Sunday, March 28, 2010

The dream to escape oneself

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, environmentalism, synergistics

Just over three years ago I reviewed Jane Poynter's memoir of her two years inside Biosphere 2. At that time, I called the experiment a disaster. Having just read a book with a wider view, Dreaming the Biosphere: The Theater of All Possibilities by Rebecca Reider, it is easier to see why the experience was so disastrous, though I am more sympathetic than before to the Biospherians.

Take a large patch of Arizona desert land, add about a hundred idealists who have been undertaking environmentally activist projects for a decade or so, mix in a billionaire's largess ($200+ million) and a short list of extremely Alpha primates, and this is one possible result: A three acre greenhouse enclosing seven "biomes" that costs $1 million just for its yearly electric bill.

Three acres. Three football fields. That's quite a bit larger than many sailing ships with crews much larger than eight, which have spent months and years on voyages and managed to stay afloat. I am not that interested in the fact that Biosphere 2 was "materially isolated, energetically open". It was a different openness that drove its human dynamics: Mission Control.

I stated before, and will repeat it here: a ship needs a captain. Be he/she benevolent or bastard, there must be a captain. I'll add this proviso: "...aboard ship." That single lack more than any other doomed the Biospherians to their division into two warring factions. The focus of their war was John Allen, head of Mission Control, and his closest aides, particularly Firefly (Margrit Augustine). Simply put, within the first year, four of the Biospherians came to hate John and Margrit, and the other four to worship him. All other woes stemmed from that. For the human experiment to work, John Allen needed to be locked inside with the others. It is a poor experiment that proves something that ship captains have known for centuries.

John was the spearhead of the efforts that led to Biosphere 2's creation and its first few years. He was well known to be a bullying megalomaniac, but he has a psychopath's charm and could always attract new adherents. People who should have known better were tolerant of his bad behavior. But he was only the first of the big Alpha primates. After Ed Bass, the bucks behind the Biosphere, engineered a takeover that included armed sheriffs "buttoning down" the facility, later work soon came to be driven by Columbia University's Wally Broecker, just as bullying, who hired and fired almost with abandon. But Columbia backed out after a decade. Although current B2 programs are being proctored by the University of Arizona, and it is called "Where Science Lives", it is largely a tourist destination. It just isn't big enough to need a big Alpha any more.

Almost lost in the mix are the second group of seven "Mission 2" Biospherians, who stayed inside during the takeover, and remained half a year. Largely due to much less outside interference from Mission Control, they had more of a lifeboat mentality, ran much of their own affairs, sorted out their own social pyramid, and avoided the divisive experience of Mission 1.

Ms Reider initially had some difficulties getting people to talk to her. Over time, she was able to interview the Biospherians and many other members of the original Theater of All Possibilities of Synergia Ranch and other facilities worldwide. But many "official" types, particularly of Columbia U, wanted the pre-Columbia memories expunged, buried. It seems to have taken the author quite a number of years to gather the material for Dreaming.

And what a dream it was! Some thought of Biosphere 2 as a prototype spaceship (one that would have needed ten acres of solar cells to run its physical plant). Some thought of it as a chance to repeat Earth's biotic processes in miniature. Some dreamed of learning things to save Earth systems from further degradation. And to some it was a huge toy, a scientific apparatus on the scale of a supercollider, but intended to elucidate ecological units rather than subatomic particles. Nobody thought of it as a human experiment until it was too late. A contemporary song sums up wisdom that the dreamers forgot: "Wherever you go, there you are."

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