Bursting the Biodome

The iconic Biosphere 2 is now slated for demolition.Courtesy of Kineret Y. Fischer

In some places, gold is hardly worth a nickel. Places like Oracle, Arizona, where tall tales still root deep. Because, in the West, land is gold—land is why the people come. The Sonoran Desert shrivels year by year as parcels are cashed in for top dollar. But with an annual population influx of 200,000, as 19,000 new roofs are raised, the land simply cannot keep up with the Joneses.

That is why developers are plucking pipe cacti from shoddy lumps of land. That is why modern pioneers, building on the periphery, cannot hold back the pursuant hub. And, that is why the Biosphere 2—that iconic, three-acre, glass trapezoidal home to seven ecosystems, with plants and animals garnered from six continents—is slated next for the knife.

Fairfield Homes of Tucson signed the deal in late February with Texan Edward Bass—the billionaire oilman, who owns the land, and years ago financed the building of Biosphere 2. Fairfield bought all 1,600 acres that engulfed the edifice. At $25,000 apiece, the company knew it had nailed a bargain.

This summer the blueprints for the master-planned community—stucco replicas plunked between irrigated lawns, registered as “Biosphere Estates”—await the builders’ final approval.

Currently, housing permits do not require a contractor to ask as more than a cursory afterthought: with Arizona’s aquifers sinking, and an increasingly depleted Colorado River—the source that supplies Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, three of the nation’s fastest growing cities—where will the water come from to sustain the incoming herds? Instead, one can hear rankling through the local bureau’s office: “What should we do about that God-forsaken, alien bubble? It’s going to hurt business.”

Space enthusiasts, scientists and students spent months, sometimes years, at the “Bio 2” site, since its completion in 1989. But, one at a time—by scandal or by lawsuit—these groups left, as the proprietors abandoned their projects and skipped out of town. Again and again, Bass was left alone to foot the bills.

Those bills were little to shirk at. Forget the $200 million it cost Bass to erect the thing—all mangrove, fog desert, savannah, mini ocean, tropical rainforest, deciduous forest and agriculture biome of it. Once built and breathing, the leak-free superstructure has been soaking up $1 million in annual operating costs: for heat, cooling and lots of water.

Living in the Bubble

Columbia University was the last landlord to leave. The decision came on the heels of the Ivy’s appointment of a new president. Lee Bollinger, arriving from Michigan, had big plans for the campus in New York. I was a student at Columbia then, but I didn’t pay much attention to the changes, especially the talk. Public relations oratories forecasted “redirecting funds” and boasted of “launching a global university.”

In September 2003, Bollinger announced that Columbia’s seven-year tenure at the Biosphere Center would officially end that December. The university president wanted to expand Columbia’s Manhattan campus, and needed to reallocate funds. Once again, the fate of that glassed-in city on a hill tumbled back into limbo, to wait for a bidder.

Students learned about ecology, physical sciences and many other topics while studying at the Biosphere.Courtesy of Kineret Y. Fischer

I was living at the Biosphere the day the message aired. So were 73 other students. Dr. Tony Burgess trudged up the hill from his office to tell us. Always the jovial naturalist and tenacious teacher, a sentimental Tony stood before us, a sad and reluctant herald. My class, a team of the most spirited, indomitable forces I had ever known—dreamers and pragmatists both—we sat, stilled and silent.

Some suffered the pain of the thrashing immediately, responding with rage, trying to restrain weeping. I didn’t, and felt guilty about it, so I slipped out of the room through the sliding glass door.

For me, the announcement came too early to mourn. I felt too smugly rootless for that. Classes had begun just a few weeks before, and I had arrived the day before orientation on the coattails of a three-month apprenticeship in North Carolina, six months of farming in Vermont, a year and a half as a student activist in Manhattan, and before that a nurse volunteer living abroad. I had registered for the Biosphere course late in the summer, a last minute fling. The “experience”—begging to be scratched off my “To Do List Before 30”—urged me more than did some lusty longing in my heart to classify varieties of cacti or to research the evolution of rocks.

But, on the warm December day at our graduation four months later, when I addressed my professors and my peers, that final class of Biospherians, I inwardly began to mourn. Somewhere along the way, sitting with plant and rock guides trying to classify some mutant form before me, I had learned how to hear the desert whisper. That’s the sort of thing that crawls into your insides. Never after could I return to imagine what the world sounded like before. The whisper would not be silenced.

A Dark Oracle?

Just 30 miles down the road from Tucson, Arizona, the town of Oracle rests at the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Few who have not born witness can imagine the vast emptiness that, just a few years ago, enshrouded this living space on the northeast block of the Sonoran Desert, where Saguaro skeletons and ocotillos protrude into the sky. Now, carpets of houses, with golf holes and swimming pools, rob the natural world of its reverence.

But how many of our nation’s well-traveled souls, who have danced with the tribes of Tanzania and prayed in the temples of Tibet, have adventured through the blooming desert landscape of the mountain lion and pig-snouted javalina by day and skinny-dipped in waterholes under night’s cover? Not enough, it seems, to preemptively understand—as I didn’t—the enormity of the loss wrought by razing the Biosphere 2 and building up its 1,600-acre estate. The young explorer, still unborn perhaps, will not find the desert I found. A heavy human hand, with a roaring machine for a sidekick, will have gotten to it first.

Bass’s Space Biospheres Ventures completed the facility’s construction in 1989. The faéade enchanted the public. The eco-fort resembled a UFO, a chic, luxurious spaceship.

Driving up to it, or descending upon it, one sees: concrete, lung-like domes; massive trapezoidal panels cut into triangular windows; and geometric frames piped together with millions of white pixie sticks.

Exploring Biosphere's "Ocean" environment.Courtesy of Kineret Y. Fischer

America watched, intrigued, in 1991 and again in 1994, as first a team of eight, equal parts male and female, and later of seven, sealed themselves inside, wearing red Trekkie jumpsuits. At a press conference held moments before the first mission entered, the volunteers explained the goals: To test the workability of a human-constructed world, to develop a replica of planet Earth, and to prove the viability of colonizing space.

But the sci-fi mini-world, designed and run by the visionary-cum-fantastico John Allen, quickly sunk in popular opinion. So much so, in fact, that in May 1999, Time magazine’s “100 Worst Ideas of the Twentieth Century&

#8221; fixed Biosphere 2 at number fifty-five, just below the fraudulent “Hitler Diaries.”

Despite looming skepticism over Allen’s Mars-colonization ambitions, and rumors about surreptitious oxygen-pumping and food-resupplying during the short bouts of sealed-in human experimentation, Bio 2 has bred a small team of aficionados, especially college students.

Space-Age Classroom

In 1995, led by President George Rupp, Columbia University assumed management of the Biosphere 2 Center. The university commissioned a rare team of scientist superheroes to design two interdisciplinary programs: one in Earth and environmental science, the other in astronomy. Since then more than 1,200 college students have lived at the Biosphere 2 for a summer or semester. That’s how I ended up there in autumn 2003.

At the Biosphere, we tampered with Science. We classified rocks, evaluated riparian zones, scouted for tracks and scat, counted native plants and invasives, mapped out ocean and climate patterns, examined the hydrology of aquifers, and charted the life of tide pools. “Viability” and “sustainability”—soaked in their political, economic and social connotations—slinked into our daily discussions, and often held them hostage.

Just as often, we left the biomes behind. We hiked in the Grand Canyon and through the highlands and lowlands of the Sonoran Desert, to see textbook theories and the lab rats’ jargon leap into life. On rafts, we coasted through Glen Canyon Dam to Lee’s Ferry, to chart the desert’s water limits. In Puerto Pinasco, Mexico we combed through sandy potholes at high tide, groping at the squirming life. At a nature reserve along the U.S.-Mexico border, we found evidence of illegal migration, and navigated through the problems and the possibilities.

Every class, every outing wove in practical psychology and lessons in the art of living. Tony Burgess imagined us as collective builders of the future, or “planetary managers,” the moniker he preferred. We were a panoply of aspirants, burgeoning to become biologists and botanists, doctors and dancers, professors and politicians; lawyers, firefighters, musicians and writers.

Tossing beer cans atop buckling recycling containers, we spent late nights under the open sky wondering about the future of the place; it was almost December. We mused aloud: another research center? A resort hotel? The site for the next reality TV show? Then anything seemed possible, miracle or debacle. But in the end, in our minds, the Biosphere 2 was always left standing.

"Biospherians" had much to gain from their visits to the glass palace.Courtesy of Kineret Y. Fischer

The dreamed-of cloistered world may have officially failed, but the Biosphere 2 did not. Has the experiment not yielded some evidence to support Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis detailing the evolved, delicate, irreparable-if-damaged balance of Earth’s gases, nutrients and life? Has the edifice not stood as a model of the process of human endeavor? Are its failures not a mirror of those very ones lived and relived by the society around it?

In the end, idealism must be put aside and the numbers must be analyzed, I am told. But “viability” and “sustainability” teach us that value means more than a single-figure bottom line, and relies on a tripartite of economics, natural environment and social community. In less than a year the glass palace will be disassembled or demolished so the $300,000 homes mowed in can advertise “unobstructed desert views.” This makes me wonder about “value,” how it is taught and where it is learned, and why we slay the unicorn of imagination and sew its powers into the pockets of small minds.

Kineret Yardena Fischer lived and studied in Biosphere 2 for four months in autumn 2003. She earned her B.A. in European Studies from Barnard College in 2005 and currently lives in Jerusalem, Israel, where she is working on her first manuscript.