|Crisis in Crisis|
Crisis in Crisis: Biosphere 2's Contested Ecologies
‘[There is] a crisis of misalignment between the biosphere and the technosphere. These seem to be out of balance; a catastrophe…Biosphere 2, instead, creates a balance between biosphere and technosphere.’ – John Allen1
Every symptom – thinning ozone, missing species, growing slums, dwindling oil supplies, acid rain, DDT, mushroom clouds – confirmed the diagnosis of impending world destruction. For Biosphere 2, conceived in the swirl of post-Hiroshima environmentalism, the crisis of scarcity revealed a breach of spiritual and technological equilibrium. It prescribed nothing less than a new world wrapped in a three-acre bubble. Emerging from the Arizona desert in 1991, Biosphere 2 enclosed eight humans, 3,800 other species and seven biomes for two years. Its crisis response was to repudiate the arrogance of the past in favor of a monastic harmony between biosphere and technosphere.
Today, a generation after Biosphere 2’s launch, Al Gore continues to check the planetary balance.2 But Biosphere 2 is in a new kind of crisis mode. The windows have opened. The monkeys have been sent away. New neighbors are crowding in. Never having achieved a seamless web of life, Biosphere 2 has become an engine of productive catastrophes, simulating global warming and assembling a fantastic menagerie of displaced specimens.
Biosphere 2 initially mouthed conservationism’s mantras of restraint (consume less, switch bulbs, recycle, etc.). Yet in practice it embodies the Obama administration’s tactic ‘we never let a crisis go to waste’.3 Rather than ameliorate crises, it exploits them.
Equilibrium and Escape
In 1969, Fuller famously called for managing the planet as if it were a spaceship.6 SBV reversed Fuller’s metaphor and proliferated its rationales.
Biosphere 2 was pitched at various times as a spaceship prototype, a nuclear shelter and a new kind of ecosystem laboratory which would better model Biosphere 1 (Earth).
To John Allen, co-founder of IE and president of SBV,7 these diverse missions worked towards a singular vision of ecology in tune with egalitarianism, global spiritual consciousness and the ‘delicate web of life’ on Biosphere 1. ‘Ecotechnics’ extrapolated Lewis Mumford’s concept of ‘Biotechnics’, in which designers act like gardeners cultivating an organic collective . Biospherians synthesized the theories of such IE conversants as ecologists James Lovelock and Eugene Odum to portray the planet as a cybernetic organism that self-regulates to achieve a ‘climax state’ of maturity, health and efficiency.8 The project took its name from Vladimir Vernadsky’s 1926 book The Biosphere, and its theory that the Earth has evolved from geosphere to biosphere, and is poised to enter noösphere, or sphere of thought, which will culminate in the Omega Point of maximum global complexity and consciousness. Allen compared Biosphere 2 to a giant mandala of global unity and admitted that this syncretic vision would have been impossible without psychoactives.9
Like a trip, Biosphere 2 escaped, momentarily, from the atmosphere of earth.
With Biosphere 1 sufficiently excluded, a state of equilibrium could then be engineered by instrumentalizing two distinct ecological theories: Darwinian competition and cybernetic regulation. Biosphere housed five ‘Wilderness’ biomes, an ‘Intensive Agriculture Biome’ and the humans’ ‘Habitat’, some species were grown in greenhouses and others trucked in as entire landscapes. Swaths of tropical rain forest were sampled from Venezuela, savanna from French Guyana, desert from Baja, marsh from the Everglades and the ocean from the Yucatan. At the suggestion of William S. Burroughs, bushbabies were introduced to supply companion primates.11 Biosphere 2 designers included ‘more species than the scientists thought might finally survive, so that if one species failed, another would thrive, finally reaching self-organized stability.’12 Unlike those of the prevailing reductionist science, this would be a new kind of lab: operating with a large number of variables to study systems at the scale of the earth’s ecosystems, while (in theory) being able to track ‘every atom in the Biosphere’s systems’.13
Ultimately, however, the atmosphere seeped back in. Biosphere 2’s sixty-mile long, termite-proof, silicone seal was eventually penetrated by ants, creating an insect network that united its biomes with the Sonoran Desert outside. Due to unforeseen oxygen absorption by the raw concrete, oxygen plummeted from 20.9 percent of the atmosphere to fourteen percent (equivalent to respiration above 10,000 feet) in six months.14 A measured amount of air had to be added for survival.
If Biosphere 2 was headed towards homeostasis, it was not the Arcadia imagined at the outset. Biospherians soon went hungry, lost an average of fourteen percent of their body weight and reported caffeine withdrawal headaches.
"A hot-dog stand [was set up] not far from the Biosphere….Sometimes we lined up… and took turns peering through binoculars at fat people who were spurting ketchup on sausages and shoveling them into their mouths. We were culinary voyeurs." 15
Few imagined that their Eden would be overrun by ants, roaches and morning glories. Five species of roaches were included to recycle dead leaves, but a stowaway species from Australia multiplied into the millions.
The person on night watch had the chore of creeping into the kitchen to catch them unawares. Armed with a vacuum cleaner, he or she flipped on the light and vacuumed up as many of the roaches as possible before they all scuttled away. 16
Captured insects were fed to the chickens, whose eggs in turn were fed to the humans.
Biospherians were constantly exhausted from work. Starvation and the psychological pressures of isolation left little energy or desire for the ambitious roster of philosophy lectures, meditation and theater initially designed to promote collectivism. The anticipated new civilization receded amidst outbursts by ‘master manipulator’ John Allen. During morning meditation, Allen bellowed, ‘You have no discipline, no interest in the Synergia!’17 The self-sustaining community became a monastery in a high-tech shell: outfitted with the latest machinery, but without the economies of scale that would provide enough caffeine or alcohol to intoxicate.
The Space of Mononaturalism
In true utopian style, Biosphere 2 was built on a mythology of consensus based on natural principles. Vernadsky, Odum and Lovelock described an image of nature so pure and purposeful that social policy should submit to its imperatives.19 Odum called for birth control and fiscal policy to discourage economic growth. Lovelock writes, ‘let us forget human concerns, human rights and human suffering, and concentrate instead on our planet, which may be sick.’20 This version of nature-in-crisis made no provision for dissent.
A holistic nature was enclosed in a single interior, forming a continuum of the world’s major landscapes. But its monolithic shell was articulated into a neighborhood of iconic architectural forms from distinct cultures: the Great Pyramid, Babylonian Vaults, Kennedy Space Center, Monticello.21 Unlike Le Corbusier’s modernist dream of neutralizing walls and a ‘single building for all nations and climates, with respiration exactly…at 18°C’22 and unlike Hawe’s original spherical spaceship, Biosphere 2 was decidedly postmodern: superficial, multicultural variations enclose a substantial, universal Nature.
Yet the project soon erupted into a battlefield for nature wars. Midway through the first mission the venture split between those who – like Allen – pushed for the primacy of containment and those who felt that this obsession interfered with the work of the laboratory.23 The debate over whether this was an engineering feat or a science experiment grew louder. Even the value of equilibrium was in question. While Biospherians translated Odum and Gaia into blueprints, 1970s ecologists had turned away from steadystate theories. They instead favored ‘shifting mosaics’ or more aimless and anarchic models. Ecologists like Daniel Botkin saw the landscape as flux: ‘wherever we seek constancy… we discover change’.24
In the end Biosphere 2 succeeds or fails not in maintaining enclosure or homeostasis, but rather in its ability to effect new agendas, debates and decisions on scientific hypotheses.
Viva Las Bio-dome25
Built to last 100 years, it outlived its founding premise in less than three, and its massive space-framed atmosphere now absorbs any and all ecological experiments. It produces a strange world with buttons and switches that allow for the continuous production of new relationships. Allen named the mechanical realm housed in CMU walls beneath the biomes’ ‘artistically modeled’ concrete grottoes the ‘Technosphere’, after the man-made world that Biosphere 2 sought to bring into alignment with the planetary ecosystem.26 Here urine was converted into irrigation, drinking water was captured from transpiring plants and air was cooled and heated by a dedicated power plant.27 Designed for stable state regulation, the Technosphere has become an environment machine registering a balance sheet that subsequent housekeepers28 – now inspired, disgusted or otherwise provoked by this first model – can adjust.
Following SBV’s two closed missions, it has been managed as a controlled ecology lab by Columbia University (1995-2003) and the University of Arizona’s B2 Institute (2007-present). Academic scientists replace enclosure with regulation: windows have been opened and a system of fans and sensors have been installed to control atmospheric conditions. In B2, air can be fresh or recirculated as long as its chemical makeup is consistent. Plastic partitions subdivide the dome, isolating the biomes and allowing multiple experiments to go on simultaneously.29
In practice, Biosphere 2 is a blur of many spheres. In place of Allen’s idealized philosopher-scientist, contemporary Biospherians include tourists, school children, grad students, retirees, scientists and international researchers. They take guided tours, exchange information with research teams in the Venezuelan rain forest or participate in high school outreach programs.30 Even during the first mission the enclosure membrane restricted molecules and bodies, yet allowed heat, photons and electricity to pass freely. Telephone, email, videophones, satellite TV and radio were constantly cycled through a control room at the center of the Habitat.31
Biosphere 2 performs equations of efficiency and contingency that decide who is present, who is responsible to whom and who gets their way. Each of its spheres defines a broad constituency including humans and nonhumans, enclosed territories and sites of shared concern. The global environmental crisis is not just scarcity and global warming. It is the failure to contest standards of distribution, efficiency and value necessary to run the house. Biosphere 2’s own crisis engages in debate over research priorities, ecosystem construction and resource distribution. Having never proved eco-holism, it becomes a machine for actively connecting sites, organisms and systems according to shifting eco-politics.
Biosphere 2 began with the belief that we can be most responsive to the pressing charges of environmental crisis with ascetic sensitivity to homeostatic equilibrium. It claimed to provide an architecture of limits based on the authority of Nature, an updated container for a low-impact life. But at the same time it cleared land, synthesized ecologies, manufactures infrastructure, patented new building systems, expanded universities and published volumes of data. In doing so, it became the scale model of an ambitious new collective.
Dreamland of a Warm Age
‘Self-sufficient’ buildings and ‘eco-cities’ such as Masdar (in Abu Dhabi) or Dongtan (near Shanghai) seek their appropriate place in the biosphere by acting as biospheres themselves. Responsibly efficient – with zero-carbon, zero-waste, zero-greenhouseemissions, zero-water usage and zero-energy standards – they suffer from the same domestic problems as Biosphere 2: pursuing conservation as though it were both possible and desirable to withdraw into a steady state free of politics. What if this were reversed? Biosphere 2’s crisis offers possibilities for aggressive, informed inclusion of nonhumans in an expanded city.
As Biosphere 2 reunites with Biosphere 1, Ca?ada Del Oro Ranching and Development LP (CDO) – who purchased the Biosphere 2 site in 2007 – is drawing up plans to build a retirement village with commercial and resort developments. Like Biosphere 2, these new buildings will regulate their perimeters: air conditioning systems will calibrate and filter the air, windows will be airtight and shielded with optical coating films, utilities will monitor consumption. Houses will be as big as local tastes allow. Shells will be a series of membranes and moisture stretched across lightweight steel framing. Office buildings will likely express their triangulated exoskeleton rather than the individual office. Our buildings are now domes – machines that optimize and express atmospheric enclosure. They react to the crisis of man-made world destruction by building more and better little worlds. Skin has replaced basement as the site of refuge. Architects have taken on biology. Plastic sheeting and duct tape are the new bomb shelter.
This involves nothing less than a progressive un-balancing of natures and publics. Anything else would be wasting a crisis.
1 John Allen and Anthony Blake, Eds. Biosphere 2: the Human Experiment (New York : Penguin Books, 1991), 10.