On June 10, I published an article about the decades-long quest to recreate Earth in miniature. This journey has exposed the fragility of Earth’s ecosystems and how little we truly know about the complicated way terrestrial systems interact with one another. At the center of this story was the Biosphere 2, the largest closed-system experiment in history. The story of the Biosphere 2 has often been sensationalized in popular media following a series of experiments in the early 1990s, which saw human crews inhabit the Biosphere for several months at a stretch.
Although I attempted to curb this sensationalism in my own reporting, two of the Biosphere’s architects felt as though I hadn’t gone far enough and reached out to correct the record. The criticisms in the letters warrant our attention and are a welcome addendum to the original article.
Motherboard has decided to publish these letters in full. The first is by Bill Dempster, the Biosphere 2 Director of Systems Engineering, who served in this position from the inception of the project until 1994. The second letter, published here, is by Mark Nelson, the chairman of the Institute of Ecotechnics and a member of the 1991-1993 Biosphere 2 crew.
Congratulations on a very insightful and thoughtful article on the history of developing technologies for space life support and understanding Earth’s biosphere.
Some of your review of the Biosphere 2 project repeats inaccuracies from other sources which I have attempted to rectify below. I write as both a member of the first biospherian team, 1991-1993, as well as a Director of Space Biospheres Ventures, the managing partner and co-owner of the overall project.
“The scientists’ primary goal was to test the feasibility of using biospheres as living spaces for long duration space missions. The idea was that if we were ever going to seriously consider colonizing Mars, we’d have to figure out a way to create sustainable habitats that fulfilled our needs as a species.”
Re: Biosphere 2’s potential applications for space application, it was never envisioned there would be immediate applications. Rather, the facility was seen as a start in building experience in how to miniaturize portions of Earth’s biosphere. Many more efforts will need to be made, and the infrastructure developed to evolve from very simple life support systems to mini-biospheric ones.
But this was not the only or even primary goal of Biosphere 2. Another equal or greater creating a new type of experimental ecological research facility where basic processes of global ecology could be investigated to aid with ecological conservation and to increase understanding of how the Earth’s biosphere operates. The inclusion of humans and the extensive technosphere of Biosphere 2 offered a testing laboratory for ecological technologies such as sustainable, high-yield non-polluting agricultural systems; methods to cleanse air and water and recycle wastewater (using constructed wetlands). In short, to design and test a technosphere which supports and is compatible with a living world. The implications for environmental applications in our new Anthropocene remain deeply relevant.
“In many ways the experiments carried out by the original eight Biospherians were totally unsuccessful. The two-year long experiment was plagued by infighting among the scientists, malnutrition, and other social and environmental pitfalls.”
To properly appreciate Biosphere 2’s first closure is to see it as a bold EXPERIMENT in a new kind of experimental facility. The first two year closure experiment was explicitly seen as a “shake-down” mission to identify problems and technologies for future modification and improvement. That the crew stayed in for two years, albeit not growing 100% of their food and needing oxygen replenishment, was remarkable. In an experiment, you learn far more from what goes wrong and is unexpected than from what goes well.
There was no “malnutrition”. The diet for the first two year experiment was a quite healthy one, albeit low in calories. It was analogous to the diets and nutritional approach developed by one of the crew, Dr. Roy Walford, who was a professor at the UCLA Medical School. Nutrient-dense and low calorie; under-nourished yes, but not malnourished. The diet leads to excellent health outcomes (lowered cholesterol, enhanced immune system), which was verified in the research done on the eight members of the first crew. Roy published a number of scientific papers documenting these health results as the Biosphere 2 crew members were the first humans to be closely studied following this diet.
“Synergia served as a retreat where visitors could engage in experiments in gardening and theatre, approached through a blend of Buddhism and Fuller’s ideas about Spaceship Earth.”
It is certainly true that Fuller’s work was a major inspiration for John Allen and at Synergia Ranch, but that project is best understood as the first ecological application project of the Institute of Ecotechnics, which was founded in New Mexico in 1973. The mission of I.E. is to develop systems which harmonize technology and economics with ecological upgrade in challenging environments. I.E is now a registered institute in both UK and US and consults to innovative projects around the world. Biosphere 2 was I.E.’s highest profile consultancy and a wonderful experimental laboratory to develop ecotechnics.
Ed Bass was one of the directors of I.E., not “the director”. In addition to Fuller there were many other traditions and approaches drawn on at Synergia Ranch and later other IE-consulted projects. Synergia Ranch was not a “retreat” nor was there any blending of Buddhism and Fuller’s ideas. “Ecotechnics” is a term extending the Lewis Mumford idea (in his book Technics and Civilization) that “biotechnics” was needed to replace “machine culture” which harms people and the environment.
“In The Biosphere Catalogue, a 1985 booklet published through Bass’ Synergetic Press , he imagined a Biosphere archipelago called Refugia that could be used as refuges for the elite in the aftermath of nuclear war or widespread ecological collapse.”
This is overstated as an intention of Biosphere 2. The refugia discussed are for “higher forms of life” – not humans and certainly not the elite. In the book’s short introduction to Biosphere 2 (written by John Allen and Mark Nelson), the paragraph on refugia ends “Perhaps, even the existence of the Refugia could bring home to people and states the enormous risks they run and thus alter the behavior [threatening the health of the planetary biosphere] itself”. That article was an early brain-storming of possible applications, but given what was learned later at Biosphere 2, it’s obviously not economically sensible nor can it be done on a sufficient scale to attempt to save key endangered species.
It became obvious to the people who invented and created Biosphere 2 that perhaps its greatest lesson is demonstrating how priceless the global biosphere is. The cost of replicating even a tiny portion of the biosphere is enormous, which demonstrates the extraordinary value of the “free services” the biosphere provides. Biosphere 2 was ahead of its time in showing people that they indeed live and are supported by the Earth’s biosphere – the life support system of all life on Earth. In the early 1990s, the very term “biosphere” was not in general use.
Synergetic Press is an independent publishing company.
“Despite the ambitions of the project, it didn’t take long for things to start going wrong. As far as the experiments were concerned, there were massive fish die offs in the ocean system that clogged the filtration system and population explosions of local species of cockroaches and ants that had been sealed in the biosphere. Moreover, plant respiration rates were higher than photosynthesis, resulting in a slow decrease in oxygen levels so that at one point the Biospherians had oxygen availability similar to that of living at around 13,000 feet. This prompted the experiment’s managers to inject oxygen into the system during its final year, violating the purpose of the experiment, which was to prove that the biosphere was capable of sustaining a closed ecological system.”
There were no massive fish die-offs or clogging of the filtration system. Surveys by coral reef scientists at the end of two years, showed only 1 coral species had been lost out of some four dozen and there were over 80 new coral colonies in the Biosphere 2 ocean.
“Violating the purpose of the experiment” is a strange formulation since the purpose of the experiment was to discover what we knew and didn’t know about the design, engineering and functioning of mini-biospheres. The press treated Biosphere 2 like a competition where success and failure was only judged by the degree of its material closure. If all the answers were known, Biosphere 2 would have been a demonstration, not an experiment. We learned more from the oxygen decline than we would have learned had it not occurred. The lessons included relationships between soil organic matter, microbes, respiration and respiration; and unprecedented physiological studies of humans with a constant atmospheric pressure and declining atmospheric oxygen (unlike mountain climbers).
“Then there was the instance where an injured crew member was allowed to leave the experiment and return , and brought in new supplies. Although the crew alleged that these supplies were limited to plastic bags, several reporters claimed it also included food supplies, which would make sense considering the crew was operating on a significantly calorie-restricted diet due to their less than successful attempt at sustenance farming. With 10 months left in the experiment, the crew began dipping into their emergency food supplies to supplement their meager diet.”
A couple of duffel bags, even if stuffed with food, would have been a drop in the bucket of food needs for eight people for 2 years! But the truth is it contained some computer parts and back-ups. A significant achievement of the first 2 year closure was producing 83% of a total diet, including fodder for domestic animals. Biosphere 2’s farm was the most productive half acre of farmland ever – and recycled its nutrients and water, maintained soil fertility without chemical fertilizers or any toxic chemicals. The second closure experiment in 1994 achieved 100% food sufficiency because of improvements and lessons learned by the first crew.
The concept of “total material closure” is subtle and easily misunderstood. After a year of the first closure experiment, on the recommendation of Biosphere 2’s Scientific Advisory Committee, bi-weekly imports of scientific equipment and export of research samples commenced. Each airlock opening was recorded and a negligible but calculated amount of air exchange happened (just as it did when Jane Poynter left for a medical surgery in Tucson). Even with that, Biosphere 2 achieved a rate of air-tightness that far surpassed both the International Space Station and NASA/university plant growth chambers working on bioregenerative life support.
“It was only a matter of months before conflicts among the crew members began. Tensions eventually became so high that the crew had essentially broken into two factions and refused to speak with one another.”
The crew continued to work together, and feast and party together, despite such conflict and factions which are well-documented and unsurprising developments in isolated groups of people. That there was no subconscious sabotage of fellow crew members or the overall project speaks to the dedication and skill of the crew, and their understanding, which becomes quite accentuated in a small life system, that Biosphere 2 was their life support system. That is the unexpected and hopeful lesson of the Biosphere 2 crew – not that, like any group or family of humans, that there is conflict and division. On psychological tests, the biospherians tested similarly to astronauts, with little difference between the 4 women and 4 men, showing the classic “explorer’s profile”.
“The second and final Biosphere 2 experiment that involved human subjects began in 1994. It was only supposed to last ten months, but the second experiment was even more of a dismal failure than the first.”
The second crew produced 100% of their food from what they grew inside, and didn’t need to replenish oxygen. The experiment was terminated early because the new managers weren’t interested in closed ecological systems and bioregenerative life support – not because of any “failure”.
“After these two highly publicized and embarrassing failures”
This repeats the claims of Columbia University when they took over management of Biosphere 2 and focused on more conventional, but worthwhile, ecosystem level experiment. They ended Biosphere 2’s use as a closed ecological system, manipulating CO2 levels by pumping it in and ventilating. They also converted the sustainable agriculture to monoculture experiments with cotton wood trees, and ended human habitation. Also development of eco-technologies ceased to be an important purpose.
More to the point of your article, you might discuss the ongoing conflict between small-scale, “reductionist” and analytic science with more integrative, holistic, system-level science. That was a major reason Biosphere 2 was controversial with academic scientists and journalists who are used to analytic, reductionist science.
Biosphere 2 was an amazingly successful project—leaving lasting legacies on many fronts—from its scientific results to its public education. Biosphere 2 reached a vast audience around the world with its essentially optimistic premise—that humans can learn to live in harmony with our biosphere.
Bucky Fuller wrote of the long lag-time between new paradigms, new technological advances, and their general acceptance. Biosphere 2 was ahead of its time – but becomes more relevant as humans come to grips with the need to regulate our actions and take care of our biospheric home.
There are a lot of lessons from the Biosphere 2 project that we, I and other members of its core team, can share with you so we can move beyond the oft-repeated misunderstandings.
I appreciate your consideration in providing an accurate account of Biosphere 2’s goals and accomplishments, as well as problems.
With best regards,
Mark Nelson, Ph.D. Chairman, Institute of Ecotechnics/member of Biosphere 2 crew, 1991-1993