Donella Meadows Archives

Biosphere 2 Teaches Us Another Lesson

By Donella Meadows

–June 23, 1994–

Those of us who follow the story of Biosphere 2 not just with interest, but with enthusiasm, weren’t entirely surprised by the recent news stories, but we were puzzled.

According to the April 3 New York Times: “The top six officers of the company that operates the environmental experiment Biosphere 2 were relieved of their duties on Friday by their financial backer, Edward P. Bass.  Mr. Bass, a Fort Worth billionaire, said in court papers that he was unhappy with the venture’s financial practices and could not persuade the officers to restructure their management to his satisfaction.”

And two days later: “Managers of Biosphere 2 today accused two people who once lived inside the self-contained environmental experiment of breaking in and damaging seals that exclude outside air.”

“The break-in came three days after a representative of the project’s main backer … seized control … and barred the two people, Abigail Alling and Mark Van Thillo, from the grounds.”

“Ms. Alling and Mr. Van Thillo were being sought for questioning … [by] the Pinal County Sheriff’s Department.”

Biosphere 2, you may or may not remember, is a three-acre, five-story greenhouse in the Arizona desert.  It contains a miniature ocean, rainforest, savannah, desert, and farm.  A host of animals, including people, are sealed inside.  Ideally this simulated Earth acts like the real one (which the human denizens of Biosphere 2 call Biosphere 1) in that nothing comes in or goes out.  Air, water, and nutrients cycle around, purified by natural processes.  People and animals breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide; plants do the opposite.  Water evaporates, recondenses, and falls as rain.  Organic wastes go back to the soil to produce more food.

That’s the theory, anyway.  It works in Biosphere 1, so far, and it sort of works in Biosphere 2.  The first eight Bionauts, including Abigail Alling and Mark Van Thillo, emerged last fall after two years under glass.  They were considerably thinner.  Their atmosphere had gone haywire and had required injections of oxygen.  A number of their companion species had died off; others had multiplied so ferociously they had to be hacked back or they would have taken over the little world.

The press and the organizers of Biosphere 2 treated these snafus as failures.  Enthused onlookers like me saw them as lessons.  We expected breakdowns — after all, this was the trial run of an incredibly complex experiment with thousands of LIVING parts, plus a massive mechanical infrastructure.  We were amazed that it worked at all.  Every breakdown revealed something fascinating about how Biosphere 1 works.  To me that was the purpose of the exercise.

But the Biosphere 2 managers, control freaks all, had the idea that everything should work perfectly, or at least appear to.  So one thing they tried to manage was news about their project.  Rather than admit breakdowns, they got caught in less-than-full disclosures.  And they frustrated the press by suppressing nearly all information about the human side of the project.  How did the biospherians get along, sealed up together for two years?  How did they relate to the managers outside the glass?  And to their funder, Mr. Bass of Forth Worth?

Everyone knew that the human story had to be full of lessons too.  But a tight lid was kept on it, until something blew up — which is what often happens to suppressed human stories.

I just received a letter from Abigail Alling — now charged with felony for the break-in — giving her version of the April events.  The letter says in part:  “On April 1, 1994, at approximately 10 AM … limousines arrived on the biosphere site … with two investment bankers hired by Mr. Bass ….  They arrived with a temporary restraining order to take over direct control of the project ….  With them were 6-8 police officers hired by the Bass organization….  They immediately changed locks on the offices ….  All communication systems were changed (telephone and access codes), and [we] were prevented from receiving any data regarding safety, operations, and research of Biosphere 2.”

Alling emphasizes several times in her letter that the “bankers” who suddenly took over “knew nothing technically or scientifically, and little about the biospherian crew.”

“I judged it my ethical duty to give the team of seven biospherians [inside Biosphere 2] the choice to continue with the drastically changed human experiment …, or to leave….  It was not clear what they had been told of the new situation.”

Blocked by the new access codes, she and Mark Van Thillo had no way to talk to the biospherians except by breaking the seal and entering the structure, which they did.  “The biospherians chose to stay, and within the hour Biosphere 2 was re-sealed ….  About 10% of the air was exchanged with the outside during this time.”

I don’t know whether this version of events on that April day is true.  I can only imagine what long-brewing tensions caused the dust-up.  But I have a feeling that Biosphere 2 has just taught us its most valuable lesson.  Science and technology are welcome and wonderful, but they are not the answers to our problems.  The more we focus on them, the more we avoid the real and crucial challenges before us — challenges of human relations, human communications, human organization.

It’s not the planet that’s out of control, it’s us.  It’s not the biosphere we have to understand and manage. It’s ourselves.

 

Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994

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