Documentary shows life in the ‘Biosphere’ wasn’t out of this world – Arlington Catholic Herald

Posted: May 15, 2020 at 8:47 pm

NEW YORK With a stronger point of view, the documentary"Spaceship Earth" (Neon), might have pointed out that its subject,the two-year experiment called Biosphere 2, never came close to producinganything in the way of enduring knowledge. Instead, it was a lot of ballyhooabetted by sedulous and decidedly incurious news coverage.

Another way of looking at such a documentary during a time ofsheltering in place might be: "And you think you're bickering? How aboutgetting locked into a gigantic greenhouse with strangers for two years, withpeople paying to gawk at you as though you were a zoo animal?"

Stressful, that.

The early 1990s come off like a quaint prelapsarian age beforethe internet democratized scholarship and when news came exclusively fromnetwork TV and print outlets. If a billionaire decided to fund a140,000-square-foot sealed conservatory, it was treated with all the solemnityof a space shuttle launch.

And if, as unlikely as it seems, someone managed to attract sevenothers willing to have themselves locked away there and could get them tomention that the place would be a combination of Noah's Ark and the Garden ofEden, all the better.

Director Matt Wolf does the best he can with archival film, andhis interviewees include John Allen, the sometimes-playwright who led theexperiment, and a few of its "crew" members, many of whom saw Allenas a benevolent father figure. None appear to be angry or bitter about theexperience.

Viewers don't derive much knowledge of science from the film,other than the observation that its rigor requires experiments that can beduplicated under identical conditions. Meaning that another group would havehad to lock themselves up for two years again.

Allen, a charismatic graduate of the Colorado School of Mineswith a Harvard business degree, had a burgeoning interest in sustainablefarming and ecology. He also had a knack for finding the financing for hisventures, which included an oceangoing exploration ship, the Heraclitus, and aself-sustaining commune in New Mexico, the Synergia Ranch.

His avocation was penning avant-garde plays under the nom deplume Johnny Dolphin, and some of his devoted followers were drawn from hiscasts.

Crew member Linda Leigh, a botanist, says the group "was amagnetic center. It just kind of pulled me in." She's also heard in arecording talking to her therapist: "I have a personal relationship withevery single plant."

Another member, Roy Wolford, was a doctor in his late 60s whopromoted the belief that very low caloric intake could help you live to 120.(Wolford would die at 79.)

The publicized notion of Biosphere 2 was that it was a prototypeof how a Mars settlement that generated its own oxygen might work. But therewere also dark hints of survivalism and the belief, common during the Cold Waryears, that Western civilization could collapse, and biospheres would be theonly way for a small elite to live in the aftermath of nuclear war.

Built north of Tucson, Arizona, the $150 million facility wasfinanced by Texas oil billionaire Edward P. Bass. It exists still, operated bythe University of Arizona as an environmental lab.

And what a utopia it was meant to be, with a manmade rain forestand savannah, a tiny ocean and a small farm with goats and chickens. It wasalso intended to be a showcase of water and nutrient recycling, and oxygenthrough photosynthesis, with 64 separate projects.

But it never worked as intended. As an ecological entertainment,certainly. As science, no.

The plant life never produced enough oxygen for humanself-sufficiency, and carbon-dioxide levels grew so high that a scrubber had tobe installed. Crew members feared brain damage and suffocation as a result.Wolford, moreover, was stretching out the low-cal meals, making everyone cranky.

No surprise, then, that there was intense bickering over farmchores, and the inhabitants sole pleasure became the making of banana wine,although they never had sugar.

The facility went into receivership in 1994 before the Universityof Arizona took it over.

Many viewers might see a lesson here in the folly of sealingyourself off, rather than encouraging activities and government policymaking toimprove the environment of the planet called Biosphere 1 here we all sharealready.

But "Spaceship Earth" is more a chronicle of spectacle.It's also a reminder that the 1990s may have been stranger than we usuallyrecall.

A single expletive and oblique references to drug use make thefilm unsuitable for kids. But they are unlikely to be interested in its subjectmatter anyway.

For streaming information go to:

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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Documentary shows life in the 'Biosphere' wasn't out of this world - Arlington Catholic Herald

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