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.
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.