Biosphere 2

The Future of the Planet?


Fifth Estate # 343, Fall-Winter, 1993

In late September, after two years of being shut away in a 315-acre terrarium called Biosphere 2, eight “biospherians”—four men and four women—emerged to breathe the (comparatively) natural air of the Arizona desert.

The experiment was advertised as an attempt to simulate earth’s ecosystems on a small scale with the idea of long-term outer space travel and interplanetary colonization in mind. Located, significantly, near the town of Oracle, it was hailed by its protagonists as “one of the magic moments in history,” and “a new science of life as a total system.”

While the New Age hyperbole surrounding the project made most professional scientists shudder, it was not because of the sinister, totalitarian implications of designing a “new science of life as a total system”—a notion as old as the scientific revolution that continues to have great appeal for scientific elites—but because it was closer to a theme park than what is generally considered rigorous experimental science.

At one point, for example, the “self-contained” technocratic idyll began to break down, and project administrators had to pump in 600,000 cubic feet of additional fresh air, introduce a carbon dioxide scrubber, extra food (biospherians were supposed to grow their own) and other emergency supplies. Nothing to worry about, since this was only the “inaugural voyage” of what is supposed to be a 100-year project. After all, they hadn’t actually gone out into space, where by now, under similar conditions, they would be little more than high tech mummies.

The fastidious scientists critical of Biosphere’s hype and lack of precision forget that such hype elicits the very hazy zeal that has fueled science’s power as a vast social movement since the early modern epoch. And if they shuddered, it might also be in part because their own grand experiment—modern scientific technics and industrialism—is fairing so poorly. In its pathetic ambition to prepare for Martian colonies and the like, this “magic moment in history” reflected the not-so-fanciful dread haunting the modern mind that industrialism is indeed rendering “Biosphere 1″—the earth—uninhabitable.

Reproducing in miniature climates such as a rainforest, a savannah, a marsh, a desert, and an ocean with tides, as well as a tiny farm on which the biospherians were supposed to raise their food, could be rightly considered a monstrous act of hubris, if it weren’t so patently silly. Who could be simultaneously so innocent and presumptuous to consider a six-block patch of tropical garden a rainforest, a formidably complex organism that science has barely fathomed? But Biosphere 2 is, perhaps more interestingly, an exceedingly baroque exercise in imperial denial, sharing with the original baroque (another period of imperial decline and ideological tension) a fascination with the miniature, the simulated and the mechanical—a kind of highly elaborated strategy of pseudo-utopian escape in the midst of generalized disaster.

That the biospherians consider their greenhouse space capsule “a key to the future of the planet” reflects the impoverished imagination of decaying industrial civilization and its popular scientific culture. (Even the scientists who criticize Biosphere share its sensibility, if not its methodology.) Ironically, it is a key, though in an indirect, metaphorically cunning sense. In its desire to escape the flaming ship, it points to the catastrophe now unfolding and the grim horizon ahead. As George Wald wrote in CoEvolution Quarterly back in the mid-1970s, “[T]he very idea of space colonies carries to a logical—and horrifying—conclusion processes of dehumanization and depersonalization that have already gone too far on the Earth. In a way, we’ve gotten ready for Space Platforms by a systematic degradation of human ways of life on the Earth.”

According to David Ehrenfeld the so-called space age and the “spaceship earth” idea that accompanies it are foolish delusions. In his book The Arrogance of Humanism (in which Wald’s work is cited), he argues that pointing out superficial similarities between a spaceship and the earth fails to recognize that the “life-support systems’ of earth are vast, complex, poorly understood, very old, self-regulating, and entirely successful.” The very idea of a life-support system is in fact more an engineering concept than an ecological one.

“On earth, the life and the life-support systems are not separable,” Ehrenfeld writes, “they are part of the same whole,” whereas in a space station the system would be a machine, which would inevitably, periodically, fail, since “all machines fail.

When the failure is minor and of short duration, the space colony will survive, and when it is serious and long-lasting the inhabitants of the colony will die—unless, of course, they can go home to earth.” *

But the biospherians seemed to share none of the circumspection about technology’s claims, despite having lived through a lifetime of nuclear meltdowns, oil spills, exploding space ships and urban blackouts. When they “re-entered” Biosphere 1, one of them told journalists that their work had provided “an operating manual for the world,” and another ardently enthused that it demonstrated a lifeway “closer to the idea of natural paradise such as the earth should be and could be.”

Lewis Mumford had an apt analogy for this artificial paradise and its air of devotion in his comparative critique of ancient and modern megamachines, The Pentagon of Power. A space capsule with its astronaut, he wrote, “corresponds exactly to the innermost chamber of the great pyramids, where the mummified body of the Pharaoh, surrounded by miniaturized equipment necessary for magical travel to Heaven, was placed.” Thus, the biospherians really were practicing to become mummies.

To the degree that the living planet is reduced to a contaminated industrial wasteland, the dream of colonizing space and escaping into heavenly spheres will gain increasing appeal. It’s noteworthy that the entire project has been bankrolled by a Texas oil billionaire, whose source of income has far more to do with the terrifying future of the planet than his sideline hobby. Also of emblematic significance was the constant hunger experienced by the eight space travellers—a poignant reflection in miniature of the mass starvation that has become a permanent feature and direct consequence of the capitalist world economy currently dominating the real biosphere. But most striking perhaps was their acknowledgement that their greatest accomplishment was simply getting along with one another—not unremarkable in a world increasingly shredded by war and xenophobic bloodletting.

In the September 27 New York Times, where I read of these cosmic exploits, there was another small news item next to the Biosphere story about an accident at a plating company in California in which one worker died and seventeen were injured by exposure to toxic wastes. The stories make perfect sense together—an absurd fantasy of deluded futurists sharing the ruling optimistic mythos of a cruel and destructive age, next to a small, sordid example of the reality underlying it.

Space exploration has already made a junkyard of the space around earth, with some five thousand discarded objects now in orbit (including several nuclear reactors that will inevitably fall back into the atmosphere to the planet’s surface). Space exploration itself is a horribly toxic industry connected intimately and inseparably to the global war machine. Such is the reality of the space paradise touted by modern confidence men and hustlers, just as the industrial accident in California is but a glimpse into the truth of the technological paradise that modern industrialism promises.

Human destiny and our relationship to the rest of the cosmos will be decided once and for all (and in the not-too-distant future, I might add), here on earth, not wandering in space. We have to learn—relearn, one should say—to live on what already was earthly paradise when we started out.

This is it. Not only are there no lifeboats; the idea that such artificial paradises might be a tolerable alternative to the planet itself is an indication of how far we’ve already wandered, and how far we have to go to find our way home.

* This provocative book is not without its own problems and its arrogance, but it is still a worthwhile tonic against much of the pollyanna blather of modern technocrats.

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