinct almost immediately. Morning glories multiplied wildly in the rainforest, suffocating other plants. Although they had been provided with stylishly minimalist, granite-counter-topped kitchens, they had little to eat; the researchers were chronically hungry and ate so many sweet potatoes that they started to turn orange. In November, it was revealed that a carbon dioxide scrubber, a device that removes the gas from the atmosphere, had been installed prior to the start of the mission. In fact, carbon dioxide levels had immediately proved too high, and B2 steadily lost oxygen, rendering the crew depressed, fatigued, and barely able to sustain themselves, much less do research. Accusations abounded that the scientific value of the endeavor was rendered void by the team’s non-adherence to the policy of isolation and self-sufficiency. Most damning was the leadership’s unwillingness to grant the press details on the project. What secrets, it was asked, was SBV trying to hide? 

The media’s tone quickly changed: rather than a team of daring scientific pioneers, the bionauts were painted as cult members enthralled by the New Age-y SBV director, John Allen (the aforementioned hippie-cum-entrepreneur). In fact, the signs were there all along. Dr. Ghillean Prance, designer of the “rainforest” biome, gave this ominous warning in a 1983 interview: “Their interest in science is not genuine. They seem to have some sort of secret agenda, they seem to be guided by some sort of religious or philosophical system.” While the Biosphere’s glitzy glass, futuristic glamour, and billionaire backing may have previously blinded the media to the project’s less respectable origins, they now pounced on all hints of the “unscientific.” Training for the mission had consisted, among other things, of mandatory meditation and theatrical performances. The group had largely been formed at a New Mexico “ecovillage,” Allen’s groovily named “Synergia Ranch,” and also met at sites including a conference center on the French Riviera, a boat, and a Texas arts space called the “Caravan of Dreams.” Most of the bionauts were not seriously scientifically educated, but received “degrees” from the SBV parent institution, “Institute for Ecotechnics.” Allen himself was heavily qualified, but his theater activities in San Francisco’s 1960s countercultural Haight-Ashbury district, as well as his many books authored under the pen name “Johnny Dolphin” and published by a press that boasts titles like Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics, cost him credibility in the eyes of the public. 

Inside B2, things were equally melodramatic. In addition to the stresses of the nonhuman environment, the bionauts had to deal with each other—perhaps Allen had the right idea in training them in meditation. It was not enough; hungry and oxygen-deprived, they quarrelled bitterly over food rations. When Poynter broke into the emergency food supplies, which were not grown “inside” and thus reflected poorly on the experiment, she was dismissed by the SBV CEO and ordered to leave the bubble—an order which she ignored, figuring that no one would risk further compromising the experiment by forcibly removing her. Despite everything, in September 1993, the team emerged via red carpet into the outside world to the strains of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” an average of 29 pounds thinner but still smiling in their jumpsuits after two years and 20 minutes inside B2. Speaker systems warned the crowds not to approach or touch the crew, as one does with gods, though it is unclear from where this strange safety precaution stemmed—out of concern for the health of the biospherians, or the public? Nevertheless, one overcome journalist rushed to shower them with hugs and kisses. The crew spoke on the wonders of viscerally connecting to one’s environment. The hatred they later admitted to feeling for each other was kept under wraps: one reporter, commenting on their serenely happy composure, described them as: “Good soldiers, team players, keen as mustard. You wanted to slap all their faces.” Despite the bitterness and controversy plaguing the mission, there was one happy ending: several months after “re-entrance,” Jane Poynter and fellow biospherian Taber MacCallum were married on the B2 campus lawn.

But this is not the end of the story for Biosphere 2. After improvements were made that mainly addressed the carbon dioxide issue, a second crew was sent into the bubble, with considerably less fanfare, on March 6, 1994. This time, the trouble came from outside. B2 was proving financially disastrous, and one month in, Ed Bass, the oil baron financier, ousted the entire project leadership. “Johnny Dolphin” was replaced by a banking team. The project’s scientific advisory panel, which included NASA experts, quit. In a letter, Crew 1 member Abigail Alling described the turnover: “Limousines arrived on the biosphere site… with two investment bankers hired by Mr. Bass… They arrived with a temporary restraining order to take over direct control of the project... With them were six to eight police officers hired by the Bass organization…They immediately changed locks on the offices… All communication systems were changed (telephone and access codes), and [we] were prevented from receiving any data regarding safety, operations, and research of Biosphere 2.” Claiming that the new management knew nothing about the experiment’s intricate life systems, and concerned over the safety of Crew 2, Alling and another ex-bionaut cut short a business trip in Japan and broke into the complex in the middle of the night, smashing several glass windows and opening doors to communicate with those inside. In the end, arrested and charged with criminal trespass, burglary, and criminal damage, they were unable to halt the transformation of the scientific project. 

The objectionable new CEO was none other than Steven Bannon, then working as an investment banker in Beverly Hills. During a trial brought by Alling against SBV for abuse of process and breach of contract, Bannon stated that, in response to a document Alling penned stating her safety concerns, he had vowed to “ram it down her fucking throat,” and that he had called her a “self-centered, deluded young woman” and a “bimbo.” Project director Margret Augustine also accused Bannon of harassment: he and his partner had "made lewd remarks, told offensive off-color stories, made disparaging remarks about females, made sexually suggestive remarks, [and] discussed females they had known in a lewd and derogatory fashion." Bannon attributed these “hard feelings and broken dreams” to the stress of the company’s bankruptcy.

Under Bannon, the scientific goal of the project was also fundamentally shifted. Whereas the Biosphere had previously been imagined as an alternate, more perfect Earth, the escapist vehicle for a future played out in space, its new leadership re-figured it as a test site for the Earth itself under extreme global warming. As Bannon explains in a 1995 interview, “A lot of the scientists who are studying… the effects of greenhouse gases, many of them feel that the Earth's atmosphere in 100 years is what Biosphere 2's atmosphere is today.” Bannon, despite using his current media platform to deny anthropogenic climate change, was clearly well aware of its existence. This is a common pattern. Exxon, for which Trump’s Secretary of State was formerly CEO, funded early global warming research in order to spread misinformation. While associated with environmentalism, B2 had always been predicated on the future uninhabitability of Earth. It was funded by oil money, and the immense daily energy costs of operating the system were supplied by natural gas rather than renewables. Given the humans’ utter failure to survive self-sufficiently in this brave new world of cockroaches and sweet potatoes, Bannon’s repurposing of the Biosphere as a window into the future was grim indeed.

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Once, the park sold its visitors “biomeburgers,” “habitat hotdogs,” and “planetary pizzas.” Now, B2 serves simple “sandwiches,” and has done its best to shed its colorful past in favor of a more down-to-earth brand. It “does not have ziplines,” as its current Associate Director insisted in an interview—“We do not have rollercoasters going around!” Recently, the project has been somewhat vindicated: the press, it is said, if initially overenthusiastic, was also overzealous in its condemnation. The facility has produced respectable papers, including some of the first research on the effects of carbon dioxide on coral reefs. Today, it is operated by the University of Arizona as a research and educational institute. Though no longer a closed system, its “mission statement” remains similar to that under Bannon—“to be an adaptive tool for Earth education and outreach to industry, government, and the public”—minus the controversy.  

Nevertheless, the Biosphere, in all its arrogance, beauty, and confusion, still leaves one with a strange sense of ideological and narrative vertigo. As one befuddled reporter confessed at the time, “my mind is aspin with ambivalent impressions!” It is difficult to reconcile the facts and figures into a satisfactory story; in the end, it seems, everything worked out OK. The few ex-bionauts still in the public eye look back on their experience with fondness and have gone on to work on—though never in—similar projects in systems ecology and space exploration. There is no evidence that they suffered long-term health consequences from their time in the bubble: in fact, the program has been held up as an excellent example of the fitness benefits of lowered caloric intake and exercise—though at the time, their diet restrictions and intense labor were matters of survival rather than aesthetics. 
It is a mistake, however, to read B2 as no more than a piece of late-20th century nostalgia, when the future was shiny and monumental rather than some Harvard dropout’s online yearbook idea. Silicon Valley, with its rhetoric of “think-novating the future” and “hacking for humanity,” is fueled by a similarly toxic mix of techno-utopianism backed by big money. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, for which Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum have done work, is its direct descendant: his first goal on the way to space colonization was to land a “miniature experimental greenhouse” on Mars. SBV, with its ties to oil money and Bannon, simply carried its politics closer to the surface. Unlike B2, many geoengineering experiments today—most notably the dumping of tonnes of iron into the ocean to boost phytoplankton—do not operate on a closed system but on the Earth itself, with potentially disastrous consequences. 

Biosphere 2 is simultaneously a history of intersecting ideologies, of media sensationalism, of Disneyland-era simulation, and of the Wild West of venture capital. There are lessons, here, of course—about hubris, and the dangers of playing Mother Nature—but perhaps also some pleasure: in the strangeness and beauty of human creation and desires as well as those of nature, and how both are inside, outside, and in-between each other. 

OLIVIA KAN-SPERLING B’20 wants one of those jumpsuits.