Tucson's Biosphere 2 Lessons

Tucson, Arizona's Biosphere 2 was an experiment in human self-sustainability. Now it is decaying in the desert.

Tucson's Biosphere 2 Lessons

The human brain has spawned a parallel universe of imagined lifeforms, landmarks, and civilizations. Though usually conceived of as fiction, this parallel universe often leaks into various Earth systems. Robot explorers, genetically engineered animals, artificial intelligence, international space stations—these are, before anything else, the products of our imagination. They are what happens when an organism is capable of asking itself: What does the future look like? The Biosphere 2 in Tucson, Arizona is a totemic example of how such fantasies can carry over into reality.

I drove towards this aging temple of eco-optimism in mid-2014 with low expectations, having been disappointed by utopian architecture before. But as I walked up to this behemoth of steel, glass, and plant life, my pessimism dissolved into childlike enthusiasm.

Every structure on the compound is beautiful and precisely engineered, despite having come into existence in a mere three years. Inside, many of the plant species that were brought in from all over the world to recreate diverse Earth ecosystems grow unabated alongside intruders from the Arizona desert. There are five biomes in Biosphere 2: a desert, an ocean (complete with coral reef), a rainforest, mangrove wetlands, and a savannah grassland. The setup was inspired by microbiologist Clair Folsome, whose work showed that life can sustain itself in a sealed environment provided that the environment is populated with compatible organisms. "A materially closed, energetically open system already exists; It's the Earth," Folsome told the 1984 Biospheres Conference, "and it's only a matter of technical detail to recreate such a system as a biosphere." Folsome's confidence in self-regulating ecological systems inspired the Biosphere 2 team to invite two wild cards into their design: An intensive agricultural biome and a human population who would survive as part of the closed loop within the various biomes.

According to John P. Allen, the initiator of the Biosphere 2 project, if humans could learn to live in materially closed self-sustainable habitats for substantial periods of time we might find a solution to the distances and finite resources that hold us back from long-term outer space habitation. We could be stewards and children of Earth wherever we wanted.

Was Biosphere 2 a Failure?

In September 1991, a crew of eight researchers entered the Biosphere 2 for its first mission in contained survival. Needless to say, the experiment didn't go entirely as planned. The Biospherians suffered from mysterious, and severe, oxygen depletion, forcing the project managers to break the seal and inject additional oxygen into the environment. Years later, researchers discovered that the concrete structure was largely to blame—it hadn't entirely cured before closure. The question of whether "science or seal" was more important, in combination with a lack of preparation for confined environment psychology, lead to a rift between team members while intense media attention and outrage over these "failures" lead to paranoia among the project managers. And if that were not enough, pests destroyed the Biosphere's meager harvests, leading to malnourishment that forced the team to dip into emergency food supplies.

Still, in my opinion, it's too easy to call the Biosphere 2 a failure—mostly because the conditions of success were so narrowly defined. Utopian projects are often called failures either because finances or waning enthusiasm prevented their completion, or because they are irreparably tainted by megalomaniacal leaders. This is precisely the point. Utopias are testaments to the imperfect translation between the imagined future and a future that has been filtered through social psychology and the limitations of the material world. In other words, they are rare opportunities to observe the centuries-long human project on a compressed timescale.

Ironically, over the years, the floundering microcosm of Biosphere 2 has only become more relevant to the macrocosm of Biosphere 1—that is to say, the Earth. In 2016 our thriving energy infrastructure is still based largely on burning fossil fuels, while emissions building up in the atmosphere are changing the environmental composition we humans depend on.

In retrospect, it seems like the inhabitants of the Biosphere 2 were on to something that is still widely misunderstood today—the environment is a "materially closed and energetically open" feedback loop. If that were popular wisdom, it would be obvious that fossil fuels are a fixed material resource (fossilized plant matter) we are transforming energetically (burning), and natural carbon sinks (absorption by oceans and forests) can only handle a fraction of the emissions before the onset of less favorable cycles (the greenhouse effect and ocean acidification).

What We Learned

It's worth remembering that the planet became hospitable to us oxygen-breathing organisms as a direct result of a geological period known as "The Great Dying." During this time, an ambitious blue-green bacteria learned how to break H20 bonds and harvest the hydrogen, incidentally "polluting" Earth's atmosphere with the oxygen byproduct. This innovation, in combination with several other unprecedented environmental changes, killed so much life on Earth that it took an estimated 10 million years to recover former levels of biodiversity.

This is where our unique ability to imagine the future may prove to be our biggest asset. Given the widespread atmospheric changes we're cooking up at the moment, now may be a good time to revisit our unique utopian imaginations. Perhaps the best way to bridge our wildest fantasies and most destructive tendencies is to regularly ask ourselves: What will humankind look like 100 years from now? Or 10 million?

I view this article as research for a sci-fi story that asks: Will the future be an environmental disaster for humans, or will mutual collaboration between people and compatible organisms reach a new level of bioengineered harmony? The answer to this question hinges, to a certain extent, on whether we agree about what it means to be part of a biosphere.

Now, for those of you still skeptical of re-framing Biosphere 2 as a success story, it's worth mentioning that the University of Arizona has reinvented the utopian project as B2, an institute for studying how earth systems respond to environmental change. Each biome is now available for controlled environmental studies and B2 has established a Soil Biogeochemistry Lab, an Earthsystems Modeling Lab, and a Trace Gas Isotope Lab. This former vision of the future is now helping to ground our current environmental questions, in hard, pragmatic science.

With all that being said, there's nothing left to do but imagine the unknown and build the future.

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