Biosphere Blowhard

John Allen's self-aggrandizing memoir is a dippy disappointment

In the early 1990s, Southern Arizona enjoyed a rush of international attention when eight "biospherians" sealed themselves inside the newly built architectural and engineering wonder near Oracle called Biosphere 2, and promised not to come out for two years.

At the time, much was made of the ambitious experiment, though some of it verged on mocking. Lilith on Cheers decided to engage in a similar project, to great comic effect, as did Pauly Shore and a Baldwin brother in 1996's Bio-Dome, though their take on the experiment wasn't funny at all. Some in the media were skeptical, including this newspaper, which published a cover story accusing the project of lacking scientific rigor and relevance, and pointing out that its leader and founder, John Allen, was something like a cult leader.

In a new memoir, Allen makes only glancing reference to his many critics, and portrays the construction of Biosphere 2 and the unqualified success (in his view) of the first mission as the culmination of a lifetime of studying the original biosphere (that is, Earth) and its far corners. (The second mission, in which he claims to have had no role, broke down soon after it started.) This book is published by an outfit in New Mexico called Synergetic Press, which has deep ties to the Institute of Ecotechnics, which would not exist had Allen not created it. In other words, this book is not too far from being self-published, and therefore it cannot be trusted as a fair record of the Biosphere 2 project.

But that kind of thinking is what Allen would call "reductionist," and as he writes in this unfocused book, he's been fighting reductionists all his life. Allen is an Oklahoma-bred polymath who seems to have shown up at all the right counter-culture moments of the past 50 years—he was in Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s and later went to Tangiers with all the other bookish hippies; he knew William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Ornette Coleman, Buckminster Fuller and many other American Romantic thinkers exiled from the mainstream. At the same time, he attended the Colorado School of Mines and Harvard. He considers himself as much of a writer, playwright, poet and actor as he does a scientist and engineer, and it is this promethean self-view that makes reading him rather annoying.

Many of us have swum with dolphins and found it an invigorating and even spiritual exercise. But only a guy like Allen, after swimming with dolphins, would immediately recognize his animal totem and create a poetry-writing persona called Johnny Dolphin. (He quotes many of Dolphin's verses in this memoir; I'd rather read an actual dolphin's poetry.)

For all of his new-ageiness, Allen is a remarkable man with many impressive achievements to his credit. He is also a man who is always far ahead of his time, and he seems to be, based on the evidence in this book, a genius at turning his often highly unorthodox ideas into reality. The most unorthodox of all of these was Biosphere 2, which he spent 10 years planning and building. He says quite clearly in this book that he was trying to create a small-scale biosphere like those that would, one day, be used to sustain human life on other planets—believing, as did his friend Burroughs, that we are here to go to space.

And Biosphere 2 is still, after nearly 20 years and several changes in its mission, an amazing and even historically significant achievement. Currently, the elegant, space-age, whole-Earth laboratory is being used by the University of Arizona to study the fundamental question of how water moves across a landscape. Such research will hopefully teach us much about drought and climate change, UA researchers told me.

As for the history of Biosphere 2's construction and the human experiments that went on there, there is very little new, privileged or even revealing information in this memoir. Nor will you find much critical thinking in Allen's version of the story—there is only self-aggrandizing and name-dropping, along with writing that seeks to be poetic without being clear. This is disappointing, because you won't find much that is critical, or even balanced, about Biosphere 2's human experiments in any of the other books written by its participants, some of which have been published by Synergetic Press. The supposed "inside story of Biosphere 2," written by two of the original biospherians, was published in 1993 by The Biosphere Press, a division of Space Biospheres Ventures—the very consortium, controlled by Allen, that started the project.

The true, objective story of Biosphere 2, then, still remains to be written.

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