The inside story of Biosphere 2, a forgotten experiment to rethink human civilization

The ambitious, self-sustaining bubble ecosystem in the desert is due for a historical reevaluation

Published March 27, 2021 12:00PM (EDT)

Biospherian 2nd crew (Courtesy of Institute of Ecotechnics)
Biospherian 2nd crew (Courtesy of Institute of Ecotechnics)

The political and social issues we wrestled with in the 1960s and 1970s still haunt us in the 2020s. From social justice to climate change, space exploration to alternative economies, it is curious that the forum of public discourse is stuck on the same ideas. Back then, as a teenager, I was lucky enough to help launch a group who would combine all of these issues into one big social, ecological and engineering experiment. It was known as Biosphere 2 — and despite having so much relevance to today's political and ecological situation, it has largely disappeared from the cultural conversation.

You may have heard of Biosphere 2: that huge, airtight structure in the middle of the Arizona desert, a vast ecological experiment that simulated what a self-contained ecosystem on another world might operate like. It made international headlines in the 1990s, and was so enmeshed in the pop culture lexicon that a comedy movie ("Bio-Dome") was based on it. But since then, the lessons of Biosphere 2, and its unlikely origins, have largely been forgotten. As someone who was involved in it from its start, I know that the type of ecological thinking it engendered is so needed today. 

Here's how it all began. Back in the '60's, my friends and I figured humanity had about 40 years to become more ecologically-minded, or face mass extinctions (likely including our own species). In 1969, about ten of us bought a godforsaken, badly-eroded ranch near Santa Fe. We planted trees, grew organic gardens, started small businesses and a nonprofit, which we called Institute of Ecotechnics (IE). In 1974, we drove an old school bus to California to construct and launch an oceangoing research vessel. Initially we financed ourselves through individual enterprises, then a jointly-held architectural and construction company. Some of us toured annually in experimental theater. Over a period of ten years, our numbers grew, and we started a savannah restoration in Australia, a hotel and cultural center in Kathmandu, a multicultural art gallery in London, a farm and conference center in France, and a tropical forest restoration in Puerto Rico. Financing came from private property investment, sweat equity, and frugality.

Beginning in the '70s, co-founder John Allen drew diagrams of a huge scientific and cultural project which he provisionally called "Spaceship Earth City," named for R. Buckminster Fuller's eponymous book. Allen had been a mining engineer and exploration geologist in the 1960s who developed special alloy metals for space exploration. He also identified the Four Corners coal and uranium fields. Allen acquired mining rights for 200 million tons of high grade coal.

One afternoon, he was struck with a life-changing epiphany: his discovery would destroy indigenous sacred sites, poison aquifers, and devastate habitats. He took an immediate U-turn, abandoning the leases that would have made him a billionaire, instead committing his life to ecology. Allen's Spaceship Earth City idea eventually evolved into what he, as inventor and director of research, dubbed "Biosphere 2."

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Then, in the mid-70s, a young oil millionaire named Ed Bass joined our core group, participating in all the various ventures as well as the Institute. He, like all of us, was a workaholic. Ed developed a passion for ecology, and became the principal financial partner in Biosphere 2.

We aimed to create a project that would be the "Archimedes' lever" for ecology — an idea that was big enough to change the world, just as Archimedes said ("Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the earth"). By 1985, the clock was ticking. The Institute's core team created a new corporation, Space Biospheres Ventures, and began designing a high-visibility science experiment to understand and demonstrate the delicate complexity of ecological balance. The primary financial input came from Ed Bass' investment company, enhanced by intellectual property, contacts and practical experience that the Institute of Ecotechnics had developed over decades. The corporation hired over 200 scientists and specialists, engineers and contractors. Many managers offered to work for below-market salaries in order to make the exciting enterprise possible. Network of friends and supporters continued to grow — ecologists, scientists from NASA and other space agencies, biologists and engineers. Buzz Aldrin told us that our project emanated the same excitement that he'd felt with Apollo 11.

In 1991, Space Biospheres Ventures, with the the Institute of Ecotechnics as scientific coordinator, finished work on Biosphere 2. The name was a nod to the idea that Planet Earth is our original, first biosphere; this was the second. This outrageously ambitious, 3.14-acre hermetically sealed mini-world in the Arizona desert contained over 3000 species of plants and animals and an extensive technological infrastructure. Four men and four women voluntarily lived inside for two years, tasked with stewarding the life within and studying how ecology works in a contained environment. It sounds biblical in scale, and indeed it was.

Biosphere 2 was a fusion of science and theatre. Though there was no social media in 1991 to amplify the interpersonal aspect — the eight humans living their lives within — news outlets across the world still reported on what was happening as though it were a soap opera. However, we were intent on making discoveries in natural sciences, and also in revealing new narratives that could capture the public imagination. We were neither a large corporation nor government-funded, yet we actualized a big dream. Indeed, the execution of Biosphere 2 speaks to how small, networked, proactive groups can have great power. Allen called it "The Human Experiment."

To some, Biosphere 2 was an inspiration for a future Mars habitat. To others, it was a model for a waste-free, fully recyclable existence. It was a means of studying ecological systems, and an experiment in growing all of one's food. With the intense media coverage that resulted, it inadvertently also became early reality TV, which later inspired TC Boyle's 2016 book loosely based on Biosphere 2, "The Terranauts." In Ridley Scott's 2015 film, "The Martian," Matt Damon tenderly nurtures a potato plant much like the Biospherians tended their gardens. Tourism swelled at Biosphere 2 when that movie was released.

Science fiction often features nightmare scenarios of space colonization as extensions of Earth-based exploitation. William Burroughs' novel "Nova Express" portrays a gang known as Nova Mob, who have trashed Earth, blown it up and escaped, only to recreate the same scenario elsewhere. Our vision was quite different, even poetic: create inspiration for an equitable civilization that we dubbed "synergetic civilization," and seek habitable systems in the local galactic environs. Indeed, if humanity can land a man on the moon or the Perseverance robot on Mars, we might unite to manage crises here on our planet.

The idea of Biosphere 2 as a version of a "lockdown" — meaning, humans living in a sealed system — has obvious relevance to today's quarantine culture. Last year, a feature documentary on our work premiered, called "Spaceship Earth," to positive reviews. Likewise, fashion label The Elder Statesman launched a Biosphere 2–inspired collection in its Spring 2021 catalogue.

The saga of Biosphere 2 also resonated among educators. During the two manned experiments of 1991-94, tens of thousands of school children followed the developments within that mini-world for their science curriculum. Scientific papers were generated from both successes and unforeseen failures. Our Archimedes' lever might be working, I thought at the time. And I hoped that the cultural disinterest in ecology might change, in part due to our very public project. 

Biosphere 2 had lofty goals, including serving as a "test tube" to study life systems. It was also an experiment in management: those living within would have to be polymaths, generalists — a role that runs counter to the dominant culture's focus on specialization in our labor and careers. Hundreds of scientists and managers labored to make the experiment work.

Yet if there were one guiding principle, it was this idea: that nature is not something "out there." We are nature, and our actions have consequences in real time. Within the Biosphere, everything — air, water, food, waste — was recycled. The construction was sealed to the outside air; nothing in the structure could off-gas any toxic vapors, or its inhabitants would be quickly poisoned. Like sick building syndrome, we feared this could result in "sick biosphere syndrome."

How did the inhabitants fare in this new world behind glass with its own atmosphere? Their cholesterol steadily lowered. Psychological profiles showed that they were all healthy adventurers. Yes, they squabbled amongst themselves and sometimes with Mission Control, but no more than other small community groups like explorers, boards of directors, or academics. Those who have been in pandemic lockdown now can appreciate the interpersonal challenges of the eight Biospherians' lockdown, where traits and interaction styles that seemed initially insignificant can magnify over time. Two years of daily breakfast, lunch, dinner, work crews, celebrations and struggles with the same seven other people, is a long time.

But seemingly unlike Biosphere 1, the eight Biospherians had to make their world work for their own survival — maintaining oceans, tropical forest, wetlands, and high-tech infrastructure on the fly. They became subsistence farmers, growing 80% of their own food, 100% in the second experiment of seven Biospherians. Glitches included initial low light levels that affected food supply and another dramatic one that had to do with oxygen — but this was a maiden voyage, a Kitty Hawk of what was planned to be one hundred years of research. When the resident Biospherian doctor advised Mission Control to inject oxygen, management did so immediately. The second experiment resolved many of the initial problems.

At the successful completion of the first two-year experiment, nearly one billion people worldwide watched the Biospherians walk through the airlock back into Biosphere 1, Earth. It was science fiction without the fiction. As a board member, I was there to receive them, hearing their first asides: "Eew! It stinks out here!" Though undetectable to the acclimatized crowd that greeted them, the "clean" desert air bombarded the sensitized crew with the fumes of combustion, hairspray, deodorant, paint, and other noxious traces of everyday life that they had not smelled for two years.

Then, as we hurriedly prepared for a press conference, I asked the crew to name one thing that they would never forget. Each answered, simply, that everything is connected. Each action they performed within that sealed laboratory had an immediately detectable result. Plants, air, soil, humans, technology are interdependent.

So it is with our planet. But it is much harder to see.

The feeling I experienced that day was reignited when I watched the Perseverance Mars landing. Space travel can be a uniting enterprise, with immensely positive benefits to our home planet.

Some geopolitical events of the Biosphere 2 days signaled optimism: The Space Exploration Initiative, the end of the Cold War, abolition of apartheid, Treaty of Maastricht, START Treaty, the Acid Rain Treaty ... Nevertheless, "ecology" and "climate change" were outlier concepts when Biosphere 2 was completed in 1991, and some media repeated rumors about the nature of our experiment. Common epithets included calling Biosphere 2 an "elite bunker," a culturally irrelevant cult, or "not science." Much coverage fixated on, of all things, a tiny carbon scrubber we had installed as an experiment.

But we did have very explicit goals from the start. We planned to develop and monetize our patents for green technologies, and create intellectual property for life systems for space travel, as well as change the paradigm of ecological science. Inevitable conflicts between a visionary project, conceived to benefit human knowledge and understanding of life itself, arose with private investment's emphasis on short-term profitability. Our colleague/partner wanted bad press to go away, our schedule of financial expectations diverged, and he took control of our joint venture. To top it off, Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon) took over as CEO for a spell. Serial modifications prevented Biosphere 2 from continuing existence as a closed system. Ironically, the current owners of Biosphere 2, the University of Arizona, now celebrate the far-ranging integrity of our original mission.

Humanity now stands on the threshold that the Biospherians passed through. We are between two worlds: one in which we sleepwalk into ecological apocalypse, and the other in which we usher in a new era of zero emissions, green technologies and cleaning up after ourselves. Biosphere 2 had a thousand sensors monitoring its air and water. Our senses, which should perceive toxicity, are numbed.

Yet we are in a human experiment of life-changing opportunity. We created the Hubble telescope, our eyes in the distant cosmos, and soon a next generation space telescope, far more powerful, will study our cosmic origins. We can execute a complex mission like a Mars landing. Even as capital continues to concentrate among a select few, we are slowly becoming a more diverse global society in ways that are visible in our politics and in our media. We are all crew on a spaceship: Earth. We are nature; all of us are Biospherians, and we are all in this together. Let's not blow it.

By Kathelin Gray

Kathelin Gray is a producer, curator, writer, and the director of the Institute of Ecotechnics. She was a board member for Biosphere 2.

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