Crisis in Crisis

Crisis in Crisis: Biosphere 2's Contested Ecologies
by Janette Kim and Erik Carver

‘[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
The Institute for Ecotechnics’ (IE) 1982 ‘Galactic Conference’4 in Les Marronniers, France brought Buckminster Fuller together with Phil Hawes, a Frank Lloyd Wright student who pitched a scheme for a spherical, space-traveling greenhouse. Fuller leapt on it: ‘If you guys don’t build a biosphere, who will?’5 Two years later, IE launched Space Biosphere Ventures (SBV).

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.

Precarious Stability
Biosphere 2 was built as the world’s most airtight building, designed to leak no more than ten percent of its air per year (half the rate of the Space Shuttle). With 1970s advancements in hermetic enclosure, it was sealed to tolerances only dreamed of by machine-age architects. Facade consultant Peter Pearce patented the ‘Multi-hinge’ node-less space frame, triangulated to minimize thermal flexing. Structural silicone was factory bonded to two layers of glass and plastic laminate.10 Sealant was applied in two colors (white and gray) to make redundant enclosure legible. A skin of welded stainless steel plates lined concrete slabs and foundations beneath two to six meters of soil. Neoprene spanned 158- foot diameter steel drums housed in geodesic domes to create ‘lungs’ that expand and contract as Biosphere 2’s interior air heats and cools. Hunting for leaks, installers waved incense under the glass and shot compressed air through ‘sniffer tunnels’ to verify welds.

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
Biosphere 2 was largely dismissed by reporters and scientists as ‘science fiction’ performance: a commune founded upon ‘New Age masquerading as Science’.18 Only two of the eight had graduate degrees in science. These claims were reinforced by images of the Biospherians wearing suits that looked ‘like a cross between a scarlet prison jumpsuit and a Star Trek uniform’.

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
Trees inside the enclosure developed soft bark due to lack of wind: Biosphere 2 was better at creating new ecosystems than modeling existing ones. Once homeostasis and holism ran dry, Biosphere 2 came alive.

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
Walt Disney sought to showcase life in a utopian city with futuristic life support systems and no private property: a vision ultimately spun off into edutainment (EPCOT) and New Urbanism (Celebration). Biosphere 2 is today’s Lilliputia. The life of the future is tested in a contained environment, then broadcasted to the public.

‘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.

2 Al Gore, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, (New York, Rodale, Inc, 2006).

3 Rule one: Never allow a crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things’, Rahm Emanuel. Jeff Zeleny, ‘Obama Weights Quick Undoing of Bush Policy’, New York Times, November 9, 2008.

4 Papers included The Galaxy: A Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Challenge by R. Buckminster Fuller, Principles of Evolution of Life in the Galaxy by Richard Dawkins, The Interdependence of Inner and Outer Space, by Dr. Albert Hofmann, and Architecture for Galactic Colonies, by Phil Hawes.

5 Jane Poynter, The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2 (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006), 20.

6 R. Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1969).

7 Allen headed SBV with architect Margaret Augustine. He studied sociology and geology at Colorado School of Mines, attained an MBA at Harvard, and was a General Manager of the ‘Synergia Ranch’ commune in New Mexico. Here Allen befriended Biosphere’s principle investor, Ed Bass, in the 70’s through the acting troupe, the ‘Theater of All Possibilities’. Bass, billionaire oil heir, former Yale architecture student, and ‘ecopreneur’ invested $150 billion in the project. Broad, 1991.

8 Odum, a pioneer of ecosystems theory, posited that organisms are linked in a ‘healthy state of order’ in which ecological succession leads to a ‘climax state’ of maturity, health, and efficiency. Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1994), 368.

9 It’s impossible to fully appreciate the Amazon, or anything as complex as a tropical rainforest, without special states of consciousness’. David J. Brown and Rebecca M. Novick, Eds. Mavericks of the Mind: Conversations for the New Millennium. (Freedom, Crossing Press 1993).

10 Pearce is a student of Fuller’s and author of Structure in Nature. More in John Chilton, Space Grid Structures (Oxford: Architectural Press, 2000).

11 One of them dies exploring a transformer box.

12 Poynter, 75.

13 Poynter, 204.

14 Sniffers produce a daily ‘weather report’, tracking oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. A homemade scrubber turns carbon dioxide into limestone using sodium and calcium hydroxide, but cannot offset the oxygen depletion.

15 Poynter, 191.

16 Poynter, 191.

17 Ibid, 107. SBV infighting during the second mission in 1994 was so fierce that when an investor takeover led to a communications blackout, two former Biospherians raced to the building and broke its seals, to let their voices and the atmosphere rush back in. See B. Drummond Ayres Jr. ‘Ecological Experiment Becomes Battleground,’ New York Times, April 11, 1994.

18 Michael Zimmerman, ‘Review: Biosphere 2: Long on Hype, Short on Science’, Ecology, Vol. 73, No. 2 (April, 1992), 713.

19 ‘Users of the term ‘ecosystem’ were retaining modernism’s basic defect, its penchant for composing the whole without the explicit will of those humans and nonhumans who find themselves gathered…in a totality constituted outside the political world, in the nature of things. The ecosystem integrated everything but too quickly and too cheaply. The Science of ecosystems allowed us to dispense with the requirements of discussion and the due process in building the common world’. Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2004).

20 Worster, Nature’s Economy, 386.

21 John Allen, Ed. Biosphere 2: The Human Experiment (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 89.

22 Quoted in Reyner P. Banham, Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 156.

23 Dissenters included an advisory council of scientists hired by Bass. Poynter, 225.

24 Quoted from Worster, 397.

25 Bio-Dome. DVD. Directed by Jason Bloom with performances by Pauly Shore, Steven Baldwin, and William Atherton (Los Angeles, MGM Home Entertainment, 2002).

26 Poynter, 76.

27 The Technosphere sits within the seal of Biosphere 2 and includes air handling units, water storage tanks, the carbon scrubber and a patented waste-recycling system, Wastron™, converts human urine into agricultural irrigation, while water transpired by plants is captured as condensation for drinking water. External to the seal on Biosphere 2’s campus is a natural gas and diesel plant, using six million kW hours per year at a cost of $1.3 million per year, enough for six hundred homes.

28 Many have noted that ecology, the study of the household (‘oikos’ in Greek), is a term derived from economy or household management.

29 Columbia researcher Guanghui Lin, for example, tests the rainforest’s ability to absorb carbon at different concentrations. Marino and Odum, Biosphere 2: research past and present. (Great Britain: Elsevier Science, 1999).

30 Travis Huxman, director of B2, celebrates the opportunity for tourists to interrogate graduate students working alongside elevated viewing platforms, arguing that they provoke and assist students in framing their work.

31 Visitors and self-described ‘inmates’ would kiss through the glass or put their hands up in a ‘Biospherian handshake’ while talking on a prison-style visitors’ phone next to the airlock.



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