Inside Story

Like the project itself, this narrative from Biosphere 2 is compelling, but lacks validity

Walks like a cult, talks like a cult, must be a ... respectable scientific community? With friends like Timothy Leary and models like William Burroughs, who needs NASA to anoint your experiment for living on Mars?

In Jane Poynter's new record of her Biosphere 2 experience, much allusion is made to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA eventually rejected Biosphere 2, however. Likewise, Poynter's attempt to frame its story as a social-scientific study falls short. Much like its subject, this book is a study conducted by an uncredentialed researcher, sketchily supported and colored by personal emotion.

Which is not to say don't read The Human Experiment. It's just not social science. Rather, go to this very readable "Survivor in a Terrarium" tale for the backstage history it dishes up.

Poynter introduces herself as a privileged English girl restless for adventure in the early '80s. After boarding school and a stint on French slopes, she returned to England for a secretarial course, where she encountered the Institute of Ecotechnics. The remnants of a 1960s movement to reconcile nature and technology, IE had several projects going worldwide. Poynter promptly moved in with the London branch and was swept into a 24/7 regimen of communal meals, lectures, Eastern philosophy, meditation, speeches and theatrical performance.

In 1982--at age 20--Poynter met one of the leaders: charismatic 53-year-old American John Allen. She joined his "Theater of All Possibilities," heading off to a "Galactic Conference" in France. While she grants scant acknowledgement to the connotations of these titles, she confesses that her parents wondered what role a theater troupe would play in science.

IE hoped to catalyze a grand experiment to explore living conditions for future space colonization. As Poynter then began living the IE lifestyle at Synergia Ranch in Santa Fe, N.M., John Allen was partnering with millionaire "ecopreneur" Ed Bass to fund the experiment. Allen and Canadian Margret Augustine would manage the project, and they were already evaluating candidates.

Poynter rose quickly in the ranks and positioned herself for candidacy by joining two physically demanding, yearlong projects--one on the open sea, the second on a horse ranch in the Australian outback.

Apparently, acting ability, sea legs, a good seat and enthusiasm were sufficient to qualify for this scientific enterprise, and Poynter was tapped to be one of the four women and four men on the two-year "mission." (She defends management's decision to choose undereducated crewmembers, saying that "managers" shouldn't need degrees. Only three of the eight had degrees in any scientific field; just one of those--a physician--was educated beyond a master's.) Judging from subsequent events and the quality of the project's science, considerably more discernment could have gone into participant selection.

But maybe that's moot; maybe the antiestablishment, secretive, subjective, personality-driven, histrionic nature of the IE group itself precluded any possibility of an objective, quantifiable, verifiable scientific experiment. Poynter is candid about these realities, but tries to present the group as creditable. She addresses the cult issue by contrasting traditional definitions with the observations of eyewitnesses. She chooses to characterize the culture as an "intentional community" and the social dynamics as those of a dysfunctional family.

But Biosphere 2 stumbled from one faux pas to the next, with the Biospherians inside and their handlers--the management--outside roiling in their own internal struggle. Faced with two project- and health-endangering crises--insufficient oxygen and food--they chose to hide from the media and scientific community the steps they took that could be considered compromises of the project. (Yes, it was Poynter who came out 12 days after "closure" for finger surgery; yes, she did deliver back unreported equipment.) That alienated the science types who'd tried to support it, and it fueled the media's ridicule. The nonstop hemorrhage of millions of dollars opened a gulf between management and financier. The Biospherians themselves broke into two tribes. They argued, flung china, spat on one another and sulked for months. Since they couldn't vote one member off the island without ruining the entire enterprise, they soldiered on in misery relieved only by the occasional nude frolic.

While Poynter doesn't manage to turn her account into science (although she does make observations and cite research), she's a capable writer with copious material, and she manages to make the two years feel as if they were indeed a risky voyage. Initially, I was irritated at her portrayal of herself, and--with all the hundreds of mistakes that occurred in a predictably mistake-mined field--the fact that she owned up to none of them. You wonder how others felt when she was promoted over them: What would the team leader who was fired for defending her performance say? But those would be their books. This is Poynter's version of the three-ring Oracle spectacle, and it's worth the read.