From the left, Bernd Zabel, Linda Leigh, Taber MacCallum, Abigail Alling, Mark Van Thillo, Sally Silverstone, Roy Walford, and Jane Poynter in 1990.
Photo: Philippe Plailly / Photo Library of Science, Radical Media Sources
Contaminated in the public’s imagination by misfortune, miscalculation, and lack of transparency, the 1991 trial in sustainable life is known as Biosphere 2 changed from being seen as the coolest thing ever, to deception committed by New Age worship, to – the most embarrassing – the basis of Pauly Shore comedy, Bio-Dome. Matt Wolf documentary is sympathetic, horrifying, but very entertaining Earth Spaceship set not so much to proofread to free Biosphere 2Architects and participants of their destiny as a punch line. Yes, the three-hectare terrarium that was tightly closed to eight humans and an ark full of animals and plants in the Arizona desert has its days off, and the personality in the tough glass structure and in the control of the adjacent mission is a bit eccentric. Maybe more than a boy. But science is inexact like all that. And is seen as a kind of epic happening, an expression of the healthiest, most adventurous aspects of counterculture and a strong desire to protect the planet, Biosphere 2 what emerged from the documentary Wolf is worthy of appreciation, even fascinated. It is a holy place for the kind of utopian idealism that has been laughed at out of civilization to the detriment of us. You think not? Consider what replaces it.
The eight people looked rather silly in their astronaut outfits, trudging into the giant glass cage while the audience cheered. But then Wolf reminds us back to 25 years ago Biosphere 2Seeds – organic, you could say. Kathelin Gray recounts the meeting of charismatic engineer John Allen in San Francisco in the 60s when he read René Daumal’s self-seeking allegory, Mount Analogue – happened to be dippiest. They and a group of other self-seekers formed a commune that became a theater troupe (Theater of All Possible) and, when the SF scene began to attack them for being too commercialized, were moved to a New Mexico ranch dedicated to the principle of synergy. . They call the word Synergia ranch. Maybe you rolled your eyes, but this thing floated my boat. It floated their boat too. They designed and built one big enough to navigate the world and call it Heraclitus, after people who left the privileged life to debate the harmony of opponents. Some of the Synergists might have come from privileges too, and Allen was skilled enough to seize the imagination of billionaire oil heiress Ed Bass, whose money built a hotel in Kathmandu and eventually Biosphere 2. A pleasant life: days of farming, playing plays, and building a geodesic dome and reading at night from Buckminster Fuller while exploring the yard Whole Earth Catalog. They read William Burroughs and then Burroughs came and read to them.
Some Synergists talk to Wolf with a mixture of bitterness and longing, a tone you often hear from people who believe in a fruitful ethos of counter culture rather than the animism of drug dealers. The Synergists do not want to become stars and gold and return to the garden. They want to design and plant a garden and find out how to make it grow without poisoning the Earth or sucking it dry. And so Biosphere 2 – so named because the Earth itself Biosphere 1.
Television that talks everywhere exists on intoxicating days before sealing Biosphere 2, and there is no shortage of filming inside by people who hope to show the way forward. Wolf gives us a cheerful montage of sowing and reaping in several habitats – rain forests, deserts, coral reefs. There is even a homemade music video. But then residents Biosphere 2 start to become testes.
What is wrong? Wolf’s subject noted some rigidity in the system. One of them is Roy Walford, a doctor who believes that they can live to their 100s by starving them to death. They all survived the break, but their expressions were those of prisoners, while Walford – showing off his lean body mass and muscle – seemed crazy. Farm manager Jane Poynter lost the top part of her finger in threshing and needed to return Biosphere 1 to save the rest; but when he returned, it was with a suspicious extra item – no-no. (The agreement is that no one enters and no one comes out.) Media and angry scientists call the group a sect, with the chief speaking up in the habit of wearing costumes – which seems to be a must for theater groups, but no one mentions that part. Earth Spaceship build a lesson about what happens when CO₂ begins to replace oxygen. Group and plant dynamics shrink. People turn bad. CEO Margaret Augustine was silent about what was happening, and under increasing scrutiny, Allen seemed to be unraveling. Bass brought scientific advisors with axes to grind. (They were disappointed that the theater collective got the money they were entitled to.) Later, he also brought in Steve Bannon, fresh from Goldman Sachs. Seeing young Bannon irritates you, like too much CO₂.
This film is packed a lot but still leaves a gap. The time stamp must be fun, because we don’t know from scene to scene how many days have passed. The central question is not answered. I’m not an environmental scientist, but I want to know why Biosphere 2Designers do not take into account the increase in the level of CO₂. I am also not a gossip gossip, but I want to know who is thrashing who has meat and pain in the butt. Pauly Shore goes there. Wolf can do it too.
But we met some extraordinary characters, including Linda Leigh, who described herself as a child who can always be relied upon to feed animals in her schoolroom. He has reconciled himself with nerd isolation but not to interfere with neurosis and covering up. People like Marie Harding (who married Allen, though obviously not out of love), Mark Nelson, and brought Tony Burgess’s whistles to Wolf with emotions still attached. They want us to know that in a successful experiment, you learn as much as possible from what failed and what worked.
I go to Earth Spaceship – let me revise it … I clicked on PLAY on that link and thought that I would see a black comedy in the order of the Fyre Festival documentary. Instead, I was reminded of everything I had missed in a culture that laughed at “crispness” more than immoral consumption and greed. Viewed under quarantine, Earth Spaceship have a visceral kick. What if isolation, what if valuing each toilet paper box, led to an increasingly heightened awareness of how much we live on Earth? What if it forces us to realize that Biosphere 2 is a terrible distillation of life Biosphere 1?
* This version of the article appears in the May 11 2020 edition New York Magazine. Subscribe now!
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