- Dreaming the Biosphere: The Theater of All Possibilities
Arising from the Arizona desert in the southwestern United States is one of the most ambitious utopian structures ever built. Biosphere 2 was, in its original phase, a huge greenhouse, sealed off from the outside world. (It was known as Biosphere 2 because Biosphere 1, the earth, had preceded it.) Inside were thousands of species of plants and animals along with eight human beings. Here, its backers believed, cutting-edge research into human survival would be conducted, research that could prove useful for prolonged space flight or for an earthly future in times of environmental crisis. This experiment was run more or less as intended, and for two years the biospherians carried out the project with great dedication. Afterward, however, conflicts arose, and the participants scattered. The massive structure sat abandoned for a time and later became a research center operated by the University of Arizona.
The Biosphere 2 story begins with an intentional community, Synergia Ranch, and its visionary leader, John Allen. Synergia was founded in 1969, one of many communities that sprang up in that era in New Mexico. From the beginning its members were involved in a variety of ecological experiments. Those projects took a great leap forward in 1974, when Ed Bass, heir to an oil fortune, moved in and began funding them. In 1984 the group purchased [End Page 393] desert land they called SunSpace Ranch and began planning a project that dwarfed everything that had gone before.
The precept behind Biosphere 2 was simple: the layer of life that lies just above and below the earth’s surface is a vast network of life-forms that constitute a self-sustaining whole, the original biosphere. Why couldn’t that web of existence be re-created in a laboratory? The biospherians would not have a whole planet to work with, of course, but could provide land and water and life-forms that could create a self-sustaining whole. The only outside inputs would be sunlight and electricity, not unlike the enormous input the earth receives from the sun. Soon the planners were selecting the plants and animals, including insects, that would coexist with the human occupants. They were calculating ways to build a miniature ocean (with real ocean water trucked in from far away), marshes, a coral reef, organic farmlands, animal pens, homes, a kitchen, a medical clinic, technological devices that would do everything from creating waves in the ocean to monitoring the chemical composition of the inside air, and a well-equipped repair shop on Biosphere 2’s three-acre (slightly over one hectare) footprint. It was to be a human re-creation of the natural world—but with all the technology needed to keep this microworld alive, it was a sophisticated machine as well: It was Eden with a high-tech life-support system. The biospherians were preparing to “catch the imagination of humanity” and “understand life, and therefore, ourselves,” as John Allen declared (quoted on 87).
Construction started with support facilities—greenhouses to hold plants until the Biosphere itself was ready, quarantine enclosures to keep unwanted pathogens from creeping in, research stations to test the suitability of various organisms for the project, and administrative offices. In 1987 work began on the Biosphere itself. By the time it was finished four years later, it had cost $150 million.
Four men and four women, chosen from a larger group of volunteers, entered the structure on September 26, 1991. Optimists all, they were proud pioneers, exploring new and unknown terrain like earthbound astronauts. They had plenty of tasks to do, and from the first they kept busy growing food, maintaining the mechanical systems that made it all work, and doing retro-construction on the elaborate life-support devices. And in concert with the outside mission managers, who were watching every detail of life inside, they also had to revise their plans to meet unforeseen problems. For example, they soon noted that the carbon dioxide was increasing...