Life Inside the Biosphere Bubble
by Erica Gies
Jane Poynter entered the world’s first hermetically sealed, manufactured ecological system in 1991 with seven other people.
Biosphere 2 — the 3.15-acre, almost-airtight outpost in the Arizona desert that was to be their home for two years — proved impressively stable, although low oxygen levels and disappointing crop yields made survival a daily challenge. Eventually, pure oxygen had to be added to the system, and the team had to supplement its diet with food from an emergency stockpile stored before closure.
Throughout their stay, short tempers, depression and even the specter of insanity kept life interesting for the “biospherians.” In her new book, The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2, Poynter gives an insider’s view of the famous experiment. She spoke with Wired News about cult rumors, Biosphere 2’s unique usefulness to climatologists and her time inside the bubble.
Wired News: What was the most bizarre experience you had during your two years of confinement?
Jane Poynter: If you put it in the historic context of the time, the internet was just coming alive, and so at that time, one of the most bizarre things was jamming (playing music) down the phone with people in Germany and in L.A. So we had a round-robin jam going, which was pretty fun. We called that “interbiospheric dialoguing.” So we were inside Biosphere 2, and we were dialoguing with the other Biosphere out there (Earth was called “Biosphere 1”) down this proto-internet connectivity. That was really fun. I don’t know if I’d say it was bizarre, but it was really fun.
WN: The Synergists, the group that conceived of and built Biosphere 2, were accused of being a cult. As you point out, the group certainly has some of the hallmarks of cultdom, so why do you believe the Synergists were not a cult?
Poynter: I think we were quite cultlike. But if “cult” means something dangerous — I mean, when I say I think we were cultlike, I think we were cultlike in the sense of a somewhat inbred community. I mean, not wanting to be flip about it, but even within a corporation, you get sort of cultlike behaviors sometimes. I don’t think we were a cult because the term “cult” has really come to mean something dangerous, something really wacko. You know, people committing mass suicide because some guy says so. We certainly weren’t that. We were not a dangerous community in any way. After all, we built Biosphere 2, and I think Biosphere 2 was very visionary.
WN: Rumors of dodgy science plagued Biosphere 2 during your stay. In comparing the work your team accomplished to the later work of the Columbia University teams inside Biosphere 2, do you think the science your team did was less controlled?
Poynter: It was very different. What our team was doing was asking a very basic question: Does this even work? Can you take an essentially sealed container and put what we think are developed ecosystems inside this container and have it exist for a long period of time? And if something goes wrong, can we figure out what that something is, and can we fix it? That was really what we were asking in our two-year mission. That was a very different charter than Columbia had (when the Biosphere 2 project was turned over to it in 1995)…. They were then using this thing that we had built to answer very specific questions about how corals react to elevated carbon dioxide, for instance. So it’s a very different kind of science. Initially, honestly, to a large degree, it was almost an engineering project, and we were answering the question: Does it work?
WN: When Biosphere 2 was conceived in the early ’80s, its founders seemed to envision it as a test space capsule for life on Mars. Were people aware of global warming and the significance closed systems such as Biosphere 2 might come to have in climate science?
Poynter: Oh for sure…. Global warming research had raised its head, and people were already ringing alarm bells. And for sure, that was a secondary mission of Biosphere 2. One of the primary missions was, yes, let’s build a prototype to go to Mars. Not that we would pick up the Biosphere and stick it on Mars…. But we would at least test the systems that you could then take to Mars. But the other was to use Biosphere 2 as a tool to study what happens under all kinds of conditions, and of course, climate change is one of them.
One of the reasons why closed systems are so good at this kind of study is that they are much more controlled than in the outside world. Even the experiments they do where they encircle an area of rainforest, for instance, and measure the CO2 within that piece of rainforest, there are all kinds of variables going on that they can’t control: the rain, the animals coming through, the wind coming through. Whereas with Biosphere 2 you can control a lot of that to a much greater degree.
And things happen faster in closed systems. Outside, you’re at the mercy of this huge atmosphere that we have out here, so in order to experiment with elevated CO2 either you have to wait for it to actually go up in this giant atmosphere, or you have to build these things where you try to force CO2 over the top of the plants and that kind of thing. Whereas in Biosphere 2 the atmosphere is so tiny you can track how things move through the atmosphere, through the soil, through the plants — you can track the atoms and the molecules through the system very rapidly. And that’s why Columbia University was so into it.
WN: You wrote that personal conflict among the biospherians was one of the most difficult things about the two-year closure. How do you think the human psyche responds to competition for resources, enclosed spaces and these types of stressful situations?
Poynter: It’s well-known that people don’t respond to scarce resources necessarily in what we might consider a positive light. People who study small groups in isolation and confinement — there’s now a whole branch of psychology called isolated confined environment psychology — would say that scarce resources are one of the many stresses that cause what NASA now calls “bad behavioral health,” because they can’t say the word “psychology,” I think. So it’s a whole bunch of stresses. It’s the resource scarcity, it’s a lack of stimulation, it’s the oppressiveness of just being confined — all of these various stresses occurring over a long period of time are causing the bad behavioral health.
WN: Desperation and greed play out in struggles for water, oil and arable land around the world. This U.S. administration insists that combating global warming compromises economic growth. Given your experience with crew struggles, do you think we’ll engineer our way out of potential planetary environmental collapse? Or do you think the darker side of human nature will be our Achilles’ heel?
Poynter: Well, my experience in Biosphere 2 was that we didn’t get along, but we all kept our Biosphere functioning. And that’s an important distinction. So if you want to draw the analogy, whilst out here in Biosphere 1 we aren’t necessarily getting along very well and there are riots over water and all kinds of appalling things happening around the world, we do still all live in a biosphere. And I am by nature an optimist, I suppose. But yeah, I think we’re going to get our shit together because I think we have to. I am not one who believes we’re going to go down in flames. I think that is not a useful thought, and I think that is not a likely event, either.
WN: Since Columbia pulled out of Biosphere 2, the structure has been unused as a research facility. Are you aware of any interested parties who may take advantage of the opportunities it presents?
Poynter: I am hopeful. I know that (owner) Ed Bass’ team is working very hard to work a deal (so) that the Biosphere itself is used for research purposes. Although it is fairly certain that the land around it will be built up into homes.
WN: Your company, Paragon Space Development, designs human life-support systems for spacecraft. How did your experiences in Biosphere 2 prepare you for this work?
Poynter: If I hadn’t been inside of Biosphere 2 and really lived a biological life-support system, I definitely would not be involved in life-support systems for space. It taught us huge amounts about how to think about the total system of life support. And when I say “life support,” I’m talking about CO2 control, oxygen control, humidity, temperature — all of the things that keep astronauts happy and healthy in space….
The life-support system is, in fact, one of the central parts of (a) spacecraft. The way most people would approach it is that the life-support system is something that should somehow fit into this shell of a spacecraft. And what we’ve done is say the life support is your primary thing and then you build the rest around it. And that has come directly from our thinking about Biosphere 2 and being a part of your life-support system, as we were.
WN: As the global warming crisis has become more evident, have you considered turning a portion of your business toward aspects of human life support for Biosphere 1?
Poynter: (Laughs) Oh, that’s a grisly thought, isn’t it? (Laughs again.) You mean, building biospheres for people to live in as things get bad out there?
WN: Not necessarily. I mean employing any of the technology that you’re using.
Poynter: I am personally now getting very involved in sustainable development. For instance, I’ve been working on carbon credit certification with the U.N. for a couple of projects, very cool projects in Africa and Mexico. I’m consulting on a really cool project in Las Vegas that’s in the planning stages … I can say that it will be a casino that will be built using green technology. I mean, what a great platform to talk about sustainable living. You can have a casino, which is still sexy and exciting, and yes, is based around sustainable, energy-efficient technology. Oh! What a future can we have!