I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Biosphere 2. In the late 1980s, an avant-garde group of actors and scientists erected a gigantic geodesic dome in the Arizona desert, to see if humans could live in ‘space colonies’ that generate their own food, water and oxygen.
I knew that the experiment had gone wrong, but that was all. I was surprised no one had made a film or book about such an evocative subject. Well, now they have. Matt Wolf’s new documentary Spaceship Earth landed last month and can be viewed online.
The story begins in 1967, with a young woman called Kathelin Gray standing at a bus stop in San Francisco. A man spots the book she’s holding — Rene Daumal’s Mount Analogue, ‘about a motley group of artists, scientists, philosophers and adventurers who form an expedition to an undocumented island in the South Pacific’.
‘Let’s do that in real life’, says the man, who turned out to be called John P. Allen. He’s an unusual personality, a dreamer with a Harvard MBA, a degree in mining and a taste for beat literature. He obviously has a sort of Pied Piper charisma, as Kathelin agreed, and off they went.
They set up an experimental theatre troupe in San Francisco, the Theatre of All Possibilities. From the clips, their shows look fairly bizarre, but it seems to have been a fun avant-garde community to live in.
Then San Francisco got stale, so in 1969 the troupe set off in a bus to look for a new frontier. They found a site in the New Mexico desert and constructed a geodesic dome, based on the designs of systems thinker Buckminster Fuller. They named the site the ‘Synergia ranch’.
Just as they were settling into a happy routine, John Allen insisted they set out again. To the ocean! The group designed a ship, from scratch. They had no seafaring experience, but Allen seemed to trust people to rise to the task, and they did. The Heraclitus didn’t sink and the group sailed around the world for several years. They also set up companies, backed by a billionaire heir called Edward Bass. One of them is the October Gallery in London.
I think at that point I would have retired and congratulated myself on a rich and interesting life. But no, the crew needed to go further. They were constantly reaching for new frontiers, new experiences.
They held seminars in the Synergia ranch, bringing together artists and scientists, and came to the conclusion that climate change and the soaring human population threatened humanity’s survival. Humans needed to expand into space. They needed space colonies. Who better to design it than them! You have to admire the chutzpah.
So they did. They designed an enormous ‘biosphere’, in which they recreated various different habitats — rainforest, ocean, savannah, mangrove wetlands — and populated them with plants and animals. The biosphere would create its own oxygen, food and water. Eight volunteers would live in there for two years.
As they built the biosphere and prepared the experiment, the project attracted more and more media attention. It was called Biosphere 2 (Biosphere 1 was planet Earth). They hired a professional PR team, who orchestrated chat-show appearances and a grand ‘launch’ on live TV.
Bisophere 2 morphed from a scientific experiment to something closer to a Disney show, like Epcot Centre’s ‘Spaceship Earth’. Tourists came by bus and bought tickets to gawp at the crew as they went about their daily tasks, like it was a human zoo.
Unfortunately, the spectacle was an illusion. It emerged that the crew were smuggling in food and other supplies, and secretly using a CO2 extractor. Even then, things went wrong. Bacteria unexpectedly produced high levels of CO2, almost asphyxiating the crew. Plants died. Cockroaches flourished. The crew started to fight. Utopia is difficult when basic resources are scarce.
The crew sent out an emergency call, and the biosphere was pumped with oxygen. The crew were ecstatic, leaping with joy. But back on Earth, the project was in further trouble. The media felt hoodwinked and turned on the project and its charismatic founder, John Allen, who they accused of running a cult.
Allen became paranoid, and fell out with his billionaire backer, Edward Bass. Bass then fired Allen and his cohorts from the project and brought in a new CEO — Steve Bannon.
Yes, that Steve Bannon, who went on to be Donald Trump’s dark mastermind. He was fresh from a stint at Goldman Sachs, but already seemed to harbour the antipathy for utopian liberals that he expresses today. Bannon gleefully threw out the hippies and installed his own employees. He later sold the project to Columbia University. Somehow, almost all the data from the experiment was lost. Here he is talking about the project.
Scientifically, Biosphere 2 was a failure, although as a piece of theatre, it was a great success, and the entry of such a comic book villain in the final act only increases the pathos.
I found Wolf’s documentary inspiring. So what if the experiment was a failure? What remarkable lives Allen and his crew have lived! What adventures, what fun!
But the story of Biosphere 2 also shows us that experiments in radical self-reliance and grand escapes from civilization often don’t escape very far.
The Biospherians were meant to ‘leave Earth’ and become totally self-sufficient. This proved impossible — they still relied on support from the outside. Within weeks one of the crew needed to be taken to a hospital, when she cut off the tip of a finger.
And they very much relied on the oxygen of public attention. Indeed, the real legacy of Biosphere 2 may not be space colonies but something closer to home: reality TV shows like Survivor or Love Island, where a small group of misfits are cocooned in a confined space to see how well they cope.
It is often like this with experiments in anarchism. They are often better understood as theatre performances rather than genuine exercises in self-sufficiency.
Take Diogenes the Cynic, the first anarchist, who in the fourth century BC rejected Athenian civilization and went to live in a barrel in the streets. ‘I have no city’, he is supposed to have said. ‘I am a citizen of the universe’.
Yet Diogenes’ grand declaration of independence was really a theatre performance more than a reality. Athenians would come to see him living in his barrel — even Alexander the Great came to see the ragged philosopher. He would insult his audience, much to their delight. He preached self-sufficiency, yet relied on public attention.
Or St Simeon the Stylite, the Syrian ascetic who went to live on a pillar. If he had really rejected all worldly attachments, why display himself in such a prominent position? Did he want to display his religious virtuosity, like a 5th century David Blaine?
Or take the 18th century Diogenes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who also rejected civilization as corrupt. We should escape the city and live in the countryside, Rousseau preached.
Yet even as a rural recluse, Rousseau remained obsessed with what others thought of him. His Confessions is a fascinating, hilarious and pathetic book, in which for several hundred pages he tries to justify his wayward life to an imaginary public.
Or take Henry David Thoreau, the American 19th century transcendentalist philosopher, who announced he was going to live in the woods and later declared his independence from the United States. How self-reliant was he really? He only got as far as his friend’s garden. If he was so independent, why did he need to tell us all about his experiment?
We love the dream of escaping broken society and becoming totally self-reliant. But often this ‘escape’ is just a performance, a show, an infantile fantasy, which actually emphasizes how much we need others’ attention and support.
When I was six, I would write a note saying ‘I have run away from home.’ Then I would leave it on my bed, hide behind the curtains, and wait to see my parents’ reaction.