The Man Behind Biosphere 2
On September 26, 1991 eight men and women climbed inside a domelike enclosure about the size of two and a half football fields to stay for two years. Intended to function as a closed, human life sustaining ecological system, the place was a human constructed biosphere — a Biosphere 2. The mission received something close to the quantity of media attention that was once reserved for manned space flight, but the tone of some reports had a “Hey, look at the weirdoes” quality.
While there were some problems (with oxygen, for instance), the bionauts (who included longevity expert Roy Walford — a pioneer in caloric restriction) managed to achieve their goal of living in this closed system for two years.
After making improvements to the system, the Biospherians started a second mission in March, 1994. They intended to run ten months. But the mission ended early with management disputes and even accusations of vandalism by some crew members.
It was all the vision of John Allen; a visionary, engineer, adventurer, avant-garde theater producer, systems ecologist and allaround unique individual. Now Allen has told his story.
Me and the Biospheres: A Memoir by the Inventor of Biosphere 2 is a rambling, dense, charmingly told and almost-linear life narrative. We follow Allen on adventures in Vietnam (independently… in the middle of the war), in Katmandu, through the countercultural worlds of alternative theater in London, Paris, New York and Fort Worth, Texas, and finally into the Arizona desert for the biosphere project. Along the way, we meet a cast of characters that include the likes of Bucky Fuller, Ornette Coleman, William S. Burroughs, and Buzz Aldrin, along with hundreds of lesser known scientists, engineers, environmentalists, theorists and performance artists, all ready to join Allen in attempting to prove that there is more to life than its fragmentary component parts. And sprinkled throughout the book are Allen’s thoughts and observations, related primarily to his advocacy of “biospherics.”
But let’s let him tell it. I conversed with Allen about Biosphere 2 and biospherics via email.
h+: You carried the Biosphere 2 vision for a long time. How does a naturalist and adventurer find himself sending a crew into an enclosed space for several years?
JOHN ALLEN: Actually, all naturalist adventurers work within a system of tight parameters. In my case, I do this on our research ship the Heraclitus on the Amazon or deep ocean, or on our Australia Savannah restoration project in the remote outback, or wherever — adaptability to demanding and limited spaces is a necessity. In the case of the ship, the “closure” of Planet Water [Earth] systems comes from gravity, not from a glass or steel structure. While the crew of Mission One at Biosphere 2 spent two years inside Biosphere 2 without stepping outside, on a Moon or Mars Base, one would go in and out of the enclosure on geological or other expeditions.
h+: A lot of space scientists and NASA types contributed to the Biosphere 2 mission. What was their interest?
JA: The interest of those scientists connected with NASA and space exploration was in understanding the vectors necessary for humans to live long periods in enclosed spaceships or on a Moon or Mars base. The Russian, Japanese, Chinese and European space scientists were — and are — highly interested, in many cases more than the American agencies (unfortunately, I think). Russia, China, and Japan are all planning Moon missions and we work with all of them on the requirements of such self-sustaining structures. There’s a lot of interest and ongoing exchanges with American space people, but not at the top levels, because of their emphasis upon the use of machines in space, and on sending up stored supplies for the humans in orbit rather than developing a self-cycling system. I think it will take another President with the vision capacity of Kennedy to change this situation.
h+: What did the space scientists learn from Biosphere 2? Did you get much feedback?
JA: NASA financed two meetings here at our base on Synergia Ranch (in Santa Fe, New Mexico) and a number of NASA geological, Moon, and Mars scientists have participated over the years at our Institute of Ecotechnics conferences. Specific feedbacks relate particularly to best crops to grow, waste recycling, stability of atmosphere composition, oxygen levels, use of soils and how to make the best soils.
h+: Say a bit about how you view biospherics, and how it helps us live better.
JA: Biospherics, the science and understanding of our total life-system, (and any total life-system discovered or invented), helps us live better because: 1) it helps us think better about our actual conditions; 2) it educates our feelings to perceive complex, beautiful, dynamic forms; 3) it helps our health because we get out more to see these wonders; and 4) it stimulates inner growth by encouraging us to understand ourselves as part of a marvelous evolution at home in the universe.
h+: There are arguments around that biospherics isn’t really a science. What would you say makes it a science?
JA: I first learned about this at Colorado School of Mines in Historical Geology in 1953. Vladimir Vernadsky established it as a science in the 1920’s after pushing biogeochemistry as far as it could go (he was one of the founders of that science). The Earth’s biosphere is the system that is composed of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, soils and mucks, and all the life forms on the planet. Biospherics is the name of the science that studies Earth’s biosphere and any other biosphere, including artificial ones like Biosphere.
Mining engineers study it because different ore-bodies are life-formed and they can be located at different epochs of the evolution of the biosphere and therefore found in the rocks associated with those periods. For example, the Carboniferous formations contain coal. At least one biosphere exists; anything that exists can be studied scientifically; the name of this science is biospherics.
There is no valid argument that biospherics is not a science any more than there is one that evolution is not a science. Unless, of course, one adopts a political or religious ideology in order to gain position and power. At the present moment evangelists oppose, by and large, evolution to gain contributions from their audiences of bible literalists. Many powerfully placed reductionist scientists oppose biospherics because they want to be supported by government agencies and corporations that pay them to specialize and even to oppose total system sciences that would expose the problems associated with denying biospheric implications of a given chemical or manufactured product. This is big-time money. Two examples out of hundreds: scientist sell-outs pushing peasants off the land (Africa, etc.) or cutting down forests for big-money soybean agriculture (Brazil, etc.).
h+: You refer to Biosphere 2 as a success, but the media reports at the time made it sound like a failure. What succeeded about the mission and what failed… or at least showed off some big problems?
JA: Mission One aimed for eight people to live and stay in top health for two years in a closed life system modeled on a no-ice biosphere (which has occurred in the past). It aimed for the life system to include seven of the basic biomes of Biosphere 1, all of which would survive with an increase of biomass, produce a high-yield chemical-free agriculture, stabilize species numbers and maintain landscape diversity in the biomes (the rainforest had a higher species loss), recycle 100% of waste (human and animal), stabilize the carbon dioxide-oxygen cycle at levels below those of concern for human health and recycle all air with a maximum loss of 10% a year (a tightly-sealed space vehicle loses thirty times more). And we promised to ensure full scientific monitoring by using a thousand different sensors plus detailed field surveys and publish all the results in peer-reviewed papers in reputable scientific journals and books.
They forget that Biosphere 2 was an experiment. We would learn from what went as planned, and… even more from the few things that didn’t.
Biosphere 2 succeeded in achieving all these objectives. One unforeseen problem occurred: a decline in oxygen which was due to carbon dioxide being sequestered in the concrete, contrary to engineering predictions. Some scientists, especially those involved in mountaineering, submarines, and space, thought this the most valuable part of the experiment, since we were able to monitor the physiological response of humans to a very gradual fall in oxygen occurring without a change in air pressure. One point we established was that oxygen can fall in a closed life system to sixteen percent with no noticeable effects on efficiency or well-being.
We aimed at total self-sufficiency in food production, and wound up with around 80% — we did set records for closed systems and highyield, non-polluting agriculture. The second crew achieved 100% food sufficiency with the system improvements made during the transition period between missions. And, of course, there were plenty of surprises — like the desert beginning to transform into a chaparral ecology because moisture levels favored that part of the original species selected. And the rainforest grew so rapidly that our first generation pioneer species were cut down during the transition – they had grown from small trees to over 30 feet in height. But such developments added to our knowledge of ecological self-organization processes.
Biosphere 2’s biggest failure: not convincing the reductionist scientists and expansionist politicians who control America to include total systems sciences and engineering. This financial juggernaut and its ideological demagogues fatally cripple efforts to deal with the huge industrial and population expansion effects on our biosphere by restricting evaluation of its effects by species or by water valley or by shoreline or by city and country rather than by all effects on the total biospheregeosphere-technosphere-ethnosphere system.
So despite these remarkable achievements and the body of knowledge that came out of Biosphere, there were elements of the press that said because Biosphere 2 wasn’t perfectly self-sufficient in the first two-year experiment, and there were unexpected developments, that it was a failure.
Of course, they forget that Biosphere 2 was an experiment – we did it to learn about biospherics, confident that by doing something so radically new, we would learn from what went as planned, and perhaps learn even more from the few things that didn’t. Biosphere 2 was also controversial because — though it combined both holistic (total systems) science and analytic (reductionist) science — it stirred up some opposition from some reductionist scientists, some of whom were jealous of the popularity Biosphere 2 achieved around the world, and others who simply don’t work with complex systems and couldn’t understand the levels of science possible in a facility like Biosphere 2.
h+: What are you doing now?
JA: My main line of new work is now in what I call cyberspherics — the development of a total systems feedback set of operations ranging from Chaos through Cosmos, Galaxy, Sun, Geosphere, Biosphere, Technosphere, Ethnosphere, and Noosphere. It’s an extraordinary intellectual adventure; the age of Objective (Real) Science and Engineering is just beginning to dawn. The settlement of Mars, even just one settlement, would carry what we learned at Biosphere 2 and on the Moon landing into a true total systems art, science, and engineering that could be applied with grace and certainty to deal with our present crisis on Planet Water (a more accurate term for what is usually called Earth).
Meanwhile our team still works in closed life systems, doing research on relation of soils to agriculture in our small closed life system, “The Laboratory Biosphere” in New Mexico. Some of the technologies from Biosphere 2, such as wastewater gardens (constructed wetlands) are being used at ecotechnic projects around the world and implemented in a number of countries worldwide.