Biosphere 2

from Bill Brown

Biosphere 2 is a really rich guy's science fair project. That's how my pal Sarah puts it. She's not wrong, but it turns out things are a lot weirder than that. Back in the 1980's, a Texas oil billionaire named Ed Bass decided to build a huge, totally sealed terrarium in the desert just north of Tucson. Why an oil tycoon decided to build a giant greenhouse isn't entirely clear, but it seems to have involved some shady eco-cult called The Intitute for Ecotechnics; a collection of hippy-scientists; William S. Burroughs; and a plan to colonize Mars. Or something like that. Biosphere 2 was supposed to be a miniature version of Earth (aka, Biosphere 1). Miniature and, apparently, portable. A laboratory for living off-world. By 1990, it was finished: a giant glass-and-steel Mayan-revival sci-fi greenhouse with its own computer-controlled rainforest, a couple deserts, some monkeys and pigs, and a million-gallon saltwater ocean with a wave machine. From the beginning, tourists were invited to visit, which made Biosphere 2 less an ecological laboratory than an ecological-laboratory-themed roadside attraction. Sarah and I visit the place on a Tuesday in early December. The tour group consists of the 2 of us, two older couples, and a tour guide named Lynn. Otherwise, the place is deserted. Lynn tells us that originally, the idea of Biosphere 2 was to lock a bunch of scientists (well, not scientists, exactly, but people with "scientific backgrounds") inside and see if they could survive for a couple years. 8 Biospherians eventually entered the Biosphere. It was a big deal, and at first, things went pretty well. There were tons of tourists. The fruit trees in the rainforest produced fruit. The chickens laid eggs. But then, things began to go wrong. The pigs started to raid the vegetable gardens. The monkeys squealed all night and drove the Biospherians crazy. The bees died. Most serious of all, the oxygen levels inside the Biosphere began to plummet. No one could figure out why. Due to the lack of oxygen, the Biospherians began to stumble around and bump into walls and act confused. After a few months, Biosphere 2 was in bad shape. Lynn the tour guide implies that the Biospherians wound up hating each other. I find out later that they split into two factions: the True Believers who would do anything to make the project work, and the Realists who thought it wouldn't be a bad idea to open a window and let in some fresh air. In the end, the people running the project decided to pump in oxygen. They really had no other choice, but it pretty much defeated the whole point of a sealed, self-contained environment. 2 years later, when the Biospherians finally emerged from the Biosphere, they were pale (since the greenhouse glass filtered out UV light) and skinny (since the various ecosystems barely produced enough food) and pretty sick of Biosphere 2.

We follow Lynn around. Originally, the greenhouse was all sealed up, and tourists couldn't go inside. Now it doesn't matter. We walk through the Biosphere 2 gourmet kitchen, and past one of the Biosphere 2 bedrooms with abstract expressionist paintings hanging on the wall. One of the original Biospherians painted them, apparently while suffering from acute oxygen deprivation. We troop through the rainforest, and the marsh. We stare at the million-gallon ocean and listen to the lonely pulse of the wave machine, slow and regular, like the fading pulse of some monstrous dying thing. We stand there for a while, looking out over a dead sea under a sky of steel trellis and glazed glass. Lynn mentions that there wasn't enough money to construct a solar power system and make Biosphere 2 truly self-sufficient. Instead, it gets its electricity from the local electrical company. No one on the tour says anything, but I'm pretty sure we're all starting to think the same thing: that Biosphere 2 isn't just a failure, but a Colossal Fiasco, and this causes all of us to lapse into a kind of embarrassed silence.

After the tour, Lynn ditches us, leaving us all to wander around the place, alone and unsupervised. There are no surveillance cameras. No docents or security guards. I say to Sarah that it feels like we're astronauts who've responded to a distress call from some space station in deep space. When we get there, all the machines are running and the computers are automatically taking care of things, but the space station crew has vanished without a trace. Sarah and I creep from one ecosystem to another. We notice the ants. There are ants everywhere. Biosphere 2 is overrun with them. As the other species died off, the ants kept multiplying. Swarming over the handrails and the tropical plants. Swarming over you, too, if you're not careful. We wander down into the basement. A huge concrete crypt beneath the Biosphere. There are gillion-gallon water tanks down there, and evaporative coolers as big as a house. There are no fiberglass rocks down in the basement, like there are topside. No landscaped terraces or banana trees or viewing platforms. The basement is full of the hidden machinery that was supposed to make Biosphere 2 bloom. The machines worked just fine. Precise and computer-controlled and energy efficient. Dropping precisely the right amount of rain on the simulated rainforest. Keeping the humidity in the simulated desert low. In the end, the machinery was the only thing that worked according to plan.

By 1994, things got ugly. Ed Bass wanted his greenhouse back. The hippy "visionaries" managing the place resisted. Restraining orders were issued. Federal marshals showed up. At some point-- and this is where things get especially confusing-- a couple of the former Biospherians (one of whom was a Belgian engineer who called himself Laser) broke into the Biosphere in the dead of night and opened up all the emergency exits and busted out a couple windows. I'm not sure why they did this. Needless to say, the billionaire oil tycoon and the eco-cultists were no longer on speaking terms. It took a couple years, but in 1996, Bass convinced Columbia University to take over management of the place. They tried to move away from the Disney Science of the original Biosphere and do some real research. Columbia lasted for a few years, but Lynn tells us they recently jumped ship. Now Biosphere's future is up for grabs. I read somewhere that Mr. Bass is thinking of developing the land around the Biosphere. Building a bunch of tract homes he'll call something like Biosphere Estates.

Outside Biosphere 2, Sarah and I walk past a row of interpretive plaques that neither of us has the heart to read. We're pretty sure we know what they don't say. They don't say that Biosphere 2 has all the elements of a Greek tragedy. A not very good, B-grade Greek tragedy, in fact, featuring an arrogant billionaire with big but totally hazy ambitions, a Greek chorus of freaky voodoo scientists, an insane project, and a series of disasters that reduces the whole thing to ruins. Maybe that was the point all along. Maybe Ed Bass is an eco-radical genius, and he figured the best way to demonstrate the fragility of Biosphere 1 was to build Biosphere 2 and watch it crash and burn. A dramatic lesson that would cause people to set aside their plans to colonize Mars, and stop treating this planet like a disposible diaper. If that was the plan, I guess it failed, too.


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